Friday, 13 March 2009

Cambodia's garment workers hit by recession, too

(Elyse Lightman photo)
Outside the Legends factory in Phnom Penh, garment factory workers alight from the motorized cart they ride to work.

Posted by Kenneth Kaplan
March 12, 2009

But for young women supporting families, meager wages are still much sought-after

Elyse Lightman, a former resident of Concord, Mass., is a Trustee and Director of Special Projects for the Harpswell Foundation, which provides educational opportunities for disadvantaged young people in Cambodia. She has been travelling to Cambodia for the past five years from her home in Brooklyn, NY.
Boston Globe

By Elyse Lightman
March 10

PHNOM PENH -- At 5:00 a.m., when Hap Saly and the four other young women with whom she lives wake up, the sky is still dark, and just a few early risers are outside sweeping their steps and cooking rice. The air, usually heavy, is cool and light. The roommates roll up their brightly colored sleeping mats, blankets, and pillows with pink fringe on the edges, and stack them in the corner of the room, raggedy teddy bears on top. Using a plastic cup and a bucket filled with cold water, they take turns washing in the tiny bathroom with the missing doorknob.

Five years ago, Hap Saly, now 25, came to Phnom Penh to work at the Chinese-run Eternal Way garment factory. As a child growing up in Tramung Chrum, a remote village without running water or electricity, sixty miles northwest of Phnom Penh, there was no school for her to attend. She studied Cham -- her ethnic minority’s language -- with her grandfather, the imam, but she never learned how to read or write in Khmer and didn’t learn basic math.

Some of the young women with whom Hap Saly lives left their village after a few years of schooling, some with none, in search of an income. Sen Nary, 20, studied up to grade 3. “My parents are so poor,” she said. “I needed to find a job to support them and to help my younger siblings study.”

While the monthly income for one third of Cambodians is $30, and the average is $50, garment factory workers make at least $55 a month, typically $77 with overtime. Hap Saly used to be able to save as much as $50 per month to send home to her families, but recently, as the prices of food, electricity, water, and rent have increased, that number has plummeted to $10-15.

And yet, even with garment factory workers’ dwindling savings, they would rather stay in Phnom Penh than return home. “It’s a small amount that we can save, but during the growing season we can send it to our parents to support them. If we return to our village, we have no work to do,” said Hap Saly.

Just two months ago, the two-story apartment building where Hap Saly lives was filled with thirty other garment factory workers. Now, Hap Saly and her four roommates are the only ones left on their floor -- everyone else lost their jobs. So they switched rooms, from one side of the building to the other. “The old room was too quiet,” they said. The new one overlooks a dirt road dotted with small houses, and a vacant lot littered with rubble.

(Elyse Lightman photo)

The scene outside the Legends garment factory.

Thirty years after the end of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, when a quarter of the population, including the entire educated class, was killed, Cambodia is just beginning to recover. And so it is especially troubling that the previously robust garment industry -- which provides two-thirds of Cambodia’s export earnings -- is taking a hard hit from the global financial crisis. The Ministry of Commerce said on Tuesday that from January 2008-9, garment export revenue fell from $250 million to $70 million, and the Free Trade Union reported that over 20,000 garment factory workers have already lost their jobs this year, and 10,000 more are in danger of being unemployed as more factories threaten to close.

Garment factory workers’ savings will last them, on average, about one or two months in Phnom Penh. Some young women will return to their villages; some will seek jobs in other factories; some will become beer girls (where women wear outfits promoting beer brands, often going home with their customers at the end of the evening); some will join the sex industry; some will be construction workers -- jobs which are demoralizing, unsafe, or both.

Hap Saly says that when the first young women from her village began leaving to work at garment factories, some villagers looked down upon them and made assumptions about the work they would be doing. But now the girls are valued more because people realize they are able to support their families. Hap Saly says she doesn’t know of anyone from her village who works in the sex trade, but this is an anomaly for Cambodia.

The garment factory women are the breadwinners for their families, and the heaviness of their responsibility is palpable. But they are still animated and youthful. As they prepare to leave for work they peer into tiny hand-held mirrors and comb their long hair. The walls of their room are covered in photos of them at weddings, wearing make up and elaborate outfits, far from their usual pajama sets. Their single possession is a bottle of skin-whitening lotion that costs $0.50; they share it among the five of them.

Most young women who work at the factories don’t know how long they will stay in Phnom Penh: until they lose their job or get sick and need to leave. One garment worker who returned to her village told me she would follow in her ancestors’ footsteps, cooking, cleaning, marrying, and raising children. With a wistful look on her face she said, “everything is over.”

(Elyse Lightman photo)

Hap Saly, 25, who has worked in Phnom Penh's garment industry for five years.

Hap Saly gathers her uniform -- a yellow vest that says “Legends, Ltd.” on the sleeve, and an ID card. Referring to Eternal Way, the factory where she used to work, she claps her hands together, as if shutting the pages of a book: “Closed.” As a Cham Muslim, she usually wears a krama around her head, but, at least for now, she replaces it with the signature pink scarf of the garment workers.

Possessing a refreshing amount of ambition and hope, a quality hard to find in many of these young women with limited opportunities, Hap Saly confided in me that her dream is to learn how to sew and to set up a small shop in her village, perhaps training other girls in the skill.

For information about the Harpswell Foundation, please visit their website, at To learn how you can contribute to the Passport blog, contact the Globe's assistant foreign editor, Kenneth Kaplan, at

The Globe's Alan Taylor showcased a series of evocative -- and occasionally harrowing -- photographs from Cambodia last week on his blog, The Big Picture. Here's the link:

Vietnamese investment in Cambodia down by 85 pct in 2008

PHNOM PENH, Mar. 13, 2009 (Xinhua News Agency) -- The Vietnamese investment in Cambodia fell sharply by some 85 percent in 2008 over 2007, the Chinese-language daily newspaper the Commercial News reported on Friday.

The Vietnamese investment approved by Cambodia stood at 21 million U.S. dollars in 2008, over 139 million U.S. dollars in 2007, according to the annual report issued by the Cambodian Investment Board (CIB).

2007 was a big year for Vietnamese investors because they opened a giant telecommunication project in the kingdom, the Viettel, the paper quoted CIB officials as saying.

The Vietnamese investment focused on the agricultural and telecommunication sectors, said the officials, adding that they have opened over 100 companies in Cambodia.

China, South Korea and the United States are listed as the top three investing countries in Cambodia, which have poured 6.3 billion U.S. dollars into the kingdom, according to CIB.

(Source: iStockAnalyst )

Diversify economy, says PM

Prime Minister Hun Sen called for economic diversification Thursday at the 2009 Outlook Conference at the Phnom Penh Hotel.

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by Kay Kimsong
Friday, 13 March 2009

Hun Sen calls for end to reliance on struggling export markets

WITH some analysts expecting Cambodia's economy to contract for the first time in recent memory, Prime Minister Hun Sen urged the private sector Thursday to diversify beyond traditional export markets and announced more government help for crisis-stricken families.

"We have a large pool of talented people available to help Cambodia - they are from the government, development partners, and research and policy institutes," he said, speaking in front of more than 100 representatives from the government, the private sector and international development agencies gathered at the 2009 Outlook Conference at the Phnom Penh Hotel.

He said the government would make more funding available to unemployed urban workers looking to relocate to the countryside. He also announced further support for small and medium-sized enterprises in rural areas.

"We owe it to these vulnerable groups to ensure that our responses to the crisis meet their needs through sustained economic activity and access to employment and livelihoods, and the development of social safety nets ... through mechanisms such as food relief and cash transfers," he said.

Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh said he believed the crisis would soon come to an end, but he pressed the private sector to diversify and expand into sectors other than tourism and agriculture.

He said that the crisis had led to 5 percent drop in Cambodian exports and the loss of 51,000 jobs. He also said that the value of exports had dropped 50 percent since January 2009.

But he added that some sectors, including tourism were still putting in strong performances.

"Tourism used to grow 20 to 25 percent a year, but now it is growing by about five percent. That is still a good rate of growth," he said.

But Tith Chantha, director general at the Ministry of Tourism, said he expects the tourism sector to decline further. According to ministry figures, 218,691 tourists visited Cambodia in January, down 2 percent compared with 2008.

The ministry is predicting that tourist arrivals will stay flat or decline as much as three percent, Tith Chantha said. He added that a 3 percent drop in tourist arrivals could cost Cambodia US$50 million and 10,000 jobs. Each job in the tourism sector, he said, supports three people living in the provinces. Last week the International Monetary Fund predicted that the economy would contract 0.5 percent this year.

