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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Cambodia,Thailand loath to blink first over temple

By Ek Madra

PHNOM PENH, July 29 (Reuters) - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Tuesday he would not withdraw troops and artillery from a disputed 900-year-old temple on the Thai border until Bangkok started to pull back its forces.

"It is a matter of when the Thais remove their troops," Hun Sen, who won another five years in power with a landslide election victory at the weekend, told reporters at Phnom Penh's Foreign Ministry.

The two southeast Asian nations' foreign ministers agreed on Monday to resolve the spat peacefully and scale back a two-week military build-up around the Preah Vihear ruins, awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice, a ruling that has rankled in Thailand ever since.

However, Thailand's cabinet, which is reeling from court decisions against several ministers and a long-running street campaign to remove it from power, issued no directives to the military after a weekly meeting on Tuesday.

Army chief Anupong Paochinda told reporters he was waiting for a government order to pull out the troops after both sides agreed to "redeploy" out of the disputed area on the jungle-clad escarpment that forms the natural border.

"When the government says withdraw, we will immediately do so," Anupong said.

Hun Sen's election victory means he does not have to pander to a nationalist clamour to tough it out with Cambodia's larger neighbour, although the wily former Khmer Rouge guerrilla has little to gain by being seen as the first to blink.

The Thai government faces similar nationalist pressures and is in a considerably weaker position at home than Hun Sen.

The spat first started when anti-government protesters in Thailand seized on Bangkok's backing for Cambodia's bid to have Preah Vihear listed as a World Heritage site, whipping up a nationalist fervour in Thailand.

Monday's 12 hours of talks in the Cambodian resort town of Siem Reap helped assuage fears of the imbroglio evolving into a full-blown military clash between the two sides, which have been locked in a standoff since July 15.

"If they pull out, we will do, too," Cambodia's military commander on the scene, Chea Mon, told Reuters by telephone. "But this is our pagoda. We should not move far from this area."

Even if they manage to avoid direct conflict, the saga is unlikely to die down quickly as ancient temples are among the most potent symbols of national pride in both countries.

In 2003, a Cambodian mob torched the Thai embassy and several Thai businesses in Phnom Penh after erroneously reported comments from a Thai soap opera star suggested Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat actually belonged to Thailand. (Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan in Bangkok) (Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Alan Raybould and Valerie Lee) ((ek.madra@thomsonreuters.com; +855 23 216977; Reuters Messaging ek.madra.reuters.com@reuters.net))

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Election win fuels fears for Cambodian democracy

By KER MUNTHIT

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The landslide election victory of Cambodia's ruling party puts the country under one party-rule and risks damaging its fragile democracy, rights groups said Wednesday.

Prime Minister Hun Sen's party claims it swept 90 of 123 seats in last weekend's parliamentary elections.

The result is expected to usher Hun Sen, who has ruled for 23 years, to a new 5-year term and give his party total domination of the lower house — a result that human rights groups are calling dangerous for democracy.

"We have long feared that the country was heading toward becoming a one-party rule," said Thun Saray, a prominent human rights activist and head of election monitoring group Comfrel. "The election results are only confirming our fears. The power of the ruling party is now so great that no one can challenge it."

Cheam Yeap, a senior ruling party member, dismissed the criticism, saying his party is not a "dictatorship."

The ruling party will use its victory to strengthen, not weaken, democracy and the rule of law "to win more support and trust from the people."

Official results from the election are expected later this week. But few dispute the tally issued by the CPP, which appears to have cemented a two-thirds majority in the lower house and increased its presence from the 73 seats it held in the outgoing chamber.

Hun Sen's government has often been accused of corruption, human rights abuses, curtailing people's rights to peaceful protests and forcibly evicting poor citizens off their land so that it can be used for commercial development. The government has dismissed the accusations.

Independent Cambodian election monitoring groups say the opposition Sam Rainsy Party appears to have won 26 seats — a two-seat gain from the 2003 polls — and back the ruling party's tally of 90 for the ruling CPP.

Hun Sen has been at the center of Cambodian politics since 1985, when he became the world's youngest prime minister at age 33. He has held or shared the top job ever since, bullying and outfoxing his opponents to stay in power.

Sunday's voting was the fourth parliamentary election since the United Nations brokered a peace deal for the country in 1991, a process meant to end decades of civil unrest that included the 1975-79 genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Martin Callanan, the head of an EU election monitoring team, said Tuesday that the elections fell short of international standards because of biases in favor of the ruling party. But he said alleged vote irregularities would have to be on a very large scale to invalidate the result, which is that Hun Sen's party "clearly has a very large majority."
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