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Friday, June 27, 2008

Cambodians fear loss of sovereignty

By Supalak Ganjanakhundee

A group of Cambodians have accused their government of losing rights to sovereignty over the area surrounding Preah Vihear in dealing with Thailand to try to get World Heritage status for the temple.

The group known as the Cambodia Watchdog Council International said in a statement that Phnom Penh was "tricked" into limiting its right to use only 30 metres from the ruined structure of the Preah Vihear to apply for a World Heritage listing.

The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 to put the Preah Vihear under Cambodia's sovereignty in accordance with the Siam-Franco treaty in 1904 and 1907 - as well as the French-made map.

"The map, which has been kept at The Hague, indicated clearly that the area [considered by Thailand as the overlapping area] belongs to Cambodia," the statement said.

"Taking only the temple and its limited foundation area is a loss of our territory to Thailand," it said.

"Thailand has never dared to put the case to the World Court for clarification of the boundary, but wanted to take over the temple and shut down our economic opportunities from tourism at the site," it said.

The group demanded the Cambodian government recall the new map and insisted it use the original one for the application.

The Bangkok office of Unesco has said it would forward the request, which was supported by more than 3,000 signatures by Thai people, to the Unesco head office in Paris.

The Thai Foreign Ministry is worried the fierce debate in Thailand, both in Parliament and street protests, could cause misunderstanding and hurt relations with Cambodia.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat said the ministry had launched a white paper to answer all questions over the deal with Cambodia on the Preah Vihear. The paper can be downloaded from the ministry's website.

The negative reaction began after the opposition Democrat Party launched a censure motion against Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama, accusing him of recognising Cambodia's sovereignty over the foundations of the temple.

The ICJ ruled that Cambodia had sovereignty over the temple but never ruled on the foundation area, according to opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Noppadon said the Cabinet in 1962 followed the ICJ's ruing and handed the ruined temple with 250,000 square metres of its foundations to Cambodia.

As long as Phnom Penh included only that part for World Heritage listing, it had nothing to do with Thai sovereignty, he said.
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Opinion: The meaning of censure

By Thitinan Pongsudhirak
The government has the numbers to ensure political survival but a major cabinet reshuffle is needed and the coalition partners will want more influential

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Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Associate Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

The concerted movement to bring down the People Power party-led government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej this week shifted its focus from street protests to a parliamentary censure debate. As parliament's current session ends tomorrow, the government initially wanted only to debate the Budget Bill rather than to allow a censure motion, as it has been in power for just four months.

However, the pressure from street demonstrators under the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) prompted the government to concede to a censure debate. While the government is likely to win the vote in the Lower House when the debate concludes today, Mr Samak and a clutch of his cabinet ministers will be so bruised with their credibility shaken to a point that a wide-ranging cabinet reshuffle will be needed.

After the censure debate, the PAD will continue to undermine the government's credibility and legitimacy in the streets, stymieing Mr Samak's limited ability to address pressing economic difficulties. His position after the censure debate will thus become untenable.

As the only party in opposition, the Democrat party has decided to focus its attack on only seven ministers from the PPP, leaving aside all the cabinet members from the other five coalition partners. This tactic is designed to isolate Mr Samak and the largest ruling party, opening up the possibility of coalition partners crossing over and the remote chance that Democrat party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva will cobble up an alternative coalition and scale to the premiership in the event the sitting prime minister is compelled to resign.

The opposition is now part of a three-pronged attack, led in the censure debate by the Democrats and in a separate anti-government motion by the mostly appointed portion of the Senate, as well as outside parliament by the PAD.

The beleaguered Samak government still commands almost two-thirds of MPs in the 480-member Lower House, with more than 220 under the PPP. Notwithstanding the manoeuvres during the debate, the government's numbers are sufficient to ensure political survival when the censure motion goes to a vote today.

However, the PPP's partners will gain more leverage within the ruling coalition and may try to convert it for better portfolio allotments down the line.

The opposition has had ample ammunition to take the Samak government to task. It has mostly focused on policy missteps, standard-of-living issues and alleged conflicts of interest. Central to the Democrats' censure manoeuvres has been the hot controversy surrounding Preah Vihear temple along the Thai-Cambodian border. The Samak government has inked a settlement that recognises Cambodia's sovereignty over the temple complex and its adjoining parcel of land. A verdict by the International Court of Justice in 1962 indicated that the temple belonged to Cambodia but Thai perceptions insist that its location has been, and should be, on Thai soil, despite growing accounts by respected Thai historians to the contrary.

Stirring up nationalist fervour, the PAD has accused the government of selling out to Cambodia with vested interests hidden behind the deal, an allusion to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's reported business intentions in Cambodia, with particular reference to the development of Koh Kong island.

The Preah Vihear temple affair is being shaped by the PAD and the opposition as the equivalent of Mr Thaksin's sale of his family-owned Shin Corp conglomerate to Singapore's Temasek Holdings in early 2006, which became the last straw that eventually overthrew his regime.

The Samak government did not help matters by pressing ahead without doing the necessary homework and earning public trust to settle the temple ownership, border demarcation, and registration as a World Heritage site.

