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PM’s offer seen as gamesmanship

091026_02
Prime Minister Hun Sen shakes hands with Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva at the 15th Assocation of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Thailand on Sunday.

Comments in Thailand welcoming Thaksin raise questions, eyebrows.

AS ASEAN delegates gathered in Hua Hin, Thailand, this weekend, intent on inaugurating a new human rights body and articulating visions of European Union-style cooperation, the latest conflagration in the long-smouldering dispute between Thailand and Cambodia threatened to overshadow the proceedings.

Prime Minister Hun Sen touched off the controversy last week when, in a meeting with leading Thai opposition member Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, he called fugitive ex-Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra his “eternal friend”, offering a residence in Cambodia to the elusive billionaire who has lived in exile since last year following his conviction on corruption charges in 2006.

Thai leaders were quick to cite an extradition agreement between Thailand and Cambodia that they said they would promptly pursue in the event of Thaksin’s arrival here, but in a statement released Friday, the Cambodian government said it would not extradite Thaksin, with Hun Sen telling reporters in Hua Hin that Thaksin could serve as his economic adviser.

But as leaders from both countries exchanged barbs over the course of the weekend, analysts questioned whether Hun Sen’s entreaty to Thaksin was a serious offer or just political gamesmanship.

Josh Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, noted the history of ties between Thaksin and Hun Sen, which extend back to the 1990s and Thaksin’s career as a telecommunications mogul. He allowed, though, for the possibility of Hun Sen using Thaksin’s extradition as a diplomatic bargaining chip.

“Hun Sen and Thaksin’s relationship is strong enough, from what anyone could tell from the outside, that Hun Sen is unlikely to hand over Thaksin for political points,” he said. “That said, Hun Sen isn’t exactly a sentimentalist when it comes to politics.”

Though Hun Sen probably preferred Thaksin’s government to that of current Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the prospect of Thaksin’s serving as an economic adviser in Cambodia is unlikely, said Christopher Roberts, a lecturer at the University of Canberra and the author of an upcoming book on ASEAN.

“I think most likely it’s just political posturing from Hun Sen,” he said, adding that Thaksin would only take up the offer with a very specific objective in mind.

“The only reason that Thaksin would take up this option would be for the purpose of influencing the situation” in Thailand, he said.

Duncan McCargo, a Southeast Asia specialist at Britain’s Leeds University, said Hun Sen’s offer to Thaksin had been “carefully timed”, aimed more at embarrassing his Thai hosts in Hua Hin than at securing Thaksin’s presence in Cambodia.

This sort of gamesmanship, Kurlantzick said, has been a common theme in Cambodia’s dealings with Thailand of late.

“I think, bluntly, that Hun Sen these days rarely misses an opportunity to stick it to Thailand, and this is a prime opportunity,” he said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP AND CHHAY CHANNYDA

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