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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hun Sen's diplomatic juggling act

By Geoffrey Cain

PHNOM PENH - More than any other Southeast Asian country, Cambodia finds itself caught in the middle of competing United States and Chinese diplomatic overtures. With Washington offering bilateral strategic initiatives and Beijing rich financial assistance, Prime Minister Hun Sen has deftly balanced the country's diplomacy between the two superpowers to his government's political advantage.

In 2006, the US opened a massive new embassy in Phnom Penh, underscoring Washington's new diplomatic commitment to the country. The facility includes office space for fighting global terrorism, including a large US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) presence and a new joint National Counterterrorism Committee, established in 2007.

FBI director Robert Mueller pointed to the fact that Jemaah Islamiyah operative Riduan Isamuddin, alias Hambali, had taken refuge in a Cambodian Muslim school before his capture in Thailand in 2003 as one reason for setting up the new counterterrorism agency. US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli chimed in that unnamed radical Muslim groups were bidding to impose with funding a stricter interpretation of Islam on the local Muslim Cham community.

China, on the other hand, has deployed commercial resources to win influence. Since 2005, Beijing has offered up around US$600 million in annual economic aid, with funds earmarked for roads, bridges and dams. Unlike the previous aid received from Western donors - which in recent years accounted for over half of the country's national budget - Chinese money comes with no pre-conditions that Hun Sen’s government fight graft or move towards more democracy.
In February this year, the Chinese government promised to help electrify Cambodia's power-starved countryside, including a $1 billion commitment for two major dam projects. Those projects will alleviate chronic power shortages, which the World Bank says have led to the world's highest energy costs.

The projects will also help power operations of the more than 3,000 Chinese companies now situated in Cambodia and which in 2007 produced US$1.56 billion in revenues, accounting for 7% of gross domestic product (GDP), according to Economic Institute of Cambodia statistics. China now employs a sizable proportion of the national workforce, supplanting the mostly Western non-governmental organizations and garment factories which dominated the local economy in the 1990s, when the country first emerged from decades of war.

Cambodia's economy is expanding at double digit growth rates and China's economic interest in the country has intensified since 2005, when US oil company Chevron discovered what some have projected are large stores of oil and gas off the country's southern coast. Those growing commercial ties were witnessed in the establishment in February of a special economic zone at the coastal town of Sihanoukville, from which goods will be produced for export duty free to China.

At least six Chinese companies have so far signed contracts with the zone's two Chinese and Cambodian developers. Once a second phase of construction is completed in 2011, the Sihanoukville zone will have the capacity to accommodate 150 companies and 40,000 workers. The Chinese developers hope the zone will export $2 billion worth of products per year by 2015, according a joint press release.

Hun Sen attended the SEZ's launch and noted after signing an official agreement with the project's developers that the new facility would stoke growth in the Cambodian economy and strengthen bilateral ties with China. Beijing has donated nine patrol boats to the Royal Khmer Navy to help secure the new facility against piracy and trafficking.

While China's economic influence grows, that of the US is on the wane. In recent years the US has given around $150 million in annual economic aid, a small fraction of China's commercial patronage. At the same time US-Cambodian trade ties have fallen off, seen in the 30% year-on-year decline in garment exports to the US in 2007. The US has long been the primary importer of Cambodian textiles, which is still the country's largest export item.

By offering more aid through strategic initiatives, the US policy towards Cambodia has apparently shifted after emphasizing throughout the 1990s the promotion of democracy and the rule of law. That frequently put the two sides at diplomatic loggerheads, notably over an FBI investigation into a March 1997 bomb attack against a rally held by opposition politician Sam Rainsy in the capital Phnom Penh which killed at least 16 and injured 150 people, including a US citizen.

According to a Washington Post story from June 1997, which quoted four US government sources with access to classified material, the FBI had tentatively pinned responsibility for the blasts and subsequent interference in their investigations on Hun Sen's personal Brigade 70 bodyguard unit. The US has never publicly released the investigation's findings, although US-based Human Rights Watch earlier this year called upon Washington to re-open its long-stalled investigations. "Instead of trying to protect US relations with Cambodia, it should now finish what it started," the rights group said in a statement.

