Surin Downplays Fallout from Thai-Cambodian Dispute – The Irrawaddy


Asean the secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan meets youth delegates at the Apec summit today in Singapore. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Asean the secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan meets youth delegates at the Apec summit today in Singapore. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

The Asean secretary-general says the ongoing row between Cambodia and Thailand will not affect summit with the US.

SINGAPORE—As the bilateral row between Thailand and Cambodia deteriorates, the secretary-general of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Surin Pitsuwan, told The Irrawaddy on Friday morning that the fracas will not affect Asean’s preparations for the bloc’s first ever summit with the US.

The problem “will be managed,” according to the former Thai foreign minister. Relations between the two neighboring countries were further strained recently after Cambodia named fugitive former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as its economic adviser on Nov. 4. Thailand recalled its ambassador the next day and Cambodia followed suit.

Surin was speaking to a group of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic cooperation) youth delegates at the APEC media center in Singapore early on Friday. The remarks came after both countries withdrew senior diplomats overnight, days after the removal of their respective ambassadors in Bangkok and Phnom Penh.

The Thai government, led by the Democrat Party’s Abhisit Vejjajiva, regards Thaksin’s appointment as Cambodian-backed interference in Thailand’s internal politics and his latest gambit to return to power. Thaksin has responded by slating the Democrat administration’s “false patriotism.”

Thaksin was ousted in a coup for alleged massive corruption and other charges. His supporters say he should be pardoned and returned to power. Since the coup, Thaksin has lived abroad to escape a corruption conviction and two-year prison sentence.

After the ousted prime minister arrived in Cambodia on Tuesday, the Thai government asked Phnom Penh to extradite Thaksin to face the charges, while his supporters, commonly known as the “Red Shirts,” are seeking a royal pardon for their leader, a move which seems less likely now, after a controversial interview given to The Times, in which Thaksin calls for a reform of the Thai monarchy.

Bangkok has sent a provisional arrest warrant for the purpose of the extradition of Thaksin, but this was turned down by the Cambodian government, which said it “considers the prosecution and legal process against Thaksin Shinawatra a politically motivated proceeding.”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen previously compared Thaksin’s plight with that of Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest in Burma for more than 14 of the past 20 years. Thaksin and pro-Thaksin parties have twice won elections in Thailand, the last in 2007, but that government was removed in December 2008, when courts ruled that some members were guilty of vote buying, before a faction led by Cabinet minister Newin Chidchob defected to support the Democrat Party.

Royalist “Yellow Shirts” backed by Thaksin’s former ally, now foe, media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, have said they will demonstrate on Sunday against Thaksin and Hun Sen, who has hired the former Thai premier as an “economic advisor,” a move many regard as giving Thaksin a platform to maintain his political activism in Thailand.

In another development, the Cambodian police have arrested a Thai engineer for allegedly spying for Thailand and sent him to court, a police official said on Friday. “We have already sent him to court and the court will deal with this issue,” Kieth Chantharith, the spokesman for the Cambodia National Police Authority told the Xinhua news agency.

The dispute has spilled over into the broader APEC gathering, with Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya meeting with Papua New Guinea counterpart Sam Abal over the Thaksin row. Thaksin claims to have a gold concession in the resource-rich Pacific country, which he visited last month.

The Thai-Cambodian spat threatens to overshadow and undermine the first ever US-Asean summit scheduled to take place on Sunday in Singapore. The Thai premier will co-chair the meeting with US President Barack Obama, in which discussion of Burma is expected to be a keynote issue. Singapore, which hosts the summit, has made numerous requests for both sides to resolve the dispute, and not let it overshadow the talks. Earlier this week, Surin was quoted as saying: “We in Asean cannot afford to be seen as being so seriously divided.”

Expectations that Asean can manage the dispute must be measured against the “non-interference” culture that mars the organization. Typically, member-states are reluctant to allow pan-Asean discussion or intervention in domestic or even bilateral affairs. While there are some dispute-resolution provisions in the Asean Charter, there is no obligation on member-states to apply these mechanisms in the event of conflict.

According to Singapore’s Attorney-General Walter Woon, the dispute resolution aspects of the Asean Charter “basically mean that the chairman or secretary-general will offer to help bridge the differences between the parties.”

Whether Cambodia would accept the good offices of former Thai Foreign Minister Surin remains to be seen.

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