Thursday, August 26, 2010

Was the Thaksin gambit worth it?

Back in late 2009, tension between Thailand’s Red Shirt faction and the Thai government was building dramatically, as were tensions between Cambodia and Thailand over the disputed border area around Preah Vihear. The Thai Red Shirt/Yellow Shirt conflict was born of the 2006 military coup in Thailand in which Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was forced from office and the later legal dissolution of the subsequent pro-Thaksin government, leaving Thaksin’s supporters, i.e. the Red Shirts, disaffected and Thaksin a wanted fugitive. It also gave rise to the Yellow Shirts, i.e. the Royalist/anti-Thaksin faction, thus creating the political instability and conflict that continues in Thailand to this day. The current tension between Cambodia and Thailand at Preah Vihear is connected to this political instability in Thailand - a decades old territorial dispute between the two countries which is being exacerbated anew by Thai nationalists attempting to exploit it for internal political purposes. It was in the midst of these rising tensions in November 2009 that Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen chose to very publicly and ceremoniously appoint former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as an ‘Economic Advisor’ to the highest level of the Cambodian government.

When Thaksin was appointed an economic advisor, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared him an “eternal friend” and the Cambodian government claimed that it was a purely practical and internal matter designed to take advantage of Thaksin’s unique knowledge and experience to assist Cambodia navigate difficult economic times. After all, Thaksin is a multi-billionaire telecommunications mogul and former head of state of a Southeast Asian nation. A starry and relevant CV to be sure. But most observers saw more than mere practicality in this new embrace. His appointment seemed an obvious jab at the Thai government where he was a wanted fugitive and the central figure behind the anti-government Red Shirts. The Thai government was predictably infuriated, so much so that it severed diplomatic relations with Cambodia, greatly increasing tensions between the two countries. Many observers suggested that a slap at Thailand was the entire point of the Thaksin exercise – to thumb noses at Thailand, to show that even though Cambodia might not be able to match Thailand militarily at Preah Vihear, it still, at the very least, had the ability to get their goat. You could almost hear the snickering coming from Takhmau.

Since then much water has passed under the bridge, especially in Thailand. Back in late 2009 Economic Advisor Thaksin gave a couple of speeches in Cambodia, attended one or two rubber chicken luncheons and then buggered off to other parts of the world to attend to his own troubled situation. Meanwhile in Thailand the Red Shirt confrontation with the government was building to a nasty head. Protests formed in Bangkok and then dragged on for months. The city was all but paralyzed. It was rumored (though untrue) that Thaksin was in Cambodia waiting to return to Thailand in triumph when the Red Shirts broke the government. The protests in Bangkok then exploded into a violent and ugly climax – riots, bombings, arsons, dozens of deaths, a city in flames, with Thaksin’s Red Shirts far less than the innocents in it all. They ultimately caught the losing end and scattered back to the countryside from whence most of them came, not broken but certainly far worse for the wear. With Bangkok trashed and smoldering, the Red Shirts and by proxy Thaksin lost a lot of favor in the eyes of the region, the world and even many otherwise sympathetic Thais for the damage done.

Through it all Cambodia had surprisingly little to say about her formerly vaunted “eternal friend” and Economic Advisor. Tensions and rhetoric between the countries continued to rise over the border dispute at Preah Vihear but Thaksin became an unspoken sore point, all but unmentioned by Phnom Penh for months, until day before yesterday, when it was announced that Thaksin had resigned his position as Economic Advisor. The resignation was readily accepted (if not requested) by Cambodia and almost immediately thereafter (literally within hours) Cambodia and Thailand announced the resumption of normal diplomatic relations. The Thaksin episode had come to an unceremonious end.

Trying to make sense of the affair, yesterday’s Cambodia Daily (August 25, 2010) asked the question “Was the Thaksin Experiment Worth the Trouble?” This, in my opinion, is the wrong question, or at least a mischaracterization. The relationship with Thaksin was not an “experiment.” It was a gambit.

