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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Hun Sen Wins Cambodian Election and Probably Expands Majority

By Daniel Ten Kate

July 27 (Bloomberg) -- Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former communist who has ruled for two decades, won today's election and probably increased his parliamentary majority amid greater prosperity and a wave of nationalism over a border dispute.

Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party finished first in the voting, followed by opposition leader Sam Rainsy's party, named after himself, said Khan Keo Mono, a spokesman for the National Election Committee.

``Votes are still being counted but the CPP probably won more seats than it did in 2003,'' the spokesman said by telephone today. Official results are expected tomorrow.

The ruling party's victory may lead to more foreign investment. The economic expansion and a recent military standoff with neighboring Thailand over disputed land near the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple, a United Nations' World Heritage Site, have benefited the incumbent government.

``Political stability has been and will continue to be the most important contributor to Cambodia's rapid economic growth,'' said a July 21 note from the Cambodia Investment and Development Fund, one of several funds planning to spend about $450 million in the country.

In the 2003 election, Hun Sen's party won 73 of 123 parliamentary seats, or 59 percent, short of the two-thirds majority then required to form a government. In 2006, lawmakers changed the constitution to allow a party to form a government with a simple majority. Hun Sen said he expects to win 81 seats in this election.

Disenfranchised

Sam Rainsy, whose party won 24 seats in the 2003 election, said today that 200,000 voters in Phnom Penh were disenfranchised because their names were taken off voter lists. He called for a re-vote in the capital, where he outperformed Hun Sen in the previous election.

Election observers, who noted the missing names on voter lists, said the poll was cleaner than in previous years. Human rights groups have said political violence during this campaign season did not reach the level seen in years past.

``This election was better,'' Hang Puthea, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, a non-governmental organization, said by phone Sunday night. ``We saw irregularities but they were fewer than we saw before.''

Sam Rainsy was probably exaggerating the number of people whose names were left off voter lists, Hang Puthea said. The National Election Committee has the authority to call a new election, an unlikely prospect at this point.

``The election went smoothly; we just had some problems with missing voter names,'' said Khan Keo Mono, the national election committee spokesman. He added that those people ``cannot vote anymore.''

Growing Support

For now, Hun Sen, 56, is enjoying growing support as foreign investment creates jobs in the energy, agriculture, tourism and garment industries and he rewards rural voters with new schools and paved roads. The ongoing troop buildup along the Thai border has stirred up nationalism that gave him a boost heading into today's election.

Thailand and Cambodia plan to meet tomorrow in Siem Reap, home to Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat temple complex, to try and resolve the row over 4.6 square kilometers of disputed land. Thailand appointed a new foreign minister yesterday to lead negotiations after the previous one was forced to resign over the issue.

Issue Resolution

New Foreign Minister Tej Bunnag said in a statement today that he is ``confident that on the basis of their close and long- standing friendship, the two countries will be able to find ways to resolve the issue together.''

Cambodia has started to rehabilitate its image as a corrupt beggar state after the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s killed most of the educated class. It received $763 million in foreign aid last year.

Foreign investment is set to double from $2.7 billion this year, according to the Cambodian Investment Board, a government agency. As the country prepares to open a stock market next year, foreign investment funds such as Leopard Capital are looking at banks, office buildings, luxury hotels and other projects.

To contact the reporters on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok at dtenkate@bloomberg.net

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Cambodia’s ruling party claims victory at the polls

AGENCIES, PHNOM PENH

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claimed an expected victory in yesterday’s general election, giving another five years in power to former Khmer Rouge guerrilla Hun Sen, prime minister for the last 23 years.

Party spokesman Khieu Kanharith said the one-time communist, but now firmly free-market CPP, was on course to win 80 of the 123 seats in parliament.

But opposition leader Sam Rainsy of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) called for a rerun of the elections in districts around the capital Phnom Penh, saying voters were wrongly struck from the rolls.

He also disputed claims by the CPP that it was leading in 80 of the country’s 123 constituencies.

“Neither party won more than two-thirds of the seats,” he told reporters.

Sam Rainsy, whose party held 24 seats in the last parliament, claimed that 200,000 of Phnom Penh’s 722,000 voters had not been able to cast ballots because of irregularities with the electoral lists.

“We don’t accept the result in Phnom Penh,” he said. “I demand a rerun of the election in Phnom Penh to bring justice to voters. I call for a demonstration in Phnom Penh. I appeal to all people whose names were unfairly deleted — please hold a huge protest in Phnom Penh.”

Election observers said they had confirmed cases of voters having their names removed from the rolls, but said they doubted the problem was as widespread as Sam Rainsy claimed.

“The atmosphere for the election day is better than past elections. But the most prominent point is that the turnout was low and a lot of names disappeared” from the rolls, said Hang Puthea, head of the group of election monitors. “I can’t believe that as many as 200,000 names went missing. I could believe the number is maybe 20,000.”

