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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Cambodians buy food for fear of border closure

Anxieties regarding an imminent border closure by Thailand over a disputed zone near an ancient temple led to over one thousand Cambodians to cross the border Saturday to stock up on dried foodstuffs and oil from a market in Aranyaprathet district opposite Cambodia's Poi Pet.

The Cambodians bought daily essentials to keep in reserve on worries that the Thai authorities might close the border following military reinforcements and tensions building in Thailand's Kantharalak district of Si Sa Ket, where Preah Vihear temple is located.

Tensions in the area have increased in recent days as both countries have reinforced their troops near the disputed temple.

A Cambodian villager who crossed the border and bought food supplies said Cambodians in Poi Pet feared that fighting could break out.

He said Poi Pet residents believed that negotiations between the two neighbours' military leaders, scheduled for Monday and aimed at defusing the tensions, would be fruitless after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had demanded that Thailand withdraw its troops.

Cambodians believe that Thailand would not follow the Cambodian leader's request, said the villager.

Meanwhile, Thai Army soldiers and Rangers have set up a checkpoint at a border outpost in Aranyaprathet and are also patrolling the shared border to prevent Cambodians from entering Thailand illegally. (TNA)

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Scientist plies Asia seeking freshwater stingray

By Michael Casey

SAMUT SONGKRAM, Thailand --Rushing across a temple parking lot, British angler Rick Humphreys yells, "We've got a fish."

He jumps into a small motorboat on the Maeklong River in time to see Wirat Moungnum bring the prize to the surface - a rare, giant freshwater stingray that weighs as much as 44 pounds.

It bursts through the murky water exposing a soft, white underbelly the size of a trash can lid. The crew scrambles to string a rope through its gill-like slits and wrap a towel around its 5-foot-long tail that has a venomous barb.

"It's a start," Humphreys says almost apologetically. The specimen is a tenth of the size of the largest rays. "There are a lot bigger ones than that."

Humphreys is serving as a guide for American biologist Zeb Hogan, who is on a worldwide quest for the largest freshwater fish.

Hogan, 34, has heard the stories of Cambodian fishermen catching rays that weighed over 1,100 pounds with wingspans of 14 feet. But so far, they are just stories. If he can confirm them, he could eclipse the world record now held by the Mekong giant catfish.

"It could be the largest fish in the world and we know next to nothing about it," Hogan says. "I've spent five years on the Mekong looking for rays and only saw two or three. They were nowhere near the size I'd heard about."

Hogan's quest is part of the Megafishes project financed by the National Geographic Society.

The three-year project, which started in 2006, aims to document and protect freshwater giants that weigh at least 200 pounds or measure 6 feet long. The project will take Hogan to 14 freshwater systems on six continents, including the Mekong, Nile, Mississippi and Amazon rivers.

Time is running out for many of the species. The Chinese paddle fish and the dog-eating catfish in Southeast Asia are on the brink of extinction because of pollution, overfishing and dam building. In the Yangtze, where the Three Gorges Dam is a serious threat, Chinese paddle fish haven't been caught since 2003.

"Of the two dozen or so species of giant fish, about 70 percent are threatened with extinction," says Hogan, an assistant research professor at the University of Nevada-Reno.

Hogan dresses like a tourist with a baseball cap and shorts and has the boyish enthusiasm of an explorer. He spends much of the year searching for these large fish.

So far, he has focused mostly on Asia, where he once traveled 36 hours by road to catch the taimen in Mongolia. He just returned from Bhutan, where he scoured the river canyons for mahseer, which can only be caught by the country's monarch.

Hogan said he was drawn to the freshwater ray, known scientifically as Himantura chaophraya, because so little is known about it.

Listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, it is believed to be found in rivers from Thailand to northern Australia. Scientists only discovered it 18 years ago, and its population is unknown.

"I have so many questions about this stingray," Hogan says. "Is it truly a freshwater species? Where does it breed? What are its migratory patterns?"

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Cambodian prince calls for family's Khmer Rouge killers to be brought to justice

By Nick Meo

In a whitewashed mansion of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Prince Thomico Sisowath gestured wistfully towards a table covered with black and white photos of his parents from the happy time before they were arrested by the Khmer Rouge.

Outside, an election slogan blared from a van's loudspeaker, interrupting the murmur of chanting at a nearby temple.

Next Sunday, almost 30 years after his mother and father were led out to the killing fields after years of being starved and beaten in a "re-education" camp, Cambodia will go to the polls.

One of those standing for re-election is a man whose role in the camp where they were held has become the subject of a furious argument in the election campaign: Cambodia's foreign minister, Hor Namhong.

