In Siem Reap, Thais Paint the Town Red

Siem Reap city – Addressing tens of thousands of his red-shirt supporters on Saturday night, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra vowed that he would be back in Thailand shortly and praised Cambodia for its role in the weekend’s massive red-shirt reunion.

“I will return home soon,” he said, to roaring applause from the crowd. “I work about 60 years to help the Thai people. I’ve traveled to many country throughout the world but now, even my motherland, I cannot visit,” added Mr. Thaksin, who faces two years’ imprisonment in his native Thailand on a raft of corruption charges.

In spite of the jail sentence, many believe he may be granted an amnesty soon by a government that is now headed by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and made up primarily of party members selected by him.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen has an iron heart and it is lucky for the neighboring country. If he did not have iron heart like this, thousands of you could not come here. He has concerned himself with Thaksin’s security and your security as well,” continued Mr. Thaksin, during a speech lasting more than half an hour. With barely a pause, he then launched into a Thai karaoke song following his speech.

An adored and despised figure in Thailand, the telecoms billionaire is hailed by his followers for his populist policies. During interviews on Saturday and Sunday, red-shirts one after another spoke of Mr. Thaksin’s economic equalizers and social service initiatives, as well as his unbound love for “the people.”

“People hunger for his love,” said Nitipoom Navaratna, a Thai member of parliament who came to Cambodia on Saturday as part of a high-level delegation set to accompany Mr. Thaksin. “In Thailand now, he’s the center of the heart… people are starting to understand what he has done for the country; anyone who goes to the hospital and is poor, they don’t have to pay money, for example.”

“From what I observe, he starts to be like [former South African president, Nelson] Mandela. He’s the Mandela of Asean countries, he faced injustice,” he continued.

Official estimates put the number of red-shirts who attended the weekend celebrations at around 30,000.

In addition to Mr. Thaksin’s speech Saturday, a massive giving of alms took place on Sunday morning at Angkor Wat with thousands of Thais presenting Cambodian monks with money, noodles, rice and candies.

Two hundred and sixty five monks snaked along the causeway leading from Angkor Wat. Alongside, hundreds of laymen carried empty rice sacks to transport the goods being distributed by the red-shirts and Mr. Thaksin himself.

“Very, very generous,” concluded Vorn Songven, a monk from Siem Reap’s Wat Preah Prum, following the almsgiving. Alongside the bespectacled monk stood two rice sacks overflowing with donations. “My personal idea is that the relationship between both countries is better than with the previous government. With this government – the Thai government and Cambodian government are very, very close together.”

The weekend reunion was timed to coincide with the Thai New Year, and was an offering of sorts from the former prime minister to his supporters. But the assembly was every bit as much a gift of the Cambodian government to its “Thai friends.”

More than 7,000 security force members were deployed before and during the reception. Mr. Thaksin was escorted to and from his hotel by a 30-car motorcade and a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces helicopter was put at his disposal for his scheduled visit with Mr. Hun Sen in Phnom Penh today.

At the Angkor Kyeum fairgrounds on the outskirts of Siem Reap City, a small battalion of police, military police, soldiers, and members of the Prime Ministers Bodyguard Unit were tasked with keeping order alongside hundreds of Cambodian support staff ranging from street sweepers to electrical engineers.

“I’ve been here for five days to get everything in order,” said Kham Sokhorm, a maintenance worker with Electricite du Cambodge. Next to Mr. Sokhorm, a massive generator was working overtime. “We don’t want any blackouts,” he added with a grin.

Speaking with reporters on the sidelines of yesterday’s ceremony, Siem Reap Governor Sou Phirin praised the undertaking.

“We are neighbors and the Thai-Cambodian people now have a good relationship. We want this relationship to continue, and we do not want problems,” said Mr. Phirin.

The head of security for Mr. Thaksin, Ma Ra, said the preparation efforts had been manifold.

“We have been preparing this location for three days before Mr. Thaksin’s arrival. We’ve been cooperating with the Cambodian security offices,” said Mr. Ra, who estimated that 500 Thai security officials had been involved in the endeavor alongside their 7,000 Cambodian counterparts.

“We’re not talking about politics, we’re just talking about developing both nations,” added Mr. Ra.

Political commentators called the undertaking a significant cementing of relations after a year of warming ties between Cambodia and Thailand. By hosting an event of this size, Cambodia has strictly cast its lot with the now-Pheu Thai dominated government, analysts said.

“It has opened the way for Cambodia to become involved in Thai politics once again,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, explained in an email. “This reveals a healthy state of Thai-Cambodian relations, led by the two key personalities, Ex-PM Thaksin and PM Hun Sen. This also shows that the events in Cambodia and the involvement of red shirts continue to be used as a political tool in Thai politics.”

Nowhere was that political intermingling more apparent this weekend than among the red-shirts themselves. By Saturday afternoon, hundreds had descended on Mr. Thaksin’s hotel hoping to catch a glimpse of their beloved leader.  Gathered in a cluster in front of the elevator banks scores of red shirts hoisted flags and clutched laminated photos of Mr. Thaksin. Cries in Thai of “we love you, Thaksin” and “Thaksin come home,” echoed across the lobby. Unbidden, those cheers were soon joined by one more: “Thaksin, Hun Sen! Thaksin, Hun Sen!”

The Cambodian “gift,” however, raised more than a few eyebrows both here and abroad. Critics noted the irony of the government so readily hosting a political rally for foreigners in the midst of increasing efforts to stifle domestic demonstrations.

Phil Robertson, deputy director for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said in an email: “The Cambodian government’s stunning double standards towards its own people’s right to peacefully protest are fully revealed by this Thai UDD rally.”

In Thailand, meanwhile, local media termed the preparations “excess generosity,” and highlighted criticisms from the opposing party over Thai senior officials’ role in the rally.

“One is a state official and the others are political office holders. They walked on their knees when they met Thaksin and didn’t try to report to authorities,” the Bangkok Post quoted Democrat Party spokesperson Mallika Boonmeetrakul as saying. According to the Bangkok Post, Ms. Mallika will be seeking legal action against a number of the Thai officials to participated in the Siem Reap rally.

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