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The empire fights back

Posted by pakin On September - 18 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

Tourists flock en masse to the Angkor complex all year round yet even amongst the madness, the millennium-old carvings whisper messages of peace

The blazing sun is almost right overhead, our eyes are burning from the sweat constantly running into them, our shirts are soaked and we are not even close to entering the Bayon, the richly decorated temple at the centre of Angkor Thom and part of Angkor Archaeological Park. The site is just five minutes from the spot where we alighted from the bus but apparently a headcount has to be completed before we enter the site.

“Millions of tourists visit the Angkor complex every year,” our guide tells us.

“Do not leave any valuables like mobile phones and cameras in the bus and always be careful of your belongings or they’ll disappear. We have to enter the sites in a group so do not wander around. And don’t touch any carvings or bas reliefs or you’ll be fined,” he instructs before leading us to two officers sitting under a big tree. They finish counting us but the conversation between our guide and the officers continues and we scatter, desperate to find respite from the sun.

Fifteen years ago, when I first visited Angkor, it was all a lot less complicated. We bought our tickets, went through one check-point and then we were free to explore the 400-square-kilometres of Angkor, which encompasses Angkor Wat temple, the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei and other archaeological sites boasting the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century.

Angkor Wat and the Bayon have always been the highlights of Siem Reap but in the old days, there were plenty of quiet corners where the visitor could silently contemplate the exquisite ruins.

Now when we enter the Bayon, it is almost impossible to stick to our group or even walk at our own pace. Tourists are flocking in with their guides, who explain the symbolic meaning and history of each highlight in a babble of Chinese, French, Japanese, English, Thai, German and Korean. After a while, the sounds merge, harmonising into a multi-lingual chant to the giant smiling faces of Bayon,

The Bayon, built by King Jayavarman VII, was the last and only Angkorian state temple to be constructed primarily as a Buddhist shrine at Angkor. The similarity of the 216 gigantic faces on the temple’s 54 towers to other statues of the king has led many scholars to agree that the faces are representations of Jayavarman VII though others argue that the faces belong to Avalokitesvara, as the bodhisattva of compassion is known. It is however generally agreed that the faces represent four elements that the Khmers see as virtues for a wise ruler: Metta (compassion), Karuna (the representation of pity), Mutita (the virtue of rejoicing at other people’s happiness) and Oupekha (impartiality).

Leaving the wild guesses and theories behind, I squeeze myself into a small corner of the temple to escape the endless flow of tourists and stare at the gigantic stone faces.

The towering faces, reaching up to four metres in height, seem identical at first glance. As I examine them more carefully though, each of the four faces on the individual towers seems to a slightly different expression; some smile broadly, some peacefully, others almost forlornly. Watching the gigantic faces, the babble fades away and I feel at peace.

One kilometre to the east of Angkor Thom is Ta Prohm, one of the most photographed of all the ancient temples, and a site that became internationally famous when it was used as a location in the 2001 film “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” starring Angelina Jolie.

Originally known as Rajavihara or Monastery of the King, Ta Prohm was a Buddhist temple dedicated to King Jayavarman VII’s mother. Unlike most of the other temples in the complex, Ta Prohm has been largely left to Mother Nature. The enormous roots of banyan, fig and kapok trees have intruded into the ruins, their coiled roots weaving their own patterns in the stone. Trees trunks twist amongst sandstone pillars, their branches hugging each other to form a roof over the structures. Some areas of the temple are closed while others are accessible only via narrow and dark passages.

Only a few visitors stop to admire the bas reliefs and the Apsaras, celestial nymphs, in the corridor. Many of them are badly eroded and have been overcome by the gigantic tree root formation in the easternmost entrance pavilion and at the “Tomb Raider tree” in the central sanctuary.

The long hours in the sun have taken their toll and we decide to head back to our hotel, Anantara Angkor Resort and Spa, for a generous buffet lunch and a short rest before heading for Angkor Wat.

Once there, we choose to enter from the back of the temple to avoid both the heat and hordes of tourists.

Built by King Suryavarman II early in the 12th century, Angkor Wat is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the gods in Hindu mythology and its five towers correspond to the peaks of Meru. The outer wall represents the mountains at the edge of the world, and the surrounding moat is the oceans beyond.

Wooden staircases add a strange look to the tower of Angkor Wat, but are vital for the survival of the ancient temple because the soft sandstone stairs are eroding with every step taken by every visitor.

The mysterious smiles of the Apsaras are mesmerising. I carefully take their photos, moving in for close ups to capture the details of their hair decorations, rings, attire and facial expressions. My reverie is interrupted by the line of tourists behind me trying to take the same shots, so I move off and hurry to catch up with the group. It is only then that I realise just how hot and tired I really feel.

After a full day’s walk around three vast archaeological sites, the resort’s serene spa is like manna from heaven and I sleep soundly that night, my dreams full of wondrous faces, each looking at me with a different smile.

