Monday, November 9, 2009

Banana Republic Politics?

For those of you who don’t know we are not talking about the apparel brand, by the way. Before relative stability entered Latin American politics, let’s not mention Honduras for the moment, the many coup d’états by the military in Latin America led people to call them Banana Republics, implying these countries were good at farming bananas but not at Western-style politics.

The Thaksin spat between Cambodia and Thailand certainly reminds one of that era in the Western hemisphere. However, what appears as gamesmanship on the surface on second look turns out to be a calculated maneuver on Hun Sen’s part.

Although Thaksin and Hun Sen seem to enjoy a friendly personal relationship, there were no great efforts to openly assist Thaksin after he was overthrown in 2006. His government’s legacy was that they had acceded to Preah Vihear being a Khmer World Heritage Site and there was practically no border dispute that seemed irresolvable at the time. For that, he was appreciated, but that was about all – yeah, he promised a huge Koh Kong development after that, but Cambodia has heard many promises from many people in the last decade.

This all changed once Preah Vihear was officially declared a Khmer site. The border issue bubbled back up full force again at the same time. We all know what happened after that.

Legally, it appears, Cambodia is in safe waters, so why hasn’t the government pressed their arguments more forcefully in their negotiations with the Thai government? Whenever the Cambodians indicated they might bring the issue up at the UN or even the International Court in The Hague, the Thais emphasized this is a problem that must be solved bilaterally. ASEAN obviously is no great help in that matter either. No tangible progress has been accomplished so far - so why that endless patience with the Thai counterparts?

An important factor is that Abhisit will soon face elections. One political analyst summed it up nicely when he said, “Hun Sen and other Cambodian leaders are likely aware of the anger that Thaksin’s arrival here will elicit from Abhisit’s government, but may be playing the two sides of Thailand’s intensely polarized domestic politics against one another. The Cambodian government may foresee that the pro-Thaksin group will win the next election in Thailand, so by then all border issues will be solved, and friendship will be rebuilt.” (Chheang Vannarith in the Phnom Penh Post).

Hun Sen’s maneuver, which many thought foolish at the beginning, might just play out that way. Although Abhisit gained substantially in the polls after the recall of the ambassadors, in the medium term his inability to rein in a ‘small, weak’ neighbor will cost him dearly within his own PAD movement, and Thaksin with his wide popularity in rural Thailand is just the right person to help Hun Sen resolve the ‘Thai problem’. Sam Rainsy’s remarks that the government just wants to divert attention from the pressing economic problems and the Eastern border issues are again characteristic for him and off the mark altogether in this chess game.

Hun Sen’s reasoning that Thaksin is for all intents and purposes a political refugee cannot be dismissed out of hand. Thaksin was elected fair and square, although the fair may have been a little tarnished. He was later overthrown in a military coup. The resultant conviction of corruption and tax evasion might or might not have been politically motivated. Who’s to know? In normal democracies, prime ministers or presidents are impeached if they commit crimes while in office, or they have to face a vote of no confidence. A coup d’état is illegal under any constitution. Strictly speaking, the present Thai government is illegitimate since it was the indirect result of a coup. Never mind, that Thaksin’s successor party – the People’s Power Party - won the election that had been called by the military junta; but then the party was disbanded by the court for election fraud. Let’s face it; Thai politics are as murky as those in a banana republic. Abhisit’s statement that the appointment of Thaksin was an insult to the Thai judicial system sounds hollow and hypocritical. Of course, the Thai government was recognized by virtually every nation, so the illegitimacy is somewhat moot. The fact that Thaksin is sought by international warrant won’t change his popularity with the Thai population. If he were to return to Thailand under pardon from the King (very unlikely) all bets are that he would win the elections hands down.

If, in fact, he will come to Cambodia as appears more than likely, that warrant would need to be carried out by the Cambodian police. As a fellow blogger noted Cambodia is a member of Interpol and would have to execute the warrant. Regardless of the Interpol membership, national jurisdiction supersedes any warrant issued by a foreign government. That’s is why there are bi- and multi-lateral extradition agreements in place. And in Cambodia what Hun Sen says counts.

No comments: