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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

High farce at the Thai-Cambodian border

A Cambodian Buddhist monk walks toward the Cambodia's 11th century Hindu Preah Vihear temple on Tuesday.

By Ian Williams, NBC News correspondent

BANGKOK, Thailand – It’s not so much High Noon as High Farce at the Thai-Cambodia border.

The current border spat would be almost laughable if it were not for the suffering it’s inflicting on villagers on both sides of the disputed frontier, thousands of whom have been forced from their homes.

The conflict ostensibly is about the ownership of an 11th century temple called Preah Vihear, described by UNESCO as an “outstanding masterpiece of Khmer architecture.”

But in reality it has more to do with the sorry state of Thai politics than an ancient Hindu relic.

Arguing over a 1962 decision

The area in dispute was quieter Tuesday after four days of skirmishes between the Thai and Cambodian armies that are reported to have killed several people and damaged the very temple they claim to hold so dear.

Both sides have blamed each other for starting the conflict.

A Cambodian soldier polishes his boots at the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple on the border between Thailand and Cambodia on Tuesday.

The two countries have argued over their border for years, though the World Court was supposed to have put the temple dispute to rest in 1962 when it was awarded to Cambodia.

Thailand grudgingly accepted the ruling, but the two countries have continued to squabble over land surrounding the temple.

The spat would probably have remained low key had the issue not been embraced by Thailand's "yellow shirt" nationalist movement, whose more hard line members are demanding Thailand take the temple – and much else – by force.

‘Yellow shirts’ take center stage, again
The yellow shirts are formally known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), they are middle-class denizens looking to protect their own interests – a vocal minority in a country where most people are poor farmers.

They shot to prominence when they led street protests in 2008 that were instrumental to bringing down the then-Thai government (remember the occupation of Bangkok’s airports?).

The current Thai administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva owes its existence to them, and there are strong links between the yellow shirts and members of his party (the foreign minister is a former yellow shirt supporter).

In 2008, the yellow shirts were backed by Thailand's royalist elite and the Bangkok middle class. More recently, its influence has waned and the movement has split. The border agitation is being led by a nastier rump, which is organizing fresh anti-government protests – in effect, turning on the government it helped create.

A Cambodian Buddhist monk, center, stands with other refugees who fled from disputed border, as they sit on roadside about 12 miles east of the famed Preah Vihear temple in Cambodia on Tuesday.

Even before the current flare-up, the yellow shirts sent their own supporters on provocative incursions across the border.

The prime minister, though now an object of their scorn, appears unwilling to stand up to them, though their border crusade seems to enjoy little popular support. Instead, he has been upping his own nationalist rhetoric.

This may be partly realpolitik. The red shirt opposition movement supposedly vanquished in an army crackdown last year is back on the streets with large protests, the size of which have shaken Abhisit and his army backers.

Elections are due later this year, and Abhisit may think wrapping himself in the flag is a useful electoral tactic.

Army may flex its muscles

The army itself is the real power in Thailand, its clout enhanced by last year’s red shirt crackdown. Some 89 people died during the upheaval.

The royalist yellow shirts have had strong links to the army, which now has a new commander who isn't shy in his contempt for elected politicians.

It’s significant that the Thai army began an artillery barrage last Friday just as Thailand's foreign minister was sitting down for talks in Cambodia.

There have been dark murmurings about the possibility of yet another military coup, a "coup to end coups," as one newspaper described it. That's dangerous mumbo-jumbo to most people, but the fact that some are taking it seriously is a sad reflection on Thailand's politics.

It’s against this background that the border drama is being played out.

The yellow shirts are threatening to take their protests to the border Friday, though local Thai village leaders have made it known they are not welcome.

Cambodia waits it out
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen appears to be enjoying himself. He is a veteran political street-fighter, always happy to pick a fight with his bigger neighbor.

He is now calling for outside intervention, apparently aware that the weight of international law appears to be with Cambodia.

Thailand has often been applauded for its deft and low key diplomacy. Not this time, and the kingdom risks being labeled as a petulant regional bully, its prime minister in thrall to yellow-shirted extremists and an unaccountable army.

