PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia has slapped charges of espionage on two of seven Thai nationalists who trespassed into its territory last month, a move that could reignite a diplomatic row between the two neighbours.
The Thais were arrested by Cambodian soldiers on December 29 when they entered a disputed border area. They were initially charged with illegal entry and unauthorized trespass in a military zone, offences that could put them in prison for up to 18 months.
“According to new evidence the authorities have gathered, we also charged two of them with attempting to gather information, which affects national defense,” Cambodian prosecutor Sok Roeun told Reuters on Tuesday.
Espionage carries up to 10 years in prison in Cambodia.
Thailand continued to exercise restraint in its response.
“I do not want to say much because it’s currently under the consideration of Cambodia’s court,” Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters in Bangkok after a weekly cabinet meeting.
Most of those arrested are part of a splinter faction of a Thai activist group, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which has been pressing Abhisit’s government to take a tougher stand with Cambodia over border disputes.
One of the seven, Panich Vikitsreth, is close to Abhisit and a member of parliament for his ruling Democrat Party. He has not been charged with espionage.
The PAD has until recently backed Abhisit and taken credit for helping his rise to power, but it has grown increasingly critical of the premier and will field its own political party in a general election that may come this year.
It plans to hold a mass protest in Bangkok on January 25 over the detentions.
Relations between Thailand and Cambodia have thawed in recent months after diplomatic ties were severed because of a row over jurisdiction of border land surrounding a 900-year-old temple and Cambodia’s provocative decision to employ, rather than extradite, fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Relations were restored in August when Cambodia said Thaksin, who lives in exile to avoid a jail term for graft, had resigned as an economic adviser to its government.