A day after Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly lambasted his Thai counterpart during a fiery speech in Oddar Meanchey province, the Thai government yesterday offered a rare riposte, saying that Mr Hun Sen’s “harsh and rude words” will have a negative impact on relations between the two countries.
The premier’s comments, and the Thai response, represent the latest sallies in a war of words that has escalated over the past few days as Mr Hun Sen has rallied troops at several politically sensitive border sites, including Preah Vihear temple.
In a Monday speech delivered near the disputed Ta Moan temple complex, Mr Hun Sen took issue with comments the Thai premier made about the border tour, in particular Abhisit Vejjajiva’s denial that the Thai occupation of Wat Keo Sekha Kiri Svarak in July 2008 was an “invasion,” as Cambodia asserts.
“Now does Abhisit dare to swear? Swear on the death of his whole family, swear on the destruction of the whole country, whether Thai soldiers invaded Cambodian territory on July 15, 2008, or not,” said Mr Hun Sen.
Thai newspaper The Nation characterized these remarks as putting “a curse on Abhisit.”
Mr Hun Sen addressed Thai Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban in similar terms, saying: “Go ask the Thai villagers living…in front of Preah Vihear temple: ‘Did Thai troops come to stay [in the pagoda]?’… And if they do not speak the truth, may secret spirits break their necks [so] they all die. May they get hit by accidental gunfire, electrocuted or hit by a car.”
Mr Hun Sen also called Mr Abhisit “stupid and crazy,” “ill-bred” and a “power robber,” and made a pun on the Thai premier’s last name that drew laughter from the crowd of more than 1,000 soldiers and RCAF personnel present, calling him “Vej Chhar”–a Khmer term that literally means “long spoon,” but is used to refer to a dim-witted person.
More seriously, Mr Hun Sen reiterated his frequent charge that the Abhisit government is illegitimate and was installed by a revolution.
Mr Abhisit came to power in December 2008, after massive protests by Thai yellow-shirts paralyzed Bangkok. In 2006, a bloodless coup toppled the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, a fugitive from Thai justice who is now a close ally of Mr Hun Sen.
Mr Hun Sen in 1997 himself rejected claims that his takeover of power had been illegal after Prince Norodom Ranariddh was ousted in factional fighting.
Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, an assistant to the Thai foreign minister, said on Monday that the premier’s epithets and insinuations would harm Thai-Cambodian relations, which have been severely frayed since Mr Thaksin was appointed an economic adviser to the Cambodian government in November.
“The harsh and rude words should not have come from a prime minister of any country. We cannot accept it,” Mr Chavanond told the Bangkok Post.
“It is impossible for any country to resume relations without being respectful of each other first.”
Such a statement is a rare occurrence for the Abhisit government, which has made an effort to portray itself as above the fray.
Mr Abhisit’s spokesman, Panitan Wattanayagorn, has repeatedly said that the government does not comment on Mr Hun Sen’s domestic speeches as a matter of policy. Indeed, Mr Panitan yesterday distanced the premier from Mr Chavanond’s remarks.
“He is not representing the government, he’s representing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was requested by the government to clarify any point that could be a misunderstanding,” Mr Panitan said yesterday from Bangkok.
Among other things, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs was asked to explain the Thai system of democracy to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“We think [Mr Hun Sen] was misinformed in terms of our democratic system, where the prime minister can be selected from the parliamentary system,” Mr Panitan said, emphasizing that Mr Abhisit attained his office in accordance with Thai law.
“We have no specific response from the policy level,” he added.
Mr Abhisit was later quoted by The Nation, an English-language Bangkok daily, as saying that he would “let go” and not react to Mr Hun Sen’s speech. But in the same article, his deputy, Mr Suthep, kicked the clouds of controversy even higher by mocking Mr Hun Sen’s cancelled trip to Ta Moan temple.
“Hun Sen may be angry because he was disappointed that he could not visit Ta Moan Thom temple as planned,” he said. “One could lose control if he is angry.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday that the prime minister is displeased with Mr Abhisit’s actions, not Mr Abhisit himself.
“He wasn’t attacking the Thai prime minister, but the way Abhisit treats Cambodia like it is Thailand’s servant,” Mr Siphan said.
Cambodia’s leaders are not misinformed about Thai democracy, he added.
“We understand how Abhisit earned the power to be prime minister,” he said. “We understand that Abhisit went to the premiership because of a coup d’etat, not because of the will of the Thai people. The Thai people elected Thaksin.”
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, wrote in an e-mail yesterday that he expected the premier’s heated rhetoric to damage Thai-Cambodian relations further.
“The Thai Foreign Ministry said quite rightly that relations will not return to normalcy unless Hun Sen stops using such rhetoric,” he said. For example, “the Abhisit government has said that it is now wanting to press hard on the issue of overlapping territorial claims.”
Mr Pavin also pointed out that this speech comes at an inflection point in Thai politics, with protests against the Abhisit government mounting in advance of a Feb 26 verdict in Mr Thaksin’s asset seizure trial.
“Hun Sen has never been fond of this government and therefore refuses to deal with Abhisit,” he said. “Helping Thaksin to unseat Abhisit seems to be the favored choice of Hun Sen.”