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Friday, August 19, 2011

Phnom Penh softens stance on observers

Indonesian observers may not be needed in the disputed border area with Cambodia, said Defence Minister Yutthasak Sasiprapa.

He said yesterday that Cambodia had told him if bilateral talks between the two countries can lead to the withdrawal of troops from both sides, third-party observers may not be necessary.

Cambodia had earlier insisted that third party observers from Indonesia enter the disputed border area, but the country has taken a more compromising stance following the Pheu Thai Party's election victory last month.

Mr Yutthasak cited a recent conversation with Defence Minister Tea Banh, who placed his hopes in negotiations of the Regional Border Committee (RBC) and the General Border Committee (GBC) as ways to solve the row.

If Thailand and Cambodia can reach an agreement in bilateral talks, Indonesian observers may not be needed to monitor a ceasefire, Gen Yutthasak quoted Gen Tea Banh as saying.

"I've appointed acting adviser for the defence minister, Gen Wichit Yathip, to work on the issue," he said.

Gen Wichit, a former deputy army chief, is known to have close ties with Cambodia.

The retired general was assigned to deal with Thai-Cambodian issues during his service in the army.

The withdrawal of Thai and Cambodian soldiers from the disputed border area near Cambodia's Preah Vihear ruins has become a priority for the countries, following an order by the International Court of Justice in Hague last month.

The ICJ ruled that the area around the temple should be declared a demilitarised zone, pending its consideration of Cambodia's complaint over the ownership of a 4.6-square kilometre overlapping border area near the temple.

Representatives of the two countries will attend the RBC meeting, co-chaired by Thai 2nd Army commander Lt Gen Tawatchai Samutsakhon and Cambodia's 4th Army chief Chea Mon, on Wednesday and Thursday in Nakhon Ratchasima.

The RBC will set a discussion framework for the GBC which will hold talks soon afterward in Phnom Penh, according to Gen Yutthasak.

"We will discuss how we will live together and how we will manage the troops," said army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, referring to the RBC meeting.

Gen Yutthasak was optimistic about the meetings. He even hoped tourists may be allowed to visit the Preah Vihear temple if the GBC meeting turns out well.

Gen Prayuth yesterday visited Pha Mo I Daeng in Si Sa Ket, which is close to the border. There were no traces of tension, he said.
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ADB backs under-fire campaigners in Cambodia

People sit along railroad tracks outside their shanty homes in the Boeng Kak slum area of Phnom Penh (AFP/File, Nicolas Asfouri)

PHNOM PENH — The Asian Development Bank on Friday defended two land rights organisations in Cambodia that have been rapped by the government for criticising an ADB-funded railway redevelopment project.

The attacks on the two groups, who monitor the relocation of families living near the railway tracks, come as the government is preparing a controversial law to regulate the activities of campaigners and charity workers.

"ADB views recent developments with the utmost seriousness," the bank said in a statement after the local Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) charity was slapped with a five-month suspension and international group Bridges Across Borders Cambodia (BABC) was given a government warning over a critical report.

Both had been monitoring the project's resettlement of over 1,000 families and had provided "important information", the Manila-based lender said, adding it hoped they would "be allowed to continue making contributions".

The bank is providing $84 million in loans for the $140 million project to improve Cambodia's tattered railway system, with additional funding coming from the Australian government and Phnom Penh.

The government suspended STT earlier this month, ostensibly for failing to file the correct paperwork, but 40 non-profit groups said in a joint statement the real reason was the group's "legitimate work among urban poor communities".

BABC, meanwhile, was summoned to meet foreign ministry officials on Thursday to "clarify" a statement from October last year that said two children had drowned fetching water in a relocation site it said lacked proper facilities.

"The deaths of the children are not linked to ADB's project to restore the railway," foreign ministry spokesman Koy Kuong told AFP, adding that the government had told BABC to "improve its work".

The action against the two charities has fuelled fears of a wider crackdown on civil society groups once the proposed NGO law takes effect, rights groups said.

The legislation has come under fire from campaigners in Cambodia and abroad for imposing burdensome registration requirements and giving the government the power to dissolve organisations.

In January the US State Department said it had "serious concerns" about the draft law and questioned whether the measure was even necessary.

Charities have played an active role in rebuilding Cambodia since it emerged from the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and years of civil war, but they have on occasion clashed with the government.

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UN Urges Asia to Enforce Human Trafficking Laws

Cambodia remains a Tier 2 country, putting it in a category above China, which is on a “watch list,” and Burma, which is a major source of trafficking. Other Tier 2 countries in Asia include Indonesia, Laos and Singapore.

