Thaksin Shinawatra in Cambodia – Sunday, 15.11.2009
The Mirror, Vol. 13, No. 637
Several mails I had received during the week requested what this week’s editorial should be about. Agreed. The visit of Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra to Cambodia has more than any other recent event received wide international attention – at the same time it resulted in bringing a range of different and opposing issues to the surface, beyond the straightforward political tensions.
The disparities start with the wording, how the visitor is called in national and international media: the possibilities extend from the fond description of Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra as an “eternal friend” by Prime Minister Hun Sen, to the more neutral description when referring to the “former Thai prime minister ousted by a military coup,” to the references – and this not only in part of the Thai press – to the “convicted fugitive, because of corruption, and who finally violated the bail requirements and fled the country to avoid going to prison.”
This is the first controversy.
The Cambodian government did not only refuse to live up to the Cambodian-Thai extradition agreement, “considering the prosecution and legal process against Thaksin Shinawatra as a politically motivated proceeding,” and therefore even handed back the Thai documents submitted to seek Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra’s extradition. On the other hand, the Thai government and part of the Thai media felt that already that extending an invitation and offering the function to be an adviser to the Cambodian government were an insult to the legal system of Thailand.
As a public reaction in Thailand, the popularity of the Thai Prime Minister, Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiva, almost tripled, with appruval rates of 24% in September to 69% recently, according to a poll.
The interpretation of Prime Minister Hun Sen, that the present Cambodian-Thai dispute is basically a personal dispute between the two prime ministers, was not shared in the international press. More fundamental problems were touched upon: What does it mean for the international standing of a country when a search warrant by Interpol can be dismissed, after the fugitive, who is being sought under a “red alert” warrant, after a bail violation, and after a criminal conviction for corruption in dealing with the sale of valuable public property to a family member, up to the grotesque $60,000 event of the mysteriously mistaken box of chocolate.
How would such events be dealt with under a Cambodian anti-corruption law, due to be adopted by the National Assembly since a decade ago? If actions of corruption are committed in combination with political ones, are they then no longer subject to criminal prosecution?
There were several rumors and denials – that Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra would fly together with the Cambodian Prime Minister to the APEC meetings in Singapore.
Surprising also, that the Cambodian Prime Minister compared him to Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. In an interview with Times Online, Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra said: “There are some similarities there, but not really everything. The similarity is we won elections, we rule the countries. We’ve been ousted by the coup d’etat and we come from the people. We are democratically elected leaders and we come from the majority of the people – a big majority, not just a small majority. She’s under house arrest, I’ve been kicked out of the country.”
The Cambodian government has never found such strong critical words against the ruling military in Myanmar. Will the Cambodian government also accept such advice and change its position? The statement “I’ve been kicked out of the country” contrasts with the fact that the self imposed exile abroad started with breaking bail arrangements with the Thai law enforcement authorities, traveling abroad without the promised return.
But the invitation to Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra as economic adviser may lead to a second kind of controversies.
Press reports in Cambodia were not enthusiastic about his speech in front of 300 selected economists. The Cambodian Daily said that his address “primarily dealt in generalities and contained little that Cambodian economists will not already know.” Not only that: Some of his advice runs contrary to some of the traditional approaches of Cambodian economic practice.
Thakshin Sinawatra became the favorite politician among a majority of the rural population in Thailand because of his new policy of favoring them directly, with debt relief and village loan funds administered by the local communities themselves. The revenue of the public and the private sector should, first of all, be directed towards the poorest sector of society, is his advice. Large scale land leasings to big companies in favorable relation with the government, leading to considerable groups of the rural population losing their land, coming to demonstrate in Phnom Penh, asking for justice, as happens so frequently in Cambodia, are not compatible which the vision of Thaksin Shinawatra’s economic policies.
Surprising is also his emphasis on the need of reconciliation and good neighborliness between Cambodia and Thailand, in order to foster Cambodia’s economic development, including the promotion of Thailand and Cambodia together for international tourism, presenting themselves as a “joint destination.” This runs against many recent antagonistic trends: the Thai government had proposed to submit Preah Vihear together with the Cambodian government to the World Heritage Committee, which was flatly rejected by the Cambodian side. During the last year there were even plans discussed in Cambodia to create an international airport 500 meters below the mountain range where Preah Vihear is situated, which is conveniently accessible from the north, from Thailand. This plan, to exclude the natural access to Preah Vihear – and therefore tourism via Thailand, was soon given up again as economically completely unreal. The public outcry some years ago, when Bangkok Airways had named one of its airplanes Angkor Wat – while other planes are named according to other international destinations, promoting tourism to these places – has no place in this context. The Cambodian Daily reported his emphasis on the need for cooperation between Thailand and Cambodia, as the two countries’ economic fortunes are inextricably linked – adding: “Of course, not all my compatriots see it that way right now.” Those who see it differently in Thailand are assumed to suffer from being shortsighted, driven by false patriotism.
One may ask whether the anti-Thai actions of 2003, when the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh was ransacked because of a baseless rumor, resulting in further arson so that the hardware damage alone of that night was estimated at US$56 million, and the tensions before and after the designation of Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site, would also fall under a similar verdict by Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra, that a false patriotism is in the way also in some of the Cambodian attitudes and actions.
It is surprising to consider how future suggestions of the new economic adviser of the Cambodian government will be handled, while land conflicts in rural areas continue, further large scale leasings of land are under consideration inviting countries from the Middle East to start agro-business ventures, and Japanese companies are considering to create new large tree planting schemes in Cambodia.
Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra’s suggestions may not only be unwelcome in his own country. They run counter to major trends of present day Cambodian big business.
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