Heng Pov sentenced to 16 years

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by Chrann Chamroeun
Friday, 13 March 2009

But defence raises questions about prosecution evidence

PHNOM Penh Municipal Court sentenced former Phnom Penh police chief Heng Pov to 16 years in prison during a hearing Thursday after finding him and five other suspects guilty of the attempted murder of Military Police Commander Sao Sokha in 2003.

Judge Iv Kimsry also sentenced suspects Ly Rasy, Hang Vutha, Am Samkheng and Prum Sophearidth to 15-year terms each for their part in the attempted murder, while Hang Vuthy, a former policeman who is still on the run, also received a sentence of 15 years.

Heng Pov, who is already serving 58 years in prison for a variety of murder, extortion and kidnapping convictions, was not present for the verdict.

But the latest conviction comes amid claims the prosecution's case was based purely on an anonymous letter linking them to the attempt on Sao Sokha's life.

"It's strange for the court to convict Heng Pov based only on an anonymous letter without enough proof or evidence for the charge," Heng Pov's lawyer Kav Soupha said Thursday, adding that he would appeal the case.

"Although the court's conviction of Heng Pov is wrong and filled with injustice, I will still appeal the verdict in case it gets a sympathetic hearing from a higher court." The other four men present at the hearing said they would also appeal the verdicts.

One court official, who declined to be named, also cast doubt on the final verdicts.

"It is very funny for Judge Iv Kimsry to sentence Heng Pov to 16 years based only on an unidentified letter, sent to Sao Sokha, that pointed out the above men for attempting to kill him," he said.

"So if an unidentified letter happens to come to Phnom Penh Municipal Chief Judge Chev Keng or Judge Iv Kimsry alleging their plan to kill top leaders, what will [they] do?"

Long Dara, defence lawyer for Hang Vutha and Am Samkheng, also said the case was "unjust" and the letter should not be considered credible evidence in a court of law. "I will advise my clients to appeal the rulings soon," he said.

National Military Police Chief Sao Sokha said he had no comment, except to thank the court for "seeking justice according to the law".

Gov't silent on payouts to gambling industry

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by Chhay Channyda and Brendan Brady
Friday, 13 March 2009

FOLLOWING last month's state-imposed ban on licensed gambling establishments in the Kingdom, the government has remained tight-lipped over its handling of compensation requests from the companies it forced to close.

Cambo Six sent a letter to the Ministry of Finance last week requesting compensation for lost infrastructure investments, according to the sports betting company's head office manager, Nancy Chau. Sporting Live Group followed suit Wednesday, according to a former employee.

Mey Vann, director of the Financial Industry Department, the ministry office most directly involved with the issue, said Thursday he had not received any petitions. He would only say his office was "not thinking about compensation until complaints are received." However, a day earlier, Chea Peng Chheang, a secretary of state at the ministry, said the government was in negotiations with former gambling companies but did not say whether compensation had been offered or which companies would be eligible.

Meanwhile, Oum Mean, a secretary of state at the Labour Ministry, said there were no plans in place to provide compensation to workers laid off by the ban.

The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission Wednesday called on the government to bear the brunt of the costs to companies and workers caused by its decision.

Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union, which did not represent any of the laid-off workers, said the government was wrong to implement the move so abruptly that thousands of people were put out of work with only a day's notice.

Less gambling, fewer papers

A man reads one of the Kingdom's many sporting papers, which say they are suffering from a recent gambling ban.

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by Khuon Leakhana and mom kunthear
Friday, 13 March 2009

Vendors say sales of sports newspapers are down and that some have ceased printing altogether following recent gambling bans .

LOCAL newspaper vendors say they have seen a dropoff in sales in the wake of last month's gambling ban, with fewer customers showing an interest in publications dedicated to local and international sports.

"I used to sell 20 sports newspapers per day, but now no one comes to buy them. I couldn't even give them away," said You Leakhena, 40, who sells newspapers near Wat Phnom.

Although she agreed with Prime Minister Hun Sen's February 24 order that all the Kingdom's sports-betting outlets and slot-machine parlours cease operations, she said it was having a significant effect on her bottom line.

"It is good for our society, but it really impacts my business," she told the Post.

"I am worried about losing more customers."

Ny Srey, 25, a newspaper seller working near the Independence Monument, said that she had not even received sports newspapers since last week.

"I think they stopped printing because they are afraid of government
complaints that maybe their news is making more people gamble," she said.

"I regret it because I sold well with this newspaper."

While relaxing with friends in a cafe on Norodom Boulevard, Ly Sopheak, 22, said he spent 2,000 riels (US$0.48) a week on a local sports rag in order to keep track of the sport news prior to placing bets.

But he said that sports newspapers were now "useless" tohim now that the gambling ban was in force, and that he didn't have enough interest to read them otherwise.

"Not only newspaper sellers will lose income. I will also lose because I usually won a lot of money from football betting," he said.

"I could win $100 to $150 per month, although sometimes I also lost."

One source involved with a sports newspaper, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that printing had been stopped "temporarily" due to the sudden disappearance of sport-hungry punters.

"We have seen our readership decrease following the government order to close all games and sports betting," the source said, but added that printing could recommence soon if business again became profitable.

But Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said Thursday that the closure of sports newspapers was a rumour, confirming that "no newspaper companies" had yet stopped printing.

"I don't believe that when the gambling was banned newspaper sellers lost customers," Khieu Kanharith said.

"I don't know why it should impact newspaper sellers when the government closes Cambo Six or slot machines."

He added that the Ministry of Information would provide advance notice before the closure of any local newspaper or magazine.

Siem Reap kidnapping spurs ban on sales of toy guns

Toy guns, freely available in city markets, have been banned by authorities.

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by May Titthara
Friday, 13 March 2009

Officials cite increased use of plastic guns in ‘armed' robberies

CITY authorities have banned the sale of plastic guns in markets following the kidnap and ransom of a senior military officer's teenage daughter in Siem Reap last week, according to police.

Has Phearum, Phnom Penh's public order police chief, said the suspects in the Siem Reap case had used plastic guns to carry out the kidnapping, as had the perpetrators of other recent crimes.

"We are strictly enforcing this ban and will punish those vendors if they don't listen to us," he said.

"In the past Phnom Penh has suffered from crimes involving plastic guns, so we must ensure this doesn't happen again."

Ky Phally, a police officer who controls security around the Olympic Market, said police had confiscated more than 400 plastic guns at eight markets and deposited them at the city's central police station.

Vendors were not amused. Chhay Leang, who has a stall at the Olympic Market, doubted it would make any difference to national security. She said the confiscation of her stock, which she imported from Vietnam, had cost her money.

"These guns have no power and can't kill people. The authorities should crack down on the black market that sells real guns," she said.
"These guns are just toys for kids."

The city's police chief, Touch Naruth, insisted that plastic guns could be mistaken for genuine weapons, particularly at night, and said some robbers had taken advantage of that.

"We have collected 436 plastic guns, and on March 17 we will celebrate this by burning all of them at a party," he said.

"As for the vendors, those who don't listen to us will first be brought to our office, but eventually we will send them to court."

The city experienced a drop in crime using real guns in 2008, with officials reporting 128 cases of armed robbery compared to 175 in 2007.

Victims were shot in 42 armed robberies last year, of which 12 died and 41 were injured. In 2007, 23 victims died and 63 were injured in 75 violent armed robberies.

Vietnam rights review neglects Khmer Krom

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by Georgia Wilkins
Friday, 13 March 2009

A UN study makes no mention of the group

DESPITE promises earlier in the year that the widespread rights abuse of Khmer Krom minorities in Vietnam would be put on the UN's agenda, a periodic review of the country has excluded any mention of the persecuted ethnic group.

In a document dated February 23 and recently posted on the UN Human Rights Council's website, nongovernmental groups assessing Vietnam's human rights record made mention of its treatment of minorities, including the ethnic Buddhist group, numerous times.

However in a summary prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights based on these comments, the group wasn't mentioned at all.

"For centuries and specifically since June 1949, the Vietnamese government instituted practices and policies to discriminate against Khmer Krom people and decrease the possibility for Khmer Krom to exercise the right to self-determination," the development community report noted.

"Through every phase of the occupation, Khmer Krom people resisted to perpetuate their culture, language and continued existence as a collective identity," it added.

The report included the abuses of the group's right to education and health, citing the fact that the government has ignored reports that approximately 3,000 Khmer Krom have been affected by an epidemic of blindness.

Meeting raises hopes
In meetings with the UN's special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, and the UN refugee office in Bangkok last month, Ang Chanrith, executive director of the Phnom Penh-based Khmer Kampuchea Krom Human Rights Organisation, was told the international body would call on Vietnamese officials to defend charges against its treatment of Khmer Krom and Montagnard hill tribes, as well as other indigenous groups.

