Sunday, 17 February 2008

Khmer art and soul

A dancer practices at the Khmer Arts Academy at the Center for Culture and Vipassana in Takmao, Cambodia, on Thursday. (Jeff Gritchen/Staff Photographer)

By Greg Mellen, Staff writer

TAKMAO District, Cambodia - As a gentle breeze wafts through the open space of the Khmer Arts Theater 15 kilometers south of Phnom Penh, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro glides effortlessly through a group of about 20 dancers.

Drifting from one dancer to the next, the teacher softly adjusts an elbow, cocks a wrist and bends fingers, as if molding each like a piece of clay. Then she floats on to another, again fine-tuning the intricate movements and positions that define Cambodian classical dance.

A traditional seven-piece band accompanies the dancers, who are practicing a traditional and complex two-hour dance called Ream Eyso and Moni Melchala, a ritualistic story of the struggle between a water goddess and a demon.

As Shapiro puts her professional touring dancers, the Khmer Arts Ensemble, through their paces in a magnificent theater at the Center for Culture and Vipassana, it's hard to imagine that less than six years ago she was teaching inner-city youth in Long Beach in a cramped space at the United Cambodian Community building as well as conducting sessions in her living room.
"This is a surprise and a good surprise," Shapiro says of her recent run of success. "I never thought I'd make it back like this and spend more time in Cambodia."

Part of her heart, though, remains in Long Beach.

"I'm keeping that connection and sense of attachment in both places," she says.

Shapiro leads a professional group that tours internationally and performs both traditional dances and Shapiro's original pieces. This month, the Khmer Arts Ensemble is preparing to take a production of Pamina Devi, Shapiro's Cambodian interpretation of Mozart's Magic Flute, to Amsterdam. It is a piece Shapiro debuted in Vienna in August 2006 at the Schonbrunn Palace Theatre.

Shapiro and her dancers are also working on projects with artists from Japan to San Diego.
To appreciate how far Shapiro has come, it helps to know a little of her past.

As child, Shapiro survived the Cambodian genocide. After the downfall of the Khmer Rouge and the restoration of arts and dance programs in Cambodia, Shapiro was one of the first classical dancers to graduate from the Phnom Penh School of Fine Arts. Under the Pol Pot regime, arts and artists were systematically purged. Among the 1.7 million Cambodians who died were about 90 percent of the nation's dancers.

As a result, for Shapiro dance is more than just movement and music, it is a vital part of the culture and soul of Cambodia, a fragile form that was nearly wiped away forever.

"I think classical dance is a very beautiful piece of artistry that's unique to the heritage from Cambodia," she says. "It's a symbol of a precious thing, a symbol of cultural pride."

An academy arises

As a tuk-tuk putters along a nondescript country road in Kandal Province, passengers start to hear a distinctly Cambodian melody drifting through the trees. Next to an empty field are a pair of small signs that read "Khmer Arts Academy" and "Center for Culture and Vipassana," referring to a form of Buddhist meditation. And there, behind a stand of trees, rises an imposing structure built by Shapiro's uncle, Chheng Phon.

The roofed open dance practice area is half a football field long. It backs into stairs rising to a stage area and into a 20-foot-tall building topped by large pillars featuring Buddha faces reminiscent of the ancient Bayon temples and featuring details that look as if they were lifted straight out of Angkor Wat.

As Shapiro jokes, instead of limestone it's made of cement, and instead of being built in the 1300s it was built in 1999. Also, unlike the Angkor Wat temples, it has electricity and air conditioning.

The theater complex sits across the street from the Shapiros' decidedly more modest home.
Sophiline founded the Khmer Arts Academy in 2002 with her husband John, whom she married in 1991. Together, they are becoming a kind of power couple in the Khmer arts scene. In addition to the dance troupe, the academy features traditional music and singing. They are working on creating a media center that will produce films and documentaries about classical dance and an archive center.

Teaching them early

At the core remains the Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach, where former students of Shapiro teach about 50 Cambodian-American children the dances and traditions of their homeland.