While this issue is unlikely to be enough for a government downfall, it will continue to erode the government's credibility in the absence of corrective measures and adequate explanations to the public. It is incumbent on the government to take a pause on the Preah Vihear controversy in order to clarify and overcome doubts and allegations of a sell-out.

The censure debate has highlighted Mr Samak's weaknesses and his government's shortcomings. The prime minister is now embattled. He has a narrow base within PPP, which is beset with internal rumblings from different factions. Mr Samak also faces friction with other parties in the coalition. His lack of policy expertise and his ill temper have worsened his lot in the eyes of the public, fanning the PAD's flames.

At minimum, he will have to revamp his cabinet to shore up government performance. Getting rid of cabinet liabilities, such as Interior Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, would be a start, but more policy hands are needed in key economy-related portfolios. More policy coordination between ministries led by PPP and coalition partners is needed. The semblance of policy effectiveness in the face of growing hardships and rising food and energy prices is imperative.

Even if he manages a significant cabinet reshuffle and more responsive policy measures, Mr Samak will still be pressed by the PAD and its anti-government allies in parliament. His endgame will be drawn out but its denouement is likely weeks away. The key now is not whether he will be forced out well before his term ends, but how Mr Samak intends to leave the stage.

Foremost in his mind should be a transition that is within parliamentary and constitutional boundaries, not the detour and short cut that the PAD is demanding in the name of a warped paradigm called Thailand's so-called "new politics" of less representation and more nomination and appointment.



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Thai business under threat

NAREERAT WIRIYAPONG & SOMRUEDI BANCHONGDUANG

Thai businesses operating in Cambodia have expressed concern that bilateral relations could be shaken by conflict over the Preah Vihear temple.

The opposition Democrat Party has blasted the government over the past week, alleging that it is ceding Thai territory to Cambodia for supporting the latter's bid to register Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site.

The World Court earlier ruled that Preah Vihear is Cambodian territory and that Thailand has no claim to the temples.

The Thai embassy in Phnom Penh recently met with Thai business executives operating in Cambodia to discuss the political and social tensions between the two countries.

Business leaders want to avoid a repeat of the anti-Thai riots of January 2003, when the Thai embassy and Thai businesses were sacked. The riots were sparked by allegedly inflammatory remarks made by a Thai actress and resulted in hundreds of millions of baht in damage.

''We do hope that the current arguments will not last long,'' said Chitrapongse Kwangsukstith, chief operations officer for upstream petroleum and gas business of PTT Plc.

''There are several possible peaceful solutions that will be of mutual benefit. But if the situation could not be ended quickly and get worse, it would possibly make the relationship sour and cause the parties to lose trust in each other. [Thai] businesses operating [in Cambodia] could be affected.''

PTT holds a licence to develop an offshore natural gas block off the east coast of Cambodia. It also has been in discussions about petroleum exploration rights in the overlapping area that is claimed by both countries.

Dr Chitrapongse said that the temple issue could complicate discussions over the overlapping claims.

Niyom Waiyaratchapanich, the chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce's committee on border trade development, called on the government and related parties to end the conflict quickly.

''If it is prolonged and intensified to provoke nationalistic actions, Thai businesses in Cambodia would be seriously affected,'' said Mr Niyom.

Thai investors rank third among foreign businesses investing in Cambodia after Korea and Japan. Most Thai investments are in hotels and construction.

Thailand enjoys a trade surplus of 35 billion baht in trade worth 40 billion baht annually, he added.

Thailand's Siam Cement Group has operated a cement plant in Cambodia and plans to expand its logistics and trading businesses. The Charoen Pokphand group has invested in an animal feed and integrated agricultural project there.

Thai Airways International files daily between Bangkok and Phnom Penh, while Bangkok Airway operates daily flights from Bangkok to Cambodia's capital and Siam Reap. Thai Air Asia has seven flights a week between Phnom Penh and Bangkok.

Figures from the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) show that 35,796 Thai nationals visited Cambodia in 2007, up 14.5% over the previous year, mainly for tourism and business. Meanwhile, 108,776 Cambodians visited Thailand, down 13.2%, due mainly to a sharp rise in the Thai baht. Cambodia uses the US dollar as its main currency.

''Conflicts over Preah Vihear are highlighted once again, making the bilateral relationship not so smooth. This could cause Cambodian tourists to lose confidence in visiting Thailand,'' the TAT said in a recent report.

Siam Commercial Bank executives said they were closely monitoring events.

Paspun Suwanchinda, the bank's executive vice-president, said the bank's operations in Phnom Penh had not been affected by the Preah Vihear case.

''Business transactions remain at normal levels,'' she said.

SCB operates branches in Phnom Penh, Battambang, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville under the name Cambodian Commercial Bank.

But while the situation appears stable now, Ms Paspun said the bank had contingency plans to cope with ''unpredictable events''.

''We are receiving round-the-clock information updates from the Thai embassy, and we have also held briefings with our staff to be sensitive to the situation,'' she said.

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