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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Thai detainees in Cambodia seek bail

Prem concerned about fate of seven 'trespassers' as they head to court and Kasit insists no preferential treatment for Democrat MP Panich

Seven detained Thai nationals, including a lawmaker from the ruling Democrat Party, will today submit bail requests as they face trial in Cambodia over trespassing charges.

Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda has expressed concern over their fate, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said yesterday.

Abhisit said he had briefed Prem on the situation and the related boundary issue, which is a matter of dispute with Cambodia.

The seven Thais will testify in court one by one and a bail request will be submitted for each of them, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongpakdi.

The seven, including Democrat Party MP Panich Vikitsreth and yellow-shirt activist Veera Somkwamkid, were arrested last week while inspecting a disputed border area near Ban Nong Chan in Sa Kaew province.

A Cambodian court charged them with illegal entry and unlawfully entering a military area, which could lead to a combined sentence of 18 months in prison for each of them.

Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya yesterday said the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh would stand bail for the accused.

Any assistance to the Thai nationals will be conducted step by step and without intervention in the Cambodian justice system, he said.

The minister dismissed an earlier report that he had recommended a Cabinet review of relations with Cambodia unless Phnom Penh were to speed up the trial process and ensure leniency. The government plans no measures to retaliate against Cambodia over the case, he added.

"The Foreign Ministry has an obligation to maintain good relations, not to make trouble and spoil the relationship," he told reporters, adding: "I beg all parties not to create any misunderstanding between the two countries."

The ministry will provide equal assistance to all the detained Thai nationals, he said, rejecting a report that only Panich would be regarded as a priority case for obtaining bail, while the others, notably Veera, would be left to their own devices as they had provoked the arrests.

Veera and his group were briefly held in the same area last August, but Border Police managed to release them shortly after their capture.

The group believed the area where they were walking last week belongs to Thailand, but has been occupied by a Cambodian community since the late 1970s when many Cambodians fled civil war to settle there. They later refused to move out after the end of the war.

However, many Thai agencies, including the Foreign Ministry and the Royal Thai Survey Department, have indicated that the group walked at least 55 metres farther than that area - into territory under Cambodian sovereignty.

A leaked video clip showed Panich was apparently aware of the fact that he was walking into Cambodian territory, as he was speaking on the phone with an unknown person and requested that a message to that effect be conveyed to Abhisit.

The clip and the information provided by agencies has dismayed many yellow-shirt activists, as they insisted that the seven Thai nationals had been arrested on Thai territory.

Yellow-shirt activist and senator Kamnoon Sithisaman said areas near the disputed boundary belonged to Thai people, as the Thai authorities had issued land titles to them long ago. The area was indeed used as a shelter for Cambodian refugees in 1975, but has not been returned to the rightful Thai owners since, he said.

"I don't know why Foreign Minister Kasit said the seven Thai people had invaded Cambodian territory," he added.

Kamnoon and his group of 40 senators yesterday inspected the area near Ban Nong Chan and met some of the people who had lost their land to the Cambodians.

He urged the prime minister to listen to local residents and help them solve the problem.

Separately, another group of yellow-shirt activists yesterday rallied from Sa Kaew's Aranyaprathet district to see the disputed area in which their comrades had been arrested.

Local authorities provided tight security, fearing they would clash with residents in Non Mak Moon subdistrict, who disagreed with their presence out of concern that it could cause tension with Cambodia and make life difficult for them.
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'Postcards of Cambodia' shows a sunny side

By Chris Bergeron

"Picture Postcards of Cambodia 1900-1950" by Joel G. Montague.

"Postcards are, of course, artifacts ... They are clouds of fantasy and pellets of imagination." Susan Sontag, "On Photography"

Joel Montague isn't your typical tourist who stays in 5-star hotels, visits a few landmarks in the capital and buys some gift shop postcards before flying home in business class.

A frequent expatriate, the Wellesley, Mass., resident has spent much of the last 30 years in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, directing health and development programs for relief organizations and local governments.

"Over the years, I've got to know my way around," said Montague, relaxing in his home decorated with Buddhist statues, African carvings and paintings from the Middle East.

In Cambodia he runs a malaria-control program for Partners for Development, an organization dedicated to improving quality of life for those in developing countries. In September, he traveled to a remote mountainous area that is still peppered with land mines in order to visit the cremation site of dictator Pol Pot whose Khmer Rouge regime killed millions of its own people.

Montague has brought to light a sunnier side of Cambodia's tormented history in his recently published second book, "Picture Postcards of Cambodia, 1900-1950."

He has chronicled the people, culture, arts and architecture of one of Asia's most exotic jewels as portrayed by French colonizers via inexpensive postcards created for domestic consumption.

In the early 1900s, Montague observed, 18,000 postcards were produced depicting Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, which France ruled under the popular name Indochina.

Montague, whose resume lists 20 countries where he's worked, found that French colonizers used postcards as a sort of "marketing tool" to justify their self-proclaimed "civilizing mission" in Cambodia.

Published by White Lotus Press in Thailand, his 327-page book provides a rare visual archive of Cambodian history as revealed through about 650 black-and-white and color postcards in 16 categories, such as "The Mekong River," "The Monarchy" and "Khemer Dance and Music." Montague believes his collection of about 1,700 colonial-era postcards, purchased in flea markets and over the Internet, is the largest of its kind in the world.

During a century in which Cambodia's true history has been erased by colonization and revolution, Montague wrote in his book's introduction that picture postcards provide "an ephemeral record of early 20th-century Cambodia."

