Monday, 7 April 2008

Bird flu center opened to protect South East Asia

PHNOM PENH, April 7 (Xinhua) -- The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has opened a regional center in Thailand stocked with supplies to combat a potential outbreak of avian influenza (AI) in Southeast Asia, according to a press release issued here on Monday.

Larger than a soccer field, the Bangkok warehouse contains enough personal protective equipment (PPE), decontamination kits and laboratory equipment to serve tens of thousands of people throughout Southeast Asia, said the press release from the USAID mission in Cambodia.

"Stockpiles of PPE are one critical component of the U.S. government's emergency pandemic preparedness in order to provide protection to first-responders to disease outbreak," said Erin Soto, USAID/Cambodia Mission Director.

"With the establishment of this regional distribution center in Thailand, the USAID is in a position to rapidly re-supply the MAFFin the advent of an AI outbreak," he added.

The first of three regional centers being planned worldwide, the depot will ensure a rapid response to any outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 virus, the release said, adding that the USAID spent nearly 550,000 U.S. dollars stocking the Bangkok depot.

In May 2007, USAID/Cambodia donated 4,500 PPE kits and 50 decontamination kits to Cambodia's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).

Bird flu remains a major threat throughout the region with the risk that the virus might mutate and attack humans. Worldwide, the H5N1 virus has been confirmed in more than 330 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which estimates that flu pandemics routinely occur about every 35 years.

Editor: Gao Ying

Not all bliss for take-away Cambodian brides

Apr 8, 2008
Asia Times on Line

By Brian McCartan

As Cambodia's once war-shattered, now booming economy opens to the world, Cambodian women are leaving in droves as several international marriage brokers have established match-making services in the impoverished country. Operating in a shadowy legal space, questions have been raised about the possible exploitative nature of the business, which some contend has acted as a front for global human trafficking rings.

Last week, the Cambodian government moved to put that trade on hold while it investigates whether any of the international brokers have ties to underworld crime syndicates. The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) had earlier drawn attention to the trade and is scheduled to release next month an investigative report on the growing numbers of South Korean men who come to Cambodia in search of brides.

The mechanics of the trade are still murky. What is known is that women from mostly rural areas are brought by brokers into the capital city of Phnom Penh and put on display for prospective foreign grooms. The brokers are usually either informal operators or connected to one of several matchmaking businesses, which until now operated freely in Cambodia.

Most of the women who contract with the matchmaking services are in their teens or early 20s and usually from rural areas where they have received basic, if any, schooling. The IOM's report says "the vast majority of [Korean-Cambodian] marriages occur through an informal and exploitative broker-arranged process".

The introductions are more transactional than romantic. Bride selection often takes place in hotel restaurants where as many as 100 women, the IOM report claims, are lined up and put on display for prospective grooms. After a woman is chosen, details are worked out between the groom and bride-to-be and the broker.

A marriage is held after a few days, followed in some cases with a short honeymoon. The groom then returns to his home country while paperwork is processed for his new wife to follow. In 2007, the number of foreign marriage licenses rose to 1,759, up from a mere 72 in 2004. There were 160 foreign marriages registered in Cambodia in January of this year.

South Koreans make up a large percentage of the men seeking brides in Cambodia. In 2005, marriages to foreigners accounted for 14% of all marriages in South Korea, up from 4% in 2000. According to the United States 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report, 72% of South Korean men in foreign marriages marry women from Southeast Asia or Mongolia. They are often lured by billboards which dot the South Korean countryside, advertising marriage services to foreigners.

Rural governments have even been known to subsidize marriage tours as a way of dealing with growing rural depopulation. The South Korean marriage brokering business began in the late 1990s, where it first aimed to pair Korean farmers or physically handicapped men with ethnic Koreans from China. The Korean Consumer Protection Board claims 2,000 to 3,000 marriage agencies now operate in South Korea.

Marriage tours also began in Vietnam and by 2007 the number of South Korean marriages to Vietnamese women ranked second only to brides from China. The search for foreign brides has been driven by low birth rates and the growing difficulty South Korean men have finding brides among the country's newly ambitious young females.

Many of the men coming on marriage tours to Cambodia have already arranged contacts through online services, which usually host images of eligible women on their websites. One such service is "Mr Cupid", which offers Cambodian, Vietnamese, Vietnamese Muslim and Chinese women. The agency, which has been operating since 1993 from Singapore and does not cater specifically to South Koreans, claims to customers to "transform your life in six days!"

Its operations were expanded beyond Vietnam to Cambodia and China in 2000 and Mr Cupid's website also offers franchise services. The website claims, "Come to Cambodia today and we guarantee that your visit will be fruitful, you will find the lady of your dreams waiting for you right there." From services like this, or those based in South Korea, men can arrange four- to six-day marriage tours.

Match made in hellIn many ways such services are false advertising. Marriages between Cambodian women and South Korean men are known to be fraught with difficulties, frequently caused by huge cultural and linguistic divides. "Often the women have misguided expectations of what life may be like abroad; there is a lack of realistic information about life in Korea," the IOM's report says.

