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Monday, January 31, 2011

PM: War the last option

Yellow Shirts want to taste more and more of bitter Khmer Rouge

The government will persist in pursuing peaceful means to settle border disputes with Cambodia, with war the very last option, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said on Monday.

"I do believe that both the Thai and Cambodian governments will adhere to peaceful ways to resolve our border conflicts.

"My intention of using peaceful approaches to settle the border dispute does not mean that the government is afraid of a war with Cambodia.

"It is also does not mean that the government is the underdog in dealings with our neighbor, as claimed by the yellow-shirt people group.

The use of force will be the last option and will be resorted to only when there is no other solution left," Mr Abhisit said.

He stressed that the government is in contact with Cambodia about removing its flag from the disputed area.

On the three demands by the yellow-shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), Mr Abhisit said the demands would only lead to more damage to the country, instead of any benefit.

“If the government decided to withdraw from Unesco's World Heritage Committee today, there would be no Thai representatives to oppose Cambodia’s plan to also list the area near Preah Vihear temple as a world heritage site.

“Would the yellow-shirts accept responsibility for the foreseeable consequences? My decision on the issue is for the benefit of the country, not for self interest,” Mr Abhisit said.

Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon said fresh deployment of Cambodian troops and armour along border areas adjoining Si Sa Ket province are not cause for worry.

Gen Prawit said Cambodian troops might be on routine defence exercises. Thai solders are also on full alert, ready to protect the country's sovereignty.

Troops of both countries were doing their duty on both sides of the border, and there should not be any problem, he said.

"I believe there are no serious problems on the Thai-Cambodian border.

"The Foreign Ministry should be able settle the dispute through talks.

"Thailand and Cambodia are not involved in a serious conflict that could trigger a war,'' Gen Prawit said.

He said the flag the Cambodians put up at the entrance to the old Kaew Sikha Khiri Sawara temple in the disputed 4.6-square-kilometre area near Preah Vihear temple was actually a temple flag, and it was only a small flag.

Gen Prawit denied suggestions that Cambodian had was taking an aggressive stance towards Thailand.

Cambodian authorities had showed they were willing to cooperate by removing the insulting stone tablet in front of Wat Kaew Sikha Khiri Sawara, he said.

Deputy Prime Minister in charge of security affairs Suthep Thaugsuban said the government will not accede to the PAD's three demands, as their demands would be very difficult to carry out.

Mr Suthep called on the PAD protesters not to block roads, as they are breaking the law and inconveniencing other people.

Bangkok police will continue to negotiate with the PAD leaders and the government is willing to talk with them at any time, he added.

PAD spokesman Panthep Puapongpan said yellow-shirt activists went to the Criminal Court on Monday morning and filed a suit against four cabinet ministers, accusing them of causing Thailand a loss of sovereignty.

Mr Panthep said the lawsuit filed by Samdin Lertbutr and Tainae Mungmajon, representatives of the PAD, accused the prime minister, his deputy Suthep, Gen Prawit and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya of violating Articles 119 and 120 of the Criminal Code, for which the maximum penalty is capital punishment.

The spokesman said the four cabinet ministers were responsible for protecting Thailand's sovereignty, but the country had lost some sovereignty to Cambodia.

Mr Samdin and Mr Tainae are two of the seven Thais arrested for illegally entering Cambodia on Dec 29 last year. They were subsequently sentenced to nine months in jail and then released and allowed to return to Thailand.

The PAD started protesting outside Government House last Tuesday, pressing the government to revoke the memorandum of understanding on boundary demarcation signed in 2000, withdraw from Unesco's World Heritage Committee and expel Cambodian people from the disputed areas.
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Thai-Cambodian border traders call for peace

BURI RAM, Monday 31 January 2011 (Bernama) -- Traders along the Thai-Cambodian border have urged the governments of Thailand and Cambodia to negotiate on resolving ongoing border disputes and open temporary border passes, Thai News Agency reports on Monday.

Traders said that the Ban Kruad Estate market that stands close to the Thai-Cambodian border in Thailand』s Buri Ram province is currently facing sluggish trading as mounting tensions continue over the border between the two adjacent Kingdoms.

With sales recorded at its lowest in a decade, local traders have voiced their fear that persisting tensions will bring even more severe results to the local economy, urging that peace negotiations be held quickly to restore bilateral relations and resume normal trading and communication between the two neighbours.

Likewise, the Ban Klong Luek permanent border pass in Thailand's Aranyaprathet district remains quiet although with the Chinese New Year approaching as both Thais and Cambodians have preferred to stay home due to safety concerns.

Thai tourists have, too, become reluctant to cross over to the Cambodian side to visit the ancient Angkor Wat temple, including the former Khmer capital, Angkor Thom, with Cambodian traders showing less confidence to do business at the Rong Klua market over on the Thai side.

