ASIA HAND Plots seen in Thaksin's Cambodia gambit
By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - At the Angkor Golf Club in Siem Riep, Cambodia, a portrait hangs on
the wall to commemorate a visit in April this year of exiled former Thai prime
minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The portrait's date seems to indicate that around
the time Thaksin was on the links, across the border his politically aligned
red-shirted protest movement was stirring chaos and unrest on the streets of
Before his open arrival in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, Thaksin and his aides denied
that the former Thai leader had ever traveled to Cambodia since fleeing a
criminal corruption conviction in August 2008. But the portrait raises new
questions about whether he was in neighboring Cambodia, rather than Dubai, when
in April this
year he called on 100,000 of his United Front for Democracy Against
Dictatorship (UDD) street protestors to rise up in a "people's revolution" to
overthrow the Thai government.
Cambodia is now a more open participant in Thailand's political impasse, adding
a new and potentially volatile regional dimension to the spiraling conflict.
One Bangkok-based diplomat says it was an "open secret" that Thaksin had
traveled to Cambodia since fleeing into exile last year. But Cambodian Prime
Minister Hun Sen made clear his position when he last month offered Thaksin an
economic advisory position in his government and asserted that he would decline
any Thai request for his arrest and extradition.
The two sides have since downgraded diplomatic relations by recalling their
respective ambassadors, intensifying an ongoing war of words highlighted by Hun
Sen giving "shoot-to-kill" orders to his troops against any Thai incursions on
Cambodian soil and Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya last year referring to
the Cambodian strongman leader as a "gangster". Thai Prime Minister Abhisit
Vejjajiva has taken a more measured public response, but in private meetings he
has reacted furiously to Hun Sen's provocations, according to a source familiar
with the situation.
Beyond the verbal salvos, Thailand has said it will scrap a 2001 memorandum of
understanding (MOU) governing the two countries' overlapping claims to an oil
and gas field in the Gulf of Thailand and intimated earlier it would consider
closing down trade along their 800 kilometer shared and in many areas contested
border. Those competing border claims have so far centered on territory
surrounding the Preah Vihear temple, where the two sides have in the past year
and a half deployed troops and exchanged fire.
There are no indications yet that either side is bolstering its border troop
deployments, but there have been hints of subtler saber-rattling. In a recent
show of force, Hun Sen last month organized a parade of his personal bodyguard
unit that displayed military arms and equipment that could be used to counter
Thailand's United States-made F-16 jet fighters. In earlier skirmishes around
Preah Vihear, Thailand has flown its F-16s provocatively low in a demonstration
of its air superiority, a tactic the Thai military has similarly deployed in
skirmishes with neighboring Myanmar.
It was lost on few security analysts that nearly all the hardware Hun Sen
showed was produced in China, including tanks and surface-to-air missiles
(SAMs) apparently modeled after US Stinger missiles. Meanwhile, Thai army
commander General Anupong Paochinda strengthened his command in a potential
conflict through a mini reshuffle that promoted allies from the elite Queen's
Guard to the 2nd Infantry Division, which oversees security along the
The Thai military has since threatened vaguely to "respond" if Thaksin uses
Cambodia as a base to foment instability in Thailand. Some analysts wonder
whether Thailand might bid to escalate the situation by flexing its naval
superiority and sending frigates to secure its maritime claim to the contested
oil and gas field. Cambodian officials have said Thaksin's visit will focus on
economics and not politics. Thaksin has said that he intends to continue living
in Dubai, despite Hun Sen's offer of a refurbished luxury villa for him to take
up residence in the Cambodian capital.
The offer follows on the safe house Hun Sen has made available to UDD co-leader
Jakrapob Penkair, who fled into exile after the April uprising and crackdown,
and Thaksin ally, Yongyuth Tiyapairat, who was detained in the wake of the 2006
military coup and convicted last year on electoral fraud charges that dissolved
the Thaksin-aligned People's Power party, according to UDD international
spokesman, Sean Boonpracong. UDD representatives have also recently made a
request to the Lao government for access to a Vientiane-based safe house for
its members, according to a source familiar with the situation.
Before going into exile, Jakrapob told this correspondent that the UDD had
clandestinely moved small arms from Cambodia to Thaksin's supporters in
Thailand's northeastern region, where the exiled premier's popularity runs
strongest. He told other news agencies that the UDD was willing to launch an
"armed struggle" to achieve its goals, which included the toppling of the
government and restoration of Thaksin's power.
