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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Cambodia reinforces Thailand border amid simmering tensions

Cambodian soldiers stand guard near the Preah Vihear temple in Preah Vihear province on October 14, 2008. Cambodia says it plans to reinforce the border. [AFP]

Liam Cochrane, Alex Khun

Cambodia is reinforcing its border with Thailand, establishing new villages full of soldiers, building roads and buying new equipment.

The strengthened military presence is part of an ongoing dispute over land surrounding the Preah Vihear temple on the Cambodia-Thailand border.

The 12th century temple has been the site of numerous violent clashes between the two countries in recent years.

Cambodia's Ministry of Defence made the announcement and said the program was necessary for national protection.

It says the military bulwark is part of a five-year plan, with work already underway on five new villages that will be populated with soldiers.

Preah Vihear program officer for the Wildlife Conservation Society, Tan Setha has witnessed the flurry of new construction activity.

"At the moment I can see the government establish some new village for the army family along the border."

It's believed a total of 14 new villages will eventually be established at a cost of hundreds of millions of US dollars.

A multi-ministerial committee, headed by former Phnom Penh governor and long-time Preah Vihear supporter, Chea Sophara, is driving the development.


Cambodia is clearing land along the heavily-mined border so new infrastructures can be built to sustain the permanent relocation of soldiers and their families.

Heng Ratana, from the Cambodian Center for Mine Action says more than 300 de-miners are clearing land for the first five new villages being built for soldiers and their families.

"In Preah Vihear province, we've deploy more than 300 de-miners there to support demining activity which [has] tasks prioritised by local community and provincial community there."

"Our team is clearing a number of areas for supporting their development activity there, such as building new schools, new roads, irrigation system and so on."

The plan comes amid ongoing tension between Cambodia and Thailand over who owns 4.6 square kilometres of land surrounding the ruins of Preah Vihear.

Since July 2008 there have been several deadly clashes on the border and troops from both sides are prepared for a long standoff.

The paved road that leads from the Thai side to the foot of the temple, gives Thailand a distinct military advantage over Cambodia where dirt roads are full of pot holes, making the movement of troops and equipment difficult.

But that looks set to change, with this major investment to boost the number of Cambodian troops in the area and enhance their capacity to respond to any future incidents.

The troubled relationship between the two countries have been recently inflamed by Cambodia appointing former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as an economic advisor.

It's understood Mr Thaksin will make his next visit to Cambodia later this month.
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Security Concerns Hampered FBI in 1997 Investigation

By Men Kimseng, VOA Khmer
Original report from Washington

A security threat to an FBI agent in 1997 and concerns over US cooperation with Cambodia put a grenade attack investigation on hold, according to recent media reports.

The agent, Tom Nicoletti, was sent to Cambodia to look into the attack, on an opposition rally, which killed sixteen people and wounded more than 100 others, including an American citizen.

Nicoletti, who is now retired, told the English-language Cambodia Daily that by the time he left Cambodia, the evidence he had collected was not up to US standards for prosecution. He had planned to return, he said in e-mails to the newspaper, but an unfavorable situation in the country prevented it.

Nicoletti said he had been pulled out of Cambodia for fear he may be the target of attacks for his investigation, which pointed toward possible collusion in the attack on opposition leader Sam Rainsy by members of then-second prime minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit.

The FBI produced nine sketches of three suspects, including Kong Samrith, also known as Brazil. In report released to the Cambodian Daily following a Freedom of Information request, the FBI said its investigation had been hampered and that agents had difficulty discerning which witnesses were telling the truth.

One witness told FBI investigators he saw a line of Hun Sen bodyguards allow two grenade-throwers to pass as they fled the carnage of the scene in front of Wat Botum, near what was then the National Assembly building.

The witness “pursued but was prevented from heading towards the wat and nearby CPP headquarters,” according to the report. “As he turned, he was kicked by the soldiers and knocked to the ground.”

However, in another interview, one of Hun Sen’s bodyguards gave a different account, according to recordings posted on In an interview with another investigator in the case, Peter Hoffman, the bodyguard denied such an incident took place.

“When the grenade throwers were running toward your position, how many people were chasing them?” Hoffman asked the unnamed witness, who answered through a translator.

“I have no intention to count how many people [were] chasing the throwers, and I have no knowledge that those people were the grenade throwers,” the witness replied.

“Do you have good eyesight?” Hoffman asked.

“No, no problem with the eyes. The reason is that there are a lot of demonstrators.”

“So three or four people throw grenades into a crowd,” Hoffman asked, “and you didn’t see anything?”

“I see nothing.”

Ultimately, the FBI investigation became inactive and failed to identify the perpetrators.

“The Cambodian police could finish the investigation any time they want,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “They would have sufficient information in their files. They just choose not to do it. Maybe because they don’t want to do it, and maybe because they are afraid of Hun Sen.”

Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, denied police were unwilling to pick up the case.

“We lost track when we lost Brazil,” he said, referring to one of the suspects. “At the time, it was chaotic, and Brazil died for no reason in a camp of a political party that I prefer not to name.”

He was referring to bloody street fighting between the Cambodian People’s Party, led by Hun Sen, and Funcinpec, led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, in a coup that took place months after the grenade attack, July 5 and July 6.

Khieu Sopheak also blamed FBI agent Nicoletti for failing in the case.

“What Tom Nicoletti did was not professional,” Khieu Sopheak said. “He was assigned to conduct the investigation, but could not solve it. Once he concluded a case, he just kept it.”

“The FBI agent was very stupid,” said Mok Chito, who is now head of the criminal police division and was head of Phnom Penh penal police when the attack took place. “He does not know how to investigate. He sometimes listened to other people without knowing [who the subject was]. I remember that in one of its reports, the FBI said I was Hun Sen’s nephew and was chief of municipal police.”

Rights group and families of the victims have insisted that the FBI come back and conclude
their investigation to bring those responsible to court.

“I cannot speculate on what the FBI may or may not do in the future regarding this case,” John Johnson, a spokesman for the US Embassy, said in an e-mail. “I can only say that their original investigation was inconclusive and the US Prosecutor’s Office declined to pursue the case.”

He referred further questions to the FBI in Washington, who have not responded to written questions.

The FBI said in its 1997 report a continued investigation could threaten cooperation with Cambodia, but Adams, of Human Rights Watch, said the investigation should be concluded.

“The US doesn’t need Cambodia,” he said. “Cambodia needs the US, and I think the US should remember that. China is an increasing power, but not a superpower, and the US can work with other countries to put pressure on Cambodia to improve its human rights situation, to try to improve governance and dealing with things like corruption and the rule of law.”
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Thaksin tells followers to stay put


Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra will make his third visit to Cambodia later this month, Cambodia's media reported yesterday.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said Thaksin's visit as an economic adviser to the Cambodian government had nothing to do with political tensions in Thailand, where the Supreme Court will rule on Thaksin's asset case in late-February.

"Thaksin's coming or going out of Cambodia is not strange. It is a normal thing," Hor Namhong was quoted by the Phnom Penh Post as saying.

"We are absolutely not interfering in Thai internal affairs. Whatever colour T-shirts they have is up to them."

Thaksin said on his Twitter site that his supporters should not visit him in Phnom Penh just now as he is still in Dubai.

"Some want to see me in Cambodia - but hang on. I'm now still in Dubai, please do not go [ahead of] me," Thaksin said.
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