Indeed, most of the women's fantasies of what their new lives will be like are based on Korean movies and television shows that have recently gained popularity in Cambodia and other parts of Asia. The new Cambodian brides often expect their South Korean grooms to be rich, successful businessmen; the reality, however, as the IOM report explains, is that they are often poor and poorly educated. This impacts the women's hopes that through marriage they would be able to send money home to support their families.

The pressures often result in disappointment and physical abuse. The deaths of several Vietnamese wives in South Korea in 2007 and early 2008 due to mistreatment by their South Korean husbands have already raised hard questions about the trade in Vietnam. One case that made headlines in both Vietnam and Cambodia involved the death of Tran Thanh Lan, a purchased bride who jumped or fell from her 14th floor balcony after only six weeks of marriage in South Korea. Her mother recently went to the country to demand an inquiry into her daughter's death.

Because the business apparently lacks a coercive element - women are allowed to turn down a marriage offer - it is not technically considered human trafficking. The business side of the trade, however, is certainly exploitative. Potential grooms pay as much as US$20,000 to brokers for their services, while the bride's family is given $1,000 as well as money to cover the costs of the wedding. The broker and agency divvy up the rest of the spoils.

The IOM report indicates that while there have been cases of abuse and domestic violence, "human trafficking has been far more difficult to identify". This may be the case in Cambodia so far, but there is plenty of documentation of Vietnamese women tricked by marriage brokers into factory work in South Korea. On February 26, police in Busan, South Korea, arrested a Vietnamese woman under suspicion of arranging sham marriages for $10,000 each. Once the purchased brides receive Korean citizenship, the women were divorced from their husbands and forced to work in factories.

Abuse against Cambodian brides has also been reported and some have ended up running away from bad marriages. The 2007 US Trafficking in Persons Report said, "NGOs [non-governmental organizations] are reporting cases of foreign women placed in conditions of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor by fake 'husbands' who work for trafficking rings or exploitative husbands who feel they 'own' the woman and can use her as a farm hand or domestic worker."

After recent crackdowns on the trade by Vietnamese authorities, the marriage brokering industry has grown rapidly in Cambodia, leading some trafficking experts to conclude that the brokers and trafficking rings have simply shifted countries. Marriage brokering is now illegal in Vietnam, but at its peak 20,000 brides were leaving the country every year.

Current Vietnamese law allows only the establishment of marriage support centers by non-profit women's groups. The Vietnamese Ministry of Justice has recently recommended legalizing the service in order to place stricter controls on it. The police, however, have recommended raising penalties, making the offering of Vietnamese women as brides on a par with human trafficking.

The Cambodian government first publicly acknowledged a potential problem in March. Sar Keng, deputy prime minister and minister of interior, said at the launch of a national anti-trafficking awareness campaign that some cases of human trafficking had been identified in the Cambodia marriage industry. Prime Minister Hun Sen has since ordered a crackdown on the industry, including cancelation of the licenses two South Korean companies engaged in the trade.

Brian McCartan is a Thailand-based freelance journalist.

Sacravatoons : "Baboon-Parade in Long Beach"

Courtesy of Sacravatoon at

Davik rides high in parade
By Greg Mellen, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 04/06/2008

LONG BEACH - Wearing a polka-dot dress and a parka, Davik Teng climbed into the back of a Mercedes-Benz convertible and was introduced to yet another American experience - a parade.

Davik, a 9-year-old Cambodian girl brought from a remote village in her homeland to the United States for life-changing heart surgery, was recognized at the fourth annual Cambodian New Year Parade on Sunday along Anaheim Street.

Quickly learning about the intricacies of the "parade wave" and later happily swinging a Cambodian flag, Davik was accompanied by her mom, Sin Chhon, and Chantha Bob and Peter Chhun, the two men responsible for arranging Davik's trip.

Two weeks ago, Davik underwent open-heart surgery at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles to close a hole in her heart, called a ventricular septal defect. The hospital donated its facilities and a world-class cardiac team led by surgeon Vaughn Starnes.

Aside from occasional headaches, Davik has showed remarkable progress in her recovery.

Originally, Chhun, president of the Long Beach-based nonprofit Hearts Without Boundaries, which is sponsoring Davik's trip, had hoped the girl could be home in Cambodia in time for the New Year.

However, Davik's heart operation was postponed because of unexpected dental problems requiring oral surgery.

Because Davik couldn't yet return home, Chhun asked to include her in one of Long Beach's most visible Cambodian New Year celebrations. Parade organizers agreed and provided the ride.

In addition to her coterie of supporters, Davik was also accompanied by a half-dozen volunteers who carried poster-sized pictures of the Cambodian girl.

Chhun said Davik and her mom were mystified by the American concept of a parade.

Chhun said when he asked how she would celebrate the holiday at home, Davik said, "We go to the temple and pray, that's it."