The news renewed hope for Khmer Krom activists, amid a fresh stream of criticism against its government's treatment of ethnic groups living within its borders.

The review, completed for each UN member state every four years, will be subjected to public scrutiny at a working group in Geneva on May 4.

Hotel Renakse saved

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by May Titthara
Friday, 13 March 2009

THE Phnom Penh Municipal Court ruled Thursday that the French colonial-era Hotel Renakse should not be demolished, siding with the hotel's former manager, who has been ensnared in a legal tussle with government officials over the fate of the building for more than two months.

Kem Chantha, who managed the hotel for nearly two decades, was barred from its premises on January 6 by police and officials wielding a court order stating that the hotel had fallen into an unacceptable state of disrepair. She filed a case to save the hotel from demolition, and the Cambodian People's Party filed a case arguing that her lease on the building should be revoked because she had failed to adequately maintain it.

Ignoring court summonses, Kem Chantha decided not to show up for hearings in both cases last month. She said Thursday that she planned to ask the Court of Appeal to reinstate her as manager.

But Ke Sakhorn, deputy director of the Municipal Court, said it had not made any ruling regarding Kem Chantha's lease. He confirmed that the court had ruled to prevent the building's demolition.

Crisis threatens poverty reduction

Chen Naren, evicted from Phnom Penh's Sambok Chap community, at the Andong relocation site.

A four-part look at cambodia's mdgs
Last year marked the midway point for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, benchmarks for developing countries established in 2000 that cover everything from poverty to environmental sustainability. Last year also marked the five-year anniversary of the adoption of Cambodia's Millennium Development Goals, the localised versions of the global goals. In a four-part series, the Post looks at the progress made and the challenges that remain in achieving targets set for 2010 and 2015, drawing on government data as well as interviews with officials, NGO workers and Cambodians who stand to benefit from the effort. Part Four focuses on MDG No 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by Robbie Corey-Boulet
Friday, 13 March 2009

Efforts to halve poverty by 2015, one of Cambodia's nine Millennium Development Goals, could by stymied by low or negative economic growth and a lack of rural resources.

CHEN Naren, 36, knew the morning she was evicted from the riverfront Sambok Chap community that her days hawking sugarcane juice on Sisowath Quay were over.

Along with 1,600 other families, she and her husband and children were moved in June 2006 to a relocation site in Andong in one of several recent mass evictions that have separated poor city dwellers from the jobs that sustained them.

The cost of getting from Andong, 20 kilometres outside central Phnom Penh, to Sisowath and back would have all but erased the US$5 profit Chen Naren earned each day, she said.

So, after moving her family into a shack of bamboo, tarpaulin and palm leaf that lacked electricity, water and any means of sewage disposal, she set out to find new work.

For awhile, she earned 7,000 riel ($1.70) per day planting rice in nearby fields. "But it wasn't regular," she said in an interview. "Each week I would work for a few days only."

Only through the NGO Friends International did she manage, after six months, to find a steady job. For the past two years, she has earned $20 per week making beads from scraps of cigarette cartons and stringing them into necklaces, which Friends sells in local stores and abroad.

As she sat in her shack Tuesday rolling scraps into beads, the Prey Veng province native reflected on the evolution of her once-unstable circumstances.

When she sold sugarcane, she said, her workday began at 8am and ended at midnight. "Now, I have time to take care of my children," she said, as her two-year-old son, Khorn Sreyly, stricken with an undiagnosed illness and lying in her lap, stirred in his sleep.

Though things have improved, Chen Naren still lives without a safety net. Her husband divorced her shortly after the eviction, leaving her to raise their two sons and three daughters. Having sold the small piece of land she owned in Prey Veng to pay for her husband's malaria treatment, she has no provincial home to return to should she need to relocate again.

She said she also has no long-term job plans and wants to stay with Friends as long as she can.

Hoy Leanghoin, a Friends project manager who regularly visits Andong, said he would like to see more independence on the part of the workers Friends trains there. Even those who can now make necklaces and handbags on their own are dependent on the NGO, he said, as they would have no idea how to market their goods without its help.

This, he said, is symptomatic of one factor that perpetuates the Kingdom's cycle of poverty: the lack of business training available to the poor, particularly in rural provinces, from where he estimated 30 percent of Andong's residents originally came.

The poverty MDG
Combating poverty in the provinces is at the heart of Cambodia's effort to achieve Millennium Development Goal No 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.

On the strength of rapid economic growth, Cambodia reduced the proportion of people living below the national poverty line from an estimated 45 to 50 percent in 1994 to 34.7 percent in 2004, according to the Ministry of Planning's 2005 assessment of MDG progress. Though higher than the 2005 interim target of 31 percent, the Ministry of Planning termed the 2004 statistic "commendable". By 2007, the rate had fallen further, to 30 percent, according to that year's Cambodian Socio-Economic Survey (CSES).

"This is quite an achievement," said Tim Conway, senior poverty specialist at the World Bank's Cambodia Country Office. "It means that some 650,000 people escaped poverty between 2004 and 2007."

In recent interviews, though, experts emphasised that poverty reduction largely has been limited to urban and accessible rural areas, excluding whole sections of the population and contributing to the nation's growing income inequality, which is high for the region.

Moreover, they said, the economic crisis casts serious doubt on whether poverty will fall fast enough for Cambodia to meet its 2015 MDG target of 19.5 percent, which some considered ambitious even when high growth seemed inevitable.

In 2006, for instance, the World Bank concluded that Cambodia would not meet the goal even with a 7 percent growth rate unless sectoral growth patterns changed.


Since then, growth projections have plummeted, with the International Monetary Fund predicting last week a 0.5 percent contraction in 2009 and warning that the actual contraction could be even more severe.

As a result, "we don't know what will happen" about the poverty rate, said Poch Sovandy, a Ministry of Planning official who tracks poverty statistics.

Rural poverty
Regardless of the economy, Conway said, poverty reduction efforts should target remote rural areas, where the poverty rate stood at 45.6 percent in 2005, according to the Ministry of Planning assessment.

Citing the high rural poverty rate as one of the chief shortfalls of the entire MDG effort, the ministry reported that more than 90 percent of the Kingdom's poor lived in rural areas. By 2007, according to the CSES, the concentration of the poor had been exacerbated.

Wisal Hin, assistant country director and poverty reduction unit leader for the United Nations Development Program, said the Kingdom's greatest challenge going forward "lies in equitably sharing the benefits of economic growth, centred mainly in urban areas, with those rural communities".

Conway called for rural poverty-reduction efforts that would increase the agricultural productivity of small landholders and reduce their vulnerability to the vagaries of the weather.

He also stressed the need for policies that would clarify land ownership and protect land titles held by the poor, echoing a point made by every expert interviewed for this article.

Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum, said the rising number of economic land concessions in rural areas in recent years posed a grave threat to security of tenure.

Karin Schelzig Bloom, a social sector specialist for the Asian Development Bank, described land as "a key determinant of access to economic opportunities and livelihood" for the poor.

Like Chen Naren, many of the residents in Andong originally came to Phnom Penh because they did not have land in the provinces on which to eke out a living, Hoy Leanghoin said.

An urban issue, too
A large part of Phnom Penh's appeal, notes the most recent Cambodia Human Development Report provided by the Ministry of Planning, stems from the fact that it has benefited from a high rate of public and private investment.

The report - which calls for "a substantial increase" in funding for rural irrigation, electricity and roads projects - argues that much of the Kingdom's recent growth "has been urban-based and narrowly focused on surging garment exports that may be vulnerable, record levels of tourism and a boom in the construction industry".

But to view the capital as strictly wealthy and the provinces as strictly impoverished, said Friends Executive Director Sebastien Marot, is to overlook the plight of the urban poor.

While the CSES found Phnom Penh's poverty rate to be less than one percent, Marot said poor city dwellers often face greater risks than their rural counterparts, citing the higher prevalence of drugs, HIV/Aids and violent crime in the capital.

Nevertheless, he said, "an increasing number of children" from the provinces, many inspired by mass media depictions of "wealthy families with beautiful homes and cars", have opted to move to the capital in recent years without fully thinking through how they would survive once they arrived.

The effect of the crisis
Looking ahead, Conway said the global economic slowdown posed the biggest challenge to meeting the poverty MDG. Continuing improvements to aid effectiveness - a component of MDG No 8: Develop a global partnership for development - could in part mitigate the effects of the slowdown on poverty reduction, he said, though he added that analysts were not yet able to project what those effects might be.

