Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On the trail of Thaksin in Cambodia

By Stephen Kurczy

KOH KONG, Cambodia - Speculation runs hot and heavy that exiled former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra has secretly and repeatedly visited the remote Cambodian border province of Koh Kong to meet with his political allies and plan the next phase of his campaign to oust Thailand's government and restore himself to power.

People in sleepy Koh Kong, from celebrity lookalikes to airport officials watching over an unused gravel runway, have plenty of time to talk - and to keep a watchful lookout. They say property developers' once ambitious plans to transform this primitive coastal area into a world-class tourist destination stopped before they started. And many find it laughable and unlikely that Thailand's fugitive former premier would bother, or dare, to visit.

Thai intelligence surfaced in late April that the former telecom tycoon's private jet flew into the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh and then into Koh Kong, located on the nation's southwestern corner along its border with Thailand. Senior Cambodian officials have strongly denied that Thaksin visited, but many in Bangkok believe Thaksin leveraged his known personal ties and business links with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to secure special landing rights.

Thai authorities revoked Thaksin's passport last month after he urged his supporters through video call-ins from abroad to launch a "people's revolution" against Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's coalition government, leading to riot scenes on the streets of Bangkok. Thaksin is believed to have made his controversial addresses from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where Thai authorities are still brokering an extradition treaty. Thaksin has obtained travel documents from Nicaragua and Montenegro to avoid extradition, and was most recently sighted in Liberia.

A handful of Thaksin's key supporters went underground after Abhisit's government declared a state of emergency and arrested several protest leaders from the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), which is aligned with Thaksin. Those who eluded arrest, including protest co-leader Jakrapob Penkair, fled to Koh Kong, according to some Thai media accounts.

Jakrapob has since threatened from an unknown location to launch an underground armed insurgency against the Thai government. Quoting a top UDD source, Asia Times Online reported in April that Thaksin operatives have claimed to funnel guns through Cambodia to his supporters in Thailand's northeastern regions. The Thai government has taken those reports seriously, further straining relations with Cambodia. (See A battle won in Thailand's 'war', Asia Times Online, Apr 15, 2009)

Yet if Thaksin has recently traveled to Koh Kong, those who manage the island's rudimentary airport claim not to have seen him. A source at Societe Concessionnaire d'Aeroport, the French company that manages Cambodia's airports, said that no private jets flew into Phnom Penh during the period when Thaksin allegedly visited. Meanwhile Bou Phou, the deputy director of Koh Kong's Airport, said the last time a plane landed on Koh Kong's gravel airstrip was eight years ago.

He said the dilapidated airstrip could land a small aircraft like a Cessna or Antonov 24, but not Thaksin's private jet. Wildlife groups land helicopters there several times a month, he said, but that's the only aviation activity his facility sees. The airport terminal closed in 2000 and no plane has landed since, he said. "I have a lot of time to read books and newspapers," Bou Phou said.
Commercial interests
Thaksin-aligned business interests aimed to buy and renovate the Koh Kong Airport in 2003, but the Cambodian government had already given the rights to Societe Concession l'Aeroport, Bou Phou claims. Those business interests in Koh Kong apparently extended beyond the airport, if press reports are accurate. The Bangkok Post reported a year ago that he planned to turn Koh Kong into a "second Hong Kong".

According to the same media report, Hun Sen supposedly agreed with Thaksin's plan to build Koh Kong's second casino and entertainment complex during a round of golf in April 2008. (Thaksin's former communications conglomerate had major interests in Cambodia's mobile telecom market.) "Prime Minister Hun Sen trusted and wanted Thaksin to advise on developing Koh Kong as a special economic zone," Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh said on May 15, 2008.

Later that same month, Hun Sen's spokesman confirmed to Agence France-Presse that Thaksin planned to build a modern satellite city in Koh Kong, complete with a financial district and shipping port. However local officials dismiss those reports as hearsay and speculation. They note that the town's existing special economic zone, despite its imposing entrance gate, remains after several years an empty undeveloped field.

"It's confusing," said Koh Kong province deputy governor Eng Kimleang. "Thaksin isn't developing Koh Kong - it's just a Chinese company ... It's just rumors and nothing formal," she said. Like others, she dismisses reports that Thaksin may have recently visited the area as inaccurate.

Sam, the owner of Fat Sam's bar and restaurant, said his well-informed Lexus-driving neighbor is positive Thaksin was not in Koh Kong. Otto, owner of the nearby Otto's Restaurant and Guest House, said the rumors are simply "bullshit".

Helicopters occasionally thunder overhead when Hun Sen or a provincial governor retreats to Koh Kong Resort, Otto said, but otherwise the most notable news in Koh Kong has been the increase in cars from two in 1999 to several hundred today. "It used to be like a town in the old west - shootouts, blood," he said, as a cloud of marijuana smoke wafts over his restaurant's porch. Now, "it's boring here. That's why I like it."

Koh Kong was until very recently known as Cambodia's Wild West. With the Cardamom mountains to the north, the Gulf of Thailand stretching south, and the Thai border 12 kilometers away, the town was until last May only accessible via a series of four ferries. That allowed illegal logging, hunting and smuggling operations to thrive in the lawless area.

Thai loans and engineers paved the way for a road and series of bridges that finally connected the 30,000-person town directly to Phnom Penh, creating a mild surge in law enforcement, investment and jobs. Local human-rights groups say sex trafficking is still a problem, but unlike a decade ago authorities now make attempts to crackdown on the trade.

A Chinese company is now constructing an 18-megawatt, US$326 million hydroelectric dam on one of the province's many rivers. The provincial tourism department registered a 25% increase in national visitors in 2008, rising to around 50,000. From April 14 to April 16 during the Khmer New Year, 14,000 nationals visited Koh Kong, up from 12,000 the previous year.

Many of those visitors stopped at the town's sole casino, the 521-room Koh Kong Resort, located about 50 meters from the Cham Yeam international border checkpoint with Thailand. That's where unconfirmed reports allege Thaksin has met with his political associates and other Thai fugitives from justice have lodged.

During a recent tour of the complex, manager Thiwason Thonsing showed Asia Times Online Hun Sen's $1,400-a-night presidential suite, which has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen, living room, dining room and expansive views of the Gulf of Thailand. "I've never seen Thaksin here before," Thiwason said. "I asked my staff and none of them say they saw him."

Koh Kong provincial tourism department chief-of-office Ly Vithavann insists that no recent visitors to the Koh Kong Resort were former prime ministers. "Thaksin never comes here," he said, offering an alternative explanation for the Thai intelligence reports: Another local resident, the provincial commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, looks exactly like the Sino-Thai Thaksin. "Yun Mean has the same face as Thaksin Shinawatra," he claimed.

When asked, Yun Mean agreed to some extent. "My subordinates tell me I look like Thaksin," he said with a chuckle. Inside his home near the town's central market, framed photos of him receiving medals from the Cambodian prime minister and defense minister decorate the walls. His fair skin and square jaw cut a profile similar to the former Thai prime minister. Could he have been the face apparently seen by Thai intelligence? Yun Mean doubts it.

"I never heard that media said Thaksin was in Koh Kong," he said, adding: "And Thaksin never did visit."

Stephen Kurczy is an Asia Times Online contributor based in Cambodia. He may be reached at kurczy@gmail.com. With additional reporting from Shawn W Crispin in Bangkok.

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