Sunday, 9 November 2008

Young Israelis to help out in Cambodia

A Cambodian boy herds his cow in Pailin, north-west of the capital Phnom Penh.Photo: AP [file]

The Jerusalem Post
Nov 9, 2008


After finishing their military service, legions of young Israelis deploy themselves throughout the world. Having subsumed their interests to those of the State of Israel for several years, they often take on missions of indulgence. As a result, Israeli travelers have become notorious in many parts of the world for post-military partying.

The "Backpacking and Donating" project is designed to improve the international perception of Israel and its youth. At the beginning of December, a contingent of Israeli volunteers will be sent to the Cambodian village of Chi Phat in the Cardamom Mountain rainforest for three months. Over the course of a year, four groups, each consisting of 10 volunteers between the ages of 21 and 40, will participate in the program. They will engage in volunteering activity for 10 hours per day, five days a week.

"This important project will introduce young Israelis to the humanitarian problems that exist in Cambodia and will emphasize to the locals the giving aspect on the part of Israelis," said Yael Rubinstein, the Israeli ambassador to Thailand and the region. "This sort of activity will assist me in presenting Israel as a country that is attentive to humanitarian problems."

Although their responsibilities will vary according to the immediate needs of the community, the volunteers will be collectively committed to improving the quality of the lives of the approximately 3,000 residents of the village. They will work intimately with the local population, focusing on English, mathematics, computer, health, and occupational training.
Despite minimal advertising, there were numerous applicants to the project, according to Gil Hen, the project coordinator.

"We chose complete personalities that we believed could handle the rigors of the program, and represent Israel well," he said.

The first group is already involved in a three-week training course in which they are learning about Cambodian culture and practicing relevant skills, Hen said.

Eshhar Tsafrir, the manager of the first three groups, will be going to the village in the middle of November to prepare for the arrival of the rest of the volunteers.

"I plan to meet with the leaders of the village to create a timetable for the program," she said. "I will also coordinate with the representatives of the Wildlife Alliance who are reforesting the area and helping people develop permanent agriculture."

For Niv Reshess, one of the members of the group, the project represents an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong desire.

"My nationality has prevented me from participating in overseas volunteering programs in the past," he said. "So I feel really lucky to be part of one that will allow me to help improve the lives of people in need on behalf of Israel."

Chi Phat was selected for the project based on its acute need for intervention. At this point, students attend classes for only two hours a day, and no one speaks English. Five percent of children do not reach their first birthday, ten percent of women die during childbirth, and the oldest person in the community is 57 years old.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Latet, an Israeli humanitarian organization, are financing the project. They have commissioned Lametayel, an Israeli outdoor gear and travel company, to manage it, based on its involvement with a similar effort in Nepal.

Yuval Limon, the CEO of Lametayel, is confident that the project will successful, due, in part, to the desire of the villagers for help.

"From our vast experience in this field, in order for a project to be effective, the most significant factor is the willingness of the local population to receive assistance," he said.

Despite its relatively small scale, the organizers of Backpacking and Donating hope that it will lead to a larger movement towards Israeli humanitarianism worldwide.

"We want to inspire more Israeli people to effect positive change, and display the real character of this country to the world," he said.

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The country borders Thailand to its west and northwest, Laos to its northeast, and Vietnam to its east and southeast. In the south it faces the Gulf of Thailand. The geography of Cambodia is dominated by the Mekong river, The kingdom's capital and largest city is Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh is the capital and largest city of Cambodia. It is also the capital of the Phnom Penh municipality. It is an economic, industrial, commercial, cultural, tourist and historical center.

Once known as the "Pearl of Asia in the 1920s, Phnom Penh, along with Siem Reap, is a significant global and domestic tourist destination for Cambodia. Phnom Penh is known for its traditional Khmer and French influenced architecture.

