Saturday, December 12, 2009

A pawn in the vicious political ball game


IF you are a pawn caught in the middle of a political dogfight between the Abhisit Vejjajiva-led government and the double team of Thaksin Shinawatra-Hun Sen, what will happen if you are caught in Cambodia passing Thaksin’s flight schedule to a Phnom Penh-based Thai diplomat?

Answer: The Phnom Penh Municipal Court will sentence you to seven years in jail and a fine of 10 million riels (about RM8,200).

Siwarak Chotipong, a 31-year-old Thai engineer working for the Thai-owned Cambodia Air Traffic Ser vices (Cats), was found guilty on Tuesday by a Cambodian court for espionage (stealing information relevant to Thaksin’s flight plan to Cambodia).

“Obtaining the flight schedule was very important for the Thai government, but it severely endangered Thaksin,” Judge Ke Sakhan said, reading the verdict against Siwarak. “It also affected the national security of Cambodia.”

Thaksin’s flight schedule was “sensitive information” as Thaksin is now a high-ranking Cambodian government adviser, said Phnom Penh court deputy prosecutor Sok Roeun.

“His flight schedule is not a simple document like a wedding invitation,” he said.

The court hearing was held as relations between the two neigbouring countries hit an all-time low.

Thailand withdrew its ambassador in Phnom Penh after Cambodia appointed Thaksin as economic adviser. And in retaliation, Cambodia recalled its ambassador in Bangkok.

The “sad truth” of the court verdict, according to the Bangkok Post in an editorial on Thursday, is Siwarak is “a mere pawn caught in the middle of a vicious political ball game between the Democrat-led government and Thaksin, with Hun Sen openly taking the latter’s side”.

“Therefore, it should not be surprising if the victim’s mother, Simarak na Nakhon Phanom, has opted to seek help from (Thaksin) and (the pro-Thaksin political party) Pheu Thai chairman General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, instead of the Thai Foreign Ministry in seeking a royal pardon from Cambodia for her convicted son,” editorialised the English-language Thai newspaper.

According to The Phnom Penh Post, a royal pardon was a likely scenario in the intensely politicised case.

It quoted Cambodian Centre for Human Rights president Ou Virak as saying that there were likely “politics being played behind the scenes” for Siwarak’s release.

Ou Virak said the case was a “major embarrassment” for Thai Prime Minister Vejjajiva and “it presented the opportunity for Hun Sen to either seek rapprochement with Abhisit or lend further support to Thaksin and Pheu Thai”.

“The question is: what message does the Cambodian side want to send, and which side are they going to pick?” Ou Virak said.

However, the Bangkok Post editorialised: “For now, it does not really matter which side will eventually get the credit for resolving this unfortunate human drama so long as the victim is brought home. What really matters and is indeed very disturbing, is that the ongoing political feud has become regionalised and gone many steps too far.”

But tell that to the Democrat, the backbone of Abhisit’s coalition government.

Democrat Party spokesman Thepthai Senpong was surprised that Simarak was seeking a royal pardon for her son through the opposition party Pheu Thai.

“I’m surprised by Simarak’s decision to help her son without asking for the Foreign Ministry’s assistance, because this is not in line with international practice,” he told the media. “I wonder if Thaksin, Chavalit and Hun Sen have more prominent roles than the Cambodian king.”

In politically-divided Thailand, Sirivak’s role in the diplomatic row, unsurprisingly, has taken a political dimension.

In a column called “Ask The Editors” in The Nation, an English-language Thai newspaper, Tulsathit Taptim wrote about the far-fetched theory that Siwarak was “in fact a (pro-Thaksin) red-shirted agent who was ‘planted’ as a Thai government spy so that he could be arrested on charges of espionage in order to embarrass Bangkok and allow Thaksin play a heroic saviour”.

“Those believing this theory have forgotten one key factor: Siwarak was allegedly acting in liaison with the Thai Embassy, which, appropriate or not, wanted him to find out what Thaksin was up to on his controversial arrival in Phnom Penh.

Without this embassy connection, it might have been plausible that Siwarak was a double-agent on a mission to humiliate the Thai government,” Tulsathit wrote.

Spy or not, Siwarak is clearly a pawn.

(Published in The Star on Dec 12, 2009)