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Sunday, October 19, 2008

US meltdown boosts Russia's place

By Kavi Chongkitthavorn
The Nation

The US financial meltdown and its global fallout have boosted Russia's place in the world, especially in Southeast Asia. The crisis came at just the time when Russia had made it clear it is a great power to be reckoned with in the new global scheme of things. It was no longer the broken empire it once was. With booming oil and gas sales and huge foreign currency reserves, Russia is resurrecting. Its growing politฌical and economic clout is gradually being felt in the region after a nearly 17-year absence.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the former Soviet Union in 1991, the overall Russian influฌence in Southeast Asia receded rapidly. Military ties and developmental assisฌtance, which used to be the cornerstone of Moscow's ties with countries in the region such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were no longer there.

So far, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev's latest pronouncement of a fivepoint foreign policy has escaped close scrutiny within the region, which was the hotbed of the fivedecade Cold War confrontation.

Russia has rightly emphasised the importance of adherence to internationฌal law as the first priority. Following the Russian troops crossing the Georgian border and recognising Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent, suspicions were high the world over of Moscow's intention. The rest of its diplomatic thrusts focused on the imperative of a multipolar world and the desire to be friends with all countries in the world because Russia does not want to live in isolation.

The most interesting aspects of Russian new foreign policy are the great emphasis on its "privileged interests" in regions outside its borders and the proฌtection of Russian citizens and business interests worldwide. Obviously, most of the Western analysts have so far zeroed in on the countries which broke away from the former Soviet Union such as Ukraine, Georgia and others in Central Asia. Some of them have allied themฌselves with the US and European defence cooperation schemes.

Asean leaders have generally viewed the latest Russian assertiveness primaฌrily as direct reactions, mainly towards the West, especially on the crisis in Georgia and the planned expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. They do not see the possibility of a return of the Cold War because of late AseanRussia relations have been focused on economic and business affairs.

At a joint AseanRussian cooperation committee meeting held in St Petersburg early this month, both sides discussed ways to strengthen their cooperation at all levels including sciฌence and technology and culture. They did not touch on any security issues or concerns. Asean also thanked Russia's contribution of US$500,000 for the AseanRussian Dialogue Partnership Fund, which showed Moscow's firm commitment to promote the AseanRussia dialogue.

In more ways than one, Asean has yet to fully assess - or look into the eyes of Moscow, as one Thai diplomat put it - Russia's new diplomatic clout and its short and longterm impacts on the region as a whole. That helps explain why Asean still does not have any common approach towards Russia. In the past, such strong words would have sent a chill through the grouping's spine.

Judging from past security involveฌments and policies, Moscow has a clear objective to counter US influence in the region (which is also quite similar to China's).

During the Cold War, the regional concerns among the noncommunist countries were the Soviet Union's supฌport of proxy wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, including Moscow's military outreach in Cam Ranh Bay. Now Southeast Asia has been brought together under the Asean umbrella. This obviously represents the region in which Russia has privileged interests.

In the past five years, after the Asean summit in Phnom Penh in 2003, Russia has quietly and confidently been buildฌing up ties with Asean, which subseฌquently led to its accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation a year later.

The first AseanRussian summit was held in Kuala Lumpur in 2005 followed by President Vladimir Putin's dramatic appearance as the guest of honour at the East Asian Summit (EAS), which was considered a preview of Russia's ambition in this region. Moscow has made no qualms about wanting to join EAS. But Asean has been reluctant as it does not want to alienate the US. The plan to institutionalise the AseanRussian summit has also been delayed.

At present, Russia has established more dialogue mechanisms to strengthฌen the whole gamut of the 11year old AseanRussia relations than the 31yearold AseanUS relations. After all, the leaders of Asean and the US have yet to meet exclusively.

Within Asean, it must be reiterated here, Thailand would be most affected by the new Russian assertiveness. Apart from being one of the closest allies of the US, Thailand also has extensive ecoฌnomic and trade relations with Russia. It has been Russia's largest trading partner in the past years with the balฌance of trade hugely in Russia's favour. In recent years, the numbers of Russian tourists have swollen to nearly 300,000 including those who have taken resiฌdence over here.