Shapiro says the youngsters remain a vital part of Khmer Arts. She says teaching children the basics and fundamentals of Cambodian dance at an early age makes them better dancers down the road.

Furthermore, she said it gives Cambodian-American children a sense of self and pride in their culture.

In the summer, the Shapiros plan to bring students from Long Beach to Cambodia for a camp in which they will not only learn dance from the professionals but be immersed in Khmer arts and culture.

"We have kind of a double goal," John Shapiro says of the couple's dreams for the academy. "We want to make meaningful art and present it here and (worldwide). And we want to foster the vitality of the dance environment. We want to train dancers, but we also want to encourage scholarship, education and outreach."

The dance troupe has only been together in its current form for about a year. The dancers are all graduates of the Royal University of Fine Arts and range in age from 18 to 21. Many have been dancers for most of their lives.

Shapiro hopes that as time goes on, many of her students will begin their own troupes and classes.

Sopheap Chan is one of Shapiro's students and gushes about the experiences she has gained, traveling to the United States to dance.

When asked about her long-term goals, as if reading from Shapiro's playbook, Chan says, "I want to do like my teacher."

While the success of the academy in the last couple of years has been stunning, there is no sense of complacency. The group still has to rely on donors and grants for much of its money and still has a way to go before becoming self-sustaining.

John Shapiro says the Khmer Arts Academy is one of very few traditional Cambodian arts enterprises that are independent of the government. They are by far the most accomplished of those groups. Keeping the momentum going will be a challenge, but the Shapiros have optimism to spare.

But Sophiline Shapiro is happy with what she sees. In February her dancers performed opposite the Ministry of Culture's troupe, which represents the country, and more than held its own. In fact, Shapiro said her girls outperformed their more renowned rivals.

Staying busy

In the meantime, the creative juices have been flowing. On the day several journalists showed up, the Shapiros were also visited by Japanese artist Assui Minagishi, who is a master of the ichigenkin, a one-stringed traditional instrument. A collaborative effort is in the works to do a piece that represents visions of rice goddesses in the two cultures.

Like many who stumble across the academy, Minagishi was blown away by what she saw.
"I am so excited to have a chance to combine with them," the musician said.

When first introduced to the Shapiros, Minagishi saw only a solo dance performance with recorded music.

After seeing a full rehearsal she said, "Before I had an idea what I wanted to do. Now it's all gone."

Plans are also under way for a collaboration with San Diego composer Chinary Ung that could be performed at Disney Hall.

Whether it's in Cambodia, Europe or the United States, Shapiro just wants to expose as many people as she can to her country's art.

"Angkor Wat is a great structure," Shapiro says, "but dance is artistry that can be shared throughout the world and made more accessible to humanity."

Sacravatoons: Preah Vihear, Sharing Cake

Courtesy of sacravatoon :

Sacravatoons: The Defections

Courtesy of Sacravatoon :

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs Reacts to the Allegations of Amnesty International

17 February 2008.

The Mirror, Vol. 12, No. 547

“On 13 February 2008, the Khmer Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation issued a statement [full text, 1 page, is here] rejecting the criticism by Ms. Brittis Edman, an Amnesty International official, who had claimed on 11 February that 150,000 Khmer poor people were illegally evicted from their houses by armed authorities, and that the land was granted to private companies [full text of the statement by Amnesty International - not a statement by the staff member Brittis Edman - 74 pages, with detailed references to cases, as well as to national and international law, can be downloaded here here]. This statement was made after this international organization’s staff had met and talked with poor people living in Dey Krahom, Rik Reay, and Group 78 communities in Sangkat Tonle Basak who are faced with forced eviction by armed forces of the government, in order to seize the land and hand it over to private firms.

“The Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs response statement called Ms. Brittis Edman’s accusations totally groundless. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that there has been no illegal eviction as mentioned in the statement; most of the people who live in those communities agree with the companies and the authorities.

“Ms. Brittis Edman has previously said during meetings with people from the three communities in Sangkat Tonle Basak that the government’s armed forces forcefully evicted people for the benefit of private companies, and they contributed to and caused massive human rights violations, as those people do not get offered an appropriate solution from the companies that want to occupy the land.

