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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Thai military maneuvers across border

Thai military maneuvers across border

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The perennial tussle in the City of Angels between the Foreign Ministry and the

Royal Thai Army over control of foreign policy has again surfaced, with Cambodia

part of the tug-o-war. A Special Correspondent provides analysis from Bangkok.

 

Man in the middle: former Thai General Chavalit Yongchaiyuth flanked by Cambodia's then two Prime Ministers in an official visit to Phnom Penh in June, 1997

P

RIME Minister Hun Sen's "working holiday" to northern Thailand, prior

to Christmas, signals, once gain, the involvement of one section of the Royal Thai

Army in Thailand's foreign policy, bypassing the civilian foreign ministry.

Hun Sen and his 31-strong delegation spent three days "holidaying" in luxury

in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai as the personal guests of Thai Supreme Commander, Gen

Mongkol Ampornpisit.

The general believes that relations between Thailand and Cambodia must be helped

along as much as possible in the best interests of solving any problems should they

crop up, such as those concerning the troublesome border between the two countries.

He is reported to have been monitoring closely Phnom Penh's foreign policy initiatives,

seen as leaning towards closer ties with all its immediate neighbors in the region

- Burma, Laos and Vietnam, and China, but not Thailand.

The Royal Thai Army (RTA) had established in the past close relationships with the

former Cambodian noncommunist resistance forces joining FUNCINPEC of Prince Ranariddh

and the Khmer People's Liberation Front (KPNLF) of former Prime Minister Son Sann

and the Khmer Rouge. The RTA became closest to the Khmer Rouge, initially because

of the strength and discipline of its guerrillas who used to guard Thailand's eastern

border against the Vietnamese who occupied Cambodia. But gradually, the relationship

took a personal turn for certain senior RTA members as the areas held by the Khmer

Rouge inside Cambodia offered a wealth of resources to be exploited.

The international community criticized the RTA harshly for its special relationship

with the Khmer Rouge but it lasted to the end when the guerrilla movement split and

its unrepentant leader Pol Pot died on the Thai-Cambodian border in 1997 and some

senior leaders moved to the Phnom Penh side. The lucrative deals from logging and

gem mining aside, a source in the RTA said the Khmer Rouge has been the RTA's best

ally in the battlefields of Indochina and it will never forget that.

The source pointed out, however, that while the international community has been

scrutinizing the RTA's close relationship with the Khmer Rouge, it has overlooked

the fundamental philosophy behind Thailand's national security policy - that is to

make friends with all, especially those who are armed.

The RTA should not be faulted alone for its lack of success in engaging FUNCINPEC

and other Cambodian parties into a fruitful relationship, the source added. Prince

Ranariddh, the FUNCINPEC leader, who on several occasions has lived in exile in the

Thai capital, where he still maintains a residence, had turned his back on Thailand

after FUNCINPEC won the general elections organized by the United Nations in 1993.

Both the RTA and the civilian government in Bangkok, and many other Thais who had

dealings with FUNCINPEC, could not help but see Prince Ranariddh as unreliable and

ungrateful. For the RTA and the civilian government, it is more than obvious that

the Prince lacks the political shrewdness and principles of a leader. Cambodian opposition

leader Sam Rainsy enjoys a degree of sympathy in some circles in Thailand, but his

style is seen as too radical in the Cambodian context. This leaves no other option

but the strongman of Cambodia, thus the invitation to Hun Sen to spend the weekend

in northern Thailand.

Gen Mongkol, through Lt-Gen Vichit Yathip and other close aides, has been cultivating

ties with Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party for years. Defence Minister Tea

Banh regularly pays "private" visits to Thailand courtesy of Lt-Gen Vichit,

one of the RTA's most accomplished intelligence officers for Cambodia with close

ties to former army commander and now opposition leader Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyuth

and the Thai Supreme Command. Hun Sen's visit has been described as the "climax"

of years of work to cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship with Hun Sen and

the CPP.

But Gen Mongkol's personally shaped foreign policy clashes with the desire of Gen

Surayud Chulanont, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army, for the army to

be a truly neutral, professional and non-political entity, which should not get involved

in partisan politics and even less take sides in neighboring countries' domestic

squabbles.

Soon after Gen Surayud took the helm of the RTA, he embarked on the delicate process

of restructuring the RTA with the aim of turning it into a compact but efficient

force. He also moved swiftly to clean up the image of the RTA which had a number

of generals involved in lucrative non-military activities in Cambodia and with Thailand's

other immediate neighbors as well.