Full results from yesterday’s poll, which passed off largely without incident in a country where democratic politics have frequently been marred by violence, were not expected until late today.
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L.B. Cambodians rally against border dispute

By Greg Mellen, Staff Writer

LONG BEACH - Flags waved, music played and 50 to 100 members of the Cambodian community gathered at MacArthur Park on Saturday to stage a petition drive, collect donations and present information about a tense border dispute and military standoff between Thailand and their home country near an 11th century Hindu temple.

Leaders from a variety of Cambodian civic groups hastily put the event together to get the word out about worrisome events in Cambodia that have led to several narrowly avoided skirmishes between Thai and Cambodian military forces.

The local group gathered about 400 signatures on a petition asking the United Nations to intervene in the dispute. The nonprofit group Cambodian-Americans Stand United also asked for donations from residents to provide humanitarian aid to troops and residents in the remote area.

It is also calling for a boycott in the community of Thai products and imported foods.

Organizers were happy with the turnout, given the short notice. Richer San said KBN, a local Cambodian television station, did a three-hour segment on the dispute and was flooded by calls and interest in the issue.

Anthony Kim, an organizer, said more petitions would likely be circulated in coming days.
"We're very excited to see the turnout," Kim said.

He added that since the issue has been raised, he has been proud to see the local community pulling together and displaying patriotic interest in their
homeland.

While the information was circulated, a band played popular and patriotic Cambodian songs.

Darany Siv, Un Sophal, Oum Sovany and Hem Vanakl, singers from the popular Hak Heang Restaurant, stopped by to lend their backing and took time to perform a song for those who had gathered.

"We just came by to support this," Siv said.

San said the music and festive nature of the event was meant to exemplify the peaceful nature of the gathering and not to incite anyone.

The government of Cambodia recently postponed a request for U.N. intervention as the countries seek a resolution.

The dispute focuses on a longstanding disagreement over 1.8 miles of land along the northern Cambodia border. The disagreement was heightened when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, designated the Preah Vihear temple in Cambodia a World Heritage site.

Thailand sent troops to the border July 15 after anti-government groups claimed support by Prime Minister Sundaravej Samak's government for Cambodia's application would undermine Thai claims to nearby land.

Since the dispute began, Thai forces have taken up positions around the temple on disputed land. Cambodians say it is tantamount to an invasion.

The World Heritage designation could be an important step in turning the remote clifftop temple into a tourist site, like the immensely popular Angkor Wat complex near Siem Reap. And that increases the stakes for the land.

Local organizers said they are also worried about the health and welfare of residents and soldiers in the area. Reports have come from the area that water is particularly scarce. Because of the temple's cliffside location it is particularly difficult to reach from the Cambodian side and Thai troops have reportedly cut off other access routes.

Danny Vong, another organizer, said Cambodian residents in the area have been caught up in the dispute. Many depend on trade with Thai merchants for essentials.

Foreign ministers from both countries are scheduled to meet Monday in the Cambodian city of Siem Reap, according to The Associated Press.

"This is a new step in our good will to try to find a solution to the problem through peaceful negotiations," Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told the AP after meeting with ambassadors to Cambodia from the Security Council's five permanent members.

Cambodia uses a French colonial map to mark the border while Thailand relies on a map drawn up later with American technical assistance, but accepts a ruling by the International Court of Justice that awarded the disputed temple to Cambodia in 1962.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

greg.mellen@presstelegram.com , 562-499-1291

HOW TO HELP

To contribute: People interested in making donations for humanitarian aid to residents of the Preah Vihear area can send checks to the Cambodian Cultural Arts Association, P.O. Box 5001, Long Beach, CA 90805.

For information: Call Bunsorng Tay, 562-716-2506; Danny Vong, 562-760-9000; Peter Long, 562-572-7407; or Sweety Chap, 562-400-8233.


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Temple talks pose challenge for new Thai foreign minister

BANGKOK - THAILAND'S new foreign minister will face a tough challenge immediately after being sworn in Sunday, as he heads to Cambodia for talks on a tense border dispute that brought down his predecessor.

Incoming minister Tej Bunnag is determined to ease tensions with Cambodia, but his spokesman warned that a swift end to the military standoff near the ancient Preah Vihear temple was unlikely.

'The minister said he will try his best to talk to the Cambodia foreign minister', the spokesman, Mr Tharit Charungvat, told reporters on Sunday.

'It is his first task - we hope we can find a solution on some level, but this issue is sensitive and complex'.

Mr Tej, 64, will be sworn in by the king later Sunday. He will then travel early Monday to Siem Reap in northwest Cambodia for negotiations with his counterpart, Mr Hor Namhong.

