Thaksin and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra joined Hun Sen’s birthday party at his residence in Takhmao, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on August 5, 2023.
The simultaneous presence of former Thai Prime Ministers, Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, in Cambodia on August 5th, served as more than just a personal visit to celebrate the birthday of strongman Hun Sen. Experts believe it conveyed a significant message to the newly established government in Bangkok.
Photographs capturing the joyful festivities at Hun Sen's residence in Takhmao, situated on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, were widely shared by Cambodia's local media outlet, Fresh News. These images highlighted the close-knit connections between the Shinawatra family and the Cambodian political circle.
During the gathering, Thaksin was observed engaging in conversation with Hun Sen's eldest son, Hun Manet. On August 7th, just two days after the celebratory occasion, Hun Manet was appointed as prime minister by King Norodom Sihamoni. This came after the Cambodian People's Party secured a substantial victory in the July 23rd election, claiming 120 out of 125 seats in the House of Representatives. Hun Manet succeeded his father, Hun Sen, who had held the country's leadership since 1985.
Thaksin's participation alongside the Hun Sen family made headlines, particularly as he was spotted in Phnom Penh shortly after announcing a delay in his return to Thailand following a self-imposed exile spanning 15 years. The decision to delay his return appeared to be influenced by the unsettled political landscape in Thailand. His Pheu Thai Party was grappling with forming a new coalition and vigorously working to gain support for its prime ministerial candidate. While Thaksin cited medical reasons for the postponement, his daughter Paetongtarn had initially announced his intended return to Thailand on August 10th, which created added intrigue.
Historically, the close affiliation between these two political families had cast a shadow over bilateral relations between Cambodia and Thailand. Notably, tensions escalated when Hun Sen appointed Thaksin as his economic advisor in 2009, a move that defied Bangkok. This occurred while the Thai government, led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, was actively seeking Thaksin's extradition on corruption charges. The relationship soured even further due to border disputes, particularly regarding the Preah Vihear temple's UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, which heightened territorial disagreements.
The recent gathering in Cambodia, therefore, carries implications that extend beyond a simple celebratory occasion, underscoring the intricate interplay between regional politics and personal connections in Southeast Asia.
The Cambodian government stated that the participation of Thaksin and Yingluck in Hun Sen's 72nd birthday celebrations was purely a private affair, unrelated to the bilateral relationship between the two nations.
"Prime Minister Hun Sen has already clarified this matter with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and other senior Thai officials. He sought their understanding regarding his personal friendship with Thaksin and Yingluck. They have openly acknowledged their close relationship, which is entirely separate from political considerations."
Sending a Definitive Signal?
Nevertheless, a different perspective emerged from a Thai expert. The former Thai prime minister, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006, seemingly conveyed to Bangkok's establishment elite that Thailand's relations with Cambodia would not pose a challenge if his proxy — the Pheu Thai Party — gained power. This perspective comes from Ukrist Pathmanand, a professor of Asian studies at Chulalongkorn University.
Thaksin's presence alongside Hun Sen and General Hun Manet clearly illustrated that the former prime minister still possessed charisma and influence in the neighboring country, Pathmanand asserted.
"It conveyed a clear message [to the Thai elite] that the Pheu Thai Party would be better equipped to manage relations with Cambodia smoothly, surpassing the less favored progressive Move Forward Party, which Hun Sen seemed to disapprove of, or even the government led by Prayut, whose connection with Hun Sen lacked any distinctiveness," stated Ukrist in an interview with Thai PBS World.
Positive diplomatic ties between Thailand and Cambodia could facilitate the revival of discussions aimed at jointly exploiting natural gas reserves estimated to exceed 1 trillion baht in value in the Gulf of Thailand. Despite ongoing negotiations over the past decade, these talks have been hindered by recurrent political disruptions in Thailand, according to industry sources.
In June 2001, during Thaksin's tenure as prime minister, Thailand and Cambodia signed a memorandum of understanding concerning their overlapping maritime claims to the continental shelf. Despite numerous rounds of negotiations, little headway has been made, with further disruptions occurring after the rise of the yellow-shirt anti-Thaksin movement, culminating in the military coup of 2006. Subsequent protests against the Yingluck government led to another coup in 2014.
The Energy Dividend
Pichai Naripthaphan, Vice Chairman of the Pheu Thai Party's Strategic Committee, outlined that if his party succeeded in forming a new government, their objective would be to engage in negotiations with Cambodia to alleviate energy shortages.
Pichai, who held the position of energy minister in the Yingluck government, noted that Prayut's administration, which assumed power following the ousting of Yingluck in the 2014 coup, was expected to initiate talks but struggled to convince Cambodia to return to the negotiation table.
"Time cannot be wasted. If the Pheu Thai Party can establish a government, we will certainly resume discussions aimed at jointly exploiting natural gas within overlapping claims areas, for the mutual benefit of both countries," he conveyed to local media, Thai PBS World.
Source: Kmher Times