- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 14, 2009

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia | Thailand said Friday it would not be provoked into violence in its diplomatic tussle with Cambodia over fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, even as the ousted leader taunted the Bangkok government by meeting with political supporters in the neighboring country.

Mr. Thaksin’s visit to Thailand’s doorstep has highlighted his ability to command headlines in his homeland and destabilize its politics, even three years after he lost power and fled into exile.

Dozens of opposition politicians and other Thaksin supporters drove across the border into Cambodia to meet with the ousted leader, irritating Thailand’s government, which considers him a convicted criminal and a threat to its power.

Mr. Thaksin’s warm welcome in Cambodia has strained already uneasy bilateral relations.

On Thursday, Cambodia expelled a senior Thai diplomat and arrested a Thai employee of Cambodia Air Traffic Services - which manages flights in the country - for purportedly stealing Mr. Thaksin’s flight schedule and giving it to the diplomat.

Mr. Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire, was ousted by a 2006 military coup. He fled Thailand last year to avoid imprisonment on a corruption charge and now spends most of his time in the Arab emirate of Dubai.

Mr. Thaksin “is using a helping hand from a neighboring country as a tool to overthrow the monarchy and the Thai government,” Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said Friday in Bangkok.

Mr. Thaksin’s political battle with the Thai government - which came to power this year after months of protests aimed at removing the former leader’s allies from power - has bitterly divided his country.

He accuses Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of having taken control by undemocratic means. Mr. Thaksin remains hugely popular among the rural poor, who have staged frequent rallies calling for his return to power, but he is reviled by many in the educated urban elite.

Mr. Abhisit said Friday that Cambodia’s expulsion of the Thai diplomat was intended to provoke a “violent response” from his government, but that he would respond peacefully.

“The Thai government didn’t fall for their trick,” he told reporters in Bangkok.

Mr. Thaksin was named an adviser to Cambodia’s government on economic affairs last week, causing Thailand to recall its ambassador, with Cambodia following suit. On Wednesday, Cambodia rejected a Thai request for Mr. Thaksin’s arrest, saying he was being prosecuted for political reasons.

Nationalist passions have been running high on both sides of the border since Thailand opposed Cambodia’s bid to have an ancient temple designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Preah Vihear temple was awarded to Cambodia by the World Court in 1962, but some land around it remains in dispute.

Both countries deployed troops to the border over the dispute, leading to skirmishes that left at least seven soldiers dead.

Cambodia on Friday withdrew 1,000 special forces troops from the disputed border area, though others remained.

“We are withdrawing our forces because we want Thailand to understand that Cambodia wants the border of the two countries to stay peaceful and for the area to be developed for the sake of both countries,” deputy commander in chief Lt. Gen. Chea Tara said.

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