“Ms. Brittis Edman added that these forced evictions are serious and illegal acts. On behalf of Amnesty International, she appealed to the Hun Sen government to stop to forcefully evict poor from these communities, as the government is obliged to protect legal settlement rights of the people.

“Ms. Brittis Edman’s statement was released after her visit to land grabbing victims in some provinces and municipalities in Cambodia. She stated that the victims in Dey Krahom are among the 150,000 poor people mentioned. She continued that people evicted from these areas should have a legal and suitable solution, and relocation sites should be first developed before evictions.
“Yesterday, on 14 February, Mr. Eng Chhay Eang, the secretary-general of the Sam Rainsy Party, a member of the National Assembly from Battambang, and the vice-president of the National Authority for the Resolution of Land Disputes, issued a statement condemning the authorities in Ratanak Mondol, Battambang, who ordered armed forces to pull down the houses of Mr. Sat Sarang and of Ms. Seng Im in Rasmei Sangha village, Sdau commune, on 13 February 2008.

“Mr. Eng Chhay Eang stated that the authorities in Ratanak Mondol ordered armed forces to pull down the house of Mr. Sat Sarang in order to develop a road, without having any agreement with the house owner or an appropriate compensation for him. This act is a violation of the Constitution and of the law on land management.

“Mr. Sat Sarang legally built his house on this land in 1996. In the event that the authorities need this land to develop a road, it is necessary to have a suitable and fair policy for the land owner, following Article 44 of the Constitution: ‘The right to confiscate possessions from any person shall be exercised only in the public interest as provided for under law and shall require fair and just compensation in advance.’

“Mr. Eng Chhay Eang added that any official or authority, who use their power in violation or without a warrant to confiscate property, shall be fined from Riel 10 to 25 million, and face disciplinary actions according to Article 261 of the land law.

Mr. Eng Chhay Eng also called on the National Authority for the Resolution of Land Disputes to take action to prevent local authorities, who illegally order armed forces by their own will, from pulling down houses or from seizing land from legal owners. These owners are protected by the Constitution and the land law.

“Concerning the evictions of people in provinces and municipalities from their residences, Mr. Om Sam Ath, the Monitoring Technical Supervisor for human rights violations of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights – LICADHO - said, ‘People have been evicted from their homes in some provinces and towns in Cambodia. During some of these evictions in the past, some people were arrested and jailed, and some were injured due to violence; some were even killed.’

“Mr. Om Sam Ath continued that the government should not have taken such quick reaction against Amnesty International’s criticism of forced evictions of poor people from their residences by armed forces in illegal acts. The government should clearly note that this organization’s criticism is really true, or that it is just a not complete statement. He continued that many people and civil society have joined to lobby the government to stop using violence in evicting people from their communities, but the government should try to find suitable solutions to develop those communities of people at the relocation sites. This kind of illegal evictions make people lose, while private companies will get great benefits.”
Khmer Machas Srok, Vol.2, #110, 15-16.2.2008

Kem Sokha vs Hun Sen

Details are Sketchy
February 16, 2008

Boss of the Human Rights Party Kem Sokha has declared victory over Hun Sen and the law to allow non-Cambodians to own Cambodian land.

Kem Sokha, HRP president who used to criticize the government on this issue, said that he learned about this issue through the news media. He said that Hun Sen rejection of this rumor is a victory.

Kem Sokha said: “Now we see that he (Hun Sen) is pulling out, we heard it coming, we didn’t see this law being adopted yet, but we prevented it from happening. If we were to allow it to be adopted, it would be very difficult and it would be too late.”

Prevented it from happening? Please. No such law was ever even thought about, much less drafted. Of course, politicians spin, and nobody should be too surprised when people running for office start painting reality with only beautiful colors. But that’s not what Kem Sokha is doing. In this case Kem Sokha is inventing reality, which implies that he thinks voters are too stupid to notice such unvarnished mendacity.