"What we don't have yet is national figures to tell us whether the poverty headcount is falling but at a slower pace, whether poverty levels are now stagnant, or whether in fact poverty has started to rise again," he said.

As analysts wait on the results of the 2008 national household survey, which Conway said would provide "a better picture" of recent trends, anecdotal evidence suggests a potentially grim outlook. Dennis Barbian, a business adviser for Friends, said international orders for the NGO's products were down. But he said he believed this was "not a real result" of the slowdown.

"I think it is a fear of the crisis," he said. "I think it will go up again and that orders will increase."

Marot said the effects of the crisis had not been severe enough to cause migrants to leave the city, even those who had been laid off.

"They are staying and trying to find jobs - often risky jobs," he said, citing as examples jobs in beer halls and karaoke bars.

Conway, however, found some cause for optimism, saying that the initial effects of the crisis could spur the government into adopting more effective policies designed to help the poor.

"If the crisis passes relatively soon rather than settling in for several years, and if Cambodia then manages to restore rapid growth and ensure that the poor benefit from this growth," he said, "then it might be feasible to hit the poverty target".


Conservationists voice concern for eastern plains

A wildlife ranger rides an elephant in Srey Pok Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondulkiri province in this file photograph.

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by Brendan Brady
Friday, 13 March 2009

FOR the poorest rural Cambodians, the forest acts as a safety net, providing a variety of products they could not otherwise afford.

If not managed, exploitation of forests in the eastern plain provinces of Mondulkiri and Ratanakkiri could push communities there over the brink, according to Seng Teak, country director of the conservation group WWF.

The provinces are home to some of the country's poorest communities - including hill tribe minority groups that have largely remained outside the market economy and the gains it has made - that depend on their natural surroundings for survival.

Government and WWF officials met in Mondulkiri's capital, Sen Monorom, Thursday to commend two community-protected areas in the Mondulkiri province covering 3,000 hectares.

The nearly 300 households in the villages of Sre Thom Mleung and Ronous Khnhen in the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary have been part of a nearly one-year-old project that allows them to extract resources such as rattan and honey in limited amounts as long as they abstain from logging and abrasive slash-and-burn agricultural practices.

"We're promoting subsistence use," said Bas van Helvoort, conservation program manager for WWF.

Communities there are in a fragile state that could be shattered by anticipated climate changes, he warned.

"Computer models show the area becoming warmer and dryer, and a rise of extreme events weather patterns," he said.

Such conditions could prove devastating, he said: "reduced water for crops, increased risk of fire ... and drying-up the small ponds ... that are vital sources of water for villagers."

Living in extreme isolation, many communities in the area would not know how to change their primitive agriculture practices to accommodate the environmental change, he said.

His concern comes on the heels of a stern warning last month that climate change could prove particularly disastrous for Cambodia's eastern plains.

Mondulkiri province ranked as the most susceptible area to climate change in Southeast Asia, after the Indonesian capital Jakarta, according to a recent report by a Singapore-based research group.

The report, released February 2 and prepared by the Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia, identified Mondulkiri as the 4th-most vulnerable of 530 administrative zones assessed throughout Southeast Asia. Ratanakkiri ranked 6th.

Unlike other parts of Southeast Asia that are repeatedly pounded by flooding, earthquakes and hurricanes, among other devastating natural disasters whose frequency is linked with climate change, Cambodia's northeastern provinces have remained relatively unexposed to such shocks, said Arief Anshory Yusef, one of the report's authors.

Their vulnerability - and that of Cambodia, in general - stemmed largely from an inability to adapt to climate-related threats, and not the severity of the risks themselves, he said.

In the study, Ratanakkiri and Mondulkiri received the lowest and second-lowest scores, respectively, in the ability of people there to adjust to environmental changes - dismal rankings that correlated with their ranking as the 3rd- and 4th-poorest areas in the region, respectively.

An official with the Climate Change Department at the Ministry of Environment, who asked not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media, said the government had not studied the vulnerability of Mondulkiri or Ratanakkiri to climate change.

"We have been conducting a report for the last two years on the effect of greenhouse gases on Cambodia," he said. "We hope to finish the report by the end of this year."

Pains of land development
Development workers in the eastern plains have echoed predictions of imminent trouble, saying land development and land speculation have degraded the area's environment at an alarming rate.

Bill Herod of Village Focus Cambodia, who works with indigenous Phnong minority youth in Sen Monorom, said land acquisitions - whether through aggressive purchasing or illegal grabs - are expediting environmental degradation by pushing off the land the Phnong, whose modest lifestyles have traditionally put little pressure on their habitats.

"There's been a devastating impact on the area's ecosystem over the last few years," he said. "When people buy land, one of the first things they do is clear it of trees.

"It's an extremely remote area, and it's difficult for indigenous groups here to cope with any changes to their lives," he added.

Jack Highwood, who works in Mondulkiri with the Bunong ethnic group, also sees the situation as dire.

"Mondulkiri is currently experiencing an unprecedented level of deforestation due to the sale of land to companies foreign and domestic, organised land-grabbing and the knee-jerk reactions of the Bunong peoples," he said.

He said development pressures have led the Bunong to clear-cut their land and sell it before it is appropriated without compensation.

The loss of their land and forests is pushing the group, which still relies on primitive farming and hunting and gathering, to the brink - and a change in climate, by changing their livelihoods, would surely push them over the edge, he said.


Hun Sen offers NA posts to 'nicer' opposition

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by Cheang Sokha and Vong Sokheng
Friday, 13 March 2009

PRIME Minister Hun Sen announced Wednesday that the ruling Cambodian People's Party has reserved two seats on each of the National Assembly's nine special commissions for opposition party members - on condition they adopt a "nicer" attitude.

Speaking at a graduation ceremony at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Hun Sen said two seats on each commission were open to the opposition, but that they had so far refused to put themselves forward as candidates.

"Come on, now, if you want, but I can't guarantee parliamentarians will vote in favour of this decision," Hun Sen said. "You spend your day insulting me.... Be nicer, and this proposal will have a chance to pass."

But Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann rejected the invitations, saying the ruling party must make more than cosmetic changes as a means of ensuring a balance between the executive and legislative arms of government.

"The ruling CPP has taken total control of the National Assembly, which is not usual for a system of democracy," he said. "We need to have some role in the National Assembly's Permanent Committee that will enable us to make changes to draft laws to serve the interests of the people."

Yim Sovann said the opposition would not take on any role in the National Assembly that did not serve the interests of the people.

"We need a strong National Assembly that can check over the government's affairs in order to make our society more transparent," he said.

The SRP and Human Rights Party in January signed an agreement to align under the banner of the Democratic Movement for Change following last year's national election, in which the CPP won 90 of the National Assembly's 123 seats.

Cheam Yeap, a member of the Permanent Committee of the National Assembly, made up of the chairpersons of the nine special commissions, said according to NA rules, each commission had at least seven members but that additional members can be added through a simple majority vote.

"We can't force them to join us," he said.

A Cambodian 'open society'

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by Pou Sovachana
Friday, 13 March 2009

The strength of any government is gauged by its commitment to building up the most vulnerable among its citizens.

Today, Cambodia is still a country where an education is more often out of reach for thousands of children growing up in poverty and grime.

While complaining and blaming others will bring no solutions, I ask the politicians to do as they have promised and to look at the public policies that are affecting everyday life in Cambodia, such as endemic corruption, human rights abuses, poverty, land-grabbing and a rule of law that is not universally applied.

As a volunteer teacher, I am committed to the educational development of Cambodia with vigour and without fear of retribution. I want to do more for my country and my people as an individual free from political restraints. I make no apologies for standing up to speak out on any issue related to the basic rights that are in conflict with my understanding of common laws. Vulnerable children may be destitute but they needn't be illiterate and ignorant. They also have the right to get an education and to enjoy a better life in the future.

To move forward, Cambodia should adopt the "open society" concept as a main vehicle for lasting growth and sustainable development. The open society is a concept originally developed by Nobel Laureate in literature Henri Bergson. In open societies, government is responsive and tolerant, and political mechanisms are transparent and flexible. The state keeps no secrets from itself in the public sense. It is a nonauthoritarian society in which all are trusted with the knowledge of all. Equality, political freedom, free speech and human rights are the foundation of an open society. Although still in the early stages, I have been working on establishing a Cambodia Open Society. I admit I still have a long way to go, but I dedicate myself to the promotion and implementation of democracy and open societies. After all, the ultimate goal of democracy is not to pursue material abundance but to nurture the dignities and values of each individual. Open society is always open to improvement because knowledge is never complete but always ongoing. Claims to certain knowledge and ultimate truth by the party in power lead to the attempted imposition of one version of reality. Such a society is closed to freedom of thought. In contrast, in an open society each citizen needs to engage in critical thinking, which requires freedom of thought and expression, and the cultural and legal institutions that can facilitate this. Cambodian society must be open to alternative points of views and not rest on the imposition of any individual perspective.

