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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Thailand & Cambodia in Fourth Day of Cross-Border Fighting

The Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs is trying to call a halt to gunfire and shelling near the border with Cambodia. On Monday villagers ran for cover to their prepared bunker, it's the fourth day of artillery exchange across the border between Thailand and Cambodia.

Two disputed 12th century Hindu temples are at the core of the conflict.

The two sides battled for more than three hours from late Sunday morning and pounded each other with mortars and artillery, sending hundreds of villagers fleeing or into hiding in makeshift bomb shelters.

Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs visited an evacuation shelter about 19 miles from the scene of recent fighting.

Kasit Piromya, Thai Foreign Affairs Minister]:
“I appeal to Prime Minister Hun Sen and the government of Cambodia to care about the interests of both countries and civilians of both sides and also to maintain stability and development of ASEAN community.”

Thailand has resisted international observers so far.

[Kasit Piromya, Thai Foreign Affairs Minister]:
“It's not something we are opposed to. This is a sensitive issue… The urgent priority at the moment is that we need the Cambodia's army commander who is on another side to resume communication with our army's eastern commander.”

Thailand says the ancient temple ruins are in its Surin Province but Cambodia insists they fall in its territory.

Thai officials say at least 30-thousand civilians from border villages were evacuated while Cambodian officials say about 17-thousand villagers fled the area.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged the two sides talk to arrange a ceasefire.

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Flexibility key to ending fighting

As Thailand and Cambodia continue to engage in what has become the deadliest border fighting in years, Assoc Prof Surachart Bamrungsuk, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University who has been studying issues relating to the problem-plagued border, assesses the impact on Thailand if the clashes are prolonged.

He shares his opinions with Bangkok Post reporter AMORNRAT MAHITTHIROOK.

How will the latest clashes affect the border situation?

The situation in Surin shows the possibility of a prolonged problem. I do not mean that the clashes will continue with no end. I do not think the international community will let that happen. But what is obvious is that the Thai-Cambodian border issue will become a long-term problem that will need serious attention.

Is it possible the clashes in Surin could expand to other areas?

The 798-kilometre-long border between Thailand and Cambodia includes many problematic spots. The area at the Preah Vihear temple is only one of 15 problematic locations along the land border. There have been problems at the clash sites in Surin province too. So, an expansion [of the fighting] is possible because there are more contentious areas than have been seen. What has so far drawn little attention is the problem of the marine border which is actually a big issue.

How long do you think the border fighting will continue?

Asean will not let the armed clashes continue for long as the regional bloc plans unification in a few years. Asean will find a way out. If it cannot, the United Nations will give a signal. The international community will certainly step in and that will not benefit Thailand.

Thailand has tried to call for a bilateral approach to solve the problem but the Thai-Cambodian conflict has passed its bilateral stage. The previous clashes at the Preah Vihear temple and Phu Makhua areas ended up with the United Nations Security Council assigning Asean to mediate.

Is Thailand's bilateral stance a result of its pride from the fact that it has never been "colonised"?

The assumption may make some sense but we have to take note that in the past Thai or Siamese diplomats were flexible in handling problems with neighbouring countries and in the international arena. The present Thai government is not flexible when it comes to its international policies. If we remain inflexible, the problem will grow.

Will Thailand be at a disadvantage if the problem is handled multilaterally?

Inflexibility [in international relations] would put Thailand at a disadvantage. If you think that you can deal with the issue in court, you must recall the battle at the International Court of Justice from 1959 to 1962. A return to the court would mean a return to using the same old documents - the 1893 treaty [which King Rama V signed to cede Mekong territories to France], the 1904 convention [which allowed then Siam and French colonial authorities ruling Cambodia to form a joint commission to demarcate their mutual border] and the 1907 map [the so-called Annex I map].

There will be nothing more than those old documents. Will they bring us any legal advantage?

More importantly, a war is not a solution. If a war leads to a greater disadvantage for the country, will the government or the military leaders be there to take responsibility?

Thailand also had border problems with Malaysia and Laos. What enables the country to coexist with them? Why can't Thailand and Cambodia reach a similar agreement?

Thailand shares its land borders with Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia for a combined distance of 5,656 kilometres. It has problems on all sides of the borders.

A border dispute with Malaysia was calmed with a joint development agreement, even though the dispute concerned a marine border, which is more complicated than a land-based one. This is an interesting and successful model that should be applied now.

Does the past case of ownership over the Preah Vihear temple remain a major obstacle?