Davik was a minor celebrity along the route, although there were just as many shout-outs from paradegoers for Bob, a waiter at Sophy's Restaurant, a popular Cambodian eatery, and Chhun.

At the midway stop of the parade, an announcer said of Chhun's group, "They save lives. You should support them. Just go to the Web site, or stop at Sophy's and see Bob - simple."

At one point along the route, local resident Sambath Prop and his friends yelled out to Davik and shook homemade placards with the number 10 on them, signaling perfection.

Prop said he and his friends knew about Davik from newspaper accounts and because they are friends of Bob.

After the parade ended, Davik was standing at the edge of MacArthur Park, when she heard the strains of a familiar Cambodian New Year's song being played as dancers performed a traditional dance.

Davik excitedly pointed at the stage and tugged at the sleeve of Keo Tim, who has been hosting Davik and her mother in her Long Beach home.

Together the trio made their way toward the stage. With the peculiar parade over, Davik was now heading toward something she understood and recognized., 562-499-1291

Kids interview new immigrants

The Republican
Monday, April 07, 2008

GREENFIELD - "I got here by the airplane," Soeun Vomg, a Buddhist monk from Cambodia, told two Greenfield Center School students who were interviewing him as part of their study of immigration.

Elijah R. Mishkind, 9, a fourth-grader at the school, and 9-year-old Sasha A. Richard, a third-grader, asked Vomg a dozen questions their 20-member class prepared for eight visitors from the English for Speakers of Other Languages program at the Center for New Americans here recently. They wanted to know why their visitors emigrated to the United States, how they got here, what life was like in their native countries and what languages they speak.

The new Americans' class include people who hail from Kosovo, Moldova, China, Guatemala, Cambodia, Tibet and the Dominican Republic. As they learn English, they appreciate opportunities to practice their new language.

"I am very happy (to visit Greenfield Center School) because I want to know about the English language," said Vomg who now lives in Leverett. "I stay here. I must know English language."

Polina I. Donceva, of Greenfield, came from Moldova. She enjoyed her visit to the school because she likes children. "I like to meet with other people, and, when I speak with other people, my English become better," she added.

Diane K. Worth, the teacher of the English class, said her 10 students thought it was a "wonderful idea" to visit the school and be interviewed by the children because it would "be great for their English" and for the children to learn about immigrants.

Fourth-graders Jack H. Samuels and Rory R. Braun, both 9, agreed that it's better to learn by talking to people who have emigrated than only to read about immigration. "It's interesting to talk to people," Rory said. "It's easier," Jack added.

After reading a newspaper article about the English class, the children in the third- and fourth-grade class taught by Emily T. Cross and Annie R. Winkler invited the older students to visit their children and talk about their experiences as immigrants. "They were super excited to ask them questions about immigration," Winkler said.

"We wanted to interview them and learn what their experience was coming from wherever they came from," explained fourth-grader Vivian S. Brock, 10. "They're real people, and they can express their feelings more than books can."

Vivian said it was good for the immigrants to visit the school "to know somebody here and to know that other people know they exist."

Cross said the Center School teachers seek ways to give students exposure to thinking from different perspectives. "Thinking about immigration from different points of view and meeting people they wouldn't meet in their everyday lives and hearing about their experiences" enriches the students, she said.

As a follow-up to the interviews, the children will make thank yous to the person they interviewed. That thank you will "take any form meaningful to their conversation," Winkler said - perhaps art inspired by what the immigrant described.

A Banner Day for Cambodians

Sihaneat Chea, attired as a Cambodian warrior, carries a Prasat Preach Vihear in honor of King Suryavarman, who reunited Cambodia in 1113. (Diandra Jay / Staff Photographer)
By Kelly Puente, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 04/06/2008

LONG BEACH - Long Beach resident Phan Phin hasn't been back to Cambodia since his entire family was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.

For Phin, 62, the Cambodian New Year Parade is a small taste of home.

"I love to see the culture," he said. "It helps me remember."

The fourth annual parade kicked off on Sunday with a colorful sea of floats, community groups and dance troupes in traditional costume.

Under sunny skies and warm weather, thousands of spectators lined the sidewalks of Anaheim Street between Junipero and Warren avenues, cheering "Happy New Year" and waving Cambodian and U.S. flags.

A handful of Buddhist monks began the festivities with a ceremonial prayer meant to bless the New Year, the Year of the Rat.

Organizer Danny Vong said this year's parade, with more than 80 entrants, was the city's biggest and best yet. The theme, "Cambodia Town For Diversity," is a celebration of the city's official designation of part of Anaheim Street between Junipero Avenue and Atlantic Boulevard as Cambodia Town in July.

Grand marshals included Long Beach Vice Mayor Bonnie Lowenthal, 6th District Councilman Dee Andrews and activists Charles Song, Sweety Chap and Michael Sar.

Sar, a 26-year-old Cal State Long Beach student, was chosen to represent a generation of young people working to preserve their culture.

Born and raised in Long Beach, Sar has served as president and vice president of Cal State Long Beach's Cambodian Student Society, served on the 2006 parade committee and also worked to establish Cambodia Town.