If you go

_ If you are visiting temples or pagodas, knee-length shorts and short-sleeved T-shirts are acceptable. To visit the highest level of Angkor Wat, guests are requested to cover their knees and shoulders.

_ Pickpockets and bag-snatchers are growing with the number of tourists so be careful of your belongings and your travel documents at all times.

_ Bangkok Airways operates five flights daily from/to Bangkok and Siem Reap, Cambodia. While waiting for their flights, passengers of Bangkok Airways travelling via this route can enjoy snacks, drinks and free Wi-Fi Internet at Bangkok Airways’ Boutique Lounges at Suvarnabhumi airport and at Siem Reap International Airport.

_ Log on to for the best fare and all-inclusive holida

CAMBODIA will not allow any Thai politicians who face arrest warrants in Thailand to shelter on its territory – and it has laws against such moves, Cambodian deputy premier and defence minister General Tea Banh said yesterday.

Cambodia has no policy to allow anyone to use its land to operate against Thailand or other countries,” he insisted.

Tea Banh was speaking after completing a two-day official visit to the Kingdom, the first since the Thai military junta seized power in late May.

He met with National Council for Peace and Order chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, during which Prayuth informed him of the NCPO’s work, which was focused on solving political problems so that the country could move towards “perfect democracy”.

The junta chief also thanked Cambodia for freeing via a royal amnesty Veera Somkwamkit, a Thai activist jailed in Phnom Penh for espionage. He said the NCPO was also moving to develop border areas for the benefit of both countries.

Tea Banh, meanwhile, said Cambodia understood the need for the junta to step in to solve the country’s problems.

Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni, Prime Minister Hun Sen and other officials support the Thai military leaders, he said, adding that the country was therefore ready to work with the junta as its neighbour steps towards the AseanEconomic Community, which comes into at the end of 2015.

A Thai source said the Thai side had asked Phnom Penh not to allow Thai politicians who fled the Kingdom when the junta seized power to use Cambodia as a shelter.

They include Jakrapob Penkair and Charupong Ruangsuwan, whose passports have already been revoked. However, it was reported that they had alternative passports issued by other countries.

Improved relations

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s deputy army chief, Lt-General Hun Manet, said Hun Sen had expressed concern over Thailand’s situation and wished that the country could move forward and the ruling junta could solve the problems it faced.

Hun Manet, who is a son of the prime minister, accompanied Tea Banh on his official visit to Thailand. He is also commander of Hun Sen’s security unit. The visit is regarded as a reflection of improved bilateral relations following the conflict over Preah Vihear temple, after Cambodia took a case against Thailand to the International Court of Justice.

During Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government, Hun Sen strongly criticised Thailand and appointed fugitive ex-premier ThaksinShinawatra as an adviser. Tea Banh’s entourage comprised high-ranking officials in the Cambodian armed forces.

Bilateral relations will have improved following Phnom Penh’s agreement to free Veera, a known activist against Cambodia over the Preah Vihear controversy.

A senior Thai Army official said Tea Banh’s visit had been arranged following the return of a huge number of Cambodian workers who fled home from Thailand following rumours that the junta would launch a severe crackdown against them.

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy had used the incident to criticise Hun Sen in order to gain more support. Phnom Penh therefore wished to discuss the issue with the Thai side to make sure that it would not come up again, the military official said.

‘No backroom deals’ in Veera release

Posted by pakin On July - 3 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

The release of Veera Somkhwamkid, who was imprisoned in Cambodia for more than three years for espionage, was unconditional and Phnom Penh had not sought any favours in return, the Foreign Affairs Ministry insists.

Permanent secretary for foreign affairs Sihasak Phuangketkeow said the release was not made in response to Cambodia’s request for the release of 14 migrant workers being held in Thailand on visa fraud charges.

“Cambodia has not asked for any favours,” Mr Sihasak said, adding that Thailand appreciated Veera’s release since it reflected “goodwill from Cambodia”.

He said he had discussed several issues with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong during his visit to Phnom Penh earlier this week.

A request by military junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha for Veera’s release was among those topics.

“Marking the first anniversary of the cremation of Cambodia’s late King Norodom Sihanouk, a royal pardon was granted to Veera,” Mr Sihasak said. “On behalf of the Thai government and the NCPO, I appreciate the Cambodian decision and am grateful for it.”

Earlier yesterday, acting permanent secretary for justice Charnchao Chaiyanukit said Thailand and Cambodia have signed a prisoner transfer agreement. The case of the 14 detained Cambodians would be covered by this agreement.

The Thai embassy in Phnom Penh would have to forward Cambodia’s request for the inmates’ release to the Foreign Ministry, which would then send it on to the Justice Ministry. The 14 would be freed once the Corrections Department received the list, Mr Charnchao said.

However, Corrections Department deputy director-general Kobkiat Kasiwiwat said an initial check showed that only 13 Cambodians have been detained in Sa Kaeo province for using fake visas.

Authorities have been instructed to verify the number and send the names of the detainees to Cambodia for double-checking.