Senior United Nations officials say countries of the Greater Mekong Sub-region including Thailand, Cambodia and Laos are failing to apply existing laws aimed at combating human trafficking. The conclusions come as a U.N. envoy on human trafficking concluded a 10-day assessment of Thailand's efforts to curb labor migration abuses.

The U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Human Trafficking, Joy Ezeilo, says countries need to adopt a comprehensive approach to combat trafficking and implement laws that are already on the books.

Some progress made

Ezeilo said in Thailand, authorities have made 'significant progress' but officials are still not doing enough to protect irregular migrants and overcome corruption.

"We need a comprehensive approach to combating human trafficking. I think implementation is actually where the challenge is, because you may have very good laws, very good national plans - and actually done a lot in the sense of rehabilitative measures to assist trafficked persons, but then with the gap to the application of the law - it should [be] comprehensive in prosecution, punishment of traffickers," she said.

After assessing Thailand's efforts to curb abuses, Ezeilo said the country remains a source, transit and destination country for trafficking.

The report said Thais are trafficked to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Germany, Israel, Japan, South Africa and the United States. Thailand also is a receiver nation from Cambodia, Burma, Laos and Vietnam.

Children targeted
Ezeilo said within Thailand, internal trafficking of children is also rampant, including children of hill tribe communities.

The trafficking fuels child prostitution, pornography and sex tourism. Other traffickers target workers for domestic help, begging, forced marriage and surrogacy. The report said the practice is growing in the agricultural, construction and fisheries industries.

Human trafficking is estimated to be worth millions of dollars to criminal gangs across the region.

The U.N.'s International Labor Organization (ILO) has backed efforts to implement programs to protect migrant workers from Cambodia, China, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

But Nilim Baruah, a chief technical advisor with the ILO office in Bangkok, says despite the effort countries in the region, including Cambodia and Laos, have failed to apply their own laws to better regulate labor migration.

"Management and governance of migration continues to be a major area of concern for government in the Mekong Sub Region," said Baruah. "If one looks at Laos and Cambodia, the question is also about the capacity of the government to develop and implement their legislation. In terms of Laos and Cambodia there is a need for capacity building and training from the part of the government themselves."

Comprehensive approach

Martin Reeve, a regional advisor to the U.N.'s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) agrees a comprehensive approach is needed to curb human trafficking beyond law enforcement and include other sectors of the community, including business.

"Certainly law enforcement can't do it on its own, neither can government policy, neither can civil society," said Reeve.  "So really you do need a multilateral approach to this - the business community. The business community can look at its own practices and to make sure that it's not involving exploitative labor at any point during the supply process - and that's a key thing."

Thailand implemented a process of documentation and registration of over one million migrant workers over the past years, mostly from Burma as well as Cambodia and Laos. The latest campaign to register the workers, largely from the fishing industry, ended this month. A full report by the U.N. Special Rapporteur, Ezeilo, is expected to be presented to the U.N. in mid-2012.
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UN envoy: Thailand fails to enforce laws against human trafficking

Bangkok - Corruption and poor law enforcement has undermined Thailand's efforts to crack down on human trafficking, which remains rampant, a UN envoy said Friday.

'Corruption, coupled with the infamous brokerage system, has diluted the efficacy of government policies and programmes to combat human trafficking,' UN special rapporteur on human trafficking Joy Ezeilo said after concluding a 12-day assessment tour of the country.

Thailand, which has about 2 million registered migrant workers and an estimated 1 million unregistered ones, has long been a hub for human trafficking for the sex industry and forced labour.

'There is widespread occurrence of sexual exploitation, including child prostitution, pornography and sex tourism,' Ezeilo said.

She added that she found evidence of increased trafficking of forced labour in agriculture, construction and the fishing industry.

'In particular, trafficking for forced labour is notoriously common in the fishery sector, where men are often trafficked onto fishing boats,' Ezeilo said.

The special rapporteur would present her final report on human trafficking in Thailand to the United Nations in June.

Despite past efforts to register its migrant labour force, pass laws that increase penalties on traffickers and provide better services for victims, Thailand continues to get poor grades for tackling the crime.

The US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report placed Thailand in its Tier 2 category, which indicates it does not fully comply with laws on preventing human trafficking but are making significant efforts to enter Tier One, which indicates full compliance. Thai officials said they believe the country should be in Tier One.

'We don't think that we deserve it because we've been doing quite a lot in the field,' Thai Foreign Ministry Information Department head Vijavat Isarabhakdi said.

Thailand passed an Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act in 2008, and has established teams in every province to cope with human trafficking.