"(The parade) is a positive event where Cambodians can celebrate their culture and also celebrate being American," he said.

Sophy Juli Nuth, 22, who trains in Khmer classical dance, is also trying to honor the past and embrace the future.

In an elaborate gold costume, Nuth performed a traditional blessing dance with the Khmer Arts Cultural Center.

"Cambodia was always big on the arts, but when the Khmer Rouge took over, it pretty much wiped it away," she said.

Long Beach resident Tim Keo, who fled Cambodia in 1979, remembers that time. Keo, now 62, says she attends the parade each year for the music and dance.

"It makes me so happy to see the young people dancing," she said.

Organizers said new this year was participation by representatives from the Cambodian government, including the county's ministries of tourism and culture and fine arts, and Council of Ministries.

Controversy emerged last week when an invitation was extended to Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An. The invitation caused an emotional response from community members opposed to the Hun Sen government, which has been linked to human-rights abuses.

Organizers were later told that the Cambodian official would not participate.

Despite the earlier controversy, Sunday's event was smooth and peaceful as the parade moved along Anaheim and spilled into MacArthur Park for a celebration with music, food and information booths.

Many employees and business owners along Anaheim stepped outside to watch.

"Of course we support them," said Mia Hutchins, an employee at Long Beach Transit. "It's our family. It's our neighborhood. This is Long Beach right here."

Cambodian New Year is typically a three-day celebration that falls in mid-April.

The Long Beach festivities continue on Saturday with the annual Cambodian New Year Celebration at El Dorado Regional Park.

The all-day event features religious ceremonies, New Year games, cultural performances and music. Admission is $20 per vehicle parking at El Dorado if purchased in advance. For information, call 562-833-6128 or go online to the Cambodian Coordinating Council at, 562-499-1305

Iloilo City inks twinning pact with Phnom Penh, Cambodia
April 7, 2008
Iloilo City, Philippines

The chief city executive of this southern metropolis inked Friday a twinning agreement with officials of Phnom Penh, Cambodia for a collaboration to strengthen Phnom Penh's promotion of improved sanitation and environment health.

Iloilo City, on the other hand, will share its experience and lessons learned in implementing a sanitation promotion program.

A letter of intent was signed at the office of city Mayor Jerry P. Treñas between the city mayor and Deputy Governor H.E. Mann Chhoeurn of the municipal government of Phnom Penh.

The collaboration between Iloilo and Phnom Penh began in August 2007 when Iloilo representatives headed by Engr. Noel Hechanova, city environment and natural resources officer, went to the capital city of Cambodia to share experience at the inception workshop for their pilot initiative on sustainable water and sanitation.

In September 2007, representatives from Iloilo and Phnom Penh attended a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Environmentally Sustainable Cities Initiative in Bangkok, Thailand where they decided that further collaboration would be mutually beneficial. They also informally agreed to twin as a means of supporting their broader goals.

The delegation from Cambodia includes Deputy Governor Chhoeurn, Say Kosal, village chief of Tuol Sangkae, one of the sub-districts in Phnom Penh; Mrs. Tep Ketsiny, a representative from local non-government organization called the Center for Development; and Khoy Khim, the ECO-Asia country coordinator.

They will learn first hand about Iloilo's efforts to improve wastewater treatment and sanitation campaigns through social marketing outreach programs and infrastructure development.

Their city itinerary include a briefing of the Iloilo River Master Plan to be presented by Arch. Manuel Tingzon, chairman of the technical working group of the Iloilo River Development Council; a tour of the Iloilo River; briefing at the Iloilo Doctor's Hospital on its treatment plant; presentation of the city's initiatives at the Western Institute of Technology; and viewing of exhibits and press conference at the Marymart Mall.

Hechanova said the exchange visit here April 4-5, 2008 of the Cambodian representatives was made possible by the Environmental Cooperation-Asia Program (ECO-Asia) of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in promoting twinning relationships between selected cities in Asia. (PNA)

Tax Preparer Plotted Cambodian Coup

Los Angeles (April 7, 2008)
By WebCPA staff

A Cambodian-American tax preparer and accountant from Long Beach, Calif., went on trial in a Los Angeles federal court for plotting to take over Cambodia with a group of freedom fighters.

Opening arguments got underway in the trial of Yasith Chhun, 52, who faces charges of conspiracy to kill overseas, conspiracy to damage or destroy property in a foreign country, conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction outside America and violation of the Neutrality Act.

"This accountant from the city of Long Beach decided he was going to take over a country, and he was willing to take lives in order to do so," said prosecutor Lamar Baker, according to the New York Sun.

Chhun's group hoped to overthrow Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had been a brigade commander under Pol Pot, the late dictator responsible for Cambodia's brutal "killing fields." His public defender said Chhun believed U.S. officials would support his efforts after the House passed a resolution in 1998 calling for Hun Sen to be indicted for human rights abuses.

