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Thursday, February 17, 2011

PM agrees to debate Cambodian border dispute issues with PAD

The prime minister has agreed to a proposal for a debate with the People's Alliance for Democracy on the border dispute with Cambodia, but the yellow shirts are pushing for two separate forums.

Abhisit Vejjajiva yesterday accepted a proposal by the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, which offered to broker talks between the government and the PAD.

He said the proposed debate should set a clear goal to support a better understanding and build national unity between the government and the yellow shirts in dealing with the border conflict with Cambodia.

The debate should not degenerate into a quarrel or be a forum for each side to promote its version of the conflict on television, he said.

Mr Abhisit said it would not be right for the two parties to use the debate just to exchange words or to present sensitive issues that might cause harm to the country.

The PAD and the government had different information on the border issue and they should compare notes to reach a unified stance.

He called on the two sides to stop pointing fingers at each other, particularly in the case of Thai Patriots Network coordinator Veera Somkwamkid and his secretary Ratree Pipattanapaibul, who have been jailed in Phnom Penh for illegal entry, trespassing in a military area and espionage.

Mr Abhisit insisted the government had done its best to try to secure the release of the two Thais linked with the PAD, and dismissed the yellow shirts' claim that the government had never contacted them about holding talks.

The PAD has turned down the idea of a debate with the government. It wants two three-hour forums in which the government and the yellow shirts would present the public with information on the border dispute.

PAD spokesman Parnthep Pourpongpan said yesterday a debate with the government was unnecessary.

Two forums, broadcast live, should be held - one for the media and the other open to the public.

Each would be three hours long and the audience would be able to ask questions and present their own views.
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Cambodia To Seek Asean as Witness to Ceasefire

Prime Minister Hun Sen, right, shakes hands with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Trairong Suwankiri, left, in the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said Thursday Cambodia will seek a ceasefire to be signed with Thailand when Asean ministers meet in Jakarta next week.

Following a meeting with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Trairong Suwankiri on Thursday, Hun Sen told reporters that Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong will seek a ceasefire to be signed with Asean foreign ministers as witnesses.

The move comes following a UN Security Council session on Monday, when the international body urged a “permanent ceasefire” between the two countries in the wake of deadly border clashes earlier this month. The Security Council also said Asean, which is led this year by Indonesia, could be a mediator.

Hun Sen has categorized the fighting as “a small war” between the two countries.

“If the Asean chairman signs onto a ceasefire agreement with Cambodian and Thai foreign ministers, it is good,” Hun Sen said. “But it is in the negotiation process.”

Thailand has said it prefers a bilateral resolution to an ongoing border dispute, where it claims ownership of a small stretch of land near Preah Vihear temple. Cambodia also claims the land.

Hun Sen said a ceasefire would include four main points: that both sides agree to a lasting end to fighting; that they both retain current troop levels on the border; that border commanders continue open talks; and that Asean monitor the ceasefire.

Hun Sen said he did not expect Thailand to agree to the last point, in which case Cambodia will seek Asean “peacekeepers” on the Cambodian side of the border “to observe and ensure the ceasefire.”

Hope of a ceasefire was welcomed by soldiers and residents near the border Thursday.

“I and other villagers are very happy if the ceasefire really happens,” said Prak Phy, a village chief in Preah Vihear province’s Chaom Ksan district. “Villagers who fled the fighting will go back home, meet their family members and continue their daily business, because the farming season will come soon.”
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Companies Asked ‘To Curb’ Critical Websites

Internet service providers have received an e-mail from an official at the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications reminding them to “take action” against several anti-government websites.

The e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by VOA Khmer on Thursday, is a follow-up to a Feb. 10 meeting between the ministry and service provider representatives.

According to meeting minutes posted on the ministry website, Telecom Minister So Khun told the representatives that while the government does not have a policy requiring that websites be blocked, he “asked all operators to help curb some websites affecting Khmer morality and tradition and the government through the Internet.”

The e-mail, which was electronically signed by Sieng Sithy, deputy director of the ministry’s policy regulation, addresses service providers WiCam, Telesurf and Hello.

“We found that you are not yet taken an action, so please kindly take immediate
action,” he wrote, referencing the Feb. 10 meeting. “Here below [are the] websites.”

The e-mail then lists eight separate websites, belonging to the anti-government group KI Media, its mirror sites, and other websites traditionally critical of the current government. The e-mail also contains an attached document that lists the ISP providers in the country that have “blocked” or “unblocked” the requested sites.

“Again and again [sic], In case of not well cooperation is your own responsibility,” Sieng Sithy wrote.

Sieng Sithy also offers other service providers “my appreciation to you for your cooperation with MPTC.”

Contacted Thursday, Sieng Sithy declined to comment on the e-mail.

The minister, So Khun, told VOA Khmer his ministry has issued no orders to block sites.

“Maybe our technical staff who saw inappropriate content on those websites wrote to the ISPs themselves,” he said. “It’s a matter for the technical staff. Who knows?”

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith could not be reached for comment. However, he told the Phnom Penh Post on Thursday that an e-mail did not represent official government policy and he asked that the Telecom Ministry clarify the e-mail.

Cambodian Internet users have been complaining for weeks that they have been unable to access KI Media and other blogs, sometimes their own.

The government has strongly denied any policy or order to service providers requiring them to block any sites. In recent media statements, many service providers have likewise denied blocking websites.

