Sunday, October 25, 2009

Thaksin’s Cambodia gambit

(Posted by CAAI News Media)


Sunday October 25, 2009

THIS was supposed to be another try at the same thing: hosting an Asean summit in a southern Thai resort, but without the disgraceful violence of last April.

This time they succeeded. But what made it possible, as the summit winds down today, are the different tactics adopted by the government and the red-shirted protesters that neither would rush to acknowledge.

The Democrat government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is disinclined to pass laws that could be seen as draconian. But it had to resort to an Internal Security Act applicable in certain areas, like conference venues Cha-am and Hua Hin, to keep the mob away.

The pro-Thaksin red shirts found things were stacked against them this time, such as police determination to enforce a security cordon. All they could manage was a dignified-looking protest letter delivered to conference representatives, apart from claiming that they could have entered the conference grounds if they wanted to.

Meanwhile, their PR front claimed they should not be blamed for April’s rampage, since things only happened to get out of hand. Whoever manages to convince is beside the point, because the real issues have moved beyond the Thaksinoid red shirts.

Bangkok’s problems revolve around fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed in a 2006 coup and convicted of corruption, seeking to return to power from self-imposed exile. In the latest phase of his campaign, the red-shirted protesters are revealed again as pawns.

Last month, retired general and former prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh talked privately to Thaksin via videolink, and an understanding developed between them.

Chavalit, a one-year premier who had to quit as a result of the 1997 financial crisis, hopes to return to a position of some influence. Thaksin’s latest incarnation of a political party, Pheau Thai, was badly in need of a credible front man with good contacts in the political and military establishments.

Result: Chavalit became Pheau Thai chairman, without soiling his hands by running the party as official leader – everyone knows how Thaksin mud can stick. Chavalit had no wish to be seen as a Thaksin stooge, not being a rough gruff Samak Sundaravej, and instead wanted to display some gravitas.

First he claimed to be a mediator, then when he joined Pheau Thai he posed as a Thaksin adviser. A key piece of advice was supposed to be that Thaksin should change his approach by toning down his aggressive style.

That meant the red shirts would no longer cause street violence, at least for now. It also meant Thaksin should try opening another front from an unexpected quarter: Cambodia.

Just days before the Asean summit, Chavalit visited Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thaksin’s behalf. That caused the chess-playing Cambodian leader to announce that Thaksin was welcome in Cambodia, with Chavalit adding that Hun Sen also offered Thaksin a grand house to live in.

When Abhisit responded with the prospect of extraditing Thaksin should he move to Cambodia, its foreign ministry denied that Thaksin had been offered a house. Amid Cambodian government claims that any extradition request would be rebuffed, Hun Sen said he would appoint billionaire Thaksin as his economic adviser.

That rubbed salt into Abhisit’s wound, particularly as summit host, and Thaksin pounced by telling him not to offend his Cambodian guest. Abhisit’s democratic credentials in treading softly once more did not help his image as an inexperienced lightweight lacking “political heft”.

Hun Sen says his old friendship with Thak­sin triggered his hospitality. Chavalit himself is also an old friend and business associate who, as Thai premier, was jointly implicated in illegal logging in Cambodian forests.

The charge was denied, but the personal connections remain. Hun Sen and Thaksin also share a personal, power-based approach to governing quite at odds with Abhisit’s urbane, idealistic world.

At root, it is the differences between Hun Sen’s Cambodia and Abhisit’s Thailand that determine much of the discord between them. Rival claims to the Preah Vihear temple on disputed territory lingers. Although the dispute predates Abhisit’s premiership, Thaksin appears to have found new leverage on this score through Chavalit, who has favoured a less vocal Thai approach.

Hun Sen himself mentioned two other differences he had with Thailand: the recent appearance of Cambodian opposition politician Sam Rain­sy, who condemned Hun Sen’s government from Thailand, alongside other criticism of the Cambodian premier on Thai television.

These point to differences in the two countries’ polity and governance. Cambodia is unlikely to see any opposition leader berate government officials on television, much less critical commentary on incumbent leaders, whereas in Thailand, government critics can overflow onto streets to paralyse cities.

There is also the difference over state-military relations. In Cambodia there is no doubt who commands whom, but Abhisit is drawn more to issues like the chain of command and the separation of powers.

Ultimately, while Thailand is bigger and stronger than Cambodia, Hun Sen by invoking national sovereignty in extending privileges to Thaksin is saying that he is a bigger and stronger prime minister than Abhisit.

Given all this, Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s vital role in calming the waters is crucial. That explains his rare public appearance on Friday even while undergoing treatment in hospital.

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