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Monday, June 30, 2008

Historical baggage a burden on thai-cambodian relations

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

The never-ending row over Preah Vihear Temple has to do with the complete lack of trust between Thailand and Cambodia, both at the governmental and citizen level.

In addition, the flames of nationalism have been fanned by politicians of all stripes on both sides. Years of historical baggage hang like a persistent cloud over their relations.

Ever since Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej took over, a convergence of numerous incidents, comments and hidden agendas have come together and raised suspicions in the minds of Thai stakeholders over territorial integrity. In this case, Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama's own idiosyncrasies and diplomatic gaffes have damaged the country's handling of the temple case. Add all of these elements together plus an overdose of invective against Cambodia and one can predict how bilateral relations will end up in the future.

It's unfortunate that the two countries have to experience such turbulence at a time that is trying for both. Cambodia will hold a general election on July 27, while in Thailand the Samak government is trying to stay alive as a surrogate of deposed former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The scare from the torching of the Thai embassy at the end of January, 2003 is still fresh in the minds of Thais. But the flames of the pair's love-hate relations date back to the 13th century and the founding of the Sukhothai Kingdom.

Visitors to the ruins of the 11th Angkor Wat complex in Siem Reap (which literally means "flattened Siam") can easily see how the Siamese invaders were portrayed in the carvings on the stone walls. Their faces are ugly and cruel. To Cambodians, Thais are villains who invaded their country and destroyed the Angkor civilisation. They are also arrogant and often look down on their neighbours.

When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, millions of Cambodians sought refuge overseas, nearly a half a million of them crossing the border into Aranyaprathet. Some of them stayed for over a decade before they were settled into third countries. Indeed, very few of these refugees, if any, decided to remain in Thailand.

Truth be told, these refugees, who have since grown up to receive good educations and become affluent, do not have any fond memories of their rough childhood years spent at Khao-I-Dang camp. Some of these same people are now in power and are directing Cambodia's foreign policy. Former Khmer Rouge resistance fighters who used to live in Thailand and were under the care of the Thai Army often recall bitter experiences and the ways they were patronised, albeit while mentioning some of the good deeds committed by the Thais.

Back in 1996 and 1997, senior Thai officials were also involved in an unpublicised and aborted coup in Cambodia stemming from disputes over telecommunications deals. Thailand's involvement in its domestic politics also deepened Cambodian suspicions that if the opportunity arose, Thailand's power-wielders would destabilise the country. That explains why instances of joint-development cooperation are hard to come by. Thailand and Malaysia entered into their first joint-development cooperation effort in the Gulf of Thailand back in 1979 and the cooperation continues with profits shared between the two countries. The Thai-Malay effort could serve as a model for a joint gas development effort between Thailand and Cambodia in the disputed area in the gulf.

After peace came to Cambodia in 1993, Thailand's economic and cultural presence in the country started to increase rapidly. Eager Thai investors were seen as cowboys coming into the country to turn a fast profit, while exploiting the resource-rich country. Anti-Thai sentiment and hatred went on the rise. Meanwhile, local markets were filled with Thai consumer products; on TV, Thai soap operas were dubbed in broken Khmer. At one point, the Hun Sen government even banned Thai dramas. During the UN-sanctioned political transition in Cambodia during the 1990s, Thai pop culture and language were popular among Cambodians. The Thai government did not realise this potential and failed to nurture these good feelings.

But it has not all been one-sided. Thais who are old enough might recall the Cambodian horror film Puos Keng Kang ("The Snake King's Child") made by Dy Saveth, a Cambodian actress who was hugely popular in Thailand. Indeed, the Khmer cultural influence in Thailand is far greater than the Thais are willing to admit. Historians concur quite readily that Khmer cultural contributions over the past several centuries have enriched Thai culture in its present form.

Indeed, Cambodia is different from Burma, a country perceived as an eternal enemy by the Thais. Indeed, the Cambodians are as close to the Thais as the Lao. Both Thailand and Cambodia share similar customs and traditions, as well as Buddhism. Without Khmer words, the Thai language would not be as rich.

