Trouble brews on eastern front

Ultra-nationalist PAD plans rally to warn of Cambodian encroachment on Thai soil - Saudi response to Bangkok summit invitation will show whether relations with Thailand remain tense - Corrections Department chief assures red shirts that inmates are being treated well

The People's Alliance for Democracy is all set for yet another gathering on Jan 25 to alert the country to what it claims is an impending territorial invasion by Cambodia.

Suthep: Clashes with PAD

The ultra-nationalist alliance has turned on the government it holds culpable for what it has called the loss of Thailand's territory on the eastern front.

The PAD's friendly relations with the ruling Democrat Party soured after the party played along with its coalition partners' demands for a charter rewrite. The alliance slammed the proposed amendments as blatant self-interest.

Its ties with the Democrats took a turn for the worse when Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, speaking to Democrat supporters in the South, chided the PAD for attacking him.

Mr Suthep also went where he had never gone before: he insisted Sondhi Limthongkul, an influential co-leader of the PAD, was ''no lesser evil'' than ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

His remarks, however, took Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva aback. In a verbal warning, he said his deputy should learn to hold his tongue so as not to needlessly invite hostility.

The PAD has shaken off its Democrat-leaning image and is pressing ahead with its planned rally on Jan 25 in Bangkok. But the government has reminded the alliance that the emergency decree remains firmly in place in the capital and any threat to security will be met with swift prosecution.

The alliance originally planned to hold the rally on Dec 11. But its key figures figured that since December is a month of joyous occasions, most notably His Majesty the King's birthday tomorrow, the gathering should be deferred until Jan 25.

The PAD, nonetheless, has maintained it is fully justified in organising a gathering. It says the country must wake up to the expanding Cambodian occupation of border areas in Si Sa Ket province.

A reliable source in the alliance said Chamlong Srimuang, another PAD co-leader, is leading a band of disciples of the Santi Asoke Buddhist sect to the rally. The sect is headquartered in Kantharalak district of Si Sa Ket and its centre is only a stone's throw from the border.

Standing in the centre's backyard, one can see the enlarging settlement of Cam bodian villagers who allegedly encroach on Thai soil, the source said.

The 2nd Army, which has jurisdiction over the Northeast, has also claimed there are startling discoveries that support the alleged expanding territorial encroachment, the source added. However, no details were given.

A senior military officer belonging to the PAD said new evidence has come to light that reinforced the belief that Thailand has lost land to Cambodia.

''We need to rally to let people know how serious this problem is. We'll bring forth compelling evidence

[of alleged territorial loss] and demand the return of the land,'' the source said.

The border dispute, the source added, is a highly nationalistic issue that will attract a large rally turnout and provide impetus to the PAD gathering.

Uneasy silence in Middle East

The government is getting restless waiting for replies from leading Arab countries to say whether they will attend the third Asia-Middle East Dialogue meeting in Bangkok.

Saudi Arabia has yet to say whether it will attend the Dec 15-16 conference, which was launched by Singapore in 2005.

It would be a major embarrassment to Thailand if Saudi Arabia, which will host the next AMED meeting, stays away or decides to send junior representatives to the conference here.

Abhisit: Awaits Saudi response

Diplomacy aside, Riyadh's reaction or non-reaction to the invitation could reflect its mood toward Thailand, given the frosty state of bilateral relations.

Bangkok and Riyadh have not seen eye-to-eye since Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic ties.

This followed the murder of four members of its diplomatic staff in Bangkok in 1989 and 1990, plus the 1990 disappearance of Saudi Arabian businessman Mohammad al-Ruwaili following a notorious jewellery theft saga.

Not a single Thai government in the past two decades has come close to providing a satisfactory explanation or to bringing any culprits to justice.

Some progress was made in January this year with the indictment of Lt Gen Somkid Boonthanom and four other police in connection with the disappearance of Mr Ruwaili.

This year's AMED theme, ''Strengthening Cooperation towards Common Prosperity'', will also showcase how much clout Thailand has mustered in maintaining the right diplomatic balance in its ties with Arab countries.

This is especially important when problems concerning the southern insurgency have popped up at the Organisation of Islamic Conference.

Nineteen deputy ministers and ministers have confirmed they will attend out of 50 nations which have been invited.

Confirmed guests include Singapore's senior minister of state for foreign affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed and Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva will preside over the opening ceremony on Dec 15 at Queen Sirikit National Convention Center.

Issues to be discussed will cover a wide range of political, economic and social matters, including terrorism, piracy and maritime security, business opportunities and climate change.

The conference will boost the local economy, and could highlight Thailand's potential as Asia's bread basket, a hub for medical and health tourism and as a prime tourist destination for Muslim people, government sources say.

Representatives of the Palestinian Authority will also take part.

The AMED ministerial meeting is held biennially at venues alternating between Asia and the Middle East. Its inaugural session was organised in Singapore in 2005, while AMED II was held in Egypt in 2008.

Chartchai puts record straight

Corrections Department director-general Chartchai Suthiklom says he has never felt any pressure taking care of detained red shirt supporters at various prisons over the past six months.

Mr Chartchai insists the department has treated the red shirt detainees fairly. Their basic human rights have been protected and they still have a chance to meet their relatives, friends and supporters every weekday.

Chartchai: No abuse of red shirts

''We treat them like other [inmates]. We don't abuse them as feared by some red shirt supporters,'' Mr Chartchai said.

Since the government imposed the emergency decree six months ago, more than 400 red shirt protesters have been detained on charges of terrorism and sent to jails in several provinces.

Red shirt supporters have continued to demand their release and questioned the inmates' treatment by the Corrections Department.

Mr Chartchai explained he had reached an understanding with the red shirts about their treatment when the group rallied outside the Bangkok Special Remand Prison _ where 10 leaders of the red shirts are being detained _ and called for justice for the detainees.

Ten detained red shirt leaders are now being held separately in five detention areas inside the prison and they have to abide by prison regulations just like ordinary prisoners.

''My warders tell me that they are still healthy and strong,'' he said. ''They take good care of themselves.''

In the six months that have passed, about 200 red shirt detainees have been freed.

Mr Chartchai said authorities have stopped arresting red shirt supporters under the emergency decree and sending them to jail. Although the group occasionally conducts political activities, they are generally peaceful.

With most red shirt co-leaders behind bars, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) has installed Thida Thavornseth, the wife of detained red shirt co-leader Weng Tojirakarn, as its chairwoman.

She replaced former UDD chairman Veera Musikhapong, who has been given bail to fight the terrorism charge against him since he turned himself into authorities shortly before the crackdown on the red shirt protesters at Ratchaprasong intersection on May 19.

Ms Thida is widely known among the red shirts as a moderate political activist.

She has worked with the UDD since the movement was established four years ago following the ouster of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. She has taught red shirt supporters about democracy, justice and social equity.

Suriyan Thongnueiad, secretary-general of the Campaign for Popular Democracy, said he believed Ms Thida was not the real chairwoman of the UDD and her appointment was merely to shore up the movement's image.

''I don't know exactly how powerful and charismatic a leader she is ...We have to wait and see,'' Mr Suriyan said.

Next Friday, Ms Thida will lead a red shirt rally for the first time to Democracy Monument to demand justice for victims of the red shirt protest between March 12 and May 19 in which 92 people, including security personnel, were killed and more than 1,000 others injured.


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