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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - PM strenghtens Burma ties

PM strenghtens Burma ties

CAMBODIA, keen to balance the power of its influential neighbors Vietnam and Thailand,

is casting its eye towards Burma as a new and possibly more sympathetic regional

ally.

Government officials point to lingering border and immigration problems with Vietnam

and to unresolved "complications" with Thailand, which for years did gem

and logging business with Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

"We need Burma to balance our relations with our larger more dominant neighbors,"

commented one high ranking foreign affairs official.

Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, playing front role in the latest round of diplomatic

and political talks between Cambodia and Burma, visited Rangoon for four days of

official visits Jan 28-31.

Hun Sen's delegation of defense, agriculture and tourism officials from his Cambodian

People's Party (CPP), met with the chairman of Burma's State Law and Order Restoration

Council (SLORC), General Than Shwe and other officials.

Hun Sen said the three recent official exchange visits between Burma and Cambodia

in recent months were a "good sign at a time when the two countries are moving

towards becoming ASEAN members".

Hun Sen said his visit came in response to an invitation from chairman Than Shwe

who he described as "head of state, head of government, defense minister and

head of general staff... an important man."

The second prime minister said prior to his departure that cultural exchange agreements

would be signed and that talks would be held on the implementation of tourism agreements,

signed by Prince Ranariddh during an earlier visit.

Diplomats said Cambodia and Burma, who reestablished diplomatic relations 18 months

ago after a 20-year break, have similar histories which draw them together.

"They are able to discuss problems they have both shared and in some cases still

share with Thailand's involvement with insurgent groups along their borders,"

said one ambassador.

Also likely to have been on the agenda in Burma was ASEAN's recent decision to group

Cambodia, Burma and Laos together for simultaneous entry into the ASEAN family at

an unspecified time in the future, government officials said.

Originally scheduled to join the important regional grouping in July, Cambodia was

disappointed by what some officials claim is an attempt by ASEAN members to hide

Burma's controversial ASEAN entry behind the cloak of Cambodia and Laos.

"Simultaneous entry for the three countries into ASEAN will make it more difficult

for western countries to protest the entry of Burma into ASEAN," one Asian diplomat

pointed out.

Cambodia's opposition leader and Hun Sen critic, Sam Rainsy, condemned the second

prime minister's visit to Burma, labeling it a "an insult against democracy

movements not only in Burma but in the whole of Asia."

Rainsy, who led street protests against the visit of SLORC's chairman Shwe to Cambodia

in October, said Cambodia had a lot to lose and little to gain from closer ties with

Burma.

"The only ties which can be developed are drugs and arms sales and laundering

of dirty Burmese money through Cambodia," said Rainsy.

The opposition leader claims at least one "false" bank in Cambodia is involved

in phony "development" projects in Burma, as part of a money laundering

operation.

CPP cabinet chief, Sok An, who accompanied Hun Sen to Burma, claims however that

Burma's international PR woes are unlikely to tarnish Cambodia's own image abroad.

"It is normal regional neighbor to neighbor relations... human rights in Burma

are a western fad. We have our own problems without looking into conditions inside

other countries," another official added.

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