Fast-forward to the present, and it took Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong's comments about Surakiart Sathirathai for the UN's top job to galvanise the Thaksin government to go full steam ahead on the Preah Vihear issue. The versatile foreign minister will again serve in the days and weeks to come in the effort to resolve the Preah Vihear issue.

Thailand should learn and adjust its relations with Cambodia. It needs to prevent an anti-Thai sentiment from arising as it did in 2003. Since joining Asean in 1999, the country has joined the ranks of democratic countries, albeit one with many imperfections. It has a vibrant economy and able technocrats and diplomats. With potential gas and oil deposits, Cambodia's future is going to be a strong one.

The trouble is, Thailand has never dealt with stronger neighbours in an equal manner before.

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Going it alone

By Sambath Teth

Cambodia has vowed to press ahead with its bid for a UNESCO World Heritage listing for Preah Vihear temple despite a Thai court ruling that Bangkok cannot support the nomination for the ancient Hindu site.

"It's their internal problem," Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told the Post in a phone interview on June 30.

"[Preah Vihear] is our temple and we want it to receive world heritage listing," Siphan said.

"Preah Vihear belongs to us so we are not interested in this," he added, referring to an injunction issued by Thailand's Administrative Court on June 28.

The injunction temporarily blocked the Thai government from supporting Cambodia's nomination to seek world heritage status for Preah Vihear at a UNESCO meeting in Quebec starting July 2.

The injunction follows a joint communiqué endorsing the nomination that was signed by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An and Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama on June 18.

The injunction had been sought by a coalition of activist groups in Thailand, the People's Alliance for Democracy, which has been leading weeks of street protests in Bangkok against the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.

Opposition parties criticized Samak over the communiqué during a no-confidence debate in the Thai parliament last week after the Preah Vihear issue had been raised at the street protests in Bangkok.

Siphan expressed frustration at the role played by Thai opposition parties.

"The Cambodian government is working with the Thai government; we are not working with the Thai opposition," he said.

Siphan downplayed the possibility of unrest in Cambodia over the stand taken by some Thai groups.

"Thai restaurants are full of Cambodian people," he said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong also expressed regret that some Thai parties and politicians were exploiting the Preah Vihear issue as part of their campaign against the Samak government.

"I am very sorry they are using Preah Vihear for their internal political purposes; this can affect the friendship and cooperation between our two countries," Namhong told a news conference on June 27.

On June 22, the Cambodian government closed the border checkpoint at Preah Vihear, citing security concerns after a group of Thai activists gathered at a market near the main entrance to the temple, which is most easily accessed from the Thai side of the border.

In response to the border closure, a ceremony was held at Preah Vihear on June 30 to offer food to the small Cambodian community living at the temple site and to pray for peace.

The ceremony was sponsored by the Khmer Civilization Foundation, which on June 15 hosted a celebration in Phnom Penh to mark the 46th anniversary of the ruling by the International Court of Justice granting ownership of Preah Vihear to Cambodia.

Foundation president Moeung Sonn said the donated food, including four tons of rice and 330 bottles of fish sauce, as well as soy sauce, salt and packaged noodles, had cost $4,000, including $1,000 of his own money.

Sonn said he planned to take doctors with him on a return trip to Preah Vihear because some of the Cambodians there were ill and had requested medicine and medical treatment.
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Sorting Through Sadness

By John Brown

Those who live there call it “Smokey Mountain.” Officially, it’s the Steung Meanchey landfill in Cambodia, the city dump for Phnom Penh, a 100-acre mountain of waste where some 2,000 registered workers, including 600 children, sift through roughly 700 tons of garbage a day.

The air is thick with smoke and the smell of burning rubbish. The dirt road leading to the dumping ground is lined with recycling facilities, makeshift noodle stands, a pool hall and a hairdressing shop. Beyond the industrial scales used to weigh arriving trucks is a huge, flat plateau of garbage crawling with workers. Children, some barefoot and naked, clutch plastic bags full of empty bottles and cans.

Large tractors crisscross the site shoveling the slippery flotsam into massive piles of rotting food, clothes, magazines and wilted flowers. Groups of scavengers converge on the incoming trucks while others scour ash and soot searching for lucrative metal. Tarpaulin and plastic shelters dot the landscape, providing relief from hot sun or soaking rain. Children too young to join their parents occupy several of these refuges, playing with found objects—and dead animals.

