Looking at Cambodian-Thai relations: changes after the elections in Thailand?

First of all: After having been away for Cambodia for about a month and not writing much – I am happy to be back since two days ago.

Transiting through Thailand on the way back provided me also with easy access to English language newspaper comments after last Sunday’s elections. Of course, most such information is also available on the Internet. But I might not have gotten the same impression I got when I saw a big letter headline on the 5 July 2011 front page of The Nation:

No reds in the new Cabinet

The text itself, however, is not so sure:

Pheu Thai source: Party doesn’t want image to be tainted; Yingluck joins hands with Chart Thai Pattana, Chart Pattana Puea Pandin, Palang Chon and Mahachon.

There will be no red-shirt leaders in a new Cabinet to be headed by Pheu Thai Party’s would-be prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, according to a party source.

However, Yingluck herself has not ruled out the possibility. The Pheu Thai source implied that the party should not allow red-shirt leaders to taint its hard-earned positive image.

“The image of this new Cabinet must be very good because there are high public expectations. We have grown a tree and should not let anything destroy it,” the source said after Yingluck announced a Pheu Thai-led coalition yesterday.

In spite of the fact that the Pheu Thai Party got 264 of the 500 seats in parliament – more than half – the party entered into coalitions with several other parties, to boost the number of seats up to 299. And while there are also voices saying that with this majority of seats, it should be easy to pass an amnesty law so that the self-exiled former leader of the party, Thaksin Shinawatra, can return, who has regularly participated publicly in political events by video-conferences, speaking to thousand of supporters. But again, Yingluck Shinawatra, who is now with all probability going to be the first female prime minister of Thailand, has been considerate and careful: the new government’s first task would be to press ahead with a plan to foster national reconciliation.

An amnesty for a larger number of red-shirt demonstrators is one thing – an amnesty to undo a corruption conviction with a two years jail term is another one. The valuable public land in Bangkok, sold to the wife of the (former) prime minister with favorable conditions, remains “privatized.” So Yingluck Shinawatra said it may take at least two years before such a question can be taken up. The main problem is not that only some politicians were confronting each other. There is a deep confrontation separating two big sections of society, in some ways leading to deep mistrust and hate.

There are now a number of lists circulating in the Thai media: the most important five or ten point for the new government. I have not seen that Cambodia is mentioned in any of these lists of those who won the elections.

An article in The Cambodia Daily of 2-3 July 2011 points to another perspective: Domestic Politics in Thailand Affect Cambodia’s Future. Pou Sothirak, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, writes:

…for the Thai politicians, the Preah Vihear temple and the surrounding land are among the top electoral issues featured on the platform of the Democrat Party, which hopes to exploit and leverage it in order to do well in the Sunday elections. They hope to demonstrate that the government of Thailand never cedes any territory to Cambodia.

The Democrat Party lost its position in government as a result of the elections.

It is again a situation where probably quite some time has to pass before agreements, and the marking of the border line with Cambodia, will get high enough on the new Thai government’s priority lists – and then the question will come up again: whether the populist trends of the red shirt movement, which was an important booster for the Pheu Thai Party, will easily accept any border settlement which seems to accommodate not only Cambodian, but also Thai interests. So far peaceful, mutual agreements, could not be reached.

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