To promote these values, I believe that, first and foremost, the people must have an understanding of their imperfections before they can learn. The majority of the people in Cambodia must learn to change from a closed or fixed mindset to an open or growth mindset. Positive and constructive change makes all things possible. I witness this deficiency every day by interacting with my students.


With their fixed mindsets, they spend a lot of time worrying about such questions as "Am I good enough?", and "How can I believe you?" Or they ask, "Why should I trust you?" and "Why should I follow the rule of law when most others don't?" They often lose motivation for any activity in which they don't immediately shine. They lack confidence. They are afraid to speak up. They have fear within themselves. They follow blind ritual and tradition. Mistakes are considered bad. Everything is difficult and impossible. Conversely, with a growth mindset, apparent setbacks only fuel drive and motivation. The result is a continual process of necessary risk-taking and self-discovery - an outgoing journey of learning, growth and development. Students eliminate barriers of learning by asking themselves "What can I do to get better at this?" or "What works?" or "What is not working?", or "What's missing?" And they conclude: "I follow the rule of law regardless of what others think and do."

Mistakes are part of learning. Everything is difficult but possible. Their dignity improves. Their sense of worth increases. They have confidence in themselves to deal with the pressures of daily life. They can do more for their own benefit and the benefit of others. They connect themselves to the real truth and the outside world. They are free to think critically, act conscientiously and express creatively. Famous American football coach Vince Lombardi once said: "A man can be as great as he wants to be. If you believe in yourself and have the courage, the determination, the dedication, the competitive drive, and if you are willing to sacrifice the little things in life and pay the price for the things that are worthwhile, it can be done."

To help nurture a Cambodia Open Society, good governance and transparency play a big role in the process. That spirit must inhabit us all.

Government officials must work towards achieving an acceptable level of openness by practicing what they preach. Powerful leaders must cultivate mutual respect and consideration, so as to create a feasible and reasonable balance of interest, instead of abusing unlimited power.

They don't have the right to rob or dispossess any other person or the commonwealth. They must have a sense of modesty and moderation instead of an unquenchable lust for power, wealth and status. In greed and in power, humans lose their souls, their freedom and their inner peace to serve others - and thereby, they lose what makes them human. Leaders must use their political and economic power in the service of their people instead of misusing it in ruthless battles for domination. They must develop and extend a spirit of metta (compassion) with those who suffer, with special care for the children, the aged, the poor and the disabled. Their policies and actions must be transparent because transparency would strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.

I find satisfaction in knowing that at least I have made a difference in the lives of the students I teach and the people I meet. An ideal Cambodia Open Society is a transparent country with good governance, competent leaders with shared vision, accountability, sound institutions, hardworking and rational citizens with growth mindsets, and is under sound progressive management where all the people would one day be healthy in mind and body.

Pou Sovachana, 52, has worked as a volunteer teacher at the Buddhism for Peace Centre in Phnom Penh since 2008. He studied education in the United States, where he completed his MA.

Cellcard Mobitel set for $100m expansion loan

Royal Group CEO Kith Meng (left) at Thursday's 2009 Cambodia Outlook Conference at the Phnom Penh Hotel with Larry Strange, executive director of the Cambodia Development Resource Institute.

Mobitel expansion
Up to $60m loan from private overseas banks
up to $40m loan from the IFC
$350m total investment in three-year service upgrade project
75pc coverage of Cambodia by 2012
46pc mobile penetration the aim by 2012
Source: IFC and Milicom International

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by Steve Finch
Friday, 13 March 2009

Cambodia's largest mobile phone operator to receive funds from international lenders as part of $350-million service upgrade over the next three years.

ROYAL Millicom Co, the mobile phone company that operates under the brand name Cellcard Mobitel, is due to receive a loan worth up to US$100 million partly financed by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), sources close to the deal confirmed on Thursday.

The IFC website said that it will finance 40 percent of the deal - which was signed in July - with private overseas banks lending the remaining 60 percent. Mobitel was unavailable for comment on Thursday regarding the identities of the foreign lenders.

"The loan is to help [Mobitel] expand its mobile phone coverage in Cambodia ... this is a long-standing relationship [with the IFC]," a source close to the deal said on Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The loan would be the biggest issued by the IFC to date in Cambodia.

Mark Hanna, chief financial officer at Royal Group, which owns a 38.5 percent stake in Millicom, said the deal had nearly gone through following last year's agreement.

"The funds are imminent now," he told the Post on Thursday.

Mobitel plans to use the loan as part of a $350 million network expansion project over the next three years to increase network coverage in rural areas, upgrade core network capacity and add new services, Hanna said.

The IFC says the project will increase service coverage to 75 percent of the Kingdom's population by 2012. Mobitel reached 62 percent of the country at the end of last year, company data show.

In announcing that the loan agreement had been signed last year, the IFC said the funding would also increase employment and spur competition between Cambodia's mobile operators.

"[Competitors will be prompted to] invest further in their networks, thereby increasing availability and improving the quality of cellular services ... [which will lead to] lower tariffs," it said.

The loan is to help [Mobitel] expand its mobile phone coverage in Cambodia.

There are currently six mobile phone operators in Cambodia, the most recent being Viettel, a company owned by the Vietnamese military that held its official launch last month.

Mobitel holds a 55 percent share of the Cambodian mobile phone market, according to a 2008 financial report Millicom International Cellular SA, a Luxembourg-based global mobile phone company that owns a 95 percent stake in Royal Millicom Holdings, the company that holds the remaining 61.5 percent share of Royal Millicom. CamShin is second in the market with an 18 percent share, closely followed by TMIC with 15 percent.

Despite the huge investment Millicom International is planning for Cambodia, at the end of last year it warned that the deteriorating world economy meant the Cambodian mobile market looked uncertain for 2009.

"In the short term, Cambodia is being affected by the global economic situation which has impacted the disposable income of middle- and lower-income consumers," it said. "This means that revenues are no longer growing at the top line on a quarter-on-quarter basis."

Twenty-nine percent of Cambodians had mobile phones at the end of 2008, the Millicom International report said, adding that it expects that figure to increase to 46 percent by 2012.

In Asia, Millicom International also operates mobile phone service networks in Laos and Sri Lanka.


SMEs seen as key to growth

Workers unload bananas at a small business in Siem Reap.

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by Kay Kimsong
Friday, 13 March 2009

Members of the government and private sector urge development of small and medium-size businesses to drive economy towards recovery.

CAMBODIAN economists and trade officials have urged the government to focus on small and medium-sized entreprises rather than foreign investment to boost the economy during the global downturn.

"Only small and medium-sized enterprises can be used as a tool to boost our growth," said Kang Chandararot, director of the Cambodia Institute for Development Study.

He said that the size of the small business sector meant it was also able to absorb thousands of the 20,000 garment workers who have been laid off this year.

"SMEs are a big part of the economy. They represent around 65 percent of GDP and employ 85 percent of the whole Cambodian job market," said Kang Chandararot.

"This is the perfect time for all relevant ministries to help local producers to be able to boost employment to strengthen the economy."

He said that SMEs mainly use domestic resources - raw materials and villagers who keep income circulating within the local economy.

Mao Thora, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce, said the government is working with the United Nations Development Program to promote small businesses by seeking markets for processing factories, and evaluate agricultural products.

"[Small businesses] are hugely important for our economy in terms of employment and revenue-collecting," said Mao Thora.

He estimated that 90 percent of Cambodian businesses are SMEs, adding that the Ministry of Commerce had plans to send representatives to China in May to find buyers for cassava products and to seek out experts to train local producers on standard packaging.

Heng Heang, president of the Phnom Penh SME Association, told the Post on Wednesday that the global downturn was starting to affect small businesses, but not as severely as the real estate sector.

"We are able to survive. We don't see many people laid off yet, but growth is still fairly flat," he said.

"If the government and bankers are able to promote SMEs at this time, it will help generate better growth for the economy," he said, adding that because SME profits stay inside Cambodia, they can help strengthen and create other jobs.

"If a fish sauce factory keeps operating, it means fishermen and salt farmers have jobs, too," he said.

Nguon Meng Tech, director general of the Cambodia Chamber of Commerce (CCC), echoed the call to focus on SMEs, adding that such business owners are better paid than garment workers.

"If you work in a family business, you don't have to worry about food, medicine and accommodation, but as a garment worker you spend money on rent and other things," he said.