Diplomats monitoring the situation have not been able to corroborate the claim,
and other UDD leaders have since April backed away from invoking revolutionary
themes. But Thai military planners now believe that Hun Sen, a former military
commander, is working in cahoots with Thaksin to bring down Abhisit's
government. One scenario making the rounds sees the UDD opening two fronts of
unrest: one through mass demonstrations and possible bombings in Bangkok and
another against government installments in Thailand's northeastern provinces
that abut on Cambodia.
Earlier, Abhisit had sought to keep a diplomatic lid on escalating tensions,
but with the surge in opinion polls he enjoyed after downgrading bilateral
relations he now arguably has political motivation in maintaining, if not
ramping, tensions with Cambodia until elections are held next year. Abhisit's
popularity nearly tripled last week, from 23.6% in September to 68.6%,
according to a local ABAC poll. The surge in his approval ratings saw
significant rises in the northern and northeastern regions where the
Thaksin-aligned Peua Thai party holds sway.
The Democrats had earlier planned to hold elections coinciding with an expected
strong economic upturn towards the middle of next year, but some analysts now
wonder whether they will move that timetable forward in view of their recent
gains in popularity over Thaksin's Cambodia gambit. The Democrats had, before
downgrading Cambodian relations started planning for new polls, including a
division of labor at the Prime Minister's Office with units dedicated
separately to strategy, communications and administration, according to a
diplomatic source familiar with the situation.
Maintaining strong pressure on Cambodia could also win back ground lost to the
upstart New Politics Party (NPP), which recently formed from the anti-Thaksin
People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest movement and has appealed
aggressively to notions of Thai nationalism vis-a-vis Cambodia. While in the
political opposition, the Democrats were viewed as in cahoots with the PAD, but
since the Democrats have taken power the two sides have fallen out, as the
newly formed NPP is expected to compete for votes in areas the Democrats
consider their strongholds.
The Thai army and its allied conservative interests also arguably have an
interest in escalating the situation, including a possible tilt towards armed
skirmishes, where they could portray any Thai casualties in seditious terms as
being motivated by Thaksin's ties to Cambodia.
Heightened tensions would also provide a stronger strategic raison d'etre to
expedite the establishment of a new 20 billion baht (US$600 million),
northeastern region-situated 3rd Cavalry Division, military spending which was
recently approved in principle over a 10-year horizon.
That budgetary outlay does not include earmarks for big-ticket armored
personnel carrier and tank procurements to equip the new installation. Ever
since Thai forces clashed in both 1980 and 1985 with Vietnamese troops, who
entered Thai territory after invading and occupying Cambodia, Thai military
planners have feared a possible land invasion from the east through a mountain
pass at its eastern Sa Kaew province, from where it has been predicted that an
invading tank force could reach the Thai capital in 48 hours.
While security analysts say such a scenario is wholly unlikely, the Thai
military could nonetheless use heightened tensions with Cambodia and the threat
of a Thaksin-led, Cambodia-backed insurrection in the northeast as
justification for procuring expensive new tanks to replace its aging and in
places failing fleet. (One security analyst with top military connections
claims that Thailand's UK-made Scorpion light tanks in exercises often get
caught in the mud and tend to steer better towards the left than right.)
Other analysts believe that Thai military leaders will shy from confronting
Cambodia as their armed forces are already overstretched with
counter-insurgency operations in the country's southernmost region and
maintaining security in Bangkok against another possible UDD uprising. The same
analysts believe that the military is loathe to move any of its elite forces
away from Bangkok to the Cambodian border over security concerns surrounding
the royal succession. The 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been
hospitalized since September 19 and some royalists believe the UDD may through
demonstrations bid to complicate the eventual transition to heir apparent,
Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.
There is a wider consensus among diplomats and analysts that Thaksin's Cambodia
gambit, despite his sustained populist appeals to Thailand's rural poor, could
hurt his Peua Thai party's chances at the next elections. Some believe that
Thaksin is the victim of bad advice from newly appointed Peua Thai party
chairman, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who after a personal visit to Cambodia last
month was the first to announce Hun Sen's offer to grant Thaksin political
sanctuary and a job in his government.
That follows on the negative popular response to the UDD's ramped up protests
in April, which were the brainchild of Thaksin's advisor Jakrapob and similarly
resulted in a surge in popularity for the Democrats. As Thaksin bids to
strengthen his hand vis-a-vis the government through external threats, he may
have miscalculated the impact it would have on his presumed loyal home base.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be
reached at email@example.com.