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Thailand-Cambodia Border Uneasy Calm After Clashes

Daniel Schearf Si Sa Ket, Thailand February 08, 2011

Thai offcials say they have resumed discussions with Cambodia to try to establish a ceasefire in a disputed border area. Military clashes over the weekend left at least seven people dead and sent thousands of villagers fleeing the area.

Thai and Cambodian authorities say there has been no new fighting in their disputed border area for more than a day after four days of heavy shooting.

Thai officials in Si Sa Ket province say the two sides also resumed talks and have agreed to stop the fighting.

Colonel Chinnakaj Rattanajitti is a Thai military spokesman for the area.

He says they had talks and agreed to stop the shooting. To avoid [further] violence, both parties will think twice before taking any actions. Before doing anything, he says, they will consult and coordinate with supervisors at all levels.

Cambodian authorities were not immediately available to confirm any agreement.

Colonel Chinnakaj added despite what he called an oral agreement to stop fighting, there is no formal ceasefire.

Cambodian and Thai soldiers exchanged artillery fire during the weekend in territory surrounding the 900-year-old Hindu temple known as Preah Vihear in Cambodia and Prah Vihar in Thailand.

At least seven people on both sides were killed and scores injured in the worst fighting there in years. Both sides blamed the other for starting the fighting.

The border line was never settled and both Thailand and Cambodia claim the area around the temple and have soldiers stationed near it, leading to occasional shoot-outs.

Cambodian authorities say the temple, a United Nations World Heritage site, was hit by Thai shells and damaged. The exchange of artillery fire also damaged homes and schools near the border and sent thousands of villagers fleeing for safety.

At the Kantharalak district office a camp is set up for villagers who fled the fighting.

Fifty-eight-year-old Juntee Patthapin says she and her children have been here since Friday when shrapnel rained down on her village, damaging houses and setting a rubber plantation on fire.

She says her husband goes back to the village daily to feed their fish and chickens and guard their home, but she and the children will go back only when Thai authorities say it is safe.

She says it is risky to go back because they do not know when the Cambodian military is going to start shooting.

Like many of the Thai villagers she supports Thailand's claim to the disputed territory, but also wants the fighting to stop.

For now, villagers welcome the uneasy calm and express hope that it will last so they can return to normal life.
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Better today, gone tomorrow: is charity doning more harm than good in Cambodia?

Our hearts are in the right place, but is our charity doing more harm than good? What we learn from our work with HIV and poverty in Cambodia.

A Fire in the Middle of the Night

In 2001, Ek Sam Ol (pictured on right, with our translator Him Sothea and volunteer Ruth Hobson) and his wife woke up in the middle of the night to the cries of fire consuming their slum neighborhood of corrugated metal, reused wood, and dried palm leaves. In a matter of minutes, the couple found themselves packed in a lorry with scores of other residents in this shantytown less than a mile away from Phnom Penh's royal palace and touristy riverfront. By the time the lorries drove off, bulldozers were already leveling the land.

The lorry transported Ek Sam Ol and his wife to a remote, unused tract of land called Samron Meanchey, about 15 miles outside of Phnom Penh. With only the few kitchen items they had grabbed as they ran from the fire, along with $12 and a 50 kg bag of rice given to them by the government, the couple and everyone else began constructing a new shantytown. Their shacks had to be built over a slimy, green canal, for they were forbidden to use the land that spread out on either side of the canal. It all seems a great violation of human rights.

Still, I suppose Ek Sam Ol and his neighbors never had legal rights to their land in Phnom Penh.

I suppose there's good reasons why people like Ek Sam Ol are extremely guarded about revealing who set those devastating fires. After all, fear had gripped the country for decades ever since the Khmer Rouge overran Phnom Penh in 1975.

And I suppose it's ironic that where Ek Sam Ol's shantytown was is now a gleaming hotel and casino complex -- into which non-foreign passport holding Cambodians are not allowed to enter. That is, unless they have connections, or bribe the security guards at the back entrance.