Chhun, who worked from an office in a California strip mall, hoped to become interim president of Cambodia if the coup plot succeeded. His group, the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, got as far as throwing grenades into coffee shops and karaoke bars.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen shakes hand with ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra during a meeting at a hotel in Siem Reap province

Ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (L) shake hand with Chea Sim, the head of Cambodian Senate, during a game of golf at Angkor Golf Resort Siem Reap province, 320 km (199 miles) northwest of Phnom Penh, April 6, 2008. Picture taken April 6, 2008.REUTERS/Stringer (CAMBODIA)

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) shakes hand with ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra during a meeting at a hotel in Siem Reap province, 320 km (199 miles) northwest of Phnom Penh, April 5, 2008. Picture taken April 5, 2008.REUTERS/Stringer (CAMBODIA)

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (3rd L) poses for photo with ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (2rd L) during a round of golf at Angkor Golf Resort Siem Reap province, 320 km (199 miles) northwest of Phnom Penh, April 6, 2008. Picture taken April 6, 2008.REUTERS/Stringer (CAMBODIA)

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) talks with ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra during a round of golf at Angkor Golf Resort in Siem Reap province, 320 km (199 miles) northwest of Phnom Penh, April 6, 2008. Picture taken April 6, 2008.REUTERS/Stringer (CAMBODIA)

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (2nd L) is seen with ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (2nd R) during a round of golf at Angkor Golf Resort in Siem Reap province, 320 km (199 miles) northwest of Phnom Penh, April 6, 2008. Picture taken April 6, 2008.REUTERS/Stringer (CAMBODIA)

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) speaks with ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra during a meeting at a hotel in Siem Reap province, 320 km (199 miles) northwest of Phnom Penh, April 5, 2008. Picture taken April 5, 2008.REUTERS/Stringer (CAMBODIA)

Dith Pran funeral service in South Plainfield, New Jersey, April 6, 2008

Former New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg delivers the eulogy during funeral services for New York Times photojournalist Dith Pran in South Plainfield, N.J., Sunday April 6, 2008. Dith was the Cambodian-born journalist whose harrowing tale of enslavement and eventual escape from that country's murderous Khmer Rouge revolutionaries in 1979 became the subject of the award-winning film 'The Killing Fields.' He was working as an interpreter and assistant for Schanberg in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, when the Vietnam War reached its chaotic end in April 1975 and both countries were taken over by Communist forces. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Buddhist monks pray next to the casket of New York Times photojournalist Dith Pran during his funeral service in South Plainfield, New Jersey, April 6, 2008. Dith is known for his experiences in his native country of Cambodia, where he was imprisoned and later escaped the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, which was turned into the Academy Award winning movie, "The Killing Fields." REUTERS/Chip East (UNITED STATES)

Ser Moeun Dith prays over the casket of her former husband, at the funeral service for New York Times photojournalist Dith Pran, in South Plainfield, New Jersey, April 6, 2008. Dith is known for his experiences in his native country of Cambodia, where he was imprisoned and later escaped the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, which was turned into the Academy Award winning movie, "The Killing Fields." REUTERS/Chip East (UNITED STATES)

New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg speaks at the funeral service for his close friend, New York Times photojournalist Dith Pran, in South Plainfield, New Jersey, April 6, 2008. Dith is known for his experiences with Schanberg in his native country of Cambodia, where he was imprisoned and later escaped the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, which was turned into the Academy Award winning movie, "The Killing Fields." REUTERS/Chip East (UNITED STATES)

What should our reaction be when others pray for our conversion?

By Selwyn Dukeweb
posted April 7, 2008

There recently was a story about a German Jewish leader, Charlotte Knobloch, who criticized Pope Benedict XVI for allowing a traditional Easter prayer that calls for the conversion of the Jewish people. Her reaction raises an interesting issue, as praying for conversion isn't unique to Catholics any more than taking offense to it is unique to Jews. And to start this topic off, I'd like to pose a question: Who do you think would be more likely to take umbrage at being the object of such a supplication, a person of deep belief or one of the superficial variety?

Well, here is a little anecdote. I'm a man who takes his faith very seriously; I believe it is the Truth and that God should be at the center of one's life. I also know a man who is Jewish and believes just the same. He is orthodox, praying at the appointed times every day – regardless of the situation – and abiding by every one of the 613 Judaic laws that pertain to his life. He is a very saintly, gentle man. And he also has expressed that his faith – not mine, needless to say – is the true one. Now, if I found out that he had prayed for my conversion to what he considers a superior faith, should I be offended?

In fact, neither his perspective nor such a desire would bother me a whit. While this may strike a Richard Dawkins type as strange, understand my position vis-à-vis his attitude: I'd expect nothing less. And anything else would truly be less, as the only thing a belief in the equality of all faiths would tell me is that his faith was lacking.

Let us examine this logically. Why would I sacrifice for my faith, tolerate its demands to tame the flesh and govern my life with its teachings if I didn't believe it was the Truth (with a capital "T")? If I subscribed to the fiction of religious equivalence (a relativistic idea) – if I, in other words, believed it was just a matter of taste as with ice cream – why would I choose a cross? I'd be a hedonist.

