Monday, November 23, 2009

No Love Lost

  • Thaksin Shinawatra (R) shakes hands with Hun Sen at a house that the Cambodian Prime Minister for Thaksin in Phnom Penh. (Photo courtesy: AFP)

Former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra risks a backlash at home by reaching an alliance of sorts with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Given the historical baggage of Thai-Cambodia relations, the move is a gamble which could fuel mistrust between the neighbours.

At the root of the Thai-Cambodian feud is what Thai historian Charnvit Kasetsiri calls “stone temple nationalisms” and competing versions of history.

The current Thai-Cambodia squabble shows just how far Asean has to go to bury old hatchets as it works towards the creation of a regional community inspired by the European Union in a few years.

On November 8, on his return to Cambodia from the inaugural Mekong-Japan leaders’ summit in Tokyo, Hun Sen, in one of the long, fiery speeches he is known for, recalled how Thailand once gave shelter to two leaders of the infamous Khmer Rouge, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.

The Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, left up to two million people dead.

“Thailand did more than violate international law. It had signed a peace pact. If Thailand does not respect international law, how can you expect us to respect Thai law?” he said.

Asked about this in an informal chat, Thai officials were quick to say the episode was in the past.

In 1969, elected Burmese leader U Nu, who had been thrown out in a military coup by General Ne Win, set up a ‘government in exile’ in Bangkok which was active till 1973. Burma is now known as Myanmar.

In a recent talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, professor Charnvit noted that Thais are brought up on textbooks that outline how their country—once known as Siam—has repeatedly “lost” territory to neighbours.

When Thailand contested the ownership of the Preah Vihear temple, ordinary Thais donated money to help pay legal fees. The temple is on the Thai-Cambodian border.

On the Cambodian side, any suggestion that Thailand has any claim to Khmer heritage touches a raw nerve.

The ancient Khmer culture preceded that of Siam. But in modern times, Thailand is by far the greater power in mainland Southeast Asia, its economy dwarfing those of its neighbours—and the Thai elite tend to look down on Cambodians.

When The Hague ruled in favour of Cambodia on Preah Vihear in 1962, Thais mourned and Khmers rejoiced.

A remark—later proven to be a misquote—by a Thai actress in 2003 insinuating that Angkor Wat really belonged to Thailand sparked mob attacks on the Thai embassy and Thai businesses in Phnom Penh. Cars were torched at the Thai embassy and diplomats had to run for their lives, climbing over a back wall to escape.

Thailand’s ‘official nationalism’ today is a hybrid of ‘royal nationalisms’—a term coined by Thai historian Thongchai Winichakul, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin - and professor Charnvit’s ‘military-bureaucratic nationalism’.

Thaksin is pitting his own popularity against the nationalist feelings of many Thais by taking up Hun Sen’s offer to become his economic adviser.

Things cooled somewhat after Thaksin left Cambodia on November 14 but the latest episode has galvanised efforts to bring him home to face trial.

Thailand said on November 16 it had passed information to the United Arab Emirates proving that the fugitive billionaire is living in Dubai. (By Nirmal Ghosh in Bangkok/ The Straits Times/ Asia News Network)

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