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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The year in review - 2003

The year in review - 2003

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Rioters at the burning entracnce to the Thai Embassy.

January

Cambodia awards the shipping registry contract to an overseas firm, South Korea's

Cosmos Group on Jan 3. International Transport Workers Federation and other shipping

organizations feel it is dangerous to put the reputation of the Cambodian 'flag-of-convenience'

- already known globally for its easy registration processes, lack of inspections

and old fleet - in the hands of off-shore interests.

After years of non-specific guidelines on the awarding of lucrative government contracts,

the government agrees to implement a more transparent tendering system. The Ministry

of Economy and Finance says none of the ministries will be exempt from the new procurement

regime, making tendering a much more competitive process.

Global Witness (GW), an independent forest-monitoring agency heaps criticism on police

for their treatment of villagers requesting a consultation with the Department of

Forestry and Wildlife. Prime Minister Hun Sen calls for GW to leave the country.

The one-month voter registration begins on Jan 17, with National Election Committee

secretary-general Tep Nytha indicating in May that the registration rate had reached

94 per cent, or 6.34 million.

Anti-Thai sentiment erupts on Jan 29 when protestors, under the assumption the Cambodian

embassy in Bangkok had been attacked and in response to non-verified defamatory statements

by Thai actress Suwanan Kongying, set fire to the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh. A dozen

other Thai-owned hotels and businesses are also attacked and looted. Thailand's Prime

Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra says Cambodian-Thai relations, both diplomatic and commercial,

are at an all-time low. Thai ambassador, Chatchawed Chartsuwan, escapes from the

embassy over a back fence and onto a riverboat after distress calls to Cambodian

officials prove futile. As well as damaging relations with Thailand, many predict

a drop in tourist numbers, during the somewhat ironically labelled, 'Visit Cambodia

Year'. The embassy sacking makes news all around the world and leaves Cambodia with

an estimated $47 million repair bill. Conspiracy theories abound.

February

Two of Botum Sokur National Park's most industrious residents find a rare pair of

sea legs on Feb 7. 'Floaty', an Asian elephant and her calf, swim over seven kilometers

to an island off the coast of the Koh Kong province - a pachyderm world record perhaps.

The Australian government agrees to extradite convicted pedophile Clint Betteridge

back to Cambodia after the Australian Embassy mistakenly issues him a passport. He

had received 10 years jail for sexual abuse.

The country's first national tuberculosis survey finds only half the number of cases

predicted by the World Health Organization. Officials herald the results as evidence

of progress, but say the ground gained could be lost to the HIV virus, which had

infected 2.6 per cent of the population.

Om Radsady, a senior advisor to Prince Norodom Ranariddh, is shot and killed outside

a city restaurant in broad daylight, raising fears of an increase in politically

motivated killings before the July elections. Larch Than, a CPP activist, Kim Chunly,

a Funcinpec activist and Chan Nim from the Sam Rainsy Party, all died previously

under equally suspicious circumstances.

King Norodom Sihanouk asks the government to pardon the 62 students implicated in

the Thai embassy sacking. Human rights groups say the government had given no explanation

of the arrests of student leaders Ken Nara, who was charged with violence and inciting

racism, and Thorn Veasna, who was also charged with inciting.

A UN Development Programme report says that even with significant economic growth,

the government has failed to remedy poverty levels and needs to embrace a much broader

policy.

Police Chief Hok Lundy ups the ante in the run-up to the elections, with an additional

2000 national police and 300 military police set to patrol Phnom Penh's streets.

March

Triple the number (an additional 600) of police are to be stationed along Cambodia's

North Eastern border, raising fears of another crackdown on the asylum seeking Montagnards

of Vietnam.

Soldiers Mom Sophann and Ruos Sophann, both rank and file members of the parachute

regiment 911, are arrested on Mar 7 for the killing of Om Radsady.

Thai-Cambodian relations continue on tenterhooks after Prince Norodom Ranariddh questions

the state's ability to pay the $50 million riot bill. Bangkok says relations will

not be normalized until reparations are made. The Government also fuels tensions

by closing border checkpoints, with Hun Sen claiming overzealous Thai border patrols

and unfair trade practices as the reason.