Now we move to the next step. If I believed something was the Truth – that divine quantity that frees souls, dispels falsehoods, thwarts evil designs and brings happiness – why would I not want my fellow man to benefit from it? Thus, why would it surprise anyone if I prayed for his conversion?

So understand that when others pray for our conversion it is often an outgrowth of love, a function of that common human desire to have others enjoy what we believe is beneficial. In fact, what should give us pause for thought is when such people would not thus pray. After all, what do we usually think of those who possess something they consider great and don't want to share it?

Such a desire also is not usual. Imagine you knew of a health regimen that yielded weight loss without hunger pangs, vibrancy and longer life. Wouldn't you want to spread the word? Might you not passionately say, "Hey, you just have to try this; it'll make you a new man!"?

In reality, whether religious or not, most people seek converts all the time. Political parties and groups spend time and treasure trying to convert us to their ideology; self-help gurus and instructors of all stripes peddle their techniques, theories or methods; and businesses try to sell us on the superiority of what they offer. Whatever the case, the message is the same: Believe what we say, follow our prescription, because what we provide is the best and will improve your life. It is proselytization.

Thus, if people would feel zealous about sharing a health regimen, why would we expect any less with respect to what they believe heals not just the body, but the soul? Sure, we may demand they not beat us over the head; we may demand they be civil. But it's unreasonable to expect that their natural desire to share will be left at the door of the worldly realm.

I, of course, have had experiences with those who tried to convert me. I've sometimes registered a Mona Lisa smile, or thought, "They don't know me very well," but I've never gotten upset. Would I be offended if I learned they had prayed for such a change? Of course not.

Truth be known, unless we've raised someone's ire and he is relishing some fantasy involving our demise, most people don't pay us much mind at all. Thus, if I knew someone had actually taken the time to pray that I should receive what he views as the greatest gift in the Universe, I'd be touched that he cared. That is love.

I would be remiss if I didn't treat an important related matter. In our secular age, many have been conditioned to fear talk of religious conversion; it conjures up images of invading hordes or the Islamists' sword. In fact, if we believe the Christopher Hitchenses of the world, such religious ambitions are responsible for most of the evil throughout history (of course, what eludes them is that if there is no God, there can be no "evil," only personal or collective dislikes). This is nonsense.

Religious belief is not a prerequisite for a desire to force your ways on others, only belief. Imposition of will doesn't require that it be God's, only that it be a will. Mao Tse-tung, who could not be confused with a prelate, was fond of saying that "Power comes from the barrel of a gun."

And he and his fellow travelers practiced what they preached, fomenting unrest, launching military campaigns, instituting "re-education camps" to cure "heretics" and, ultimately, murdering 100 million people during the 20th century. Their devotion to their godless creed was thorough, and they would stop at nothing to make the world thoroughly godless. If it makes you feel any better, however, they never prayed for anyone's conversion. Communist leaders wanted everyone to pray to them.

Then there is the fear expressed by Charlotte Knobloch, that, to put it in general terms, implying that a group's characteristic beliefs are lacking could provoke persecution. While it certainly could, a little more philosophical understanding is in order.

First, again note that this danger isn't unique to the "religious" realm. I mentioned the communists' re-education camps and their penchant for killing dissenters, but they singled out groups on other bases as well. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia persecuted people with eyeglasses and Joseph Stalin murdered great numbers of Jews. Then there is the Nazi Holocaust. And, on a smaller scale, I recently read a story about a man who killed another during a political argument.

In light of this, would we say that people shouldn't proclaim or even imply that one ideology, or even idea, is better than another? Not only is this impossible, but it would squelch the search for Truth. You see, this world poses many questions, and many claim to have the answers – thereby imputing superiority to their ideas – and guess what? Some of them must be correct. And we will only find out who they are when they can air their beliefs and we can scrutinize them.

Besides, as age-old ethnic battles prove, an easily identifiable set of beliefs is unnecessary for persecution. Whether it's the slaughter of the Tutsis in Ruanda, the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, the Armenian genocide or the recent strife in Kenya, man has never needed dogma to justify destruction. But something else is also true: He does need dogma to forestall it.

This brings us back to the kind of people who are offended by religious proselytization. What do you suppose is their nature? Sure, some are callow religionists whose grasp of faith is superficial and who react like children, but, relatively speaking, that isn't common in the West. No, the typical person of this persuasion is very different. He extols a certain unwritten secular code of decency, one that goes something like this:

"I won't say my beliefs are superior to yours if you don't say yours are superior to mine, deal? After all, if we will just agree with the opinion that Truth doesn't exist and that truth is opinion – that it's all relative – we will get along. We shall just say that all perspectives are equal and live happily ever after."

Consequently, while religionists might expect a person of faith to believe that he grasps a Truth they don't, the secularist in question views such a belief as the most offensive impertinence, a violation of the rules of civilized society.

