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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cambodian, Thai defense ministers to meet for easing border tension

Tea Banh, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defense, said here on Thursday that he and his Thai counterpart will hold a meeting to find a solution to the border tension between the two countries.

"I and my Thai counterpart will meet with each other in Siem Reap province on April 27 and 28 in order to find ways to ease the border tension, and avoid new armed clash near the Preah Vihear temple and other places along our border," he said.

The meeting has been delayed twice since February, and "we are waiting for the Thai side to deal with the issue peacefully and without military confrontation," he added.

Tea Banh was unsure whether the next meeting will be conducted as scheduled, as Thailand is still obsessed with internal instability.

On April 3, Thai and Cambodian troops exchanged fire near the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple, killing two Thai soldiers.

Since July 2008, troops from both sides have stationed near the temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and two armed confrontations last year sparked brief concerns of war.

The two neighboring countries have never fully demarcated their disputed 800-km-long border, mainly due to their different interpretation of historical maps and the landmines left over from decades of civil war in Cambodia.
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The Mekong, Vietnam and Cambodia

Pandaw Cruises
The trip: Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap over seven nights
The fare: $5,137 for two in a main-deck room during peak (high-water) season, from October to March. The shorter trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh in peak season costs $2,640 for a couple. The fare covers meals, bus transportation, excursions and some alcoholic drinks such as local beer and basic cocktails.



From the barren Tibetan highlands, the Mekong river rumbles south through China's Yunnan province and winds its way along the Myanmar, Laos and Thai borders. Then it powers through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying in the South China Sea. At 4,350 kilometers, it is the seventh longest river in Asia and, arguably, Southeast Asia's most important natural resource.

Dams built along the upper parts of the river by China in recent decades have wreaked havoc on the river's flow, lowering water levels and damaging its ecology. Still, the river's fertile delta region -- called cuu long or nine dragons in Vietnamese -- is one of the world's largest producers of rice.

Though steep descents and swift rapids make the upper reaches of the Mekong difficult to navigate, its lower part in Cambodia and Vietnam is a gentle ride. It is this section of the river that I travel on the Orient Pandaw, a Pandaw Cruises boat.

Pandaw operates six boats in Asia with a seventh under construction. They ply the Mekong and the Irrawaddy as well as rivers on Borneo, and from later this year, in India. All the boats are built from a late-19th-century design of a paddle steamer operated by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. that was once a common sight in Burma. The boats carried everything from tamarind to rice to elephants -- and people.

In the mid-1990s, Paul Strachan found a 1947 version of the steamer called the Pandaw, originally part of the Flotilla fleet, in Mandalay. It was ferrying locals and goods, but badly in need of restoration. He had it repaired and launched Pandaw Cruises on the Irrawaddy. Mr. Strachan's company has gone on to make six replicas, each one hand-finished. Two of those boats, the Tonle Pandaw and the Mekong Pandaw, now ply the Mekong. (The Orient Pandaw has just been moved to Borneo.)

On a Pandaw "steamer" -- the four deck-high boats are actually engine-powered -- there is no mistaking it: You are on a river boat. There are the knob-end metal light switches, an old-fashioned horn that blows before departures and the polished brass and teak throughout. Each of the 30-odd state rooms -- Pandaw boats can carry about 60 passengers -- has a ship-like efficiency that displays more river-boat charisma than five-star hotel lavishness. Still, the navy blue bedding and wood walls and floors make it cozy.

On the Orient Pandaw, the sun deck on top -- shaded by a cheerful yellow awning -- is so inviting that it's tempting to skip some of the land excursions, which some passengers did on my trip. Lounge chairs with navy blue cushions face the shore, so you can enjoy a drink and watch the banks as you coast by. Comfortable rattan sofas take up the deck's middle space, a perfect spot for reading.

Next time, though, I'll make sure the boat I'm on has plenty of indoor common space, as the Mekong Pandaw and Tonle Pandaw do. Unlike the Orient Pandaw, both have a saloon bar, a large indoor area with comfortable sofas where you can read or socialize in air-conditioned comfort yet still see outside.

I boarded at My Tho, a trading hub west of Ho Chi Minh City. As we headed toward Cambodia, one of our first stops was the town of Cai Be, where we visited floating markets, local rice-paper makers, an elegant historic residence known as the An Kiet house and An Binh, an incongruous French-Gothic church.

The next day, we stopped at Chau Doc, a pleasant Vietnamese delta town where we walked through a bustling market and were pedaled around on rickshaws. We also visited a Muslim neighborhood inhabited by the Cham, a group that traces back to the Champa kingdom that ruled the area centuries ago.

During the early part of the trip, the Mekong delta was so vast I couldn't see land. But as we neared Cambodia, the river narrowed and the shores drew nearer, affording glimpses of local life, like kids playing in the water and cattle cooling off in the mud.

Unfortunately I had to disembark in Phnom Penh and missed the rest of the cruise up to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. I now regret not clearing my schedule -- three days on the Mekong is not enough.
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Judges grill Khmer Rouge prison chief

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — Judges at Cambodia's UN-backed war crimes court grilled the former prison chief of the Khmer Rouge regime Thursday about his notorious jail, where thousands of people were tortured and killed.

Sitting in the dock, Duch -- whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav -- politely answered questions from judges about the organisation and structure of Tuol Sleng prison, also known as S-21.

He told the court his duty was to train his young staff to torture confessions from prisoners, which would then be used to implicate and arrest more suspected enemies of the paranoid regime.

"I had to indoctrinate them (staff) to make them absolute, to make them dare to interrogate and this was not a good thing. This was the duty that I performed," Duch said.

The court showed a chart illustrated by Duch which outlined the chain of command at S-21 and he recounted the daily duties of those who worked under him to interrogate and inspect prisoners.

He added that he would annotate confessions from tortured prisoners and then send the documents on to his superiors.

"S-21 was under the supervision of (Khmer Rouge defence minister) Professor Son Sen," Duch said.

"All security offices, including the S-21 office, had the duty to detain and interrogate and finally to smash -- that is to kill," he added.

Former military commander Son Sen was murdered by his comrades in 1997, and Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died of old age a year later.

Although there were some 195 Khmer Rouge torture centres around the country, Duch said he had known of only two other such Khmer Rouge security offices, including one supervised by his brother-in-law.

Duch, 66, is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and premeditated murder over the extermination of around 15,000 people between 1975 and 1979 at Tuol Sleng.

The former maths teacher said that, when he was given the job as the chief of Tuol Sleng in March 1976, he brought along some staff from the secret jungle prison M-13, which he ran 1971-75.

Most cadres brought from M-13 were assigned to interrogate prisoners, Duch said, adding that he kept two staff close to him to interrogate Vietnamese prisoners of war and high-level detainees.

Duch apologised last month when his trial started, accepting blame for overseeing the extermination of 15,000 people who passed through Tuol Sleng.

However he has denied prosecutors' claims that he played a central role in the Khmer Rouge's iron-fisted rule, and maintains he never personally executed anyone.

He faces life in jail but the court does not have the power to impose the death penalty.

Many believe the UN-sponsored tribunal is the last chance to find justice for victims of the regime, which killed up to two million people through starvation, overwork, torture and execution.

The tribunal was formed in 2006 after nearly a decade of wrangling between the United Nations and Cambodian government, and is scheduled to try four other senior Khmer Rouge leaders.

The tribunal was formed in 2006 after nearly a decade of wrangling between the United Nations and Cambodian government, and is scheduled to try four other senior Khmer Rouge leaders.

But the court has been marred by corruption claims and talks between UN and Cambodian officials ended earlier this month without agreement on anti-graft measures.

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