This is the perfect time for all relevant ministries to help local producers.

However, he blamed some officials at the Ministry of Commerce who usually discourage local entrepreneurs by asking them to pay a fee for opening businesses.

He also called on Cambodian tycoons to give US$2 million in loans to the CCC to lend to Cambodian entrepreneurs at a low interest rate.

Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said between 600,000 and 700,000 Cambodians have left the country to seek jobs in Thailand and other countries, many of whom would usually have ended up opening SMEs in Cambodia had they not gone.

"Take action quickly.... I guess about 1 million jobs have been lost directly and indirectly so far," he said.

"Foreign investors aim to earn profits and go home. That type of business is not the kind of long-term investment Cambodia needs for sustainable growth," said Son Chhay.

Middle East targets land, energy deals

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by George Mcleod
Friday, 13 March 2009

Cambodia's traditional sectors are foundering in the wake of the global financial crisis, but the Kingdom's farmlands could bring billions from Middle Eastern countries seeking food security.

BANGKOK - With high-profile government visits and massive deals in the works, Middle Eastern countries are competing to carve out an economic and political stake in Cambodia. Land leases and energy agreements are being negotiated by Kuwait and Qatar, while Israeli companies are hoping to ink agricultural technology and telecoms contracts.

Governments are backing the push into Cambodia, and the prime ministers of Kuwait and Qatar already visited last year.

Israel is joining the game, with its first major delegation scheduled to arrive Monday. Iran is also taking a role under its Look East policy to boost Asian trade in the face of Western sanctions.

Analysts say growing Middle Eastern interest puts Cambodia on the map and in the middle of a power contest for political and economic footholds in Asia.

"In a way, the economic crisis has made Asia an even greater focus for the Middle East because there is more competition for markets," said Middle East expert Yossi Mekelberg from Chatham House in London.

"Middle Eastern countries are attracted to Cambodia in part because [Cambodia] doesn't care about the Arab-Israeli conflict, or about politics.

[Cambodia] wants investment. It gives Middle Eastern countries soft power in the region," he said.

Countries like cambodia don't care about the politics of the middle east.

Mekelberg added that growing consumer markets and rich natural resources have helped make Asia a focus for Middle Eastern powers.

The Cambodian government could not provide figures on future Kuwaiti and Qatari investment, but sources say deals are currently under negotiation, and could be announced this year. Cambodia's foreign ministry said Kuwait invested US$300 million in hydropower projects, millions more in irrigation, and pledged $5 million for an Islamic centre. Kuwait also plans to build an embassy and pledged nearly $600 million in loans.

A food security expert from New York University said that Kuwait and Qatar's investments in Cambodia are largely strategic.

"These countries can't grow much of their own food, and the price shocks last year were a wake-up call for them. ... They are keen to have secure food supplies for the future," said Alex Evans by phone from London.

New markets for Israel
The Israelis, on the other hand, are interested in gaining markets for their technology and increasing their political influence, analysts say.

Figures from the Cambodian Investment Board say Israel was Cambodia's fourth-largest foreign investor in terms of approved projects in 2008, with $300 million in fixed assets. The Israeli embassy said it expects trade and investment to increase substantially after next week's delegation, which will see 15 Israeli telecoms companies, as well as agricultural technology companies visit Phnom Penh.

The Israeli ambassador in Bangkok, who is also responsible for Cambodia, told the Post that additional high-level visits may materialise in 2009.

Agriculture in focus
Of most interest for the Middle East is agriculture - something that Qatar and Kuwait have very little of. Local conglomerate Mong Reththy Group is among the companies involved, and the CEO said discussions are underway with the two countries.

"Cambodia lacks technology and capital, but we have plenty of land. Qatar will provide the financing and we will share the land," Mong Reththy said. Qatar is discussing a $20-million joint venture to lease 10,000 hectares of rice growing land in Stung Treng province. Mong Reththy said the deal was in the planning stages, with talks scheduled for Monday when a group of Qatari businessmen are set to visit - incidentally, the same day the Israeli delegation arrives.

"We are getting ready to finish our discussions with Qatar and, if successful, we will start our project this year," said Mong Reththy.

"We also plan to discuss this with Israel and Kuwait, possibly to grow rice and corn because we are experts in these crops," said Mong Reththy.

The Cambodia Chamber of Commerce has been in contact with Kuwait, Qatar and Israel, and officials say Cambodia's food-producing potential has put the country in the spotlight. Director General Nguon Meng Tech said: "Kuwait, Qatar and Israel all want rice from Cambodia because these countries are mostly sand."

"Eighty-percent of Cambodia's population are farmers, so if they invest in agriculture, I believe that we will be able to succeed in applying our plan," said Nguon Meng Tech.

But petroleum-rich countries will have to invest heavily if they wish to make their investments in Cambodia worthwhile, say other investors.

Local rice yields are a poor 2.5 tonnes per hectare, versus about 3.5 in Thailand and about six in China. Lack of storage and milling capacity also means Cambodian rice is lower quality than product from neighbouring countries.

One foreign investor said Gulf States are well-positioned to improve that.

"Improving Cambodia's agricultural output and quality will require huge investment - something countries like Kuwait and Qatar have a lot of.

The Israelis can offer technology that would let Cambodia do more with what it already has," he said.

While the Arab states have their sights set of food security, the Israelis say their main goal is to create a market for high technology goods.

"Cambodia is potentially a huge market for [Israel] it is also a totally new market for us," said Yitzak Kiriati, director of the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute, a government-private sector agency.

"There is a lot of potential for cooperation because Israel can offer some of the world's best irrigation, desalinisation and greenhouse technology," he said in Bangkok.

But Alex Evans from New York University said some of the investments could fuel land grabs and food insecurity. "What you are seeing in Cambodia is quite similar to what has taken place in other developing countries. ... There is a real lack of transparency, and these agreements are often made at the highest levels of government," he said, referring to Kuwaiti and Qatari land leases.

"There is a lot of concern about the deals - concern that these developing countries are not getting a fair deal," he told the Post.


Israel eyes telecoms and agriculture sectors

Israeli ambassador to Thailand, Yael Rubinstein

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by George McLeod
Friday, 13 March 2009


In this exclusive interview with the Post, Business Editor George McLeod meets with Israel's ambassador to Thailand to discuss her country's plans to build business and political links with Cambodia.

Why is Israel interested in Cambodia?
We see Cambodia as a very interesting market, and we want to explore a number of avenues for cooperation, especially agriculture and telecommunications. Israel is a world leader in agriculture and we need to share our know-how.... In terms of agriculture, there are two areas of cooperation - the first is water management. As you know, Israel is a desert country, but when people come to Israel, they see green fields. The reason is that we have good technology. The second is we want to work on desalinisation.

Cambodia has seen a lot of interest from other Middle Eastern countries including Qatar, Kuwait and Iran. Is this geopolitical competition?
No, [Cambodia] is a very interesting market, and I think it is no surprise that other countries are interested. I have no doubt that our products in telecommunications and agriculture are the best, so I have no doubt we will be more convincing for the Cambodian government.

But I am welcoming any competition from any other country, whether we have diplomatic relations with them or not.

But isn't the Israeli agriculture sector losing money and dependent on government subsidies?
That used to be the case - at first, the government had to subsidise, but in the last decades, most companies have been privatised....

Of course, the government is supporting agriculture though, but not financially.

My first aim is to encourage a higher-level delegation led by [Cambodian] ministers to visit israel.

What is the government's role in expanding ties?
Of course, the Israeli government is supporting our companies ... but as Israeli ambassador, my job is to open doors. That means meeting ministers and supporting the private sector. After I open the door, it is up to private companies.

Israeli telecoms and IT companies are also leaders in security and surveillance. Are you in talks with the government over providing surveillance equipment?
This isn't something we have discussed. Of course, if the Cambodians raised this, we would be able to discuss it.

Your new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is from the far right and seen as a hardliner - will this make it difficult to improve relations with Asia?
I think Mr Lieberman is an impressive person and it will be very interesting to meet with his colleagues ... I want to remind you that [Ariel] Sharon was also seen as hardline, but he pulled out of Lebanon and Gaza. So the term hardliner is a question of views, but I am positive the Netanyahu government will be very forthcoming.

In the UN, Cambodia has voted against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Do you have any views on that?
Our position is for a two-state solution and a Palestinian state existing side-by-side with Israel, so we are in favour of a two-state solution. We have no political dispute with Cambodia.

What developments can we expect in Israel-Cambodia relations for 2009?
My first aim is to encourage a higher-level delegation led by ministers to visit Israel, and we want the Cambodian foreign minister to come to Cambodia. We want more political dialogue. We need to upgrade relations with Cambodia.

