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Friday, September 05, 2008

Thai protesters enjoy free food, $3 massage

By JOCELYN GECKER, Associated Press Writer

BANGKOK, Thailand - Once open only to the ruling elite, Thailand's stately Government House has turned into a cross between a refugee camp and a village fairground.

Thousands of anti-government protesters occupying the prime minister's office compound have set up a tent city complete with free food, outdoor showers, entertainment, massages and lots of manicured shrubs for hanging laundry to dry.

The siege, in its 11th day Friday, is aimed at forcing Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to resign. The demonstrators have not succeeded in kicking him out of office, but they have kept him out his office.

To ease the kinks caused by round-the-clock protesting, massage services are available under the shade of palm trees for $3 an hour.

In a live radio broadcast Thursday, Samak called the situation a national embarrassment and refused to step down — drawing boos and jeers from thousands of protesters fanning themselves on lawn chairs outside his office.

"I am outside and can't work properly," Samak said, his speech broadcast from a sound stage set up on the Government House lawn.

Samak initially based himself at a military headquarters outside Bangkok, but his aides say he has lately worked from an office at the Defense Ministry.

"Is it shameful? Yes, it is," Samak said.

Still, authorities have been reluctant to use force against the crowd for fear they will be denounced for sparking violence with the protesters, who have armed themselves with makeshift weapons and vowed to resist any attempt to remove them.

Also, violence, or the perception that it was imminent, could cause the military to stage a coup with the excuse that it was necessary to restore order, as it did in September 2006. It was demonstrations by the People's Alliance for Democracy, which is leading the current protest, that sparked the instability that led to the coup.

The new demonstration is built on the alliance's belief that Western-style democracy does not work for Thailand. It says the ballot box gives too much weight to the impoverished rural majority allegedly susceptible to vote buying that breeds corruption. It wants Parliament to be revamped so most lawmakers would be appointed rather than elected.

The protest has caused one of the biggest political crises since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. It is the first time in the country's history that civilians have overrun the seat of government.

Built in the early 20th century and modeled after a Venetian palace, the Gothic-style Government House is one of Bangkok's most distinguished buildings.

The alliance's security volunteers sit behind a barbed-wire barricade at the entrance, which is stacked with motorcycle helmets for protection and golf clubs, bamboo rods and rudimentary shields.

"Welcome! Would you like something to eat?" asked Pongping Kumna, a protester manning the free food stand just past the entrance gate. Tables were piled high with donated food, many ordered from popular Bangkok restaurants.

Recent offerings included sauteed chicken with chili and basil, Thai-style noodles from a famous downtown noodle shop, McDonald's hamburgers and, for dessert, chocolate doughnuts and shaved ice with fruit flavoring.

"We have everything we need here. There's no reason to leave," said Pongping, 44, a clothing shop owner from the southern beach town of Krabi who had camped at the compound for nine days.

Protesters, mostly royalists, wealthy and middle-class urban residents and union activists, have tapped into the Government House's electricity system. Extension cords charge mobile phones and power televisions.

The anti-government channel ASTV, owned by protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul, is broadcast round-the-clock on TV sets scattered around the grounds.

Fiery anti-Samak speakers take the stage, alternating with pop singers, like one recently crooning James Taylor songs as the crowd clapped and swayed.

When supplies are needed, protest leaders take the microphone and call for donations from supporters, who have responded by trucking in portable toilets and rudimentary outdoor showers with curtains for privacy.

The stench of urine and garbage is a problem they are trying to address.

Signs taped to the building's ornate facade note: "The Government House is the property of the Thai people. So all Thais should keep it clean."

For medical needs, there are several first-aid stations, which also hand out free shampoo, soap, mouthwash and razors.

Doctors from hospitals and clinics around Thailand have taken leaves to join the protest, said Bangkok ophthalmologist Somporn Reepolmania, pointing out a surgeon, dentist, psychiatrist and anesthesiologist.

"We are protesting against Samak and against the corrupt politics of Thailand," he said. "The government has no morals, no ethics, and the system doesn't work. We have to change it."

Protesters say they are not afraid of conflict. Some have traveled long distances to take part in the demonstrations.

"I flew from Los Angeles to Bangkok to be with (my) people," said United Airlines flight attendant Maree Lertphraewphun, who has lived in the United States for 38 years. She requested vacation to join the protests.

"If I happen to die, I will die with them," she said.

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Thai PM buys time with referendum plan

By Darren Schuettler

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has bought some time with a referendum aimed at defusing street protests, but it will do nothing to resolve Thailand's fundamental political conflict, analysts say.

Leaders of the three-month old campaign to oust the 73-year-old premier vowed to continue their protest, including the 11-day occupation of Samak's official compound in Bangkok.

But with a national referendum looming it becomes much harder to force Samak out through intervention either by the military or the king, who has stepped into disputes in the past.

