Monday, December 28, 2009

Cambodian Air link to Russia likely


Embassy official expects direct flights to commence by 2011.
Cambodia hopes an open-skies agreement with Russia will help boost tourists at Angkor Wat and other attractions.

DIRECT flights between Russia and Cambodia are set to begin next year or 2011 at the latest, a Russian embassy official said Friday.

Delegates from the two largest Russian airlines will meet with Cambodian civil aviation authorities at the end of January in the hope of finalising an open-skies agreement between the two countries that has been in negotiation for two years, embassy councillor Dilyara Borovic said.

“When we reach the agreement, the Russian civil aviation will officially allow the two popular airlines to fly to both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap,” she said without naming them.

Russia’s two biggest airlines are Aeroflot Russian Airlines and S7 Airlines, according to Air Transport World’s Web site.

Borovic said it was hoped direct flights would begin this year, but admitted it may take until 2011 to complete the agreement and launch the routes.

The two airlines already service Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi in Vietnam directly from Russia, she said, adding that connecting flights from Vietnam to Cambodia would also be discussed in the future.

State Secretariat of Civil Aviation Cabinet Chief Long Chheng said the Kingdom supports the concept of direct routes, but is waiting for further details from the Russian foreign affairs ministry before committing to an open-skies deal.

“If we can negotiate direct flights with Russia, it will show the growing strength of our civil aviation,” he said.

Borovic said Southeast Asia is a growing destination for the 2 million Russians traveling abroad each year, placing Thailand as the second-most popular location for its tourists after Germany.

“If they can visit Thailand, why not Cambodia?” she said.

Visits from Russia reached 13,861 in the first 10 months of 2009, up from 12,885 during the same period last year, bucking an overall decline in arrivals by air, according figures from the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism.

In October, just 85,671 overseas visitors landed in the Kingdom’s airports, down 8 percent from 93,175 arrivals in the same month last year, the figures show.

Kong Sophearak, director of the Ministry of Tourism’s Statistics and Tourism Information Department, said the number of arrivals from Russia was low compared with other countries, but that direct flights would help to boost the tourism sector in Cambodia.

Cambodia’s State Secretaiat of Civil Aviation has this year inked direct-flight agreements with four countries, including Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and, most recently, the Philippines.

Under the terms of its agreement with the Philippines, up to seven flights a week originating from Cambodia are authorised to land at Manila, 14 in the Clark Freeport Zone and another 14 at any point in the Philippines outside the two aviation centres.

Cebu Pacific Air is expected to be the first Philippine carrier to begin flying direct to the Kingdom, with flights authorised to commence in March or April.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

New visa regulation for Vietnam, Cambodia’s citizens

As from January 1, 2010, citizens of Vietnam and Cambodia holding ordinary passports valid for at least six months will need no visa to enter or transit the other country, according to the Foreign Ministry’s Consular Department.

Those citizens of one country may stay in the other country for up to 30 days instead of 14 days, the department said.

The new visa regulation applies according to the amendment of the bilateral agreement on visa exemption, which was signed in November and took effect in December 2008. (VNA)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Cambodian Private Island Resort 50% Sold 2 Weeks

Cambodia's first private island resort Song Saa Island Resort has sold over 50% of it's units in just two weeks since formal launch. We spoke to developer Rory Hunter who was in Phuket for an industry event organized by CBRE and learned more about the development.

With 14 resort villas comprised of 9 one bedroom units at US$200,000 and 5 two bedroom villas for US$450,000 since it's full marketing started a few weeks ago eight units have be sold, with the greatest movement in the larger, more expensive product. The offering is a lifestyle resort managed concept with 10% guaranteed returns in the first 3 years, and afterwards a split of 50% to owners, 10% reserve for maintenance and 40% retained by the operator. Owners have 30 day free usage a year, only paying utility charges during their stays.

In the Cambodia property market only leasehold is available to foreigners though its on a single 99 year term. Opening of the resort is set for Q2, 2011. Expected room rates for the resort will be US$400 for 1 bedrooms and US$650 for 2 bedroom. Access is through Sihanoukville via a 30 minute boat ride or there will be a Cessna seaplane access.

