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Sunday, September 14, 2008

GOLD RUSH FOLLOWS THAKSIN

Thaksin Shinawatra's reported investment in Koh Kong has led to a land-grabbing frenzy, writes Piyaporn Wongruang and Nareerat Wiriyapong


Embattled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has packed up and moved to London, but Koh Kong residents like Kamnan Tit are hoping he returns and brings economic prosperity to the Cambodian province.

For the past few months, rumours of the ex-prime minister's possible involvement in a mega-tourism project in Koh Kong have fuelled a land grab and sent prices soaring, creating a buzz of activity in the once sleepy area.

''We heard the news that Mr Thaksin would come to invest in Koh Kong, so we even rushed to buy land on nearby Koh Kapi,'' said Kamnan Tit, who recently introduced the principle of sufficiency economy to his village of Peam Krasaob.

THE MEETING

Fueling the excitement was Mr Thaksin's meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Siem Reap golf course in early April this year.

The golf outing came shortly before former foreign minister Noppadon Pattama (also formerly Mr Thaksin's lawyer) showed up at the state opening ceremony for the upgraded Road No 48, which links Thailand's border town of Had Lek, in Trat province, with Koh Kong.

The road, about 150 kilometres long, was financed by the Thai government with a low-interest loan of about 500 million baht, plus another 300 million baht in aid for four connecting bridges.

The aim of the project is to improve access to inner Cambodia and connect Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam under the economic framework of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) scheme.

The White Paper produced by Thailand's foreign ministry noted that Mr Noppadon was there to discuss the heritage listing of the disputed Preah Vihear temple.

Speculation from many sources links the two incidents, in the belief that the people involved had compromised Thailand's interests in exchange for Mr Thaksin gaining a personal advantage.

According to several Thai agents, as well as officials working in foreign affairs, Mr Thaksin discussed the possibility of investing in a tourism-related project on Koh Kong with the Cambodian government during that period.

One high-ranking foreign affairs official, who was briefed by a source close to Hun Sen, said that a discussion had taken place, in which they agreed that the investment should go to Koh Kong.

An internal information analysis by one Thai foreign affairs unit noted that the targeted area for Mr Thaksin's investment would be the 10,000-hectare Koh Kong island, the biggest of 23 islands off Koh Kong province's coast.

It further noted that the Cambodian government had already approved the lease of the whole island for the development of hotels, casinos and other businesses to stimulate the tourism industry.

A road and a series of bridges are also planned to link the project to the mainland. Road No 48 will be 10 kilometres long and cut through the plots of some senior Cambodian military officials.


THE CONNECTION

''Khun Phat is among the people taking part in this project, and possibly Mr Thaksin too,'' said another high-ranking foreign affairs source.

''Some Cambodian senior military officials here said the land prices will increase if Mr Thaksin really invests there.''

Khun Phat is the owner of Koh Kong International Resort Club, near the border. A senator for the ruling Cambodian People's Party and widely known as the ''King of Koh Kong'', Khun Phat has been accused by international human rights groups of forcing locals off their land by getting police to use force against them.

Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh was quoted as saying during the opening of the road that Khun Phat ''was discussing the prospective investment in Koh Kong with Mr Thaksin''.

The defence minister also stated that Mr Thaksin was one person Hun Sen trusted and wished to invite to be an advisor on the development of Koh Kong, which the Cambodian government wants to turn into a special economic zone.

In a telephone interview, Khun Phat confirmed he is among the investors in the planned project. But he said it will be a joint investment between himself and a few European investors.

According to Khun Phat, these investors were introduced to him by Mr Thaksin. Khun Phat insisted Mr Thaksin will not invest in the project. He said he only introduced the investors.

''[Mr Thaksin] has a lot of friends,'' he said, adding that the project has received an unofficial green light from the Cambodian government.

They only need to discuss in detail what the project will look like, as well as how the benefits will be shared between the investors and the government.