Early in the campaign, an opposition leader publicly accused Mr Namhong of having been a member of the Khmer Rouge, whose four-year reign of terror ended only after an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians had died from starvation or mass murder – about one third of the country's population.

Mr Namhong angrily denied that he was ever part of the Khmer Rouge and has always insisted that he himself was among its victims – as an inmate of Boeng Trabek, the special prison camp for the Marxist re-education of diplomats and civil servants, where Prince Thomico's family was also held.

The camp's name remains a deeply emotive one for Cambodia's educated middle and upper classes. For many, it was the last place where their relations were seen before they were taken away and murdered. Out of 3,000 men, women and children who were held there, an estimated 2,700 perished, Prince Thomico's parents among them.

The accusation against Mr Namhong is that he was among prisoners recruited by the Khmer Rouge to run the camp, and thus had a hand in the fate of its other inmates.

The editor of an opposition newspaper which printed the claims about Mr Namhong was jailed, and the minister threatened legal action against Sam Rainsy, the opposition leader concerned. Genocide investigators say there is no evidence against the foreign minister.

Even if there were, he would not be the only member of Cambodia's ruling party who was once in the Khmer Rouge.

The prime minister, Hun Sen, in power since 1985, has never denied that he was in the party for a time, although it has not been suggested that he was involved in the mass killing. But it is Mr Namhong, an ambitious politician in his mid-seventies who is described by both friends and enemies as a man with a brilliant mind, whose past has become part of the election campaign. Prince Thomico would not be drawn on whether he held Mr Namhong responsible for the deaths of his parents. A small, wiry man with a mischievous grin, he spoke quietly but intensely.

"There is a question mark over who took decisions," he said. "This is very difficult for me and I have thought about what happened to my parents for 30 years. So have other Cambodians, though – the whole nation was bereaved."

He said that as a good Buddhist he bore no grudge against the foreign minister, who had personally assured him with an earnest handshake several years ago that he was not in a position of authority at the camp when his parents died. But he added that those who might have led the killings should be investigated, and justice done. "So many people had to join the Khmer Rouge in order to survive," Prince Thomico said. "Now the main problem is to find out whether they were in a position to give orders for murder or torture."

The fate of Prince Thomico's family was typical of almost anyone of his generation in Cambodia, whether royalty, middle-class professionals or peasants. His three-year-old daughter was lost in the chaos, and his parents were humiliated, then murdered. Five of his cousins, princes and princesses of the ancient Sisowath line of the royal family, are all presumed to have died in the killing fields, along with their 14 children.

No one has ever been charged with the murders, and there are no witnesses to any of their killings.

Now, semi-retired after a career in opposition politics, Prince Thomico, 59, lives surrounded by scented gardens and gilded spires in the palace, which was confiscated by the Khmer Rouge and used as a prison after it came to power in 1975. Recalling those grim days, the prince tells how his father, Methavi Sisowath, was Cambodia's ambassador to East Germany at the time, appointed by his uncle, the then King Sihanouk.

The king was so popular with Cambodians that the Maoist Khmer Rouge at first appointed him head of state. Like many other diplomats who were abroad as Phnom Pehn fell, Methavi swallowed his fears and answered the Khmer Rouge's call to return home, hoping that Sihanouk could protect him. "My father thought it was his duty to go home but I think he guessed he could be going to his death," said Prince Thomico. It was a fatal mistake. The next year, King Sihanouk was arrested, sent to the Boeng Trabek camp, along with Methavi and other family members.

Methavi's wife, Princess Anne-Marie, defied her children's pleas and also returned from Europe, to find him. They were reunited in the prison camp, and were last seen being led away in November 1978. No one doubts that they were killed soon afterwards, but how they died is one of the many questions about that time that haunts modern Cambodia. There is scant prospect of any answers. The prince is one of many disillusioned with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, which has cost £25 million in the past two years and put just five men on trial

"It is painful, but I think this question about my parents' deaths will remain unanswered," said Prince Thomico.

Terror of the Pol Pot regime
The Khmer Rouge guerrillas seized power in Cambodia in 1975 after overthrowing King Norodom Sihanouk in a bloody agrarian revolution.

Led by Pol Pot, also known as “brother number one”, they declared “year zero” and set about abolishing money, private property and religion.

In a quest to create a peasant paradise they emptied the cities, forcing people to work as labourers in the paddy fields.

Anyone deemed too intellectual was killed, sometimes just because they wore glasses.

The violence was so extreme that communist Vietnam invaded in 1978 to install a more moderate regime and drive Pol Pot’s guerrillas back into the jungle.

