PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Cambodia has detained a Thai man for allegedly spying on fugitive former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the latest sign of worsening relations between the two neighbors.
Thaksin, a fugitive from justice in Thailand, was named an adviser to Cambodia's government on economic affairs last week, angering the Thai government and prompting it to recall its ambassador, with Cambodia following suit. Thaksin then arrived this week for a visit to Cambodia, further straining ties. He was expected to depart late Friday.
Siwarak Chothipong, a 31-year-old employee of the Cambodia Air Traffic Service, which manages flights in the country, was accused of stealing Thaksin's flight schedule and sending it diplomats at the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh, said National Police Deputy Chief Lt. Gen. Sok Phal.
Sok Phal said Siwark allegedly handed over the flight schedule to the first secretary at the Thai embassy, who was then ordered by Cambodia on Thursday to leave the country for carrying out activities inconsistent with his official duties. Thailand responded by ordering out the first secretary of Cambodia's mission in Bangkok.
Siwarak appeared in municipal court Thursday and was charged with stealing information that could impact national security. If found guilty, he faces up to 15 years in jail.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva did not comment on the spying allegation but said the expulsion of the Thai diplomat was aimed at provoking a "violent response" from his government.
"The Thai government didn't fall for their trick," he told reporters in Bangkok.
Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire, was ousted by a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption and abuse of power. He fled Thailand last year to escape a conflict of interest conviction and a two-year prison sentence.
Critics, including Thailand's government, have portrayed him as a traitor for accepting the Cambodian appointment and have lambasted Cambodia for hosting him while he is a fugitive. The appointment further strained relations already roiled by several deadly skirmishes over disputed territory in the past year and a half.
Cambodia rejected a Thai request Wednesday for Thaksin's arrest, saying the legal case against the former leader was politically motivated.
Thaksin's political battle with the Thai government, which he accuses of being undemocratic, has bitterly divided his country. He retains huge popularity among his rural poor power base who have staged frequent rallies calling for his return to power. But he is reviled by many in the educated urban elite, who led months of street protests against him.
Thaksin claims he was ousted because he threatened the privileges of Thailand's urban-centered ruling class by winning the support of the poor. He came under further attack in Thailand this week for remarks in an interview that critics claimed were insulting to Thailand's revered monarchy.