With substantially lower land and building costs then Phuket there looks to be much development activity on the horizon especially the nearby Koh Rong archipelago where land is currently available in large blocks with white sand beaches.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cambodia sees 93 garment factories close up 2009-12-15 12:26:43 Print

PHNOM PENH, Dec. 15 (Xinhua) -- At least 93 garment and shoe factories were closed in the first 11 months of 2009 at the cost of 38,190 jobs, local media reported on Tuesday, citing the figures released by the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training.

A further 60 factories temporarily suspended operations, affecting 35,337 more jobs, but 55 new factories were also opened, creating 15,173 new positions, the Phnom Penh Post quoted the figures as saying, which were released at the fourth National Conference on Industrial Relations.

Labour Ministry Secretary of State Oum Mean was quoted as saying that the closures increased the rate of unemployment in Cambodia, but that around half of the laid-off workers found jobs again in the sector.

"So, the real number of jobless garment workers was less than 30,000," he said.

Ministry figures show that 516 garment and shoe factories are operating in Cambodia, employing 358,660 workers. Of these, 418 factories are in Phnom Penh, employing 262,320, while the 98 factories in other provinces employ about 96,340 workers.

Oum Mean acknowledged the challenges facing the domestic garment sector in the wake of the global economic crisis, which has seen the country lose market share to its competitors in the key U.S. market, according to the Asian Development Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The conference, which looked at the impact of the global economic crisis on industrial relations in Cambodia, was organized by the Arbitration Council Foundation, set up in 2004 to support the labour dispute resolution work of the Arbitration Council.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Thai spy's mother begs for pardon

Puea Thai and Thaksin asked to help jailed spy

The mother of Sivarak Chutipong is pinning her hopes on the Puea Thai Party and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra getting her son a royal pardon from Cambodia after he was sentenced yesterday to seven years in jail on spying charges.

‘‘ I told [first secretary] Kamrob [Palawatwichai] that it is true that a private plane had landed, but the information I gave to him was not official because I did not know who was on the plane. SIVARAK CHUTIPONG CONVICTED THAI ENGINEER

After the Phnom Penh Municipal Court ruling, Simarak na Nakhon Phanom called the opposition party from the Cambodian capital and appealed to party chairman Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and Thaksin to step in.

Mrs Simarak consulted her lawyer Khieu Sambou after the verdict and both agreed not to appeal the case in order to start proceedings for a pardon.

The lawyer will send a copy of the court sentence to Puea Thai today to help the party launch efforts to have Mr Sivarak returned to Thailand.

"I would like to ask Gen Chavalit again to help me and my son. I am devastated, especially when I saw my son handcuffed. I could not hold back my tears," she said in the telephone call.

Mrs Simarak said she intentionally bypassed assistance from the government for fear the conflict between Bangkok and Phnom Penh could be a stumbling block in the attempt to get the pardon.

"Freedom for my son comes before anything else. It will be difficult for those in conflict to sit down and talk," she said.

Puea Thai will hold a meeting today on how to help the 31-year-old engineer who worked for Cambodia Air Traffic Services (CATS). The key people working on the pardon will be Gen Chavalit and Noppadon Pattama, who is a legal adviser to Thaksin.

Gen Chavalit has already prepared a draft letter to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Puea Thai spokesman Prompong Nopparit expected the letter would be ready to be sent to Phnom Penh on Friday and urged the government not to misinterpret the party's help as having a political motive.

The Foreign Ministry, however, will not sit idly by as it is ready to request for a royal pardon, despite Mrs Simarak's preference for the opposition party to assist.

Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, the secretary to the foreign minister, said the ministry was not perturbed by the Puea Thai move.

"We're waiting for [a copy of] the verdict before moving forward to the next step," Mr Chavanond said.

A question that needed to be addressed now was whether the request for a royal pardon started by Puea Thai was possible as, according to Mr Chavanond, only the prisoner, relatives or the government can request it.

In addition to the seven-year jail term, Sivarak was also fined 10 million riel (82,500 baht) for supplying Thaksin's flight schedule to the Thai embassy when the ousted premier was in Cambodia last month.

"The flight plan of His Excellency Thaksin was very important for the Thai government, but this information would have caused serious danger to Thaksin," judge Ke Sakhan said in his verdict.

"Thaksin is Cambodia's adviser, so the government of Cambodia has an obligation to protect his life. If anything happens to him, we would be blamed and that could lead to rocky relations with Thailand," he added.

During his trial, Sivarak asked the court to drop the charges and denied stealing any documents.

