PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia agreed Tuesday to free a Thai nationalist it imprisoned for more than three years for illegally crossing its border to claim territory for Thailand, possibly heralding a warming of relations between the neighbors.
The pardon for Veera Somkwamkid was announced after a meeting between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and acting Thai Foreign Minister Sihasak Phuangketkeow.
Relations between the two countries have been sour for years. The surprise move followed an exodus from Thailand of about 250,000 Cambodian workers who fled after Thailand's new military government announced a crackdown on migrants working illegally. Most of the estimated 400,000 Cambodian workers who had been in Thailand had no permits. The main purpose of Sihasak's visit was to discuss an organized, legal return of the workers.
Veera was arrested with six Thai colleagues at the end of 2010 after crossing the border to publicize claims that frontier areas held by Cambodia actually belonged to Thailand.
Five were given suspended sentences and released, but Veera, the leader, was sentenced to eight years in prison after being found guilty of espionage, illegal entry and trespassing in a military zone. His assistant, who was sentenced to six years, was released in February last year under a mass pardon.
Veera's Thailand Patriot Network was closely associated with Thailand's royalist People's Alliance for Democracy — better known as the Yellow Shirt movement — and his incursion was widely seen as an effort to whip up a wave of nationalism to support its political agenda. Yellow Shirt protests helped lead to a coup that ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, and added pressure that forced two of his political allies from office in 2008.
Protests beginning late last year by a group sharing the Yellow Shirts' agenda helped force Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, from the premiership last month and led to another military coup on May 22. The military's leadership shares many of the political views of the Yellow Shirts and their allies, including a desire to reduce the power of the Shinawatras' political machine.
Veera's case had its origins in a dispute between Cambodia and Thailand over land near an ancient temple on their border.
Sihasak told reporters that he had relayed a request for Veera's release from Thai army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the May 22 coup.
Hun Sen had anticipated the request and produced a pardon signed by King Norodom Sihamoni , Sihasak said.