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Sunday, December 31, 2006

TWIN BANGKOK BOMBING WAVES KILL 2; New Year's Eve Countdown cancelled


Two people died and more than 30 were wounded including six foreigners as two waves of at least nine bombs and grenades exploded in Bangkok at nightfall and again at midnight. Authorities cancelled all public New Year's Eve parties in Bangkok. Outdoor parties were also cancelled in Chiang Mai, although no disturbance was reported in the northern city. After a first wave of six coordinated explosions, three other bombs went off at midnight - one at the famous Khao San Road area for budget travellers, and two near the site of what was to have been the nation's biggest New Year's Eve party, normally telecast live around Thailand and overseas.

Seven people, including six foreigners, were injured in the second bombings just before midnight, although the cancellation of the New Year's Eve celebrations kept the toll down, police said. After the midnight bombings, the Bangkok city administration cancelled the annual New Year's dawn ceremony to present alms to monks at Sanam Luang.Instead of half a million people at the second wave of bombing, there were only relatively few passers-by in the area in front of the shuttered Central World store, formerly known as the World Trade Centre.

The worst bomb was at a nearby seafood restaurant, where three foreigners were badly hurt, including one whose leg was torn off by the blast. Another bomb "exploded in a telephone booth opposite Central World Plaza," where the Bangkok Countdown 2007 was to have taken place, said Pol Col Vanlop Patummaung. "The injured have been sent to the police hospital," he said.

"Six foreigners and one Thai were injured. We don't know when the bomb was placed there, because we had carefully searched the area before the party. Another bomb exploded on a pier that sits on the klong (canal) beside the plaza at the same time, just before midnight, but no injuries were immediately reported, he said.

Bangkok authorities ordered all public New Year's Eve parties cancelled after the first six explosions. Bangkok Governor Apirak Kosayodhin appeared at the huge Bangkok Countdown 2006 venue and told the crowd to "go home and stay in peace."There had been confusion for an hour over whether New Year's parties would be permitted after the bombing. New Year's is the biggest public party in Thailand. The national government indicated celebrations might proceed including - especially - the massive and internationally famous New Year's Countdown outdoors party attended by upwards of half a million people outside CentralWorld near Siam Square in central Bangkok.

Police Commissioner Kowit Wattana, at a televised news conference, said, "Don't be afraid, but be careful," and urged Bangkokians not to cancel New Year's Eve plans.But the capital was extremely tense. All major department stores, due to stay open until late for holiday shopping, were all shut by 8 p.m. including the luxury Emporium and Paragon stores in the main tourist areas of Sukhumvit and Siam Square. Central, the biggest Thai department store operator, closed its stores. Many would-be party-goers headed for home, either because the party mood has faded, or because they were unwilling to risk a public party.

By the time Mr Apirak personally ordered the Countdown to halt, the mood was off anyhow. Earlier, government spokesman Yongyuth Malyalarp said the capital should remain calm and alert, and keep an eye out for unusual activity. He said police had been ordered on high alert. Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said people hoping to celebrate the new year should avoid crowded areas. During a visit to a hospital where some of the victims were taken for treatment, the prime minster said the government will do all it can to prevent further trouble. The situation is under control, he said.

There were six explosions in various parts of the capital. Two were reported near the Klong Toey market, where a 61-year-old man was killed, and near a bus stop at the busy Victory Monument, where a man was killed and more than a dozen other people wounded.Graphic footage shown on television showed damaged vehicles and blood-stained streets and pavements. TV reports said a man was seen throwing a grenade off a pedestrian overpass near a police box in the Saphan Kwai area of Bangkok, injuring several people in the explosion.

At Seacon Square in eastern Bangkok, Asia's largest mall, an explosion in the outdoor parking lot sent hundreds of shoppers scrambling, but no injurites were reported.Shoppers who called BangkokPost. com said the mall was evacuated and shuttered for the night. Another explosion was reported from Sukhumvit Soi 62, a major intersection with the capital's main expressway system in southeast Bangkok, and another in suburban Nonthaburi province north of the city centre."There was no warning. It is quite shocking. We've got at least one child very seriously injured in my area and others are injured," said Police Maj-Gen Anand Srisiran, chief of Metropolitan Police District Five.

Witnesses told police in some places that they saw people throwing what looked to be grenades shortly before the explosions. The coordinated attacks are unprecedented in Bangkok. However, political feelings have run high for more than a year, and there have been reports of political violence aimed against the military junta which ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra on Sept 19 - primarily the suspected burning of schools. In addition, some intelligence sources had suggested in the past two weeks that Islamist extremists leading the southern insurgency might try to spread their attacks to the capital. They have never operated out of the deep South.