Lt-Gen Vichit was promptly transferred from the secretive Unit 315 which was responsible

for intelligence work in Cambodia. The controversial Lt-Gen Vichit, who is known

to have facilitated a number of Thai businesses wishing to establish themselves in

Cambodia, had been lent by Gen Chavalit to CPP elements to offer advice prior to

last year's elections. He was immediately taken under the wing of Gen Mongkol at

the Supreme Command Headquarters after his transfer and put in charge of Burmese

affairs while continuing to advise the Supreme Commander on Cambodian affairs.

Analysts in Bangkok are concerned that the Supreme Commander may have conveyed the

wrong signals to the Cambodian leader during his tête-à-tête meeting

with him in Chiang Rai.

Gen Sorayud was noticeably absent from any function in honor of the 31-strong Cambodian

delegation which included the Commander-in-Chief of the Cambodian army, Ke Kim Yan,

and the Co-Minister of Defense (CPP), Tea Banh, of Commerce, Cham Prasidh, of the

Council of Ministers Sok An and the FUNCINPEC Co-Minister of Interior, You Hockry,

long suspected of having quietly crossed the floor to the CPP.

Some of the wives of the Ministers also came to Thailand but Madame Hun Sen was not

available for the weekend. The group was transported in a Royal Thai Air Force C-130

directly from Phnom Penh to Chiang Rai and back. The all-expenses-paid trip was supported

by the secret budget of the Thai Supreme Commander.

That the trip went ahead at the same time that a censure motion was being debated

in the Thai parliament against Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai and his cabinet is purely

coincidental. What is not are the remarks by opposition leader, Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyuth,

to the effect that Thailand was sheltering a Cambodian terrorist who had allegedly

tried to murder Prime Minister Hun Sen. Chavalit linked the case of Sok Yoeun, a

Sam Rainsy party activist, to the recent take- over of the Burmese Embassy in the

Thai capital and also with some Middle Eastern terrorist groups.

What began as a cheap political shot by the Thai opposition leader against the foreign

policy of Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai and his government soon became a real test

case for the institution of the Thai armed forces, particularly the army, which has

been struggling for a long time to become leaner and meaner while distancing itself

from the political arena and leaving foreign affairs to the civilian foreign ministry.

Events following the censure debate, if anything, showed that many top military officers

are still very much involved in the domestic affairs of Thailand's neighbors and

that they still keep their former boss, Gen Chavalit, informed of what happens in

those countries as far as politics and economics are concerned.

Once the whereabouts of Sok Yoeun was known, he was promptly arrested by military

police and taken to the military academy headquarters, where he was kept until the

Interior Ministry decided to charge him with illegally entering the Kingdom. His

UNHCR status as a "person of concern" is not binding on Thailand - a country

that is not a party to the UN refugee protection agreement.

Cambodia has now lodged a request for the extradition of Sok Yoeun but Thailand,

which still has not ratified the extradition treaty between the two countries, has

said that it will consider the merits of the request after it has dealt with the

opposition activist's illegal entry into Thailand, for which he has been jailed for

6 months.

Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan has privately told foreign diplomats in Bangkok that

Thailand is seeking to send Sok Yoeun to another country and is not considering handing

him over to the Cambodian government.

What has alarmed government circles in Bangkok, particularly the foreign ministry,

is the fact that Gen Chavalit produced during the censure debate a tape- recorded

conversation between the Cambodian leader of the opposition, Sam Rainsy, and Sok

Yoeun.

The tape is believed to be the work of the intelligence service of the Cambodian

government which has close links to Gen Chavalit and to other serving officers of

the Thai army and has led analysts here to believe that the whole purpose of Gen

Chavalit raising this issue, at a censure debate mainly over the Thai government's

economic policies, was meant to discredit Foreign Minister Surin and the Democrat

Party for trying to take foreign policy matters out of the hands of some army generals.

There is concern in Bangkok that this new involvement of part of the Royal Thai Army

in Cambodia policy may cause more harm than good to a relationship which Foreign

Minister Surin Pitsuwan has approached with caution in view of the past problematic

history of relations between the two neighbors.

But more significantly, both Mr Surin and Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, whose government

sailed through the no-confidence motion without much trouble, are a new generation

of Thai leaders with strong principles. They have been most sympathetic, if not supportive

of human rights and democracy movements in Cambodia and elsewhere and are working

hard to incorporate these values in their relations with their immediate neighbors.

 

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