Sok Channda, chief executive of the company that operates Angkornet and Mekongnet, told the Phnom Penh Post on Wednesday she had received the email from the ministry but not an official letter.

Nevertheless, Internet users trying to connect via various providers to KI Media and other sites have either found failure messages or been re-directed to other sites. Officials have blamed this on technical problems.

Critics say that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party controls much of the broadcast and print media in the country. Opposition editors and journalists have in recent years been jailed under defamation laws and many opposition-leaning newspapers have closed.

In December, the Phnom Penh court sentenced World Food Program staffer Seng Kunnaka to six months in jail on incitement charges, after he distributed a small number of copies of a print out from the KI Media website.

For the most part, though, the government has allowed free rein for Internet users. The number of Cambodians online has meanwhile begun to climb. An estimated 200,000 Cambodians are now online.

Heng Sokunthy, an Internet user and regular visitor to the KI Media site, said she was “strongly” affected by its recent failure to load.

“Although it contains some anti-government opinions, the site is a source of a great deal of Cambodia-related information,” she said.

The Telecom Ministry e-mail also comes as rights groups have begun to notice a decline in Internet freedoms in the country.

On Wednesday, Licadho issued a statement calling government censorship of websites “a significant milestone in the march toward a more oppressive media environment.”

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights said Cambodia’s freedom of expression is “in crisis” and called on the government to stop attempting to block websites.

“The blockage will make people more stressful and tense and unhappy with the government, as it does not understand their will,” CCHR President Ou Virak told VOA Khmer Thursday, citing recent events in Tunisia and Egypt as examples. “I see it as a danger to the government in the future.”

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Mixed Outlooks Following Cambodian Trip to UN

Analysts and political observers gave mixed reactions to Cambodia’s address to the UN Security Council on Monday, with some disappointed the international body had not done enough and others saying it gave proper attention to border fighting with Thailand this month.

The foreign ministers of Cambodia and Thailand each appeared before the Security Council in New York on Monday, in an effort to resolve a longstanding border dispute that culminated in violent clashes in early February.

After the session, the Security Council advised maximum restraint, urged both sides to agree to a permanent ceasefire and encouraged the venue of Asean for mediation.

Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said the Security Council failed to fully resolved the dispute.

“What Cambodia hoped was that the UN, especially the UN Security Council, would form a working group as international observers, or a peacekeeping force to solve the conflict between both countries by creating a buffer zone,” he told VOA Khmer by phone.

Cambodia also would liked to have seen the Security Council request the International Court of Justice to legally address the issue, he said.

The court issued an international decision in 1962 that handed Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia, dismissing Thai claims to the 11th-Century site. Cambodian officials say the decision can also settle a dispute over territory near the temple.

“The UN Security Council can summon a representative from [the court] to testify to the 1962 court verdict,” Chheang Vannarith said. “But I think the UNSC did not do this, which is regretful.”

However, for Chhaya Hang, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, the Security Council’s position displayed the recognition that the clashes were not serious enough to send in peacekeepers and that the dispute could be solved regionally.

“The UN demand is not too extreme from what we expected,” he said. The Security Council wants to see the dispute solved regionally and created “an important role for Asean,” he told VOA Khmer by phone.

The Security Council also likely views the problem as related to Thai internal politics, which could quiet down soon, and did not want to spend the kind of money it did during the Untac period, he said.

Still other observes said the border situation remains volatile, with thousands of troops still entrenched along the frontier, despite the Security Council’s call for a ceasefire.

Kem Sokha, president of the minority opposition Human Rights Party, said Monday’s Security Council session was a success for neither side.

“I say there was no result at all,” he said. “Both sides still have a conflict. An no one prevailed over the other.”

The Security Council statement displayed “light pressure,” he said in a phone interview. “But when there are further problems, then they’ll raise to another level.”

Cambodia should continue to push for a multi-lateral solution, he said. At the same time, Cambodian authorities should continue to encourage their soldiers “to protect sovereignty.”

Yim Sovann, a lawmaker and spokesman for the main opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said the situation was “serious” and required the attention of the UN and Asean.

Thai soldiers had violated Cambodia’s territory and broken international law in the recent clashes, he said.

“So any party that violates a Unesco resolution, violates laws or maps and the verdict of the [international court], violates the Paris Peace accords, that party must take responsibility,” he said.

Thailand has said it did not enter Cambodian territory in recent fighting.

Yim Sovann too called on the government to ensure troop strength was enough to protect the border. At the same time, he said, Cambodia can capitalize on the international attention to solve outstanding border issues with Vietnam.

Vietnam and Cambodia are planning to end border demarcation measures in 2012, following years of efforts, but critics of recent efforts, especially among the opposition, say Cambodia is ceding land to Vietnam.

For the Thai dispute, Cambodia now says it will seek more mediation from Asean at a regional foreign ministers meeting in Jakarta next week. That will include inviting Asean monitors to any talks over the border with Thailand.

“With a third party, there will be an official record,” government spokesman Phay Siphan said, which will help when agreements are reached over the border, such as those that are now awaiting approval by Thai parliament after talks in 2000.

However, skepticism remains over how effective Asean will be in finding a border solution. Critics say the regional forum lacks the muscle to resolve the issues and that it has in the past failed to do so. Instead, Asean leaders generally take a position of non-interference.

Chheang Vannarith said this approach no longer fits the regional context.

“I think Asean should change its character,” he said. “I hope that Asean will change its policies.”
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