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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Refugee parties after deportation scare


Cambodian refugee has escaped deportation after an 11th-hour government reprieve.

Friends of Sokhom Pich celebrated his return to Christchurch with a party on Saturday night.

Former associate immigration minister Shane Jones decided to release Pich and allow him to apply for permanent residency just one hour before he was to be deported on November 4.

Members of Christchurch's Cambodian community had appealed to the then Labour government to allow Pich to stay in the country after he was arrested as an overstayer in September.

After living in New Zealand for 11 years, the 47-year-old had exhausted every legal avenue in his bid to remain in the country as a political refugee despite fears he would be imprisoned and possibly killed if he was sent back to Cambodia.

Just an hour before boarding a plane in Auckland, he received the news that he could stay.

"I was really, really, really happy. I was just jumping and it was just amazing," he said.

"I was surprised because in Auckland I was feeling everything was over. For 20 seconds I couldn't say anything."

Pich said he was a member of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party in his home country which criticised the government for corruption and cracking down on political dissent.

"If the government is not good, people live without houses and food and that's not good for the people," he said.

Pich said a number of his fellow party members had disappeared or been killed and he feared a similar fate. "I felt scared and quite nervous about being sent home, but after it came closer and closer I wasn't scared, I wasn't anything."

Cambodian community adviser Bill Noordanus said Cambodian law meant Pich would have been imprisoned for more than three years if he was sent home as he had left the country illegally.

"He's a very fine man. He's an idealist and like all idealists they sometimes clash with the authorities."

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New Foreign Minister readies for ASEAN Summit, Cambodia disputes

BANGKOK, Dec 21 (TNA) - Newly appointed Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said he is ready to work on two urgent priorities, preparation for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations leader meeting (ASEAN Summit) that Thailand will host early next year and the talks to provide a sustainable settlement of the border disputes with Cambodia.

During the ASEAN Foreign Minister's Meeting at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia, last Monday, the ministers tentatively agreed that the Summit would be held in Thailand by the end of February.

The meeting fixed the new dates of the 14th ASEAN Summit and Related Summits on February 24-26, 2008.

However, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo reportedly said the delayed summit may need to be rescheduled as some leaders are unable to make it. He did not mention which leaders would be unable to attend, but said alternative dates being considered include late January and early February.

Thailand, which currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the 10-member bloc, was forced to delay the ASEAN summit from mid-December to March because of political circumstances, including the blockade of Bangkok's main airports -- Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang -- by anti-government protesters, which left hundreds of thousands of travellers stranded.

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Mr. Kasit said apart from the ASEAN Summit preparation, the highest priority issue was the talks to solve the border disputes with Cambodia.

He said he believed the issue was likely to be solved as Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was the first leader who sent congratulation message to Abhisit Vejjajeva after His Majesty the King had given his royal endorsement to the new Thai prime minister, which could be considered a good sign of the warm friendship between the two neighbouring countries.

As for the extradition of fugitive ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra, Mr. Kasit said he would ask for more details from the ministry's officials when he starts working at the ministry on December 23.

As far as he knew, Mr. Kasit said, Mr. Thaksin's diplomatic passport had already been revoked and the procedure to revoke his normal passport was underway.

Mr. Thaksin jumped bail and fled into exile in August as corruption cases piled up against him, and he was sentenced on October 21 to two years in jail for breaching graft laws by helping his wife, Khunying Pojaman to buy state-owned land.

Mr. Kasit said he would like to see the details first and would decide how to bring ex-premier Thaksin back to be prosecuted in Thailand. (TNA)
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Wealthy countries seek land in Cambodia, Madagascar, and Brazil.

By David Montero Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - The farm fields of this country once fed the legendary civilization of Angkor, the world's largest empire in the 9th century. Tomorrow they may feed the megacities of the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar.

Reeling from food prices that have doubled on average from a year ago, several Gulf countries are pursuing land deals worth billions of dollars in Cambodia, according to recent statements by Cambodia's government. Those countries would lease land, grow rice and corn, and then ship it home – potentially saving millions by bypassing world markets.

The race for farmland in Cambodia underscores how countries desperate to boost farming amid an ongoing food crisis are turning to global outsourcing, hoping to grow their own food on land abroad. Japan has bought up plots in Brazil, South Korea large tracts in Madagascar, in a trend poised to change global land ownership and agricultural production.

While it may bring succor to countries squeezed by high prices, it may also incite conflict and poverty, some experts warn. In August, Jacques Diouf, director-general of the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization, warned against creating a kind of food "neocolonialism," with rich countries securing food supplies at the expense of poor farmers.

From his office in Dubai, Mohammed Raouf can see the global food crisis closing in on the Gulf states. Growing food at home is not viable – in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Raouf points out, farmers have tried for 15 years, unsuccessfully, to grow wheat in the desert.

As a result, Gulf nations must import about 80 percent of staple foods. And the price of those imports has ballooned from $16 billion in 2006 to $20 billion in 2007, according to the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development.