Since first visiting Cambodia in 1991, after the Khmer Rouge's overthrow and withdrawal of the invading Vietnamese, Montague began acquiring postcards that depicted the nation's visual history as seen through Western eyes during the first half of the 20th century.

The postcards depict life there as the kind of Indochinese paradise that has excited Westerners' imagination since Marco Polo -- and still does.

Viewers will see very little genuine interaction between French and Cambodians in the postcards, which seem, instead, to show two distinct worlds.

"In the eyes of the French, Cambodians were like infants who needed their protection," said Montague. "Some postcards made a pretense at pseudo-science that saw Cambodians as 'types' for anthropological study."

In the postcards, the French built stately mansions while locals lived in picturesque villages. French administrators built schools, hospitals and roads while monks in robes lounged in temples.

French children wore costumes to catch butterflies or perform in plays while bare-breasted Cambodian women bathed or posed with a casualness not found in France.

Born in New York, Montague graduated from Oberlin University in 1956, earned his master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and served in the U.S. Army. Since 1990, he has been trustee and chairman of the board of Partners for Development, which operates several health programs in Cambodia.

He is married to Dr. Shahnaz Montague, a specialist in internal medicine whom he met while working in Iran. They have two adult children.

Several years ago, Montague wrote with Michael Vann "The Colonial Good Life: A Commentary on Andre Joyeux's Vision of French Indochina," about a French artist whose cartoons about turn-of-the-century life in Saigon were remarkably insightful.

In addition to postcards, Montague also collects pharmaceutical labels and shop signs, which he has exhibited in the Wellesley Library.

For historians, the most striking postcards in Montague's book feature photographs from 1905 of the majestic temple complex at Angkor Wat, which was then being recovered from the jungle, and photos of considerable artistry by French photographer Pierre Dieulefils, who captured many scenes of everyday life.

Montague is now working on a book project about Scotsman John Thompson, who was the first man to photograph Angkor Wat in 1866.

Since first visiting Cambodia 20 years ago, Montague has been intrigued by the question of how people in such a devout Buddhist country degenerated into such violent chaos.

"I looked at postcards all those years until I had a sort of gradual awakening that helped me understand why they show Cambodia they way they do and not the way it really is," he said. "Cambodia went through a horrible stretch of history, including the bombing along the border by the U.S. during the Vietnam war. I hope this book could be helpful in its small way by filling in some of its history."

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No Response, as Sit-In Protest Passes Second Day

Residents say they want $1,500 per square meter, or 15 hectares slotted for themselves in the new development

Protesters sat for the second day at Freedom Park on Tuesday, shouting into loudspeakers and demanding fair compensation from a city developer for their land. But they mostly shouted to each other.

No city officials or company representatives came to meet with them.

Residents at the Boeung Kak lake development site say they want $1,500 per square meter for a buyout, or 15 hectares of the 133-hectare development, a demand the developer, Shukaku, Inc., has refused.

Residents say they will sit at Freedom Park, in the shadow of one the largest bank building in the country, Canadia, for a week in search of mediation.

“There have been no government officials, no lawmakers, to come see what we need,” said Ly Mom, a representative of the residents.

The protesters sit on the ground, roped in by nylon cord, calling out for intervention from Prime Minister Hun Sen, former king Norodom Sihanouk, and countries like China, Japan and the US.

“We insist that [Phnom Penh] Governor Kep Chuktema come and discuss this with us to find a positive result,” Ly Mom said.

Shukaku, which will develop the lake area after it is filled in, has offered $8,500 to families. Some have been forcibly removed. Others have stayed, even as their houses are flooded from lake overflow while Shukaku dredgers pump sand and mud from the bottom of the Tonle Sap river into the lake.

Protesters say they have asked for meetings with the governor five times and sent four letters for help to Hun Sen, to no avail. One said he would “better die at home than to leave.”

City officials declined to comment on Tuesday, as they have in the past.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the protesters “can file a complaint with the court if they do not obtain any result.”

However, Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said it was the government's “responsibility” to settle the problem.

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Groups Prepare for Tough Discussions on NGO Law

The Ministry of Interior prepared the draft law late last year. Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc, said some articles of the new law violate the constitution by making it difficult to establish NGOs or associations by citizens.

Non-governmental agencies and other organizations are preparing to discuss a controversial law on NGOs with the government next week.

Many NGOs say they are worried the law needs corrections lest it be used to crackdown on organizations deemed anti-government. In a joint statement, a group of NGOs said the law in its current form would restrict their work, thanks to barriers for registration and other impediments.

That could lead to restriction on funding sources and hurt long-term development, the groups said.

For example, the draft law calls for complicated registration and the submission of work reports, action plans and change of staff to the Ministry of Interior, all of which could eat up time and resources and become increasingly complicated.

“This draft law has complicated duties and stirs up difficulties to the civil society,” said Yong Kim Eng, president of the People's Center for Development and Peace. “In general, this law seems to manage NGOs and associations, but it is not a law to protect their interests or to provide rights and freedom to civilians to ensure freedom of their activities. In our view, that is worrisome, and we wonder about some points in the law.”

Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc, said some articles of the new law violate the constitution by making it difficult to establish NGOs or associations by citizens.

“It has many conditions, statutes and principles for registration,” he said. “So NGOs and associations in rural areas cannot undertake their activities.”

However, Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the draft was “no better and no worse” than laws in other countries. While some points of the law are worrisome, it would weed out about a third of the countries NGOs, which either do no activities or will have a hard time meeting registration requirements, he said. “I think it is between good and bad,” he said.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the government “will receive their good and constructive recommendations for making this law better, but their recommendations must serve the interest of Cambodia and its people.”

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