After nearly six-years of negotiations between the United Nations and Cambodia on

the format of the Khmer Rouge trials, under-secretary general Hans Corell announces

an agreement between the two has finally been reached on Mar 17 and sent to the UN

General Assembly for debate. The UN passes the agreement on May 13 and sends it back

to Cambodia to be ratified.

Senior Minister Sok An and Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai reopen the

borders with Thailand on Mar 21. Poipet villagers and Thai gamblers rejoice.

Seven senior members of Funcinpec defect to the opposition Sam Rainsy Party on March

25, and one member of SRP defects the other way in the continuing saga of political

musical chairs. More defections are expected.

The influential Asian Wall Street Journal savages the US Agency for International

Development (USAID) for "aiding and abetting the slave trade" in Cambodia

through their funding of HIV/AIDS research programs in the Svay Pak brothel district.

APRIL

SARS fears grip Asia and the rest of the world and Cambodia goes on high alert. Nine

suspected cases are referred to the Calmette Hospital but all are discharged. Tourism

is the first victim, with an estimated $10 million loss of tourism revenue. On a

brighter note, the magical mung bean quickly becomes the cure de jour after it is

rumored the beans are the only way to stop the rampant disease.

Roadside vendors prosper.

Two misdiagnoses at the International SOS clinic lead to complaints of incompetence

and unsympathetic treatment. Onesta Carpene's fractured spine is diagnosed as osteoporosis

and the wife of a US embassy employee takes one-third of a course of drugs to abort

what she was told was a dead baby in utero. It was later discovered to be perfectly

healthy.

The Ministry of Planning is accused of pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars

in a scam involving the sale of state-owned land, leading to calls for the Ministry

of Justice to overturn a Supreme court ruling given last November. Minister of Finance

Keat Chhon declines to respond to questions on the whereabouts of the missing $373,000.

A report into the effectiveness of the 100% Condom Campaign - the national strategy

to prevent HIV through sex workers - finds that its success is being hindered by

corruption, particularly from police involvement.

A UN report says Cambodia's drug trade, as well as drug use, is flourishing under

the control of foreign crime rings, many of which have the backing of military, business

and political figures. Seizures of yaba rise by 82 per cent since 2001, but significant

amounts still make it onto the streets.

Thailand's ambassador Chatchawed Chartsuwan returns to Phnom Penh on April 24 - the

first time since the January riots - in a forgiving mood, resolving "to let

bygones be bygones". Relations between the two countries were normalized on

April 11.

After months of friction, the government terminates Global Witness from the role

of independent forest crimes monitor on April 22, raising eyebrows as to the possibility

of forest liquidation to fund election campaigns.

Sok Sethamony, a Municipal Court Judge set to adjudicate the trials of more than

60 people linked to the Thai riots - and who had also presided over the Sam Bith

case - is shot and killed on April 23. He is said to have had many enemies.

Archaeologists call on the government to intervene and put an end to persistent looting

of pre-Angkorian temples in Banteay Meanchey province, is looted beyond repair. They

say a similar fate awaits other sites if no action is taken.

The National Election Committee approves 8,000 national and 90 international election

observers. Political violence is minimal in comparison to the last two elections

in 1993 and 1998.

May

The government bans the pesticide endosulfan, which has been linked to birth defects,

neurological disease and wildlife kills. Most who sell it, along with one of the

biggest advocates of the product, British American Tobacco, are unaware of the ban.

The UN Committee Against Torture remains skeptical after a government report on the

issue is discussed without the presence of the head of the National Human Rights

Committee, Om Yentieng. The return to work of the 'Battambang Barbecuer' also raises

concerns of continuing torture practices.

The NEC's rules on media in the run-up to elections gains a predictably mixed response.

The 'equitable coverage' rule generally leads to discontent from anyone not CPP affiliated.

Chea Sim is placed on top of the CPP candidate list for election to the National

Assembly. CPP expect to win a two-thirds majority and oust incumbent, Prince Norodom

Ranariddh.

