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Critics Question Wisdom of Thai Red Shirt Gathering in Siem Reap

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, right, receives a medal from Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, center, during the Medal Decoration ceremony at Cambodia Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Monday, Sept. 19, 2011.

Cambodian officials are preparing to host a massive gathering of Thai political activists and supporters of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in what critics say is a dangerous political gamble that could hurt relations with Thailand later on.

Up to 50,000 “red shirt” supporters of the former premier are expected to descend on the tourist town of Siem Reap over the weekend, provincial authorities said. Thaksin himself will attend for a Buddhist ceremony, as Thais and Cambodians celebrate the New Year.

“The red shirts will pay courtesy to Thaksin on April 14, and they will have a Buddhist ceremony with 260 monks from Angkor Wat on April 15,” Siem Reap Governor Sou Phearin told VOA Khmer. “Thaksin will have a water blessing before he leaves the country.”

Thaksin supporters have been traveling to Siem Reap via road from Thailand since Wednesday, authorities said. Provincial authorities have set aside a massive 22 hectare sight about two kilometers outside of Siem Reap, Sou Phirean said.

Thaksin was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006. He currently lives abroad and faces at two years in jail on corruption charges if he returns to Thailand.

The Thaksin-friendly Pheu Thai Party is currently in control of Thailand’s government, following several years of tumult. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is the prime minister.

But observers say this may not always be the case and that by allowing such a large gathering of Thaksin supporters, the Cambodian government risks angering opposition politicians and their own supporters.

“It’s good that both countries have a good relationship,” said Lao Monghay, an independent analyst. “But we have to think whether or not we are putting our nose into the affairs of other countries.”

“If a Cambodian group banned from returning to Cambodia [rallied] in Thailand, what would we think?” he said. “It would be a jumbled relationship.”

Kem Sokha, president of the opposition Human Rights Party, said this weekend’s gathering could actually harm Cambodia’s relationship with Thailand further down the road.

“No one can hold power for good,” he said. “There will be a leadership change in that country. For us, as a country, we are supporting one group and confronting another group. One day, when [the second] group wins and leads the country, what will they think?”

Both countries remain mired in a dispute near the border near Preah Vihear temple, fueled in part by political opponents of Thaksin.

Sou Phearin, however, said allowing the meeting will foster “future development” between the countries and was part of a “long perspective” by the government.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan downplayed the political nature of the gathering, calling it a “meeting between Thais and his excellency Thaksin” that was “just about tourism.”

Nevertheless, Walter Lohman, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, in Washington, said Thaksin could provoke further political problems in Bangkok that would affect Cambodia.

Cambodia’s government will receive criticism for allowing the gathering, he said.

Thaksin’s relationship with Prime Minister Hun Sen and visit to Cambodia are not likely to help the border dispute.

“If you don’t want a conflict, then let’s try to calm things down,” he told VOA Khmer. “Giving a speech in Siem Reap, going to Phnom Penh, are not conducive to peace. So I think it’s a real mistake, and I don’t know why the Cambodians are facilitating it.”