Most observers can agree that the appointment of Thaksin as an advisor to the government was not to be taken at face value. The Cambodian government did not appoint Thaksin and raise tensions with Thailand to the point of severing diplomatic relations simply because it wanted his wise words on attracting tourists and marketing rice. Many observers have suggested that the appointment was for the purpose of tweaking the Thais and scoring a few cheap political points in Cambodia. Political researcher Pavin Chachavalpongpun commented that from the start the appointment was “superficial, political and temporary” and that,

…the decision of Hun Sen to appoint (Thaksin) served the purpose of irritating and attacking the Thai leadership…Hun Sen was not only successful in using Thaksin to tarnish his opponents in Thailand but also gained some political points amongst his Cambodian supporters…(Cambodia Daily, August 25, 2010)

But this gives far too little credit to the strategic prowess of Prime Minister Hun Sen. While the Prime Minister is not above a bit of self-serving schoolyard antics, the predictable and very high price paid for the appointment of Thaksin belies a deeper purpose and a potentially greater payoff.

At the time of Thaksin’s appointment in Cambodia, Thailand was in a precarious and unstable political state. Thaksin’s Red Shirts represent a significant portion of the Thai population (perhaps even a majority,) which bears a valid political grievance. Their elected leader (Thaksin) had been removed from power by the most undemocratic means and they were arguably being deprived the proper democratic process to which they were entitled. Further, their complaints and cries for democracy were enjoying a certain degree of international support even outside the region. Back in late 2009/early 2010 the Red Shirts were trying to force new and unrestricted national elections in Thailand and at the time the outcome of that pressure was as yet unknown. If they had achieved this goal there was the very real possibility that a Thaksin sympathetic party or perhaps even Thaksin himself could have regained power.

On a different front, though it is beyond impolite to speak of such matters, and with all due respect, the King of Thailand is old and frail and likely not long for this world. When he passes, whether his son the heir apparent becomes king or there is political upheaval and some other faction achieves power, there is the significant possibility that those who gain control will be from a camp sympathetic to Thaksin.

It was these possible futures on which Hun Sen was betting when he appointed Thaksin an advisor and declared him an “eternal friend.” Thaksin regaining power may not have been the most likely possible future, but with Reds pushing hard for elections and the King in flagging health, it was still well within the realm of possibility and the potential payoff was significant. Far from forming some “superficial and temporary” relationship with Thaksin for short term political gain, Hun Sen was gambling on a possible future in which Thaksin would regain power and, by standing with Thaksin when he was down, Hun Sen was laying the groundwork for a deep and lasting relationship with a potential future key player if not leader of Thailand.

In retrospect, was the Thaksin gambit worth the trouble to Cambodia? Was the price paid in broken diplomatic relations and increased tensions worth the potential payoff of warm relations with a potential future key figure in the Thai leadership?

First it must be acknowledged that the gambit has probably been lost. The disastrous Bangkok riots have so soured the position of the Red Shirts and Thaksin that regardless of how the Red/Yellow conflict eventually plays out, it is unlikely that Thaksin will be able to return to Thailand in a position of power anytime in the foreseeable future. But a lost gambit is not necessarily one that should not have been made. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Though diplomatic relations with Thailand were temporarily broken, they have now been restored with smiles all around. And though the tensions at Preah Vihear have intensified, they may have anyway as this incarnation of the dispute is as much a toy of Thai internal politics as a product of Cambodian-Thai relations. Regardless, the intensification has not amounted to any actual significant military confrontation or loss of territory. In sum, for all of the ill words and poor relations of the last nine months, little or nothing material has been lost by Cambodia. On the other hand, even though not won, the potential payoff if Thaksin had regained power could have been monumental. And even though formal relations between Thaksin and Cambodia have ended, they appear to have done so on good terms. The positive feelings generated between Cambodia and the Thaksin camp still exist – a card in the hole should that camp achieve power at some later date.

All things considered, actual losses weighed against potential and real gains, the answer to the title question is ‘yes,’ whether there is ultimately a big payoff or not, the Thaksin gambit was worth it to Cambodia.

(I realize that my rendition of the Thai political situation is superficial. My purpose here was to analyze Cambodia’s relation to Thailand in regard to this specific episode, not to offer any great insights into Thai politics. My characterization of the Thai political situation, while comic book, is IMO sufficient to my point about Cambodia’s Thaksin gambit.)

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