THE government took control of the Thai-owned aviation firm Cambodia Air Traffic Services (CATS) on Thursday and banned its Thai employees from the offices after the arrest of one of their co-workers on suspicion of stealing the flight schedule of fugitive Thai former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra during his visit to Cambodia last week.
The move, which is likely to further damage diplomatic relations between the two countries, comes amid accusations by a Thai opposition leader that Thailand’s foreign minister ordered the theft.
CATS is a fully owned subsidiary of Bangkok-based Samart corporation, which has a 32-year air traffic control concession and employs nine Thai nationals in Cambodia.
It has been placed under the caretakership of a Cambodian government official, though representatives from the Civil Aviation Authority declined to comment on the official’s identity or the duration of the caretakership.
“The caretaker has prohibited the Thai expatriates from performing their duties,” Samart vice chairman Sirichai Rasameechan said in a letter to Thailand’s stock exchange, where the company is listed.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Cambodia’s takeover of CATS was “temporary” but necessary “to ensure national security and public safety.” The financial operations of the company, he added, would not be affected.
The move follows last week’s arrest of CATS employee Siwarak Chotipong, a 31-year-old Thai accused of spying, who is currently being held in pretrial detention at Prey Sar prison.
Thaksin is not the prime minister of cambodia – he is a convicted man....
Cambodian officials say that Siwarak was ordered to steal the flight schedule by Kamrob Palawatwichai, the first secretary of the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh. Kamrob was expelled last week, and Thailand responded by expelling the first secretary of the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok.
Both countries had already withdrawn their respective ambassadors in the row over Thaksin’s appointment as government economics adviser.
Siwarak is being charged under Article 19 of the 2005 Law on Archives, which covers offences related to matters of national defence, security or public order. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison.
Kav Soupha, Siwarak’s defence attorney, said Thursday that he did not believe that the leaking of Thaksin’s flight schedule constituted a threat to Cambodia’s national security.
“Thaksin is not the prime minister of Cambodia – he is a convicted man who is being hunted by Thai authorities,” Kav Soupha said. “Even if [Siwarak] had reported to the Thai embassy, that would be according to his right and obligation as a Thai citizen to alert authorities about a fugitive.”
Kav Soupha added that he planned to request that Siwarak be released on bail.
Jatuporn Prompan, a parliamentarian from the opposition Puea Thai party, said Wednesday that he had an audio tape of Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya ordering the flight schedule theft of which Siwarak is accused, the Bangkok Post reported.
Thai Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Thani Thongphakdi, however, said officials in his ministry “do not believe in the existence of such a tape”.
Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said he had no knowledge of such evidence.
Kasit said Thailand would have to gather further information about the CATS takeover before formulating a response.
“The ministry is waiting for reports from the Thai embassy and we will also have to get clarification from the Cambodian government. If it violates bilateral agreements, then we will find ways to proceed from there,” the Bangkok Post quoted Kasit as saying.
As tensions between Thailand and Cambodia simmered, the government released a directive on Wednesday in which the Ministry of Interior called on all government officials to encrypt their communications to “protect information related to national security”.
The statement, signed by Interior Minister Sar Kheng on October 15, touted, without specifically describing, newly acquired encryption technology that will “guarantee secrecy, so that government information will not be leaked”.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said such measures were necessary in Cambodia’s present diplomatic circumstances.
“If Thaksin would have been arrested because of [Siwarak] leaking information about him, that would prove we could not keep sensitive information a secret.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG AND AFP