Many former party members stayed in power, including Hun Sen, the current prime minister.
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Too much adoration at Cambodia's Angkor temples

By Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

ANGKOR, CAMBODIA -- The ancient sandstone temples of Angkor have stood up to endless assaults down the centuries, from medieval raiders armed with clubs and spears to genocidal looters laying land mines.

These days, the onslaught begins in the early-morning darkness, when invading columns of buses, taxis and sputtering tuk-tuks converge on a dirt parking lot across from Angkor Wat's broad moat.

They disgorge hundreds of camera-wielding tourists, who march through the gray light toward the awesome gates of the world's largest religious monument.

Hindus constructed it in the 12th century, with a gilded central tower representing Mt. Meru, mythical home of the gods and the center of the spiritual and physical universes. They built it facing west, perhaps in honor of the Hindu god Vishnu, preserver of all things.

For today's tourists, the alignment has a more mundane appeal. It's a great place to snap a picture of the sunrise behind sprawling Angkor's best-known temple.

When the shutters stop clicking, tour guides herd their groups into the monument all at once. Tourists jostling for space bump, scrape and rub their fingers against exquisitely carved stone, adding to centuries of damage to the friezes of soldiers depicted in epic battle atop chariots and elephants.

By dusk, the mob of sightseers has moved to Phnom Bakheng, where buses drop off hundreds of people who then scramble for position on large, delicately balanced stone platforms at the small temple, Angkor's oldest.

Obscured from the road by dense forest, it was safely off the regular tour routes until sappers cleared land mines that Khmer Rouge guerrillas had placed to defend the strategic hilltop.

"Now it's suddenly become the destination where everybody wants to be at the end of the day to see the sunset, and to see the views, which are spectacular," said Bonnie Burnham, president of the New York-based World Monuments Fund. The nonprofit group helps conserve historic sites around the world.

Many of Phnom Bakheng's 108 shrines stand on platforms that have shifted over the centuries as water trickles in and loosens sand and dirt, and the tourists are gathering where they shouldn't. So many people have clambered up stones next to the crowded stairs that erosion is accelerating, with loosened sections poised to tumble, Burnham said.

"The platforms where people stand are not really stable," Burnham said. "They're eroding very rapidly. The magnificent sculpture on the shrine at the center of the temple is in very fragile condition and has not been treated for conservation yet.

"People shouldn't really be touching it, or going anywhere near it," she said.

Burnham's fund received almost $1 million last month from the State Department for a project to stabilize the eastern side of Phnom Bakheng, the temple's most endangered section.

As night falls, the tourists feel their way back down the hill and onto air-conditioned buses. They're delivered to their hotels in nearby Siem Reap, where they rinse off the sweat of a long day's touring with a dip in the pool or a soothing shower before dinner.

As the taps open up, more of the dwindling ground water is drained. UNESCO has warned that the receding water table could undermine Angkor Wat's fragile foundations, causing the temple to gradually sink.

There hasn't been enough research to say how much the heavy demand for water affects Angkor Wat's stability, said Dougald O'Reilly, a Canadian archaeologist who heads , a nonprofit group working to protect Cambodia's historic sites from looters and overuse.

A decade ago, about 300,000 tourists visited Angkor Wat each year. It was possible to have a quiet, spiritual moment alone in nearby temples that had been swallowed up by the jungle.

But peace, after decades of civil war and upheaval, opened the tourism floodgates. More than a million people are expected to file through Angkor Wat's narrow stone corridors this year, and the government hopes to draw 3 million to the site by 2010.

With more hotels and resorts on the drawing board, conservationists are pushing hard to prevent a destructive free-for-all of development and tourism.

"It's going to mean some sacrifices," Burnham said. "People aren't going to be able to do some of the things, in an unregulated way, that they've been permitted to do in the past."

Angkor's temples aren't new to the indignities of visitors with sharp elbows.

Numerous armies have barged through the city-state founded 1,200 years ago. Its temples were abandoned to the jungle during almost half that period. Angkor Wat suffered its worst damage when Khmer Rouge fighters looted it in the late 1970s as they were committing mass murder in the name of an agrarian revolution.

Foreign donors and governments, led by the U.S., France and Japan, have spent as much as $50 million over the last 15 years to repair the scars of time and abuse. But the work is far from finished, and new threats are building.

Sokimex Group, which has used its connections with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to become the country's biggest company, plans to build a 900-room hotel and spa, with shopping mall, water park, slot machines and conference center, on a 56-acre site in Siem Reap.

