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Thursday, April 07, 2011

Thai Military Not Participating In Thai-Cambodia Peace Talks

Members of the Thai-Cambodian Joint Boundary Commission are meeting Thursday in Indonesia to again address a dispute over land surrounding a Hindu temple built 900 years ago.

Indonesia, in its role as head of the Association of South East Asia Nations, negotiated a cease-fire after clashes in February that killed killed 10 people and displaced thousands. But now the Thai military is rejecting a key element of the agreement calling for Indonesian observers to be placed along the border.

Missing in the peace talks between Thailand and Cambodia, in Indonesia, is the Thai military. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says that is because of a disagreement between the foreign ministry and military leaders in Thailand about how to deal with the border dispute.

"I think there is a clash between the two state agencies about the control over foreign policy,” Chachavalpongpun said. “And I think the military has disapproved of the foreign ministry policy towards Cambodia, which I think the military claim that it is a little bit too soft."

He says the dissension has prevented any further implementation of the cease-fire deal negotiated by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa in his role as head of ASEAN in February.

The two armies clashed over a disputed area next to a Hindu Khmer temple, a historical landmark that both countries consider part of their heritage. The cease-fire called for Indonesian observers to act as monitors in the disputed region. But the Thai military has resisted allowing foreign military observers into the area, saying the matter should be resolved on a bilateral basis without third party intervention.

Chachavalpongpun says, if an agreement can be reached to send in Indonesian observers, there are still a number of logistical and support issues to be worked out. But he does not see any progress happening without the participation of the Thai military.

"I don't know how this can be compromised, sending in observers with the military continuing to reject the role of Indonesia," he said. "Because, at the end of the day, the officers say we have to work hand in hand, not with the foreign ministry, but with the army and especially those soldiers in the area. I still cannot foresee how that will happen."

Still, he says Indonesia's efforts to facilitate and maintain a cease-fire have kept pressure on both sides to keep the peace.

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Donors Asked to Withhold Aid Over Proposed Law in Cambodia

By Seth Mydans

BANGKOK — A proposed law to control nongovernmental groups in Cambodia threatens to silence some of the last independent voices in an increasingly repressed nation, a group of leading international human rights agencies said Thursday.

Calling the proposal “the most significant threat to the country’s civil society in many years,” the agencies urged foreign nations and aid groups to oppose the law, which they said would undermine much of the nation-building work the donors have supported at a cost of billions of dollars.

The measure, which is moving toward enactment by Parliament, would for the first time require nongovernmental organizations of all types and sizes to register and to follow complex reporting procedures. The law would give the government new leverage to shut down any group it considers to be opposed to it.

Human rights advocates said the law would cap a long process during which Prime Minister Hun Sen has imposed controls over his political opponents, the security forces and the judiciary, leaving the independent groups and civil society the country’s only independent voices.

“Should this law pass as it is currently formulated, the survival of each and every N.G.O. in Cambodia will be at the whim of the government,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, referring to nongovernmental agencies that monitor and act on areas like human rights, legal affairs, the environment, land issues, public health and the role and rights of women.

“Emboldened by the legitimacy that they believe a law gives to abusive behavior, the government is likely to use the N.G.O. law to silence its people and to tighten its control on their daily lives,” he said. “The international community needs to act now, or Cambodia will continue in its march away from democracy and toward autocracy.”

Simon Taylor, director of Global Witness, an independent rights monitoring group, said the proposed law was a test of the commitment of donor nations and international agencies to the future of the civil society they had worked for two decades to foster.

“If the donors stand by while the government adopts this law, they cannot in good conscience claim to be working in the interests of Cambodia’s development objectives,” he said.

Despite Cambodia’s continuing pressures on human rights and its failure to control corruption, illegal logging and an epidemic of sometimes violent land seizures by powerful interests, international financial support for Mr. Hun Sen’s government has continued to increase.

At their most recent annual conference last June, donor nations and international agencies pledged $1.1 billion in aid for this year, a record amount, up from $950 million last year, despite widespread criticism that much of the money was misspent or diverted.

The aid is equal to roughly half the country’s official budget. In principle, it gives the international community leverage to maintain or strengthen basic freedoms and democratic institutions.

The amount has risen even as Cambodia’s economy has steadied itself and begun to grow, and even as China has matched Western donors with its own financial support, which comes unencumbered by the human rights conditions imposed by the West.

