Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cambodia Raises Stakes, as Ties with Thailand Plummet


BANGKOK — Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is known for his brash and earthy vocabulary even when, as he did in early April, he talks about himself. “I am neither a gangster nor a gentleman, but a real man,” the politician who has led his country for 25 years said in a fit of rage.

The target of his ire at the time was Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, following comments the latter had made during a parliamentary debate in the Thai capital.

Hun Sen criticized Kasit for calling him a “gangster” during that debate, but Kasit shot back, saying his description of Hun Sen in Thai had got lost in translation. The actual words were “Nak Leng,” Kasit had explained, which in Thai means “a person who is lion-hearted, a courageous and magnanimous gentleman.”

It was Kasit’s second run-in with the Cambodian leader in under a year. In late 2008, when the former veteran Thai diplomat was in the political wilderness as a speaker for a conservative, right-wing protest movement, he had called Hun Sen a “thug” during a speech at a public rally.

If the new Thai government, formed under a cloud of controversy last December, was hoping that Hun Sen would move on from such moments, then the current war of words between the two countries suggests otherwise.

“The Thais seem to have forgotten that Hun Sen has a very good memory. He does not forget easily,” a Southeast Asian diplomat from a regional capital told IPS on the condition of anonymity. “He unearths details and history he knows well to go after those who criticize him.”

But the current war of words between Cambodia and Thailand has degenerated into personal insults and a trading of charges about interfering into each country’s judicial and domestic affairs.

Hun Sen raised the stakes this week in an increasingly volatile relationship between the two Southeast Asian kingdoms by targeting his Thai counterpart, Abhisit Vejjajiva, in a verbal barrage.

“I would not be surprised if there was a link here with comments made by political allies of Abhisit,” the diplomat added. “It is Hun Sen getting back.”

Besides words, Phnom Penh also rejected a request by Bangkok on Wednesday for the extradition of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who arrived in Cambodia on Tuesday to begin his new role as Hun Sen’s economic advisor.

Thaksin, whose popular elected government was turfed out of power in a 2006 military coup, has been living in exile to avoid a two-year jail term after a Thai court found him guilty in a conflict-of-interest case.

To goad the Abhisit administration, Hun Sen welcomed Thaksin with open arms and handshakes, and offered his own villa in Phnom Penh for the fugitive former Thai premier to stay in.

Bangkok has not fallen for Phnom Penh’s bait, for now. Even though it bristles at such hospitality and the verbal salvos, the Thai government is trying to stay above the fray, offering statements that appear calm and diplomatic.

“The government is stressing that the problem between both countries is still a bilateral issue,” Thani Thongphakdi, the Thai Foreign Ministry’s deputy spokesman, told IPS. “We want to see a positive sign from Cambodia that gives precedence to bilateral ties over personal relationships.”

Yet at the same time, the Thai government is taking a tougher line towards the range of ties it maintains with its eastern neighbor. “We are reviewing existing agreements, existing cooperation and future cooperation between the two countries,” Thani revealed. “Everything is on the table.”

Bangkok’s unilateral actions against Cambodia has already seen the Thai ambassador in Phnom Penh withdrawn and Thailand revoking a memorandum of understanding between the two countries to explore oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Thailand.

It followed Hun Sen’s tongue-lashing that targeted Abhisit. “People should know that when I was starting my political career, [Abhisit] was still a child running around, playing,” Hun Sen told Cambodian journalists on Sunday.

“If Abhisit is so sure of himself, then he should call an election. What are you afraid of? Is it that you are afraid you will not be the prime minister?” Hun Sen continued, driving home his status as Southeast Asia’s longest-standing premier, as opposed to Abhisit, who has been in office for less than a year.

“I am prime minister of Cambodia who has received two-thirds of the vote in the Cambodian parliament. How many votes does Abhisit have? You have chosen somebody else’s chair to seat yourself in,” goaded Hun Sen, referring to the question of legitimacy that has dogged the Abhisit government. “You claim other people’s property as your own.

How can we respect that?”

The 57-year-old Hun Sen has been Cambodia’s premier for 25 years, a period during which he has not shied from revealing his authoritarian streak, using a mix of violence, intrigue and verbal attacks to cling to power. His journey to power began on the economic and social fringes of the poorer Cambodia, including a short stint when still a teenager as a soldier for the genocidal Khmer Rouge in the later 1970s.

The 45-year-old Abhisit hails from the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum, being born into wealth, enjoying a British education and feeling at home among Thailand’s patricians. He formed a coalition government after a controversial court ruling last December saw the collapse of the elected government. Through a combination of military influence and cash enticements to broker a deal, his Democrat-led government came to power by parliamentary vote rather than by going to the polls in a general election.

Hun Sen’s penchant for dipping into his country’s history to take on the Abhisit administration is also threatening to expose a darker side of Thailand’s relationship with its poorer and weaker eastern neighbor.

To counter Bangkok’s current charges that Phnom Penh is interfering in Thailand’s internal politics and judicial system by rolling out the welcome mat for Thaksin, Hun Sen retorts by reminding the Thais about the hospitality they offered to Khmer Rouge leaders like Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, now about to face justice in a United Nations war crimes tribunal.

“The Thai judiciary has not much value to be respected,” Hun Sen said during his weekend encounter with Cambodian journalists. “Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were living in Thailand for years. This was a violation of international law that Thailand had signed.”

“Hun Sen is absolutely correct,” said Tom Fawthrop, co-author of “Getting away with Genocide? Elusive Justice and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.” “In fact, after 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were driven out of Cambodia by Vietnam, [Khmer Rouge leader] Pol Pot and other leaders all fled to Thailand.”

“The Khmer Rouge’s fight to regain power was aided by logistics and weapons that flowed through Thailand, even tanks,” Fawthrop, a regional expert who spends time in Phnom Penh, told IPS. “The Thais violated the international law after the 1991 Paris peace accord by letting the Khmer Rouge operate along its border, which was not the case along the Vietnamese and Laotian borders.”

Hun Sen’s current anti-Abhisit rhetoric may not be the isolated views of Cambodia’s leader but may find resonance among its people, added Fawthrop. “The Thai-Cambodian relationship has to be looked at in a historical context. The Cambodians feel a huge sense of grievance.”


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