''We are serious about this, but we have to wait for the new government first,'' said Khun Phat, who is known to be a close aide of Hun Sen.

After Mr Thaksin became Thailand's prime minister in 2001, he met Hun Sen at least eight times to discuss opportunities between the two countries.

It was Mr Thaksin who proposed the Economic Cooperation Strategy in early 2003, which later turned into a new regional economic framework known as the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy, or ACMECS, at the end of that year.

Under the framework, 46 common projects plus 224 bilateral projects were lined up for implementation over 10 years following the first declaration. These included Road No 48.

The road project came about after Mr Thaksin met Hun Sen during the GMS meeting on Nov 3, 2005.

According to the foreign ministry's letter to the secretariat of the cabinet, the foreign ministry of Thailand reasoned that Road No 48 would help improve the economy of both countries.

It would also help to elevate Thai-Cambodian relations, and was in line with Thailand's regional transport link strategy under the GMS.

As well as the road upgrade, other development projects, including the development of the linkage between tourism sites in Cambodia and Thailand, were also in the pipeline.


THE DOWNSIDE

Cambodia stands to gain a lot if these investments come true, and especially if Mr Thaksin is involved. However, there may be a downside as a consequence of the land grabs and speculation.
With rumours over Mr Thaksin's involvement buzzing around from Koh Kong to Phnom Penh, many local residents have been quick to buy up land with the hope of hitting the jackpot.

Land prices are indeed increasing, according to the president of Koh Kong Chamber of Commerce, Bun Tun.

He said land changes hands easily, sometimes even within a day, due to high prices offered for further land speculation. The price of a beachfront property, for instance, was once about US$5 per square metre. It has now increased to $150 per sq m, about 30 times the previous price.

Koh Kong, which is one of Cambodia's prime seaside cities, has about 1.2 million hectares of land and contains about 24,000 households.

Ever since the end of the Cambodian war in the late 1970s, the government has been trying to resurrect its economy through various means. The Koh Kong project is the latest of these efforts.
Besides relying on foreign aid for economic development, Cambodia, which had a per capita GDP of about $460 in 2006, relies heavily on foreign investment.

In 1994, Cambodia's new investment law was promulgated. The Council for the Development of Cambodia then approved more than $4.27 billion worth of foreign direct investment, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific 2008 business report.

Available data, last updated in 1999, reveals more than 700 foreign projects were approved, with hotels and tourism being the most popular choices for foreign investors, making up nearly 45 per cent of all foreign investment projects.

To encourage investment, the government allowed all sectors of the economy to be opened to foreign investors. In 1999 a sub-decree placed investment restrictions on certain areas, including the media.

The allocation of land is a crucial part of investment. Although only Khmer legal entities and those of Khmer nationality have the right to own land outright, foreign investors are allowed to lease land for up to 70 years.

The primary concern among social advocates and activists in Cambodia is that the present land allocation system may not support sustainable land utilisation or prevent land conflicts arising as a result of new development projects.

The Asian Development Bank's 2004 environmental report noted that although the new Land Law is a landmark in the formal recognition of the land rights of ethnic minorities in Cambodia, enforcement, property rights definitions and titling remain a challenge.

At present, many locals are being evicted from their land, either forcefully or from the lure of attractive land prices.

A government-approved large-scale entertainment project on Koh Yor, which is also part of Koh Kong province, is already suffering a backlash.

''At present, investors are pouring in and land prices are skyrocketing, but it is the poor people or farmers who are lured to sell the land,'' said Bun Tun. ''They might get a lot of money at first, but they spend it without much thought. If this trend goes on, all the land could be sold out over the next five years, and we will end up with a lot more poor people here.''

What's more, a zoning map acquired by an agent source shows that a Cambodian military facility at the top end of the island will be moved down south to make way for planned development.

The island is now divided into zones, including one at the top end which is believed to be Khun Phat's stake.