He told the court that although he had informed the Thai embassy's first secretary by telephone of a flight arrival, he was not aware that Thaksin was on board.

"I told [first secretary] Kamrob [Palawatwichai] that it is true that a private plane had landed, but the information I gave to him was not official because I did not know who was on the plane," Sivarak said. "I didn't get a copy of the flight schedule and hand it over to anyone."

Two other employees of CATS testified that Sivarak asked them about the flight schedule.

The prosecution said Thaksin's plane had flown for about an hour over Thailand on its way to Cambodia from Mumbai, India.

Sivarak was arrested by Cambodian authorities on Nov 12. Thaksin's private jet landed in Phnom Penh on Nov 10 to give his first lecture after being appointed as the government adviser in October. He returned to Dubai from Siem Reap on Nov 15.

The Thai-owned CATS now is temporarily under the control of the Cambodian government.

After the arrest of Sivarak, Phnom Penh on Nov 12 ordered Mr Kamrob to be expelled and Thailand retaliated hours later by ordering the first secretary at the Cambodian embassy in Thailand to return to Cambodia.

Mrs Simarak, who attended the court, urged Mr Kamrob to act responsibly and blamed him for causing her son to get into trouble. Without contact from him, her son would not have been jailed, she said.

Mother of sentenced Thai engineer will not appeal Cambodian court verdict

BANGKOK, Dec 8 (TNA) – The mother of the detained Thai engineer found guilty in a Cambodian court opted to not appeal the verdict, saying she will seek a royal pardon with the help of the opposition Puea Thai Party.

Speaking by phone from Phnom Penh to Puea Thai party headquarters after hearing the verdict, Simarak Na Nakhon Panom, mother of Siwarak Chutipong, the Thai national jailed for seven years and fined Bt 100,000 (US$3,000) on espionage charges, said she would not appeal the verdict out of concern that it would delay the court case.

Mr Siwarak was convicted of passing allegedly confidential flight information relating to ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s visit to Phnom Penh last month.

His mother said she would ask her lawyer to seek a royal pardon in an attempt to free her son as soon as possible. She also urged two former Thai prime ministers--Thaksin Shinawatra and Chavalit Yongchaiyudh--to help secure her son’s release.

"I decided to seek help from the opposition party for fear that obstacles may arise through Thai foreign ministry channels as the relations between the two countries are in trouble," said Mrs Simarak.

She reiterated that her son’s case should not be linked to political issues and called on Kamrob Palawatwichai, the then first secretary of the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh, to show his responsibility as he had asked her son to pass on the information.

The Cambodian court said the flight schedule of Mr Thaksin was considered confidential as Mr Thaksin was appointed an economic adviser of the Cambodian government by King Norodom Sihamoni.

As Mr Thaksin is a prominent figure, sharing information of his flight details to the Thai embassy is tantamount to sharing Cambodian confidential information to Thailand.

The six-hour trial called the defendant and four witnesses to testify, including two Cambodian colleagues of Mr Siwarak and two police officers. Mr Siwarak admitted he inform the Thai diplomat verbally but didn’t pass on copy of the flight schedule.

His two colleagues said the flight schedule was not important information, but should not be shared with persons outside the company.
Mr Siwarak’s lawyer argued the flight information is not confidential and anyone in the company can view it and Siwarak didn’t know Thaksin was aboard that plane. The only thing he knew was that a VIP was on the plane.

Moreover, Cambodian media had earlier reported Mr Thaksin’s arrival.

Thai and Cambodian relations were downgraded after Cambodia appointed Mr Thaksin as an economic adviser and refused to extradite him to Thailand. enewsMr Thaksin was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for violating a conflict-of-interest law. (TNA)

Political News : Last Update : 19:49:49 8 December 2009 (GMT+7:00)


Mother of sentenced Thai engineer will not appeal Cambodian court verdict
Cambodian court gives Thai engineer 7-year jail term
Thai, Malaysian premiers to resolve issue of residents with divided loyalties
Red Shirts won't alter plan to hold Thursday rally
Thai engineer pleads not guilty of stealing Thaksin flight information
Mother of detained Thai engineer arrives in Cambodia, verdict expected Tuesday
Ex-prime ministers ready to help Thai jailed in Cambodia

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cambodia Power Play

It's been more than a decade since armed militia and security forces loyal to Cambodian strongman Hun Sen violently suppressed the democratic opposition to consolidate the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) in power, and the country is once again on the brink of another political upheaval. This time, the battle lines are being drawn in courts rather than in the streets, but the effect will be the same—the slow but sure consolidation of authoritarian rule.