These children can’t attend school because their families depend upon even the youngest worker’s income, as little as $.50 USD per day, to sustain them. Replacing that income is the first step in getting these children an education. According to its website, the French NGO Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (“for a child’s smile”) has helped 5,000 children attend school in Phnom Penh during the past 10 years.

As the afternoon sun descends behind drifting walls of hazy gray air, workers separate items by type, sacks are filled, gathered and weighed, and recyclers pay each worker in cash. According to Thingha, a 26-year-old worker from Phnom Penh, “Many of the people have difficulty finding metal, that’s why I choose to concentrate on metal each day.” Other workers focus their efforts on soft, clear plastic that can generate 200 riels (about $.05 USD) per kilogram.

Shrouded by impending nightfall, the Steung Meanchey workers trek back to their ramshackle living quarters on the edge of the facility. Small clusters of wood-frame shacks wrapped with plastic and canvas await them. Children gather scraps of wood used to fuel fires for cooking while women fill pots with rice that will be prepared on heavy clay or black cast iron stoves. After their evening meal, large families retire for the evening to sleeping spaces, some no larger than three by four meters, only to arise before dawn to repeat this routine the next day.

Led By Hope

The World Bank reports that 35 percent of Cambodia’s population of around 14 million exists on less than $.50 USD per day. Since an adult who spends 12 hours per day scavenging through this sea of waste may earn as much as 10,000 riels, or the equivalent of $2.50 USD, many workers come to work at Steung Meanchey to escape the crushing poverty and malnourishment found in rural Cambodia. Their newfound wealth comes with a heavy price, however, as they are forced to breathe air polluted by the constant smolder that generates toxic byproducts from the flaming heaps of garbage. Scores of workers are seen coughing or sneezing, and most of the youngest children have runny noses, inflamed throats and watering eyes. Some scavengers sport facial scars from being struck by errant swinging gaffs, while others have been injured or killed by tractors or garbage trucks whose drivers didn’t notice them.

Cambodian-born Dr. Teng Soeun, 60, moved to the Steung Meanchey area four years ago from Phnom Penh’s city center and opened a health clinic near the landfill. “I feel better about myself living here in Steung Meanchey and I wanted to help,” says the German-educated hematologist. “The people who work at the dump look unhealthy because of the air pollution. I see a lot of breathing problems and eye infections. The potable water supply around here is also limited because of the poison that leaks into the ground.”

Small groups are trying to provide healthcare and supplies to the needy residents. They range from Los Angeles-based theinvisibles.org to endexploitation.org, a grassroots organization headquartered in Toronto. According to George Reed, a representative for endexploitation.org, the organization has recently provided a van to help the workers get to health clinics and hospitals. Despite their noteworthy humanitarian efforts, these groups have unwittingly added to the collective needs of the people who work there, since a large percentage of the workers come to Phnom Penh from rural Cambodia after learning about health, food and school programs available there.

Approximately 85 percent of Cambodians live in rural areas, including You Engsry, an unmarried 27-year-old resident of Prasat Village in Kampong Cham province. “I’ve heard about people leaving my village to pick through garbage, but that is something I don’t want to do,” he says. “Maybe if I had a family I would think about it,” he continued, “but I spend my extra money on English lessons.”

The need for humanitarian aid for newly arriving workers is seemingly constant, adding pressure on entities to sustain and grow their sources of funding. That doesn’t discourage Chicago’s Jerry and Valerie Varney from doing what they can. The couple is forming a new charity, justonechild.org, that they hope will receive enough funding to rescue as many youngsters from the misery as possible. While the Varneys’ initial focus will be trading garbage hooks for school books, Mr. Varney is taking an open approach to their new endeavor. “The areas we go into depend in large part on how much money we can raise,” he says. “I’m open to everything given the proper funding.”
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Top Khmer Rouge diplomat in court

Former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary has appeared before Cambodia's genocide tribunal to appeal against his detention.

The 82-year-old has been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Maoist regime's four-year rule in the late 1970s.