“Cambodian migrant workers play an important role in the Thai economy, so we have to take good care of them the same way we treat Thai labourers,” Mr Sihasak said.

He said he also discussed the Preah Vihear temple issue with Hun Sen and Hor Namhong during the visit. Both countries reaffirmed their compliance with last year’s International Court of Justice ruling, which handed a large part of the temple land to Cambodia.

Chulalongkorn University political science professor Chaiwat Khamchu said he believed Cambodia released Veera because it did not want to be shown as hostile toward the junta.

Veera’s release should pave the way for the two countries to cooperate more closely on labour issues, he added.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, said the coup has actually improved Thai-Cambodian relations.

The Cambodian premier has gone out of his way not to antagonise the NCPO, in contrast with his actions against the government led by former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

“The bottom line is that Hun Sen cannot afford to incur the wrath of the Thai army after the coup, when the generals now have absolute power and a bad history vis-a-vis the Hun Sen regime,” Mr Thitinan said.

Veera returned to Thailand yesterday with a Thai delegation led by Mr Sihasak.

“I will continue to monitor corruption,” Veera said on his arrival at Suvarnabhumi airport.

“I forgive those who harmed me. We still have a lot of work to do.”

From the airport, Veera was taken by immigration police to the Crime Suppression Division (CSD) to hear eight charges police have lodged against him in connection with the seizure of Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi airports in 2008 by the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

Pol Lt Col Somkiat Tantikanokporn, a CSD investigator, said investigators did not bring a charge of terrorism in connection with the airport seizures against Veera because public prosecutors previously dropped the charge against him.

After hearing the charges, Veera was released on a 100,000-baht bail bond. Veera was ordered to report to police for further questioning next Wednesday, deputy national police chief Pol Gen Somyos Phumphanmuang said.

A military source said Gen Prayuth used his long-standing ties with Cambodian military leaders to help secure Veera’s release.

The source said that after the May 22 coup, Veera’s wife, Pis-umphai, had sent a letter seeking help from Gen Prayuth. The source said the coup leader then ordered state officials to find ways to secure Veera’s release.

Gen Surawat Butrwong, chief of the army’s Neighbouring Countries Coordination Centre, had played a key role in the quick release of Veera, the source said. Gen Surawat has close ties with Cambodian military leaders and Hun Sen.

NCPO spokeswoman Sirichan Nathong said Gen Prayuth welcomed Veera’s release.

One-stop-centre to end trade in illegal labour

Posted by pakin On June - 30 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

SAMUT SAKHON – A new centre to end the abuse of illegal workers by properly regulating migrant labour opened on Monday in Samut Sakhon as the first step to end human trafficking in the country

Businesses in Samut Sakhon rely on a huge migant workforce, much of it illegal.

The new, full-time centre in Muang district provides a one-stop service for migrant workers from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia staying illegally in the province to come out in the open and register legally with the authorities.

It is located at the provincial social security office in Muang district, and open from 8.30am to 4.30pm everyday.

It can handle 2,000 migrants a day, officials said, and 1,000 illegal workers already lined up for registration when the doors opened this morning.

The launch was witnessed by Gen Sirichai Disthakul, the army chief-of-staff in charge of labour issues and human trafficking, permanent secretary for labour Jirasak Sukhonthachat and Myanmar ambassador   Tin Win.

Samut Sakhon has an estimated 80,000 illegal labourers from the three countries, according to Labour Ministry figures last year. The province relies on foreign workforce to drive its lucrative fishery industry.

Under the plan outlined out by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), illegal workers will be given temporary permits to work in Thailand. Their names will be sent for verification in 60 days, and workers passing the procedure can apply for permanent work permits by using their passport, Mr Jirasak said.

NCPO chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Friday that one-stop centres will be opened in another 22 coastal provinces in need of migrant workers on July 7, and in the rest in the country by July 15.

The move is part of the military regime’s plans to end the activities of human traffickers,  including corrupt government officials, who extort money from people in the three neighbouring countries in exchange for smuggling them into Thailand and delivering them to places where they have been promised jobs.

The Myanmar envoy supported the plan and said the new centre will make it easier for people in Myanmar to land needed work in Thailand.

However, some business operators remained sceptical, saying migrant abuse would not end until Thailand fully liberalises the labour market.

Thailand and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will open up the labour sector after the launch of the Asean Economic Community  at the end of 2015, but the free flow of workers will be limited to skilled and professional labourers.

The junta opened temporary coordination centres on the border in Sa Kaeo, Trat and Chanthaburi provinces on Thursday to facilitate the return of about 200,000 Cambodians who fled in fear of rumours of a crack down by the junta.

Another tempoarary centre at the Chong Jom border crossing with Cambodia  in Kap Choeng district of Surin province was officially opened on Monday. These coordination centres will close after the provinces set up one-stop service centres.

According to the ministry, Thailand has about 2.2 million legal migrant workers. The Thailand Development Research Institute said there another 900,00 illegal workers in the country before the exodus.