There is an obvious contradiction here, in that if all ideas are equal, a position of religious equivalence cannot be superior to one of religious chauvinism. Thus, secularists' call to the former not only renders them guilty of the very arrogance of belief they accuse religionists of, it is also illogical. Even more to the point here, it is dangerous.

If people en masse were to answer this call and descend into the confusion of moral relativism, they certainly would have no perceived divine command to do evil. They also would have no reason not to. Logically, they could not launch wars, persecute infidels, or root out heretics in the name of God, but they also could not logically say that doing those things is wrong, not for that reason, a different one, or no reason. Logically, it wouldn't be wrong to be illogical.

Of course, there is every reason to fear misconceptions about the Truth. It poses a grave danger when people believe they have been enjoined to spread their beliefs by the sword, for instance.

Yet, whatever a religionist's moral compass, it exists. He may violate his fellow man insofar as he has fallen victim to misconceptions, but he will seldom be as dangerous as one who, at bottom, cannot believe in misconceptions or correct conceptions, but only perception. As serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer told his parents as a teen, "If there's no God, why can't I make up my own rules?" Dogma isn't an impediment to peaceful coexistence, but a prerequisite for it. That is, the correct dogma.

So we have nothing to fear from those who pray for our conversion. For one thing, I tend to think the people who are praying for you are not those praying against you or who would prey on you. Second, if they are wrong and you know the Truth, God won't try to change your heart.

If your conception Truth is flawed, then their prayers are in order. And if you think them impertinent because you don't believe in Truth, perhaps you might ponder a pearl of wisdom from G.K. Chesterton:

"They call a man a bigot or a slave of dogma, who is a thinker, and has thought thoroughly and to a definite end."

Opposition supporters rally in Cambodia

Radio Australia

A crowd of around 300 supporters of Cambodia's main opposition Sam Rainsy Party rallied outside parliament on Sunday, in protest against double-digit inflation and demanding wage increases.

About 100 anti-riot police carrying electric prods and tear gas blocked the surrounding streets to prevent the protesters from entering neighbourhood markets.

Mr Rainsy has called on the government to reduce the price of essential items, or increase salaries in line with inflation.

Cambodia's inflation went above 10 percent late last year, and currently hovers around 11 percent.

Phnom Penh has implemented a number of measures aimed at keeping prices stable, including banning rice exports and allowing pork imports, but observers say basic foodstuff prices remain stubbornly high.

Bangladesh: Cambodian Paper Joins ANN


DHAKA, BANGLADESH: Rasmei Kampuchea, a 15-year-old newspaper from Cambodia, is the newest addition to Asia News Network (ANN), an alliance of leading newspapers in the region.

Rasmei formally joined ANN as an associate member at the annual board meeting held in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The paper has a circulation of 20,000.

ANN editors participated in discussions on Bangladesh economy and other issues including climate change. Foreign Adviser Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury was a keynote speaker at a dinner hosted by The Daily Star.

The editors also called on Chief Advisor to the Caretaker Government Fakhruddin Ahmed at his office. The Chief Advisor outlined priorities of his government including stabilising relations with countries like India and Burma, promoting local products for export, attracting foreign investments through infrastructure and playing an active role in the United Nations as well as peacekeeping efforts in conflict areas.

Bangladesh is expected to hold its national elections in December this year. (Asia News Network/ AsiaNews)

Thai PM warns against rice hoarding

Monday, April 7, 2008
Agence France Presse

BANGKOK: Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej on Sunday urged the public not to hoard rice, promising for the second time in three days there would be enough for everyone in the kingdom.

With soaring global rice prices setting off fears of shortages and even unrest in some nations, the people of Thailand-the world's number one rice exporter-will not have to go without, he said.

The rising prices have sparked panic buying, as people stock up in hopes of beating future price hikes. Meanwhile exporters have accused mills and middlemen of hoarding in hopes of more price increases in the near future.

Samak said prices would stabilise once the current harvest reaches market and urged Thais not to overbuy.

"The production of rice is on the normal schedule," he said on his weekly television show.

"People are now buying more rice than they normally would. But I am buying the normal amount, and will buy more when it runs out."

International demand for Thai rice has soared after other top exporters Vietnam and India imposed limits on exports to ensure domestic supply.

The benchmark Thai variety, Pathumthani fragrant rice, was priced Wednesday at 930 dollars per tonne, up 52 percent from a month earlier, according to the Thai Rice Exporters Association.

The head of the government's rice department Prasert Kosalvich told AFP that there was no chance of a rice shortage in Thailand, with national stocks at about two million tonnes.

"We have enough in stocks for domestic consumption," he said.

Thailand consumes about 6.6 million tonnes per year, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The kingdom last year exported about 9.5 million tonnes, and this year's exports are expected to drop only slightly to 9.2 million tonnes, according to the FAO.