Meanwhile, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, who supervises national security affairs, said in response to the latest development along the Thai-Cambodian border that the local people should not be worried for the situation has remained under control.

Suthep said that the army chiefs of both countries have agreed in their discussions to avoid building up border tensions in accordance with the Thai government's policy on peaceful coexistence among neighbours.

He also urged the Thai people along border to remain confident in the Thai army, reiterating that authorities at all levels were ready to protect the national sovereignty with efforts that would not fuel more tensions.

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Thailand takes stand on pagoda


Thailand yesterday officially demanded that Cambodia remove Keo Sikha Kiri Svara Pagoda and the Cambodian flag flying over the structure from the disputed border area around Preah Vihear Temple, while reaffirming its vow to resolve boundary issues through "peaceful means".

The Foreign Ministry issued a statement maintaining its claim that the Buddhist pagoda erected by Cambodia in 1998 "is situated on Thai territory".
The statement was issued days after Phnom Penh rejected Bangkok's request to take down the Cambodian flag from the pagoda.

Phnom Penh insisted last Friday that it had the legitimate right to fly its flag over the pagoda, which it claimed was on its territory.

The area of 4.6 square kilometres adjacent to Preah Vihear has not yet been demarcated because of the overlapping ownership claims.

The area was delimited in line with the Franco- Siamese treaties of 1904 and 1907. Cambodia claims that the Franco- Siamese joint commission produced a series of maps from 1905-08 to indicate that the area in question is Cambodian territory.

Thailand, in the statement yesterday, said it did not accept the France-made 1:200,000-scale map to determine the boundary line.

Cambodia argues that the International Court of Justice, when it ruled on the Preah Vihear case in 1962, used the map as a basic document to make the judgement, which says "the temple of Preah Vihear is situated in territory under sovereignty of Cambodia".

Phnom Penh said the memorandum of understanding on land-boundary demarcation signed by Thailand and Cambodia in 2000 also recognised the French map as the legal basis for boundary surveys and demarcation.

The border conflict has become a thorn in the side of the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration after the yellow-shirt People's Alliance for Democracy raised awareness of the issue among the public. The PAD accuses the government of ceding Thai territory to Cambodia ever since the MoU signed in 2000, during the Democrat Party-led administration under Chuan Leekpai, recognised the French map.

They called on the government to scrap the pact and use force to evict the Cambodian community from the area, along with the pagoda. Hundreds of PAD supporters and one of its splinter groups, the Thai Patriots Network, are camping out in protest around Government House.

Thai Patriots Network member Samdin Lertbutr yesterday sued Abhisit, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya for alleged criminal misconduct in causing the loss of territory.

The Thai Patriots Network has insisted that it has proof that the property belongs to Thailand.

Abhisit urged the protesters to share their information on the boundary with the government, rather than protesting and trying to force him to follow their way.

"We have the same goal to protect the national interest. I wonder why we don't share the information. We have a different stance because we have different information," he said.

The yellow-shirt demonstration as well as news of the deployment of heavy military hardware to border areas has exacerbated tensions in the relations of the two countries.

Cambodia boosted troops in the border area near Preah Vihear after a report that the Thai military would hold an exercise.

"They [Thai troops] are doing manoeuvres and we are also doing them - that is why we need to send tanks and other weapons to the border," Cambodian Military Division 3 Commander Srey Doek was quoted as saying by the Phnom Penh Post. "Our armed forces are on alert."

Abhisit said he did not want to wage any war with Cambodia.

"The two countries retain their same old stance on the issue to protect their respective rights but both sides insist on settling the problem by peaceful means through negotiation," he said.

The Foreign Ministry in its statement said Thailand was committed to resolving all boundary issues with Cambodia in accordance with international law through peaceful means under the framework of the Thai-Cambodian Joint Commission on Demarcation for Land Boundary (JBC).

The determination of the boundary line in the area of Preah Vihear Temple is still subject to ongoing talks under the framework of the JBC, it said.

Abhisit's government also needs to provide assistance to release nationalist Veera Somkwamkid and his aide Ratree Pipatanapaiboon, who go on trial today in Phnom Penh. They have been detained on the charge of espionage.

The two, together with five other activists who have already been convicted and released, were arrested on December 29 while inspecting the disputed border area near Sa Kaew's Ban Nong Chan. Their colleagues from the Thai Patriots Network, who are to be in Phnom Penh today, want to ask the court to delay the decision, as they will submit more evidence to prove that the two Thais were arrested on Thai soil.

The neighbourhood in Sa Kaew is also in a grey area but Thai authorities said that in this case the yellow shirts had strayed too far beyond the frontier line claimed by Thailand.
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Cambodia struggling with paddy rice flight

One recent afternoon, farmer Hem Preoung was discussing what to do about a small wooden barn full of paddy rice with a group of other farmers.