'The sensitive and complicated discussion on Monday will definitely need more rounds of talks ... The boundary is a very important and complex issue and it needs time to solve, step by step and slowly', Mr Tharit said.

Thousands of Thai and Cambodia troops are currently stationed in 4.6 square kilometres of disputed land near Preah Vihear, which was granted UN World Heritage Status this month.

Thailand initially supported Cambodia's bid to have the 11th century Hindu ruins recognised by the UN, but nationalists and anti-government protesters said the move jeopardised Thai sovereignty.

The Constitutional Court ruled that previous foreign minister Noppadon Pattama and the cabinet should have sought parliamentary approval for the deal with Cambodia over the temple, and Mr Noppadon was forced to resign on July 10.

Mr Tharit said that Mr Tej - a British-educated career diplomat who has worked as an advisor to the king - was well qualified to negotiate with Cambodia at a sensitive moment in their relations.

'He is an experienced diplomat and he was chairman of the Thailand-Cambodia Cultural Committee', he said.

Talks between Thailand's head of the armed forces General Boonsrang Niumpradit and Cambodia Defence Minister Tea Banh ended last Monday without resolution, with neither side backing down on their territorial claims.

The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the Preah Vihear temple belongs to Cambodia, but surrounding land remains in dispute. -- AFP

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Cambodian ruling party heads to poll win

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - Cambodians went to the polls Sunday in an election dominated by a tense border dispute with neighbouring Thailand that has fuelled national sentiment, strengthening longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Hun Sen's reputation as a strongman who intimidates rivals has served him well, with voters rallying around the leader as Cambodian troops face off with Thai soldiers for a second week at a disputed 11th century Hindu temple on the border.

Dressed in grey safari shirt and pants, Hun Sen flashed a broad smile and displayed a black-inked forefinger to waiting cameras after casting his ballot Sunday in a provincial town outside the capital, Phnom Penh. He declined comment to reporters.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy called a midday news conference, claiming some 200,000 registered voters in the capital, where the opposition is strongest, were unable to cast ballots because their names had been left off voter lists.

The ruling party "is full of tricks. Scrap the election and do it again," he said. Allegations of vote fraud have plagued past Cambodian elections but never dented the ruling party's dominance.
Asia's longest-serving leader, the 57-year-old Hun Sen was forecast to win the vote even before the military standoff escalated earlier this month. But patriotic passions over Preah Vihear temple and Hun Sen's firm stance against Thailand have swayed many undecided voters in his favour, analysts say.


"Everybody now supports the government because this is a national issue," said Kek Galabru, a prominent Cambodian human rights activist and election monitor. "More people will vote for (Hun Sen) to give him more power to deal with Preah Vihear."

Chan Sim, a 72-year-old voter in the capital, cast his ballot for Hun Sen's ruling party "because of its good leadership and ability to keep unity."

A 24-year-old Buddhist monk, Chhuon Noeurn, said the standoff at Preah Vihear did not affect his choice for a leader, but added: "We Cambodians cannot afford to be divided on this issue."
More than eight million of Cambodia's 14 million people were eligible to vote in Sunday's election.
Buddhist monks and ordinary people, some holding toddlers with milk bottles, crowded polling stations when they opened at 8 p.m. EDT. Unofficial party results were expected a few hours after polling stations closed at 4 a.m. EDT. Official figures were expected later in the week.

Eleven parties are vying for seats in the 123-seat National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, with the winner forming a new government to run the country for the next five years.

Hun Sen himself has voiced little doubt that his ruling Cambodian People's party, which held 73 Assembly's seats during the past five-year-term, will return with an overwhelming majority.

Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia since 1985, when he became prime minister of a Vietnamese-installed communist government after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Internationally, he has faced criticism for alleged corruption and human rights abuses. But Hun Sen argues his tenure ushered in peace and stability after the Khmer Rouge's genocidal reign from 1975-1979, which killed an estimated 1.7 million people before being toppled by the invading Vietnamese army.

A former Khmer Rouge soldier himself, Hun Sen embraced free-market policies that have made Cambodia's economy one of the fastest growing in Asia, expanding at 11 per cent in each of the past three years.

"The economic growth helps. And in a time of crisis, people feel they have to be united behind the power that controls the army," said Benny Widyono, an independent observer and former United Nations official during Cambodia's UN-brokered peace process in the early 1990s.

The opposition Sam Rainsy Party, which held 24 seats in the lower house of parliament, campaigned for greater attention to human rights, the country's poor and an end to alleged corruption.

But standard election issues have been upstaged by the military standoff with Thailand, a controversy revolving around 1.8 square miles of land that has been in dispute since French colonialists withdrew from Cambodia in the 1950s.

The International Court of Justice awarded the temple site to Cambodia in 1962, but anger flared in Thailand last month after Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej backed Cambodia's successful bid for the temple to be listed as a U.S. World Heritage Site.