But across the region, other countries are taking steps to rein in prices while ensuring their people have enough to eat.Cambodia has banned rice exports in hopes of lowering prices. Food prices in the impoverished country have jumped 40 percent over the last year. About 300 people protested outside parliament to demand wage increases and further government action to rein in prices, in a country where one-third of the population lives on less than 50 cents a day.

Big importers like Philippines and Sri Lanka, which don't grow enough rice to meet their local demand, are scrambling to sign deals to ensure their countries have enough to eat.

Vietnam has agreed to supply the Philippines with 1.5 million tonnes of rice this year, while Sri Lanka's trade minister was expected to travel to Myanmar this weekend to seek 100,000 tonnes.

Philippines President Gloria Arroyo announced Friday an ambitious plan to overhaul the country's farm sector to boost rice production.

But that scheme will takes years to see results, and in the meantime troops have been drafted to deliver rice to poor neighbourhoods in the capital Manila, while hoarders have been threatened with prison.

In Bangladesh, where floods and a cyclone ravaged the national crop, a paramilitary group has been ordered to monitor markets to prevent price gauging.

The nation's military chief reportedly told hungry villagers to cope with the rice situation by eating potatoes.

Regional Centre to Reduce Mekong Flood Damage

The new Mekong River Commission Regional Flood Management and Mitigation Centre has officially opened in Phnom Penh, marking a vital step forward in avoiding loss of lives and the damage that flooding can bring.

Source: Mekong River Commission Secretariat
Apr 06, 2008

PRLog (Press Release) – Apr 06, 2008 – The new Regional Flood Management and Mitigation Centre building has been officially opened in Phnom Penh, marking a vital step forward in avoiding loss of lives and the damage that flooding can bring.

In a ceremony to mark Mekong Day, April 5, H.E. Mr Lim Kean Hor, Cambodia’s Minister of Water Resources and Meteorology, and Chairman of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Council, declared the state-of-the-art facility open, calling it “another milestone in the history of cooperation in the Lower Mekong Basin”. According to the Minister, the Centre “demonstrates the solidarity and will of Cambodia, the Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam to continue their cooperation in the development and preservation of water resources and natural resources in the Mekong River Basin”.

In 2006 at least 224 people were killed by floods in the lower Mekong countries, while well over 12,000 homes were severely damaged. These conservative estimates show that flooding can have catastrophic effects on people’s lives, and it is well known that the poorest people are the most severely affected.

The new Chief Executive Officer of the MRC Secretariat, Jeremy Bird, said that floods pose a conundrum to the governments and people of the Mekong States. According to Mr Bird, flooding “is on the one hand a natural event that brings life to the plains, nurturing both wildlife and traditional agricultural cycles. On the other hand, it can also be terribly destructive, wiping out human life and destroying efforts to build a secure and healthy existence”. This duality is what has caused the MRC and it development partners to invest so much money and resources in the new centre.

The building of the Flood Centre was financed by the Government of Japan, while other donors, like the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, Denmark, the Asian Development Bank and the European Commission, fund a wide range of its operations. The Flood Centre will gather information from water monitoring systems all over the Mekong Basin, from Yunnan Province in China all the way down to the Delta in Viet Nam. At the Centre, readings are collated and flooding events predicted. News and warnings are then sent out across the region, helping authorities and communities to prepare for events as early as possible. As the heart of the MRC Flood Management and Mitigation Strategy, the Centre also provides training and technology transfer to technicians of the four MRC Member States.

Cambodian former king returns, praising media and Chinese medics

The Earth Times
Sun, 06 Apr 2008
Author : DPA

Siem Reap, Cambodia - Retired former Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk flew into this northern tourist province Sunday from months in China looking sprightly and attributing his health to prayers and Chinese doctors. Now aged 85, Sihanouk waved reporters past his notoriously protective North Korean bodyguards and chatted at length about the importance of free speech, the media, his health and future plans.

He was greeted by all of the nation's leaders, including Prime Minister Hun Sen and Sihanouk's son, King Norodom Sihamoni, before driving past thousands of his subjects who lined the route to his royal residence to cheer his return.

"I am retired, so there is no need for me to intefere in this country's politics," the famously political octogenarian told reporters, repeating an earlier pledge. "However I am happy to stay here though and help all of you and I welcome direct opinions (to me) on this country.

"I am still alive, strong and younger than my years thanks to the prayers and wishes of my people and the skill of my Chinese doctors."

The former monarch, who has been in Beijing undergoing routine medical checkups with his wife, Norodom Monineath, since November also praised journalists, saying they were "working hard for the country."

Sihanouk spends increasing periods of time in Beijing, where a team of Chinese doctors are treating him for a range of ailments including diabetes, high blood pressure and colon cancer, although he previously announced that his cancer was in remission.

A palace official said this week that he was planning a gala to celebrate the nation's most important holiday, Khmer New Year, at his residence in the capital less than 10 days after his return.

The former king, who abdicated in 2004, had not set a date for his return to China, but Prime Minister Hun Sen announced Saturday that Sihanouk had been invited to, and was expected to attend, the opening of the Beijing Olympics in July.