A Shantytown Over a Canal

A few weeks ago, I visited Samron Meanchey with the Salvation Centre Cambodia (SCC), our Cambodian, on-the-ground partner organization whose mission is to raise the quality of life for people affected by HIV and poverty. That mirrors the mission of my nonprofit, the Brooklyn-based Face-to-Face AIDS Project. In the last few years, SCC has transformed the muddy paths of Samron Meanchey into passable roads, brought in clean water systems, built walkways over the canal, installed latrines, and established vocational training programs and a vibrant school for children too poor to afford the uniforms, books, and petty bribes needed to attend the state's public schools. Crime is down, and most people have food.

At first glance, a visitor might think that Samron Meanchey looks pretty awful. The water is terribly polluted, homes are falling apart, and there's garbage everywhere. Ek Sam Ol, who now serves as a commune leader, told me that finding work is challenging, because they're so far removed from the city. Just the transportation fees negates most of the few dollars they could make in one day in Phnom Penh. I inquired about the arable land on either side of the canal, but was told that this was all private land, and growing crops or keeping animals there was strictly prohibited.

Still, Samron Meanchey is much better off than it was just six months ago, thanks to SCC. My organization is hoping to support the 83 kids studying at the school, and developing the school into a community center. For less than $10,000 a year, it's a worthwhile endeavor, and gives a tangible, accountable return on one's charity investment. Our grants go to SCC, who report every penny that's spent -- and I'm not kidding. They've even returned unused grant monies to us, because they've saved by renegotiating construction contracts when the recession hit. SCC has received the highest praise from the international audit firm, KPMG, a result perhaps from their strict anti-corruption and open book policies. They also are beloved by the communities, who appreciate that SCC is made up of people who for the most part come from poverty themselves, and so understand and sympathize with those they're trying to help.

Better Today, Gone Tomorrow

There's one issue about our work at Samron Meanchey that bothers me a lot. It concerns sustainability, and how through good work we're actually weakening sustainability.

Here's what I mean. As the quality of life is improved in Samron Meanchey, developers come in and see the potential of the land. So they purchase lots on either side of the canal. Houses are built, and some of them look pretty fancy too -- three or four stories high, balconies, tall fences. (Photo: other side of road has fences, yards, and nice houses. Photo courtesy of Ruth Hobson, Face-to-Face volunteer) Roads are being paved, and a few businesses have already popped up.

Maybe that's good for the neighborhood, but there'll come a day when the bulldozers will appear once again. The new homeowners don't want to live next to a shantytown, not even if it's a clean one. So someone will make a deal with the government to relocate the residents of Samron Meanchey. SCC expects that to happen sometime in the next few years. Ek Sam Ol thinks it might happen even sooner, for already, people are not allowed to rebuild or improve their homes.

"Why would the government not allow us to renovate our homes, if they didn't have plans to force us out again?" he points out.

This kind of relocation is already happening to us in Phnom Penh, where students at our school for orphans and vulnerable children are being forced to relocate far from the city. In this case, the relocated families must sometimes scatter to distant areas, which means we lose contact with the students. And that loss of contact is very troubling for us.

We go in to places like Samron Meanchey, help improve the quality of life of its people, make the area look better... And then someone sees profit in the area and in come the bulldozers and out goes our people. Better today, gone tomorrow -- and gone without a trace.

Hard Questions for Charities

That leads us to question if our charity is doing more harm than good -- are we supporting an environment where charities like SCC and Face-to-Face are helping others make profits, while they leave us to support their own peoples?

In other words, shouldn't Cambodia be striving to develop itself so that it's able to help its own? And shouldn't nonprofits like us be working toward a future where we're no longer needed?

Yes, yes, and well, definitely yes.

Now that's settled, the question is how to go about doing this. I'm thinking that Face-to-Face and SCC should place more emphasis on nurturing a culture of charity in the places we work. Take our poorest of the poor, and as we raise their quality of life just a bit, we also nurture them to develop into future role models who help their own.

Some might say this is capacity building. Others might say that it's not holding the reins of charity mission so tightly.

I say it's about changing our charity attitudes. Better today, gone tomorrow. Well, we might just be able to turn that into a good thing.

(For more about my thoughts on how to implement programs that focus on the future, please continue reading my posts, which will appear every two or three days for the next few weeks.)


For further information about the Face-to-Face AIDS Project and how you can help, or to donate to the Face-to-Face AIDS Project, please visit the Contact & Donate page at
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