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Thursday, June 26, 2008

No love lost over ruins

The painful memory of Thailand losing sovereignty over the 10th century Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia as a result of the decision by the International Court of Justice in 1962, should have been buried with the passing years. But thanks to the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, this pain has been revived and is firing up the emotions of quite a few people, especially people of that generation who experienced the national trauma and shame of that great loss.

At the centre of the controversy surrounding the ancient Hindu temple is not that the Thai people want to lay claim to the temple. The Thai people, just as every successive government since 1962, still respect the World Court's verdict which awarded the temple to Cambodia - although they are against the decision and reserve the legitimate right to challenge the verdict if new evidence emerges.

The real issue is all about the dubious way the government - especially the prime minister and Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama - has been handling the Cambodian application for the listing of the stone ruins as a Unesco World Heritage site. Up until the Opposition's exposure in Parliament, the public was virtually kept in the dark about details of the negotiations between the two countries regarding Cambodia's application. Even last week's cabinet resolution pertaining to Thailand's "active support" of the Cambodian World Heritage listing bid was not made available to the public. It was later disclosed by Agriculture Minister Somsak Prissananantakul of the Chart Thai party that the prime minister had ordered some changes to the cabinet's resolution to ensure that overlapping areas were excluded from the temple to be listed by Cambodia.

The hush-hush manner in which the government rushed to sign the joint communique pledging Thailand's "active support" for the Cambodian bid to have the temple listed, has led to a suspicion that there might be some hidden agenda. Equally disturbing is the question of why the government caved in so easily to Cambodia's insistence that there not be a joint listing of the temple by the two countries. To sum up, the Samak government's handling of this lacks transparency.

Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva made a valid point during the censure debate on Tuesday that the government's endorsement of Cambodia's unilateral listing of the Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage site could place Thailand at a disadvantage if, in the future, Phnom Penh contests Thailand's sovereignty over the contentious overlapping areas. He cited as an example the main reason for Thailand's loss in the World Court case over the temple, which was that Thai governments had never contested the French map drawn in 1907 which showed the temple inside Cambodian territory, until the case was raised in court.

The Preah Vihear temple is a sensitive and emotional issue for both countries. Therefore, it must not be over-politicised in a way which will hurt the good relations between the two sides. But as far as Thailand is concerned, the issue cannot be left for the government alone to handle, especially in light of the several unanswered questions. It is advisable that the government reconsider its position vis-a-vis Cambodia, even if it means a loss of face for the prime minister and the foreign minister. After all, national interest should come first.

Or the government can wait for a ruling from the Administrative Court today, in response to a petition seeking an injunction on the cabinet's resolution endorsing Cambodia's listing bid. And risk a crushing setback if the court rules in favour of the petitioners.

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Cambodia opens election campaign

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's political parties kicked off campaigning Thursday for next month's general election, which is almost certain to see the return to power of Asia's longest-serving leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Eleven parties are contesting the July 27 polls for the 123-seat National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, with the winner forming a government for the next five years.

Hun Sen's long-running control over the levers of state and his unmatchable political instincts all but ensure that he will lead a return of his Cambodian People's Party to office.

Hun Sen, once a member of the ultra-leftist Khmer Rouge, has been at the helm of Cambodia since 1985, when he was made prime minister of a communist government installed by neighboring Vietnam. He became an elected prime minister in a democratic vote only after his party won an 1998 election. His party has tightened its grip on power since then, with 73 seats in the National Assembly.

They "must have self-confidence in deciding to choose the political party of their liking without any coercion, pressure and intimidation," Hun Sen said in statement Tuesday. He has in the past been accused of using strong-arm tactics against political foes.

Challengers include Sam Rainsy, the outspoken opposition leader who heads his self-named Sam Rainsy Party. The party, which currently holds 24 seats in the National Assembly, has constantly accused Hun Sen's government of corruption, human rights abuses and mismanagement of natural resources.
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