In the coming months, the fate of Viktor Bout, the infamous Russian arms trader arrested by the Thai authorities in March, could determine the state of powerplay in the region between the US and Russia. Both countries want Bout extradited. It will be the first test to determine whether Russia is willing to walk the talk on protecting its citiฌzens, even ones as notorious and danฌgerous as Bout. Thailand's decision, which has been slow in coming, would be scrutinised by other Asean countries.

As the Asean chair, what Thailand does would have a great ramification for years to come.

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Thai-Cambodian border resolution meeting postponed

BANGKOK, Oct. Cambodia has postponed the meeting to resolve the border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand without giving any reason, Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced Sunday.

Thailand's Second Army Chief Wibulsak Neepal was scheduled to lead Thai delegates for bilateral talks at Cambodia's Siem Reap province next Wednesday and Thursday.

Thailand's ministry of foreign affairs revealed that it was informed by the army that Cambodian deputy prime minister and defense minister Tia Banh asked to postpone the Regional Border Committee meeting between the two countries.

According to reports from the Thai News Agency, it is believed that the postponement resulted from concern that the meeting, if held according to the original schedule, won't be able to reach any agreement to settle the border dispute focused on the 11th century Preah Vihear temple without a negotiation framework approved by the Thai parliament.

Bilateral talks to discuss withdrawing troops from around the temple were postponed late August amid political turmoil in Thailand.

In early October, at least one Cambodian soldier and two Thai troops were wounded during sporadic exchange of gunfire and two other Thai soldiers were seriously injured after stepping on a landmine at the border area.
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Giving young dancers a break

By Greg Mellen, Staff Writer


LONG BEACH - Images of b-boys, break dancers and crew battles don't necessarily equate to social activism in many minds.

The slums of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, may not seem like the breeding ground for a new wave of world class hip-hop dancers.

But if a seemingly mismatched combination of a b-boy artist from Seattle, several Long Beach activists and a deportee former gang member turned teacher have their way, those preconceptions will soon end.

Phanna Nam, or Peanut as he is known in dancing circles, is a Cambodian-American member of the renowned Massive Monkees dance group in Seattle. A year ago, he traveled to Cambodia for the first time and had a life-transforming experience.

After graduating from high school Tan, 24, was attending college when he says, "I had a revelation, a calling to go to Cambodia."

While overseas, Nam met another talented break dancer, a teacher and former gang member from Long Beach named Tuy Sobil, and a bond was formed.

Tuy, better known as KK in dance circles, was deported to Cambodia after being convicted of armed robbery and completing his jail sentence in the United States.

Tuy soon drew the notice of admiration of local children for his dance moves and before long they were flocking to watch and learn his techniques.

Seeing break dancing as an effective tool to engage children from the impoverished area in a constructive pursuit, Tuy founded Tiny Toones in 2004.

Since its formation, the group has become a spectacular success and springboard to offer education and social services to the children, many of whom are the children and siblings of sex workers, drug users and dropouts.
Now, in addition to learning windmills and head spins, kids also learn about HIV/AIDs and receive access to a variety of mental and physical health services. Many are also given food and shelter.

After teaching classes in his home for the first few years and picking up expenses, Tuy is moving Tiny Toones to a new center that will continue to offer dance classes plus myriad drop-in services and language training in English and Khmer.

When Nam met Tuy and saw the kids of Tiny Toones, he knew he had to be a part of it.

"We just connected," Nam says of his relationship with Tuy. "We had a lot in common, although he's a little more severe with the gang stuff. He's given me an opportunity and a dream."

What impressed Nam was the organic way in which Tiny Toones came together.

"The thing that drew me was this was asked for by the people. It wasn't a church or someone that came in and told the people what to do," Nam says. "It's not telling them what to do, it's working with them and growing with them."

Nam has been dancing since he was a child and became a founding member of Massive Monkees, which has earned world acclaim.

Now, Nam wants to bring that to Cambodia. The young dancer plans to move to Cambodia in November and start working with the kids in earnest.

With the help of several Long Beach residents who are helping put together a nonprofit in the United States, Nam sees Tiny Toones as having the chance to become a major player in the international break dancing scene and produce world-class talent.