New terms of reference governing the powers of the next independent forestry monitor,

which World Bank forestry expert Bill Macgrath says creates a "stronger architecture",

strip the position of much of its power. 'Communities' now have seemingly pointless

monitoring powers.

AOL-Time Warner's 'Looney Tunes' jumps on the mine awareness bandwagon with two Khmer-language

cartoons hoping to limit mine-related casualties, still said to be around 50 a month.

King Norodom Sihanouk states in increasingly frequent letters he feels his death

is near.

The NEC says that if all 25 parties who registered are approved, 3000 candidates

will vie for 123 National Assembly votes.

Three terrorists with suspected links to Islamic extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah

are arrested on May 28, leading to the closure of a Saudi-funded Islamic school,

where the three men are employed. One Cambodian man is also arrested and around 50

other foreign nationals are expelled in May.

A historic first meeting of the Thai and Cambodian cabinets takes place in Siem Reap

on May 31. Forgiveness is in the air, and smiles, handshakes and goodwill abound.

June

The government sets up a ministerial committee to deal with the privatization of

the lucrative rubber industry, a state-owned fishing company and a fertilizer company,

securing a $35 million Asian Development Bank loan for their troubles.

Chief of Police Hok Lundy attributes the 17 suspected political murders and 13 attempted

murders in the last four months to revenge attacks, domestic violence or robbery.

He also announces 30,000 security personnel will be deployed during the election.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell visits Phnom Penh on Jun 18, pushing Cambodia

to sign the

controversial war crimes exemption policy, 'Article 98', and hinting that direct

US aid could return if elections are conducted fairly. Problems in Myanmar and North

Korea dominate discussions.

The first two defendants to stand trial in the Thai riots are released without charge

on Jun 19. Four-months after the riots, 58 defendants still await trial.

July

Khieu Ponnary, feminist, politician and former wife of Pol Pot, dies, July 1.

In the lead up to the Cambodian general elections on July 27, the Funcinpec and Sam

Rainsy parties indulge in racial rhetoric in their election campaigns in an attempt

to wrest control from the Cambodian People's Party. By July 3, election monitoring

NGOs report nine murders and 26 cases of intimidation since campaigning began on

June 26.

Prime Minister Hun Sen hosts a clandestine meeting with over 100 local NGOs, many

established to monitor the elections, in the Tiger's Lair on July 4. They discuss

the ruling party's plans to discredit election monitoring organizations and organize

bloody demonstrations in support of the CPP. Participants are told "If we can

win by the law, then we win. If we lose by the law, we must still win".

81 percent of those registered to vote cast their vote. The CPP gained 73 seats,

but failed to muster the two thirds majority needed to form a government alone. Funcinpec

gained 26 seats and Sam Rainsy Party 24. The election procedure receives mixed reports.

Some election monitoring organizations proclaim it free and fair, while others say

it was not, citing intimidation, vote-buying, misinformation from election officials,

voter registration failures, confiscation of voting cards, intimidation of ethnic

Vietnamese and lack of ballot secrecy or security.

The World Bank begins an investigation into a $42 million demobilization programme,

designed to retire thousands of soldiers from the military and allow more of the

budget to be spent on social issues. The World Bank declares $6 million have been

misprocured.

A French court sentences Charles Fejto (spelt with an umlaut on the o), former director

of the French NGO ASPECA, to six years in prison on July 8 for sexually assaulting

a 13 year old orphan in Cambodia in 1998. Fejto is also ordered to pay the victim

7000 euros compensation and 4000 euros in damages to ASPECA.

The Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) proposes that Sihanoukville be

established as a free trade zone. Critics claim this will merely line the coffers

of foreigners but do little to help the national economy.

Twenty foreign nationals are arrested July 15 on suspicion of illegal share dealing

and operating illegal international telephone gateways. The men, mostly from the

UK, used a local NGO to front their scam.

August

Political negotiations continue throughout August as the three parties vie for power

within the coalition. Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy party form the Alliance of Democrats

August 4 and push for a tripartite government without Prime Minister Hun Sen. Hun

Sen refuses to step down.

Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party condemn the election process as neither free,

fair, nor transparent and claim 1.5 million people were denied the chance to vote.

The National Election Committee works through 41 cases of electoral complaints.