The immediate issue is the political future of opposition leader Sam Rainsy. Late last month, he tried to score political points against the Hun Sen administration by claiming Vietnam had "stolen" Khmer land by placing demarcation markers inside Cambodian territory. Border politics are a potent tool in Cambodia. Mr. Rainsy proceeded to uproot six wooden poles marking the border area and took them to Phnom Penh to press for an investigation. Vietnam officially voiced its concern.

Associated Press

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen

Rather than let the issue rest, deputies from Mr. Hun Sen's ruling CPP unanimously voted on November 16 to strip Mr. Rainsy of his parliamentary immunity for the second time this year. They can do that because the CPP holds 90 seats in the 123-seat lower house of the National Assembly.

This is no ordinary censure. The legislature's action clears all legal impediments for a provincial court to charge Mr. Rainsy with willfully destroying property. If charged and found guilty by the provincial court, the opposition leader could be subject to impeachment in the National Assembly. And Cambodia would lose one of its most effective—and internationally known—opposition political voices against Mr. Hun Sen's regime.

Cambodians can rightly see this as a step backward in what has already been a struggle to consolidate democracy in their country. Since the Khmer Rouge conflict ended in 1991, the country has held four flawed national elections. For the first three ballots, no party was able to form a two-thirds majority to govern, which made it tough for Mr. Hun Sen to consolidate his power. Mr. Rainsy's secular nationalist party eclipsed the former royalist camp to become the main opposition force in the country.

Last year, Mr. Hun Sen's CPP won 73% of the total seats in a ballot marked by irregularities and administrative faults. CPP rule rests on genuine popularity at rice roots level through its economic development policies and nationalism in defense of Cambodia's territorial sovereignty vis-à-vis Thailand. Mr. Hun Sen's aggressive handling of the dispute with Thailand over land surrounding Preah Vihear temple in 2008 was a vote getter.

But as Kek Galabru, a leading human-rights activist noted at the time, "The ruling party will have the right to amend laws and strip parliamentary immunity from critics. We are afraid our democratic state will shrink and shrink." She has a point: The CPP is not only the dominant political force at the local level, but has also entrenched itself in power through control of the police, civil bureaucracy, judiciary and armed forces.

Faced with opposition threats to boycott the official swearing-in ceremonies, Mr. Hun Sen agreed to amend National Assembly rules to acknowledge the official role of the opposition and opposition leader, provide budgetary support and full immunity for all deputies. Last month's parliamentary decision not only puts that deal at risk, but is a stark reminder that 16 years after United Nations intervention, democracy has not been consolidated in Cambodia. The CCP regularly uses its levers of power to weaken the opposition by enticing defections or intimidating voters, as foreign election observers have noted. CPP-influenced courts regularly dismiss lawsuits brought against the government while convicting opposition deputies of defamation.

Mr. Rainsy certainly understands what's at stake. The day after he was stripped of his immunity Mr. Rainsy flew to Brussels, where he raised his plight with the European Parliament and International Parliamentary Union. According to Mr. Rainsy, "As a matter of principle, [the European Parliament] demands that there be a proper investigation." It is unclear when or if he will return to the country.

Mr. Hun Sen probably will eventually restore Mr. Rainsy's immunity after extracting a symbolic expression of regret for his actions. This is all part of Mr. Hun Sen's style of demonstrating that the CPP holds ultimate power. But no one should be fooled that Mr. Hun Sen's encroachments on the opposition are growing less serious. The international community, and particularly aid donors, must bring pressure to bear on Cambodia by supporting the European Parliament's call for an investigation into Mr. Hun Sen's handling of this matter. Other governments should also lobby Phnom Penh to make it harder for the National Assembly to strip immunity from a deputy.

In the longer term, donors must continue programs to enhance the capability of civil society groups, the media and elected parliamentarians to provide effective checks and balances. While the CPP is popular at the moment, it won't necessarily stay that way forever. Cambodians deserve the right to a choice, and part of that means ensuring the survival of a genuine opposition.

