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ASEAN observers at border dispute
Thursday 24 February 2011, 01:23AM
Thailand and Cambodia agreed on February 22 to accept Indonesian observers and avoid further clashes over a border dispute that has claimed at least 10 lives and displaced thousands, officials said. The agreement came during a meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Indonesia, which holds the current chair of the 10-member block. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, speaking on behalf of ASEAN, said it was a "unique arrangement" for a grouping that devotes most of its time to trade and avoids conflict resolution. "Indonesia will observe on both sides of the border... This is an observer team, not a peace-keeping or peace-enforcement team. The observer team will be unarmed," he told reporters after the talks. He said Cambodia and Thailand had also requested Indonesia's "engagement" in subsequent bilateral negotiations, the first of which would be convened in Indonesia at a date to be specified. "With hard work we can make things happen," the minister added, referring to weeks of behind-the-scenes activity by his office and the Jakarta-based ASEAN secretariat, headed by former Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan. Thailand and Cambodia have each accused the other of starting the clashes, which erupted around the Hindu temple of Preah Vihear earlier this month. The temple belongs to Cambodia but the surrounding area is claimed by both sides. Thailand has resisted Cambodian calls for third-party mediation but now appears ready to allow Indonesia, as the chair of ASEAN, to play a formal role as observer of the ceasefire and future bilateral talks. Speaking earlier in Phnom Penh, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said a third party was essential as Thailand "signs documents with hands, but cancels them by feet".  -AFP
Red Shirts leaders walk free
Thursday 24 February 2011, 01:01AM
A Thai court on February 22 released on bail seven top leaders of the "Red Shirt" opposition movement after they spent nine months in detention over their roles in mass rallies in Bangkok. The men were held on terrorism charges since their two-month long demonstration ended in May 2010 with a deadly military crackdown that left about 90 people dead in clashes between protesters and armed troops. A judge at the capital's Criminal Court said the decision to release the seven - who include key movement members Natthawut Saikua, Weng Tojirakarn and Kokaew Pikulthong - was based on new evidence from the defence. Their bail conditions include a ban on foreign travel and on making comments likely to incite unrest. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, when asked whether the ruling would help reconciliation efforts, told reporters the decision to free the seven was the court's. Most Red Shirts leaders surrendered to police soon after the army moved in to break up the demonstration in the heart of Bangkok's retail district. Some others are still on the run. Hundreds of people, some playing loud music and carrying red roses, gathered outside the prison in a suburb of the capital and cheered loudly as the defendants walked free, dressed in white T-shirts and holding hands. "Friends, we are back. We are back with our spirits, our intentions and our lives, which we dedicate to democracy," Natthawut told the jubilant crowds, thanking them for their support. Jatuporn Prompan, a key Red Shirt leader who is free because of immunity granted to serving members of Parliament, said the ruling was "very meaningful" for the movement. He vowed to press ahead with the next scheduled protest on March 12, marking a year since the start of the 2010 rally. -AFP
Top lizard poacher arrested
Tuesday 22 February 2011, 03:37AM
 One of Thailand's most prolific lizard poachers was arrested with hundreds of water monitor lizards destined for Chinese dinner plates, authorities said on February 17. More than 200 reptiles were discovered in water-filled tanks in Boonlue Prasitsom's warehouse in Ang Thong Province, central Thailand, during a morning raid by Thai Nature Crime Police. "At first we didn't expect to find so many lizards, but it turned out to be a lot. He is one of Thailand's main lizard poachers," inspector Kiattisak Bamrungsawat, deputy commander of the wildlife force said. He said Mr Boonlue was believed to be planning to smuggle the creatures through Laos into China on Friday. The arrest is part of a crackdown on lizard smuggling as Thailand struggles to stem the flow of protected species through its borders. Conservation group Freeland Foundation said the raid was an "important step" in an investigation into a criminal network that authorities believe is behind "trafficking huge amounts of threatened wildlife into China". "Freeland congratulates the Thai Nature Crime Police for acting swiftly and professionally on a tip-off that has put a wildlife criminal out of business, while freeing hundreds of wild animals," said the organisation's director Steven Galster. Mr Boonlue had allegedly been poaching lizards from the wild for over 10 years, Mr Freeland said. Police were clearly impressed with the suspect's skills at handling the creatures and even required his help in transporting them. "I think he is the best lizard catcher in Thailand, he is very professional," Inspector Kiattisak said. Boonlue now faces a maximum of four years in prison and a 40,000 baht fine (about $1,300). Monitor lizards are a common sight in Thailand's waterways and police said the protected species is poached for export, mainly to China and Vietnam where they are prized for their meat. Freeland said both countries are the major consumers of Southeast Asia's protected reptiles and the region is a source of illegal wildlife "supplying a vast global market whose profit margins are surpassed only by drugs and arms". Last week police arrested an Indonesian man carrying hundreds of live animals in his airport luggage, including dozens of snakes and one of the world's rarest tortoises. He is thought to have picked them up at one of Bangkok's biggest markets.
General election
Tuesday 22 February 2011, 03:21AM
Thailand will hold a general election by the middle of this year, the deputy prime minister said last Thursday, setting the stage for a fierce poll battle in the politically divided nation. "I guarantee that it will happen before June," Suthep Thaugsuban told reporters when asked about the timing of the keenly-awaited vote. His comments followed the passing of a mid-year budget and recent constitutional amendments, which the government had set as a prerequisite for an early election, along with peaceful conditions for the polls. Mass protests last April and May by the "Red Shirt" opposition movement -- which was seeking immediate elections - left more than 90 people dead in street clashes between demonstrators and armed soldiers. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said last week an election would be held in the first half of this year if there was no fresh violence. The British-born, Oxford-educated head of the establishment Democrat Party must call a vote by the end of this year, when his term finishes. Mr Abhisit defied sceptics last year to survive Thailand's worst political crisis in decades, and many observers expect the Democrats to cling to power for another term, possibly by forming another coalition with smaller partners. "This government will be re-elected," said Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political science professor at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "Puea Thai (the main opposition party) will get lot of votes but not enough seats to form a government, while the Democrats will gain more votes and will collaborate with its current coalition partners to stay in power." At the height of the Red Shirt crisis, Abhisit proposed holding a poll in November 2010 to resolve the stand-off, but shelved the plan because demonstrators refused to disperse until the army moved in. In the months after the military broke up the rally, the capital was rattled by a string of minor explosions while it was under emergency rule. Somjai said he believed the Red Shirts had been weakened by their failure to achieve their goal last year. "Some people disagreed with their violent way. The Red Shirts need to adjust their strategy but it will be harder for them because a new election is coming. Violence will continue but will be less severe," he said. There is also uncertainty about whether the opposition will be able to translate strong support for the Reds, particularly in the rural northeast, into success at the ballot box.