A Cambodian court has begun hearings against seven Thais, including a member of parliament, who were arrested late in December and now face charges of illegal entry into Cambodia.
In 2008, tempers flared near the Preah Vihear Temple on the disputed border between Thailand and Cambodia
The group of Thais arrested by the Cambodian authorities was led by Panich Vikitsreth, a member of parliament, as well as of Thailand's governing Democrat Party.
A nationalist group, the Thailand Patriot Network, has claimed the group was not in Cambodian territory at all.
"Kampuchea (the traditional name for Cambodia) says Thai people entered her territory but actually it’s Thai territory," said Werasak Samrit, a businessman and a co-leader of the network.
"We're waiting for the government to solve this problem, but the government has neglected and ignored this problem," he added.
A former leader of the People's Alliance for Democracy is among the seven Thais arrested
Priority for the government
But government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said on Thursday that the case was a "priority" and officials were doing all that they could to ensure the Thais return home as soon as possible.
"We are determined to help them. We do respect the Cambodian process and sovereignty, and law and justice. We hope that if the case does not move forward (through the courts) then these people will be released," he said.
The Thai legislator Panich apparently said in the Cambodian court that he had "unintentionally" crossed into Cambodia.
However, evidence emerged in the form of a video posted on the Internet that shows him walking to the Cambodian border. He says in a mobile phone conversation that he has crossed into Cambodian territory and that this information should be passed on to the prime minister's secretary.
A moment of respite between a Thai and a Cambodian soldier after tension in 2008
Panich explains in the video that his group is now seeking to locate a border marker that is in Thai territory – in an area occupied by Cambodian soldiers.
Those arrested include Veera Somkwamkid, a former leader of the People's Alliance for Democracy, which is linked to Thailand Patriot Network.
The PAD played a key role in ousting former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup in 2006.
In 2008, PAD protesters occupied the prime minister’s administrative building and shut down Bangkok's airports. Court rulings removed two pro-Thaksin governments, which led to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva coming to power.
"This is a reminder that the liability from having been so closely tied to the PAD has come back to haunt the Democrat Party and the Abhisit government," explained Thitinan Pongsudhirak from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
"It also shows that the government does not seem to know what it’s doing. After improved relations with Cambodia, the bilateral relationship has now sunk to a new all-time low."
The seven Thais could face jail sentences of up to 18 months if found guilty of crossing into Cambodia illegally and also of entering a military base.
However, Phnom Penh-based analysts said on Thursday that high-level negotiations might already be underway and that the Thais might be released very soon.
Author: Ron Corben (Bangkok)
Editor: Anne Thomas