The Bangkok bombings, however, bore little resemblance to bomb attacks in the South, which usually involve improvised explosive devices (IEDs) copied from the Iraq model, and set off by mobile phones, and vehicle bombs, especially in motorcycles. An intelligence source told the AFP news agency that the attacks were likely politically motivated. "The bombs are not involved with southern unrest," the source said, but did not elaborate. "It is a political issue, it is undercurrents" - the military regime's code word for pro-Thaksin elements.

The Voice of America reported a similar reaction. It quoted "Thai officials" as saying Muslim insurgents were probably not behind the New Year's Eve bombings. "Security sources said Sunday the bombings might have been politically-motivated," said the radio network.

Except for the insurgency in the four southernmost provinces, there has been no deadly political violence in Thailand for more than 14 years, when a popular protest overthrew the last military government. In that case, the violence and deaths were caused by the military government and armed forces. Martial law was lifted in Bangkok and surrounding provinces just a month ago, but the military is authorised to act when necessary.

The coup passed its 100-day anniversary on Dec 28.The junta leader and army commander, Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, is currently out of Thailand, on the Haj in Saudi Arabia, and will not return until Thursday. Read more!

Famed Cambodian ruins face that sinking feeling

Created: 2006-12-31 21:16:32
Updated: 2007-1-1
Author: Ker Munthit

An influx of tourists to Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat ruins has resulted in a construction boom in the nearby town Siem Reap. With many of the new facilities illegally drawing ground water to facilitate the needs of their customers, experts fear that such a practice could ultimately threaten one of the region's greatest attractions, as Ker Munthit reports.

Ra Pheap is a garbage sweeper at Cambodia's world-famous Angkor Wat archaeological site, and is keenly grateful for the influx of tourists to the centuries-old ruins - it's because of them that the 19-year-old has her 205,000 Cambodian riel (US$50) a month job.

Suos Samnang, a 17-year-old souvenir vendor, also knows that her livelihood is closely linked to the busloads of camera-toting foreign visitors that arrive in Siem Reap every day.

But as they witness the frenzied construction of hotels and guest houses to tap the flow of visitors' dollars in this once-quiet town, even these two poor country girls realize that the blessings of tourism are mixed ones.

"I am worried that this will cause more pollution and migration to the town. The number of people living here just keeps growing. The streets are getting more crowded now," Suos Samnang said.

And some experts are even more concerned than that. They fear the unregulated development - specifically, unrestricted local pumping of underground water to meet rapidly rising demand - may literally be undermining Angkor's foundations, destabilizing the earth beneath the famous centuries-old temples so much that they might sink and collapse.

Tourism is a key moneymaker for cash-strapped Cambodia, about one-third of whose 14 million people earn less than 2,000 riels (56 US cents) a day.

Last year, about half of the 1.4 million visitors who came to Cambodia went to see the Angkor monuments, architectural masterpieces built at the height of the Khmer empire from the ninth to the 15th centuries. Total tourist arrivals for Cambodia in 2005 were an impressive 34.7 percent above 2004's figures.

The steady boom has already transformed Siem Reap into a bustling town filled with luxury hotels and vehicles. Its streets are adorned with billboards promoting the latest mobile phones, pizza and burger joints and shopping malls. Several notable old buildings have been razed to make way for visitors' lodgings, and honky-tonk strips have sprung up catering to low-budget travelers.

"The identity Siem Reap had for centuries is gradually disappearing, or maybe almost disappeared," said Teruo Jinnai, director in Cambodia of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and a 10-year resident of the country. "You have restaurants, massage parlors, hotels, and it's very sad to see that."

Culture shock aside, the health and quality of life of many of its 120,000 residents is imperiled by the boom, as is plain to see when traffic snarls the roads and streets get flooded by rain because of clogged sewers.

"This tremendous growth added to population increase has been exacerbating pressure on infrastructure," said a World Bank report on Cambodia's tourism sector last year. "Energy, water, sewage and waste are all significant problems."

It noted that hotels are not legally required to have sewage treatment facilities, though larger ones do have their own plants.

"But most guesthouses reportedly dump used water directly into the river, causing noticeable river pollution," it said, adding that E. coli, the bacteria found in human feces, has reportedly begun seeping into local wells.

At least as threatening over the long run is the uptake of water, with unrestricted pumping from the water table underlying the area.

"Water is being drawn from 70-80 meters underground by hotels and treated for use," warned the World Bank, noting that no one was quite certain how this affects the aquifers, or underground layers of rocks and sand, from which it is pumped.

Already though, "one of Angkor's temples is reportedly falling into a sinkhole, suggesting that the underground aquifers may be rapidly disappearing," said the report.

Japanese Ambassador Fumiaki Takahashi, whose country has drawn up a development master plan for Siem Reap to deal with the tourism boom, said most of its hotels are pumping underground water for their own use, "and there is no control."

