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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Relations with US snagged over debt issue

DESPITE signs of progress in areas ranging from military cooperation to development aid, comments in recent weeks from Cambodian and American officials underscore the fact that bilateral relations remain snagged on an issue some three decades old: Cambodia’s wartime debt.

Before the US-ASEAN summit two weeks ago, Prime Minister Hun Sen called upon the United States to cancel the debt, calling it “dirty”. But a US State Department official said last week the US would not do so for fear of setting a “bad precedent” for countries in similar positions.

The principal sum of the debt, according to the US State Department and the International Monetary Fund, is US$162 million for shipments of cotton, rice, wheat flour and other agricultural commodities in the 1970s. Interest has ballooned the total debt to $445 million.

The Kingdom had an overall debt burden of $3.2 billion in 2009, according to the IMF, which noted in an assessment that year that Cambodia is at “moderate risk of debt distress”.

In congressional testimony Friday, Joe Yun, deputy assistant secretary for the US state department’s bureau of East Asian and Pacific affairs,
said the US would not forgive Cambodia’s debt because it considers Cambodia both able to pay and obligated to do so under international law.

Officials at the Ministry of Economy and Finance did not respond this week to requests for comment about the debt.

Beyond the debt issue, Yun observed a “generally positive trend” in bilateral relations in his remarks last week, noting that the US has been Cambodia’s top trading partner since 1998. Moreover, under President Barack Obama, he said, the US would provide US$72 million to Cambodia this year, making it the fourth-largest recipient of foreign aid in the East Asia-Pacific region. But the debt could be a “spoiler” in the countries’ relationship, said Carlyle Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy who called on the US to forgive it.

Cambodia incurred the debt under Lon Nol, who came to power in a 1970 coup d’etat. The US subsequently supported Lon Nol with economic, food and military aid, including an infamous bombing campaign.

Historians have long said that the bombs, believed to have killed tens of thousands of civilians while devastating the Cambodian countryside, may have slowed the Khmer Rouge in the short term, but also likely strengthened them as well.

Kenton Clymer, a professor at Northern Illinois University and an expert on US-Cambodia relations, said in an email yesterday that a reduction of the debt would be appropriate in view of the countries’ tumultuous history. “I suspect that the American legal position is correct, that a change of government does not relieve a country of previous debts. On the other hand, US bombing of Cambodia and American policy during the Khmer Republic did help create conditions that made a Khmer Rouge victory more likely,” Clymer said.

The US dropped 2,756,941 tons of ordnance in Cambodia, according to historians Ben Kiernan and Owen Taylor. William Shawcross put the cost of the bombing at $7 billion.

But an argument based on the historical injustice of the debt in view of the American legacy in the region was “not going to work politically” in negotiations with the US, Thayer said.

Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, indicated yesterday that the government viewed debt forgiveness as a potential way to move beyond their contentious past.

“We don’t want to put the blame and point a figure at each other,” he said. “Right now we have a new chapter.”
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Biodiverse Mekong Region Needs Protection

The area around the Mekong River, the 12th largest body of running water in the world, is extremely diverse in terms of species, but is also endangered by encroaching human influence, a report shows.

The Mekong springs from the heights of the Tibetan Plateau, on the roof of the world, and passes through China before heading out into Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Greater Mekong area is extremely widespread, considering that the drain basin for the 4,350-kilometer (2,703-mile)-long river covers 795,000 square kilometers (307,000 square miles).

In this amazing region, scientists discover new species at the staggering rate of three per week, which means that the Mekong is one of the most biodiverse places on the face of the planet.

Some of the discoveries made here include the now-famous fish with vampire fangs (Danionella dracula), a cricket-sounding frog, as well as a carnivorous plant standing 7 meters (22 feet) tall.

In 2009 alone, more than 145 new species of animals and plants were discovered near the Mekong, and this again reaffirms the tremendous importance of the region, ahead of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan.

“This rate of discovery is simply staggering in modern times,” explains researcher Stuart Chapman, who works as the Conservation Director for WWF (World Wildlife Fund) Greater Mekong.

“Each year, the new species count keeps going up, and with it, so too does the responsibility to ensure this region’s unique biodiversity is conserved,” the expert argues.

But the extreme diversity of the Mekong's habitat and species is also what makes the entire ecosystem so fragile and in need of attention.

“Biodiversity is not evenly distributed around the globe. These new species are a timely reminder of the extraordinary biodiversity in the Greater Mekong,” Chapman says.

“Therefore a greater allocation of funds is needed to ensure these valuable ecosystems are conserved,” he adds further. As an example of the threats to the area, he gives the example of the Javan rhino, in Vietnam, which are now about to go extinct.

The WWF now urges the governments of the six countries in the Mekong basin to take firm actions for protecting the area, by requesting funds through the CBD financing mechanism called the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

The organization also plans to be very active at the new meeting, so that all relevant actors become aware of the importance of keeping Greater Mekong ecosystems stable and protected.
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Hun Sen talk with Abhisit

PRIME Minister Hun Sen met with Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva at a summit in Belgium, where the two leaders affirmed their commitment to a demobilisation of troops stationed along their contentious border.

According to state television channel TVK, Hun Sen and Abhisit met for about 15 minutes on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting on Monday. The two-day summit was set to conclude yesterday.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong said Cambodian officials welcomed further talks aimed at resolving the border dispute. Hun Sen and Abhisit are slated to meet again later this month at an ASEAN meeting in Hanoi.

“Cambodia’s position remains that we can use bilateral or multilateral mechanisms,” Koy Kuong said yesterday. “We are prepared to resolve the dispute by any means necessary.”

Abhisit said he and Hun Sen had “exchanged views over the dispute in an effort to press ahead for progress in tackling the issue apart from current efforts being made through parliamentary procedures”, Thai state media reported yesterday.

The countries are working to demarcate their border through a bilateral committee, though the process has been stalled since last year pending approval of the latest round of talks in the Thai parliament.

Chea Dara, deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces stationed at Preah Vihear temple, said yesterday that commanders from the two sides were slated to meet next week to discuss a redeployment of troops stationed at the Cambodian border.

“This is a great sign, and the purpose of the meeting will be to prevent military confrontations,” Chea Dara said.

“The two militaries from both sides have good cooperation, and we shared lunch and ate cakes together recently.”
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Charming City: City Hall launch new site

Charming City

CITY Hall launched the redesign of its official website, www.phnompenh.gov.kh, yesterday, rebranding the capital “the Charming City”.

Kim Savuth, deputy municipal cabinet chief and the website’s director, said City Hall hoped to use it to share information that would attract domestic and international tourists and investors.

“Currently, we published information in the Khmer and English languages, and we plan to publish in French soon,” he said.

He added that the website would offer information on development projects, local businesses and tourism.

A description of ‘‘Phnom Penh today’’ describes the capital as ‘‘charming, relaxing and harmonious’’.
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