Mr. Thayer is professor of politics at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

Cambodia says new bourse will start trading soon

By Ek Madra

PHNOM PENH, Dec 2 (Reuters) - Cambodia's long-awaited stock exchange could start operating next month, a government official said on Wednesday, after signing a deal with South Korean developer World City Co Ltd to build the $6 million bourse.

Although construction of the new stock market will not be completed for at least eight months, trading will begin in a temporary venue as soon as possible, said Mey Vann, director of the government's finance industry department.

"It has been too long already. We don't have to wait until the construction is complete," Vann told Reuters. "We will begin our operation in January or February next year."

The idea of a Cambodian stock market has been floated since the 1990s but has struggled for traction in a country better known for a culture of political impunity, chronic poverty and a history of violence, including the Khmer Rouge "Killing Fields".

(For a feature on the stock market click: [ID:nBKK492057])

There have also been concerns that Cambodia is trying to move too fast and is not yet ready to have its people to invest in stocks, with big risks to largely inexperienced local investors in a country still blighted by corruption and mismanagement.

The four-storey venue will be built on 6,000 square metres (64,580 sq ft) of former marshland on the northern outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh, and the design will reflect both Khmer and South Korean cultures.

Vann said the stock exchange would be housed temporarily in the Ministry of Economy and Finance until construction of the bourse was completed.

The exchange expects to start small with just four or five companies issuing about $10 million worth of shares each, according to Korea Exchange, Asia's fourth-largest bourse operator, which will own 49 percent of the new exchange.

Cambodia's Finance Ministry has given priority to state companies to sell stocks and has asked Telecom Cambodia, port operator Sihanoukville Autonomous Port and the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority to list shares.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

North Korea revalues currency, destroying personal savings

By Blaine Harden
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

TOKYO -- Chaos reportedly erupted in North Korea on Tuesday after the government of Kim Jong Il revalued the country's currency, sharply restricting the amount of old bills that could be traded for new and wiping out personal savings.

The revaluation and exchange limits triggered panic and anger, particularly among market traders with substantial hoards of old North Korean won -- much of which has apparently become worthless, according to news agency reports from South Korea and China and from groups with contacts in North Korea.

The currency move appeared to be part of a continuing government crackdown on private markets, which have become an essential part of the food-supply system in the chronically hungry North.

In recent years, some market traders have stashed away substantial amounts of cash, while establishing themselves in profitable businesses that the government struggles to control.

But under the rules of the new currency system, the wealth of these traders has largely disappeared, unless it is held in euros, dollars or Chinese yuan.

The revaluation replaces 1,000-won notes with 10-won notes but strictly limits the amount of old currency that can be exchanged, news reports said.

According to two Web-based groups with sources in the North, that limit was set Monday at 100,000 won, which at current black-market rates amounts to $40. All North Korean currency that individuals possess in excess of that amount becomes worthless under the revaluation.

Amid widespread protests, the limit was raised to 150,000 won in cash and 300,000 won in bank savings, according to DailyNK, an online news organization that has informants in the North.

"I worked like a dog for two months for the winter, but the money became useless paper overnight," a resident of Sinuiju, a city that borders China, was quoted as saying on the Web site of Good Friends, a South Korea-based aid organization with informants in the North.

China's official New China News Agency said in a report from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, that state-run shops were closed Tuesday as sales staff posted new prices on goods.

The exchange of old currency for new began Monday and will end Sunday, the news agency said, adding that the government did not explain why the revaluation had occurred.

In the past year, North Korea has put increasing pressure on local markets, closing several and limiting the range of goods that can be sold in them.

The government has also criminalized everyday market behavior while creating a new kind of gulag for those it deems economic criminals, according to a report released this fall by the East-West Center, a research organization established by Congress to promote understanding of Asia.

The report says security forces in North Korea have broad discretion to detain without trial nearly anyone who buys or sells in the local markets. But if traders can pay bribes, security officials will often leave them alone, the report says.

If the currency move substantially cripples the operation of local markets in the North, the consequences could be severe for the millions who depend on them for food. U.N. officials have estimated that as much as half the calories consumed by North Koreans come from food bought in markets.

South Korean officials said last month that North Korea appears to be on the brink of another severe food crisis, with stocks of food likely to run short by March.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Motorcycle sales gain traction in Cambodia after slow year

PHNOM PENH, Nov. 30 (Xinhua) -- Motorcycle dealers in the capital Phnom Penh say sales have finally started to pick up following this year's downturn prompted by the global economic crisis, as buyers spend money generated in the provinces on upgrading to new models that have recently entered the market for 2010, local media reported on Monday.