Phnom Penh is the wealthiest and most populous city in Cambodia. It is also the commercial, political and cultural hub of Cambodia and is home to more than one million of Cambodia's population of over 14 million

The most south-western province of Cambodia, Koh Kong has a long undeveloped coastline and a mountainous, forested and largely inaccessible interior which embraces part of the Cardamom Mountains. Its tourist attractions include casinos and waterfalls, while an Export Processing Zone and new port facilities are being developed for trade.

The province is an increasingly popular gateway to Cambodia from Hat Lek in eastern Thailand, in part due to the reasonably direct access to the port and beach resort town of Sihanoukville. While this was previously a grueling journey by boat and pickup on rough roads using small ferries at river crossings, the donation by the Thai government of new road infrastructure is improving access greatly,

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Cambodia: the hard path to Angkor

Beauty, tragedy, fried spiders and jungle adventure: you can pack a lot into a week in Cambodia

Frank Gardner

From The Sunday Times
November 9, 2008

Pochentong airport, Phnom Penh. Outside the terminal, the warm night air carries the scent of jasmine and open drains; from somewhere beyond the trees comes the sound of traditional Khmer music, rhythmic and exotic, and now a man is approaching us, holding out his finger-less hands, asking for money. Of course, a landmine victim; it’s hard to refuse him. Cambodia has rather a lot of them, a legacy of the Vietnam war and the dark days of the Khmer Rouge.

For independent travellers like myself and my companion James, arriving here can be an assault on the senses, but, as we soon discovered, Cambodia is also a country on the rebound, a land of gentle beauty, culture and warmth, despite its terrible recent past. Through darkened streets unlit by streetlamps, the taxi whisked us to our almost embarrassingly grand hotel: the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, a palatial relic of the French colonial era, lovingly restored. Where once war correspondents tapped out dispatches, now white-tunicked waiters scurried discreetly across its polished teak floors, and in the Elephant Bar, still famed for its happy hour, we ordered Singapore slings over a game of pool.

As w breakfasted on fresh croissants, a man coughed discreetly behind us: “Monsieur, your taxi is ready.” With just two days in the capital, and me in a wheelchair from gunshot wounds sustained in the course of my Middle East reporting for the BBC four years ago, we had decided that hiring a car and a driver for £18 a day was the most efficient way to get around.

Phnom Penh is a peaceful, low-rise city with wide, tree-lined boulevards, where whole families ride past on a single motorbike, their smiles natural and infectious. In the cavernous Central Market, we came upon “the Spider Woman”, a lady selling no less than six bowls of assorted creepy-crawlies. There were giant spiders, glazed black and shiny, their bristly legs protruding over the sides of the bowl; smooth green beetles, mustard-coloured crickets and a pile of something I am fairly certain was fried cockroaches. “If this is Cambodian cuisine,” James said, “I’m sticking with the croissants.”

We were in for a pleasant surprise, though: at the Romdeng restaurant, an enterprise staffed entirely by trainee student cooks, Jamie Oliver-style, we feasted on grilled beef brochettes marinated in lemon grass, Khmer beef and peanut curry, then rice-flour crepes filled with caramelised banana topped with coco-nut ice cream, for £7 a head.

We certainly needed fortifying for what was ahead. Off a nondescript side street called Monivong Boulevard stood what was once a three-storey schoolhouse. It looked like any other high school in Asia: bare, concrete walls, flat roofs, palm trees in the courtyard. For four years in the 1970s, though, it became the Khmer Rouge’s most secretive detention centre, known as S-21, and the Cambodian government has since preserved it intact as the national Genocide Museum.

While Pol Pot’s fanatical cadres were busy expelling entire urban populations into the countryside, where more than a million perished, those deemed “enemies of the revolution” were brought here for imprisonment, interrogation and execution. In silence, we sat on the iron bedsteads in solitary cells where prisoners went through unspeakable tortures.

