Prime Minister Hun Sen left a trail of fury behind him when he flew out of Thailand on Sunday, the traces of which were plainly visible in the indignant editorial content of Bangkok’s English-language press yesterday.
Mr Hun Sen provoked the Thai leadership and its media last week by publicly offering shelter in Cambodia to fugitive former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and then proposing at the Asean Summit on Friday that the exiled premier become his economic adviser. Mr Hun Sen also reportedly compared the former Thai leader to Burmese political prisoner and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Hun Sen has slapped Thailand in the face by expressing his total support for deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra,” columnist Likit Jongsakul wrote in the Bangkok Post yesterday.
Another Bangkok Post opinion writer, Veera Prateepchaikul, wrote that Mr Hun Sen’s offers “amounted to direct interference in Thailand’s internal affairs. They also demonstrated his complete lack of any diplomatic decency and statesmanship.”
Mr Veera continued, “After having deliberately made unprovoked inflammatory remarks against Thailand on various occasions…Hun Sen, this time, may think that he wants to have a hand in Thai politics.”
Mr Thaksin was ousted from power in 2006 and later indicted on abuse of power charges. He fled Thailand last August and faces two years in jail if he returns.
Another editorial in the Post, entitled “Thaksin has much to offer Cambodians,” argued yesterday that the former Thai leader could teach Mr Hun Sen a thing or two about tightening his grip on power.
“If appointed as adviser, Thaksin can show Hun Sen how to zigzag around government budgets to make sure the prime minister keeps full control of government coffers,” the opinion piece read.
“Is Hun Sen worried about the role of independent organizations to annoy him? No problem. Thaksin can easily help him out there. The solution to make them inactive is not that difficult. Simply putting your own men in neutral bodies is the answer.”
The Bangkok Post’s website has also become a hotbed of commentary for readers and armchair pundits. One commenter using the handle Dusit Boy wrote yesterday, “When [Hun Sen] placed Aung San Su Kyi, the imprisoned Nobel laureate from Burma, on the same plateau as Thaksin I just cannot help but think it is a bit like comparing Mother Teresa to a madame of an establishment of carnal recreation.”
In a news article published yesterday, the Post interviewed Burmese students living in Thailand, who said they were also offended by the Cambodian premier’s comparison of Mr Thaksin and Ms Suu Kyi.
Another story reported on a press conference held by three Thai senators, calling on Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to release, “a formal statement, instead of verbal ones, to counter Hun Sen for his unethical handling of an international affair.”
So far, Mr Abhisit has only stated his desire to seek the extradition of Mr Thaksin upon his entry into Cambodia—a possibility that the Cambodian government has roundly and very publicly rejected.
In an editorial Sunday, Thailand’s other English-language newspaper, The Nation, lamented Mr Hun Sen’s lack of “political manners” in extending the invitation and job offer to the fugitive Mr Thaksin.
“You can take the man out of the jungle but you cannot take the jungle out of the man, or so the saying goes,” the editorial read.
However, in a more detached opinion piece published yesterday, Nation writer Kavi Chongkittavorn celebrated the drama wrought by Mr Hun Sen, calling the Asean summit “the most colorful with additional soap opera-like interventions.”
Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said yesterday that the government has not received any official response from Thailand regarding the premier’s remarks, nor has Mr Thaksin made contact.
“I don’t think Samdech Hun Sen intended to create a controversy. Maybe he thought it was a normal case that he could raise anytime,” Mr Kuong said.
However, he added, “for me, I’m not surprised at all.”
In contrast, government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said yesterday that the government, including the premier, had always expected the gestures toward Mr Thaksin to be inflammatory.
“Yes, sure, we expected this,” Mr Kanharith said by telephone.
“We want to show Thailand that they can allow the opposition to attack the government of a country with diplomatic ties…and now it’s our turn,” he said.
When asked if he was referring to opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s recent remarks about declining freedom of speech in Cambodia during an appearance at the Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand, Mr Kanharith said, “No, I don’t just talk about Sam Rainsy, I talk about everybody.
“You have demonstrations in Thailand against the Burmese government, you have the attack from Bangkok by Cambodia’s opposition.”
Political observer Chea Vannath said yesterday that despite the reaction from Thailand, Mr Hun Sen’s offer might be a politically savvy move to increase Cambodia’s standing in the eyes of Thailand’s leaders.
“We cannot read his mind, but maybe because of the political turbulence in Thailand it might be a good opportunity for Cambodia to take a new position with Thailand to use one side to put pressure on the other side,” Ms Vannath said.
She added that combined with apparent recent improvements to Cambodia’s armed forces, an alliance with Thailand’s opposition could put Mr Hun Sen on an “equal footing” with Thailand during negotiations on the disputed border area near Preah Vihear temple and the overlapping claims area in the Gulf of Thailand.
“In the past, Thailand might look at Cambodia as a dilapidated army, but now the newly better-equipped Cambodian armed forces can bring Thailand to a fair peaceful negotiation,” Ms Vannath said.
“If you are bargaining with somebody, you need to have equal footing for someone to listen to you.”
However, she cautioned that the prime minister should be careful to maintain Cambodia’s neutrality, and not take the provocation too far.
“Just like a bushfire, if you cannot stop it when it starts, most of the time it will burn out of control.”
Tim Huxley, director of the International Institute for Strategic studies in Singapore, wrote in an e-mail yesterday that he could not comment on Mr Hun Sen’s motivations. However, he added, “This development is potentially extremely damaging for Thai-Cambodian relations. Whether or not it will lead to another border flare-up is unpredictable.”