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Monday, September 19, 2011

Kasit: Hun Sen's meddling cause for concern

Thailand should be concerned about Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's actions now he has a Thai fugitive to his country, former foreign minister Kasit Piromya said on Monday.


Former foreign minister Kasit Piromya (right) and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen depart the stage after a group photo during the opening of the 16th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit in Vietnam on April 8, 2010. (Photo EPA)

"A group of journalists from Cambodia came to meet me and I asked them to tell Cambodian authorities that Thailand is apprehensive about Prime Minister Hun Sen, who held a reception for a fugitive instead of cooperating with Thai authorities by bringing that person back to face justice in his own country," Mr Kasit said.

The Democrat list MP said Hun Sen's action showed that he backed certain political groups and that he would not accept any other side that he did not support.

"The Cambodian premier is violating the Asean charter by intervening in Thailand's internal affairs, and should refrain from doing so.

"The Democrat Party has never interfered in Cambodia," he said.

On fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's comment that Thailand, Cambodia and Brunei are like brothers, Mr Kasit said the stance of the Sultan of Brunei was not yet known.

"The Sultan of Brunei is amataya [aristocrat elite] and the prai [peasants or commoners] must get his permission first," the Democrat MP said.

People were suspicious of the ties between Thaksin and Hun Sen and they should explain why they shared the same ideology, he said.

The Cambodian government could expedite the return of the two jailed yellow-shirt supporters, Veera Somkwamkid and Ratree Pipattanapaiboon, to Thailand. Their's was more a political case than a criminal case, Mr Kasit added.

Ousted premier Thaksin arrived in Phnom Penh on Sept 16 to attend the Asian Economic Forum Conference and meet Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Veera and Ratree were among the seven Thais arrested by Cambodian authorities for illegal entry in late December last year.

Five of them were released after being sentenced to a jail term for illegal entry and having served some time during the investigation.

Veera and his secretary were sentenced to eight and six years in prison respectively for illegal entry and an additional charge of espionage. Veera had previously been deported for illegal entry and warned not to do it again.
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Thaksin and Hun Sen deny bilateral issues on agenda

Ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra got a warm welcome from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday - two days after the former s younger sister Prime Minister Yingluck made her first official visit to the country. After Thaksin's arrival yesterday evening, he and Hun Sen hugged and greeted each other as "brother".

Hun Sen said there was no discussion of bilateral issues during his meeting with Thaksin, amid speculation that the two countries' overlapping maritime claims were on the agenda.

Thaksin was scheduled to deliver a lecture on development as part of a conference on the Asian economy, and to play a round of golf during his weeklong stay. Thaksin said he was visiting Cambodia to participate in the Asian Century forum at the invitation of Jose de Venecia, honourable chairman of the Centrist Asia Pacific Democrats International and a member of the Royal Academy of Cambodia.

He added that he would also attend a separate economic forum for Cambodian economists. Thaksin said he would deliver lectures on the challenges and opportunities facing economic development in Asia at the two events.

Hun Sen said the aim of Thaksin's visit was to exchange ideas on economic development, not to negotiate with Cambodia on either joint oil and gas development of overlapping maritime claims in the Gulf of Thailand, or the recent border conflict near the Preah Vihear Temple.

Yingluck yesterday posted the following message on her Facebook page: "As the head of the government, I confirm that the 4.6 square kilometres [adjacent to the temple] is in Thai territory. Thailand claims it belongs to Thailand, Cambodia claims it belongs to Cambodia. This is why it is called, 'overlapping area'. This government will solve the problem of overlapping area through diplomatic measures according to the evidence and international laws."

After Yingluck's visit on Thursday, Democrat spokesman Chavanond Intarakomalyasut said the prime minister had failed to assert Thailand's claim to the disputed 4.6-sq-km area, damaging Thailand's campaign to claim the land.

Chavanond also raised concerns about Yingluck's meeting with Chevron CEO John Watson ahead of her trip.
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Vietnamese, Cambodian top defense officials meet in Hanoi

HANOI, Sept. 19 (Xinhua) -- Vietnamese deputy defense minister Lieutenant General Le Huu Duc met with Cambodian defense secretary General Mung Somphone here on Monday.

Duc welcomed Somphone and Cambodia's high-ranking defense delegation on a visit to Vietnam from Sept. 18 to 24, saying the visit would help strengthen solidarity, friendship and mutual understanding between the two countries' peoples and armies, the Vietnam News Agency reported.

Somphone thanked Duc for his warm reception, saying he was glad to visit Vietnam and witness the country's achievements in construction and development.

Both sides informed each other of their respective country's social and economic situation, as well as national security and defense, and agreed that they should expand exchange of visits and cooperation in such areas as training, logistics work, finance, among others.

During their stay in Vietnam, the Cambodian delegation will also visit Vietnamese defense minister General Phung Quang Thanh, the Military Academy, the High Command of Zone 7, and some units of the Vietnamese people's army.
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Brighton Mining Group to acquire Cambodian gold mining assets

Brighton Mining Group (ASX: BTN) has completed negotiations for the acquisition of a major interest in gold mining assets held directly or indirectly by Brighton Mining Limited (BML), boosting its concession holdings in Cambodia.

