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Thaksin touches down in Cambodia


Fugitive political figure’s presence is likely to further harm relations with Thailand, analysts say.

THAILAND’s deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra arrived in Phnom Penh Tuesday at the invitation of Cambodia’s government in a move that is likely to escalate a diplomatic row that has already seen the two countries recall their ambassadors and plunged relations to their lowest point in six years.

Thaksin, who last week was appointed economic adviser to the government and personal adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen – further inflaming Thai anger – is expected to deliver a lecture to Cambodian economics experts on Thursday.

The ex-premier, who was ousted in a 2006 coup, arrived at the military air base adjacent to Phnom Penh International Airport in a small, chartered jet, and was briefly greeted by several Cambodian officials on the tarmac before being whisked away in a motorcade under the protection of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit.

Thaksin “stepped safely onto Cambodian soil. It was an honour for the people and the country of Cambodia”, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said.

Thaksin and Hun Sen shared a welcome dinner on Tuesday evening, Phay Siphan added. This followed a meeting between the two, shown in part on local news reports, that was also attended by Thaksin’s brother-in-law and fellow ex-prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat.

Phay Siphan was unsure of the duration of Thaksin’s stay, but said he would be here “at least” until Thursday.

THAKSIN FACES LESE MAJESTE COMPLAINT OVER INTERVIEW
FOUR Thai government officials lodged a complaint against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Tuesday, accusing him of lese majeste in connection with an interview he gave in The Times, a British newspaper. Thaksin said in a statement that the article had misrepresented his words and had a misleading headline. The ex-premier has instructed his attorney, Noppadon Pattama, to investigate legal action against The Times, said Suchart Lainamngern, deputy spokesman of the Thaksin-associated Puea Thai party. In the interview, Thaksin was quoted as calling for the reform of institutions around Thailand’s revered monarchy, headed by 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. “Thailand needs to have a monarchy, but it should not be abused or played by the palace circles,” Thaksin reportedly said. “I can assure you His Majesty is above [politics], but those in the circle have a network.” Insulting or defaming the royal family is punishable by up to 15 years in jail in Thailand. Members of the People’s Alliance for Democracy said they would stage a mass anti-Thaksin protest in Bangkok on Sunday.
BANGKOK POST AND AFP

Thaksin’s visit to Cambodia is the closest he has come to his country since going into a self-imposed exile to avoid imprisonment for a corruption conviction in absentia in 2008.

The Thai foreign ministry said that it was sending an extradition request for Thaksin to its embassy in Phnom Penh late Tuesday and expected to hand the documents to Cambodian officials today.

“Cambodia must realise that they have triggered a conflict of interest and criticised the Thai judicial system,” Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said.

Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong, however, confirmed Tuesday that the government will “absolutely not” extradite the man Hun Sen has called an “eternal friend”.

In an internet posting late Monday, Thaksin said his trip to Cambodia was not an act of provocation.

“As I travel to Cambodia to discuss poverty and the world economic situation, I will try to preserve Thai interests with our friends in Phnom Penh, despite the Thai government still hounding me wherever I go,” he wrote. “I will not go to Cambodia to help Cambodia fight with Thailand.”

Earlier this year, deadly skirmishes broke out on the two nations’ disputed border, and Thais have expressed anger about the listing of Preah Vihear temple as a Cambodian World Heritage site by UNESCO.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, said Sunday that if Thaksin travelled to Cambodia, Abhisit “will be forced to step up the escalation spiral”.

He added, however, that both sides must own up to their responsibility for the breakdown in relations.

“Hun Sen has overstepped the line here – diplomatically, legally, politically,” he said.

“At the same time, the Abhisit government has to own up to its past deeds. Appointing [Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya] has been a liability, and now you can see the consequences.… Allowing the right-wing radical groups from the [People’s Alliance for Democracy] to protest at the [Preah Vihear temple] site… has added fuel to the fire.”

Andrew Walker, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian National University, said Hun Sen and the Cambodian government mean to deliver a “poke in the eye” to Abhisit, adding: “It’s hard not to interpret their actions with Thaksin as something of retaliation over the temple issue.”

Michael Montesano, a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said Abhisit’s response to Thaksin’s arrival will determine the tenor of future bilateral relations.

“How bad it gets depends entirely on whether Abhisit can keep his cool and resist pressure from those who are intent on escalation of this conflict,” Montesano said.

“But if he keeps making announcements of the kind he has made in the past few days, then things could get much, much worse.”

Cambodian officials at the Thai border said Tuesday that the situation was quiet, and that border crossings were proceeding as usual.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP AND THET SAMBATH

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