Terror ties
Instead, the US State Department claimed in a recent report on trafficking in people that the human rights situation in Cambodia is improving under Hun Sen's watch. It praised in particular his government's efforts to combat human trafficking. More controversially, the FBI in April last year invited national police chief Hok Lundy to Las Vegas for discussions on counterterrorism, even though Lundy has been implicated in a number of serious human rights abuses.

According to Human Rights Watch, which said it has presented its own evidence to the US government, Lundy was part of the conspiracy that carried out the 1997 grenade attack, an act the FBI had previously classified as a "terrorist act". He also commanded battalions loyal to Hun Sen that carried out the July 1997 coup that ousted co-prime minister Norodom Ranariddh, where some opposition party members and supporters were killed in extrajudicial fashion and many more fled into exile.

Last week's murder of a Sam Rainsy Party-aligned journalist, Khem Sambo, also raises questions about possible government actions in the run-up to general elections scheduled for July 27. Former co-prime minister and now the leader of a political party under his own name, Norodom Rannaridh, recently sought refuge in Malaysia after the government leveled defamation charges against him.

The US's upbeat assessment of Cambodia's human rights record may be seen as a diplomatic response to China's more unconditional and commercial approach to bilateral relations. There is also the historical guilt factor, shared by both the US and China, and a major complication in winning over Hun Sen's trust. Beijing famously backed the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, both while the radical Maoists were in power from 1975-79 and after they were overthrown by Vietnamese forces in 1979 and took up guerilla arms around the Thai border.

The genocidal regime is now held responsible for the deaths of as many as 2 million Cambodians, including ethnic Chinese businessmen. Meanwhile, the US is estimated to have killed over 500,000 Cambodians during its secret bombing campaign from 1969 to 1970, which intensified the country's civil war. The US also backed the 1970 Lon Nol-led coup which deposed Prince Norodom Sihanouk as head of state.

Some estimate China now has the upper hand over the US in terms of relations with Cambodia. While Hun Sen welcomes US counterterrorism initiatives, which will likely go a long way in improving the government's surveillance capabilities, the premier's statements about the actual risk of terrorism to Cambodia have been conflicting.

After a foiled bomb attack of the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument in July 2007 by a group of local radicals, Hun Sen asserted his government's will to combat terrorism. But by February 2008, he apparently flip-flopped his position by saying that there were no terrorists in Cambodia.

More clearly, Hun Sen's cooperation on US counterterrorism initiatives is subordinated to his government's drive to promote more Chinese trade and investment. Foreign investment approvals from China amounted to $763 million in 2006, nearly double the 2005 figure, according to the Council for the Development of Cambodia. Those figures were expected to be even higher last year with the various deals signed by the two sides.

While the US tries to deflect China's commercial diplomacy, Beijing has simultaneously landed on ways to unite economically and culturally with Cambodia, including through outreach to politically influential ethnic-Chinese entrepreneurs. It's also apparent, some say, in the fading popularity of the English language over Mandarin Chinese, also known as Putonghua, in local schools. Cambodia is now home to the largest Chinese school in Southeast Asia, Duan Hua, which currently enrolls over 8,000 students. The most popular Chinese courses are specifically geared towards business, with students reasoning that English language capability may help to land jobs with international aid organizations, while Mandarin, which is taught across mainland China as the official language, will catapult them into more lucrative positions in business.

Another indication that China is winning the struggle for hearts and minds came in January, when Cambodian police halted and threatened to deport US activist actress Mia Farrow for attempting to stage a protest against China's commercial relationship with Sudan's murderous regime. Farrow said she picked Cambodia as a symbolic place for her protest, given both Sudan's and Cambodia's genocidal experiences while receiving Chinese assistance. Government spokesman and Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said at the time that authorities banned the protest because it had "a political agenda against China", a stance Hun Sen's government clearly doesn't share.
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Cambodian PM says border dispute with Thailand worsening

KANTARALAK, Thailand - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Thursday a border row with Thailand was "worsening" and urged the immediate withdrawal of Thai troops from a disputed ancient temple.

In a letter to Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, Hun Sen said the stand-off at the Preah Vihear temple was "very bad" for relations, but he still hoped to "resolve the problem through negotiations" at a border meeting on Monday.

"The situation is worsening due to a continuing increase in the numbers of Thai military" and the presence of Thai protesters, said Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who faces a general election next week.