These include the interest of BML in the Cambodian concessions held by Summer Gold Investments Pty Ltd at Ratanakari and at Mondulkiri, the latter of which adjoins the company’s concession comprising the Sun Hill Joint Venture at Antrong.

In addition the company will also secure other prospective areas presently being acquired by BML.

The acquisitions are strategically located around the company’s existing projects adjacent to the Okvau project of Oz Minerals (ASX: OZL) which has a JORC Inferred Resource of; 8.3 million tonnes at 2.3g/t gold containing 605,000 gold ounces.

The assets will give the Brighton Mining Group one of the largest single holdings in the highly mineralised and sought after region of the Mondulkiri province in Cambodia.

Upon necessary approvals, the company aims to explore the concessions so that they can be developed in conjunction with the works program planned for the Sun Hill Joint Venture area.

The Cambodian Government considers the mining and exploration industry to be one of the key industries that will help drive the country’s future economy. Unlike its neighbours of Laos and Vietnam, Cambodia is relatively infant in the development of its mineral assets.

Brighton Mining Group was admitted to the official list of the ASX and commenced trading in November 2010.
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Conservationists: Hunters, habitat loss threaten endangered wild cattle in Cambodia

By Associated Press

BANGKOK — The world’s largest population of banteng, a type of cattle native to Southeast Asia, is at risk from hunters and agricultural concessions granted inside protected areas of Cambodia, a conservation group said Monday.

Numbers of banteng, graceful wild cattle that once roamed in vast herds, in Cambodia have plummeted by 90 percent since the 1960s and the species is listed as globally endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which monitors wildlife populations.

A three-year study by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Cambodian government showed that between 2,700 and 5,700 banteng have survived on the plains of northeastern Cambodia from a global population of 5,900 to 11,000. Areas of Thailand and Indonesia shelter only several hundred.

Along with poaching for meat and horn trophies, the wild cattle is losing its habitat to land concessions granted by the government to foreign and local investors and large-scale infrastructure projects, the WWF said.

“It essentially means Cambodia’s protected areas, including those that contain globally important species, are not as protected by law as people once thought,” the statement said.

The plains of northern and northeastern Cambodia, which include some of the region’s largest remaining lowland forests, were once regarded as an Eden for wildlife.

But Cambodia’s wildlife has been battered in recent decades.

Soldiers killed thousands of animals during 20 years of war and civil conflict and in more recent times massive deforestation, abetted by corruption, and a thriving illegal wildlife trade with China and Vietnam have hastened the decline. Hunting and encroachment into reserves continues.

Cambodia’s national animal, the kouprey, was last seen in 1988 and the wild ox is generally believed to be extinct. Elephants, another species central to Cambodian culture, are believed to number no more than 300 in the wild, while the tiger population has been decimated.

The WWF, working on a major project to rehabilitate the northeastern plains, says that banteng, along with other prey like wild pig and barking deer, must be maintained for tigers to survive. The plains are regarded as one of the best places in Asia to revitalize tiger populations.

“For tigers and prey species — including a globally endangered banteng population — to recover within the landscape, stronger area management and a commitment to conservation from high levels of the Cambodian government are essential,” the WWF said.
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Cambodian NGOs under the gun

By Sebastian Strangio

PHNOM PENH -These are tough times for Cambodia's embattled non-governmental organizations (NGOs). As the government gears up to pass controversial legislation regulating the country's estimated 2,000 civil society groups, it has drawn strong criticism for a coordinated crackdown on land rights groups working on a foreign donor-funded railway renovation project.

On August 4, the Cambodian Ministry of Interior suspended the local organization Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), one of several involved with monitoring the resettlement of residents displaced by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and AusAID-funded rail project. At first authorities claimed the suspension was due to
inconsistencies in the group's paperwork, but soon tipped their hand.

"STT operated and incited people to oppose national development by the government in order to make the development partners suspend or stop the project," the ministry said in an August 14 statement.

"STT operated and incited people to oppose national development by the government in order to make the development partners suspend or stop the project," the ministry said in an August 14 statement.

The $141 million project will see the renovation of Cambodia's decrepit rail system and is set to impact around 4,000 poor families living along the tracks. But resettlement options for those affected have come under fire from STT and other land rights groups since May 2010, when two young children drowned at a resettlement site in Battambang province. STT has also accused the government of the "systematic downgrading" of land values along rail lines in a bid to short-change residents on compensation.

In recent months, groups working on rail resettlement issues have been attacked by the highest reaches of the government. In a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen dated June 17, Minister of Economy and Finance Keat Chhon requested that the premier approve punitive action against STT and Bridges Across Borders Cambodia (BABC), another group that has been active on the railway project.

