Sunday,2007-06-03: Facts – Emotions – and Irresponsible Accusations

Posted on 3 June 2007. Filed under: *Editorial*, Week 510 |

The Mirror, Vol. 11, No. 510

On the night of 29 January 2003, the Thai Embassy and Thai owned hotels and other enterprises in Phnom Penh were looted and burnt. Later, the estimate of material damage was set at US$56 million. There was also huge damage to the international reputation of Cambodia, of the hundreds of Cambodian people who actively were involved in these acts of vandalism and the thousands who watched without opposing it, and of the authorities. A newspaper from Singapore reported: “A government source confirmed to The Straits Times that high-ranking officials – including the Interior Minister, the Defense Minister and the National Police Chief – were all gathered at the ruling party’s headquarters only 500 meters from the besieged Thai Embassy on Wednesday night…”

Why did this happen? One Khmer newspaper had reported that a young Thai TV actress, also well known in Cambodia, had said she would never accept an invitation from Cambodia, unless the region of Angkor Wat was given to Thailand.

Did anyone check where the rumor came from, or evaluate whether such a rumor about a young individual in a foreign country – even if true – deserved a violent response? In fact, there was never any clarity about the source of this rumor, and no proof that she had ever said anything like that.

As we documented on Saturday, 2 June 2007, there is again quite some uproar about an accusation that Cambodia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity have been violated, including emotional calls for drastic and high level national and international counter-actions.

It was reported that a “Web site of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – ASEAN – says Cambodia covers an area of 181,000 square kilometers only… According to the figure of this web site, Cambodia loses 35 sq km. Where is this taken from?” – “The official web site of the Royal Government of Cambodia defines that Cambodia covers an area of 181,035 sq km. Cambodian citizens know well that the size of Cambodia is 181,035 sq km.”

Some reported reactions can only be considered to be surprising. Two members of parliament, from Funcinpec and from the Sam Rainsy Party, called for urgent action by the Cambodian government, to have this violation of the territorial integrity of the country corrected. Even while “it is not known whether it is an unintentional mistake or something else,” the government, or the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, should take urgent action and “close this web site.” To shut down an ASEAN web site would require an intrusion into the operations of an intergovernmental organization.

Two prominent members from civil society organizations in Cambodia were also interviewed. Their reactions were less emotional and pointed to the obvious. One stated that, if there is a mistake, “the government should pay attention and ask for the web site to be corrected… otherwise a small problem might turn into a bigger issue.” The other said: “The state’s figure is more important and appropriate than figures of other organizations…”

The facts are quite simple – but obviously neither the newspaper reporting the supposed outrageous loss of 35 square kilometers, nor the parliamentarians calling for government actions such as blocking access in Cambodia to a website (for which there is no known basis in law), have checked the facts and their context.

There are several ASEAN websites – we mention here only some:

There is the site of the ASEAN Foundation, with links to many sections of the work of ASEAN. These include ASEAN Culture and Information, ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management, ASEAN Food Security Network, ASEAN Regional Center for Biodiversity Conservation, ASEAN Science and Technology Network, ASEAN Center for Energy, ASEAN University Network, and ASEAN Connect, the website of the ASEAN Telecommunications and IT Ministers, Senior Officials, and Regulators. There are many interesting databases linked to these, with slots for information from the ASEAN member countries. In quite a number of cases, it appears that the Cambodian government has not yet submitted the relevant information, and those sections are blank for Cambodia.

The ASEAN Secretariat, which is responsible for “The Official Website of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations” has also a web site, where they fill in the data they get from member countries, according to procedures as they are used internationally in many other organizations, government, private sector, and in civil society.

The ASEAN Secretariat site carries links to the following fields, where each has a lot of specific content:

About ASEAN, Member Countries, ASEAN Statistics, ASEAN Summits, Politics and Security, Economic Integration, AFTA & FTAs, Functional Cooperation, Transnational Issues, External Relations, ASEAN Projects, Press, Publications, Speeches and Papers.

It also has brief information for every member country, related to the following sectors:

Head of State, Head of Government, Capital, Land Area in thousand sq. km, Population, Language, Religion, Member of International Organizations, Currency, GDP, Major Industries, Major Exports, Major Imports. Whatever is stated in these fields comes from the member countries.

That site gives, as stated, the size for all member countries — in “thousand sq. km” units with only one digit after the period. Therefore the figure of “181,035” is just rendered as “181.0 thousand sq. km.” This method is the same for all countries, and completely transparent.

There is nothing wrong with this.

The Cambodian newspaper report had asserted: “Cambodian citizens know well that the size of Cambodia is 181,035 sq km.” This is surely not true – a small informal survey indicates that actually few people in the country know this figure.

The Cambodian newspaper report had emphasized: “The official web site of the Royal Government of Cambodia defines that Cambodia covers an area of 181,035 sq km.”

After having read the harsh criticism of the ASEAN website, it seemed appropriate to do some searching on the “Official Website of the Royal Government.” Easier said than done: in fact, there are a number of websites, with differing information, some of which are out of date. Which is the “official website?”

Perhaps the website that the newspaper report refers to is the site of the Council of Ministers – http://www.ocm.gov.kh – which leads automatically to http://www.cambodia.gov.kh/unisql1/egov/english/home.view.html, the “Cambodia e-Government Home Page” greeting the visitor with the words: “Welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia” and reporting, as of now, as the newest entry: “Cambodian PM met with ROK President Roh Moo-Hyun” on 29.11.2006.

On that website, a click on “Country” finally leads to a page which states briefly: “Land Area 181,035 sq.km” – but this is modified by “Note: * Including 3,000 km2 of Tonle Sap Area.” How are these 3,000 sq km measured? A UNESCO website notes that “the area underwater in the dry season is five times less than in the rainy season.”

In 2003, Cambodia lost tremendously, both in money and in reputation, due to the combination of not checking facts and becoming violently angry about an untrue rumor of something said by someone with no official function. In the current case, checking the original source and paying attention to the fact that the number in question is in “thousand sq. km” units reveals that there is no reason at all to become angry. Mr. Va Kimhong, from the Committee for Solving Border Disputes, reportedly declined to make any comment before checking the facts. This was absolutely appropriate. Being careful with facts is critical for Cambodia, both for the internal peace and prosperity of the country and for having respect from the international community.

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