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Thai-Cambodia Dispute Raises Nationalist Sentiment in Bangkok

Thai-Cambodia Dispute Raises Nationalist Sentiment in Bangkok
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The dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over a visit to Phnom Penh by Thailand's former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, is drawing Thais to the streets. The visit has prompted an anti-Thaksin rally in Bangkok, and there are expectations of more protests.

A crowd of around 15,000 people listens to nationalist songs and speeches attacking former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

They gathered in a Bangkok park Sunday to protest Mr. Thaksin's arrival in Cambodia last week, and Phnom Penh's rejection of Bangkok's request to extradite him.

Mr. Thaksin fled Thailand last year to avoid a two-year prison sentence on corruption charges. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has appointed Mr. Thaksin as his economic adviser, calls the charges politically motivated.

Dispute worsens

The issue has worsened a dispute over an ancient temple just on the Cambodian side of the border, and is raising nationalist feeling in Bangkok.

Sondhi Limthongkul, leader of the anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy, says Sunday's rally supported the Thai government's diplomatic efforts to ease the tensions.

"It's something all the Thais who love our King want to come out and show the support to the government in responding to Mr. Hun Sen's and Mr. Thaksin's collaboration to sabotage Thailand," Sondhi said. "So all of us are coming out in real support and show our spiritual support peacefully."

A short time after Sondhi gave this interview, a small explosive went off near the stage as he was speaking, injuring several people. News reports say one man was arrested in connection with the blast.

Patriotism is motivator

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Nat Yontarak, a musician and teacher, says patriotism brought people to the rally, where paper flags were abundant.

"People feel we need to show the power that we really love the country and the dignity and our pride of our country because what Thaksin has been doing is really unacceptable," Nat said. "This time with Cambodia, with Hun Sen it's too much, it's really ridiculous."

This woman, who gave her name as Suchada, calls Mr. Thaksin disloyal for going to Cambodia.

"This situation, yes [Thaksin] come to Cambodia," Suchada said. "I think he's not a Thai. But the story is he to destroy the Thailand. He don't love the Thailand, he's not a Thai."

Some demonstrators said they attended because they were angry at comments about the monarchy that Mr. Thaksin made in a British newspaper interview. The monarchy is the country's most beloved institution and little criticism of it is tolerated.

Will dispute lead to military conflict?

The dispute has raised concerns in Southeast Asia, and there are fears that it could end in military conflict. The two sides have exchanged gunfire near the disputed temple on a few occasions in the past year.

Officials in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Cambodia and Thailand are both members, have urged them to settle the dispute quickly. And Indonesia has offered to mediate.

Recent political polls show a surge in popularity for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government because of Mr. Thaksin's visit to Cambodia.

Long term effects unclear

But Chris Baker, an author and commentator on Thai politics, says the long-term effect of the visit is less clear. Mr. Thaksin, ousted in a coup in 2006, maintains strong support among the urban and rural poor and working class. The urban middle class accuses Mr. Thaksin of corruption and authoritarianism.

"Superficially, it looks as if Thaksin has lost badly to identify yourself with a rather unpopular neighbor, it's not good," Baker said. "So I think things have hardened against him. But I'm not really sure whether for many of his core supporters that may not matter too much at all. Perhaps by making himself so visible in the media for several days at a time he's actually revived his position a little bit."

Baker says the question is now whether Mr. Abhisit's Democrat Party will try to press the political advantage by spurring nationalist sentiment.

"The issue is now how does he [Abhisit] sustain that [advantage] or does he want to sustain that? Does it mean that this government now has to play this nationalist card very hard and very constanstly and that of course would be very dangerous," Baker said.

But Baker says he expects the cross-border dispute to ease "quite quickly" and that the Democrat Party will "lapse back" into trying to work with its neighbor to resolve the temple dispute.

However, in Thailand, political analysts warn that domestic divisions could worsen in the weeks ahead as Mr. Thaksin's supporters hold rallies.

Over the past two years, massive rallies of Mr. Thaksin's supporters and opponents have at times paralyzed Bangkok. In April, pro-Thaksin rallies turned violent and a year ago, anti-Thaksin forces closed the country's main international airport for a week, stranding tens of thousands of travellers at the start of the peak tourism season.