Sokimex also controls the ticket concession to Angkor. Passes cost $20 a day, $40 for three days and $60 a week. It's small change for a company that deals in oil, gas stations, pharmaceutical products, garment making, property development and luxury hotels and resorts, in addition to running an airline.

Sokimex's share of the admission take is set by a contract with the government, and Burnham said it leaves most of the profit in the company's hands. One-third of the revenue is supposed to go to Apsara, a Cambodian agency set up by royal decree to preserve the Angkor sites and manage development.

But some people dispute the ticket sales figures, saying Apsara -- which takes its name from the heavenly nymphs of Hindu and Buddhist mythology whose bare-breasted figures adorn the Angkor temple walls -- gets enough only to cover basic expenses.

"Apsara has virtually no money for conservation," Burnham said. "All of the conservation at Angkor is being done through international assistance."

The effect of millions of feet pounding on Angkor Wat's steps and floors already has led officials to close some areas. The towers, the tallest of which rises 213 feet, are off limits because the constant wear and tear made the structures unsafe.

A first step toward reducing congestion could be as simple as insisting that visitors walk through Angkor Wat in the same direction, from beginning to end, Burnham said.

She also wants to see Cambodian officials set time constraints on tickets for the busiest of Angkor's temples, to limit pressure during peak hours.

The day may come when a strict quota is placed on the number of visitors allowed at certain monuments, Burnham said. But O'Reilly hopes to avoid that by persuading tourists and their guides to make better choices.

O'Reilly is deputy director of the Greater Angkor Project, a team of researchers at Australia's University of Sydney who in recent years have discovered how vast ancient Angkor was by studying images taken by NASA satellites and an ultralight plane.

Their theory is that the city's 15th century collapse occurred largely because people neglected their environment, cutting down too many trees to expand rice paddies, causing waterways to fill with silt.

If they're right, it's a cautionary tale for the 21st century, as overdevelopment threatens the magnificent buildings and art that ancient Angkor left behind.
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Thailand, Cambodia halt military moves pending Monday talks

Thailand and Cambodia agreed to temporary suspend all armed forces movements along the Thai-Cambodian border at Si Sa Ket province which is adjacent to Cambodia's Preah Vihear province of Cambodia, and Thailand's Second Army Area Command is on round-the-clock alert, according to a senior Thai military official.

The Second Army Area Command is responsible for overseeing the northeastern provinces which includes Si Sa Ket.

Meanwhile, Pol.Lt-Gen. Vichienchot Sukchokrat, a Thai government spokesman, said he was informed by Don Pramudwinai, Thailand's Permanent Representative to the United Nations that Cambodia has asked for UN help in dealing with the border dispute.

The content of the Cambodian petition is not known to the Thai govenment, and Thailand is awaiting the details, he said.

Gen. Vichienchot said the pressure by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) earlier this week forced Cambodia to ask for help from the United Nations.

He added that Thailand's image was tarnished from the dispute, so he appealed to the PAD and other groups to stop their movement.

Thai News Agency reporters on the scene at Si Sa ket said that both sides of the border in the vicinity of the 11th century temple are quite tense after the two countries built up their armed forces along the border.

Second Army Area Deputy Commander Maj-Gen.Weewalit Jornsamrit said he was assigned by Second Army Area Commander Lt-Gen. Sujit Sitthiprapa to inspect the area and discuss the situation with Cambodia's Preah Vihear province deputy governor.

He said after meeting with Cambodian authorities that both sides agreed to suspend military movements that may cause further tension, but the military officials would remain stationed at strategic points pending the result of the Thai-Cambodian General Border Committee (GBC) meetng to be held in Sa Kaeo province on Monday.

Thailand's Supreme Commander Gen. Boonsang Niempradit would lead Thai delegates to meet Cambodian Defence Minister Gen. Tea Banh.

Gen.Weewalit said the situation at other Thai provinces bordering Cambodia was normal.

Meanwhile, Gen. Sujit said he has ordered military officers under his command to be on alert for 24 hours as Cambodian troops had built up their troop numbers at Preah Vihear temple border side.

He believed that the GBC border meeting could find a joint solution to ease the tension.

The military standoff between Cambodia and Thailand entered its fifth day Saturday after the tension build up after UNESCO approved Cambodia's application to list Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage Site.

Thai activists fear the new status will undermine Thailand's claim to nearby land since the border has never been properly demarcated. (TNA)

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Cambodia and Thailand continue troop buildup despite pledge to hold talks

PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (AP) - The military standoff between Cambodia and Thailand entered its fifth day Saturday as both sides continued to reinforce their troops ahead of scheduled talks over a disputed border area near an 11th century temple.

