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Suthep playing with Cambodian fire

Rash and unjustified claims that foreigners are behind attacks on protesters could damage relations with our neighbour

It is too risky and dangerous for the anti-government protesters in Bangkok to politicise foreign relations, notably those with neighbouring Cambodia.

Talking gibberish on protest stages might play well to the local audience, but these speeches reach much further thanks to international media coverage.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who supposedly knows Cambodia well, has claimed that the killing of Suthin Tharatin as part of a campaign to disrupt advance voting in Bang Na was carried out by a Cambodian special-operations unit.

Suthep failed to offer any actual evidence, instead launching rash allegations against a neighbouring country to conceal the protesters' political mistake in turning against democracy.

Suthep is not the first person to point the finger at Cambodia in a bid to conceal the protest's missteps. Navy Special Warfare Commander Winai Klom-in had previously claimed that Cambodians had been smuggled into Thailand to target the protesters. As a senior officer in the military, Winai has no business either interfering in the protests or blackening Cambodia's name. Unfortunately his men had earlier been discovered mingling with the protesters, their mission unclear. The subsequent attempt to divert attention to Cambodia backfired on the protest.

Cambodian authorities have not allowed these unfair allegations to damage their good relations with Thailand. Cambodia's Foreign Ministry immediately slammed the statements as foolish propaganda employed by Thai nationalists for selfish political purposes.

A senior and seasoned politician like Suthep, who was a Cabinet minister from 2008 to 2011, should know well that relations with Phnom Penh have been seriously damaged by internal political conflict in Bangkok.

The Democrat Party and the yellow-shirt People's Alliance for Democracy sought political gain by whipping up public sentiment against Cambodia during protests against the government of Samak Sundaravej in 2008. Back then, senior members of the Democrat Party entertained protesters with slanders against Cambodia, just as Suthep is doing now.

The nationalist gibberish came back to haunt the Democrat-led government when it had to negotiate with Phnom Penh over the Preah Vihear Temple territory dispute. The Phnom Penh leadership never had good relations with that Democrat-led government. That fact no doubt contributed to the two countries' failure to settle their territorial conflict and Cambodia's decision to take the case to the world court.

The International Court of Justice ruled on Preah Vihear in November, but the issue is still far from over. The two countries must undertake many tasks to comply with the judgement. But the caretaker government under Yingluck Shinawatra has been stripped of its mandate to solve the problem due to the domestic political conflict. And, with the result of Thailand's election uncertain, Yingluck might have lost her chance to handle the Preah Vihear case altogether. Instead, we could see Suthep or his former Democrat Party colleagues installed in power and thereby in position to talk with Cambodia about the issue.

History might yet repeat itself. Suthep and the protest leaders must not burn their bridges with Cambodia. They might need them someday.


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