The 62-year-old farmer is a member of the Preah Theat village farm association, in Kandal province’s Kandal Stung district. For the past five years, she has kept 15 kilograms of harvested paddy rice in the small barn as a kind of bank.

“In the past, we didn’t have enough to eat,” she said in an interview. “But now we save our paddy here to improve our standard of living. The more we save, the better paddy we’ll get.”

Paddy rice, or unprocessed grain that which comes straight from the field, is a vexing question for Cambodia’s farmers and economic policymakers. Not only do farmers not earn as much as they can from it, but the nation has so far been unable to capture and produce it for a high-value product.

Along with 25 other families in the association, Hem Preoung earns about 20 percent interest on her paddy deposits once she decides to withdraw her grain from the bank. And there are five “paddy banks,” as they are called, in the district.

She can borrow seeds from the bank for seed plant or to feed her family, paying 20 percent annual interest herself, avoiding high-interest loans or low-price sales through middlemen.

That’s a change from the normal way of doing things for many farmers, who account for about 80 percent of Cambodia’s population. Typically, a glut of paddy is sold at low prices during harvest time, when farmers are also expected to pay back high-interest loans made during the growing season.

Chhay Meng, a program manager for Caritas Cambodia, who has helped farmer associations set up 17 paddy banks in Kandal province, said these innovations help prevent the whipsaw effect of middlemen and also regulate the flow of paddy to neighboring Thailand and Vietnam.

Nationwide, there are thousands of paddy banks across 18 provinces, according to Cedac, a development NGO. The number is growing as Cambodia looks to produce an abundance or rice for export.

Still, an estimated 70 percent of Cambodia’s paddy surplus finds its way over the borders, according to the Economic Institute of Cambodia. That’s because Cambodia lacks the capital and capacity to buy up the surplus of its own farmers. That informal outflow costs the country millions of dollars in added value, such as the husks.

In its monthly economic outlook for January, the institute suggests the more formal adaptation of the paddy bank system as a means to solve the problem, helping the government reach its goal of greater exports. The government wants to see a million tons of milled rice exported by 2015. In the first 10 months of 2010, it managed less than 380,000 tons.

Noeu Seiha, the EIC’s research manager, said many NGOs are helping farmers set up paddy banks, but these small-scale projects cannot handle the surplus. More formal, larger banks are needed to handle the massive surplus from farms following the harvest, he said.

“When farmers have an abundance of paddy rice, they don't have to hurriedly sell their grains,” he said. “They can deposit their paddies with these banks, and if they need money, they can borrow from the banks to pay their debts or for their own uses.”

The government has plans an “open paddy market,” where farmers can deposit rice in a community storehouse and withdraw it for sale during months of high price, said San Vannty, an undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Agriculture.

The government also hopes to stake more capital with millers to help them absorb paddy from farmers, he said, but he declined to specify an amount.

But the government so far allocates only $36 million, just 10 percent of what’s needed, to buy up paddy surplus. About $20 million of that is provided as loans to rice millers, said Sun Kunthor, president of the Rural Development Bank.

“We just provide them some loans as an incentive to invest more in this field,” he said. “They have their own capital, or can borrow more money from commercial banks.”

For their part, rice millers say they need more capital to buy the paddy and more modern equipment and facilities to produce and store high-quality rice.

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An American Mosque in Cambodia

Cambodia is a rare bright spot in the fight against Islamic radicalism. Thank an unusual combination of a local imam and US soft power.

Haji Yusof bin Idris lives opposite the riverfront in Phnom Penh, on the peninsula that divides the Mekong River from the Tonle Sap. He’s the unassuming imam of the modest Alazhar Mosque, which boasts about 2,600 followers. He’s also a pivotal player in the West’s counter-terrorism effort in Southeast Asia.

Real victories have often been elusive in the so-called War on Terror since it was launched in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.From the Taliban battlefields of Afghanistan to al-Qaeda in Iraq toJemaah Islamiyah (JI) in the Southern Philippines and Indonesia, the results have been mixed at best.

But in unlikely corners of the globe, smaller fights have been fought and are actually being won. Among them is Cambodia, a country whose recent political history had placed it on the least likely list of jihad producing nations.

‘It’s good, the situation, we understand now,’ says bin Idris, who has played a key role in improving relations between the Cambodian government and Western countries that not that long ago had grown deeply suspicious about the arrival of orthodox Wahhabism and Dawa Tabligh into local Muslim Cham communities.

Flanked by senior members of his congregation, he chooses his words carefully. ‘We work closely with the authorities to protect our community from bad influences,’he says.

Western intelligence sources say that at one point Cambodia was an arsenal for sale. Tamil Tigers—and indeed most other would-be regional rebels—would dine at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club before deciding on their weapons of choice.

