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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

No agreement yet for Thai-Cambodian foreign ministers' border dispute meeting

No new agreement has been reached yet after hours of negotiations between Thai and Cambodian delegations led by respective foreign ministers over the disputed border around the Preah Vihear temple on Tuesday at Thailand's central resort town Cha-am, Phetchburi province.

The meeting between Thai Foreign Minister Tej Bunnag and his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong and a parallel study group by military and related border affairs officials opened on the morning at a hotel in Cha-am, some 220 kilometers southwest of Bangkok and near the beach resort town Hua Hin.

The meeting is aimed to find a peaceful solution to a long border dispute regarding a 4.6-sq-kilometer area around the 11th-century ruins of the Khmer-style Hindu temple of Preah Vihear, listed recently by UNESCO as a World Heritage, and to lay down foundations for future cooperation on demarcation and demining work along the disputed border.

The meeting lasted some six hours with a short lunch break before the two ministers left for a scheduled audience to the ThaiKing Bhumibol Adulyadej at the royal summer palace at nearby Hua Hin, where the King now resides, at around 4:30 p.m. (0930 GMT).

They will return to the hotel in the evening to continue the meeting, which was supposed to end within the day. However, the anticipation for a conclusion of success or breakthrough was low, as both sides had strong claims over some points that made the negotiation hard to pass through, sources said.

This is the second-round talks on a ministerial level. The two foreign minister had their first talks on July 28 in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which produced no big breakthrough.

As a result of the talks and a good gesture before the second meeting, however, the two sides did remove most of their military personnel, which have been quickly strengthened since mid-July to an estimated 1,000 more from each side, along the disputed border around the temple since Saturday.

On Tuesday afternoon, outside the hotel, a number of Thais had a quiet protest against Cambodia's "occupation" of Preah Vihear site and surrounding border areas, by raising banners which reads "Cambodia get out."

Earlier before the meeting started, Tharit Charungvat, spokesman for the Thai Foreign Ministry, said the atmosphere between the two ministers was good on Monday when they met and joined in a dinner, and that the situation has been improving a lot, as the tensions at the border have been eased as a result of the military "redeployment" following previous talks under bilateral mechanism including the General Border Committee which started early July and the Foreign Ministers' first meeting.

Tharit reiterated that territorial dispute is normal for any two neighboring countries, and that the situation for Thailand and Cambodia has now cooled down.

Thailand hopes that Tuesday's meeting would turn out positive results, and "the situation will go back to normal as soon as possible", but he could not give the timetable for when the planned border demarcation work and complete military retreatment from the zone in question would start or finish.

Before Tuesday's talks, only about 10 soldiers from each side remain at the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara Pagoda on the access to the Preah Vihear temple, which sits at the border between Thai northeastern province of Si Sa Ket and Cambodia's Preah Vihear province, following a respective "redeployment" since Saturday, and some 20 others from each side at areas nearby for patrol.

The military stand-off, which has seen a quick increase of military personnel along the disputed border zone by each side, started after three Thais, including a monk, were briefly detained by Cambodian authorities on July 15 for "intruding Cambodian territory" by breaking into the Preah Vihear temple compound to declare Thai sovereignty over the temple.

The temple was awarded to Cambodia in a 1962 verdict of the International Court of Justice, which some Thais have been reluctant to accept. The dispute became a hot issue when Cambodia launched efforts to bid for the listing of the temple as a World Heritage Site last year.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee approved Cambodia's application early last month, triggering a wave of national sentiment in Thailand urging the Thai government to take counter actions in defense of territorial sovereignty.

Then Thai foreign minister Noppadon Pattama was forced to resign last month for signing a joint communique to endorse Thai support for Cambodia's World Heritage bid without prior parliament approval, which was later held unconstitutional. Veteran diplomat Tej Bunnag was appointed as the successor just in time for the first ministerial talks on July 28 in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which produced no breakthrough but an agreement on "military redeployment" along the disputed border.

Earlier Reports from Phnom Penh quoted Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong as saying before leaving for Thailand on Monday that he was optimistic about the second bilateral meeting "to seek peaceful resolution to withdraw the troops totally from the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara Pagoda and the surrounding areas of the Preah Vihear Temple."
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Be patient, Samak tells troops on border

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej yesterday advised soldiers guarding the border to be patient as Thailand and Cambodia attempt to resolve the row over the disputed area near the Preah Vihear temple through negotiations.

"All soldiers should help maintain ties between Thailand and Cambodia. You should be patient and ignore any attempt to cause rifts between the two countries,"the prime minister said during a visit yesterday to the border in Kantharalak district of Si Sa Ket, which is adjacent to Cambodia's Preah Vihear province.

