Page last updated at 14:28 GMT, Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Diplomatic spat over Thaksin role

By Rachel Harvey
BBC News, Bangkok

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Phnom Penh (10 November 2009)
Mr Thaksin (R) and Mr Hun Sen are known to be close friends

If there is one thing that supporters and opponents of Thaksin Shinawatra can surely agree on, it is this - the fugitive former prime minister of Thailand has a knack for grabbing headlines.

Deposed in a coup in 2006, and subsequently convicted in absentia on a conflict of interest charge, Mr Thaksin faces a two year jail sentence if he returns to Thailand.

So he has been living in self-imposed exile, most recently in Dubai.

But he works hard at maintaining his contacts back home - he is a regular contributor to the Twitter and Facebook social networking sites, and he calls in by videophone to rallies organised by his supporters.

He has also given several high-profile interviews to foreign newspapers.

All of this no doubt profoundly irritates, and probably genuinely concerns, the current coalition government, led by Prime Minsiter Abhisit Vejjajiva.

But Mr Thaksin's latest move has ramped that up several notches.

The former premier has taken up a new position as economic adviser to the Cambodian government.

The job offer was made by Hun Sen, Cambodia's outspoken prime minister, just ahead of last month's regional summit hosted by Thailand.

There could be a personal edge to it - Mr Thaksin and Mr Hun Sen are good friends and golf partners.

But the timing was widely interpreted in Thai media as being designed to undermine Mr Abhisit.

Messy legacy

Things have escalated since then. Thailand has recalled its ambassador to Phnom Penh and is considering scrapping an agreement over a disputed maritime border.

Supporters of ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra gather at the royal plaza in Bangkok, 19 September 2009
Mr Thaksin still has a large support base in his home country

Thailand and Cambodia are already locked in a long running argument about an ancient Hindu temple.

Moves to try to extradite Mr Thaksin could follow.

But the Cambodian government has already said it will reject any such request on the basis that, in their view, the charges against their guest are politically motivated.

Thaksin Shinawatra remains a polarising figure in Thailand.

He still retains a strong following in parts of the country, particularly in rural areas.

His red-shirted supporters still mount regular demonstrations. But yellow-shirted opponents loathe and mistrust him with equal passion.

The messy legacy of the 2006 coup rumbles on.

Hun Sen could well have his own domestic reasons for baiting Thailand. It plays well with nationalist sentiments.

But observers think this latest diplomatic spat is at least as much about Thai domestic politics as historic regional rivalries.

Mr Thaksin, a billionaire who made his fortune in telecommunications, denies his visit to Cambodia is overtly political.

He says he is simply offering advice on economics and poverty reduction. But his mere presence just across the border is provocative.

Awkward timing

Hard-line nationalists are urging Mr Abhisit to take stronger retaliatory measures against Cambodia.

One of the entrance buildings at Preah Vihear

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), who are staunchly opposed to Mr Thaksin, say they plan to hold a protest rally on Sunday.

Meanwhile, in an editorial, the widely read Bangkok Post newspaper, is urging restraint and cautioning the government against falling into what it calls a tit-for-tat trap set by Hun Sen.

Once again, the timing of all this is awkward to say the least.

Cambodia and Thailand are both members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean).

Asean leaders are due to meet the American President Barack Obama this weekend, on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Singapore.

It could be hard to speak with one voice if the leaders of two regional neighbours are refusing to speak to one another.

Once again, Thaksin Shinawatra has managed to create a diversion to distract the attention of his political opponents in the Thai government just ahead of a major international forum.

The spat with Cambodia has served both to underline latent regional tensions and highlight the deep divisions that persist within Thailand.

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