I think it does but the case is over. If the Preah Vihear temple is allowed to be developed as a World Heritage site, new cultural tourism routes will be built from Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in Cambodia to the Preah Vihear temple through to other stone temples in the Northeast of Thailand.

There are about 100 ancient stone temples in Nakhon Ratchasima province alone. The regional tourist link would boost tourism in the Northeast. I see more good than harm.
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US welcomes delay in controversial Mekong dam

WASHINGTON — The United States on Tuesday welcomed a delay in construction of a controversial dam on the Mekong River, voicing hope that Southeast Asian nations would work to ensure it is environmentally sound.

Cash-strapped Laos wants to go ahead with the $3.8 billion Xayaburi dam which would generate hydropower for export, but a meeting last week with officials from Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam put off a decision.

The neighboring countries asked Laos for further study of the dam amid warnings by environmentalists that it would seriously impact fish, trigger algae growth and disrupt the lives of millions who rely on the river.

"The United States welcomes the recognition by riparian states of the need to consider fully the potential economic, environmental and social impacts of hydropower development," the US State Department said in a statement.

"We encourage the countries to continue to work together to realize their shared vision of an economically prosperous, socially just and environmentally sound Mekong River basin," it said.

Senator Jim Webb, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia, has pressed for an active US role against construction of the dam which he argued would have "devastating" consequences for the region.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 launched a Lower Mekong initiative as part of a drive to re-engage Southeast Asia, which the US administration charged was overlooked during President George W. Bush's tenure.

President Barack Obama's administration has worked with the four countries to chart out the effects of climate change and last year offered nearly $150 million to public health efforts including AIDS treatment.
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Private sector has four proposals to ease border tensions

By Petchanet Pratruangkrai
The Nation

Thai businesspeople, fearing that the border clashes between Thailand and Cambodia will harm bilateral trade and investment if they drag on much longer, will make four proposals to the government aimed at easing tensions.

The Joint PrivateSector Committee will make the proposals to Deputy Prime Minister Trairong Suwankhiri soon, it announced yesterday.

The first proposal is that the government carefully consider closing border checkpoints as well as cutting the supply of electricity to Cambodia. Second, concerned agencies and media should be more careful with the release of information that could intensify the conflict.

Third, the two countries should find ways to compromise over the disputed territory to ensure further border trade. Finally, economic and security issues should be clearly separated to reduce tension or conflict between the two countries.

Payungsak Chartsutipol, chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries, said the business sector still had confidence that the border conflict will be eased soon.

"People of the two nations are considered relatives. Nobody wants to see war or any fight," he said.

The closure of checkpoints should be considered only at a certain point and for a short period; otherwise, it would affect overall trading and people's confidence, Payungsak said.

Despite the conflict, private enterprises of Thailand and Cambodia have insisted on setting up the ThaiCambodian Business Council to strengthen trade and investment growth.

Thanit Sorat, secretarygeneral of the council and vice chairman of the FTI, said private enterprises were conducting business activities as usual although the tension has decreased investors' confidence.

Bilateral trade is expected to grow continuously to more than Bt85 bilฌlion this year from last year's Bt79.26 billion. However, Thanit said prolonged fighting would not only affect investment but also lower the value of bilateral trade between the two countries, particularly crossborder trade.

For instance, Thanit pointed out that Thai investment in Cambodia had shrunk considerably over the past few years because of the border conflict. Only one project from Thailand worth Bt30 million was approved by the Cambodia Investment Board last year.

From August 1995 to June 2009, 81 Thai projects have been launched in Cambodia with a combined investฌment value of Bt7.02 billion. Of these, nine projects are hotels worth Bt4.29 billion, followed by agriculturalindustry schemes worth Bt2.34 bilฌlion, and garmentindustry projects worth Bt221 million.

Bilateral trade between Thailand and Cambodia was worth Bt79.26 billion last year. Of that, Bt55.41 billion was from crossborder trade, of which exports from Thailand were valued at Bt51.11 billion.

The flareup at the border has hit the tourism industry hardest, as tourists have cancelled their bookings to Cambodia. Eventually, it will directly harm inbound tourism from Cambodia as well.

Thailand is projected to boost crossborder trade with Cambodia by 8 per cent to Bt59 billion this year. Crossborder trade with that country accounts for 7.09 per cent of the Kingdom's total crossborder trade value.

Poonsak Kunudom, counsellor for the Thai Trade Representative in Phnom Penh, said bilateral trade between Thailand and Cambodia was still growing normally.

The Commerce Ministry's Export Promotion Department has no plans to cancel the Thailand Trade Exhibition 2011, which will be held from May 1922 in Phnom Penh.
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