FUGITIVE former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra left Cambodia on Saturday, leaving in his wake a storm of controversy and allegations of espionage that have plunged relations between Cambodia and Thailand to their lowest point in years.
Thaksin, who has travelled on passports from nations including Nicaragua and Montenegro since fleeing Thailand last year to avoid a prison term for corruption, departed from Siem Reap on his private jet after playing a round of golf with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday and meeting with close to 50 members of parliament from his country’s opposition Puea Thai party.
The stakes of the diplomatic row between Cambodia and Thailand, touched off earlier this month with the Cambodian government’s announcement that it had appointed Thaksin an official economics adviser, reached new heights last week with the arrest of 31-year-old Siwarak Chotipong, a Thai national who worked in Phnom Penh for Cambodia Air Traffic Services Co and is accused of espionage following the alleged theft of Thaksin’s flight schedule.
Sok Phal, National Police deputy chief and director of the Ministry of Interior’s Central Security Department, said last Thursday’s expulsion of the first secretary of the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh was a direct result of Siwarak’s case. Thailand responded to this move by expelling the first secretary of the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok, after both countries had already withdrawn their respective ambassadors.
“[Siwarak] stole the special flight schedule of Mr Thaksin and handed it to the first secretary of the Thai embassy,” Sok Phal said, accusing the Thai first secretary, Kamrob Palawatwichai, of ordering the theft.
Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong said Sunday that the government had received a note from the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh requesting permission to meet with Siwarak in detention and had forwarded the note to the Ministry of Interior. The ministry, Koy Kuong said, is likely to accept the request.
Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, secretary to Thailand’s foreign minister, said Thai officials were determined to meet with Siwarak and settle the case.
“We have to see him, whatever happens,” Chavanond said. “Thailand categorically denies all of the spy allegations.”
Koy Kuong said there is “written evidence” implicating Siwarak in the espionage plot, though he declined to elaborate further on the investigation.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Deputy Prosecutor Sok Roeun said Siwarak is now in pretrial detention at Prey Sar prison and 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, Sivarak faces a jail term of between seven and 15 years, and a fine of between 5 million and 25 million riels (US$1,198-$5,990).
In a mass protest against Thaksin’s Cambodia trip, members of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) rallied in Bangkok on Sunday afternoon. Bangkok police estimated that 17,000 protesters gathered for the event on a downtown Bangkok parade ground.
“Our duty is to protect and preserve the country’s honour and dignity and the monarchy. Cambodia violated the extradition treaty and allowed a convicted person to be its adviser,” senior PAD leader Somsak Kosaisuk said.
The nationalist PAD said it was also gathering to express outrage at comments that billionaire Thaksin made in a newspaper interview in which he called for reform of institutions around Thailand’s revered monarchy.
The issue is sensitive because 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej – a major force for stability in the politically divided nation – has been in hospital for the past two months.
National police deputy spokesman Piya Utayo said around 1,500 police officers were deployed for the rally.
Thaksin, who was deposed in a 2006 coup, was thought to be bound for Dubai on Saturday.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP