AS controversy broke out once more this week between Thailand and Cambodia, the government deployed what has become a familiar weapon in its public relations battle with its western neighbour.
“The Spokesperson of the Press and Quick Reaction Unit (PRU) of the Office of the Council of Ministers (OCM) of the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) wishes to bring to attention of the national and international public … the notorious reputation of Thailand [department of special investigation] in concocting evidence and inventing false news to accuse others,” said a statement released on Wednesday.
The PRU was responding to explosive allegations from a Thai DSI officer who reportedly said on Monday that anti-government Red Shirts had trained in Cambodia in preparation for an assassination attempt on Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva. Cambodian officials have vigorously denied these allegations, with the PRU employing the vitriol that, over the course of just a few months, has emerged as its stock-in-trade.
“The Spokesperson of the PRU of the Office of the Council of Ministers strongly demands that Thailand DSI put an end to the dirty games of concocting evidences to deflect Thailand public opinion from Thailand’s own internal political and social problems,” the unit said.
Founded in June of last year, the PRU was created “to respond to accusations and news that’s opposite to the truth”, PRU spokesman Tith Sothea said. He declined to disclose how many people were employed by the unit – a report in March from DAP News said there were 82 – and dismissed a possible overlap of responsibilities with the Ministry of Information.
“This unit focuses only on the news,” he said. A request last month for a tour of the unit was declined.
In addition to producing press releases, Council of Ministers secretary of state Svay Sitha told DAP that the unit prepares news clippings for senior officials and publicises the work of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, the minister in charge of the Council of Ministers. Past PRU statements have attacked institutions including the United Nations and software giant Google, though the bulk of the unit’s invective has been directed at Thailand.
“The Thai intoxication campaign’s spending of 10 million baht (US$335,230) with the dispatch of 50 delegates in order to oppose the management plans at the site of the Cambodian Temple of Preah Vihear was a total debacle,” the PRU said in August, following a UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in which the Kingdom presented management plans for Preah Vihear temple over Thai objections.
“If the Thai media is correct, it proves by this fact that Mr Abhisit is a liar, a rogue with a very sophisticated manipulative mind,” the unit said later that month following reports, later denied by the Thai government, that quoted Abhisit floating the possibility of military action at the Thai-Cambodian border. The PRU compared Thailand’s territorial claims, based on a unilaterally drawn map, to those used by “the Nazis under Hitler and the Fascists under Mussolini … when they wanted to invade and occupy foreign lands”.
Observers acknowledged the government’s right to respond to criticism and false information, but said the PRU could be too acerbic for its own good.
“If, as I assume, the main intention is to influence the international community, then I am afraid the language used will be quite counterproductive,” a diplomat with experience in the region said by email. “The same message could be sent without being quite so crude.”
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said in an email that actions by both sides had fuelled their ongoing war of words, noting the 2008 incident in which Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya was caught on tape calling Prime Minister Hun Sen a “gangster”. More recently, Pavin said, the Thai government had erred in needlessly publicising the DSI allegations rather than handling them through diplomatic channels.
“The reason for the creation of this unit is to respond to accusations and news that’s opposite to the truth,” Tith Sothea said. “We just interpret the accusations and pass the information to prevent confusion.”
A frequent target of the PRU is Sondhi Limthongkul, a leader of Thailand’s ultranationalist Yellow Shirt movement and a frequent critic of Cambodia and Hun Sen.
“The Office of the spokesperson of the Press and Quick Reaction Unit (PRU) of the Office of the Council of Ministers of the Royal Government of Cambodia has found out that Mr Sondhi Limthongkun is becoming a raving lunatic, expert at disseminating innuendo, suggestion and speculation with his dark intention to distort the facts,” the PRU said in July.
More recently, a few unlikely organisations have followed the PRU’s lead in attacking Sondhi. After an appearance last month by Sok An before the National Association of Cambodian Scouts, the scouts issued a press release denouncing Sondhi as an “immoral person”.
“Among the 10-article law of the scouts, there is one article stipulating that scouts are friends and brothers with other scouts,” the scouts said.
“But Sondhi Limthongkul, leader of the People Alliance for Democracy (Yellow Shirt) inspires hatred, discrimination, racism through publicly insulting a leader of a country who is popular among people in the Kingdom of Cambodia.”
Two days later, Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong, Cambodia’s highest-ranking monk, accused Sondhi of “going astray in history and ... behaving like a juvenile delinquent”.
“Thai authorities must immediately bring him to justice in order to educate him on Buddha’s doctrines as well as to rehabilitate him from a bias to a wise man,” Tep Vong said in a statement.
Pavin said the level of anger in the government’s public statements towards Thailand was unique among contemporary conflicts in the region.
“In other bilateral disputes, like between Malaysia and Singapore, or Malaysia and Indonesia, while the state secretly allowed local media to insult its opponents, the state itself was hardly engaging in the war of words,” Pavin said.
“The Thai-Cambodian case is totally different. Once leaders broke diplomatic rules, the other side would be willing to do the same.”
Tith Sothea said, however, that the PRU statements were consistent with its objective to defend the government.
“We need to answer, we need to react to any accusations and any incitement that affects the government’s reputation,” Tith Sothea said. “Our reaction is to those accusations and incitements.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY THET SAMBATH