In bare, whitewashed rooms, I lost count of the thousands of black-and-white photographs of inmates who stared out, confused, terrified, probably at a loss as to why they were there. But the one that stays in my mind is that of the Australian tourist who sailed his yacht too close to the Cambodian shore, and was captured by Khmer Rouge gunboats and taken to Phnom Penh. His nationality did not save him; he, too, was tortured and killed.

This may sound a pretty grisly form of tourism, and I think it was one of the least enjoyable afternoons I have ever spent, but for Cambodians the genocide of the recent past is a key part of their history, and they want visitors to know about it. At the infamous “Killing Fields”, just outside the city, where a tall stupa has been erected containing countless skulls unearthed from mass graves, an inscription said it all: “The Khmer Rouge have the human form but their hearts are demons’ hearts.” MERCIFULLY, the Khmer Rouge is now history, and, after that, a visit to Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace was like a soothing lotion. Amid immaculate lawns and well-watered flowers, we strolled in the afternoon heat, gazing at the ornate red-tiled pagodas, with the capital’s traffic a world away beyond the high walls. Our guide led us to the Silver Pagoda, with its huge Italian marble staircase and 5,000 silver tiles, each weighing a kilogram.

It was time to head upcountry, to Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Indochina, via a short flight by turboprop plane in a monsoon downpour to the provincial town of Siem Reap. There, from the “achingly hip” Hôtel de la Paix, we rented a 4WD jeep and a guide who barely glanced at my wheelchair. “You want to go out on a boat and visit a fishing village on stilts? No problem.”

I liked that about Cambodians: perhaps because they have so many landmine victims of their own, they seemed to view the fact I could not walk not as an obstacle, but as a challenge.

In the relatively remote village of Kampong Khleang, two fishermen heaved me effortlessly into their boat for a chug round their world of stilted wooden huts, where life is lived 20ft above the waters of the lake. Then we shook off our shoes and sank into hammocks while rice and chilli were prepared for lunch, and the fishermen’s children took turns around the hut in my wheelchair.

It was a welcome glimpse of rural Cambodia, but the next day we had some serious sightseeing to do. Angkor Wat is not just Cambodia’s principal attraction, it’s the world’s largest religious building. It is actually one of a complex of huge stone temples dotted around the province and dating back as far as AD800, remnants of a once glorious empire and a city that housed a million people. Some, like the main lake-side temple of Angkor Wat itself, are neatly preserved, fringed by cut grass or coated in wooden scaffolding. Other, more remote, temples are shrouded in foliage, humming with mosquitoes.

The all-powerful jungle has all but reclaimed them.

Curbing our temptation to head straight for the jungle, we trekked round the more familiar sites: the magnificent stone faces of the Bayon, the carved heads that guard the gateway to Angkor Thom and the exquisite stonework of Banteay Srei, so fine, it was said to be carved by women rather than men. But at last, almost as a reward, we allowed ourselves the final day to wander unhurried over the crumbling ruins of Ta Prohm, among the most mysterious, enigmatic and atmospheric of all Angkor’s temples.

Angelina Jolie’s producers knew they were onto a good thing when they filmed part of the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film here. So enveloped was this temple by the lush forest, entire trees were growing on top of the ruins, giant, serpentine roots snaking down over the lichen-covered stone, as if slowly squeezing the life out of them. When we arrived, the place was overrun by a coachload of Korean tourists, but by sunset silence had descended, broken only by the raucous squawk of parakeets high in the treetops.

As the shadows lengthened over the tumble of fallen stones, the secretive archways and passages, the crumbling walls held up by jungle roots, I half-closed my eyes and tried to think back to a time, 800 years ago, when there were said to be 80,000 people tending to this temple, including hundreds of dancers. Then a whine in my ear brought me back to the present: mosquitoes, in the jungle, at dusk. Not a good combination.

It was time to head back to the Hôtel de la Paix and the evening’s tasting menu, eaten stretched out on hanging couches suspended from the ceiling. Across the courtyard, the moon rose, and a chorus of frogs rang out. From somewhere came the sound of Khmer music, and for a moment, I could have sworn I could smell jasmine.