Thailand sent troops to the border July 15 after Thai anti-government demonstrators assembled near the temple. Cambodia responded by sending its own troops to the border.
The two countries plan to resume negotiations on the border row Monday.


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TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT

Border troops cope with cold, lack of water, slow meals

Story by WASSANA NANUAM

It was 1430hrs and his lunch was nowhere to be seen. So ranger Somnuek Khammungkhun decided to make do with grilled sticky rice to keep hunger at bay.

It was not the first time the ranger found himself munching on grilled sticky rice while waiting for his food to be served, since he and 500 rangers from the 23rd Rangers Regiment were deployed in the disputed 4.6sqkm border area next to the
temple of Preah Vihear.

They used to have lunch at 1500hrs and dinner at 2100hrs. On some days when they first arrived their food did not turn up and it was the freshly grilled warm sticky rice that they banked on.

"It is alright. If lunch does not come, I will reach for sticky rice and instant noodles I carry with me," he said.

Sticky rice seems to serve him and his colleagues well. Most of them are natives of the northeastern provinces, including ranger Somnuek, 46, of Mukdahan, who have thrived on sticky rice.

"And when the food comes, we will share it with Cambodian soldiers to show our good will," he said.

The support system is not yet effective because the troops were first deployed on July 15. Cambodian troops, on the other hand, have been around and are much more familiar with the terrain.

The rangers tolerate not only uncertainty over meals, but also scarcity of water supply for both drinking and bathing.

Soldiers had limited drinking water and several of them tried to save it as long as they could by taking a few droplets - just enough to quench their thirst.

Fetching clean water from natural resources is out of the question. Water resources on the Thai side are contaminated with untreated waste water released by Cambodian villagers who crossed the border and built shops and other structures on Thai soil.

Moreover, they cannot wander far to find fresh water sources because the surrounding areas are not yet cleared of landmines.

The hardest thing to tolerate for Thai troops is probably the weather.

They have only plastic sheets to protect themselves from the sharp cold when night falls. Their makeshift lodgings are also made of plastic sheets.

"It is torture at night. It is cold and it gets worse when it rains. Our clothes are soaked and get dry only when the sun comes out," said ranger Likhit Kailuem.

Capt Katanyu Ruensamran, attached to the Buri Ram-based 26th Rangers Regiment, said that Thai troops have to be patient with provocation.

Cambodian soldiers have a way to provoke Thai troops, he said.

"Some asked us what we were doing on Cambodian soil. We bear with it. We can also claim that we are on Thai soil," he said.

According to Kanok Nettrakhawesa, commander of the Suranaree Task Force, the troops have meals late because they do not have food supplies with them. Food is sent on a daily basis and they are not allowed to cook.

Food is sent from a command post at Pha Mor E-daeng cliff which is about two kilometres away - but it is two kilometres over rough terrain and steep cliffs.

He said that sending food on a daily basis is a military tactic - to make Cambodian troops familiar with the sight of Thai troops walking up and down the disputed area.

"We need to move and make Cambodian troops familiar with our movements otherwise they will notice when we have rotations of forces," he said.

Second Army commander Lt-Gen Sujit Sitthiprapa has ordered rotations of troops every 7-15 days to ease stress.

Maj-Gen Kanok said he expects to discuss with local Cambodian authorities troop deployments to ease tension and confrontation.

Thai and Cambodian troops are too close for comfort, he said.

"An accident could happen. We have to take extreme precautions. But if something happens, I think our soldiers are ready to face it."

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Cambodianclaims being countered

By Wassana Nanuam

The army has stepped up its campaign to counter Cambodia's territorial claims over an overlapping border area around Preah Vihear temple.

The Suranaree military task force has set up a public relations and information dissemination centre at the office of the Preah Vihear national park, some eight kilometres from the temple ruins.

Veeravit Chornsamrit, deputy commander of the Second Army, has been assigned to oversee the divulgence of information.

An army source said previously the army did not allow reporters access to the disputed 4.6sqkm overlapping area for fear of possible leak of military secrets.

But they have now changed their position after seeing the Cambodian authorities permit their reporters into the area to report on the developments freely, the source said. Earlier, Thai reporters had been allowed into the area only twice- on July 20 and 24.

"This is a pro-active information operation. But Cambodian troops are now complaining. They don't want Thai reporters entering the area. We have refused to budge since the area also belongs to us," the same source said.

Maj-Gen Veeravit said media coverage on the issue generally lacked consistency, causing confusion among the people.

He said all is well and there is no tension. "Most importantly, there are no troop buildups. Even though the troops of both sides are standing face to face, they are on good terms."

They are acting on the orders of the the Thai-Cambodia General Border Committee (GBC), which has told them to maintain the spirit of brotherhood.

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