"I don't see any quick resolution of this situation," Giles Ungphakorn of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University said, adding Samak had cleverly batted the ball back to the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

"The PAD's strategy now will be to increase pressure and they will have to discredit the referendum," he said of the motley coalition of royalist businessmen, academics and activists leading the sit-in at Government House.

Samak, who refuses to quit or call an election, announced the referendum on Thursday, two days after imposing emergency rule in Bangkok. He said on Friday he was considering lifting the decree after the army refused to evict the PAD by force.

A new referendum bill passed its first reading in the Senate on Friday, but it could take up to 90 days for final approval.

It's still not clear what question would be put to Thailand's 65 million people. But Samak would likely win on the back of strong support in the countryside, where many Thais blame the protests in Bangkok for hurting the economy.

"Many of these well-off protesters may think they can afford to join the rally, but they don't realize that the demonstration is hurting everybody else in this country," glass blower Prapha Janjaem said in Baan Bangsai, a village north of Bangkok.

The stock market has fallen more than 26 percent since the PAD launched its campaign at the end of May, while the baht has plunged to a 19-month low against the dollar. The crisis has also hit tourism, with airlines and hotels reporting cancellations.

Rubber exporters said some shipments had been disrupted by anti-government industrial action by rail workers.

Thanachart Securities said a referendum would not end the crisis, which has eroded investor confidence in Thailand.

"We feel there are just two ways out -- either the prime minister quits or he calls an election," it said.


The PAD, which accuses Samak of being a puppet of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, removed in a 2006 coup, launched its street campaign in May, signaling a return to open political warfare in Thailand.

Thaksin, still admired by rural Thais who handed him huge parliamentary majorities in return for his populist programs, is believed to be pulling political strings from exile in London.

He is despised by Bangkok's middle class, the military and the royalist establishment, who all opposed his modernizing agenda. He was also accused of abuse of power and corruption while in office.

"The current drama could take years, if not decades to resolve itself. It is nothing short of a class war with two opposite groups of elites backing their respective sides," Bangkok's Nation newspaper said.

It said Samak was betting that the military "don't have the cheek" to launch a coup before the referendum.

Army chief Anupong Paochinda has said repeatedly that a putsch would not solve the country's political problems.

But more bloodshed on the streets could prompt the military or King Bhumibol Adulyadej to intervene. A move by the latter would be unlikely to favor the government, although it would be nuanced and espouse the need for national harmony and stability.

"The question is whether or not the PAD will have enough patience to wait for this vote or will it continue to provoke the situation," said Kim Eng Securities analyst Vikas Kawatra.

There has been no major violence in Bangkok since emergency rule was imposed on Tuesday, but the situation remains tense.

A gunman on a motorcycle fired at 100 students marching to protest at Samak's home on Thursday night, wounding two of them.

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Thai Seamico Securities to buy into Vietnamese firm

BANGKOK, Sept 5 - Thailand's Seamico Securities PCL said on Friday it would buy a 25 percent stake in a securities firm in Vietnam as part of its plan to expand overseas.

The brokerage did not say how much it had paid, but it said in a statement to the Thai stock exchange that it could eventually take up to 49 percent in Vietnam's Thanh Cong Securities Co J.S.C.

Thanh Cong Securities has registered capital of $21.5 million and Thanh Cong Textile Garment is a major shareholder, the statement said.

Vienam's main stock index <.VNI>, which rose 24 percent last year after jumping 145 percent in 2006, has lost 41 percent this year, hit by global credit woes and soaring domestic inflation.

Seamico, ranked seventh among Thailand's 38 listed brokers, focuses on underwriting share and debt issues as well as advising companies on initial public offerings.

The Thai firm has said it expected to receive a licence to enter Cambodia later this year.

It posted a second-quarter net profit of 28.15 million baht .

At 0829 GMT, Seamico shares were unchanged at 2.22 baht while the overall index <.SETI> was 1.38 percent lower.

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Cambodian Senate president returns home from China visit

Cambodian Senate President Chea Sim arrived in Phnom Penh on Friday after paying an official visit to China.

Chea Sim was welcomed by some Cambodian senior officials and Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia Zhang Jinfeng at the Phnom Penh International Airport.

At the invitation of Jia Qinglin, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Chea Sim left Cambodia Monday for China to pay a five-day visit.

During his stay in China, Chea Sim respectively met with Wu Bangguo, chairman of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, and Jia Qinglin on Tuesday.  

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Cambodian American Heritage Museum exhibit mirrors archivist's life story

When Ty Tim, his wife and daughter survived the Khmer Rouge's brutal regime and came to the United States as refugees in 1982, they brought with them two things from Cambodia: a small ivory Buddha he found while searching for food in the jungle and a copper coin his mom gave him before she died in a forced labor camp. Both were hidden from Khmer soldiers in the pockets of his daughter's pants.

Since 2004, Tim, who lost four of his five children during the Khmer Rouge's murderous rule from 1975 to 1979, has been returning to his homeland, bringing back what he couldn't before.