Kim Chhay, one of the many dealers who operate on Phnom Penh's Sihanouk Boulevard, was quoted by the Phnom Penh Post as saying that sales had risen between 10 and 20 percent since October "due to demand for new models" of brands including Honda, which he said had recently launched its 2010 range.

Having seen sales plummet from around 100 units a month to between 30 to 40 during the first 10 months of 2009, he said sales have climbed. "Now we're selling around 60 motorbikes per month."

A reduction in retail prices had also spurred demand, he said. Last year's Honda Dreams sold for 1,700 U.S. dollars to 1,800 U.S. dollars per unit, compared with about 1,500 U.S. dollars for the new series.

Taing Ang, another dealer in the capital, said that people from the provinces who had completed land transactions were propping up demand, adding that Honda in particular had seen an upswing in sales.

"The Suzuki series hasn't seen an improvement yet," he said.

Vouch Lay, who deals Suzukis, said she had not seen sales pick up, blaming the rising demand for Honda's newly released models. "I don't see any recovery yet," she said.

She added that Suzuki was due to begin a new promotion shortly, which she hoped would "spur the number of sales to improve on the current situation".

Demand for motorcycles in Cambodia was expected to fall to 100,000 units this year from the previous 140,000 units, according to Matoba Micifumi, managing director of Yamaha Motors Cambodia Co, who previously said Yamaha motorcycle sales had dropped 25 percent in the first quarter.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rare crocs found hiding in plain sight in Cambodia


BANGKOK — Conservationists searching for one of the world's most endangered crocodile species say they have found dozens of the reptiles lounging in plain sight — at a wildlife rescue center in Cambodia.

DNA taken from 69 crocodiles housed in the moats of the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center showed nearly 50 percent were Siamese crocodiles, which until recently were believed to have become extinct in the wild, researchers said Wednesday.

"For the first time in Cambodia, we have a captive population of animals that we know 100 percent are purebred Siamese crocodiles," said Adam Starr, who manages the Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Program, a joint effort between the government and Fauna & Flora International. The Washington, D.C.-based conservation group Wildlife Alliance also took part.

Once common throughout Southeast Asia, the Siamese crocodile or crocodylus Siamensis is locally extinct in 99 percent of the areas it once roamed and is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Much of the wild population was wiped out by habitat loss and poaching.

Those left in the wild — thought to be less than 250, with nearly all in Cambodia and the rest in Indonesia and Vietnam — face the new threat of hydropower dams being built in two of their three known habitats in the country.

Starr said the discovery of the captive population would give conservationists new options for breeding and reintroducing the crocodiles into the wild, most likely in places not affected by the dams. He said up to 60 crocodiles a year could be released into areas where they once thrived.

DNA analysis, which was done at Thailand's Kasetsart University, is necessary because it is virtually impossible to tell the difference between Siamese crocodiles and the hybrid crocodile species that are also housed at the center.

Nhek Ratanapech, director of the wildlife center, said he was surprised to learn that so many of the crocodiles turned out to be pure Siamese.

"Before we conducted the DNA testing, we thought perhaps only three or four of them in the zoo were Siamese crocodiles," he said.

Siamese crocs are said to be a bit smaller at just under 10 feet (3.5 meters) than hybrids, and their snouts are shorter and wider.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Samart builds Cambodian empire without Thaksin's help

While rumours fly that Samart's ties with ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen are close enough to fake the arrest of its employee, an investigation by The Nation tells a different story.

Samart embarked on expansion into the neighbouring country through Charoenrath Vilailuck's personal connection to Cambodian politician-cum-businessman Sun Chanthol.

Chanthol, a Harvard University graduate, was known for his business smarts. He was the public-works and transport minister until last year.

Charoenrath is the older brother of Watchai, CEO of Samart.

Through the connection with Charoenrath, Cambodia handed the company a concession for the nascent mobile-phone market, and Cambodia Samart Communications was born in 1992.

The following year, Cambodia Shinawatra was set up as a subsidiary of Shin Satellite to penetrate the mobile-phone market in the neighbouring country.

Telecom insiders recall Chanthol was a close aide to Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who was prime minister before Hun Sen took power.