OPPOSITION CLAIMS

Sam Rainsy, the leader of Cambodia's opposition Sam Rainsy party, claims there is an official document showing Mr Thaksin and Hun Sen's joint development plan for Koh Kong province. His party is preparing to ask the Cambodian parliament to provide a copy of the document.

Sam Rainsy claims the two met occasionally when Thailand's former prime minister made trips from Europe and Hong Kong to discuss and conclude the deal for the investment in Koh Kong.

Sam Rainsy claimed Mr Thaksin has an ulterior motive in building up his base and facilities in Koh Kong _ his real intention is to continue his political activities in Thailand.

''Cambodia is the base for Mr Thaksin to get in touch with his supporters in Thailand,'' he said.

Mr Thaksin's close aides, including Pongthep Thepkanchana, his personal spokesman, as well as Mr Noppadon, could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, the Office of the Auditor General of Thailand has launched an investigation into Thailand's financial assistance for Road No 48. According to a high-level source at the office, the cabinet's approval of the project bypassed certain state auditing procedures.

''The project involved state funds worth millions of baht, but it was not audited by a responsible agency. We want to learn what they based their decisions on,'' said the source.
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US diplomat tours Cambodia's famed Angkor temples

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte toured centuries-old Angkor temples in northwestern Cambodia on Sunday as he began a three-day visit to the Southeast Asian nation, an embassy official said.

Negroponte was scheduled to arrive in the capital, Phnom Penh, on Monday to hold talks with Cambodian officials, including Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, U.S. Embassy spokesman John Johnson said.

The deputy secretary of state was also expected to attend the signing of an agreement under which the United States will provide US$24 million for economic development projects in Cambodia, the embassy said in a statement.

Negroponte's visit is the latest sign of improved relations between the two countries.

Last year, the United States lifted a decade-old ban on direct aid to the Cambodian government. Washington cut off direct funding to Cambodian government projects in 1997 after Prime Minister Hun Sen ousted Prince Norodom Ranariddh, then his co-premier, in a coup.

Before the ban was lifted, U.S. aid to impoverished Cambodia was mostly channeled to projects implemented by private groups.

The U.S. has also recently resumed non-lethal military aid to Cambodia. Last week, the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln hosted a rare tour for a group of Cambodian military and government officials as it passed through the region on its way home from Iraq.
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Miss Street-Porter, I have a job for you in Cambodia

By Jeremy Clarkson

Since we’re told charity begins at home, it’s better, I’ve always thought, to give £1m to a hapless British person than 10p to an organisation that provides sandwiches for prisoners in Turkey. Now, however, I have decided that, actually, charity begins in Cambodia.

Some people get all dewy-eyed about Africa. That’s jolly noble, but I don’t see the point because I fear that no matter how much money you pump in, the bejewelled pigs that run the place will pump it straight back out again, into the coffers of Kalashnikov and Mercedes-Benz. The only thing I’d send to the dark continent is a team of SAS hitmen to shoot the likes of Mr Mugabe in the middle of his face.

Others would say that we have enough problems on our own shores without getting all teary over the children of Mr Pot. I disagree, because these days, every time I think of underprivileged people in Britain, the hideous face of Shannon Matthews’s mum pops into my head, all greasy, fat and stupid, and it’s hard to summon up any sympathy at all.

Cambodia, though, is different. It’s a country of 14m people but between them they have only about 5m legs. In fact, there are 25,000 amputees, the highest ratio per capita of any country in the world. This is not because Cambodians are especially clumsy. It is because of landmines.

Nobody knows how many mines were laid during the endless cycle of warfare, but it’s sure to be in the millions. What we do know is that since the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and drove the madman Pol Pot into the hills, 63,000 people have trodden on one.

One man has had his left leg blown off four times. They gave him a good prosthetic after the first and second explosions, but since then he’s had to make his own out of wood.

