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Friday, October 23, 2009

Thaksin, trade rows erupt at Southeast Asian summit

By Jeremy Laurence

HUA HIN, Thailand (Reuters) - A Southeast Asian summit got off to a troubled start on Friday as hosts Thailand faced off against two neighbours in trade and diplomatic spats, and a new regional human rights body drew withering criticism.

Determined to avoid a rerun of embarrassing mishaps at past summits, Thailand deployed a security force of 18,000 backed by naval gunships to the seaside resort town of Hua Hin as leaders gathered. Tensions rose to the surface within hours.

In a slap in the face to Thailand's rulers, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen offered fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra a job as economic adviser.

Thaksin, ousted in a 2006 coup, heavily influences a red-shirted, anti-government protest movement from self-imposed exile in Dubai. Thailand is seeking to extradite him to serve a jail term for corruption.

"Thaksin can stay in Cambodia as the guest of Cambodia and also be my guest as my adviser on our economy," said Hun Sen, who described the former telecommunications tycoon on Wednesday as an "eternal friend" who had a residence in Cambodia waiting for him.

He likened Thaksin to pro-democracy figure and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest or in jail in military-ruled Myanmar.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had tough words for Hun Sen, calling him "seriously misinformed" as the row threatened to overtake other issues at the summit of leaders from the 10-member Association of South East Nations (ASEAN).

A trade dispute with the Philippines also deepened.

Last week Thailand, the world's biggest rice exporter, threatened to delay an ASEAN free trade pact unless it could get a "fair deal" on tariffs from the Philippines, the world's biggest buyer of the food staple.

Those differences could derail an ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement expected to be signed this weekend, undermining a key plank of an ambitious bid by Southeast Asia and its 540 million people to build an EU-style economic community by 2015.

"It's a very sensitive issue, we're friends, we need to talk this through," Thailand's deputy commerce minister Alongkorn Polabutr told Reuters.


Thailand had hoped for a smooth summit after hundreds of anti-government protesters broke through security barriers six months ago at a gathering at Thailand's resort town of Pattaya, forcing some Asian leaders to flee by helicopter and abruptly ending the summit.

Protests at Bangkok's airport last year forced another summit to be abandoned.

ASEAN leaders plan a series of meetings in Hua Hin, first among themselves and later with counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand at the weekend.

ASEAN also launched a human rights watchdog, which critics say is toothless and already discredited by having military-ruled Myanmar, seen as a serial rights abuser, as part of the mechanism.

The new body, called the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, has no power to punish members such as Myanmar and aims to promote rather than protect human rights.

Non-governmental rights organisations and London-based Amnesty International have expressed concerns over the body, while the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights says it has no clear mandate for victims of abuse.

Debbie Stothard of the ASEAN People's Forum said five of the 10 governments had also rejected nominees from civil society groups for the watchdog and have replaced them with their own.

She said observers at Friday's meeting were instructed not to question the leaders.

"It's a big slap in the face for civil society. We are trying to engage with them (ASEAN)," she said. "This situation and the gag order is an irresponsible move by ASEAN governments and it will damage the credibility of the grouping."

ASEAN foreign ministers raised pressure on Myanmar on Thursday to hold "free and fair" elections next year, and urged the junta to free Suu Kyi.

The sentencing of Suu Kyi to a further 18 months of detention this year has prompted Western critics to dismiss next year's polls -- the first in two decades -- as a sham.
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Queensland man accused of keeping catalogue of horror


A north Queensland man allegedly caught with a terabyte worth of videos depicting the sexual abuse of young children and babies has been extradited from Cambodia.

The 53-year-old Daintree man was arrested at Brisbane Airport yesterday and is expected to appear in Brisbane Magistrates Court today on charges of possessing child exploitation material, accessing child pornography material from the internet, and making available child pornography material to other users of the internet.

He is the first person to be extradited to face prosecution for alleged child sex crimes under 2005 changes to the Commonwealth Criminal Code and a new international treaty to stop the sale of children for sex and pornography.

His arrest follows a year-long investigation by the Australian Federal Police's High Tech Crime Operations team, dubbed Operation Resistance, and their counterparts in Brazil

Police allege a number of offenders had been operating a library of child abuse videos for sharing over the internet.

In the Daintree man's home, raided in November last year, police say they found 10 computer hard drives and 60 compact discs containing child abuse video files depicting attacks on children as young as 12 months old.

The sheer volume of files - totalling a terabyte of information - is equivalent to 40,000 filing cabinets of paper.

