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Monday, September 01, 2008

Laos, Cambodia firm up investment, tourism ties

Written by Kay Kimsong

Officials from both countries expect new international checkpoints will help improve relations by expanding cross-border tourism and trade

CAMBODIA and Laos have agreed to open two new international checkpoints in an effort to boost tourism, trade and investment opportunities, officials from both countries told the Post.

The checkpoints will be located along the border between Cambodia's Strung Treng province and Champassak province in Laos, and between Ratanakkiri province and Laos' Attapeu province, said Sonexay Siphandone, governor of Champassak province.

"We are preparing for two international gateways in areas where we currently have few border administration offices," Sonexay said during an interview at the Laotian embassy in Phnom Penh.

He said both countries will build new terminals, border police offices and facilities for all related authorities.

The Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam (CLV) program is pushing for expanded service sector cooperation between Cambodian and Laos by making it easier for tourist and commercial vehicles to cross the border.

"In the future, we will build a modern international gateway for tourism, trade and investment," said Sonexay, who recently led a 90-member delegation on a caravan tour from Laos through Siem Reap and Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City and back to Laos - a trip covering more than 2,200 kilometres.


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The more international border crossings open, the more trade will increase.

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The tour aimed to strengthen relationships and exchange experiences, as well as to explore agricultural trade opportunities, the Laotian governor said.

"We've never tried to organise a proper exchange program like this before, but now we're paving the way for greater development."

Road links between Cambodia and Laos have improved in recent years with the linking of National Road 17 in Stung Treng and Laos' National Road 13 in Champassak.

"We are urging investors, traders and companies to forge stronger business relationships," Sonexay said. "We bring tourists from Cambodia to Vientiane and Luang Prabang."

Cambodia and Laos currently allow tourists and residents with automobiles to cross each others' borders visa-free.

"We have provided easy access between the countries," he said, adding that trade relations will improve once additional agreements are implemented. "The more international border crossings open, the more trade will increase."

Om Pharin, vice president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents (CATA), said his organisation, which includes 166 travel agencies, is interested in promoting package tour sales for local residents and foreign travellers going to Laos.

"We have waited many years for this kind of opportunity, and now we have the infrastructure to support it," Om Pharin said.

He said both nations should add more international checkpoints and encouraged authorities to improve their service sectors with more hotels, guesthouses and other tourist-related services.

The CLV and Cambodia-Thailand-Laos (CTL) program development zones will be key to future agreements across the region, Om Pharin said.

New financial ties are also in the works. In Channy, the CEO of Acleda Bank, which recently opened three new branches in Laos, said there is considerable room for growth in the banking and business sectors, and that growth would be linked to improvements in tourism services and transport infrastructure.

Trade revenue between Cambodia and Laos currently stands at only about US$1 million, but the tourism sector could bolster this number significantly in the future, according to a commerce official.

Kong Sophearak, director of the Statistics and Tourism Department of the Ministry of Tourism, said Laotian visitors to Cambodia have sharply increased this year. In the first seven months of 2008, some 27,161 tourists visited Cambodia from Laos, an increase of more than 167 percent over the same period last year, when that number was 10,144.

"I think improvements to road access between the two countries and an increase in the availability of tour packages are the main reasons for the spike in tourism," Kong Sophearak said.

Tourism remains one of the Kingdom's few viable industries, with two million visitors bringing in more than $1 billion last year.
The government hopes to attract three million people annually by 2010.
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Cambodian tribunal worries about corruption

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: A judge for Cambodia's genocide tribunal urged colleagues on Monday to aggressively investigate corruption allegations, saying such charges undermine the body's efforts to obtain justice for victims of the Khmer Rouge.

Accusations of graft have been leveled at the U.N.-assisted tribunal twice in the past two years and earlier this year caused donors to temporarily hold back more than US$300,000 for the monthly payroll for 250 Cambodian staff members.

Silvia Cartwright, a judge from New Zealand, called on the court to spare no effort in dealing with any future corruption issues at a planning meeting for the body, which is moving toward convening its first trial.

The tribunal is tasked with seeking justice for the atrocities committed by the communist Khmer Rouge, whose radical policies caused some 1.7 million deaths when the group was in power in 1975-79.