He is one of five former leaders of the Khmer Rouge being detained by the UN-backed tribunal.

Some 1.7 million people are thought to have died under the brutal regime.

Hundreds of thousands starved as the Khmer Rouge tried to create an agrarian society. Many others perceived as educated were tortured and executed.

Trials are expected to begin later in the year.

Royal pardon

About 300 people attended the hearing at the court in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

Ieng Sary is the most prominent surviving Khmer Rouge leader - and is still viewed as an influential and respected figure in parts of Cambodia, reports the BBC's Guy Delauney from Phnom Penh.

He received a royal pardon 12 years ago after reaching a deal with the government that resulted in the eventual surrender of the Khmer Rouge.

His lawyers say this is why he should not be facing charges now. They will also argue that a trial would amount to double jeopardy.

The Vietnamese-backed forces which ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979 tried Ieng Sary in absentia and found him guilty of genocide. That verdict was overturned by the pardon.

But Cambodians who survived Khmer Rouge prison camps feel particularly strongly about the former foreign minister, our correspondent adds.

Many of them were well-educated people who returned to the country after personal appeals from Ieng Sary to help rebuild Cambodia.

They were arrested on arrival, and thrown into brutal detention centres.

Ieng Sary's wife, former social welfare minister Ieng Thirith, has also been charged by the genocide court.
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Chinese-funded hydro-dams bring hope and fear to Cambodia

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — Hydropower is held up as the beacon of hope for millions of electricity-starved Cambodians, with ten planned hydro-dams set to power up their homes for the first time.

But flicking the switch comes at a price as critics say the controversial deals made with mostly Chinese companies to build the dams will create further hardship for Cambodia's poor and ruin the environment.

For window-maker Dorn Seanghor, however, the prospect of working without being plunged into darkness is appealing. In the midst of Cambodia's building boom his business should be thriving, but he is constantly frustrated.

"There's usually a blackout for six to eight hours almost every day -- one time in the morning and again in the evening," he said at his shop in the capital, Phnom Penh.

"It disturbs my business. I use a generator when the power is cut, but the price of gasoline is very high now."

Still, Dorn Seanghor is one of the luckier ones. Four-fifths of Cambodians do not have access to any electricity.

Ten dams are set to begin churning between 2010 and 2019, and once they are all operational the government says they will generate 2,045 megawatts of power, serving all Cambodia's provinces.

Government officials say six of the dams will be funded by Chinese companies, but the US-based International Rivers Network warned in a January report that these Chinese investments could threaten some of Cambodia's most precious eco-systems.

"Poorly conceived hydropower development could irreparably damage (natural) resources," the report warned.

Groups have been particularly concerned about the looming affects of Kamchay Dam, under construction by Sinohydro Corporation in Bokor National Park and expected to flood 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) of protected forest.

And now environmental groups say two more projects agreed in mid-June at a cost of more than one billion dollars -- Stung Tatay by China National Heavy Machinery Corporation and Russey Chrum Krom by Michelle Corporation -- have not been properly scrutinised.

Both will be located in the country's southwestern Cardamom Protected Forest, and about 1,600 hectares (3,953 acres) of woodland would have to be flooded or cleared to make way for the dams, the government has said.

This could destroy key animal habitats and upset the delicate eco-system.

"Cardamom is the last hot spot of conservation in Indochina," said Sam Chanthy, an environmental officer with advocacy group Forum on Cambodia.

Qian Hai, third secretary of the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh, denied his country's companies would damage the environment.

"We just help Cambodia. All these projects are approved by the parliament and the government," he said.

Ith Praing, Cambodia's energy secretary, insisted the government conducted careful environmental studies for all the dams.

"Outsiders always raise environmental issues, but we need electricity. We must develop our country. We must use our resources rather than buying oil," he said.

Cambodia has begun to climb back from decades of civil unrest to emerge as one of the region's fastest-growing economies.

Economic growth has averaged 11 percent over the past three years, although 30 percent of the 14 million people still earn less than a dollar per day.

The government fears rocketing energy prices will scare away foreign direct investment.

"Every sector needs electric power. When we have electricity at a reasonable price, development will come along," said Ith Praing, adding the government forecasts that by 2030, 70 percent of Cambodian families will have electricity.

