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Saturday, April 04, 2009

Cambodia leader talks down clash

Cambodia's prime minister has said that he does not wish to see border clashes between Thai and Cambodian troops escalate into a more serious conflict.

Hun Sen said no Cambodian soldiers had been injured in exchanges of fire on Friday that he regarded as incidents between neighbours, not a war.

Thai authorities said at least two Thai soldiers died and seven were wounded.

The disputed area, which surrounds an ancient temple, has long been a source of tension between the two countries.

An international court awarded Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia in 1962, but a 5-sq-km (1.9-sq-mile) patch of land surrounding it remains the subject of rival territorial claims.

"There was brief fighting, but the fighting was like neighbours who live close to each other and always have disputes," Hun Sen said of Friday's violence.

"Today they have a dispute, then they soothe things and talk to each other."

Simmering tensions

The neighbours are due to hold further border talks from Sunday in the Cambodian resort town of Siem Reap.

Each side accused the other of firing first in Friday's two exchanges of rocket and gunfire, in what is seen by analysts as a significant heightening in tensions.

The fighting appeared to have started after a Thai patrol visited the site where a Thai soldier was injured after stepping on a landmine on Thursday.

Nine Thai soldiers are reported to have been injured in the exchange, three of them seriously.

Thailand and Cambodia share a border that runs for nearly 800km (500 miles), much of it heavily mined.

Soldiers from the two countries have been stationed in the area around the Preah Vihear temple since tensions increased in July last year, after it was listed by Cambodia as a World Heritage Site.

Two Cambodian soldiers were killed there in October in a gun battle. Last week, Cambodia accused Thai troops of crossing over briefly into its territory.
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Hope blooms in Cambodian resort

In Cambodia, as the pain of the brutal Khmer Rouge years is relived in a courtroom in Phnom Penh, Petroc Trelawny goes further back in time to revisit the days of the French colonial era - and explores one of their old seaside playgrounds.

The security guard finally appeared, after my driver had spent some minutes shouting and banging the gate.

He was a middle-aged man, who stumbled out of what had once been the reception room window, down the curved ramp passing the crumbling remains of a pair of cast-concrete statues.
A few dollar bills later, the rusty chain around the gate was loosened and I was in.

Ghostly remains

Kep-sur-Mer is what the French called this small town in colonial times. A nice beach, lush forestation, and sea breezes to keep the colons [colonisers] cool - all this a matter of hours by car from the heat and dust of the capital.

From the end of World War II through until the mid 1960s, French settlers - and a few rich Cambodians - built dozens of bungalows and villas for themselves.

Then came the gradual rise of the Khmer Rouge. It soon became too dangerous to leave Phnom Penh.

At first the contents of the weekend homes were looted, then the doors and window-frames and roof tiles were taken.

What was left was then abandoned to the elements, or set ablaze as part of the Khmer Rouge's quest to eliminate anything to do with an imperial past.

But the buildings were too well constructed to be completely destroyed.

Now Kep is full of ruins, houses with crumbling verandas where pastis was once sipped as the sun set, lovingly tended vegetable plots now overgrown, trees where beds and sofas were once carefully arranged.

Of all the ghostly remains, my home-behind-the-gates was by far the most spectacular.

A grand double-fronted residence, with wide balconies on the first floor and gaping gaps where shuttered French windows would once have stood.

But there was something different about this place, and it took me a few moments to work out what. Then I realised. The ruin was surrounded by perfectly kept gardens.

The lawn was trimmed, the shrub-beds immaculate, the white roses carefully pruned.

The young gardener soon appeared, a broad smile on his face as he carried buckets of water.

Round the back of the house was his well, and his toddler daughter, alarmingly amusing herself playing with an axe.

I pointed to show that I would like to look inside the house, and he waved me in.

Red and white tiles still covered 60% of the floor. In the central hall, an elegantly curved staircase slowly wound its way upstairs, its banisters long gone.

The walls were riddled with bullet marks - there had obviously once been some stand-off here.

The occupant of the master-bedroom would have enjoyed spectacular views of the Gulf of Thailand.

The adjacent bathroom had once boasted a powder-blue suite - most of it gone, or reduced to rubble, save for the lavatory roll holder, which somehow had survived intact.

Mysterious benefactor

Then came a clue as to the ownership of this house. Another bedroom had been turned into a makeshift classroom.

A series of cartoons painted on the wall seemed to poke fun at the government.

In one a spotlight shone on a man in a suit, who looked like Hun Sen, prime minister for the past 25 years. In the beam, the word "transparency" was written in English and in capitals.

On another wall, a blackboard had the words along the top, again in English, HM Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia.

Sihanouk was monarch until 2004, when he unexpectedly abdicated, handing power to one of his sons, Norodom Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer who has spent most of his life abroad.

"King house, king house," my driver told me as we pulled away, waving goodbye to the gardener and his daughter.

In fact as I discovered later, it was actually the villa of the king's mother.

The king's own residence is on a bluff the other side of town, a '60s fantasy with sweeping picture windows and circular terraces overlooking the sea.

Again the house is crumbling, but the grounds are perfectly maintained.

So who is paying the gardeners? Locals told me that money arrives regularly and discreetly from the royal family itself.

Kep is gradually coming to life again.

French families are staying in the simple hotel on the beach and an eco-resort has opened in the hills.

The grand former colonial governor's house - rather like a Normandy chateau - has been restored and surrounded by chalets, though a financial dispute means the complex is currently locked shut.

Cambodia now attracts over a million foreign tourists a year, but Norodom Sihamoni is king of a nation that is still high up the UN list of Least Developed Countries and suffers from what has been described as "pandemic" corruption.

Recently the IMF announced Cambodia's economic outlook was distinctly gloomy.

But if it is the king who is keeping his gardens growing in this little coastal town, perhaps he dreams of a day when Cambodia's situation is more stable, rosier, and Kep-sur-Mer as was, can become a royal resort once again.
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Thai Army chief: Thai-Cambodian border clashes caused by "misunderstanding"

BANGKOK, Thailand's Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Anupong Paochinda said Saturday clashes between Thai and Cambodian soldiers at the disputed border area on Friday resulted from "misunderstanding", according to Thai News Agency (TNA).

Soldiers of each country stationed on the disputed border area thought that the other side intruded into their country's territory, said Anupong.

Leaving Bangkok for a visit at a hospital in Thailand's Ubon Ratchathani province where soldiers wounded in the border clashes are being treated, the Army Chief noted that Thailand would not use force to resolve the problem.

He said preparation were under way for negotiations between Thailand and Cambodia, at the ministerial level as well as with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, to resolve the issue, according to the TNA report.

However, senior army officers of both countries in the disputed area will play a significant role in finding ways to end the dispute, said Anupong.

Thailand and Cambodia have earlier conducted a few round of negotiations which involved the militaries and foreign ministries from the two sides to solve the border dispute regarding areas around the ancient Preah Vihear temple, a UNESCO world heritage site.

The international court ruled the Preah Vihear temple belonged to Cambodia more than 40 years ago. But dispute about borders areas around the temple has remained a fuse in the Thai-Cambodian relationship.

The issue became hot again after the Cambodia applied successfully for the temple to be listed as a world heritage site in July last year. Military deployment was enhanced and sporadic clashes were reported along the border.

Not much progress has been made in the negotiations between two foreign ministers and two militaries except for a promise to act "restraint".

Friday's new border clashes caused the deaths of two Thai soldiers and two Cambodian soldiers, and injuries of nine Thai soldiers.

The number of Thai soldiers stationed in the area remains unchanged, even though plans to evacuate villagers living near the disputed area have been prepared, Anupong said.
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