"Can you imagine bringing a kid from a village (in Cambodia) to London to compete?" Nam says. "Eventually we'll get Tiny Toones out there."

Ryan Tong, a recent Cal State Long Beach graduate who is helping with the business side of Tiny Toones, says the goal of Tiny Toones is also to teach the kids to manage and oversee finances and eventually let them run the nonprofit.

"As much as art is important, so is money." Tong says. "That's freedom."

Although not a dancer himself, Tong is eager to learn.

"I'll be one of the first guys who learns break dancing to do social work," he says with a laugh.

A step down that path will occur tonight at Cal State Long Beach with a break dancing contest and benefit titled "Beyond the Mats 2," which will raise funds for Tiny Toones.

Nam expects upward of 400 or 500 spectators and participants.

In addition to putting on a good show with hot music and dancing, Nam and Tong hope to also get the message out to the b-boy and b-girl culture that they are part of something global and important and they can make a difference.

"We want to raise the consciousness of people here," Nam said. "We want to connect b-boys with issues of importance."

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

BEYOND THE MATS 2

What: Break dancing contest benefit for Cambodia

When: Today, 3-10 p.m.

Where: Cal State Long Beach Student Union Grand Ballroom

Tickets: $10, $7 with CSULB ID.
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Thai PM seeks direct talks over Cambodia border row

KANTARALAK, Thailand –– Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat said on Saturday he would seek face-to-face talks with Cambodian leader Hun Sen after a border clash near a 900-year-old temple this week.

“I am looking for the right time to talk with him. We should have an opportunity to talk,” Somchai told reporters after visiting Thai troops facing Cambodian forces along the border.

The Thai leader echoed Hun Sen’s comments on Friday that outside mediation was not needed to resolve the dispute. “This is an issue between Thailand and Cambodia. We should not let other countries get involved,” Somchai said.

Both sides have sought to ease tensions since three Cambodian soldiers were killed in Wednesday’s 40-minute firefight. Two Cambodians and seven Thais were wounded.

Both leaders were expected to attend a Southeast Asian meeting in Beijing next week to discus the global financial crisis, but it was not clear whether they would meet then on the sidelines.

“At this moment, there is no change in schedule. After talking to him late yesterday, the prime minister will go to Beijing as planned,” government spokesman Nattawut Saikuar told Reuters.

On Saturday, a Thai soldier died after slipping while on patrol and accidentally shooting himself, an army spokesman said.

The armies have agreed to conduct joint border patrols and to hold more talks on reducing their forces around the Hindu temple, a source of border tension for generations.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who has ruled Cambodia for more than two decades, said on Friday the stand-off would not escalate into a wider and more serious conflict.

Some analysts link the eruption of fighting on the border to the political instability that has roiled Thailand for the past three years, and reached another climax this week when Somchai faced calls from his own generals to quit.

Army chief Anupong Paochinda’s televised interview on Thursday, in which he said Somchai should step down after bloody clashes between police and anti-government protesters last week, ignited fresh coup rumors two years after former premier Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a bloodless putsch.

But Somchai refused on Friday to resign or call a snap election, saying Anupong was expressing “one opinion”.

Somchai said an investigation of the Oct. 7 street clash, which killed two protesters and injured nearly 500, would be completed in 15 days and decide who was responsible.

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Thai PM: Thailand, Cambodia can settle border disputes through talks

BANGKOK, Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat said Saturday he believes negotiations with the Cambodian government aimed at settling border disputes between the two neighboring countries are now possible and that there is no need to ask ASEAN for help in mediation.

Somchai made the remarks in Thailand's northeastern province of Si Sa Ket when he visited soldiers wounded in gun fight with Cambodia on Wednesday around disputed area near Preah Vihear temple, according to the Thai News Agency.

Somchai said Thailand and Cambodia shared the same idea that differences could be settled through negotiations as the two countries are neighbors.

Negotiations are expected to be held soon, said Somchai.

Thailand's Second Army Chief Lt-Gen. Wibulsak Neepal was scheduled to lead Thai delegates for bilateral talks at Cambodia's Siem Reap province next Wednesday and Thursday.

Somchai said that Thailand has never trespassed on other countries' territories and the two countries agreed to hold talks under the agreed-upon mechanisms to settle the border disputes.
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