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Exiled Thaksin in Cambodia kicks up trouble for Thailand

Ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has long provoked Thailand's government by rousing opposition at home. Now he's inflamed regional tensions by becoming an economic adviser to rival Cambodia.

By Correspondent / November 23, 2009

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (r.) talks to former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Siem Reap province, Cambodia, on November 14.

TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Newscom

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

At a luxury guesthouse, Cambodia's newest government adviser picks up a copy of his latest book, "Tackling Poverty." It explores how lessons from Thailand can be applied to other developing countries.

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"I help tackle poverty worldwide, wherever they need me. Why not my neighbor?" asks Thaksin Shinawatra, the author.

But Mr. Thaksin, a Thai prime minister ousted by a coup in 2006, is no ordinary consultant – and he knows it. The politician's electoral successes antagonized Bangkok's royalist elite. Now, exiled in Dubai and wanted at home on a corruption-related conviction, Thaksin remains a political player who courts controversy.

His recent appointment as an adviser here has injected a new and potentially destabilizing element spilling beyond his home country. A five-day visit earlier this month to Cambodia, which shares a border and centuries of rivalry with Thailand, provoked a nationalist uproar in Bangkok. Both countries withdrew their ambassadors. Thailand tore up a maritime treaty and threatened to seal the border, where rival armies already face off over a disputed Hindu temple. Cambodia later expelled a diplomat for spying.

So far, the diplomatic tensions haven't spilled over to the temple site. The area is one of several poorly demarcated borders that Thailand shares with its neighbors and where sovereignty claims have flared into armed clashes, though rarely for long.

In Cambodia the border also evokes memories of Thailand's arming of the murderous Khmer Rouge during a civil war that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen fought mostly on the opposite side. He has argued that Thailand has no right to demand Thaksin's extradition because it used to shelter senior Khmer Rouge leaders.

Thailand and Cambodia belong to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But the Thai government has resisted mediation by the 10-nation bloc.

That leaves the two neighbors at loggerheads over Thaksin. A court in Bangkok is expected to rule next month on the confiscation of more than $2 billion of his frozen money. The case is separate from his 2008 conviction and two-year jail term. But Prime Minsiter Hun Sen has offered Thaksin sanctuary and rejected Thailand's request for extradition.

Feted in Cambodia

Arriving by private jet, Thaksin was given a lavish reception at Hun Sen's heavily guarded compound outside the Cambodian capital. On Nov. 12, he gave a talk to 300 civil servants on economic policy that was broadcast on state television.

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