Sunday, December 13, 2009

Thaksin back in Cambodia as Thai "spy" to be freed

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra returned to Cambodia on Sunday, a month after a visit that sparked a diplomatic row when the Cambodian government refused Bangkok's request to extradite him.
Thailand's fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra (L) is embraced by a supporter as he greets red-shirted supporters at a hotel in Siem Reap November 12, 2009. (REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea/Files)

Thaksin came to Phnom Penh in November to take up a job as economic adviser to the Cambodian government, a move that fuelled fears of further political instability in Thailand since it gave him a base over the border for his campaign to unseat the Thai government.

The episode led to a Thai engineer working for Cambodian air traffic control being found guilty of spying for leaking Thaksin's flight details to the Thai embassy.

Siwarak Chutipongse, 31, was pardoned last week after a request to Cambodia's king from Thaksin and others, according to a Cambodian minister speaking at the time, and Thaksin went immediately to see Sirawak on his arrival on Sunday.

He travelled to the prison where Sirawak is being held, before his release on Monday, in a police-escorted convoy of 14 vehicles.

"I am very happy that Thaksin, who is economic adviser to the government, and Prime Minister Hun Sen, helped to release my client," Siwarak's lawyer, Khieu Sambo, told journalists outside the prison.

Thaksin was ousted by the military in 2006 and later sentenced to jail in absentia on conflict of interest charges.


Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said Siwarak would be officially freed on Monday at Hun Sen's residence.

He told Reuters that Thaksin had not had a direct role in Siwarak's release and that the billionaire former telecoms tycoon would hold economic seminars this week with Cambodian officials.

"He is going to be released because of humanitarian reasons and because his mother requested a royal pardon," Siphan said, adding this was a sign Cambodia's government wanted good relations with the Thai nation.

Last Tuesday a court had jailed Siwarak for seven years for breaching national security by passing on Thaksin's flight schedule to a Thai diplomat, who was subsequently expelled.

Siwarak's arrest last month prompted Cambodia to take temporary control of Thai-operated Cambodia Air Traffic Services (CATS) and suspend Thai expatriates at the company.

The two countries were already at odds over an ancient temple on a disputed stretch of their border, the scene of deadly clashes over the past 18 months.

Critics have dismissed Thaksin's visit and his involvement in the pardon as publicity stunts to rile the Thai government.

Hun Sen has openly given his backing to the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai party in Thailand and calls Thaksin his "eternal friend", who he says is the victim of a vendetta by powerful opponents.

The extradition issue and Cambodia's offer of a home and a job to Thaksin led to the recall and expulsion of diplomats and the freezing of bilateral agreements, including a pact to jointly develop untapped energy reserves in the Gulf of Thailand.

Despite the pardon, there has been no move by either side to restore diplomatic relations.

(Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Charles Dick)

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