With hundreds of Thai and Cambodian troops facing off on the border, there are fears it could escalate five years after a dispute over another Cambodian temple, Angkor Wat, saw a nationalist mob torch the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh.

Cambodia's listing of the temple as a World Heritage site triggered a political uproar in Thailand stoked by groups seeking to oust Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's shaky ruling coalition.

About 2,000 Thai nationalists were stopped from rallying at the temple on Thursday, some clashing with Thai villagers angry at the loss of cross-border trade. Some protesters suffered minor injuries before riot police intervened.

"Go home, go home, you troublemakers!," one woman shouted at members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which is leading a nearly two-month old street campaign against Samak, whom they accuse of being a proxy for former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

In Bangkok, Samak said the protesters were "insane" and he accused them of trying to provoke a border confrontation.

The 900-year-old temple has been a source of tension for decades since the International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that it belonged to Cambodia, a ruling that still rankles Thais.

The latest flare-up was sparked by Bangkok's support for the UNESCO listing, which the PAD said was tantamount to selling out Thailand's heritage.

Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama quit last week after a Thai court ruled the joint communique he signed backing Preah Vihear's listing was illegal because it was an international treaty that required parliament's approval.

The PAD seized on the court ruling, vowing to go after the rest of Samak's cabinet and step up a street campaign that has worried investors. The main stock index has dropped 23 per cent since the protests began on May 25.

"Political temperatures will rise inexorably, and Thailand will become increasingly ungovernable, in the interim," Chulalongkorn University professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote.

Thailand and Cambodia have deployed hundreds of troops since Tuesday when three Thai activists were briefly detained on the Cambodian side for trying to plant a Thai flag there.

Despite the aggressive rhetoric from both sides, the situation at the temple has remained calm while diplomatic efforts get underway.

Defence ministers from the two countries will attend a border meeting on Monday "so that both sides can discuss issues together in a spirit of neighbourliness", the Thai Foreign Ministry said.

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Cambodia, Thailand deploy more troops

Cambodian soldiers( former Khmer Rouge legendary fighters) are patrolling the front line showing their heroic attitude willing to fight when the time comes.

The Thai soldiers are invading Cambodia standing and showing their interloper ugly face waiting to die in the Cambodian soil.


PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia and Thailand escalated their troop buildup Thursday in disputed territory near a historic border temple despite their agreement to hold talks next week to defuse tensions, a Cambodian general said.

Cambodian Brig. Gen. Chea Keo said Thailand has more than 400 troops near the Preah Vihear temple, up from about 200 the day before, and Cambodia has about 800, up from 380.

Cambodia claims the Thai troops crossed the border into Cambodian territory on Tuesday in renewed tensions over land near the Cambodian temple. Thailand maintains it is protecting its sovereignty and ensuring that any protests by Thais near the temple remain orderly, although a senior Thai military official acknowledged Wednesday that the troops were on "disputed" ground.

The border around Preah Vihear has never been fully demarcated.

In a letter to his Thai counterpart seen by The Associated Press, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen urged Thailand to withdraw its troops from the border area.

Thailand's Air Chief Marshal Chalit Phukbhasuk said the military was prepared to fly Thai nationals out of Cambodia if the dispute spiraled out of control.

"We are well prepared for the operation," Chalit said.

Yet despite the official rhetoric, the atmosphere around the temple appeared relaxed.

Cambodian soldiers snapped photographs of their opponents just yards away and some tourists, including an American women, visited the spectacular site.

The long-standing conflict over the territory was recently revived by Thai anti-government protesters and came to a head after Cambodia's application for World Heritage Site status for the temple was granted last week with the endorsement of Thailand's government.

Both countries claim 1.8 square miles around the temple, and the Thai protesters have revived nationalist sentiments over the issue, fearing the temple's new status will jeopardize claims to the land nearby.

However, Thais living just across the border sought to calm the situation.

Hundreds of villagers in Sisaket province blocked a group of Thai anti-government protesters from marching to Preah Vihear on Thursday. Some shouted at the protesters to "go home" and stop fomenting trouble, as police stood by a barricade blocking the road to the temple.

"We are Thais. We should be able to talk about this" to settle any differences, villager Ubondej Panthep said.