Poll watcher Comfrel reports that sixteen people were killed as a result of political

violence in June and July. Eight of the victims were affiliated with the CPP, seven

with the Sam Rainsy party and one with Funcinpec. Comfrel also notes that officials

linked to the ruling CPP party have been involved in 23 cases of intimidation in

the month following the elections.

The Ministry of Health claims that money that should be spent on health is being

used to aid election campaigns instead. Less than 10 percent of the health budget

has been disbursed by mid-year and health professionals report a dramatic increase

in dengue fever, with new cases up by over 50 percent from last year and twice the

number of deaths.

Police and local youths tear down 200 shacks built illegally on the Stung Meanchey

rubbish dump on August 7. Residents are angry at their treatment and note officials

waited until after the elections to evict them. Most are left homeless.

21,000 hectares of forest in Samlot, western Cambodia, are designated as a protected

area on August 7. The funding for the project comes from Hollywood actress Angelina

Jolie who donated $1.5 million.

A study by the World Bank reports that smuggling and corruption costs Cambodia hundreds

of millions of dollars every year. The study concludes that the unpredictable conditions

deter foreign and domestic investors.

Senior officials in the Ministry of Economy and Finance meet on August 14 to discuss

the $1.3 million corruption scam besieging the office. It is alleged that the contract

to make official Customs and Excise Department uniforms was rigged.

CamLot, the country's most "technologically advanced" lottery is launched

on August 15 to a tepid response. CamLot chairman says he wants to create a "dream

for everybody".

Police crack down on the Khmer Front Party march protesting the CPP's victory on

August 31. 100 police were deployed to disperse the 25 peaceful demonstrators, using

electric batons and arresting 19 people.

September

Prime Minister Hun Sen issues a prakas September 1 ordering the country's armed forces

to assist fishery officials in halting illegal fishing practices such as electro-shock

and mosquito net methods.

The 35th ASEAN Economic Ministers Meeting is held in Phnom Penh on September 2, with

an aim of discussing Asian economic integration. Delegates at the meeting express

optimism at continued economic growth in the region.

Twenty-one accused appear in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on September 2 - 3, on

trial for charges relating to the anti-Thai riots in January. A further 37 are tried

in absentia. Human rights groups accuse the government of using the accused as scapegoats.

Nagacorp's bid to become the first listed company with primarily Cambodian assets

is thwarted when the Monetary Authority of Singapore refuses to register the company

on the Singapore Exchange on September 8. There are fears that the Phnom Penh casino

will be used to launder money.

Cambodia receives approval to join the World Trade Organisation on September 11,

culminating four years of negotiations to join the global trade body. The government

must pass 46 laws by 2006 to comply with WTO rules.

Prime Minister Hun Sen dismisses 17 senior government officials from the Funcinpec

party on September 12 for failing to perform their duty. The move is condemned by

Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

The Global Fund pledges $11.2 million over the next two years to fight the HIV /

AIDS epidemic. The money is to be administered by the MoH, but critics say the government

should not be responsible for distributing international aid. Cambodia has one of

the highest HIV infection rates in Asia, with 157,000 infected people.

Six hundred Cambodians who were living on the streets of Thailand are repatriated

September 30 in a move to clean up Bangkok in preparation for the APEC summit late

October.. A further 300 are flown home on October 3.

Suspected paedophile Michael Lewis Clark, a US citizen, is extradited from Cambodia

on September 9 under a new US law to prosecute citizens who commit sex crimes abroad.

Cambodia's political stalemate continues. The first meeting of the National Assembly

is scheduled for September 27 but only the CPP party agrees to attend the meeting.

Neither King Norodom Sihanouk nor the Alliance of Democrats agree to attend the meeting.

October

The political stalemate stretches into its third month and a new government is still

unable to form. King Norodom Sihanouk swears in the National Assembly at the Royal

Palace October 4. 123 newly elected parliamentarians give their oaths to serve the

nation.

Twelve Buddhist monks in Phnom Penh are threatened with expulsion from their pagoda

for supporting the Sam Rainsy Party in the July elections. Their leader was disrobed

and forced into exile following the election.