Land acquisitions abroad are the only viable response, Raouf and others say. "For the Gulf countries ... under current technology, it is impossible to guarantee their food security internally, because they lack water resources and arable lands," Raouf, program manager of environment research at the Gulf Research Center, a Dubai think tank, writes in an e-mail. "So this [is] the best policy option now to follow…"

In recent months, Cambodia has positioned itself as a solution: of 6 million hectares (about 15 million acres) available for cultivation, only 2.5 million are currently used, the government says. It's been wooing the Gulf, hosting delegations of Arab leaders, and hopes to finalize concessions worth up to $3 billion with Kuwait and Qatar. As Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a recent radio address, "Those countries have oil but no rice. I think the Gulf can become our rice market."

The marriage of rich countries seeking land and poor countries seeking cash has accelerated since 2007, goaded by troubling statistics: as populations rise globally by 1 to 2 percent, agricultural production is not keeping pace. Investment has slumped, and farmland is disappearing as nations transform countrysides into urban centers.

The result has been a quiet but dramatic redrawing of the world's land ownership. China may have a lot of land mass, but much of the arable land it has is rapidly being turned over to industrial use, and tens of millions of its former farmers have moved to the cities for work. So it now is negotiating deals to buy more than 2 million hectares of land in countries as far flung as Mexico, Tanzania, and Australia. The United Arab Emirates is seeking some 800,000 hectares in Pakistan alone, while Saudi Arabia is negotiating for 1.6 million hectares in Indonesia, according to statistics compiled by Grain, an environmental organization based in Spain.

Such deals may look good on paper, bringing cash and possibly technology transfers. But many in Cambodia – as elsewhere – are concerned. They worry that poor countries could undercut their ability to feed themselves by selling land, especially in times of food crisis.

"We still need to develop our agricultural technology on our own land,," says Meas Nee, country director of Village Focus International, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on farmers' livelihoods. "If this kind of investment is not carefully planned, all the investment will be done at the expense of the rural poor and farmers."

Another concern is that land may be unfairly taken away from farmers. Cambodia is already reeling from extensive land disputes, and local newspapers daily report on cases of poor farmers being kicked off their land. In many cases, local police and government officials are said to be responsible, making way for private businesses to set up agricultural projects.

No one knows for certain how many people have been dispossessed in recent years, but it is estimated to be in the tens of thousands, according to several local and international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International.

In Laos, farmers are accusing Chinese of kicking them off their land. When it was announced that Egypt hoped to buy 840,000 acres of land in Uganda, a public uproar ensued, resulting in the Ugandan government denying the transaction. It remains unclear if that deal will go through.

"The land deal could trigger a conflict over land and also raise other political issues. We could see a reversal of our socioeconomic progress," says Arthur Bainomugisha, director of research at ACODE, a think tank headquartered in Kampala, Uganda.

Here in Cambodia, critics worry that land deals could be made without local consultation and could result in more people being kicked off their land.

Cambodian farmers would still be able to work on the land that foreign countries buy, but critics worry that companies would not be able to provide as many jobs as they might potentially take away. "The companies can make jobs, but in our observation, they cannot make the jobs enough," says Thun Saray, the executive direction of Adhoc, a local human rights organization.

"If the government permits land sales to foreign countries, where will Cambodians who need land go? How can they survive?"

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Australian prefers Thai jail to home

A MELBOURNE man who has been living in shocking conditions in a crowded Bangkok immigration jail cell for more than four years is refusing to accept Australian Government help to return home.

Colin Hansch, 61, has told Thai authorities he would rather stay in jail than return to Australia, even though he has only a mat to sleep on and receives a small daily serve of rice and soup.

"I've not been back to Australia for 30 years. I don't want to go back, I've got nothing to go back to," he said.

Mr Hansch, a computer engineer who left Melbourne in 1967, is worried he will not be able to obtain a passport to travel overseas again if he accepts the offer. It is believed he wants to be able to visit Malaysia or Cambodia.

"I think they [Australia] don't want to give me a passport … they don't want to set a precedent giving a passport to somebody while they are in custody," he said.

#A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra said Mr Hansch had repeatedly rejected an offer from the embassy in Bangkok to issue a limited-validity document to let him return home immediately.

Mr Hansch has been held at the immigration centre in Bangkok, just around the corner from the Australian embassy, since September 2004. He was transferred there, supposedly pending deportation, after serving two years in a Bangkok jail for assault causing serious bodily harm, which related to a dispute with a bar girl in the beach resort of Pattaya.

He shares a large cell on the immigration centre's second floor with up to 100 illegal immigrants. Fights often erupt. He spends much of his time listening to FM radio and reading books.

The department spokesman said Australian consular officers have provided assistance to Mr Hansch while he was in jail and now at the immigration centre.

For 12 years Mr Hansch worked as a computer engineer for a US firm in Thailand. He has also worked as a computer engineer in the US and at the former Woomera defence site in South Australia.

"Thai authorities have informed the embassy that Mr Hansch is subject to deportation following completion of his criminal sentence and must travel directly to Australia," the foreign affairs spokesman said.

"The embassy is not able to issue Mr Hansch with a full-validity passport as he has been unable to satisfy documentation requirements to enable the issue of a full-validity passport."

There are about two dozen Australians among thousands of foreigners in Thai jails, most of them for drug-related offences.

There is an agreement with Thailand under which prisoners can transfer to Australian jails, but the process is very bureaucratic.

A Melbourne man, Harry Nicolaides, 41, has been in prison in Bangkok since August 31 on charges of lese majeste, which can carry up to 15 years' jail. He is scheduled to appear in court on January 19.

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