Thaksin’s Brinkmanship – ISN

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Former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra (cc) Russian PIO/Wikipedia

Former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra (cc) Russian PIO/Wikipedia

Former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra landed in Cambodia yesterday, upping the ante in his quest to return home. But he may have damaged his campaign in a recent interview, with Bangkok accusing him of undermining the Thai monarchy, writes Simon Roughneen.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva will share the limelight with US President Barack Obama in Singapore later this week, with Thailand due to co-chair the first ever US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Singapore.

But with fugitive former PM Thaksin Shinawatra arriving in Cambodia on Tuesday, after being offered a job as an “economics advisor” by Cambodian premier Hun Sen, a royal-sized row is ramping up between the two countries, and between Thailand’s divided political classes.

Thaksin was deposed in a 2006 coup and is currently in exile, fleeing graft charges. His party won the 2007 elections, but was in turn kicked out of office when a number of MPs defected to support Abhisit’s Democrat Party in late 2008. That all came after a series of violent protests, culminating in the blockade of the country’s international airports by Thaksin’s yellowshirt opponents.

In recent weeks, the telecoms billionaire has been rallying his redshirts via videolink from his Dubai redoubt, seeking a royal pardon and pushing for new elections to be held as soon as possible. But on the eve of the recent 15th ASEAN summit in Thailand, Cambodia’s Hun Sen upped the ante with the provocative job offer to Thaksin, whom he labeled a political victim akin to Aung San Suu Kyi. Hun Sen then showed up late for the summit and dismissed Thai anger at his pot-stirring by saying Cambodia’s opposition leader Sam Rainsy came to Bangkok in September and was given free rein to lambast the Cambodian government.

Cambodia has said it will not meet an extradition warrant issued by Thailand, but claims it will bar Thaksin from political activism. That comes across as facetious, however, and Hun Sen must feel that Thaksin can get back into power in Thailand, with benefits for Cambodia after lending its support. Otherwise, he may have burned his bridges irrevocably.

But the fugitive Thaksin may have just blown it. In a controversial interview in UK paper The Times, the Thai foreign minister accused him of violating the monarchy by referring to its involvement in politics.

Security agencies will take “appropriate actions” against any media organizations that even report Thaksin’s remarks. He says the article misrepresented his views, but insulting or defaming the royal family is punishable by up to 15 years in jail in Thailand. All sides of the political divide routinely fire lese-majeste charges at each other to cow opposing views and undermine freedom of speech in Thailand’s shaky democracy.

Even before the interview was published, Abhisit got a three-fold popularity bounce for his decisive handling of the Cambodian provocation. Thaksin has arrived in Pnomh Penh, but many Thais are angry at his perceived treachery in working for a foreign government – with whom Thailand fought briefly over a disputed temple ground in late 2008.

Now, if the lese-majeste allegations stick, he may have overestimated whatever political salvo Thaksin was planning to fire in Abhisit’s direction next. He is due to address 300 Cambodian economists on Thursday, just before Abhisit’s moment in the spotlight with Obama. Will Thaksin re-engage with the attack mode of recent months, or is he now on the back foot?

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