In December 2009, China awarded Cambodia $1.2 billion in aid and soft loans. That pledge came immediately after Cambodia deported 20 ethnic Uighur refugees to China over the strong objections of the United States and the United Nations, which called the deportation a violation of human rights.

“It must be remembered that the freedoms of association, expression and assembly in Cambodia are already heavily restricted, particularly at the community level,” said one of Cambodia’s oldest human rights groups, Licadho, in a separate report last week on the proposed law.

In their statement on Thursday, the international human rights agencies said that the strict financial conditions of the proposed law would disproportionately affect small groups with limited resources operating at the local level, “making them vulnerable to prosecution for carrying out legitimate activities without the proper legal status.”

The agencies voiced concern over what they called a lack of safeguards and meaningful judicial review mechanisms and pointed to the vague wording regarding a right of appeal of government sanctions.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said, “Cambodia’s proposed law could too easily be used to refuse registration or close down organizations that serve the public interest.”

“Over the past 20 years, the development of civil society has been one of Cambodia’s few enduring achievements,” he said. “This law threatens to reverse that progress.”

In the early 1990s, Cambodia emerged from two decades of civil war and mass killings by the Khmer Rouge, which left the country brutalized, without an educated class or civic institutions.

As part of a $2 billion nation-building effort, the United Nations established democratic forms of government and introduced standards of human rights that soon became a part of political discourse.

The concept and practice of human rights and political freedoms grew hand in hand with the introduction of the nongovernmental organizations that are now under threat.
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Cambodia fishermen save tourists off capsized boat

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodian police say fishermen rescued 92 foreign tourists whose boat capsized, apparently after drunken passengers started dancing and made the boat unstable.

The tourists hired the boat Thursday afternoon to go to an island near Sihanoukville beach.

Mat Soth, deputy police chief in Preah Sihanouk province, said it overturned soon afterward and four local fishing boats rushed to rescue the passengers and five Cambodian crew members.

He said everyone from the boat was rescued and no one was injured. Most or all of the tourists were Western, but Mat Soth said he had no details on their nationalities.

He said the initial investigation indicated the boat became unstable when a group of drunken passengers started dancing.
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Hilltown Ten Thousand Villages staffers visit artisans in Laos, Cambodia

By Erin DuBois
Associate Editor

With no electricity or running water, and sometimes even with no hands, villagers in Laos and Cambodia craft objects of beauty from the remnants of war. Deanna Husk, assistant manager at Ten Thousand Villages Souderton store, witnessed the transformation process during a trip Feb. 6 to 20 to visit some of the fair trade retailer’s international artisan partners.

Hilltown Ten Thousand Villages store assistant manager
Deanna Husk at the Potter's wheel with Artisans

The learning tour is an annual event for Ten Thousand Villages employees, and 12 staff members traveled to two countries, which Husk said are “every single day still affected by land mines.”

Cambodia has one of the highest rates of disabled persons in the world, due not only to land mines, but also to polio and untreated diabetes, Husk said. United Nations estimates suggest that Cambodia still has 4 million to 6 million unexploded landmines, and 7,300 casualties have been recorded from 1999 to 2008, Husk said.

Rehab Craft Cambodia is operated entirely by Cambodians with disabilities, half of whom are landmine amputees. The organization strives to improve their quality of life and their status as contributing members of society.

“The smiles on their faces really touched my heart,” Husk said during a presentation at Dock Meadows retirement home in Hatfield March 29.

Check Chan has worked his way up from messenger to production manager despite the loss of both his hands. Many employees are hired with no education or training, and working at Rehab Craft Cambodia allows them to gain valuable skills.

“They are being provided something that no one can take away,” Husk said.

Artisans incorporate renewable resources into their handiwork, carving ornaments from dried coconut shells. They also make the silk ikat purses available in Ten Thousand Villages stores. The Rajana Association employs 40 full-time staff and supports 130 families living in rural villages, selling their products in its Cambodian shops as well as in Ten Thousand Villages stores.

Dove pendant necklaces are made from bomb casings, with the word “peace” in English and Khmer stamped on the wings.

“They are making something beautiful and making money from something that is still tragic in their lives,” Husk said.

The Rajana Association logo is three elephants, a symbol of joint labor and solidarity. In the rural villages, families work together to make soap, do metalwork and weave silk, often in difficult conditions.

One learning tour participant bought 100 small baskets, allowing a family to pay its electric bill. Villager Chin Sovann previously rode her bike an hour to get to work; but with her earnings she was able to buy a motorbike, reducing her commute to 20 minutes.

