Saturday, November 14, 2009

THAKSIN IN CAMBODIA-Koh Kong Puzzle

Thaksin's arrival in Cambodia renews talk about his ambitions

Known as Cambodia's "Wild West" with its corrupt immigration officials, visa scams, crooked cops, prostitutes, illegal logging and gambling, Koh Kong could gain new notoriety if Thaksin Shinawatra's ambitious development plans go ahead.

His arrival to a hero's welcome in Phnom Penh, where he yesterday praised "generous laws" regarding foreign ownership during an address to Cambodian businessmen and economists, was seen by many as a big step toward making all-out inroads into the country. With Thaksin reportedly already granted a large-scale investment licence in the area lasting 99 years, Koh Kong could soon become a big thorn in Thailand's side.

Would Koh Kong become a virtual government in exile or will it become "Thaksin's Singapore"? Thai intelligence is paying serious attention to all such rumours. Though a source close to Thaksin denies that the fugitive has any plans concerning Koh Kong, the warm hospitality displayed by his Cambodian hosts and their hostility toward the Thai government suggests that the wild frontier would always be kept open for him.

Apart from having Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as his best friend, Thaksin has another good connection in Koh Kong - Pat Supapa, who is chairman of the Koh Kong International Resort Club and one of the richest business people in Cambodia having won several lucrative state concessions. He was one of the high-profile citizens who welcomed Thaksin.

It is these solid political and business friendships that have lent new weight to rumours that Thaksin was in Koh Kong while hardline red-shirted protesters were running riot in Bangkok in April.

Thaksin's government played a large role in the construction of a road between Koh Kong and Phnom Penh, and while in power he oversaw a booming border trade, with Thai goods reaching the Koh Kong port - outstripping land transport in great volumes.

If Thaksin really wants to build a presence in Koh Kong, he could be provocatively close to Thailand. With enough cash, a 2,000-square metre plot - earmarked to be an industrial estate that only about two kilometres from an immigration checkpoint - can be turned into anything with the blink of an eye.

Yet the source close to Thaksin insists the former prime minister has decided to put his plans to invest in Koh Kong in the deep freeze because the diplomatic row between the two countries has convinced him that this was not the right time to invest.

However, the source did admit that he had not spoken to Thaksin since he arrived in Phnom Penh, adding that the ex-PM had proposed the idea of building an entertainment-casino complex in Koh Kong to his friends in the Mideast but they had shown no interest.

"It is quite confirmed that he [Thaksin] has frozen the idea," the source said.

The town of Koh Kong once was part of Trat province under Siam in the 18th century. King Mongkut (Rama IV) named this eastern outpost "Prachanta Khiri Khet", which rhymes with Prachuap Khiri Khan in the Thai South. Coincidentally, the two cities share the same latitude. Koh Kong was later a French colony in 1934.

With the opening of the Thai-Cambodian bridge across the river and building of several casinos near the border, Koh Kong province has become better known among tourists.

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