Latest Pawn in the Thai-Cambodian Spat? Thaksin

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Chor Sokunthea / Reuters

Thailand's now former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, center, accompanied by Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, greets a Thai embassy official upon arrival at Phnom Penh International airport in 2006

The naming of an honorary economic advisor to a small Southeast Asian country doesn't usually make news. But Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's designation of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as his financial mentor on Wednesday has sparked an international ruckus, with both countries trading trans-border barbs and recalling their respective ambassadors.

Confused? Here's the background. After Thaksin was deposed in a 2006 bloodless military coup and sentenced in absentia to two years' imprisonment for a conflict of interest conviction — a verdict he disputes — the exiled billionaire tycoon maintained some friends in high places. One of those mates is Hun Sen, the quixotic Cambodian Prime Minister. The current Thai government is fiercely allergic to Thaksin — and Hun Sen's move last month to offer refuge to the controversial former leader drew strenuous criticism from Bangkok, both from government and local press circles.

But the Cambodian government didn't back down. Earlier this week, the Cambodian Ambassador to Thailand wrote an angry letter to the Nation, after the Thai daily published an editorial criticizing Hun's Sen's offer of refuge. The Cambodia emissary accused the Nation of having become a "vulgar newspaper [that has] lost its value as a newspaper of a civilized country." Just when tensions looked set to dissipate, Hun Sen announced on Nov. 4 that he was appointing a certain Thai as his economic advisor. Thaksin's conviction by a Thai court, opined Cambodian state T.V., was "politically motivated." The former Premier responded by announcing that he would be delighted to accept the position in order to keep "my brain sharp" — although he cautioned that the honorary position wouldn't be as fun as "working to help Thai people out of poverty."

Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs struck back quickly, releasing a statement characterizing Hun Sen's appointment "as [an] interference in Thailand's domestic affairs [that] puts personal interest and relations before the national interests of the two countries." The country's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva echoed the dissatisfaction: "The announcement by the Cambodian government harmed the Thai justice system and really affected Thai public sentiment."

The spat might be dismissed as a silly diplomatic row, but fatal battles between Thailand and Cambodia have been fought over other seemingly minor issues. Relations between the two neighbors have deteriorated markedly since last year because of a territorial dispute surrounding an ancient temple complex on their border. After weeks of nationalist rhetoric, the ill feeling over the Preah Vihear temple region culminated in gunfire, with a handful of soldiers killed in skirmishes. Attempts to dial down tensions have been viewed as cowardly acquiescence by some members of populaces historically conditioned to distrust each other. With the Thaksin imbroglio playing out, the border is now back on high alert.

Ironically, another nadir in Cambodian-Thai relations occurred back in 2003 when Cambodian protesters — armed with false information that a Thai actress had claimed Cambodia's national treasure, the ancient city and temple complex of Angkor Wat, as actually being Thai — burned down the Thai embassy in Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. The incensed Thai Prime Minister at the time? None other than Hun Sen's self-proclaimed "friend," Thaksin Shinawatra.