Cartwright, in her speech opening the meeting, described corruption in the ranks as "one of the major issues that has been troubling for all the judges.

The upcoming trials "are so important for the people of Cambodia (and) must not be tainted by corruption," she said.

In 2007, allegations arose that Cambodian nationals on the tribunal staff had paid for their jobs. An investigation ended inconclusively, though procedures were changed to safeguard against such corruption. In June of this year, charges of kickbacks surfaced again. Salaries were initially withheld but paid once a probe, which is still under way, began.

Those working in the tribunal's Cambodian component dismissed the allegations as unsubstantiated. Tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath said that Cambodian staff members are committed to curbing any corrupt acts.

"We do not want to hear such allegations again as they can be quite troubling for the court," he said Monday.

He said during this week's meeting, the judges and prosecutors plan to make some amendments to the tribunal's guiding rules.

At this week's meeting, judges and prosecutors will make some changes to the tribunal's rules and discuss "weak and strong points" of the court as it prepares for its first trial, that of Kaing Guek Eav, one of five suspects in custody. Kaing Guek Eav ran the S-21 prison, which was the Khmer Rouge's largest torture facility.

The trial of the 66-year-old, also known as Duch, had been expected to open in late September.

But there are fears it could be delayed after the prosecutors decided to appeal the recent official order for him to stand trial. They want to have more charges added against Duch, who has already been charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes.

It is not clear how long it will take to rule on the prosecutors' appeal.
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Witness to Cambodia's birth pangs

By Raphael Minder

Among his childhood memories, Sam Rainsy recalls sitting with his father on the rooftop terrace of their beautiful house in Phnom Penh, watching pelicans land next to their water tank. "In Cambodia, which is full of superstitions, friends and neighbours kept telling us that these pelicans would end up by bringing us bad luck," he writes in his autobiography, Des Racines dans la Pierre (Roots in the Stone).

Sam Rainsy and his family have certainly endured plenty of misfortune. Their ups-and-downs mirror those of a country that ranks among Asia's fastest-growing economies, but that returned to multi-party democracy only 15 years ago, after decades of war and a genocide that wiped out about a quarter of the population.

Sam Rainsy has been an integral part of Cambodia's recovery, now as the leader of the country's main opposition party. But much of his life has been spent in France and other places of exile, first because of his father's political downfall, which ended with his death in mysterious circumstances, and then because of his own clashes with Hun Sen, the country's long-standing prime minister.

Still, that geographic distance in no way reduces the insight this book provides into events that have shaped Cambodia following a century of French colonialism, starting with the 1954 Geneva conference to reconfigure the former Indochina. Sam Rainsy's father was one of Cambodia's lead negotiators there, playing off tensions among more formidable government representatives such as Zhou Enlai and Vyacheslav Molotov to ensure that another foreign power would not fill the void left by the French.

The Geneva agreement guaranteed Cambodia's independence but was followed by the bleakest period in its history, climaxing in the Khmer Rouge's terrifying attempt to establish an agrarian utopia in the late 1970s. While that tragic episode was largely domestic, Sam Rainsy says Cambodia remains the Poland of Asia, sandwiched between two bigger neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam, and prone to being drawn into wider conflicts such as the Vietnam war.

This book is an often touching family history, but it also highlights the broader challenges faced by any war-ravaged country. After a successful banking career in Paris, Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia in 1992 and within a year was put in charge of the finance ministry. Given the limited pool of talent, his wife Saumura was forced against her wishes to become deputy governor of the central bank.

For somebody with such a strong financial background, Sam Rainsy devotes surprisingly little of his book to Cambodia's economic resurgence, during which it has attracted billions of dollars of foreign investment and achieved average annual growth of 9 per cent over the past decade. Instead, he focuses excessively on the political jockeying in Phnom Penh, complicated by feuding within the royal family.

Sam Rainsy paints a grim picture of corruption in Cambodia, starting with his short-lived crusade, as finance minister, against tax evasion and smuggling. His strategy appears to have been remarkably naive at times. One ill-prepared boat attack against smugglers on the Mekong river, which he led, nearly cost him his life after the accompanying United Nations troops refused to get involved in the gunfight.