Or that’s the best case scenario. The other option is that Kem Sokha really is frighteningly clueless.

Of course, all that presumes that Kem Sokha really is a genuine electoral candidate, and not some CPP stooge created to protect the illusion of multi-party democracy. Considering the awesome stooge-like brilliance of Kem Sokha’s campaign so far, that’s not a difficult case to make.

The Elephant of Phnom Penh

A moveable beast
Elephant advertising on the riverfront
By Keith Hutson and Mandy Smith

When Wat Phnom's resident elephant, Sam Bo, takes her leisurely lope home on Sisowath Quay each evening, she is now adorned with a curious new accessory - a bright red sign that trumpets the logo of a riverfront restaurant.

Tassilo Brinzer, owner of La Croissette Restaurant and Bar, pays Sam Bo's owner about $30 a month, and provides the 46-year-old elephant with a steady stream of fruit snacks, in exchange for the placement of a square fabric advertisement. "I saw him coming by and I heard that the elephant was fed and the owner doesn't have a lot of money," Brinzer, 30, told the Post. "So, I thought 'Why don't we sponsor it?'"

Sam Bo's owner, Sim Surn, 51, said he has no reservations about the opportunistic ogling and would be open to additional sponsors. But the new campaign - call it elephant advertising - is raising both eyebrows and ire from riverfront regulars. What some are applauding as a savvy marketing gimmick, others are calling a tasteless - though harmless - form of animal embarrassment.

Hurley Scroggins, owner of the riverfront's Cantina restaurant, said seeing an elephant used as an advertising tool saddened him. "I think it's inappropriate to advertise on Sam Bo," Scroggins said. "If she needs help, that's another issue." Ken Hopkins, an Australian tourist, agreed, saying it was just another example of Phnom Penh's "mindless" tourism boom. "I think its exploitation," Hopkins said. "I have never seen an elephant in the wild with a banner on its back."

A middle-aged English tourist, who refused to be named, blasted the placard. "It's a terrible idea to have an advertisement like that," he said. "You can equate it with the same way they treat elephants in Bangkok."

But Vanaa, a waitress in her early twenties, said the advertisement was a novel idea. "I think it's cute," she said. "I don't think there is any controversy about the elephant." Brinzer, a German national who purchased La Croisette three years ago, defended his elephant promotion."

There is only one elephant in Phnom Penh and it's privately owned. A lot of people think that it is a public elephant, but it is not. There is only one owner," he said. "People argue that we shouldn't sponsor it and shouldn't show our logo. But nobody has sponsored it except La Croisette.

"We didn't brand her on the skin, it's just a blanket. It's just a non-permanent blanket on an elephant. That's all." When informed of Scroggins' opinion, Brinzer shrugged. "Maybe Hurley is looking at it like a personal quest," he said.

Suwanna Gauntlett, country coordinator for environmental NGO WildAid, said using Sam Bo as a walking advertisement was disappointing, but not a form of animal cruelty. "Some elephants are made to carry huge logs," she said. Gauntlett said it was the first she had heard of an elephant being used for marketing in Cambodia. And although Sam Bo is considered a "national treasure," Gauntlett said elephants are not generally revered in Cambodia. "There is no sacredness about any animal here," she said.

In 2002, WildAid field officers noticed that Sam Bo's heels were starting to crack. They asked her mahout Surn to give her time off work to rest, but he refused. WildAid eventually compensated him for the month and proceeded to treat and heal her wounds. "But they have a special relationship," Gauntlett said. "[Surn] loves her very much and is doing the very best he can to treat her properly with the means he has.

"Surn caught the elephant in the mountain ranges of Oral district, Kampong Speu, when she was only eight. "During the rule of Sihanouk I had five elephants but four were killed by the Khmer Rouge," he said. "They chopped Sam Bo's legs 15 times but didn't kill her. Then they took care of her for two years during the regime." He brought Sam Bo to Phnom Penh in 1983 and has been making his livelihood from her ever since. He charges customers $10 for a turn about Wat Phnom.

