BEHIND THE HEADLINES
By BUNN NAGARA
Hot domestic issues in Thailand are spilling over its borders into the rest of the region.
THE new Thai government is reaching beyond Bangkok-based protests to address other, broader concerns. With an Asean summit to host in less than three weeks, this workload is urgent but involuntary.
After last month’s Cabinet-level visits to the troubled southernmost provinces, the defence minister has been in discussions with his counterpart in Cambodia. Both countries last July began their latest round of rival claims over Preah Vihar temple, in an on-off feud since 1954.
On Friday Gen Pravit Wongsuwan and his ministerial colleagues were in Phnom Penh on his first official visit to discuss normalisation of relations and troop pullbacks in the temple area.
Pravit had said this introductory visit for the Joint Boundary Commission would not raise issues concerning border disputes. The new government is hoping that a fresh initiative on familiar problems would help resolve them, and Cambodian leaders are responding accordingly.
Easing tensions: Thailand’s Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya (left) and Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Hor Namhong holding a news conference after their meeting in Phnom Penh on Jan 26. Kasit was in Cambodia to discuss the disputed land around the Preah Vihear temple. — Reuters
For Thailand, the temple had been built in Bhumsrol village in Bueng Malu sub-district and Kantharalak district of Sisaket province in eastern Thailand.
But after its 1962 World Court ruling, Preah Vihar came to be in Svay Chrum village of Kan Tout commune, in Choam Khsant district of Preah Vihar province in northern Cambodia.
The sticky situation owes much to geographical ambiguity and historical uncertainty, as well as easier access to the temple being from the Thai side.
Today’s frequently prickly sense of territory only worsens the vicious cycle of division, separation and exclusion of age-old identities in the region.
In 1010, Suryavarman I ascended the throne as king of the Khmer Empire. Twelve years later he, said to be of aristocratic birth and Malay origin, expanded his rule into parts of Siam and Laos.
Occasionally niggling pettiness creeps in, even in the naming of the temple. Thailand wants it known as Phra Viharn-Preah Vihear, but Cambodia prefers the more internationally accepted Preah Vihear.
There may also be deeper interests at play to make the dispute more substantive and intractable. A patch of land around the temple coincides with a disputed oil-rich offshore block claimed by both countries.
All of this serves to bring more worldly concerns into perspective for Thailand and Cambodia, including another planned meeting of Thais in the neighbouring country.
On Wednesday some 30 parliamentarians from the Pheu Thai party allied to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra were hoping to meet him in Koh Kong, south-western Cambodia.
The next day the Cambodian ambassador to Thailand denied any knowledge of an impending visit by Thaksin there.
Yesterday, one of the MPs said the trip to Koh Kong was postponed indefinitely. Another said the meeting would be in Hong Kong instead.
Meanwhile billionaire Thaksin, on the run after a two-year court conviction for graft, has reportedly been hiring US lobbyists to discredit Thailand in the past two years. In his phone-in to supporters in Thailand last Monday, he admitted to financing anti-government actions.
The matter concerning American lobbyists in Thaksin’s pay will be raised in discussions with the US ambassador on Tuesday by former premier and current chief government adviser Chuan Leekpai.
Britain and Japan have already barred Thaksin from entering because of his conviction. China has yet to oppose his visits, but requires that he must not use Chinese territory to destabilise the situation in Thailand.
Democrat Party spokesman Buranat Samuttharak on Friday reminded Thaksin’s supporters of this requirement following reports that he might now meet them in Hong Kong or Macau.
This followed criticism of Thaksin the day before by Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Tuagsuban that Thaksin was now trying to usurp the royal prerogative by trying to become Thailand’s first president. That provoked a pro-Thaksin MP to censure Suthep for undue mudslinging.
Nonetheless, there is public disquiet over Thaksin’s phone-in when he admitted to being behind red-shirted protesters. He did not endear himself to critics or neutral observers either when he then compared himself to once-persecuted African leader Nelson Mandela.
Thaksin’s supporters are still pushing the envelope to discredit the government during the coming Asean summit. Government officials have already moved the venue from Bangkok to Hua Hin in anticipation of more street demonstrations.
Pro-Thaksin activists are also seeking to have the Asean Charter rewritten, arguing that it is “a direct product of the (post-Thaksin, coup-mediated) dictatorial regime.” While such arguments are unlikely to carry weight with Asean, their accompanying sentiments and actions can still pose a challenge to security.
A pro-Thaksin MP now wants Japan and China to clarify reports of travel restrictions placed on Thaksin, warning that his 10 million-strong supporters might boycott Chinese and Japanese goods. But to exercise that threat, Thaksin’s supporters would need to overcome the popularity of Chinese and Japanese products.
Although now out of politics, Thaksin is still competing for popularity, this time with imported goods.