Cambodia's disabled National Volleyball League team flies to Greece October 7 to

compete in the Volleyball World Cup.

A spate of violence rocks Phnom Penh. Radio Ta Prohm editor and journalist Chour

Chetharith is shot dead outside his office October 18. This is the first targeted

killing of a journalist since 1996.

Three days later, popular Cambodian singer Touch Prey Nich and her mother are gunned

down as they leave a flower shop on Monireth Boulevard on October 21. They are flown

to Bangkok where Nich is placed in intensive care, but her mother dies. On October

27, a group opens fire on on-lookers following an accident on Sihanouk Boulevard.

The collision and subsequent gunfire leave three dead and four injured. A warrant

is issued for the arrest of Nhim Sophea, reputedly the nephew of Prime Minister Hun

Sen.

Authorities torch 40 kg of confiscated heroin and amphetamines at Hun Sen Park October

8 to send a message that Cambodia is serious about cracking down on drugs. Municipal

police chief Heng Peo called the haul Cambodia's "biggest ever anti-drug operation".

Officials use the ceremony to call for international aid to combat narcotics trafficking.

On October 20, the court orders the release of the two main suspects from the drug

bust, calling the government's "hard-line on drugs" into question.

Cambodia's oldest man, Sek Yi, estimated to be 122 years old, dies on October 19.

Yi said the secret to his longevity was avoiding bad karma, not stealing, and not

raping another man's wife.

King Norodom Sihanouk celebrates his 81st birthday October 31.

November

The three main political parties appear to end their three-month impasse and agree

to form a tripartite government on November 5. The CPP take 15 of the ministerial

posts and Funcinpec and SRP take 5 each. Prime Minister Hun Sen hails the meeting

as "a big success" but details are yet to be worked out as the Alliance

of Democrats are not yet willing to accept Hun Sen as Prime Minister.

The Alliance of Democrats refuses to attend November meetings to form a new government,

demanding that the Cambodian People's Party drop defamation charges against Funcinpec

President Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Western and Asian diplomats warn that if the

impasse continues, international aid to Cambodia could be jeopardized.

376 boats register to enter in the annual Water Festival boat races November 7-9.

A boat from Mondolkiri takes home the top awards as the fastest and most beautiful

vessel.

Cambodia's first school to train judges and prosecutors opens on November 11, hailed

as a big step toward reforming the corrupt legal system. One failing candidate is

reputedly offered entry to the school for $15,000.

The municipal government announces plans to resettle more than 10,000 squatters in

Phnom Penh over five years. NGOs estimate that 230,000 squatters live in the capital.

The government asks Vietnam for compensation following the devastation caused by

the first of a proposed six dams built on the Se San River. The Yali Falls dam is

blamed for more than 30 deaths and the loss of livestock, fish stocks and agriculture

in Cambodia.

Strikers clash with police when hundreds of workers from a local garment factory

protest on November 19, seeking to air a list of grievances that includes intimidation,

unpaid overtime and illegal firings.

December

The political deadlock continues as the three main political parties remain unable

to agree on the formation of the new government.

Proposals to build a $95 million power plant 15 km from Angkor Wat meet with heavy

opposition as critics charge it could damage the temples of Siam Reap. Cam-Tai, the

US-Taiwanese company proposing the 72-megawatt heavy-fuel-oil powerplant say the

project is essential for economic growth.

The government signs on a new forestry crime monitor, Societe Generale de Surveillance,

December 1, replacing Global Witness which was dismissed by the government nine months

ago, apparently for overzealous reporting. The new contract opens the way for a $15

million loan from the World Bank, which was being withheld while no forestry monitor

was in place.

King Sihanouk appeals to Prime Minister Hun Sen December 3 for the pardon of political

activist Sok Yoeun, accused of an assassination attempt on Hun Sen in 1998.

Phnom Penh's Preah Sisowath High School receives 24 computers donated by former students

living in the US, making it the first school to offer information technology in its

curriculum.

The United States begins funding training courses for Cambodia's Cham Muslims promoting

democracy and human rights and emphasizing anti-terrorism in an effort to block inroads

by Islamic fundamentalists to the traditionally moderate sect.

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