Sporting a shiny red jacket and felt-tipped marker for autographs, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra met high-ranking members of his deposed government cabinet and dozens of red-shirted supporters at his Phnom Penh residence yesterday, where rumors of his return to power were abundant.
Mr Thaksin exchanged hugs with supporters, signed t-shirts, and posed for a seemingly endless string of photographs during a meeting that lasted more than two hours at a villa just a stone’s throw from the Thai Embassy in Chamkar Mon district.
“This is the house that the government provides for me,” Mr Thaksin told The Cambodia Daily as he received rock-star treatment from the more than 50 red-shirted members of the United front for Democracy against Dictatorship who had traveled from Thailand to be with their exiled hero.
When asked how long he planned to stay in Cambodia, Mr Thaksin said, “Not so long.”
Mr Thaksin’s son, Panthongthae Shinawatra, also emerged from the government-provided mansion yesterday, greeting his father’s supporters and posing for yet another round of photographs.
Inside the villa, a large-screen television played Thai daytime television in a luxe living room, while the small mob of ecstatic supporters passed out coconut jellies and soft drinks. On a mantle by the staircase to the second floor, prominent placing was given to a framed photograph of Mr Thaksin and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
When asked if he would be available for a longer interview, Mr Thaksin told the Daily, “I try not to be,” before offering two reporters a pastry.
Mr Thaksin’s former Minister to the Office of the Prime Minister Jakapop Penkair, Finance Minister Suchart Thada-Thamrongvech, Deputy Commerce Minister Suriya Lapvisuttisin, military personnel and four opposition Puea Thai party parliamentarians were all on hand during yesterday’s spirited gathering.
Mr Suchart, said that he traveled to Cambodia to discuss hypothetical economic strategies with Mr Thaksin.
“I thought I could offer some economic solution for the country if we come back to be the government again,” Mr Suchart said.
Like many supporters interviewed yesterday, he said that he believed Thaksin would return to power in Thailand if Puea Thai prevails in an election, and successfully reverses his criminal conviction.
“We hope that someday, very soon, the government would dissolve the Parliament and then we would go by law to run for election, and then we are very certain that we would have more than half of the Parliament,” Mr Suchart said.
Dr Ponsak Phusitsakul, leader of the red shirts in Ratchaburi province, said he arrived by air yesterday morning. He agreed with the sentiment that Mr Thaksin would be in power again someday. “It can happen two ways: either peace or violence. Only two ways.”
When asked which way was more likely, he said, “more likely to be violence, which I don’t want to happen.”
Everyone interviewed yesterday stressed that they had paid their own way to Cambodia from Thailand.
Sophanchai Inthaksit said that he paid about $120 to take a bus through Poipet International Checkpoint.
“I paid everything by myself,” Mr Sophanchai said.
Smarn Lertwongrath, an adviser to the opposition Puea Thai party, said that yesterday’s meeting was a show of power for Mr Thaksin’s supporters.
“The red shirts are scary for the ruling class,” he added.
The gathering comes amid Mr Thaksin’s second visit to Cambodia since being named Prime Minister Hun Sen’s economic adviser on Oct 27.
Upon Mr Thaksin’s first visit in November, Thailand requested his arrest and extradition to Thailand, where he faces two years in prison on abuse of power charges.
Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said that his Ministry received a second diplomatic note from its Thai counterpart yesterday.
“They asked us to reconsider the note dated on 10 November, which requested the provisional arrest of Mr Thaksin for the purpose of extradition,” Mr Kuong said. He added that the government will not respond.
“Everything has been clearly stated in the note of November 11 sent to the Thai side that Cambodia is not in the position to arrest or extradite Mr Thaksin. So, we do not repeat the same thing again and again,” Mr Kuong said.
The Cambodian government has maintained that Mr Thaksin’s conviction and jail sentence were politically motivated and thus do not fall under the extradition agreement between the two countries.
Both Mr Kuong and Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that they did not know who owns Mr Thaksin’s Phnom Penh temporary residence.
When asked if Mr Thaksin is using Cambodia as a base to stage a return to power, Mr Siphan said, “Officially, Thaksin has been appointed to be an economic adviser to the Royal Government. That’s the deal. But everybody could see a different angle on that.”
Before yesterday’s meeting, a mass of red shirts gathered at the Phnom Penh Hotel on Monivong Boulevard, snapping the first round in an afternoon of photos calls.
A supporter from Chiang Rai who would only give his first name, Pisit, described yesterday’s meeting as “just a visit,” and said that Mr Thaksin’s presence in Cambodia made the cross-border trip irresistible.
“Now he stays near Thailand, and everybody misses him,” Mr Pisit said.
He added that he visited Tuol Tompoung market yesterday morning, and said that everyone was pleased to see his red shirt. “The Cambodians, they take me as a friend. They take me as a best friend,” he said of his reception by locals at the market.
One woman declined to give her name because she is a civil servant for the current government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, said: “Thank you to Samdech Hun Sen for letting us meet Thaksin so easily.”
Thai ŽmigrŽs also numbered among the red shirts who met at the hotel yesterday.
Dressed in a red kimono-style shirt, with a photo of Mr Thaksin around her neck, Carmarin Hada said that she has lived in Tokyo for 25 years, and is waiting for “safety” before she returns home to Thailand.
“I’m waiting for freedom. I’ve been waiting for a guy like this for a long time,” she said of Mr Thaksin. “After we lost this guy, Thailand is not safe.”
Somsak Rachso, a Thai national who has lived in Sydney for the last decade, said that he was excited to see Mr Thaksin for the first time. “I know Thaksin very well but he does not know me.”
Later, in a minibus full of red shirts, Mr Somsak pointed to the Thai Embassy and laughed as the group approached Mr Thaksin’s nearby residence.
“We love Hun Sen so much. The Thai government says they can catch Thaksin anywhere, but look, there is their embassy right beside his house,” he said.
Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn could not be reached for comment yesterday. In the past, the Thai government has accused Mr Hun Sen of meddling in its internal affairs by offering refuge and employment to Mr Thaksin.