Detained Thais become pawns in political game

SPECIAL REPORT: Academics believe border case is being exploited by groups

Emotions are running high over the case of seven Thais on trial for allegedly trespassing – and spying, in the case of two of them – on Cambodian soil.

Various groups are subscribing to different beliefs. They are making noises but, collectively, have failed to present a logical argument over the issue.

Charnvit Kasetsiri, a retired historian and pioneer of Southeast Asian studies in the country, said two things are worrying about the case.

First is the issue of border demarcation, which demands technical expertise and cooperation. It has become so politicised that it will be difficult to bring it back into the right framework.

Second, the seven Thai detainees have become political hostages in the eyes of some citizen groups in both countries.

“The whole case has been blown out of proportion and become so complicated that it will be very difficult to solve,” Mr Charnvit said. “Eventually, the border problem must be brought back to the legal and technical framework, but for now the problem is political and must be solved by political means.”

He said he does not believe the ongoing protest by the Thai Patriots Network will achieve anything for the seven Thais.

“It’s more of a way for the group to express their political standpoint,” Mr Charnvit said.

Boonruang Katchama, a former lecturer at Surindra Rajabhat University who has worked on border issues, agreed that protesting was “hardly a way to help the seven Thais under arrest or to resolve conflicts over land demarcation”.

“In the case of the seven Thais, there is no other way but to let diplomacy and the Foreign Ministry do their best,” Mr Boonruang said.

He said both countries need to be more diligent in working towards clearing up the land demarcation issue. Both sides seem to want to try to settle the border issue only when there is an election pending, he said.

For longer-term relations, Thailand must work harder in terms of cultural exchanges with Cambodia.

“Here in Surin, we have a language studies programme in which we send our teachers to teach the Thai language in Cambodia and they send their teachers to teach the Cambodian language here,” Mr Boonruang said. “This type of cooperation will build a lasting relationship and reduce conflicts and paranoia.”

Suchao Nongmeewa, director of the Mekong Studies Centre at Ubon Ratchathani Rajabhat University, agreed with the use of culture as a bridge between the two neighbours.

“Mixing politics, history and ideology in international relations, which evidently is what is happening in the case of the seven Thais, will only widen conflicts as these are not issues in which countries can find common ground,” Mr Suchao said.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, said that although the latest protest by the Thai Patriots Network (TPN), which he called an extremist wing of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, has been met with relative silence from society at large, their provocation is still disturbing.

“The TPN is engaging in a provocation that is an equivalent to the PAD’s takeover of Government House and Bangkok’s airports in 2008,” he said. “It is bringing Thailand to the brink, hogging the headlines, beating war drums.”

For Mr Thitinan, the nationalistic card being played out is for political gain.

“This is an old issue even if the TPN’s claims are true. Raising it now suggests they want to bring down the government and create conditions for political change that could play in their favour,” he said.

Mr Thitinan’s opinion speaks volumes: “Why is the TPN making all the noises while the PAD appears to be lending some but not complete support? Does the TPN’s involvement in the Thai-Cambodian spat betray internal politics within the yellow-shirt movement?

“The PAD is fragmented but its broad aim is still unified in destabilising the government, stirring up trouble and maintaining friction.”

He said that after their initial anti-Thaksin alliance during the 2006 coup, the PAD felt betrayed by the Democrat Party and the Abhisit government because it has received little in return for its instrumental role in overthrowing the Thaksin administration.

“The PAD and its militant offshoot TPN are a political monster that has been fostered by the powers-that-be. I’m curious to see what the powers-that-be will do in reaction,” he said.

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