Thai Yellow Shirt protesters vowed today to intensify street protests in a bid to pressure Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva into securing the return of two Thai nationals from Cambodia, a day after they were convicted on multiple charges and handed hefty jail terms.
The Bangkok Post reported that Chamlong Srimuang, a core leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, has threatened mass street rallies if the pair are not returned by Saturday.
“If [the government] fails to do so, PAD will call a mass street rally of Yellow Shirts to pressure the government to take responsibility for such a failure,” the paper quoted him as saying.
On Tuesday, Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced core Yellow Shirt activist Veera Somkwamkid to eight years in jail after finding him guilty of espionage, illegal entry and unlawfully entering a military base.
His secretary, Ratree Taiputana Taiboon, received a six-year prison sentence on the same charges.
The pair were part of a group of seven Thais who were arrested in Banteay Meanchey province’s O’Chrou district on December 29, while they were “investigating” the demarcation of the two countries’ contentious shared border.
The arrests have stoked nationalist sentiment in Thailand, prompting Yellow Shirt protesters to call for the Abhisit government to take a stronger stance against Cambodia.
The Bangkok Post reported today that security had been strengthened at the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok due to the heightened tensions surrounding the verdict.
Thani Thongphakdi, deputy spokesman of the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, could not be reached for comment today, but the Bangkok Post reported that Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban has issued calls for moderation.
“The case is not yet over and [Veera and Ratree] can still file an appeal. All sides have to respect the verdict and refrain from inciting conflict between the two countries,” the paper quoted him as saying.
Pich Vicheka, Veera’s Cambodian defence attorney, said today that it was not yet clear whether his client would lodge an appeal.
“I have not yet discussed with my client about this issue,” he said.
“I will follow his will – if he decides to appeal then I will do it.”
The defence has 30 days in which to appeal the verdict.
The trial also came amid an increase in tensions near Preah Vihear temple, where the two countries have reinforced troop numbers in a spat over the flying of flags over Wat Keo Sikha Kiri Svara, a small pagoda nearby.
Bangkok has demanded that Cambodia remove its flag from the pagoda, which it claims lies inside disputed territory – an assertion Cambodia has dismissed as a pretext for Thai military action.
Yim Phim, commander of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Brigade 43, said today that despite the heightened tension, the situation was stable at the frontline.
“The situation until this hour is normal, but our troops are on alert and watching them closely,” Yim Phim said. “We absolutely will not allow them to get into Cambodian territory. Every soldier knows their job.”
Phorng Eurng, a military officer stationed at the frontline close to Preah Vihear temple, added that Thai soldiers have begun digging trenches with excavators.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the Cambodian government would be smart to damp down the tensions surrounding the verdict.
One option, he said, would be for the government to extradite the two Thais and allow them to serve their jail terms in Thailand, a move that would shift nationalist attention away from Cambodia.
“The one thing the Yellow Shirts need to an external target to push [the] movement. I think the best thing is to stay away from the potential armed conflict at the border,” he said.
“Keeping the two in prison in Cambodia would just allow the pressure to continue in Thailand and will keep Cambodia as the target for a lot of anger and protests.”
He said, however, that the outcome of the recent cooling of tensions would be determined by the domestic situation in Thailand.
“Cambodia is in a much easier position,” Ou Virak added. “All it needs to do it wait and do nothing.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA