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Monday, July 14, 2008

Post-mortem of Thai govt's handing of Preah Vihear

In recent weeks, several Foreign Ministry officials have experienced the utmost humiliation when taxi drivers have refused to take them to their offices on Sri Ayudhya Road. Why? They were labelled "traitors" by the cabbies.

In the 133-year history of the Foreign Ministry, the word "traitor" has been used for the first time to refer to the proud bureaucrats who cherish their long tradition of preserving Thailand's sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as promoting its national interests, all over the world.

A post-mortem of the ministry's handling of the Preah Vihear Temple case reveals symptoms linked to the credibility of elected officials and the role of public diplomacy. Furthermore, the controversy also shows that the country's foreign-policy decision-making process has changed. It is no longer the domain of a few educated diplomats or elite. Public knowledge and participation, through elected MPs or civil society groups, have become important factors. Proper consultations with all stakeholders are now prerequisites.

It was a curse that Noppadon Pattama, the former lawyer of deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was appointed to this prestigious position five months ago. Before that he was an outspoken lawyer defending his boss. Time and again, he praised Thaksin and maintained that he was an innocent man. Even after his appointment, he continued his rhetoric defending Thaksin.

Therefore, Noppadon's political capital was extremely low when he came to the ministry. Instead of augmenting his creditability and fostering public trust, he immediately chose to rail against senior officials who failed to court Thaksin while he was in exile. His first task was pushing for the immediate restoration of Thaksin's diplomatic passport, which was revoked right after the coup. On several occasions, he went overseas in his official capacity to meet with Thaksin, especially in China.

The choice of a Thai foreign minister these days is crucial. Gone are the days when just any politician can head the ministry. In Thai politics, the foreign affairs portfolio requires a capable and honest person, even though it is not a major or financially rewarding ministry in comparison to commerce, finance, industry and education.

As such, the next foreign minister will face similar scrutiny if Noppadon's successor lacks creditability and is perceived as a Thaksin nominee. According to the latest unconfirmed press reports, the Samak government has Vikrom Khumpairoj, the former Thai ambassador to the UK, in mind for the job. If that were the case, it would be problematic because of his close association with Thaksin, both during and after his tenure. After his retirement, Vikrom went on to look after Thaksin's interests in the UK. Due to the negative precedent set by Noppadon, the new minister would be under a cloud of suspicion, despite his diplomatic experience. Public trust and creditability begins at home.

Thailand will be chairing Asean for the next 18 months, from July 25 of this year until December 31 of next year. It is a small window that can boost Thailand's regional and international standing. Any controversy over the ministerial choice at this juncture would be disastrous to Thailand's foreign policy and leadership role in Asean.

It's a sad but true fact, but the Foreign Ministry's work and professionalism in the past five months has been belittled and unwittingly linked to Noppadon's mediocrity and brinkmanship. The ministry has also lacked public diplomacy. The ministry should have anticipated the fallout long before the World Heritage Committee's decision over the Preah Vihear Temple. After all, this issue came up four years ago when Cambodia first made clear to Thailand its attention to list its national treasure as a world heritage site.

In 2004, both countries set up a subcommittee to develop the temple and surrounding areas to attract tourists. A year later, Cambodia made an unsuccessful bid to have the site included on the world heritage list due to incomplete documents. In 2006, Phnom Penh reapplied and was accepted for consideration during last year's meeting in Christchurch, New Zealand. The Thai delegation succeeded in delaying consideration of the proposal until this year's meeting in Quebec.

A four-year span should have been sufficient for the ministry to have begun a concerted campaign to educate concerned authorities, including the armed forces and the public, about the issues and stakes involved. During this pause, misunderstandings and stereotypes caused by emotional swings, political spin and nationalistic fervour could have been better managed, if not mitigated. Popular debates on Preah Vihear were often misleading and were not based on facts and historical evidence. Thailand should learn from the experience and civilised manners which Singapore and Malaysia handled their 29-year old Pedra Branca dispute which was amicably settled in May by a World Court decision.

Thailand and Cambodia have 798 kilometres of a shared border. The demarcation effort has started, but it will take years before the issue of overlapping areas near the temple will be taken up. Both countries have so far completed only 48 of the 73 demarcation points. Thailand's border demarcations with neighbours have never been easy. Recurring border disputes are to be expected, especially when bilateral relations are deteriorating as they are now. Both sides need further dialogue.

To be fair, the ministry is capable of dealing with important diplomatic issues and publicising information of Thailand's diplomatic initiatives and accomplishments. Certainly on emotionally charged issues, a better-coordinated media strategy and public diplomacy is crucial in providing a timely dissemination of information and views.

Finally, the role of Parliament and civil society groups cannot be ignored. The Constitution Court ruled the June 18 joint communique with Cambodia was unconstitutional because it was weighted as a legally binding treaty and should go through parliamentary procedures. After the new charter came into effect last year, the Foreign Ministry and the House Foreign Affairs Committee have yet to meet and work together, as mandated by Article 190, which lists sets of criteria on what decisions and issues need parliamentary vetting and approval. Otherwise, Thai diplomacy would be a murky and dangerous affair. The Constitution Court's ruling on the communique could be an isolated case if and when the concerned authorities agreed on such consultative frameworks.

As the Asean chair, Thailand would like to transform Asean into a more friendly and people-oriented organisation with broader and deeper participation from civil society sectors. Dozens of programmes are planned to enhance dialogue and cooperation between Asean-based civil society groups and Asean leaders. This is part of the ongoing campaign to materialise the third pillar of Asean community - a Sociocultural Community in 2015.
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Cambodia: Rising tourism continues

NOTTINGHAM, UK, July 14, 2008 - Tourism to Cambodia has increased more than 14 percent in the year to May from the same period in 2007.

The Ministry of Tourism said Cambodia was on track to attract 2.3 million visitors this year, adding that political stability and infrastructure improvements had increased the number of tourist arrivals to the country. Some $1.64 billion is expected to be generated in 2008 from tourism alone.

Visitor numbers had already grown to 2 million in 2006, and rose a further 20 percent in 2007. This sustained and aggressive growth in the tourist sector, as well as booming construction, property and garment manufacturing sectors is helping the country's economy to enjoy near double-digit growth.

The real estate sector, in particular, is growing at a phenomenal rate and no more so than in the capital Phnom Penh where land doubled last year to $3,000 per square metre, up from just $500 in 2000. Add to this the growth in the tourism sector and rental yields in the city are also expected to grow.

Once known as the 'Pearl of Asia', Phnom Penh is a significant global and domestic tourist destination for Cambodia. The city is the wealthiest and most populous in the country, is its commercial, political and cultural hub and is home to more than two million people.

French villas along tree-lined boulevards remind the visitor of its colonist heritage, yet its oldest structure is the Wat Phnom from the founding days of the city, constructed in 1373. The French however, certainly left their mark and parts of the city are filled with colonial villas, French churches, boulevards, and famous landmarks such as the Art deco market Phsar Thom Thmei and the Hotel Le Royal.

Overseas specialists David Stanley Redfern Ltd are currently selling apartments in the chic riverside French quarter from as little as 49,000. Their authentic French colonial period buildings have been completely refurbished and modernised and are expected to appreciate by 15-20 percent per year. Due to demand, the developer is also offering a rental guarantee of 9 percent net for the first two years, making this a safe investment in an aggressively growing market.

Find out more about Cambodian property.

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Cambodian official attacked with acid

A SENIOR Cambodian government official has been attacked with acid, as the country gears up for a general election in two weeks.

Ngor Srun, secretary of state for the cabinet's office, was attacked yesterday at a garage in Phnom Penh, where he had taken his Lexus SUV for repairs, reported the Khmer-language Koh Santepheap Daily newspaper.