The lawless thrived on impunity, and amid all this lived a significant Muslim population that had been targeted for proselytizing by Middle East Wahhabis whose code was the virtual antithesis of the moderate, maternal brand of Islam that was traditionally practiced by Cambodia’s Cham.

Bin Idris lets out an audible sigh when recounting those days, as the country struggled to recover after decades of war and insurgency. Cham communities were building separate mosques and fighting among themselves. Outsiders were feared. Mothers effectively accused Saudi missionaries of stealing fatherless children to be reared by Madrassas in the Middle East.

‘Ten years ago, people didn’t understand. We didn’t understand,’ bin Idris says. ‘In the mosques we had divided communities arguing among themselves. Women were being coerced into wearing veils. There were different styles of prayers, it wasn’t Cham.’

The plight of the Cham was made even more difficult after it was learned that JI’s military leader, Riduan Isamuddin, or Hambali, had planned the October 2002 Bali bombing, which left more than 200 people dead, from a guest house built behind the Phnom Penh mosque.He reportedly intended to use Cambodia as a base for terrorist operations across Southeast Asia. Two years later, three men were jailed after a plot was discovered to blowup overseas embassies in Phnom Penh.

‘This wasn’t a very good time,’bin Idris says dryly.

Like Muslims in other parts of Southeast Asia, Chams traditionally follow a syncretic form of Islam that incorporates elements from Buddhism and pre-Islamic belief systems. But between 1998 and 2002, an estimated 40 percent of Chams had switched over to the more orthodox Dawa Tabligh and Wahhabi branches of Islam.

It’s an extraordinary number. Chams account for just 700,000—about 5 percent—of Cambodia's population of 13 million, and have long been victims of discrimination, making them ripe for outsiders bearing gifts and what at first seemed not unreasonable demands.

In the late 1970s, the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge came close to annihilating them. By the early 1990s, after three decades of civil war, there were just 20 mosques left in the country. And following the 2001 terrorist attacks and the Bali bombing, the Cham were again under suspicion simply for being Muslim. Allegations of police harassment and bullying weren’t unusual. By this point, the situation in Cambodiahad becomehighly combustible.

Fortunately, calmer heads prevailed.

The US embassy took the lead with a proactive campaign that supported Cham traditions and helped build a bulwark against unwanted outside militants, an effort bin Idris praises.

‘The US embassy has helped us, the Cham community, a lot,’ he says. ‘They’ve helped so we can buy traditional clothes, and provided funds to help us study English and they have helped the poor and disabled people.’

‘The relationship is now much deeper. Before, the Muslim community here didn’t understand the Americans, but now it’s different. Not just here, it’s happening in other countries too.’

More importantly than this, though, is the fact that the in-house brawling over outside influences has abated, bin Idris says.He explains that although funds have continuedto come in from many countries, all of the assistance is vetted by the Cambodian government and the Ministry of Religion in conjunction with representatives from the Muslim Cham community. They meet three times a year.

‘No one comes to offer us aid and demands that we follow them. If they do, then we tell the government. Each country has to go through the government,’ he says.

He says that although some Cham children have still been sent to the Middle East for schooling, their curriculum and the Madrassas require government and community approval. Any acts of violence are spurned, he says, particularly terrorism committed in the name of Islam.

‘This,’ he says of suicide bombers and their ilk, ‘is the predicament of the individual. It’s not Islam.’

Still, some concerns remain.

Chhorn Eam, deputy minister for cults and religions, says relations with the Chams have normalized, although the government is still wary of militancy and potential terrorist acts given what has happened since 2001. He says Chams have been free to study outside the country in places like Saudi Arabia where they learn Arabic and how to recite the Koran.

‘Some come back with different beliefs such as using a piece of cloth to cover their face… What we are worried about is that they might bring something that would cause problems in general society and their communities,’ he says.

His sentiments were echoed by Police Lt. Gen. Hiue Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the country’s security. He says many Chams were members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

‘There are no Islamic militants in Cambodia nor do Cham communities want any donations from the outside thatrequires them to become militants or separatists,’ he says. But he doesn’t rule out the possibility that terrorists could use Cambodia as a hideout.

‘Terroristscould strikeanywhere at any time in any country, if we are careless,’ he says. ‘We’ve always educated them (Cham) not to become extremists or militants or suicide bombers.’

Given the extended reach of US influence in the area, Cham militancy seems unlikely. As bin Idris notes, many Cham teenagers dine at KFC and wear denim jeans. ‘We look American,’ he says.

In a final gesture, he points to the fa├žade of the Mosque. It’s looking a little run down and bin Idris says he’d like to add an extension as his congregation grows.

‘If the embassy was to help, I’d be happy to call it the Washington Mosque.’
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