It is the Cambodian government's "urgent task" to control the practice, he said, because "if you take too much water, it might affect the Angkor site. In the long run, the underground water will go down and the site would sink."

The plan of the Japan International Cooperation Agency calls for tapping underground water from near Phnom Kraom, a hill near the edge of the Tonle Sap lake about 12 kilometers south of the town, to avoid depletion of Siem Reap's underground water and reduce the risk of endangering the fragile temples, he said.

Deputy Tourism Minister Thong Khon said the government is ready to accept the master plan to address existing problems and accommodate future growth.

He sees a bright future for Siem Reap, in which the province won't just be a destination for touring the temples but will also become a hub providing air links for tourists to enjoy the sandy beaches of southwestern Cambodia and eco-tourism in the jungles of the northeast.

He envisions that by promoting a diversity of destinations, the crowds will be distributed around the country, and the Angkor temples won't get "too jammed up."

Meanwhile, though, the tourist hordes continue to tramp through fabled Angkor Wat and its satellite temples of Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Prohm and Bakheng. Even at the lesser-known 10th-century Bakheng temple, an average of 3,000 tourists climb the 67 meters just in the two hours before dusk each day to view the spectacular sunset.

Ra Pheap, the 19-year-old sweeper, said she knows the onslaught could damage the delicate monuments.

She is employed by a Cambodian company that sells entry tickets to the temple site, and the visitors there are essentially paying her salary.

With her earnings, she has reduced her family's reliance on rice farming and been able to help pay for Japanese-language classes for her younger brother and sister.

"I want them to become tour guides because I am confident more tourists will visit here," she said.
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Fundraiser aims to help girl in Cambodia

Shriners agrees to provide free medical care for a severely burned girl

The Cambodian community in Hawaii will celebrate the new year with a fundraiser tonight to help a 14-year-old girl walk for the first time. Sythan Leam lives in Anglong Thor, a small village about 80 miles northwest of Phnom Penh in Kampong Thom province in Cambodia.

When she was 2 months old, she suffered severe burns on her left leg. There is no doctor or medical care in the village and, when her leg healed, her calf was fused to her thigh.
About two years ago, her case came to the attention of Western aid workers. Doctors determined her leg muscles work and that with surgery and physical therapy, Leam should be able to walk.

Shriners Hospital for Children in Hawaii has agreed to provide free medical care for Leam, according to Dr. Gunther Hintz, a Honolulu-based former plastic surgeon and the founder of the nonprofit group Medicorps, which provides Internet access, consultation and training for doctors in Cambodia.

The charity needs to raise $8,000 to $10,000 for airfare to bring Leam and for someone to accompany her to Hawaii, Hintz said.
When Leam arrives, local Cambodian families will take care of her until she is admitted to Shriners and while she is an outpatient.

Anthony Deth, who is organizing the event, said Cambodians, who are mostly Buddhist, believe in karma and that doing good for others comes back to the giver. "Cambodian people here are generally giving, very supportive of each other," Deth said.

Tonight's event is both a fundraiser for Leam and an opportunity for the community to get together, Deth said, noting that there are about 150 Cambodian-Americans living in Hawaii.
This is not the first time Medicorps has brought a Cambodian teenager to Hawaii.

In 2000, Hintz brought Sok Ouey, then 13, to Hawaii in 2000. Ouey's legs were severely injured by a land mine explosion.
After three operations in Cambodia, 10 surgeries in Hawaii and physical therapy, Ouey returned to Cambodia in 2001. He is now a student and part-time worker at the Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap.


What: New Year's Eve fundraiser for Sythan Leam

Where: The Paradise Restaurant on the South King Street side of Puck's Alley

When: 5 p.m.-1 a.m.

More info: Food and beverages provided for a donation to the nonprofit group Medicorps. Everyone welcome. The event will feature Cambodian music and dancing.Donations to help Sythan Leam can also be sent to Medicorps, 758 Kapahulu Ave., #507, Honolulu, HI 96816.
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King Norodom Sihamoni returned from internaional visits

Cambodian king Norodom Sihamoni returned to Cambodia Sunday from a series of international visits in time to see in the International New Year from his palace in the capital. The king's return followed an international tour which took in Germany, France and China and also included time spent with his father, former king Norodom Sihanouk, who continues to undergo routine medical tests in Beijing.

Sihanouk, who turned 84 this year, abdicated in favour of his son, King Sihamoni, in October 2004 citing his age and a range of health complaints including colon cancer and diabetes. Sihamoni arrived at Phnom Penh International Airport late afternoon local time and was greeted by a number of dignitaries before proceeding straight to his palace, located in the heart of the capital.

Although International New Year is celebrated in Cambodia it is a relatively low-key event in the mainly Buddhist country, which celebrates its own Cambodian New Year in April. Sihamoni's latest international trip had seen him absent from Cambodia since November.

© 2006 DPA Read more!