FORMER Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is to make his third visit to Cambodia later this month, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said Wednesday, as red-shirted supporters of the fugitive billionaire prepared to take to the streets in the Thai capital.
Speaking to reporters at Phnom Penh International Airport, Hor Namhong said Thaksin’s upcoming visit – his third in his capacity as an economic adviser to the government – was not linked to the current tensions in Thailand.
“Thaksin coming or going out of Cambodia is not strange. It is a normal thing,” Hor Namhong said before leaving for Vietnam to attend a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers.
“We are absolutely not interfering in Thai internal affairs. Whatever colour T-shirts they have is up to them.”
He said also that tensions between Cambodia and Thailand, which reached a new low with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s appointment of Thaksin in November, had deeper roots.
“The issue between Cambodia and Thailand has not come from the appointment of Thaksin as a government adviser but from Thailand’s three invasions of Cambodia,” he said, referring to border clashes that erupted over the disputed Preah Vihear temple in 2008 and 2009.
The announcement was made a day after Hun Sen raised the stakes in his spat with Bangkok, predicting a hasty demise for the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and branding foreign minister Kasit Piromya a “terrorist”. Kasit had warned earlier that Bangkok would not normalise relations with Cambodia until Cambodia revoked Thaksin’s appointment.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong also said the government was not trying to get involved in Thai politics, saying Thaksin was visiting purely in his capacity as economic adviser.
“This is the internal affair of Cambodia.… We don’t care about the Thais’ view,” he said.
When contacted Wednesday, Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanyagorn said he had no comment about Thaksin’s upcoming visit, adding that it was Cambodia’s “internal affair”.
“For a particular visit, we have no particular policy, but we do have a policy to get Thaksin back to Thailand,” he said, referring the criminal charges facing him in the Thai courts.
Whether or not Cambodia chooses to acquiesce to Thai demands for Thaksin’s extradition, he said, was its own decision to make.
“Cambodia is a sovereign country and can do whatever it sees fit. Our position is that the complications [resulting] from the appointment of Thaksin can be resolved,” he said.
The Thai Supreme Court is set to hand down its verdict in Thaksin’s 76.6 billion baht (US$2.3 billion) assets seizure case on February 26, a Thai court official said on Tuesday.
A high-stakes game
Some observers, however, said the timing of Thaksin’s visit was more than a coincidence.
“It’s a coincidence that the Thai government is stepping up the rhetoric and calling for the revocation of Thaksin’s appointment. But at the same time, the Red Shirts are mobilising,” said Thitinan Ponsudhirak, a political analyst based at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, adding that his arrival was likely deliberately timed to coincide with the upswing in protests.
“[Thaksin] is better placed if he’s next door,” he said.
On Monday, around 10,000 Red Shirts rallied outside the house of a Thai royal adviser, an event apparently aimed at building support for a new wave of anti-government rallies in Bangkok later this month.
Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said the motivations for Thaksin’s visit were complicated, but agreed there was a link with the Red Shirts’ activities.
“I think his physical proximity to Thailand can be a kind of spiritual support,” he said.
He added that Hun Sen’s predictions about the downfall of the Abhisit government were a clear indication that the premier was backing the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai Party to win victory in the next Thai election, on the assumption there would be a quick warming of relations if the current government falls.
Thitinan predicted a protracted game of cat-and-mouse between the two countries, punctuated by “a lot of comings and goings” for the ex-premier, but said Hun Sen was taking a great risk by burning his bridges with the Abhisit government.
“In the long term, it’s a big gamble to place Thai-Cambodian relations into the context of Thai domestic polarisation,” he said.
“I think by international standards this is very rare. And dangerous.”
WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP AND THE BANGKOK POST