CHA-AM, Thailand — An uncharacteristically edgy summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) threatened to boil over yesterday as Thai-Cambodian relations took another turn for the worse.
A visibly exasperated Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjjiva hit back at his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen, calling him “seriously misinformed” over the latter’s remarks comparing fugitive former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra with Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Hun Sen had earlier offered Thaksin, who was deposed in a 2006 coup, a job as an economics advisor and said that if the exiled media mogul chose to come to Cambodia, he would not face extradition to Thailand to face corruption charges.
“Thaksin can stay in Cambodia as the guest of Cambodia and also be my guest as my adviser on our economy,” said Hun Sen.
His remarks comparing the former Thai prime minister with Aung San Suu Kyi raised many eyebrows among summit delegates, as he attempted to capitalize on the international media attention on Asean this weekend to highlight his view that Thaksin’s plight is politically driven.
“Hun Sen’s comments are being seen as an attempt to intervene in Thailand’s precarious domestic political situation,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies (Thailand) at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
Last week, Hun Sen gave a pointedly high-profile reception to former Thai prime minister and Thaksin ally Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyuth. Chavalit said “Mr Hun Sen is my old friend and I am visiting him at his invitation.”
Last month, Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy was in Bangkok, where he addressed the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand on press freedom in Cambodia. Rainsy slammed the Hun Sen administration, saying that it gives token assent to freedom of speech but uses state resources to hit critics with defamation suits, backed by a pro-government judiciary.
Thitinan said he thinks that Hun Sen has taken umbrage at Rainsy using his time in Thailand to attack the Cambodian government.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on the sidelines of the Asean summit, Cambodian opposition MP San Cchay said that Hun Sen’s reaction shows that he does not understand how a liberal democracy works.
“Just because Sam Rainsy talks in critical terms while in Thailand does not mean it has anything to do with the Thai government. Hun Sen merely betrays his own anti-democratic leanings with such an assumption,” he said.
Yesterday, the anti-government and pro-Thaksin United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) called on Asean to withdraw support for Abhisit as the bloc’s chairman.
The UDD is seeking a royal pardon to enable Thaksin return to Thailand without having to face jail time on corruption charges. The UDD is also seeking a general election and deems the Abhisit government as illegitimate.
Thaksin is regarded as the most popular yet divisive head of government in recent Thai history, implementing pro-poor policies and developing the northeastern Isaan region, but periodically clamping down on media, launching a draconian war on drugs and seeking a military solution to the southern Thailand Muslim rebellion.
Interestingly, Hun Sen’s comparison of Thaksin’s situation to that of Suu Kyi comes as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate marks a total of 14 years in detention today. She was first arrested in July 1989, ahead of a landslide electoral victory by her party, the National League for Democracy, in May 1990.
The comparison was made even as five Asean member states, including Cambodia, refused to allow NGO representatives other than those handpicked by the governments to attend a scheduled “civil society” meeting with regional heads of government.
Nay Vanda of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association—selected by the Asean People’s Forum as his country’s representative at the meeting—said he was disappointed with the outcome.
“Cambodia is supposed to be a democracy that respects the rule of law. I was chosen via a democratic process, yet the government refused to meet me. Even Communist, one-party state Vietnam was not afraid to meet the NGO representative selected by the Asean People’s Forum,” he said.
An hour after that meeting, Asean launched a new human rights body, known as the Asean Intergovernmental Human Rights Commission, which has no scope to punish or even draw attention to human rights abuses in Southeast Asia and includes the Burmese junta among its representatives.
Cambodia has usually backed the Burmese regime when it is faced with criticism from the international community.
Hun Sen’s comments came just a day before his Thai counterpart hosted a three-day gathering of sixteen Asian leaders, with the ten-member Asean grouping having a series of meetings on Friday before being joined by counterparts from Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea on Saturday.
The summit aimed to make progress on Asean integration across a number of sectors. However, Abhisit took Hun Sen’s comments as an attempt to undermine this, saying “[Asean member states] have no time to pay attention to a person who wants to destroy unity.”
This weekend’s summit is a re-run of an April meeting in Pattaya, which was cancelled after Thaksin’s red-shirted backers clashed with troops and pro-government protesters.
That melee further blemished tourist-oriented Thailand’s international image, already sullied after yellow-shirted royalists blockaded Bangkok’s international airports in late 2008. This time around, 36,000 soldiers and police were deployed around Cha-am and Hua Hin, 90 minutes south of Bangkok, to prevent any attempted repeat by the red shirts.
However, Thaksin’s shadow was cast over this summit, albeit by proxy, with Hun Sen apparently seeking to needle his Thai counterpart, with whom relations are already touchy over a long-running border dispute centering on the Preah Vihear temple and surrounding land area.
One month ago, 30,000 Thaksin supporters gathered in Bangkok mark the 3rd anniversary of the military coup that deposed him. The same weekend, royalist protesters caused mayhem around the Preah Vihear site, tussling with locals and exhorting the Thai government to take a more assertive stance with Phnom Penh over the disputed site.
Thitinan told The Irrawaddy: “Thailand and Cambodia have had rocky relations for a number of years. The reasons are multifaceted, but underpinning the divide is the fact that Thailand has somewhat of a superiority complex, while Cambodia perhaps retains an element of colonial baggage, and now sits between two much bigger countries in Thailand and Vietnam.”
Giving an insight into the level of acrimony generated by this latest spat, a press conference given by members of the Asean Interparliamentary Myanmar (Burma) caucus on Saturday afternoon discussed how Burma was pushed down the priority list as a result.
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