BANGKOK Thaksin Shinawatra's visit to Phnom Penh benefits both the ousted Thai leader and his Cambodian host, but could drag the two countries back into a simmering border conflict, analysts said.
Golfing buddies in their spare time, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Thaksin are using the row over the ex-Thai PM's appointment as an economic adviser to settle scores with the current Thai government, they said.
But analysts warned that the pair are now locked in a dangerous game of brinkmanship with Bangkok's furious administration that could reignite deadly clashes over an ancient temple on the Thai-Cambodian border.
“This new situation has moved Thailand and Cambodia closer to a potential conflict,” Paul Chambers, a senior research fellow in Thai politics at Heidelberg University in Germany, told AFP.
Thaksin and Hun Sen have been close since 2003 when they repaired relations after Cambodian rioters burned down the Thai embassy, and remained so after Thaksin was top Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (right) sits with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at a house that Hun Sen prepared for his pled in a bloodless coup in 2006.
The furore over Thaksin's new job has let Hun Sen “carry out his vendetta” against new Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
Hun Sen wanted to humiliate Abhisit after Thailand refused to negotiate over disputed land around the 11th century Preah Vihear temple, and after the Thai foreign minister branded him a “gangster”, Thitinan said.
At least seven soldiers have died in clashes near the temple since it was granted UN World Heritage Status in July 2008.
The Cambodian leader is also seeking to destabilise the Thai government due to its historic hostility towards him, hoping that its collapse would allow the return of Thaksin or his allies, analysts said.
Hun Sen had further shown “suspicious timing”, he said, with the row coming just before Abhisit is due to chair a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders with US President Barack Obama on Sunday.
Thaksin's new job meanwhile gives the former owner of Manchester City football club a useful base near Thailand from which to seek a return to power three years after he was toppled in the coup.
It is the closest he has been to Thailand since he fled the country in August 2008 to avoid an impending jail term for corruption and “he is just trying to provoke the Abhisit government into overreacting,” Thitinan said.
“It's a mutual benefit, a symbiotic relationship for Hun Sen and Thaksin. This is orchestrated,” Thitinan added.
Analysts and diplomats pointed to a recent visit to Phnom Penh by the chairman of Thailand's main pro-Thaksin party as evidence that the pair had been planning the move.
“If anybody is going to be provocative to the Thai government, it's going to be Thaksin as much as Hun Sen,” a diplomat based in Phnom Penh said.
The pressure is now on the Thai government not to overreact, after it angrily pulled its ambassador from Phnom Penh last week and tore up an oil and gas exploration deal with Cambodia on Tuesday.
Nationalist groups in Thailand, especially the royalist “Yellow Shirts” who blockaded Bangkok's airports last year, have been urging the new government to take a hard line.
“How bad it gets depends entirely on whether Abhisit can keep his cool and resist pressure from those who are intent on escalation of this conflict,” said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
“But if he keeps making announcements of the kind he has made in the past few days then things could get much, much worse.”
Analysts said that all three parties could lose out if the temperature boils over and fresh clashes erupt between often trigger-happy border troops.
Hun Sen, with an army smaller than Thailand's, is playing a “dangerous game”; Thaksin risks being seen as disloyal to Thailand; and Abhisit could ruin his and Thailand's image on the international stage, they said.
“It's a delicate situation, it's delicate brinkmanship,” Thitinan said.—AFP