A visit by a former leader to a neighboring country normally stirs little comment. But the arrival here of Thailand’s former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has caused a nasty diplomatic row between Thailand and Cambodia.
It’s not hard to see why. Mr. Thaksin, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006 and lives in exile in Dubai, is scheming to make a comeback in Thailand. He’s wanted at home on a corruption-related conviction. The Thai government has revoked his passport and sought his extradition.
You might expect Cambodia, a neighbor and fellow member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to assist Thailand in tracking down their man. ASEAN puts great stock in warm relations among its members, who agree not to interfere in each other’s politics.
But you’d be wrong.
Far from turning him in, Cambodia’s veteran Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has embraced Thaksin as an “eternal friend.” On Thursday, Thaksin gave a lecture to a roomful of civil servants in his new role as an economic adviser to Cambodia. He has been wined and dined by his host.
As for extradition, Cambodia has told Thailand that it wouldn’t cooperate, effectively giving sanctuary to a fugitive from Thai law. Both countries have recalled their ambassadors. Tensions have risen along the land border, where a disputed 11th century temple has sparked armed clashes.
Cambodia says that appointing Thaksin as an adviser is its “internal affair” and has nothing to do with Thailand. A spokesman for Cambodia’s foreign ministry said it was up to Thailand to mend relations by sending back its ambassador.
The row comes as ASEAN leaders prepare to meet President Obama on Sunday in Singapore. There is no love lost between Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Hun Sen, though a public fallout is unlikely, given the occasion and pressure from other members to rub along.
Thaksin denies stirring trouble in Thailand, which is deeply divided over his downfall and subsequent events. “They should not overreact…I don’t want the Thai government to be so nervous,” he says.
“I’m unemployed. And we’re friends,” he says, referring to Hun Sen.
Thaksin’s controversial trip is due to end Friday after a tour Angkor Wat, another temple complex in Cambodia’s northwest, not far from the Thai border. At least 50 Thai politicians are traveling there by bus to consult with him before he flies off in his private jet.
All in all, much more than a casual overseas junket by a retired politician.