'I think implementation is where the challenge is,' Ezeilo said. 'Now what I am challenging the government to do is more investigations to ensure that the bad eggs in the police and those abetting and aiding human trafficking are punished.' According to non-governmental organizations, police are always on the receiving end of a well-organized brokerage system that preys on both documented and undocumented workers seeking work in Thailand from its neighbours Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

The UN rapporteur was in Thailand at the invitation of the Thai government.

'We welcome all her observations and comments, and we are determined to do what we can to address the things that are still lacking,' Vijavat said.
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Can Yingluck fix Cambodian ties?

The election of Yingluck Shinawatra has raised hopes that Thailand can improve its prickly ties with Cambodia. But will the Thai Army get in the way?

Yingluck Shinawatra spent much of the month following her landmark victory in Thailand's national elections in July traveling the country, meeting with adoring supporters and enjoying a well-earned victory lap. But with all the problems that await her now that she has taken over as prime minister – opposition to her populist economic policies, a simmering insurgency in southern Thailand, and above all, the immense task of national reconciliation following the political violence in Bangkok last year – it’s a lap few could blame her for wanting to extend.

Amid all these challenges, though, there’s hope that the charismatic 44-year-old may be well-positioned to address one of the region's thorniest disputes: the border standoff between Thailand and Cambodia.

Military clashes between the two sides have left at least 28 dead so far this year, and have displaced thousands of civilians temporarily. The dispute centres primarily around Preah Vihear temple, an 11th-century complex along the border that was enshrined as a UNESCO World Heritage site for Cambodia in 2008.

In a 1962 decision, the United Nations' International Court of Justice awarded sovereignty over Preah Vihear to Cambodia, though it didn’t address a stretch of adjacent territory that both sides now claim. Cambodia therefore requested earlier this year that the ICJ expand on its 1962 ruling in order to also address the disputed area near the temple. While a final decision on this request could take years, the ICJ made an interim order last month calling for both sides to withdraw their troops from the area.

This has so far been held up by disagreements between the respective governments over the details of the pull-out. With the term of erstwhile Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva having drawn to a close, however, Cambodian officials are holding out high hopes for the new government.

‘It’s true, we can’t hide the fact that we are happy with the victory of the Puea Thai Party,’ Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters following the Thai elections. ‘We hope that the new government in Thailand that is organised by Puea Thai will resolve issues with Cambodia more positively and more peacefully.’

Hun Sen, Cambodia’s outspoken prime minister, has made no secret of his disdain for Abhisit, calling the Oxford graduate the most difficult Thai premier with whom he has ever worked. Hun Sen has instead cultivated his relationship with Puea Thai and Yingluck's older brother Thaksin, who currently lives abroad to avoid a graft conviction after being ousted in a 2006 coup but who is widely believed to be pulling the strings for the party. In 2009, Hun Sen appointed Thaksin as an economics adviser to the Cambodian government, calling him an ‘eternal friend.’

Yingluck, for her part, has reportedly said that the restoration of ties with neighbouring countries will be a priority for the new government, an apparent reference to Cambodia.

This will not be without its challenges, however. Many analysts see the Thai army as being behind the clashes earlier this year, and senior military officials will assuredly work to preserve their autonomy despite the change in government.

The border dispute also arouses passions from other quarters in Thai society, particularly members of the conservative establishment and the Yellow Shirt movement. Then-Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama was forced from his position in 2008 for supporting Cambodia's UNESCO bid without parliamentary approval, and he and ex-Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej later faced charges over the issue from Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission.

Although Yingluck's administration will be wary of inviting a similar reaction, they must nonetheless move on the issue, says Puangthong Pawakapan, an expert on Thai-Cambodian relations at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

‘I think Puea Thai realize that they have to try to solve this Preah Vihear temple issue,’ Puangthong says. ‘The new minister of foreign affairs needs to have the guts to fight against the misinformation created by the nationalists and be firm on the previous positions taken by Samak Sundaravej – that supporting Cambodia’s World Heritage inscription will not affect Thai territory at all.’

The appointment of new Foreign Minister Surapong Towijakchaikul, a relation of Thaksin by marriage, may herald a return to the business-focused diplomacy that characterized Thaksin’s tenure as prime minister. This could be a welcome approach in the Thai-Cambodian dispute, as past border tensions have held up a resolution to the countries’ so-called ‘overlapping claims area’ in the Gulf of Thailand, thought to be rich with untapped oil and gas resources.

While resistance at home may be fierce, the opportunity is there for Yingluck to move closer to resolving the conflict with Cambodia, says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

‘Yingluck will have to try very hard to separate domestic politics from foreign affairs,’ Pavin says. ‘It will be difficult, but she has to do it.’
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