He has harsh words for foreign powers, including his otherwise beloved France, which he accuses of turning a blind eye to killings of political associates. Sam Rainsy has himself survived several assassination attempts, including a grenade attack that killed 19 -people.

"Paris preferred to forget the bloodstains on the suits of the ruling leaders in Phnom Penh in order to strike economic and technical co-operation agreements with them," he writes.

This book was published in the run-up to July's general election, which returned Hun Sen to power with a landslide victory. Despite Sam Rainsy's claim that Cambodians "want to get out of this old, neo-communist and mafiosi regime", many pundits believe that the 55-year-old Hun Sen has never had a stronger power base, almost justifying his boast that he would run the country until the age of 90. Rather than repressing opposition in the manner of the Burmese junta, Hun Sen has benefited from Sam Rainsy's challenge, which has been crucial to Cambodia's democratic credentials.

The book's title refers to the blend of architectural and natural beauty found around Angkor Wat, Cambodia's cultural treasure, where trees grow among the ruins. Although Sam Rainsy might not like the idea, it also seems an appropriate symbol for Hun Sen's deep-rooted control over his country.

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SCG plans to raise output in Cambodia

$200m set aside for cement subsidiary

NAREERAT WIRIYAPONG

PHNOM PENH : Siam Cement Group (SCG), Thailand's largest industrial conglomerate, is planning to invest $200 million to more than double the capacity of its cement factory in southern Cambodia.

Kampot Cement Co Ltd, a joint venture in which SCG holds 93% and a Cambodian partner the rest, aims to lift its annual capacity to three million tonnes by 2010 from the current one million, according to the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh.

So far, SCG has invested $127 million in the facility located 148 kilometres southwest of Phnom Penh and within driving distance of the Cambodia-Vietnam border.

''The increase is to purely serve the domestic Cambodian market where demand for cement has risen sharply from ongoing construction projects. The property sector is also booming here,'' a high-ranking embassy official said.

Cambodia still imports cement from neighbouring countries including Thailand. But given the current high oil prices that have pushed up transport costs, local cement producers would gain more competitive advantages.

''Consequently, the expansion at Kampot has become more feasible for the time being,'' the official said.

SCG's Thai headquarters declined to confirm the expansion plan, saying the project had been studied.

According to the embassy, construction materials are the main items Cambodia import from Thailand, along with sugar and farm and consumer products.

Thailand last year recorded a 70% rise in exports to Cambodia with a total value of $1.4 billion. The figure does not include about 30 billion baht in cross-border trade.

According to SCT Co Ltd, an international trading arm of SCG, Thailand ranks third among the trading partners of Cambodia after Vietnam and China.

On the investment side, Thailand has yet to play an active role in Cambodia with South Korea, China and Malaysia taking the lead. Apart from SCG, major Thai businesses operating in Cambodia are Charoen Pokphand (CP), as well as are Siam Commercial Bank and Krung Thai Bank.

The Cambodian government provides incentives for foreign investors such as tax-free machinery imports and corporate income tax holidays. It also promotes Special Economic Zones that comprises an export free zone, container yard area and other facilities for industrial zones.

The Thailand-funded road Number 48 in Koh Kong is expected to facilitate more business links between the two countries by strategically turning Koh Kong into the gateway to Phnom Penh.

Siam Cement shares (SCC) closed on Friday on the Stock Exchange of Thailand at 165 baht, up one baht, in trade worth 65 million baht.

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US man charged with child sex in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — An American man has been arrested and charged in Cambodia with committing indecent acts against a 13-year-old child prostitute on a dark street, police and court officials said Monday.

Richard David Mitchell, 60, was arrested late Thursday in the capital Phnom Penh while allegedly having sex with the girl, said Urm Rathana, the municipal police chief in charge of anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection.

Mitchell, who denied the crime when police interrogated him, faces seven to 15 years in jail if convicted.

Hing Bunchea, a prosecutor at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, told AFP that he charged Mitchell on Sunday with committing indecent acts against minors and soliciting a child prostitute.

Mitchell's lawyer could not be reached immediately for comment Monday.

Dozens of foreigners have been jailed for child sex crimes or deported to face trial in their home countries since Cambodia launched an anti-paedophilia push in 2003 to try to shake off its reputation as a haven for sex predators.
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