"Since then I have taught her to listen, lie down, stand up, and not to steal. But her favorite thing to do is eat," he said. "She starts eating at 7 am and eats the whole day. She eats a lot more than she sleeps."

Cambodia genocide trials seeking justice

Cambodian genocide survivor Youk Chhang at the Global Conference on the Prevention of Genocide at the Omni Hotel in Montreal.

Phil Carpenter, Montreal Gazette
Norma Greenaway , Canwest News Service
Saturday, February 16, 2008

Youk Chhang remembers being aflame with an all-consuming desire for revenge when he settled into Texas in the 1980s as a survivor of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in his native Cambodia.

The young refugee hated the people responsible for the extermination of about 1.7 million Cambodians - 25 per cent of the population - from April 1975 through January 1979, among them a beloved sister and countless other relatives.

But mostly, Chhang says, he hated them for making his mother's life a living hell. Now 74, she spent decades as a single mom haunted by the feeling she had failed to protect her children.

At one point, for example, she walked away as Chhang was being beaten within an inch of his life by Khmer Rouge enforcers because he was caught picking mushrooms to take to his pregnant, starving sister.

His mother reasoned that if she went to his defence, both of them would be killed. But Chhang was puzzled and hurt by his mother's behaviour and they became estranged for many years.

Once in the United States, Chhang says his days on the Texas A&M campus in College Station were peppered with crazed, solo protests about the brutality of the Khmer Rouge that fell mostly on deaf ears.

"I was young, I was naive," Chhang said of his lonely attempts to awaken fellow university students to the crimes against humanity committed by Pol Pot's forces.

He said the genocide seemed worse because it was Cambodians murdering and torturing other Cambodians - not some foreign invader - in a claimed quest to create a communist utopia where money, schools and religion were abolished.

The Khmer Rouge emptied the cities, exiling millions to vast collective farms where many died of starvation and overwork.

"It's the deepest, most horrible feeling - living in a society where the nightmare is homemade," he said.

Almost three decades later, Chhang's anger has subsided and the wounded country is about to finally embark on a major turning point in its mending process - the UN-backed prosecution of five accused Khmer Rouge ringleaders for their involvement in what the world has come to know as "the killing fields" of Cambodia.

The tribunal includes both Cambodian and foreign justices and prosecutors, among them Canadian lawyer Robert Petit, a veteran of war crimes trials in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Kosovo and East Timor.

"This is the last chapter of the Cambodian genocide," the soft-spoken Chhang said over the phone from Phnom Penh, where he has lived since he returned to Cambodia in the early 1990s.

"It's not about revenge anymore. It's about the future. We don't want it to be repeated ever again."

Chhang, 47, has spent the last decade collecting more than 1.5 million pages of documentary evidence and witness accounts of the genocide, murder, torture and religious persecution Cambodians endured under the Khmer Rouge.

Some of the material collected by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, a private research body Chhang helped found, will be used during the prosecution of the five aging members of the former regime now in custody.

First up is Kaing Guek Eav, 66. Also known as Duch, he was head of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh and is accused of directing the deaths of thousands of men, women and children. His case is expected to open before the tribunal in June or July.

The prosecutions come a decade too late to get Pol Pot, the infamous leader of the Khmer Rouge forces. He died in a jungle hideout in 1998.

Cambodians at home and abroad are divided over the merits of bringing even a handful of players to trial for atrocities committed so long ago.

Some say there is no justice that would make up for what happened to their families. Others say the trials only will serve to polish - unjustifiably, according to them - the current government's image. Still others say prosecution of at least a few of the villains is needed to achieve understanding and true forgiveness.

Political infighting and resistance from within the current government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who only broke with the Khmer Rouge when he was about to be killed, have delayed the process.

Despite the setbacks, there is still a thirst for justice in the country, said Petit, the tribunal's coprosecutor.

"It's 30 years after the fact. Presumably, most people have found a way, working or not, good or not, to deal with what happened," Petit said in an interview from Phnom Penh, where he has been preparing for the trials for the last 18 months.

"But as a nation, it is important. It will allow the nation as a whole to see some justice for what happened here."

