When Yingluck Shinawatra was elected prime minister of Thailand in July, I argued this development was likely to ameliorate tensions that had developed over the years between Thailand and Cambodia. Between allegations of espionage levelled by Phnom Penh against the government of former Thai Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva and the recurrent violent military clashes over the ancient temple ruins of Preah Vihear, relations between the two countries seemed earlier this year to be at their lowest ebb in some time.
But Yingluck’s selection may have changed things. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was quick to announce that the election results in Thailand signalled a ‘new era of cooperation’ between the two countries. Relations between Phnom Penh and Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra were quite warm, and remained so even after Thaksin’s overthrow, when he briefly served as an economic consultant for Hun Sen.
Yingluck’s visit to Phnom Penh this month reflects the potential of this new era. The two heads of state held what has been described by Cambodian Information Minister Khieu Kanharith as a ‘fruitful’ meeting, one in which both parties agreed to a host of bilateral discussions and negotiations on issues ranging from trade and investment, to the border dispute and the fate of two Thai nationals held in a Cambodian prison on allegations of spying.
Still, back in Thailand, the fighting talk from the opposition camp of the Democrat Party is evidence that there are still segments of Thailand’s domestic political system that begrudge Hun Sen’s perceived favouritism. ‘The Cambodian premier is violating the ASEAN charter by intervening in Thailand’s internal affairs,’ said Democrat MP and former Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya. Hun Sen ‘held a reception for a fugitive instead of cooperating with Thai authorities by bringing that person back to face justice in his own country,’ Piromya added. The ‘fugitive’ whom the MP is referring to is, of course, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was convicted of graft in absentia in 2008.
But if the Democrats decide to make Yingluck’s foreign policy an issue – especially vis-à-vis Cambodia – they will likely find themselves clutching at straws. The election during the summer was effectively a repudiation of failed neoliberal economic policies favoured by the Bangkok elite. But Abhisit’s foreign policy wasn’t particularly effective either; his botched handling of the Preah Vihear dispute was augmented by a ruling by the International Court of Justice that upheld an earlier adjudication that the temple ruins do indeed fall under Cambodian sovereignty.
Trounced in an election where the poor, rural majority executed their game plan of class warfare against the ruling elite, the Democrats are now trying to make foreign policy a major issue. But if Yingluck’s early success in Cambodia is any indication, this may be an imprudent strategy as well.
Tim LaRocco is a graduate student of international relations at The City College of New York. He has travelled throughout the developing world, including stints as a volunteer worker in the Public Parks Department in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and as a researcher for the South African Human Rights Commission in Cape Town. He currently lives in Long Island, New York.