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Monday, September 08, 2008

Thailand's prime minister faces court showdown over cooking show

By Vijay Joshi, The Associated Press

BANGKOK, Thailand - Thailand's prime minister, who has survived two weeks of militant street protests demanding his resignation, faces the possibility of being kicked out of office because of what he loves doing the most - cooking.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a well-known foodie and a famous TV chef, defended himself in the Constitutional Court on Monday against accusations that he broke a prohibition on private employment while in office by hosting a television cooking show.

The court is expected to deliver its verdict Tuesday. If found guilty, he would have to resign, an outcome that would allow him to exit without succumbing to pressure from a radical group of protesters who have occupied the grounds of his office complex since Aug. 26, demanding he step down.

They accuse him of doing the bidding of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in 2006 by a military coup after demonstrations denouncing him for alleged corruption and abuse of power. The same protest coalition, the People's Alliance for Democracy, has led both the current protests and the ones in 2006.

"By making a quick decision, the court will help a lot in resolving the political crisis," said Suwat Apaipakdi, a lawyer for a group of senators who filed the petition against Samak in the case. "If the court rules that Prime Minister Samak is disqualified from holding office, then the political crisis will automatically cease."

But even if Samak is acquitted his troubles are not over - the Election Commission has recommended that his party be dissolved for vote fraud, and he faces a defamation suit and three possible corruption cases.

Samak's immediate problem, however, is his appearance on the popular cooking show "Tasting and Complaining," a mix of traditional Thai cooking and diatribes on the subjects of Samak's choice, which he hosted regularly before taking office in February.

He made about a half-dozen appearances on the show after becoming prime minister - the last time in May - prompting the senators to petition the Constitutional Court.

Article 267 of the Thai Constitution stipulates that the prime minister is prohibited from holding any position in any business venture.

In his hour-long testimony, Samak told the court that he only received an honorarium from the television company that made the show.

"I was hired to appear on the program and got paid from time to time. I was not an employee of the company so I did not violate the law," he said.

Samak, a cartoonist's delight because of his bulbous nose, told the court that the television company paid for his transportation.

"I presented the cooking show and got paid for my acting," said Samak, whose recipes include "Pigs' legs in Coca-Cola."

Samak's love for food and cooking is well known. When visiting Beijing for the Olympics he whipped up a dinner for the Thai Olympic athletes that included stir-fried chicken with mushrooms and baby bamboo shoots.

Sakchai Khaewwaneesakul, the managing director of the company that produced the show, testified in support of Samak, saying he paid the prime minister 20,000 baht, or about $600 Cdn, per show for incidental expenses.

"The presenters of our shows are not our employees, but we pay them honorariums," he told the court.

Samak has not been able to enter his office, the Government House, since protesters stormed the compound Aug. 26. Despite facing emergency rule in Bangkok, the protesters have refused to leave. Samak has refused to step down.

The deadlock has made it difficult for the government to function and raised fears of an economic downturn.

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ADB to submit plan for $38 mln project in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, Sept. 8 (Xinhua) -- The Asian Development Bank (ADB) will submit next month to its board of directors a proposal for an emergency food aid project following the Cambodian government's request for 38 million U.S. dollars to ensure food security between 2008 and 2011, local newspaper reported Monday.

The project would benefit more than 500,000 people in five provinces and the Tonle Sap river and some poor areas in Phnom Penh, Arjun Goswami, the bank's country representative, was quoted as saying by the Phnom Penh Post.

He said worldwide price hikes for food and fuel have pushed traders to sell their rice to neighboring countries, thus driving down domestic supply.

"Our highest concern, as well as that of the government's, therefore, is to do whatever we can to ensure that the vulnerable segment of the population continues to have affordable access to basic food commodities," Goswami said.

He said that in response to rising food costs the government has established an interministerial National Food Security Taskforce, headed by the Ministry of Economy and Finance, which would provide overall policy guidance and coordination of the project.
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Cambodia to crack down on pirated movies, music

Phnom Penh (dpa) - Cambodia would begin raids on shops suspected of selling pirated movie DVDs and music CDs, a senior official warned Monday.

The South-East Asian nation has become well-known among travellers for its thousands of shops offering dirt-cheap pirated copies of the latest international movies and music, which often hit the stalls before they are in general release overseas.

"The ministry will implement measures imminently to stop the sale of pirated CDs and DVDs to protect the intellectual property of their writers and producers," said Tauch Sarou, undersecretary of state for the Culture Ministry.

"But the ministry alone cannot stop this, so we will cooperate with police and the vendors themselves to stamp the problem out," Sarou said. "It isn't going to stop overnight, but we need the sellers to understand the issue and why we must do this. We will not stop until they do."

The ministry called a meeting of bootleg vendors Friday to warn them of the new crackdown, and police said Monday that they were prepared for the raids.

Cambodia's bootleggers enjoyed impunity for years, but the country was accepted as a member by the World Trade Organization in 2003 and the body has given it until 2013 to comply with regulations.

A vendor from Prey Nokor CD near the capital's Central Market said Monday that she understood intellectual property rights well but that sellers found themselves in a catch-22 situation.

On the one hand, nobody imports original work to Cambodia, and on the other, the 2-dollar-per-disk cost for pirated copies prices the genuine articles out of the market, said the vendor who declined to be named.

"However, I will stop if the law is enforced because I know artists have rights even though it will kill my business," she said.

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