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Trial Opens in Cambodia for Thai Nationals

  • Ron Corben

Thai 'Yellow Shirt' activist Veera Somkwamkid (L) and Thai Democrat Party lawmaker Panich Vikitsreth (R) walk at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, 6 Jan 2011

Thai 'Yellow Shirt' activist Veera Somkwamkid (L) and Thai Democrat Party lawmaker Panich Vikitsreth (R) walk at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, 6 Jan 2011

A Cambodian court has begun hearings into the cases of seven Thais arrested last month for illegally entering the country. Some political analysts say the episode raises questions over the government’s close ties with nationalist group, the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

The Thais, including a member of parliament, were brought before a judge Thursday in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. They were detained December 29 after crossing into Cambodia.

If found guilty of illegal entry and entering a military area, the seven could face jail terms of up to 18 months.

The leader, Panich Vikitsreth, is a member of the Democrat Party of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Among those arrested was Veera Somkwamkid, a former leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, and of the Thailand Patriot Network, an offshoot of the PAD. Veera was briefly detained last year in the same area but was quickly sent back to Thailand.

The Thailand Patriot Network says Cambodian nationals occupy Thai territory along the border in Sa Kaeo province, 245 kilometers from Bangkok.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, says the evidence indicates a deliberate crossing into Cambodia.

"The videos, the evidence so far and the statements from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs - including senior officials - suggest that the seven Thais who have been arrested did indeed cross over into Cambodian territory," Thitinan said. "But what it says about the Patriotic Thais or the Patriot Thai Network is that it is intent on stirring up trouble."

In video clips posted on the Internet, Panich is seen speaking on a mobile phone, saying he crossed into Cambodia and asks that Abhisit’s secretary be told.

Thitinan says the incident points to the PAD’s influence on the Abhisit government. The PAD played a key role in protests that led to a military coup to oust former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006.

And in 2008 PAD demonstrators shut down Bangkok’s airports and occupied the prime minister’s office building, until court rulings removed two pro-Thaksin governments.

After that, parliamentary maneuvering brought Abhisit to power. Thitinan says those ties to the PAD are now hurting the government.

"This is a reminder that the liability from having been so closely tied to the PAD has come back to haunt and boomerang against the Democrat Party and the Abhisit government. It shows also that the government does not seem to know what its doing," Thitinan said.

The arrests have hurt efforts to improve relations with Cambodia. Ties had deteriorated after Thaksin visited Cambodia in 2009. He faces corruption charges at home and lives abroad.

Thai foreign ministry officials said the Phnom Penh court Thursday completed hearings for three of the detainees. More hearings must be held before a verdict is handed down.

The Thai government says it is working to get the seven released and sent home.