August 8, 2023
PHNOM PENH – A surprising appearance by former Thai prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck in Cambodia on August 5 has sparked much chatter. The two were reportedly in Phnom Penh to celebrate the 72nd birthday of outgoing Prime Minister Hun Sen, with a government spokesperson claiming it was purely a personal gathering and nothing to do with politics.
Pictures of the celebrations were shared by well-connected local media outlet Fresh News and Hun Sen himself via his Telegram channel. They showed Thaksin and Yingluck mingling with Hun Sen’s extended family, including Prime Minister-in-waiting Hun Manet, at his residence in Kandal province’s Takhmao town, just outsides the capital.
Hun Sen revealed to Fresh News that Thaksin and Yingluck stayed overnight at his home and had breakfast together the next morning, before departing Cambodia.
This familial gathering offered a glimpse into their close relationship.
The bond between Hun Sen and Thaksin can be traced back to 1992 when they began to regard each other as “god brothers”. Their relationship has remained strong, even though Thaksin and Yingluck were both ousted from power through coups.
While there appears to be nothing politically linked to the gathering, it did occur amid Thailand’s struggle to appoint a new prime minister, three months after their general election. Media also reported that Thaksin’s planned return to Thailand on August 10 had been cancelled.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan clarified on August 6 that both Thaksin and Yingluck’s attendance at Hun Sen’s birthday was strictly a matter of personal connection.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen had already explained to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and other Thai senior officials,” Siphan said.
“He asked them for understanding about his friendship between the Prime Minister and Thaksin as well as with Yingluck. They had declared themselves ‘god siblings’ already and nothing to do with politics,” he added.
Kin Phea, director of Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, opined that the gathering was purely about personal relationship and that the event had nothing to do with political manoeuvring or strategy.
“If we talk about the private relationship between Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Thaksin family, the relationship between these two families is like that of siblings. It began in 1992, before Thaksin had become prime minister of Thailand,” said Phea.
“We have not seen a decline in the relationship between Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Thaksin family, and it remains steadfast. Although the Thaksin family encountered political turmoil, Prime Minister Hun Sen never let this affect the relationship,” he added.
Phea also emphasised that both Hun Sen and Thaksin avoided making political statements during the gathering.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen always values bilateral relations with Thai leaders, no matter which political party they are from, as long as both sides respect each other’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and mutual interests,” he said.
“So, the presence of Thaksin and Yingluck will not cause any impact on the bilateral relationship between Cambodia and Thailand,” he opined.
Though the bond between Hun Sen and Thaksin is personal, Phea did point out the potential political implications. He noted that if the next Thai prime minister comes from the Pheu Thai Party, which Thaksin influenced, it could make relations between the two neighbours even stronger.
A harmonious relationship will lead to increased trade between the two countries and more jobs for Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand.
“These would benefit both sides,” Phea said, painting an optimistic picture of a friendship that transcends mere politics and promises tangible rewards for both nations.