Thai Premier Says He Sent Panich to Border

Fellow party member was to investigate villager complaints

About 300 “yellow shirts” pro­tested again near the contentious Thai-Cambodia border yesterday, while Thai Prime Minister Abhi­sit Vejjajiva reportedly admitted that he had sent fellow party member Panich Vikitsreth to in­vestigate a complaint from villagers living near the border.

Mr Panich and six other Thais, including “yellow-shirt” activist Veera Somkwamkid, were arrested Dec 29 after crossing into Ban­teay Meanchey province and are now detained at Prey Sar prison, charged with illegal border cros­sing and unauthorized entry into a military zone.

Thai Deputy Prime Minister Sut­hep Thaugsuban said yesterday that he would consider an offer by fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra to “serve as an agent” in securing the Thais’ release, according to a re­port by the government’s Na­tional News Bureau of Thailand. Mr Thaksin is vigorously opposed by yellow shirts, and his appointment as economic adviser to the Cam­bodian government caused Thai­land to withdraw its ambassador in late 2009.

The Bangkok Post reported yes­terday that Mr Abhisit said he sent Mr Panich to the border but that he thought Mr Panich was going to Thailand’s Prachinburi province, not Sa Kaeo, to investigate a complaint from local villagers, who said they could no lon­ger make a living in the area. It did not elaborate on the complaint.

The Bangkok Post also reported that Mr Abhisit did not know with certainty if Mr Panich was in Cambodia when he made a telephone call documented in two video clips posted Sunday on the Internet. In one clip, Mr Panich gives instructions to inform Mr Abhisit that he and the other Thais had crossed into Cambodia, according to multiple Thai media outlets.

Thai officials in Bangkok were unavailable yesterday.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, suggested that Mr Abhisit might have made yesterday’s admission “to seek a compromise for release of the seven detainees.”

Although Mr Siphan said that neither Mr Thaksin nor anyone else could interfere in the court process, he said Prime Minister Hun Sen “has the privilege to make a request to the King for freeing them after a court conviction.”

Mr Siphan said this was a “golden opportunity” for yellow shirts to meet with Mr Hun Sen and request the Thai’s release.

About 300 yellow shirts protested yesterday at the Cambodian consulate in Aranyaprathet near the Cambodian border, according to Cambodian officials. Yellow shirts held a similarly-sized protest on Monday.

“They yelled that the seven Thais were arrested inside their soil. They yelled and yelled until they were tired,” said Chhuok Ang, a border commander in Ban­teay Meanchey.

Ros Oun, one of two defense law­yers representing the detai­nees, said a judge was expected to question the seven Thais a second time on Thursday.

“I will submit the request for bail after the investigating judge questions them,” Mr Oun said.

Although Thai and Cambodian government officials have said the detentions would not affect relations, not everyone is so optimistic. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, lead researcher for political and strategic affairs at Singapore’s Asean Studies Center, said the arrests “will worsen the relations.”

“In the past few months, Thai-Cambodia relations have improved steadily,” Mr Pavin said. “The current crisis points to the fact that na­tionalism [in Thailand] once again is an important factor that determines the health of bilateral relations.”

Mr Pavin also said the arrests would “affect the image of the Abhisit government” because the detained lawmaker is from Mr Abhisit’s Democrat Party.

  (Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)

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