One protest leader, Pramoj Hoimook, said Cambodians have settled on Thai soil "and we want to correct that."

"We want to get to Preah Vihear to read a statement, asking for our land back," he said.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej condemned the Thai protesters for "trying to ignite a conflict."

"Now the troops on both sides are confronting each other. What madness is this? There are people who want to provoke this," Samak told reporters, referring to anti-government protesters who have seized on the issue in attempts to bring down his government.

The two countries' defense ministers are to meet next Monday to ease tensions.

Samak called for a meeting of all armed forces commanders in Bangkok on Friday in preparation for the meeting.

Hun Sen meanwhile urged in his letter to Samak "to ease the tension and order Thai troops to withdraw."

Earlier Khieu Kanharith said Cambodia would not "use force unless attacked" and that the "situation was stable."

Thai army commander Gen. Anupong Paojindasaid likewise said he ordered his troops not to use force.

Most of the 900 Cambodian villagers living nearby fled their homes when the confrontation began Tuesday. However, some Cambodian and foreign tourists risked possible harm Thursday by visiting the temple. One of them was Liz Shura from New York City.

"It's a little frightening for me, but I don't think I am actually in danger," Shura told an Associated Press reporter, discounting the possibility of violence. "The temple is extraordinary. It's really amazing."

In 1962, the International Court of Justice awarded Preah Vihear and the land it occupies to Cambodia, a decision that still rankles many Thais even though the temple is culturally Cambodian, sharing the Hindu-influenced style of the more famous Angkor complex.

Associated Press writers Sutin Wannabovorn and Ambika Ahuja in Bangkok, and Ker Munthit in Phnom Penh contributed to this report.
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Cambodian-Thai temple military standoff enters third day

PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (AFP) — Cambodian and Thai soldiers held their positions on the border near an ancient temple Thursday as a standoff over a territorial dispute entered its third day.

More than 400 Thai troops and more than 800 Cambodian soldiers stood stationed around a small Buddhist pagoda on the slope of a mountain leading to the ruins of the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple.

Brigadier Chea Keo, commander-in-chief of the army at Preah Vihear, warned reporters that the situation could worsen if the Thais continued to swell their ranks.

"If the Thais keep adding more troops the situation will escalate, but we try to be patient," Chea Keo said.

"They want us to do something first but we try to remain calm," he added.

Groups of Cambodian soldiers based at the foot of the mountain were redeployed to the temple at the top, armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket launchers.

Thai soldiers were all stationed inside the pagoda compound, around the wooden structure that has a corrugated metal roof.

The brigadier acknowledged that the Thai army had superior weapons but said that the Cambodians were in a better position at the top of the mountain.

Cambodian officials claim soldiers began crossing the border on Tuesday after three Thai protesters were arrested for jumping an immigration checkpoint to reach the temple.

Thailand denies the trespass and insists the soldiers were patrolling its side of the border but Cambodian troops on the scene say the Thai soldiers have crossed more than 100 metres (yards) outside their territory.

An area of 4.6 square kilometres (1.8 square miles) on the border remains in dispute between the two countries after the World Court in 1962 determined the Preah Vihear ruins belong to Cambodia, but its most accessible entrance lies in Thailand.

A Thai soldier was injured by a landmine in the area on Tuesday but the Thai military says the landmine was planted on Thai soil, possibly a remnant from the decades of war that once plagued the border.

Some 70 percent of Cambodians who live in the area have left their homes during the confrontation, said Brigadier Chea Keo.

The incident comes amid heightened political tensions in both countries after the UN cultural agency UNESCO awarded the temple World Heritage status earlier this month.

Cambodia is preparing for general elections on July 27, when Prime Minister Hun Sen is expected to extend his decades-long grip on power.

He has portrayed the UN recognition of the ruins as a national triumph, organising huge public celebrations.

In Thailand, critics of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej -- already the target of street protests -- have stoked the temple controversy to fire up nationalist sentiment.

Samak's government had originally signed a deal supporting Cambodia's bid to make the ruins a World Heritage site, but a court overturned the pact, forcing the resignation of foreign minister Noppadon Pattama.

The parliamentary opposition is now mulling impeachment motions against the entire cabinet.
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