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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Red carpet welcome

By Supalak Ganjanakhundee, Agencies
The Nation, Phnom Penh
Published on November 11, 2009

Phnom Penh - Fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra received a warm welcome on his arrival in Phnom Penh yesterday to serve as an economic adviser to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

After his private jet landed at Phnom Penh International Airport in the morning, he was whisked away in a motorcade to Hun Sen's official residence.

Thaksin's first day in the Cambodian capital began with a series of courtesy calls to senior people in the ruling Cambodian People's Party and ended in dinner with Hun Sen and his family.

It is said he was treated to a nine-course meal of various traditional delicacies. According to Thai belief, nine is considered a lucky number.

Thaksin is due to give a lecture to more than 300 Cambodian economists tomorrow.

The former PM's new role in Cambodia has fuelled friction between the two countries, as Thailand wants to seek his extradition in connection with a corruption case but Phnom Penh has clearly said it will not entertain the request.

However, Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said Thaksin would only be concentrating on economic matters for the country's development and should not spark any more tension with Thailand.

"He is here for economic reasons, not activities related to politics," he said. "Cambodia does not allow foreign nationals to engage in political activities within our country."

Cambodia wants to live in harmony with her neighbours, he added.

Meanwhile, upon landing in Phnom Penh, Thaksin posted a Twitter message saying he had landed, but was "really homesick".

 "Tonight I will dine with P M Hun Sen and his family. I want to reiterate that nation, religion and the monarchy are always on my mind," he wrote.

However, Thaksin's arrival in Phnom Penh angered the Thai government, which retaliated by tearing up the maritime memorandum of understanding signed between the two countries during Thaksin's time. Sources say the government fears that the ex-PM, who knows each and every detail about the pact, might reveal some national secrets to his new boss.

The MoU was signed in 2001 to thrash out matters involving the demarcation of territorial waters and the joint development area in the Gulf of Thailand, where abundant reserves of natural gas are believed to be waiting to be discovered.

Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said the MoU was not meant for Cambodia alone, but would benefit both parties. He added that the agreement had been signed by two nations, and could not be broken by one party.

"It's funny to say that the MoU must be terminated just because Thaksin and Hun Sen have vested interests," Koy Kuong told The Nation yesterday. He added that Cambodia had not yet decided on its response.

However, analysts believe Thaksin's visit has sparked anger and fear that could drag down relations between the two countries and have the borders simmering.

Cheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, a Phnom Penh-based political research organisation, said Hun Sen had obviously factored in the Thai general election expected to be held next year.

"Hun Sen clearly believes the Thaksin group could win the next elections," Vannarith said. "By that time bilateral ties can be rebuilt and the friendship restored."

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, disagreed. "It could boomerang on him," he said. "We Thais might fight among ourselves, but as soon as you have an outsider meddling, we tend to close ranks and turn against it."

Thaksin's move benefits both the ousted leader and his Cambodian host, but could bring the two countries closer to war, analysts have said.

Experts are warning that the two neighbours are now locked in a dangerous game of brinkmanship that could reignite deadly clashes over the Preah Vihear Temple issue. They say the pressure is now on Thailand not to overreact, after it angrily pulled its ambassador from Phnom Penh last week and scrapped the oil and gas exploration deal.

"How bad it gets will depend on whether Abhisit keeps his cool and resists pressure from those who are intent on this conflict escalating," said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"But if he keeps making announcements of the kind he has made in the past few days then things could get much, much worse," he added.

Analysts said all three parties could lose if the temperature boiled over and fresh clashes erupted.

Hun Sen, with an army that is smaller than Thailand's, is playing a "dangerous game", while Thaksin risks appearing unpatriotic and PM Abhisit Vejjajiva risks ruining his own and Thailand's image on the international stage, analysts warn.



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