"The connection led to the air-traffic-control concession going to Samart in 2001," a source said. "Samart indeed entered the country before Thaksin."

In that year, Cambodia Air Traffic Services (CATS) was formed to run the 22-year concession. Thaksin was present at the ceremony when Cambodia extended the concession from 15 years to 22.

Back then, Shin Corp, Thaksin's family business, faced troubles in expanding there when the mobile-phone concession was shortened.

From CATS, Samart moved to building a power plant to support the Siam Cement Group's new plant there.

The Vilailuck family also won a 99-year concession to open a museum in Siem Reap, but it has performed badly financially, because visitors tend to flock to a South Korean museum nearby.

This explains why Watchai was in the hot seat and cried for help when his business was tampered with by the Cambodian government. Without any political involvement now, he is seeking to further distance Samart from politics.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cambodia - what road rules?

A stint in Cambodia teaches you to appreciate road rules.

Traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, the give-way rule and seat belts reveal themselves as true blessings.

In my time in Cambodia I was honked at, swerved past, almost run over and driven into the path of an oncoming concrete truck by an unrepentant tuk tuk driver.

A six-hour trip from the capital Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was a game of dodge-the oncoming-death-trap. It was no surprise to learn that Cambodia has one of the highest rates of road fatalities in Asia.

Kids play fight on the side of the roads, a mere push or a shove away from certain death.

An endless procession of villagers cycle along the side of the road, aware of the vehicle coming up behind them only by the incessant honking of horns - quite possibly the biggest necessity in a vehicle in Cambodia, and indeed in Thailand and Vietnam also.

Some vehicles are so poorly lit that what appears to be a motorbike coming towards you, can often turn out to be a Khmer tractor hauling a wider load than you're prepared for.

The median strip is a guide more than a rule and drivers, well my driver at least, seemed to prefer to spend as much time on the wrong side of the road as possible.

Children ride on top of loads strapped to the back of utes that would be considered outrageous hazards in New Zealand.

Some passengers, who are left with no choice as the back of the ute is overloaded, as is the roof, are forced to ride nonchalantly on the bonnet of the car hurtling down the motorway.

Marauding cows cross the road at will.

One unlucky milky-white bovine had the misfortune of crossing the road ahead of an oncoming ute. The vehicle struck the cow so hard it completed a 180 before landing on its back. It got up and limped off nursing a presumably smashed leg.

In the cities, there are no such things as pedestrian crossings. You soon learn to walk out and leave it to the drivers to avoid hitting you - this experience becomes even more nerve-wracking when you notice some of the scooter drivers are texting as they hurtle towards you.

Taking a moto - a scooter taxi - is a lesson in daring driving. Every now and then a driver offers you a helmet but more often than not you're forced to risk your marbles every time you set foot, or bum, on the back of one.

It's obvious the fairly recent law making it compulsory to wear helmets has not quite worked.

Drivers merge when and how they feel like it and it's a wonder you don't see constant crashes. Perhaps it's fortunate scooters, and not SUVs, are the most popular vehicle of choice. Hummers are de rigueur among the newly rich, however.

The only times the roads are quiet are when convoys of VIP vehicles are on the move and their security staff shut the roads down to the public.

You certainly learn to appreciate roads rules for what they are - lifesavers.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Thaksin's arrival in Cambodia renews talk about his ambitions

Known as Cambodia's "Wild West" with its corrupt immigration officials, visa scams, crooked cops, prostitutes, illegal logging and gambling, Koh Kong could gain new notoriety if Thaksin Shinawatra's ambitious development plans go ahead.

His arrival to a hero's welcome in Phnom Penh, where he yesterday praised "generous laws" regarding foreign ownership during an address to Cambodian businessmen and economists, was seen by many as a big step toward making all-out inroads into the country. With Thaksin reportedly already granted a large-scale investment licence in the area lasting 99 years, Koh Kong could soon become a big thorn in Thailand's side.

Would Koh Kong become a virtual government in exile or will it become "Thaksin's Singapore"? Thai intelligence is paying serious attention to all such rumours. Though a source close to Thaksin denies that the fugitive has any plans concerning Koh Kong, the warm hospitality displayed by his Cambodian hosts and their hostility toward the Thai government suggests that the wild frontier would always be kept open for him.