Tim, 65, has acquired wooden carvings, ancient Cambodian instruments, sacred texts on palm leaves, etchings from the Angkor Wat temple, children's toys and fishing traps. Some of the treasures—novelties and replicas of ancient works because Cambodian law bans removal of historical artifacts—grace the walls of his Skokie home.

But many of them made up the core of the Cambodian American Heritage Museum's exhibit last year on the arts and culture of Cambodia and are part of the exhibit opening Sunday on every day life in Cambodia.

The exhibits at the museum, 2831 W. Lawrence Ave., are in partnership with Northern Illinois University.

Tim, a retired teacher and the museum's archivist, says the exhibits help Cambodian-Americans remember aspects of their culture they may have forgotten. Many refugees came to the U.S. from Cambodia ready to put tragedy behind them and quickly faced the challenges of learning a new language and making a living, he said. The exhibits also can teach non-Cambodians and a new generation of U.S.-born Cambodian-Americans who may know little about Cambodian traditions.

"They need to know something about their culture," Tim said.

Although the ivory Buddha and copper coin, used by Cambodians as a massaging tool, are not on display, Tim's own story appears to echo through the exhibit.

His father was a farmer. Tim grew up harvesting rice and catching fish using the basketlike traps his father made. A fish trap like the one he used is in the exhibit, as are some of the different types of rice he helped harvest.

Knowing a bit about farming came in handy under the Khmer Rouge, which took power in 1975. The regime, which sent the population to work in rural farms and killed more than 1.5 million people, was anti-intellectual.

So teachers such as Tim often hid their profession, claiming instead to be illiterate farmers.

But the Khmer soldiers would still test them, ordering his family to grow vegetables on infertile land and forcing him to plow rice fields.

He has brought back Khmer-language textbooks and toys used by children in schools. A wooden toy that mimics the toad mating call comes from Tim's own collection. Nearby, a ceremonial silver tea set and wedding conch used to pour holy water on the couple's hands are also on loan from him.

Today, his life in America is quite different than that life in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge forced millions like him and his family to march from Phnom Penh into the jungle. On the march through the jungle, his father died. At the farming camp, his mother and four youngest children died of starvation.

"They kept 1,200 people in that one village," Tim recalls. "When we got out from that village, there were only 400 of us left."

When Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, the family returned to Phnom Penh. Tim started work again as a teacher.

But when friends told him officials were upset over his refusal to learn Communist ideology, he and his family fled again.

This time, they walked for two months back through the jungles, without a map, desperate for water, evading land mines and soldiers of all kinds.

They eventually reached a refugee camp in Thailand.

It's a history he feels younger Cambodians such as his three youngest children—one born in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia and two in Chicago—at times fail to grasp.

So he fills his home with reminders of his native land.

And he hopes the museum exhibits will help educate them.

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SCT still bullish on Cambodia

SCT Co Ltd, an international trading arm of Thailand's Siam Cement Group, expects to increase its turnover in Cambodia by 25% from last year to $50 million this year despite border tensions between the two countries. SCT managing director Kalin Sarasin said the potential for the trading business with Cambodia was tremendous as few products were manufactured locally.

Thailand is Cambodia's third biggest trading partner with value of $550 million in 2007, behind China ($750 million) and Vietnam ($650 million), he said.

''Cambodia is a net-importer country with most of products shipped from Thailand, Vietnam and China. The trading business is shown to have the highest growth, expanding relative to stable gross domestic products (GDP) growth which is expected at 7.5% in 2008.''

Major products imported to Cambodia are construction materials such as cement, roofing materials, ceramic tiles, sanitaryware and steel.

Its subsidiary, Cementhai SCT (Cambodia) Co. also exports waste paper and aluminium scrap from Cambodia to supply many factories in Thailand, he added.

The construction business, according to Mr Kalin, is among sectors that have shown strong prospects in the neighbouring country along with oil and gas, plantations and agro-industries and labour-intensive ventures such as garments and logistics.

In every sector, many foreign and local companies have stepped up investments in Cambodia. Infrastructure is being built to lure more investors, he said.

Office buildings and serviced apartments are in high demand for expatriates. Several South Korean developers are investing in condominiums in Phnom Penh while the construction market is growing dramatically in Siem Reap and Kampong Som, added Mr Kalin.

''There are many oil and gas exploration activities in Cambodia, boosting the demand for related materials such as piping and structural steel for rigs,'' he said.

In the agricultural sector, Chinese and Thai investors are investing in plantation projects in Cambodia. Major crops are rice with tapioca, palm oil, and rubber becoming more attractive for investors.

Mr Kalin played down the impact of the border dispute over the Preah Vihear temple, saying it would not last long.

''The dispute has not affected our operations much,'' he said. ''With our strong distribution network and many local staff, we are ready to move on with our business plan there and adapt to all situations.''

Siam Cement (SCC) shares closed yesterday on the SET at 158 baht, unchanged, in trade worth 83.9 million baht.
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