Will Israel set up an embassy?
That is possible, but it depends on the budget.

The long search for justice

Photo by:

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by Andy Brouwer
Friday, 13 March 2009


Beth Pielert's Out of the Poison Tree chronicles one woman's journey of self-discovery in pursuit of a beloved father and the reasons behind the tragedy that was Democratic Kampuchea.

In 1977, director and producer Beth Pielert was sitting in a Hebrew school class reading about Anne Frank, who perished in the Holocaust, and was told never to let anything like the Nazi's "Final Solution" happen again. Meanwhile, 21,000 kilometres away, genocide was happening in Cambodia.

Years later, Pielert met a former Nuremberg prosecutor who sparked a theme for a film - people who were creators of justice after a great injustice had occurred.

Pielert's film Out of the Poison Tree follows Thida Buth Mam and her sisters back to Cambodia to find out more about the disappearance of their father under the Khmer Rouge and to hear first-hand from Cambodians about the necessity for justice and forgiveness.

As the Khmer Rouge tribunal readies itself for the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, this film is aptly timed for the voice it gives to ordinary Cambodians and to well-known figures like Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), or Aki Ra, an orphan raised by the Khmer Rouge who now runs the Land mine Museum.

The first screening in Cambodia of Out of the Poison Tree will take place at Meta House on Saturday at 6:30pm.

Where did the idea for the film come from?
Beth Pielert: I was visiting family on the East Coast [of the US] and I shared a ride to the airport with Henry King Jr, a former junior prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. Meeting Henry sparked an idea for a film about "right livelihood", where people who were exposed to great injustices like the Holocaust worked in careers that helped bring justice to the victims.

In the summer of 1999 ... my mother handed me an article from The New York Times that featured Craig Etcheson, [the co-creator of DC-Cam] and his work at the Yale Cambodian Genocide Studies Program.

I was able to meet Craig and interview him on camera. I learned more details about the Khmer Rouge regime and the long-overdue need for justice.

In 2000, I flew to Cambodia with my stepfather Robb, and together we interviewed survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime to better understand their desire for justice and what they had lived through.

Personal stories of healing and reconciliation for survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime were not yet prevalent at that time. I began production Out of the Poison Tree in earnest in 2001.

How did you and Thida meet?
BP: I met Thida Buth Mam in 2002. ... By [that time] I had already shot interviews with Youk Chhang and Aki Ra, in addition to a former Khmer Rouge soldier and smaller interviews, all of which made up the framework for the film. But I was in need of a contemporary component, an arc that could join stories from the past with the present. I always thought this would be the trial but ... that was taking forever to materialise.

I met with Thida, who had lived through the regime and who, I thought, could potentially serve as a consultant. Thida and her incredible family were so generous with their time and stories that Thida went from consultant, to translator to associate producer of the film.

When Thida phoned one day in late 2004 to say that she and her sisters were returning to Cambodia specifically to look for her father Buth Choen, I requested that I film her and their journey, and they generously agreed.

What do you hope people will take from the film?
Thida Buth Mam: For me, I want to tell the Khmer Rouge genocide story. If we look into the reasons the Khmer Rouge had, which led to the genocide, they were all reasonable, especially when a nation is under dictatorship or oppression. It can happen again, especially in Cambodia.

Cambodians must know themselves well to prevent this from ever happening again. Also, I was hoping to give a voice to the victims.... Cambodians should be fearful of the return of the Khmer Rouge the same way the Americans are afraid of another Vietnam War.

BP: There are several things that I hope people take away from the film, the foremost being understanding - understanding what it was like to be a country like Cambodia caught in the middle during a time of great political tension between the US and Vietnam.

The fallout from economic stress caused by the US bombings, starvation and military dominance helped enable the Khmer Rouge to gain power.

I also wanted to provide a sense of what it was like from the victims' point of view and how this unquenched justice spans the generations.

I wanted to provide a sense of the "choice-less choice" position many of the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge regime were in - for many of the Khmer Rouge soldiers, it was truly kill or be killed.

Thida, is the search for your father now complete? What did your mum think of the film?
TBM: No, I decided to stop. I don't think I can deal with finding out more details. Every time we found out a small fact about my father's fate, I went crazy in my head and in my heart. I think it is best that I don't know. Basically, I went searching for the truth about my father and found the truth about me. As for my mum, she is like me. She cannot handle the truth. She discouraged us from going and never asks me about it.

What are your hopes for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal?
TBM: [That] the Khmer Rouge admit to their crime, they apologise, they explain to us why they did what they did, they tell us what other countries were behind this - China? Vietnam? Thailand? That this practice of law or justice will make the Cambodian judiciary system better.

Also, acknowledgment of a brutal time in Cambodia and that my generation feel that we have done our best and that the genocide story stays alive.

BP: In many ways I wish that the Khmer Rouge tribunal had been created in the image of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Granting amnesty to the perpetrators may have expedited the Trial and yielded more details about the "how and whys" of the Khmer Rouge.

Finally, Thida, will you return to live in Cambodia?
TBM: I have bought some land where I plan to build a home when I can afford it. I hope, in my retirement, to live in Cambodia most of the time. I hope I can contribute back to my homeland.

The Phnom Penh Post News In Brief

In Brief: UN aid sought for street dwellers

Written by Cheang Sokha
Friday, 13 March 2009

Foreign Minister Hor Namhong has asked UN agencies working in Cambodia to help save street children by providing food, schooling and shelters. Ouch Borith, a secretary of state at the ministry, said the request was made when Hor Namhong met four UN representatives Wednesday, during their March 5-12 visit to inspect local projects. He added that the officials had promised to consider the issue.

In Brief: Five charged in kidnapping case

Written by Chrann Chamroeun
Friday, 13 March 2009

Siem Reap provincial court on Wednesday charged five men suspected of kidnapping the daughter of a military police chief on March 6. Court deputy prosecutor Touch Chanphakdey said that the men were charged with detaining a person to extort money and were now awaiting trial. "If they are convicted, they will be punished with life imprisonment," he said. Morn Charkriya, the 16-year-old daughter of Siem Reap's Military Commander Morn Samon, was kidnapped Friday but released on Saturday after private negotiations between her parents and the kidnappers.

In Brief: Ten new officials appointed by NA

Written by Vong Sokheng
Friday, 13 March 2009

Some 86 out of 87 lawmakers from the ruling Cambodian People's Party voted to support the appointment of former army commander-in-chief Ke Kim Yan and nine government officials to new posts Thursday at an extraordinary session of the National Assembly.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who presided over the session, said the new officials, some of whom were opposition defectors, would take on government responsibilities straight away. The 26 Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers were not present for the session.

In Brief: Hun Sen Cup semifinals

Written by Dan Riley
Friday, 13 March 2009

PHNOM PENH - Preah Khan Reach football club will seek to avenge their defeat in last year's Samdech Hun Sen Cup final at the hands of Phnom Penh Crown. He teams meet in Saturday's semifinal at 2pm at Olympic Stadium. The day's other semifinal sees navy team Phuchoung Neak battle off against 2007 runners-up Naga Corp at 4.15pm. Entrance to the main stand is free and games are broadcast live on TVK.

In Brief: Property jobs warning

Written by Soeun Say
Friday, 13 March 2009

THE president of the National Valuers Association of Cambodia urged the government to take steps to boost the property sector to prevent job losses it says could reach as high as 150,000. Speaking at the 2009 Cambodia Outlook Conference, Sung Bonna said that not just construction workers and realtors but also architects, engineers and workers in the construction materials supply chain were at risk if the government did not enact reforms to boost confidence in the sector. He called for the government to overhaul the legislative framework to streamline investment and to delay laws that could discourage developers.

Can Changing Priorities Change the Law? - Sunday, 8.3.2009

Posted on 13 March 2009

The Mirror, Vol. 13, No. 601

Apologies for the delays in publishing - due to my international travel. I try to catch up as soon as possible.

Norbert Klein

The life of a society is not like a mechanism which works according to preset laws of physics or chemistry. The different agents in a society - all the people, and some people with special functions - may see different things getting more important, and they change their mind. But not every change of mind can lead to a change of the rules according to which a society works.

Some of such changes are surprising. We take some examples from quite different fields, just to show that a direction was taken, or a result was reached, which had not been expected at all.