The tribunal, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), is being financed by donations of $56 million, including $2 million from Canada. The federal government has shipped more than $112 million in development assistance to impoverished Cambodia in the last decade.

Petit says he hopes the tribunal will help fill the knowledge gap in the country about the atrocities committed under the Khmer Rouge, especially for the more than 70 per cent of the population born after its 1979 ouster from power.

"We're going to try because we are probably the best hope for a comprehensive record of what happened," Petit said.

The former Montreal prosecutor acknowledged, however, Cambodians may not get the closure many seek.

"Criminals tend to go to their graves denying they had anything to do with (the crime)," said Petit, who is on loan from the war crimes division of the justice department in Ottawa.

"At home, you would expect someone who did something to you to say, `Sorry, and yes, I did it.'
"Even in our world that seldom happens. I was a prosecutor at home for eight, nine years. Yes, the guy pleads guilty. But genuine remorse and full disclosure and acceptance are very rare."

Still, Chhang said the trials would send a powerful message that genocide will not be tolerated in Cambodia or anywhere.

He brushes off those who say five prosecutions is not enough, saying: "You have to start somewhere."

The four others awaiting trial are Khieu Samphan, president of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge; Leng Sary, minister of foreign affairs; his wife Leng Thirith, the minister of social action; and Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologue and a Pol Pot confidant.

On a more personal note, Chhang makes clear that having made peace with his mother, he now is ready to leave Cambodia.

"I just want to feel a moment of peace in my life," he said of his plans to move to Texas with his wife, and two young children.

"I have fulfilled my obligations as a victim and as a person. I've done my obligation for my mother and my sister."

Land Eviction in Cambodia must stop

The people of Cambodia are strongly condemn to the Hun Sen's government of using brutal forces to evicticted the poor peoples and urge to the world to help those peoples and to stop those animals.

Pictures from LICADHO

Please generously donate to LICADHO

The Living Condition of the poors in Cambodia; Did Hun Sen care about them?

Will Cambodia’s Government Blow Property Market Wide Open
Sat, 16 Feb 2008

Nuth Nurang, Secretary of State at Cambodia's Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction has revealed that the government is considering an amendment to Cambodia's law that would allow foreigners to buy property in the rapidly emerging market freehold.

Currently the best option for foreigner investors is to buy on a leasehold tenure of up to 99 years. Another option is to form a company with Cambodian partners - this carries complex tax issues and needs to be considered carefully.

David Stanley Redfern's French Colonial Apartments in Cambodia's growth centre, the capital Phnom Penh are on a 99 year leasehold tenure. The contract includes the option to buy the properties freehold if and when the law is amended - experts predict that foreigners will be buying freehold in Cambodia before this year is out, likely a lot sooner.

Foreigners being able to buy property freehold would blow the Cambodian property market wide open. Bouncing back from the brutality of the Khmer Rouge gives Cambodia's emergence a vibrancy and vitality all of its own. From the children in school upwards there is a drive and determination to put Cambodia where it should be on the global scene, and to make sure the thousands who were killed didn't die in vane.

Most of Cambodia's male population is under the age of 25, as a result of Khmer Rouge mass murders, and the aforementioned drive means every child in school is there to learn as much as they can and to be all they can be. I'm not sure how much of an attraction this is to the multinational companies currently flocking into Cambodia, probably not as much of an attraction as the low cost of living and potential for a low cost workforce.

Either way it is good for the Cambodian's. Multinational companies are not only setting up shop in the emerging market, but are making Cambodia their S.E. Asian operations hub.

I asked an incredibly knowledgeable source, who is well travelled in Asia but unfortunately can't be named, how much the big companies pay the local staff they employ in the lower positions, more than Cambodian's would normally make, or the absolute bare minimum.

I learned that they - especially the big banking operations - often have to pay more to get the best out of their workforce, and they are also giving perks like health insurance and dental plans. And that because of Cambodia's better-than-you-might-expect education system, combined with the aforementioned determination that permeates Cambodian society, often the staff are getting promoted and getting pay-rises to keep them in the company.

