Five Thai nationals including a parliamentarian who were arrested for trespassing last month in Banteay Meanchey province have been freed on suspended sentences, bringing a high-profile case that has strained diplomatic ties one step closer to a conclusion.
Panich Vikitsreth, a lawmaker from Thailand’s ruling Democrat Party, was released on Friday along with fellow defendants Saemdin Lertbutr, Tainae Mungmajon, Naruemol Chitwaratana and Kitchaponthorn Chusanasevi.
They were part of a group of people arrested in Banteay Meanchey’s O’Chrou district while investigating the contentious border demarcation process between Thailand and Cambodia.
Municipal Court judge Suos Sam Ath sentenced the five to nine months in prison, suspending eight months of the sentence after the group spent several weeks in pre-trial detention.
They were also fined 1 million riel (US$247).
“I had no intention at all to cross into Cambodian territory,” Panich told the court.
“I received a request from Thai people to visit Thai land. I didn’t expect to see the Cambodian People’s Party logo there [in the border village].”
All seven Thais arrested last month were charged with illegal entry and unlawfully entering a military base.
In addition, two other members of the group – Yellow Shirt activist Veera Somkwamkid and his secretary, Ratree Pipattanapaiboon – have also been charged with espionage, facing a maximum of 10 years in prison. They are set to stand trial on February 1.
Veera and the Yellow Shirts have held repeated rallies along the Thai-Cambodian border in recent years to protest against alleged Cambodian encroachment.
Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn called Friday’s verdict “a matter of immigration law” and not “a verdict to settle the boundary”, The Nation newspaper reported.
Meanwhile, in a sign of the “one step forward, two steps back” pattern of recent Thai-Cambodian relations, officials across the border expressed outrage this past weekend over a newly-placed sign near Preah Vihear temple that accuses Thai soldiers of invading Cambodian territory following the temple’s inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.
“We cannot accept this. I have told them to take it down. If they don’t take it down, I may have a sign with a similar message erected,” Thai Lieutenant General Thawatchai Samutsakhon said, according to the Bangkok Post.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said, however, that foreign countries cannot order “anything within Cambodian territory ... that contradicts the will of the government”.
Thai Prime minister Abhisit Vejajjiva said he had directed Thai military commanders to ask that Cambodia remove the sign, Thai state media reported.
“Here! is the place where Thai troops invaded Cambodian territory on July 15, 2008, and withdrew at 10:30am on December 1, 2010,” the sign in question reads. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP