US officials in Bangkok believed Prime Minister Hun Sen’s decision to name former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra his economic adviser in late 2009 “backfired” by driving popular support to the Thai incumbent, a recently released cable from the US Embassy in Bangkok reveals.
At the time, the polarizing Mr Thaksin was already in self-exile to avoid a corruption conviction.
According to a November 2009 cable released last weak by anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, “many Thai commentators” speculated that Mr Hun Sen’s aim was to pressure the current Thai government into new elections that would bring Mr Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party to power.
The embassy in Bangkok appeared to buy into the interpretation.
“At least for now, it would appear that Thaksin, opposition [Pheu] Thai chairman Chavalit [Yongchaiyudh] and Hun Sen have miscalculated how the gambit to name Thaksin an adviser to the Cambodian government…would play in the Thai domestic context,” the cable said.
The embassy cites a “snap poll” after Thailand’s decision to recall its ambassador from Cambodia in retaliation, showing that support for current Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva jumped from 23.3 percent to 68.6 percent, and even topped 50 percent in the pro-Thaksin northeast.
“Voices across the Thai spectrum…have been uniformly harsh in criticism of the trio,” it said.
A leaked cable from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh that same month, however, offered a more nuanced interpretation.
The embassy described Mr Hun Sen as a long-term strategist, willing to suffer any immediate fallout in exchange for maintaining relations with what he was sure would be Thailand’s next elected government.
“Hun Sen has clearly calculated that whatever diplomatic downgrades are initiated by the Abhisit government do not outweigh the benefits that Hun Sen’s friendship and support to Thaksin could provide to Cambodia both now and in the future,” the cable stated.
The assessment proved prescient. Pheu Thai crushed Abhisit’s Democrat Party during Thailand’s national elections earlier this month.