“Now she can spend more time at home with her family,” Husk said.

Husk learned to weave baskets in one village without the aid of a translator.

“That moment was beautiful because of the common language” of touching and smiling, Husk said.

At Phontong Handicrafts in Laos, silk weaving is no longer a dying art thanks to founder and director Kommaly Chanthavong. Chanthavong was nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize and was invited to Washington, D.C., to be honored by first lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for winning the 2011 International Woman of Courage Award, Husk said. Chanthavong grew up in one of the most impoverished regions of Cambodia, and her vision is to expand silk production into the poorer areas, engaging silk farmers in the entire production cycle, Husk said.

Her granddaughter, Phoukham, is currently working in the Ten Thousand Villages Souderton store through Mennonite Central Committee’s International Visitor Exchange Program. She arrived August 2010 and will continue until July, serving in all areas of the store’s daily operations, according to Husk.

“It’s a great way for her to see the items they make in Laos sold in the store,” Husk said.

Ten Thousand Villages partners with artisans in over 38 developing countries, creating income and bringing the artisans’ products as well as their stories into its markets, according to Husk. The goal is to develop long-term fair trade relationships, treating both the artisans and the environment with respect.

Artisans receive half of the purchase price in advance and are paid in full before their products are shipped, with Ten Thousand Villages paying shipping costs. Establishing long-term relationships allows artisans to depend on future pay so that they can invest in community development.

Ten Thousand Villages employees collaborate with artisans on product design so that the artisans’ traditions can be preserved and so that the environment will be protected by using renewable resources, Husk said.

Ten Thousand Villages, a nonprofit program of the Mennonite Central Committee, operates over 150 stores across the United States. The Souderton store, which was the third store to open, began in 1975.

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Group Confirms Cluster Bomb Use by Thailand

The CMC said Thailand’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva confirmed the use of the cluster munitions in 155-mm artillery shells fired during deadly border fighting in February.

An international anti-cluster bomb group has confirmed the use of the munitions by Thailand during border clashes with Cambodia in February.

The Cluster Munition Coalition said it had investigated sites inside Cambodia where the munitions fell near Preah Vihear temple and found unexploded submunitions and fragments.

At least two people were killed when they handled an unexploded bomblet that detonated and seven others have been injured in explosions, the group said in a statement.

The Coalition called on Cambodia and Thailand to prohibit the use of cluster bombs, which are scattered over a wide area and sometimes fail to detonate, leaving behind dangerous remnants.

Neither Cambodia nor Thailand are party to an international ban on such weapons.

“It’s appalling that any country would resort to using cluster munitions after the international community banned them,” Laura Cheeseman, director of the CMC, said in a statement. “Thailand has been a leader in the global ban on antipersonnel mines, and it is unconscionable that it used banned weapons that indiscriminately kill and injure civilians in a similar manner.”

The CMC said Thailand’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva confirmed the use of the cluster munitions in 155-mm artillery shells fired during deadly border fighting in February.

Thani Thongphakdi, a spokesman for the Thai Foreign Ministsry, told VOA Khmer Thursday the Thais had fired in “self defense” after Cambodia attacked with multiple rocket launchers.

“Both sides lost civilian property,” he said. “Cambodia’s BM21 multiple rocket launchers are very danger to Thai civilians. We had aimed at military targets, but not civilian targets.”

However, observers say civilians are now endangered by the munitions.

“There are around 5,000 people living in Sen Chey village that are at risk from these unexploded weapons,” Atle Karlsen of Norwegian People’s Aid said in CMC statement. “Thailand must supply information to help clear affected areas and make them safe for civilians to return home.”

Sao Cheth, who commands 30 Cambodian soldiers at Phnom Trop near the temple and was injured above the eye in February’s clashes, said he supported the group’s stance against the weapons.

“The condemnation is a right and fair thing, because the world has banned the use of cluster munitions,” he said.

Prak Phy, head of Samdech Hun Sen Natural Village, said residents there had suffered damage to their houses, property and rice fields, but no one has so far been injured by ordnance.

“I demand Thailand to be responsible for firing the cluster munitions in Cambodia, and I want Thailand to stop firing cluster munitions in Cambodia,” he said.

Authorities have explained to villagers not to touch unexploded munitions in the area, while the Cambodian Mine Action Center has set up warning signs around the dangerous areas, he said.
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