Cambodia's move to free Thai activists eases tensions as ICJ ruling looms

News Desk in Bangkok/The Nation
Asia News Network

Bangkok (The Nation/ANN) - Cambodia's announcement yesterday that it would grant clemency to two Thai activists jailed in the country has been seen as a move to reduce political pressure on both the Thai and Cambodian governments while helping to ease tensions between the countries over disputed land adjacent to the Preah Vihear temple.

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) yesterday welcomed the six-month reduction in yellow-shirt leader Veera Somkwamkid's jail term and the pardon for his secretary, Ratri Pipattanapaiboon.

PAD spokesman Panthep Phuaphongphan said Veera would be kept in custody for another six months because Cambodian authorities believe that if released now, he might launch a rally to pressure Thai authorities over the Preah Vihear case, which is currently before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Veera's former lawyer Natthaphorn Toprayoon called Cambodia's clemency a win-win decision for Thailand and Cambodia. He said the move would be deemed as a goodwill gesture, while making Phnom Penh appear helpful in the eyes of the Thai public.

Admiral Bannawit Kengrearn, a leading member of a Thai patriots' network campaigning on Preah Vihear Temple, said his group would lodge a complaint against the Pheu Thai-led government on January 14, and maintained its call for a mass rally on January 21.

Suriyasai Katasila, coordinator of the Green Politics group, said he did not think the new development would give Thailand the upper hand in the World Court case. "The real disadvantage [for Thailand] was established when [Veera and Ratri] were apprehended by Cambodian soldiers on Thai soil," he said.

In 2011, a Cambodian court sentenced Veera to eight years in jail and Ratri to six years after they were arrested along with a group of other Thais in December 2010 while inspecting disputed border territory. They were charged with spying in a prohibited military zone. The others were freed after the court suspended their jail terms.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra yesterday said the Cambodian government had informed the Foreign Ministry about the clemency. She thanked Cambodia for the decision.

"On behalf of the Thai government, we would like to thank Cambodia for taking care of the cases and granting amnesty for the benefit of bilateral relations," she said.

Cambodia granted the clemency to mark the scheduled cremation on February 1 of former Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk, according to a statement by Cambodia's Foreign Ministry, which added that Veera could also receive a pardon in the future.

The statement said that Yingluck asked Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to consider a pardon for Veera and Ratri when she attended the 21st Asean Summit in Phnom Penh in November. It said the Thai PM repeated her request yesterday.

Army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha welcomed the news on Ratri and Veera, saying it would improve bilateral relations. "There should not be anything happening along the Thai-Cambodia border, as a result."

In April 2011, following fatal border clashes with Thailand, Cambodia asked the ICJ to interpret its 1962 ruling that Preah Vihear belonged to Cambodia. Cambodia wanted to know if the area around the temple should also come under its sovereignty. The court is expected to deliver its ruling late this year.