Keat Chhon cited an unnamed ADB consultant as saying the bank had come under "political pressure" from the two organizations, and asked the government to "take immediate action" to stem their activities. The minister also issued the following instructions for Hun Sen's approval: "Do not allow foreign NGOs to do advocacy work. Local NGOs who do advocacy work must not have foreigners involved or interfere."

He also requested "action according to the laws to nullify the eligibility of these NGOs," and referred specifically to a passage of the new NGO law. "I would like to request the Council of Ministers to review and implement the draft law on Association and Non-Governmental Organizations in a speedy manner," Keat Chhon wrote.

(ADB country director Putu Kamayana told the German press agency Deutsche Presse Agentur the bank has conducted "a thorough investigation" which found "no evidence" of misconduct by any ADB consultants).
In late July, TV station TVK ran an interview with three government officials about the railway project in which they dismissed NGO criticisms of the project's resettlement and compensation policies as "baseless". According to a transcript of the interview, one official went on to slam various unnamed groups that "incite, provoke and make the affected families to be confused".

He identified the culprits as "a small group of NGOs" that were "composed of foreigners" and called on their foreign staff to "no longer exploit the affected people to make your career". The interview has been rebroadcast at least three times since its original airing.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said STT's suspension showed that the Cambodian government "doesn't allow legal principles to get in the way of political priorities". "When the order comes from the top to shutter a NGO or intimidate a community association, officials take action first and figure out the justification for what they did afterwards," he said by e-mail.

Since STT's suspension, the government has warned staff from the NGO Forum, an umbrella civil society organization, over letters it sent to ADB and AusAID officials alerting them about the situation at resettlement sites. It has also summoned staff from BABC to warn them about making "false" claims about the deaths of the two children last year, local media reported.

Stifled voices The repressive atmosphere is spreading. On September 7, Cambodian authorities and police armed with AK-47s disrupted a human-rights training event organized by two local NGOs in Kampong Thom province.

According to a statement issued shortly afterwards by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), which co-organized the workshop, police photographed those taking part in the event, including local activists and community members protesting against land grabs.

Participants were told they did not have the necessary "permission" to hold the workshop. Quoted in the Cambodia Daily, Kampong Thom provincial police chief Phan Sopheng accused the two organizations of "inciting" local people, and warned that both could be suspended if they pushed ahead with future events.

Since the United Nations transitional mission of the early 1990s seeded Cambodia with a vibrant civil society sector, NGOs here have had an ambivalent relationship with the government.

For Hun Sen, tolerating a vocal civil society has been the price for keeping the Western aid dollars flowing; their criticisms of his government have been neutralized by his frequent references to the ravages of the Pol Pot regime, which stands accused of killing as many as two million people, and vague promises of future reforms.

This had made Cambodia a relative safe haven for civil society activists - by Asian standards, at least - but has also made Hun Sen's government one of the most firmly entrenched, its tight grip on power legitimized internationally by its apparent tolerance for open criticism.

But with the new NGO law looming on the horizon - coupled with the massive increase in no-strings-attached aid and investment from China and the generally supine posture of UN agencies and most other donors - the balance could be tipping decisively in the government's favor.

Officials have claimed the law, currently in draft form, is necessary to regulate the country's sometimes unwieldy NGO sector. But the legislation has been widely criticized for granting the government the power to dissolve organizations on vague pretexts, and plague small groups with onerous registration procedures.

HRW's Robertson said recent incidents only cast further doubt on the true purposes of the law. "The problem with the government's claims of benign regulatory intent is that this totally contradicts their historical record of going after troublesome NGOs and community associations with the equivalent of hooks and hammers - including straightforward intimidation, violent repression of demonstrations, and now regulatory restrictions," he said.

"There is basically no chance that a law on associations and NGOs will be used in the sort of benevolent, hands-off manner that the government is desperately trying to persuade the international community to believe," Robertson added.

Indeed, the government's moves could to some degree be an outgrowth of the souring of relations between Cambodia and some of its international donors. During a high-level donor meeting in April, USAID country head Flynn Fuller warned of a funding freeze if the NGO law was passed, describing it as "excessively restrictive".

In August, the World Bank announced it had frozen funding to Cambodia over a rash of land seizures at Boeung Kak lake in central Phnom Penh, a high-profile eviction case that was brought to the Bank's attention by several land rights groups, including STT and BABC. Shortly afterwards, Cambodia indefinitely postponed its next meeting with donors set for November.

CCHR president Ou Virak said that the active role played by the land rights NGOs in getting the World Bank to take action on the Boeung Kak issue may very well have pushed the government into taking a stronger stance against criticism of the rail project. He said the government had responded to its critics "the only way they know how" - by attacking the messenger.

But the groups involved say that contrary to the government's implications, they are not opposed to national development. Ee Sarom, STT's programs coordinator, said his group was working for "a transparent and sustainable development process that benefits all sectors of society and does not leave citizens worse off."

"This type of work is important in ensuring development projects are equitable, sustainable, and beneficial to all Cambodians," he said.

Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He can be reached at sebastian.strangio@gmail.com
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