When things like this are happening the economy is regenerating all the time, especially in the world's main growth hot-spot and a place experts believe will enjoy sustained growth over at least the next five years.

The Cambodian's in stable and well paid employment have money to spend on their accommodation rented or bought, spending their wages is spreading money throughout the business sector, living costs start to go up, meaning building materials start costing more, labourers and tradesmen get closer to what they should for their hard-labour - all pushing up the value of Cambodian property.

A prediction for the future might be some of the big car companies opening operations in Cambodia - watch this space for that and be the first to know the minute freehold ownership is possible for foreigners in Cambodia.

Cambodia rebuffs US call to repay millions of dollars in debt from the 1970s

The Associated Press
Published: February 15, 2008

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: Cambodia has more pressing concerns than repaying millions of dollars (euros) it owes the United States, a government spokesman said Friday, rebuffing Washington's latest demand for settlement of loans from the 1970s.

"We have many affairs to attend to," said government spokesman Khieu Kanharith, noting that repaying US$339 million (€230 million) to the U.S. was not high on Cambodia's priority list.

The comments came a day after Scot Marciel, the U.S. State Department's deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, urged Cambodia to sign a draft agreement on repaying the debt. Marciel made the remarks Thursday in Washington in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Asia.

The outstanding debt stems from rice, cotton and other agricultural commodities financed by low-interest loans the U.S. provided to Cambodia during the regime of Gen. Lon Nol in the early 1970s.

Lon Nol came to power in a 1970 coup that ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The United States was the main financial and military supporter of Lon Nol's regime until it was toppled by the genocidal Khmer Rouge movement in April 1975.

The two countries have not yet come up with a repayment plan, partly because the Cambodian government refuses to accept responsibility for debts incurred by the Lon Nol regime, and partly because of a disagreement over the amount of debt owed, Marciel said.

After years of deadlock, Cambodia agreed "in principle with the amount of principal it owed" in 2006 but then refused to sign a draft bilateral agreement drawn up by the U.S., Marciel said. Cambodia has subsequently demanded additional concessions, including a lower interest rate, he said.

He said Cambodia also does not deserve any debt reduction from the U.S. because it is neither heavily indebted nor facing crisis of external balance of payments.

"Cambodia has accumulated arrears to the U.S., while paying other creditors on time, and in at least one case, early," Marciel said.

About US$154 million (€105 million) of Cambodia's debt "would be due immediately," if the 2006 agreement is implemented this year, he said.

Khieu Kanharith said immediate payback was unlikely.

"Even if we have to repay it, we can't repay it because that would severely affect our financial and economic situation," he said.

Despite recent economic growth, Cambodia still relies on hundreds of millions of dollars (euros) in annual foreign assistance for development.

The government spokesman added that the United States "has not compensated the Cambodian people" for its bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam war either.

The difficulties Cambodia faces today as it tries to rebuild after more than two decades of civil war "are also partly the result of the American bombing."

U.S. and Vietnam Need to Rethink Deportation

Feb 16, 2008
Dori Cahn & Jay Stansell

Last month, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced the signing of a repatriation agreement with the government of Vietnam. The agreement states that Vietnamese nationals who entered the United States after July 12, 1995, and do not have legal status in the United States can be deported to Vietnam. The ICE press release claims that this agreement covers around 1,500 people who have committed criminal or immigration violations.

But there is no information from the Vietnamese government as to what will happen to those who are deported to that country. Nor has there been a public and transparent process here for justifying these removals to a regime that has yet to establish a track record of full respect for human rights of its people.

Many questions remain unanswered about this agreement. What will happen to the first group of individuals whose plane lands in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City and are handed over to Vietnamese authorities? Why is it necessary or just to have laws that result in the deportation of refugees in the first place, particularly Southeast Asian refugees who were the allies of U.S. foreign interests during the conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos? How can the human rights of those who are returned be assured?

The situation echoes the repatriation agreement between the United States and Cambodia, following decades where Cambodia had also refused to accept deportees. In March of 2002, Cambodians in the United States were horrified to learn that their children and family members who had escaped the terrors of the Khmer Rouge were to be returned to the country that still evoked vivid memories of terror, torture, starvation and death.