"The AFP will allege in court that up to 140,000 images and 10,350 graphic videos were located at the premises, containing abuse images of children and infants as young as 12 months to persons under the age of 16," investigators said in a statement today.

One month after the raid, an arrest warrant was issued for the man, who was believed to have travelled to South East Asia.

Cambodia's government approved his formal extradition to face a Queensland court.

He has been charged with possessing, accessing and making available child pornography, offences which carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years' jail.

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CBRE spots opportunity in Cambodia

Foreign ownership set to stimulate market

PHNOM PENH : CB Richard Ellis Group Inc (CBRE) is opening a new office in Phnom Penh to expand its footprint in Southeast Asia. The company aims to capitalise on growing demand for professional real estate services and is also planning ahead to serve the market on Cambodia's southern coast.

"The opening of an office in Cambodia will allow CBRE to provide research, consultancy, valuation and advisory services in the country and will strengthen our broader platform in Southeast Asia," said Daniel Parkes, country manager of CBRE Cambodia.

He said land prices in Cambodia had eased back from the sharp rises experienced since 2005. The market could be compared to Thailand, in particular Bangkok in the late 1980s, and Vietnam in the early 1990s - with a lot of potential for growth, few modern developments but latent demand.

The good news, he said, is that the government is very pro-investment and is offering a tax cap of 20%. It already offers 99-year leases to foreigners and is considering full foreign freehold.

Cambodia's Council of Ministers in July approved a sub-decree covering new co-ownership regulations, allowing legal ownership of individual apartments or condominium units, which paves the way for a law allowing foreign ownership of some property.

The new co-ownership regulations will make it possible to own units within a larger building without having title to the land it occupies. The goal is to guarantee and protect rights of legal holders in apartments or condominiums for co-ownership. It will also facilitate management on behalf of co-owners who live in the apartments or condominiums.

As well, the new regulations facilitate co-ownership for sale, exchange, donation, inheritance, permanent rental and collateralising of private holdings as personal ownership.

Foreigners have not been able to own Cambodian land or housing in the past. They could only rent property for their business or residence. Also, foreigners cannot buy land near borders with neighbouring countries because it could affect national sovereignty and security.

"The market is not without challenges and is coming off a low base," said Mr Parkes. "There is no doubt that per-capita income in Phnom Penh is continuing to improve, with a surprisingly high number of private cars, trucks and bikes.

"Inbound retailers, while they lack a modern centre, are enjoying good business - for example, pizza franchises. There is only one modern high-rise office, Canadia Tower, which is soon to be completed. Projected rents are comparable to those of Bangkok's Grade A space."

In 2008, the GDP of Cambodia reached $9.2 billion, with tourism contributing $1.72 billion. Culture has played a key role in Cambodia in the past three decades and has created many jobs. From 2000 to 2008, GDP per capita in Cambodia increased by 158% from $286.90 to $739.

Take-up of industrial property is slow but major global companies are already buying land for assembly and manufacturing facilities, said Mr Parkes. There is also a fledgling condominium market and Korean developers have been active. There has also been a boom in new villas, with prices of up to $1 million each.

Chris Brooke, president and chief executive officer of CBRE in Asia, said the company's presence in the market would facilitate the provision of professional property services, while also supporting regional clients who have an interest in a unique emerging market.

As the capital, Phnom Penh has become a major focal point for economic and business development in recent years, said Mr Brooke. This region offers enormous business potential for further growth of domestic and foreign businesses.

In particular, backed by investment resulting from positive sentiment, Cambodia's real estate market is expected to continue its growth momentum in the years to come, particularly the resort property market along the coastline.

In the future CBRE will consider a resort office on the south coast, with the opening of the Ream airport, said Mr Parkes.

The company already has two major contracts. It is the sole agent for marketing exclusive villas on a private island, which are priced from $200,000 and come with hotel management and guaranteed returns. The company also has a key advisory role for Koh Rong, an island being positioned as an eco-tourism destination and a potential rival to Phuket and Koh Samui in Thailand.

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Trade slides with neighbours

Official figures show Cambodia’s bilateral trade with Thailand and Vietnam continues to fall on a year-on-year basis, but the pace of decline is slowing.

TRADE figures released Thursday by the embassies of Vietnam and Thailand showed that Cambodia’s bilateral trade with its two neighbours continued to suffer in August, although with Thailand the pace of the downturn eased slightly.

