Thai lawmaker Panich Vikitsreth and five other Thais detained near the border on Dec 29 could hardly have picked a more provocative companion than “yellow-shirt” act-ivist Veera Somkwamkid.
When Prime Minister Hun Sen visited Thailand in April, Mr Veera, and a group of his fellow royalist yellow shirts, issued a statement calling the Cambodian premier “the enemy of Thailand who has no honor,” according to Thai media reports.
The statement included a laundry list of Thai nationalist complaints, accusing Mr Hun Sen of overly close relations with fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra and of violating Thai sovereignty by seizing land along the border.
Mr Veera, who was denied bail here on Tuesday, has been especially vocal about Cambodia’s border-hugging Preah Vihear temple, the site of a standoff between Thai and Cambodian troops since August 2008. In September 2009, he led a protest at a nearby Thai national park, calling on the Cambodian government and people to return the temple to Thailand.
Cambodian officials have dismissed Mr Veera and his ilk as extremists, but the Cambodian military has sent reinforcements when yellow shirts organized rallies near the border, including in April when Thai media reported that Mr Veera was planning a protest at the Ta Moan temple complex.
Although he might be best described as a gadfly, a May 24 editorial published on the website of the Council of Ministers compared Mr Veera to Don Quixote, the fictional character symbolizing the foolishly impractical. The article accused the far right in Thailand of using people like Mr Veera to drum up support.
“Actually, whenever there is political in-fighting in Bangkok, they send a kind of Don Quixote, Veera, to trumpet Thai patriotism next to the temple of Preah Vihear with the aim of turning the tide that goes against them to the border with Cambodia,” reads the opinion piece.
The press and quick reaction unit of the Council of Ministers said in an August statement that the yellow shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy and the Thai Patriots Network, a splinter group, “behave as the enemy of Cambodia.”
Mr Veera, a former member of the PAD and current member of the TPN, is the only member of the seven Thais still in Prey Sar Prison after the other six were released on bail. Thai officials have said Mr Veera’s bail was denied to ensure his personal safety as well as public order, according to Thai media reports.
Court officials, however, have said Mr Veera’s bail request was denied because he is charged with a felony. This is despite the fact that one of those released was Ratree Pipatanapaiboon, who is also accused with Mr Veera of espionage, a felony punishable by five to 10 years in prison.
The pair also face charges with the other five Thais of illegal border crossing and unauthorized entry into a military area, which are together punishable by up to 18 months in prison.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a researcher at the Asean Studies Center in Singapore, wrote in an e-mail yesterday that Mr Veera must have known beforehand that crossing illegally into Cambodia “would cause an impact on Thai-Cambodian relations.” Both Cambodian and Thai officials have denied that the case would affect relations.
“Veera himself has encroached into Cambodian territory twice so there is no doubt that his last act was not accidental,” Mr Pavin said. “Since he has been considered [a] provoker, I guess this perception will surely cause an impact on the trial of [the] other six Thais.”
Ros Chantrabot, a historian, described Mr Veera as a “troublemaker for Cambodia and Thailand,” and said his and Mr Panich’s goal on the Dec 29 border trip was likely political gain.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, declined to comment when asked if the case would have been treated differently without Mr Veera’s involvement, saying it “is in the hands of the court.”
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith wrote in an e-mail that “trespassing is one thing. Claiming the place you intruded [on] as belonging to Thailand will have more implication if we didn’t react,” regardless of whether it is Mr Veera or someone else making the claim.
Thai officials could not be reached for comment yesterday but have said that the seven Thais strayed into Cambodia unintentionally on a fact-finding mission along the border.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said Tuesday that the Thai government would do everything possible to help Mr Veera, according to the government’s National News Bureau of Thailand.
However, Thai authorities on Tuesday detained two of Mr Veera’s fellow TPN members, Chaiwat Sinsuwong and Somboon Thongburan. The pair have been charged in connection with the yellow shirt occupations of two Bangkok airports in 2008, according to Thai media reports.
Mr Pavin wrote yesterday that the Thai government “will have to show that it wants to try hardest to get Veera out of Cambodian jail–since this is about protecting Thai citizens abroad.”
As for the Cambodian government, he said the current court case could only be advantageous politically.
“This is about protecting territorial integrity of Cambodia, about how to deal with irresponsible neighbors like Thailand,” Mr Pavin wrote. “It is a win-win situation for Hun Sen.”