Making the situation worse, in an early comment following the agreement, the Cambodian prime minister stated that the U.S. “criminals” would be immediately removed to Prey Sar prison, the country’s largest and most dangerous institution.

But the Cambodian American community and allies pushed back against this attitude towards the returnees. Activists organized against the agreement, and helped prod the Cambodians to soften their tone and rhetoric. They helped to establish an organization in Phnom Penh to monitor and assist the planeloads of young Cambodian Americans that were to follow.

Many participants in this still emerging movement also began to advocate for long-needed changes to U.S. immigration law that would allow for review of the decisions to deport refugees. People who wind up in the United States after war, terror, and trauma in their home countries do not understand why they are not allowed to ask for a second chance from the U.S. government. Families must have the right to challenge these decisions before their loved ones are sent back to a homeland that may not be willing to embrace them.

The experience of returnees in Cambodia is telling. A returnee-run NGO monitors each group as it lands, and offers assistance to integrate into a country that many either left when they were children, or never knew at all because they were born in refugee camps. Of the 168 men and one woman who have been returned to Cambodia, many are not working, or work jobs that pay minimal wages, or live in the countryside growing rice. Some have gained security and a sense of belonging by marrying into Cambodian families. While many of the returnees are not thriving, the Cambodian government has learned that they are not a threat to be managed, but people who just want to live their lives without intervention.

We know nothing about what will happen to returnees in Vietnam. Many of the post-1995 entrants may be Amerasians, or Montagnards, or people who spent years languishing in reeducation camps before being admitted to the United States. Each of those groups has reason to be concerned about their re-entry to a country that has been silent about their future.

Congress should push for a moratorium on deportations under this agreement until there is assurance from the Vietnamese government that the human rights of all those returned to Vietnam will be respected. Administration officials should act with transparency and identify the composition of those who face removal. If actual removals are to take place, both countries should cooperate with advocates to establish a monitoring organization in Vietnam modeled upon the successes, and improving upon the problems, of efforts in Cambodia. And Congress and all concerned Americans must have an open and honest discussion of why immigration laws presume to tear apart families that have already suffered so much trauma, particularly the refugees and other migrants from the Southeast Asian violence that America so directly influenced.

Cambodia to host 6th Mekong Flood Forum

PHNOM PENH, Feb. 16 (Xinhua) -- The Mekong River Commission (MRC) will hold the 6th Annual Mekong Flood Forum on May 27-28 in Phnom Penh, a MRC press release said on Saturday.

The forum aims to raise awareness of the current state of data collection, transmission and exchange, especially in the fields of water level and rainfall, at the national and regional levels in the Mekong River Basin, it said.

Another objective is to exchange information about the database systems and the tools used for dissemination of flood forecast and early warning, it said.

It will also provide an opportunity for participants to discuss the emerging needs related to flood forecast and to share the progress each country has made towards a holistic and balanced flood management plan, it said.

Stakeholders from MRC member countries, namely, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, donor agencies and scientists from the Mekong Basin and the international community, dialogue partners such as China and Myanmar, as well as international and national civil society organizations, are expected to join the forum, it added.

MRC is a regional organization responsible for the general safe management of the Mekong River.

Editor: Yan Liang

Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos talk to boost trade

February 17, 2008

The second conference to boost investment and trade in the Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam development triangle opened in Sihanouk Ville, Cambodia on February 16.

During the two-day conference, representatives from the three countries will review the implementation of the projects to develop the area, which were agreed at the first conference in Vietnam, and discuss measures to encourage investors of the three countries and foreign companies to pour capital into the triangle.

The Vietnamese delegation to the conference was headed by Deputy Minister of the Planning and Investment Nguyen Bich Dat.

The delegation comprised representatives from the ministries of trade and industry; agriculture and rural development; finance; labour, war invalids and social affairs, public security, Gia Lai, Kon Tum and Dak Nong provinces and relevant agencies. (VNA)