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Point of no return

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

By Noppajak Attanont
Supalak Ganjanakhundee
The Nation
Published on November 11, 2009

Yesterday was the first time Thaksin Shinawatra had come so close to Thailand since he fled the country about a year or so ago. He landed in Phnom Penh at the controversial invitation of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Yet the hero's welcome, the embraces and the elaborate "family" photograph he took with the Cambodian elite may have pushed several issues well past the point of no return.

Already suffering bilateral relations were in even worse shape yesterday as Thaksin and Hun Sen had a celebratory dinner and the Cabinet in Thailand resolved to tear up the memorandum of understanding on overlapping maritime claims.

Earlier speculation that Thaksin might decide to make a last-minute U-turn due to political concerns from his main political backers in Thailand was quelled by the presence of his brother-in-law, former PM Somchai Wongsawat, and Somchai's wife Yaowapa in Phnom Penh.

In one of the most tantalising political photos ever taken, Somchai and Yaowapa were seen posing with Hun Sen, his wife and their family members. Hun Sen, shrugging off the fast-deteriorating ties with the Abhisit government, obviously wants everyone to know that Thaksin is the Thai political horse he is betting upon.

Thaksin's private jet landed at Phnom Penh International Airport in the morning and he was escorted to the capital by a convoy of cars under tight security. He suddenly became a media star, with local and foreign reporters scrambling to cover every detail of the visit, which was also featured on television news.

"Thaksin is here for the economy and not activities related to politics. It is an honour for Cambodia's economic sector and we hope that Cambodians nationwide welcome him warmly," Cambodian cabinet spokesman Phay Siphan said.

However, Thaksin's Pheu Thai Party was left suffering from a political backlash at home, so much so that some party members wished he would just thank Hun Sen for the invitation and return to his exile as far away and as soon as possible.

With Hun Sen and Cambodia as a whole being dragged into Thai politics - leaving Thaksin's supporters seething and Hun Sen's supporters worried - the already slim chances of reconciliation have become even slimmer.

Cambodian state television, showing Thaksin and Hun Sen embracing, reported that the Cambodian leader had pronounced him an "eternal friend" and "the best adviser with economic leadership". In return, Thaksin reportedly thanked Hun Sen for offering him the post of an adviser, adding that "nothing could compare" to his excitement over the new job.

Thaksin also plans to visit the famous Angkor Wat temple during his trip, TV reports said.

Hun Sen was also seen hugging Somchai and Yaowapa, whose presence in Phnom Penh coincided with earlier rumours that Thaksin's innermost circle was setting up a "war room" in the Cambodian capital amid concerns that the Hun Sen saga was threatening Thaksin's popularity back home.

There was also the possible complication of a Thai extradition request, although Hun Sen has unequivocally said such a demand from Bangkok would be rejected.

Even before landing in Phnom Penh, Thaksin's future in Thailand looked particularly grim after Times Online published an interview quoting him as calling for a reform in the institution of monarchy. Thaksin strongly denied having criticised the monarchy, but his defiant touchdown in Cambodia is unlikely to help his political predicament.

From his Phnom Penh sanctuary, Thaksin again last night insisted on his loyalty to the Thai monarch and his love for the country. He attacked the Democrats for taking advantage of the "distorted" Times Online report and using it to smear him.

Thaksin said he had "made a mistake" in responding to a question

 posed by the British journalist about the succession of the throne, adding that he had simply thought of the rule of succession in general, without thinking of His Majesty's health.

"I want to bang my head against the floor. I forgot that His Majesty was in hospital," he said during a broadcast from Cambodia. "I pray for the King to recover quickly from his illness and remain the guiding light for Thai people for a long time to come."

He said on the Internet-based ThaksinLive radio and People's TV that he had complained in writing to The Times for misinterpreting what he had said and making the headline and lead paragraph in the article offensive to the Thai people. He said he expected the newspaper to rectify the report in a day or two.

As a new economic adviser to the Cambodian government, Thaksin said he would be lecturing Cambodian cabinet members and senior bureaucrats about how to reduce the country's poverty tomorrow.

"I won't come to this country too often. I am afraid the [Thai] government will have no time to work," he said.

But coming just once might be enough to damage many things beyond repair, some observers believe.



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