Mr Samak stressed the importance of Thai-Cambodian relations as the two countries are immediate neighbours and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

He hoped Cambodia would reduce troop numbers in the disputed area to the same level as Thailand.

Thailand has 300 troops in the 4.6-sq-km overlapping zone, while Cambodia has 500 in total, the prime minister said.

The Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers, Tej Bunnag and Hor Namhong, were to meet at an informal dinner last night in Cha-am district of Phetchaburi. They will co-chair the Joint Boundary Commission (JBC) meeting today.

Army chief Gen Anupong Paojinda visited the area and the Ta Moan Thom temple in Phanom Dong Rak sub-district in neighbouring Surin yesterday and said later he was not worried about the border situation in the area.

Neither country wanted a military stand-off, Gen Anupong said. He hoped the two ministers would agree at the JBC talks to withdraw more troops from the overlapping zone.

Thailand and Cambodia completed the first round of troop reductions on Sunday. The pullout agreement was reached at the JBC meeting in Siem Reap on July 28.

Hor Namhong was also optimistic that a new round of talks with Thailand would result in a lasting solution to the long-running border dispute.

The meeting will achieve good success in resolving the problem step by step," the Cambodian minister said in Phnom Penh before departing for Thailand.

Hor Namhong insisted his government wished to resolve the problem peacefully, amicably and by legal means. The two countries share "a lot of economic and trade interests", he said.

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Temple peace

Cha-am - Foreign Minister Tej Bunnag and Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong agreed on Tuesday to settle the dispute surrounding the Preah Vihear temple peacefully, but made no specific progress.

"This is the 21st century. We are beyond the stage of resorting to military confrontation," Hor Namhong told a joint press conference.

The ministers met for hours at Cha-am in two separate sessions. Their final decisions:

Talks rather than military might must be used

Border disputes will be discussed and finally settled by existing commissions

A parallel argument over ownership and care of the 13th century Ta Moan temple would be submitted to a future bilateral meeting

"Both sides agreed to consider raising the issue of Ta Moan at the next foreign ministers' meeting," said Mr Tej, reading a joint statement.

Hor Namhong said that Cambodia would remove all its troops from the disputed area around the temple, leaving only police to guard the temple. The Thai side said it would need to consult the military about a similar complete withdrawal.

"If we can solve this problem the temple will be reopened to tourists soon," he said. It has been closed to the public since mid-July.

The two sides agreed to hold further border committee-level meetings on the Preah Vihear on August 29 and in early October, after which there will be another foreign ministers meeting.

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Cambodian media war claims Mekong Times daily

Cambodia's mushrooming media outlets and a crisis of advertising revenue has claimed the English-language Mekong Times daily, the paper's editor said Tuesday.

A lack of funds had forced the closure of the hard copy edition but the paper, which also published in Khmer, was still considering options, Editor-in-chief Neth Pheaktra said by telephone.

'We are not sure (about an internet edition) yet - we are not sure what we will do,' he said.

The paper, which opened in February last year, had published groundbreaking stories, including a rare exclusive interview with Prime Minister Hun Sen, but failed to pull advertising revenue away from the more established Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post.

The closure announcement came just days after the Phnom Penh Post went from a fortnightly to a daily.

A cash injection rumoured to amount to around $1 million from an Australian group has buoyed the veteran Phnom Penh Post, and the popular Cambodia Daily claims it operates primarily as a training ground, with profit a secondary consideration.

Cambodia's Khmer and English-language media market has exploded recently, giving advertisers a much broader range of choices.

Magazines on subjects from specialty computer and mobile phone glossies to interior design advice decorate news stands as the country's burgeoning middle class spreads its consumer wings.

Short-lived English-language weekly magazine The Advisor closed for 'a hiatus' earlier this month, saying advertisers were increasingly embracing the cheaper option of internet websites, and its parent Expat Advisory Services continues to operate online.
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Vietnam, Cambodia brace for Mekong floods, crops safe

By Ho Binh Minh

HANOI, Rising Mekong floods upstream may cause landslides and deep inundation in Cambodia and southern Vietnam but the seasonal floodwater would also bring farmers good crops of rice and fish, officials said on Tuesday.

The Vietnamese government said rescue forces must be ready to move people from dangerous areas in southern Vietnam, where the Mekong river reaches the South China Sea after travelling more than 4,000 km (2,500 miles) from Tibet through Laos and Cambodia.