While he stooped to look at his vehicle's tyres, an assailant dumped acid over his head then fled on a motorbike driven by an accomplice, the newspaper said.

He was rushed to Calmette Hospital to treat acid burns on his face, ear and chest and then flown for treatment in Thailand last night, reported the English-language Cambodia Daily.

Mr Srun is a member of the ruling Cambodian People's Party, which is expected to sweep the country's July 27 election.

Authorities refused to confirm the attack.

Acid attacks, while decreasing in recent years, are still a common form of revenge in Cambodia, often committed by jilted lovers.

Cambodia once suffered widespread violence in the run-up to elections, but in recent years campaigning has run peacefully.

The most dramatic attack in the current campaign was the shooting deaths on Friday of a Cambodian journalist and his son, though witnesses said the conflict appeared to be personal rather than political.

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Cambodia holds big concert to hail Preah Vihear temple as world heritage

PHNOM PENH, July 14 (Xinhua) -- Cambodia here on Monday held a big concert inside the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh to hail the Preah Vihear temple to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sok An, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and head of the senior Cambodian delegation for applying for the Preah Vihear temple with the World Heritage Committee, presided over the ceremony after arrival from Canada.

Sok An said that the committee banged the hammer to decide to list the Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage Site after "we showed all documents to implement the UNESCO's requests."

"Listing the Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage Site showed us that the temple is top Khmer architecture for humanities," he added.

Cambodia's next generation has to preserve it and it is not only Khmer people but also people of the world have to do so, he said.

At the ceremony, thousands of old and young Cambodians wearing T-shirts shouted, waved the national flag and chanted songs on Khmer history while all top Cambodian singers sang the songs in relation with the Preah Vihear temple and land of Preah Vihear with traditional music.

All the 21 members of the World Heritage Committee during its 32nd session unanimously approved the Cambodian application to list the temple as the World Heritage Site in Quebec, Canada, last week.

Fortunately for Cambodia, last minute efforts by the Thai delegation to delay the vote and to have joint management of the temple failed at the current session of the committee.

On June 15, 1962, the International Court of Justice decided toward the ancient Angkorian site at the Cambodian-Thai border to Cambodia over the protest of Thailand.

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Thai PM may face treason charge over Cambodia temple deal

BANGKOK (AFP) — Anti-government activists Monday urged Thailand's top anti-corruption watchdog to consider treason charges against the prime minister for backing a deal with Cambodia on a disputed Hindu temple.

The Constitutional Court last week ruled that Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and his cabinet had violated the charter by signing a deal on the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple without seeking parliament's approval.

Foreign minister Noppadon Pattama resigned over the controversy, which has raised the threat of impeachment proceedings against the cabinet.

Now royalist activists from the so-called People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) want Samak and other top officials, including deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra, to face treason charges, which are punishable by execution.

Samak and his ruling People Power Party are closely aligned with Thaksin, who was toppled in a coup by royalist generals two years ago.

"The cabinet members, senior officials and former prime minister Thaksin committed severe crimes against the country," PAD spokesman Suriyasai Katasila told AFP.

The PAD submitted a letter Monday to the National Counter Corruption Commission, urging an investigation into the entire 34-member cabinet as well as Thaksin, top foreign ministry officials, and the Thai ambassador to France, the spokesman said.

The letter accused the cabinet of causing Thailand to lose territory to Cambodia, working to benefit a foreign state, and inciting an international conflict.

The scandal began last month when Noppadon signed a deal with Cambodia, backing its effort to win World Heritage status for the temple.

Although the World Court ruled in 1962 that the temple belongs to Cambodia, critics of the government have stoked a nationalist uproar, accusing the government of giving away Thai land to Cambodia.

The exact border around the temple has never been agreed. The dispute has raised tensions in both countries, with Cambodia closing the temple after Thai protesters tried to march to the site.
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