Monday, February 7, 2011

When bilateral ties are pawned to petty politics

The release of three Thai nationals this week from a Cambodian prison is a good lesson on how bad politics can lead to bad diplomatic relations, with ordinary people paying a high price for those states of affairs.
The three Surin residents -- Sanong Wongcharoen, Rim Phuangphet and Rain Sabdee -- were arrested in mid-August while hunting for food in the forested area along the Thai-Cambodian border, and sentenced to 18 months in jail.
They would not have been in jail for long, for unintentionally crossing the boundary, if relations between the two neighbouring countries were normal. Normally, a local authority could easily make the decision to set them free after asking a few questions about making a wrong turn in the border jungle.
However, it was different this time, as relations between the countries were sour. Cambodian authorities suspected they were Thai spies working on security matters at the border areas and decided to send them to face prosecution in Siem Reap. The three Thais were convicted and jailed for four months before being given royal pardon in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Thailand and Cambodia on Monday.
But for this landmark occasion, perhaps the three villagers would have remained in prison for the full term of the sentence. Thai authorities both at the local level and in Bangkok failed in their attempts to secure their release, as Phnom Penh was in no mood to consider the matter.
Relations with Cambodia have swung between sweet and sour over the past six decades. Fluctuation in the ties mostly depended on circumstances in international politics. The sour relations over the past two years during the Abhisit Vejjajiva government's term in power were mostly driven by bad politics in Thailand.
Abhisit decided to downgrade diplomatic ties with Phnom Penh in October last year when Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen appointed former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as an economic adviser. Many economic-cooperation and maritime deals were scrapped or suspended.
To Abhisit, only the Thaksin issue really mattered when the fugitive ex-prime minister engaged Cambodia. The Thai government did not seem to react in the same way when fugitive Thaksin was in other countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Montenegro.
Hun Sen reciprocated the Thai government's policy with the same practice but with a different agenda. He played the Thaksin card to challenge Thai power over the boundary conflict, notably at the Hindu temple of Preah Vihear.
Thaksin is not a very important issue for Hun Sen and he easily dumped him when he realised that Thaksin's chances of returning to power were very slim. Thaksin resigned as Hun Sen's adviser in August.
Abhisit has decided to normalise relations with Cambodia since then and was working to fix every damaged mechanism to move the relations forward.
Unfortunately, bad politics in Thailand is not yet over and seemed to influence Abhisit in pushing bilateral relations with Cambodia.
The government's major supporter, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), continued its demand for Abhisit to scrap the boundary-demarcation pact signed in 2000 during the Democrat-led administration to claim territory adjacent to Preah Vihear.
The boundary negotiation dragged on as the government used delaying tactics to extend the process of Parliament's reading of the Thai-Cambodian Joint Boundary Committee documents, to relieve PAD pressure. The government needed to block Cambodia's Preah Vihear management plan at the World Heritage Committee for another year to show the PAD that it really had the ability to protect territory from Cambodia's claim.
As the PAD has planned to call a huge rally in late January, Abhisit will have to do many other things to show he does not bow to Hun Sen, and such moves would be at the expense of bilateral ties with the neighbouring country.

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