Four people have been killed in flooding and landslides in Laos, where the Mekong river has hit its highest level in at least 100 years after several months of unusually heavy rain (For a related story, please double click on [IDnSP192460]).

Cambodia has alerted villagers of rising waters and the authorities have prepared 4,000 boats and life-jackets for the vulnerable areas in the eastern provinces of Kampong Cham and Kratie, the national disaster management committee said.

The Mekong River Commission said the river from northern Thailand to central Cambodia was higher than it was in 2000, when the worst floods in four decades struck southern Vietnam.

"Floods in the Cuu Long River Delta happen every year, so people are used to taking preventive measures for crops and life," Le Van Banh, director of the Mekong Delta-based Rice Institute, told Reuters by telephone from Can Tho city.

"In the past floods caused problem to transportation and it was hard for children to come to school, but in recent years Vietnam has built protective dykes and residential areas above the flood-peaking level," he said.

RICE FIELD CLEANING

About 20 percent of Vietnam's 86.5 million people live in the Cuu Long River Delta, the Vietnamese name for the Mekong river, which produces more than half of the country's paddy output but supplies more than 90 percent of its commercial rice.

Rice growers say they will get extra income from fishing when flooding is high and after they end the summer rice harvest. Flood waters also clean up alum, pests and rats from fields while bringing more fertile soil.

"Since the floods are to wash away alum, we expect the yield of the next winter-spring rice crop to be good, at least on par with this year," Banh said.

The winter-spring crop, the Delta's top yielding, produced 10 million tonnes of paddy in April with a yield of 6.2 tonnes per hectare, prompting the government to raise Vietnam's annual rice exports by 13 percent from earlier targets [nSP283104].

FAST-RISING WATERS

Seasonal floods appeared slowly in the Delta in July, a month earlier than usual. But this week flood waters are rising faster from heavy rains upstream two weeks ago, including the downpours that caused flash floods in northern Vietnam.

"Floods are forecast to rise above the average level in many years," said Vo Thanh, a meteorologist in An Giang, one of the Mekong Delta's main rice growing provinces.

Waters are expected to rise to 3.5 metres (12 feet) above sea level at Tan Chau gauging station on Friday, or 0.1 metre below the Alarm Level Two, which indicates inundation and danger of river bank and dyke erosion but towns are still protected.

In 2000, the Delta experienced the worst floods in four decades as waters rose to more than 5 metres, killing nearly 500 people, more than 300 of them children.

Since then the government has launched a campaign to protect life and property, having built 82,000 new homes, relocated 110,000 families or 80 percent of those living in dangerous areas, and opened swimming class for children and teachers.

However, about 30,000 families living near rivers are still facing risk of landslides, according to provincial figures. (Additional reporting by Ek Madra in PHNOM PENH; Editing by Paul Tait)
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Thailand, Cambodia agree to step up marking of border

HUA HIN, Thailand (AFP) — Foreign ministers from Cambodia and Thailand said Tuesday they have agreed to step up efforts to mark the border around a disputed temple that has been the scene of a military standoff.
At the weekend, up to 1,000 Cambodian and Thai troops pulled back from a small patch of disputed land near Cambodia's 11th-century Preah Vihear temple, suggesting that an end to the month-long military stand-off could be near.

Twenty troops from both sides are stationed at a small pagoda in the contentious border area, while 40 Cambodian and Thai solders remain nearby.

After a day of talks between Thai Foreign Minister Tej Bunnag and his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong, the two sides said in a statement that a border committee would meet in October to step up efforts to draw the boundary around the temple.

They also said military officials would meet on August 29 to discuss a further pullback of troops.

Cambodia had asked the UN Security Council to consider the standoff that erupted last month, but Hor Namhong said that request would likely be withdrawn.

"I think the removal of this issue from before the UN Security Council will take place as soon as possible," he told reporters, but said he had yet to consult his government on the matter.

"The two countries will solve the problem peacefully, in friendship and under the law," he said after the talks in the Thai beach resort town of Hua Hin.

Once both countries remove all their soldiers from the ruins, he said Cambodia would station only police at the temple and the border crossing.

Relations between the neighbours flared up last month after Preah Vihear was awarded world heritage status by the UN cultural body UNESCO, angering nationalists in Thailand who still claim ownership of the ancient Khmer temple.

On July 15, Cambodia arrested three Thai protesters for illegally crossing the border to try to reach the temple, sparking the deployment of troops from both sides on the tiny patch of disputed land near Preah Vihear.

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

The Cambodian-Thai border has never been fully demarcated, in part because it is littered with landmines left over from decades of war in Cambodia.
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