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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Yingluck Visit Boosts Thai-Cambodia Relations

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, walks together with Thai counterpart Yingluck Shinawatra, center, as she reviews an honor guard inside the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011.

Thailand’s recently elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has made her first official visit to Cambodia. The one-day trip marks a new start in bilateral relations, which have been poor in recent years.

Thai premier Yingluck Shinawatra and her Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen have begun the process of rebalancing matters between the two neighbors, after years of deterioration.
New allies?
Phnom Penh was openly thrilled in July when Yingluck’s party won Thailand’s general election and replaced the Abhisit government that Cambodia felt it could not work with.

Prime Minister Yingluck leads the political party of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister and an ally of Hun Sen.

Abhisit’s tenure saw relations between the two nations decline to their lowest point in years and was marked by an escalating war of words and a series of border clashes that left at least 28 dead this year. ASEAN group chair Indonesia led efforts to mediate a ceasefire.

And in July the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled both sides must withdraw troops from disputed land near the Preah Vihear temple.

Bilateral meeting
Cambodia’s Information Minister Khieu Kanharith says the two leaders discussed the issue in Phnom Penh.

"First of all, when we talk about border, prime minister [Hun Sen] says we have to follow the decision of the International Court, and also keep the role of the Indonesians," said Kanharith. "The Thai prime minister agreed."

Khieu Kanharith says Cambodia and Thailand have also agreed to work together to clamp down on cross-border crime.

Business trip
Thailand said it would send a group of businessmen to Cambodia later this year to try and boost trade and investment. Trade has been flat for the past year or two, while Thai investment into Cambodia collapsed.

Another bone of contention this year was the jailing in January of two Thai nationalists, Veera and Ratree, who crossed into Cambodia illegally. The two received sentences of six and eight years, and Phnom Penh has said many times since that they will not be entitled to release until serving at least two-thirds of their term.

But Khieu Kanharith hinted some movement might be forthcoming.

"As a message to the mother of Veera and the sister of Ratree, that the government is seeking the way to have the release of the two convicts according to Cambodian legal procedure," said Kanharith.

He said Cambodia's king is entitled to reduce sentences, even though the government would not.

In summary, Kanharith said the talks were fruitful.

Earlier, Cambodian government spokesman Koy Kuong had said he expected the visit to restore bilateral relations and cooperation in all fields, with an emphasis on resolving differences through dialogue.

Outstanding issues between the countries include demarcating disputed stretches of their border, a process that stalled under Abhisit, and how to share oil and gas in a 27,000-square-kilometer zone in the Gulf of Thailand.
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Hun Sen vows to aid jailed Thais

Maritime issues also raised on Yingluck visit

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has promised to find ways for the early release of two Thais serving prison terms in Phnom Penh to reinforce vastly improving ties between the two countries.

The Cambodian leader pledged to help Veera Somkwamkid and Ratree Pipatanapaiboon during a meeting yesterday with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was on a one-day visit to Phnom Penh.

Her trip will be followed by a high-profile visit to Cambodia today by her brother and deposed prime minister Thaksin.

Ms Yingluck quoted Hun Sen as saying that he would find a way to reduce the sentences of the coordinator of the Thai Patriots Network and his secretary so that both could seek a royal pardon earlier than scheduled.

The meeting went smoothly and was the opening of "a new chapter" in relations between Thailand and Cambodia, she said.

The Phnom Penh Municipality Court in February jailed Veera for eight years for spying, crossing the border and illegally entering a military base in December.

Ratree was sentenced to six years for the same offences.

They were arrested when the Democrat Party, led by then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, governed the country.

Relations between Thailand and Cambodia turned after the Democrats were defeated in the July general elections.

The previous government was at odds with the neighbouring country over the Preah Vihear temple issue, with Thailand opposing a joint management plan for the temple. The conflicts led to armed border conflicts which plunged ties to a new low.

Hun Sen's gesture also came as a surprise given that Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong had said hours earlier that Veera and Ratree must serve out at least two-thirds of their sentences before being considered for parole.

Mr Abhisit defended the Democrat-led administration's handling of Veera and Ratree cases, saying his government had made its best effort. Phnom Penh had insisted on the two activists staying in jail in accordance with Cambodian laws first.

"We tried to seek a royal pardon," Abhisit said. "But Hun Sen said the government could not intervene in the judicial system.

"We raised the case of Sivarak Chutipong, but Hun Sen insisted that he did not want to make a second mistake."

Hun Sen had requested a royal pardon for Mr Sivarak, a Thai engineer accused of stealing flight information pertaining to Thaksin, who was then an adviser to the Cambodian government and Hun Sen.

Mr Sivarak was sentenced to seven years in prison, but freed after serving a month in prison apparently due to a request by Thaksin.

Ms Yingluck and Hun Sen also agreed to resume negotiating a plan for joint development of overlapping maritime claims in the Gulf of Thailand based on a Memorandum of Understanding in 2001.

Ms Yingluck promised transparency in the negotiations on the issue which has at stake oil and gas reserves.

Mr Abhisit said Thailand and Cambodia could not avoid talks about oil and natural gas reserves in the disputed waters. He said a core issue would be the framework for negotiations, adding the public should scrutinise the government to ensure it is acting in the country's best interest.

The prime ministers agreed to "redeploy troops" away from the disputed area near the temple, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said.

The Hague-based International Court of Justice in July asked both nations to withdraw military personnel from around the Preah Vihear temple complex, but neither side has pulled out yet, though the border has been calm.

Hor Namhong said the redeployment of troops would require observers from Indonesia, the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc.

Ms Yingluck said details of the issue will be thrashed out in a meeting of the General Border Committee chaired by the two country's defence ministers. The meeting has yet to be scheduled.

The two leaders also agreed to pursue joint infrastructure projects, including building roads linking the two countries and opening a new border checkpoint at Ban Nong Iean in the Aranyaprathet district of Sa Kaeo province to boost trade ties.

Ms Yingluck and her delegation, which included Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, received a red carpet welcome from the Cambodian government. Students and Cambodian citizens lined up along the roads from Pochentong International Airport waving Thai flags to the city where she held talks with Hun Sen and later paid a courtesy call on King Norodom Sihamoni at the Royal Palace.
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US Ambassador Renews Calls To Halt Corruption

“It prevents countries like Cambodia from fully realizing their potential.”
U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Carol A. Rodley, and U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scot Marciel, right, meet with Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in Phnom Penh.

US Ambassador Carol Rodley said Thursday that Cambodia’s ongoing corruption prevents the country from moving forward and is scaring off foreign investors.

The ambassador spoke at a national seminar in Phnom Penh aimed at bolstering civic engagement in development and tackling corruption.

“It prevents countries like Cambodia from fully realizing their potential,” Rodley said in opening remarks. Corruption undermines good governance and “hinders economic and social development,” she said.

“It erodes the confidence that citizens have in their government and in the rule of law,” she said.

Rodley said corruption, which costs the government an estimated $500 million a year, drains money from public coffers and “often makes international businesses think twice” before investing.

“The government of Cambodia acknowledges this,” said Keo Remy, a spokesman for the Anti-Corruption Unit, a government body tasked with fighting graft under a 2010 law that donors had sought for years.

The government is undertaking an education campaign across the country to curb the practice, he said.

However, Hang Chhaya, a member of Transparency Cambodia, said the fight against corruption was taking place with little information available publicly.

“We want to see transparency in the fight against corruption,” he said.

Australian Ambassador Penny Richards said the battle against corruption was not the government’s alone. It also takes a “strong coalition” of civic groups, she said.
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