Opposition member of parliament Son Chhay, however, said the debate is not simply a case of economic development versus the environment.

Poor people could be forced from their land to make way for the mega-projects, crops could be destroyed, while the environment the rural poor depend upon may be wiped out, he told AFP.

"The government just closes its eyes and lets Chinese companies do things that will cause a lot of problems in the future," Son Chhay said.

"It will not resolve poverty in Cambodia. Cambodia will lose a lot without taking into consideration the environmental consequences."
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NagaCorp Mulls Cambodia Casino Rights Sale as Competition Rises

By Netty Ismail

June 30 (Bloomberg) -- NagaCorp Ltd., the monopoly casino operator in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, said it may sell a license to foreign companies, giving them the right to develop a new gaming property in the city.

``NagaCorp may consider any subconcession proposal when the timing is right,'' Chief Executive Officer Chen Lip Keong, 60, said in an interview in Phnom Penh on June 27.

The company has a monopoly to operate casinos within a 200- kilometer (125-mile) radius of the capital until 2035, and isn't subject to any legal restriction on selling secondary licenses.

Cambodia's only publicly traded company is betting on growing wealth at home and in the neighboring countries of Thailand and Vietnam to increase its revenue base beyond gamblers from China, Malaysia and Singapore. Visitors to Cambodia have risen to about 2 million from 118,183 in 1993, when Southeast Asia's second-poorest nation emerged from a two- decade civil war.

NagaCorp has ``done a good job attracting customers,'' said Billy Ng, a gaming analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in Hong Kong. ``There will be more competition, but I don't think we need to be concerned about it now.''

Singapore awarded bids for two casino resorts in 2006, while Japan and Taiwan are considering allowing casinos in an effort to boost tourism.

Kuala Lumpur-based Genting Bhd., which will operate one of the two Singapore resorts, also plans to build Southeast Asia's first Universal Studios theme-park at its property in the city. Genting is Asia's biggest publicly traded gaming operator.

Macau Market

Foreign gaming operators including Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Wynn Resorts Ltd. are staking more than $20 billion on Macau after the city's government ended the 40-year monopoly of gambling magnate Stanley Ho. Macau surpassed the Las Vegas Strip as the world's biggest casino market in 2006.

NagaCorp is catering to ``regional mid-sized'' gamblers taken to its casino by junket operators, who provided about 45 percent of its gaming revenue last year, Chen said.

About 52 percent of revenue comes from the public casino floor. The operator's revenue rose 69 percent to $144 million in 2007.

``We are not competing head on with those high rollers in Macau,'' Chen said.

Citigroup Inc.'s Hong Kong-based analyst Anil Daswani, in a Feb. 18 report, said NagaCorp was part of the ``poor man's VIP'' market.

NagaCorp operated its casino on a barge moored along the banks of the Bassac River in Phnom Penh for eight years, before relocating in October 2003 to a permanent hotel and entertainment complex, NagaWorld, a few hundred meters away.

The company is expanding the complex to 700 hotel rooms and 300 gaming tables by next year. It had 508 hotel rooms and 176 gaming tables in June.

Chen owns 62 percent of NagaCorp after selling a 5 percent stake in the company in May for ``a small premium'' to Chicago- based Columbia Wanger Asset Management LP, he said.

Stock Performance

NagaCorp shares have fallen 18 percent this year, less than the 21 percent decline in the benchmark Hang Seng Index and a 33 percent drop in Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd., a Hong Kong- listed Macau casino operator. Genting fell 29 percent.

The Cambodian operator is trading at 8 times its forecast earnings per share for 2009, compared with an average of 21 times for its regional peers, Gavin Ho, a Hong Kong-based analyst at CLSA Ltd. said in a report dated June 26.

Ho initiated coverage of the stock with a ``buy'' recommendation, setting a 12-month price target of HK$3.31. NagaCorp's profit is set to grow 37 percent to $77 million in 2009, according to the CLSA report.

``I am situated in a country like Cambodia, I have a strong perception issue,'' Chen said. ``If I don't produce earnings, I am invisible, nobody will notice me.''
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