In the first eight months of the year, trade with Thailand fell 30.66 percent, from US$1.518 billion in the same period last year to $1.052 billion, a slight improvement after bilateral trade dropped just over 31 percent in the first seven months. The Thai embassy did not disclose monthly figures.

Trade with Vietnam was down more than 29 percent year on year in the first eight months, according to embassy figures, meaning August saw a steep decline in bilateral trade after the first seven months registered a decline of just 21.9 percent.

“It was really very severe because it is a time of crisis,” said Le Bien Cuong, commercial counsellor at the embassy, adding that he expected an overall drop of just 20 percent in trade for this year compared to 2008. “We are seeing that global trade is getting better, so our two-way trade will
also be good from now until next year.”

Figures showed trade with Vietnam fell from $1.197 billion in the first eight months of 2008 to $848 million during the same period this year.

Thai exports to Cambodia fell 31.4 percent over the first seven months compared with the same period last year after dropping 30.29 percent over the first eight months.

Thailand exported goods worth $1.013 billion in the first eight months, while Cambodia in return shipped just $39 million, mostly garments, unprocessed agricultural products, fish and recyclable metal.

Jiranan Wongmongkol, the director of the Thai embassy’s Foreign Trade Promotion Office, last month blamed the decline on the economic crisis rather than disagreements between Bangkok and Phnom Penh. She was unavailable for comment Thursday.

Cambodia’s exports to Vietnam dropped 21.5 percent over the first seven months compared with the same period last year. They fell nearly 27 percent when the first eight months are taken into account. The Kingdom exported mostly unprocessed agricultural products, including rubber, tobacco, cashew nuts, smoked fish and rice.

Vietnam’s exports to the Kingdom were down 22 percent in the first seven months. A sharp fall in August propelled that to a 29.5 percent decline over the first eight months.

Chan Nora, secretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce, blamed bad weather for exacerbating the effects of the global downturn by reducing crop yields. This had especially affected exports, given Cambodia’s reliance on agriculture, he said.

Cambodian Economic Association President Chan Sophal blamed the decline on the cyclical nature of global trade, which had declined this year due to lower demand, he said. “We see that recently the global economy, as well as that in the region, is recovering, so I hope that it will improve in 2010,” he said.

Minister of Economy and Finance Keat Chhon said Tuesday that he expected Cambodia’s economy to grow 2.1 percent this year, with agriculture growing 5 percent.
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Youths in Cambodia face job crisis: UN

OUNG Cambodians face increasingly daunting prospects for entering the Kingdom’s labour market, the UN said in a report released today.

The report, titled “Situation Analysis of Youth in Cambodia”, was prepared to coincide with Saturday’s UN Day and is being launched at a ceremony this morning at the National Institute of Education. UN resident coordinator Douglas Broderick said that though the report also contains sections on health, education, rights and vulnerability, many of its most urgent recommendations focus on the issue of youth employment.

“This is the biggest issue affecting young people,” he said. “Cambodia has a young and vibrant workforce, but they lack the skills and training to achieve their full potential.”

People ages 10 to 24 currently comprise 34.7 percent of the Cambodian population – more than 300,000 leave school and look for work each year, and youth participation in the labour force is among the highest in the region, according to the report. However, recent economic growth has largely depended on a few key sectors: garments, construction and tourism, and these sectors are ill-equipped to further absorb large numbers of workers.

John McGeoghan, project manager at the Phnom Penh office of the International Organisation for Migration, said that Cambodia must account for the potential social dislocation that occurs when young people migrate from rural to urban areas in search of employment.

“What we are concerned about, perhaps in terms of trafficking, is that there are significant numbers of young people who don’t have a social network,” he said.

The UN analysis also noted this trend, though it emphasised the importance of expanding Cambodia’s labour capabilities in the agricultural sector, as the earning potential for youths entering the labour force is significantly lower in rural areas than it is in Phnom Penh.

Officials from the Ministry of Labour could not be reached for comment Thursday. In August, however, Ministry of Labour Director General Heng Sour told the Post that the government is currently sponsoring a job training programme supporting 40,000 people, 30,000 of whom are studying agricultural vocations.

“We are observing whether the economic crisis will continue and whether this training will be enough,” he said, adding that the Ministry of Economy and Finance will consider whether or not to renew this programme at the end of the year.

These sorts of initiatives, Broderick said, are crucial for the Kingdom to meet the challenge or a burgeoning working-age population.

“Establishing programmes and opportunities for young people to develop work-related skills, such as more school-based vocational training, apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and opportunities in civil service ... is essential,” he said.
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