Some 300 more Cambodian soldiers and 100 Thais were seen by Associated Press reporters arriving near the Preah Vihear temple late Friday, although commanders declined to confirm those numbers.

Earlier, Cambodian Brig. Gen. Chea Keo said Cambodia had about 800 troops as against 400 Thai soldiers in the area.

The countries are to meet Monday in an attempt to defuse the conflict over territory surrounding the ancient temple, which escalated when UNESCO recently approved Cambodia's application to have the complex named a World Heritage Site. Thai activists fear the new status will undermine Thailand's claim to nearby land since the border has never been demarcated.

Chea Keo said troops from the opposing forces were on the brink of a shoot-out Thursday night when Cambodian monks gathered to celebrate Buddhist lent at a pagoda about 220 yards (200 meters) from the ancient temple.

The incident occurred when Thai troops tried to evict about 50 Cambodian soldiers from the compound of the Buddhist pagoda, where they sought to camp for the night to provide security for the monks. The two sides raised their rifles at each other, but the standoff ended with the Cambodians eventually pulling back, Chea Keo said Friday.

A Thai army spokeswoman said she was not aware of any brinksmanship taking place.
Thai soldiers entered the Preah Vihear area Tuesday, staking out positions at a Buddhist temple compound. However, some resident Cambodian monks remained and Cambodian soldiers have continued to visit them.

«The premier is very concerned about the tension,» Thai Lt. Gen. Surapon Puenaiyakarn said after a meeting between Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and Thai armed forces commanders Friday. «But he is optimistic that the meeting Monday will provide a positive and peaceful solution.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote a letter to Samak on Thursday saying relations had been «worsening» since Thai troops «encroached on our territory,» and asked Samak to pull them back.

In an effort to contain the tension, the Cambodian interior ministry issued a statement instructing authorities in provinces along the border with Thailand to maintain «good working relations» and avoid «confrontation or violence» with their Thai counterparts.

The dispute has taken a toll on tourism in the area, with the Thai side closed to visitors and the U.S. Embassy recommending Friday that American citizens «defer travel to this area until the situation has been resolved.

It also is starting to hurt economic relations between the two neighbors. On Friday, about 200 Thai construction workers returned home from Cambodia, said Capt. Supab Srisuk, an immigration policewoman.

«They wanted to return, fearing for their safety,» she said. «They said they would go back to work when the situation returns to normal.

Associated Press writers Sutin Wannabovorn and Ambika Ahuja in Bangkok, Thailand, and Ker Munthit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report.

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Cambodia sends more troops ahead of temple dispute talks

By Ek Madra, Reuters

PHNOM PENH -- Cambodia sent extra troops to its disputed border with Thailand on Friday, as both sides insisted the flare-up over an ancient temple was unlikely to get violent.

Thai Supreme Commander Gen Boonsrang Niempradit said a joint border meeting on Monday should find an "amicable solution" to the four-day stand-off at the Preah Vihear temple, which has worried investors it might lead to a serious confrontation. "The situation is unlikely to escalate into violence," Boonsrang, the country's top military commander, told reporters in Bangkok. Cambodian officials echoed similar views, although Prime Minister Hun Sen warned on Thursday that the situation was "worsening" because Thai forces had not withdrawn from the temple site that has been a source of border tensions for decades.

But the former Khmer Rouge commander, who faces a general election later this month, said he still hoped to "resolve the problem through negotiations."

Nevertheless, a Cambodian convoy of four heavy military trucks with mounted machine guns and two smaller trucks were seen driving from the capital, Phnom Penh, to the border. The soldiers were armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles.

"I am leading these men to reinforce our troops at Preah Vihear," General Yim Sanh told Reuters.

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

General Nipat Thonglek, head of Thailand's Border Military Affairs Department, denied reports that Thai and Cambodian soldiers had pointed their rifles at each other last night, saying both sides "have agreed not to use violence."

Chea Mon, Cambodia's military commander at Preah Vihear, said: "We are facing each other, but we leave it to our leaders to solve the problem." The 900-year-old Hindu temple has been a source of tension since the International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that it belonged to Cambodia, a decision that still rankles Thais.

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

Thailand's main stock index has fallen more than 23 percent since anti-government street protests in Bangkok started in late May, and could drop further if border tensions get worse, dealers said.

"Preah Vihear is one case that can have a negative impact on our market," Asia Plus Securities analyst Puwadol Lapudomsuk told Reuters.

"The sentiment is already poor enough. Things could turn bad if the conflict keeps going," he said.

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