And it’s still going on today. In most places in the world, you can get three rice harvests per year from your paddy field. In Cambodia, it’s one. This is partly because the Khmer like a weird sort of rice that’s harder to grow, but mostly it’s because you set off with your plough and within minutes there’s a big bang and your water buffalo has become a crimson mist.

As a result of the ordnance lying in every field, no one is fighting for a right to roam in Cambodia. They have no equivalent of the Ramblers Association. They have no concept of Janet Street-Porter. In fact they have no concept of England.

Because the education is so poor, most people there believe the world is made up of four countries: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Everywhere else is France. All white people are therefore French. Angelina Jolie, who adopted a Cambodian baby, does much to help clear the landmines and has been made a Cambodian citizen, is French. I was French. And every night, most of the men settle down to watch Manchester United and Chelsea slug it out for honours in the French Premier League.

I’d never met an adult anywhere in the world (apart from America) who’d never heard of Great Britain. In Cambodia nobody had.

What’s more, you will never see a Cambodian person wearing sunglasses. Mainly this is because the average wage in Cambodia is less than £400 a year and so Ray-Bans are a bit out of range. But also it’s because Cambodians all have flat noses. So sunglasses simply fall onto the floor every time you hop to the shops, and every time your buffalo explodes.

That’s what did it for me. The sunglasses.

Not the education. Not the notion of living in a country where there is no Janet Street-Porter. The landmines made my eyes prickle, but my heart just mushroomed over the idea that they can’t afford to wear shades. And that even if they could, they’d keep falling off.

I have therefore decided that I must do something. Unfortunately, however, we all reach a point like this when we decide we must help, and then it’s so very hard to know what should be done next.

Secretly we all know that for every pound we donate to a large charity, only 2p actually reaches the people we have in mind. The rest is spent on adverts for highly paid co-ordinators in The Guardian and expensive offices in London’s glittering West End.

You always feel you want to go to the root of the problem. But in the bee that’s come to nest in my roost, that’ll be hard. Earlier this summer a team of Australian doctors happened upon a little girl in the town of Siem Reap. Her face had been horribly disfigured, by a bloody landmine I suppose, and they were overwhelmed with a need to help.

They went to meet her parents, and her father was keen that his daughter be sent to Australia for plastic surgery. Her mother, however, went ballistic when she discovered the poor child would once again look normal. “How will she be able to beg then?” she asked. And the Aussie medics were sent packing.

I can’t even ring the Cambodian government for help because I fear it would be extremely enthusiastic and then all the money I sent over would be spent on fixtures and fittings in the finance minister’s next luxury hotel. That’s if I could raise any money in the first place. It’s hard when money’s tight here and everyone else has their own pet project.

I suppose I could write to Ray-Ban asking it to design a cheap pair of shades that can be worn by someone who has no nose. But I think it’d be better if I started work on some designs for the most brilliant mine-clearing vehicle the world has ever seen. I’m thinking of strapping some ramblers together, and then . . .
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US Deputy Secretary of State Negroponte arrives in Cambodia

Phnom Penh - US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte flew into the northern Cambodian tourist hub of Siem Reap in a relaxed start to his three-day official visit, touring the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, local officials said on Sunday.

Negroponte arrived in Cambodia from neighbouring Vietnam for a visit which will include meetings with Prime Minister Hun Sen and an array of ministers including Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.

He is scheduled to sign a 24-million-dollar agreement on Monday to assist economic development in the country and will hold a press conference on Tuesday morning before flying out, according to a schedule from the US embassy.

At Angkor Wat, Negroponte toured the 12th century World Heritage- listed temples, which are also the nation's largest tourism draw, 300 kilometres from the capital, and he is expected to arrive in Phnom Penh early on Monday morning, officials said.

Ties between the US and Cambodia have warmed considerably in recent years, with the US providing support for the nation's armed forces as well as recently agreeing to give aid directly to the government, rather than through other agencies.

Cambodia has also been praised by the US for its help in fighting terrorism and its assistance in helping locate the remains of US soldiers missing in action, mostly from the Vietnam War era.

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