Apart from having Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as his best friend, Thaksin has another good connection in Koh Kong - Pat Supapa, who is chairman of the Koh Kong International Resort Club and one of the richest business people in Cambodia having won several lucrative state concessions. He was one of the high-profile citizens who welcomed Thaksin.

It is these solid political and business friendships that have lent new weight to rumours that Thaksin was in Koh Kong while hardline red-shirted protesters were running riot in Bangkok in April.

Thaksin's government played a large role in the construction of a road between Koh Kong and Phnom Penh, and while in power he oversaw a booming border trade, with Thai goods reaching the Koh Kong port - outstripping land transport in great volumes.

If Thaksin really wants to build a presence in Koh Kong, he could be provocatively close to Thailand. With enough cash, a 2,000-square metre plot - earmarked to be an industrial estate that only about two kilometres from an immigration checkpoint - can be turned into anything with the blink of an eye.

Yet the source close to Thaksin insists the former prime minister has decided to put his plans to invest in Koh Kong in the deep freeze because the diplomatic row between the two countries has convinced him that this was not the right time to invest.

However, the source did admit that he had not spoken to Thaksin since he arrived in Phnom Penh, adding that the ex-PM had proposed the idea of building an entertainment-casino complex in Koh Kong to his friends in the Mideast but they had shown no interest.

"It is quite confirmed that he [Thaksin] has frozen the idea," the source said.

The town of Koh Kong once was part of Trat province under Siam in the 18th century. King Mongkut (Rama IV) named this eastern outpost "Prachanta Khiri Khet", which rhymes with Prachuap Khiri Khan in the Thai South. Coincidentally, the two cities share the same latitude. Koh Kong was later a French colony in 1934.

With the opening of the Thai-Cambodian bridge across the river and building of several casinos near the border, Koh Kong province has become better known among tourists.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Thaksin arrives in Cambodia

Ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra landed in Phnom Penh on Tuesday morning to start a job as economic adviser to the Cambodian government. A Thai government spokesman said the government will request the fugitive politician's extradition when the Foreign Ministry has confirmed his arrival there. (AFP Photo)

Fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra arrived in Cambodia on Tuesday morning to carry out his new role as economic adviser to the government, the Cambodian government said.

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan told reporters in the morning that Thaksin was in Cambodia.

"Thaksin arrived in Cambodia today at 9.45am," he said. "It is a great honour for Cambodia. We hope Cambodia as a whole will greet him warmly."

Thaksin, who was ousted in a coup in 2006, exited a small private airplane at Phnom Penh military air base and was then escorted into the capital by a convoy of cars under tight security.

Cambodia announced Thaksin's appointment last week, sparking a dispute that has led Thailand and Cambodia to recall their respective ambassadors and has deepened tensions after a series of deadly border clashes in the past year.

Thailand has also said it could seal the frontier if Thaksin is not extradited, but Cambodian ministry of foreign affairs spokesman Kuoy Kong said his country was "not concerned about these issues".

"We will not extradite him (Thaksin). We already clarified this case because he is a political victim,'' Kuoy Kong said on Tuesday.

Thaksin is living in foreign locations including Dubai to avoid a two-year jail term for conflict of interest while prime minister handed down by the Supreme Court in September 2008. He sksipped bail before the veredict was announced.

Thaksin Shinawatra (C) walks to a car at the Phnom Penh military air base on Tuesday morning. He landed in the Cambodian capital to carry out his new role as economics adviser to the government. (AFP Photo)

He justified his trip to Cambodia -- whose prime minister Hun Sen is a close friend and political ally -- in an open letter published on his website late Monday.

"I am not helping Cambodia to compete with Thailand. I will never do things to hurt my country no matter how badly I disagree with the government," he said.

Thaksin, the former owner of Manchester City football club, was due to give a a speech to hundreds of Cambodian economics experts in the capital on Thursday. He has not said how long he will be in Phnom Penh.

Thaksin won two elections and remains a massively influential figure in Thai politics, stirring up mass protests by so-called "Red Shirt" supporters against the current government.

His presence on Thailand's doorstep is the closest he has come since he last fled the country in August 2008.

Thai government spokesman Panithan Wattanayakorn said in the morning that the government was waiting for a confirmation from the Foreign Ministry whether Thaksin has really set foot in Cambodia as reported by news agencies.

"When the Foreign Ministry has confirmed the fact, the government would assign the Office of the Attorney-General to seek his extradition," Mr Panithan said.