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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 12, 2009
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 Bangkok.

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.

Subtle sabers
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 Thai-Cambodian border.

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.

Popular response
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.

Military motivations
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 protected]

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Cambodia rattles Thailand's chain
(Nov 9, '09)

A desperate plea for amnesty (Aug 18, '09)

 

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