A Change of Guard

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Saturday, 31 October 2009

Cambodian PM defends friendship with Thaksin

Slideshow image

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is seen in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009. Thailand would seek the extradition of Thaksin Shinawatra if the fugitive former prime minister accepts an invitation for refuge in neighboring Cambodia, Hun Sen said Thursday. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

The Associated Press
Friday Oct. 23, 2009

CHA-AM, Thailand — Cambodia's leader offered to make Thailand's ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra his economic adviser Friday, threatening to worsen already tense relations between the Southeast Asian neighbours.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen also compared Thaksin -- still a deeply divisive figure in Thai politics -- to Myanmar's democracy icon Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

Hun Sen made the remarks to reporters just an hour after he arrived in Thailand to attend the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

"It's true that I invite him to Cambodia anytime," Hun Sen said of Thaksin. "At the same time I will offer to make him my adviser."

Thaksin was toppled in a 2006 military coup after being accused of abuse of power and disrespect to Thailand's monarch. He was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for breaking a conflict-of-interest law.

Still, he remains a powerful and divisive influence on Thai politics. Mass protests and clashes between his supporters and opponents have periodically destabilized the country.

The current Thai government is considered allied with anti-Thaksin forces and is keen to prevent him from staging any kind of political comeback. His Thai passport has been cancelled.

Analysts said recent tensions over a disputed border may have prompted Hun Sen to so openly back Thaksin.

Relations between Cambodia and Thailand are already strained by a sometimes violent border dispute over a parcel of land around an 11th century Khmer temple.

Thai leaders for their part were keen to downplay any tension with their neighbour over Hun Sen's remarks.

"We're here to build a community, which means solidarity, which means unity. I don't want (Hun Sen) to be a victim or a pawn for somebody that undermines the interests of his country, and the interests of the region," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said.

The Cambodian leader, the longest serving head of government in Southeast Asia, roiled the climate ahead of the summit Wednesday by meeting a senior member of Thailand's main opposition party and telling him that Thaksin was welcome in Cambodia.

"It appears that Hun Sen also wants to openly ally himself with rivals of Abhisit's government because he hasn't been happy with how this government has handled the border dispute," said Sukhum Nuansakul, a political scientist at Bangkok's Ramkhamhaeng University. "The issue of Thaksin is one that was sure to cause jitters in Thailand."

Thai officials said they would seek Thaksin's legal return should he visit Cambodia by invoking an extradition treaty between the two countries.

But in a statement Friday, Cambodia said it has "the legal ground to absolutely reject any extradition" because a request would be based on a "political offence."

Hun Sen described Thaksin's battles with his own government as an internal affair of Thailand and said he would not interfere. But he compared Thaksin's status to that Myanmar's detained pro-democracy leader, whose continued detention is a point of discussion within ASEAN.

"People talk about Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, why can't (they be) talking about Thaksin?" he asked.

Abhisit said he believed Hun Sen was "seriously misinformed" and that he doubted many people around the world would liken Thaksin to Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate who has been under detention for 14 of the last 20 years.

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