- Frank Gardner is the BBC’s security correspondent

Sam Rainsy Party Parliamentarians Welcome Increased Expenses for the Military Sector, but They Must Be Handled Transparently - Friday, 7.11.2008

Posted on 9 November 2008

The Mirror, Vol. 12, No. 585

“Mr. Yim Sovann, a Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian from Phnom Penh and former chairperson of the Commission on Interior, National Defense, Investigation, Anti-Corruption, and Public Functions of the National Assembly, said that the increase of expenses for the military sector is good.

“He added, ‘At the same time, while supporting these large expenses for the military sector, we are also very much concerned that there might me corruption related to these expenses. Therefore we have to check the names in the lists one by one, and we have to ask the Ministry of Defense about details of these expenses, especially about how much of the expenses is to be spent where and for what.’

“This experienced parliamentarian said straightforwardly, ‘If we do not do so, we will lose money through corruption. Therefore, the Ministry of Defense has to address this problem and take responsibility for it, in order to avoid losing and wasting resources from the national budget.

“This essential speech of Mr. Yim Sovann was made after a Cambodian People’s Party parliamentarian, Mr. Cheam Yeap, spoke about the draft budget for 2009 which is approximately US$1.9 billion, increased from US$1.2 billion in 2008, with a reserve of US$224 million for emergencies.

“In the meantime, Mr. Cheam Yeap added, speaking to the media, ‘Up to US$500 million is kept separately for the Ministry of Defense.’

“Mr. Cheam Yeap went on to say, ‘The budget for National Defense is increased to approximately US$500 million in 2009, because the government policies aim to improve the military sector while there are border disputes with Siam [Thailand].’

“Mr. Cheam Yeap added, ‘The budget of about US$500 million is not sufficient to improve our Cambodian armed forces, because most material being used is old. In addition, we also want our troops to feel confident for their families’ livelihood while they are at the battlefield.’

“Mr. Cheam Yeap’s speech above shows that our national defense forces face huge shortages; the blame should be put on the Ministry of Defense, as it handled the affairs of the military sector irresponsibly until problems arose, when it is now known that our military sector is poor and lacks everything.

“Mr. Son Chhay, the chairperson of the Sam Rainsy parliamentarians’ group, said, ‘I am very concerned, because recently, there was an announcement to double the expenses for the military sector; this is good, because we want our troops to be capable to confront other countries.’

“However, Mr. Son Chhay emphasized that if we look carefully, it is seen that our forces are not appropriately prepared yet. At the battlefield, if there were not the expert troops of the Prime Minister, it would be difficult to hold out against another country.

“He continued, ‘Our troops seldom do any training, and there is not enough material to equip them to become standard troops - some of them even wore flip-flops to the battlefield.

Therefore, we must first prepare plans for our troops before doubling the expenses; our troops have not implemented policies as troops of the nation, but they are troops of a [political] party.’

“According to these reasons, Mr. Son Chhay, added, ‘In fact, the King is the commander of the national troops according to the Constitution. But we have not provided a prerogative to the King, so that our troops receive his clear and correct care.’

“It is not known where the money for the plan to double the expenses for the military sector will come from, but Mr. Cheam Yeap said that the Prime Minister has the special authority to use a reserved budget taken from reserved funds of the government, designated for natural disasters or for war.

“On the other hand, also the Minister of Economy and Finance, Mr. Keat Chhon, reacted by questioning where the US$500 million will be taken from.

“That means that those asking for these expense, and those responsible for the budget spoke quite differently, and it is believed that the expenses for the military sector in 2009 will surely bring notorious problems.

“As for what Mr. Yim Sovann mentioned above, at the same time of support for large expenses for the military, there is also much concern that there might me corruption related to these expenses; therefore, there must be checks to assure transparency.”

Khmer Machas Srok, Vol.2, #279, 7.11.2008
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