On 22 January 2009, General Ke Kim Yan was removed from his position of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces commander-in-chief by Prime Minister Hun Sen. This had triggered concerns among some generals at military garrisons and at divisions, being afraid that they too might be removed, but Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Tea Banh had affirmed that there are no such shifts to come -m but they came. Later, on 7 February 2009, we mirrored a report that the Prime Minister had explained that the removal of the commander-in-chief was part of the ongoing military reform. The rumors that there might be more involved showed up in the press on 13 February 2009, claiming that the Prime Minister had ordered to take legal action against Mr. Ke Kim Yan. More detailed information reached the public, when the official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported three days later that the government criticized the press for publishing leaked information (without denying its content). According to the minutes, “the Council of Ministers has been informed and commented on the termination of the position of commander-in-chief of HE Ke Kim Yan based on two reasons: First, reforming the RCAF rank and file by adhering to work effectiveness in the military rank and file. Second, involvement with land issues by a top and powerful person in the military rank and file and doing business by using the name of military for personal gain.” The minutes went on to describe a resolution by the Council of Ministers to have both military and government bodies investigate Ke Kim Yan’s land dealings.

And the end? This week came the final clarification: The Prime Minister announced that Mr. Ke Kim Yan will be the 10th Deputy Prime Minister, heading the drug control administration.

The 14th ASEAN Summit was held from 27 February to 1 March 2009, in Hua Hin, Thailand. After the ASEAN Charter had come into force in December 2008, the summit was under the heading ‘ASEAN Charter for ASEAN Peoples,’ to start a new era of ASEAN with people at the heart of cooperation. It had therefore been expected that the summit would focus on human rights, but the global financial crisis moved up to the top of the agenda.

Nevertheless, it had been foreseen because of this orientation of ASEAN - being for the ASEAN people - some people not from the governments, but from civil society, would also have a chance to meet and to discuss with government leaders. But as it was reported, the government representatives of Cambodia and Myanmar threatened rather to boycott this meeting than to discussion the creation of an ASEAN human rights institution with civil society persons. So the persons from Myanmar and from Cambodia withdrew, in order not to be an obstacle to this important discussion.

Even so, by the end of the summit, it had not been possible to find an agreement about the nomination of an ASEAN human rights commissioner, also the creation of the ASEAN human rights organization did not progress well. The plan originally announced was not achieved.

But the final declaration of the summit continues to uphold the vision of ASEAN as “a rules-based community of shared values and norms, a cohesive peaceful, stable and resilient region with shared responsibility for comprehensive security, as well as a dynamic and outward-looking region in an increasingly integrated and interdependent world.”

The confidence, that events and decision will be proceeding according to set rules, is basic for the stable development not only for an international community like ASEAN, but for every society. That is why the events described above are confusing for the public - for “the people” - because the rules according which events proceeded, and the values and norms applied, are not transparent to the public.

Now there is another field where it is not clear how rules-based proceedings - a state of law, as another terms says - were applied in the closure of the gambling chain CamboSix, which was announced by the Prime Minister on 24 February 2009 during a graduation ceremony, explaining the negative social consequences of gambling. But CamboSix had, after all, a license to operate, issued by the competent authorities of the government, valid until the year 2011. Now, about an estimated number of 6,000 to 8,000 workers lost their jobs, and the Minister of Finance was quoted that though the government had issued a license, there are “no particular contract links between both parties.” But the international partial co-owners see this differently: CamboSix, partly owned by foreign companies, claims to have lost more than US$12 million in investments made before the withdrawal of their license, and they will ask for compensation according to the legal protection provided to investors in general.

Raising this question is not giving an endorsement for gambling. But how is the public to understand this action? Just five days prior to this suspensions, the Secretary of State of the Ministry of Economy and Finance Chea Meng Chhieng had stated the 2009 goals of the state to collect a 12.5% tax, to produce more tax income over the 2008 figures: US$20 million, tax income from all kinds of gambling.

As we had reported on 24 February, the Prime Minister had ordered the Ministry of Economy and Finance to observe all hotels that have entertainment clubs and all types of electronic entertainment centers, as they are required to prohibit Khmer citizens to enter for gambling. “If there is any violation of the rules, like permitting Khmer citizens to enter, the Ministry of Economy and Finance must revoke their licenses and immediately stop their operation within 24 hours.”

Police in Phnom Penh, who do not understand the difference between computer based gambling and computer games, have closed also about 20 of the 160 shops hosting the role-playing game Justice X-War 2, though this is a game where the participants do not bet and cannot win any money. Even the Secretary-General of the government’s National Information Technology Development Authority, Dr. Phu Leewood, was quoted in the Cambodia Daily to regret this confusion: “Gambling is betting, while gaming is not. I used to play games a lot when I was at university.” But shops stay closed, and many people who wanted to register for the upcoming game tournament at the Cambodia ICT World Expo, scheduled for 3 to 5 April 2009, do not dare to come forwards, as they are afraid to be mistaken to be gamblers.

So far, there are many reports how the soccer-betting company CamboSix is affected. Is this regulation also be enforced where a hotel has a gambling room with slot machines? According to recent observations, there does not seem to be such checking in force at the Naga Casino – the biggest such establishment in Phnom Penh.

On 4 September 2007, we had mirrored a Khmer newspaper report that a door was opened too late for a Cambodian 4-Star General to enter the casino, so he called four police vans and had three Malaysian Naga Casino foremen handcuffed - followed by a report one day later that $150,000 were spent for the release of these three Malaysian employees of Naga Casino.

On Friday, we carried a headline that the Prime Minister apologized to the public for the late action of closing gambling institutions. There are also reports that there is an understandable wide public support for this action. It might falter again, if the public will see - as in the past – that the enforcement of sudden government decrees, and the enforcement even of laws, continues to be selective.

In spite of the failure of the recent ASEAN summit to nominate an ASEAN human rights commissioner for the ASEAN human rights organization to be created, the vision of ASEAN as “a rules-based community of shared values and norms” remains as a hope that all member countries will make progress, if this vision is upheld, and will be “peaceful, stable and resilient, as well as dynamic and outward-looking” as the final ASEAN summit document says for the whole community.

Please recommend us also to your colleagues and friends.

Cambodia: Where The Ruled And Rulers Meet (New Zealand)

Friday, 13 March 2009
Press Release: Asian Human Rights Commission

Cambodia: National Congress Where The Ruled And Rulers Meet Must Not Be A Still-Born Constitutional Institution

Cambodia's constitution which the Constituent Assembly issued from the UN-organised election had adopted in 1993 has established an institution of direct democracy called National Congress. This is the congress of people where, according to Article 147 of the Constitution, Cambodians meet their rulers "to be directly informed of various matters of national interest" and "to raise issues and make proposals for the state authorities to address." The Prime Minister is to convene this congress once a year in early December and, according to Article 148, it is to be chaired by the King of Cambodia.

Since 1993 this congress has never been held and there has been mounting pressure on Prime Minister Hun Sen to convene it. On 4 March 2009, in a public speech, he rebuffed the pressure instead of looking for ways to fulfill his constitutional duty and convene the congress. He said that "it is impossible to make the law" on its organization and functioning as required and "it is impossible to hold the National Congress."

Referring to the existence of at least 50 registered political parties which would take advantage of the congress, he expressed fears that "holding it could cause turmoil in the system" of government. According to him, the congress was unnecessary when his party, the Cambodian People’s Party, already received enough input from its parliamentarians to need to convene the congress to stay in touch with the people. He concluded that "it would be better to remove it from the Constitution altogether" and suggested that, with its majority in the Parliament, his party could amend the Constitution to that effect.

The reasons Hun Sen has put forward to scotch this important institution of democracy are hardly plausible. This institution is not a brand new one in Cambodia. The National Congress was first instituted as a constitutional institution in 1958. It was held every six months in an open space next to the Royal Palace in the centre of the capital. The Head of State, Prince Sihanouk, chaired each congress which lasted several days at a time. Thousands of people from every corner of the country participated in it with enthusiasm, heard their government’s report on national affairs, made recommendations and challenged corrupt officials. There was no turmoil, but rather peace and order throughout every congress.

To discharge his constitutional duty, Hun Sen needs simply to draw on that past experience to make the law on the organisation and functioning of the National Congress and to hold it in an orderly manner. After all, the present constitutional provisions on the National Congress are almost the exact copy of those that had instituted its predecessor in 1958.

However, the arrangements and practices in the past may not entirely fit the new circumstances of the country, and more needs to be done to ensure a smooth-running, trouble-free congress. In the first place, the country’s total population has doubled and the population of Phnom Penh, which provided the most active participants in the past, has almost tripled. Proportionally speaking, more people than in the past are politically conscious and may be willing to participate in the congress. People are more polarized than in the past.

The larger number of participants requires a larger venue, good organization so as to give more people an opportunity to voice their opinion, and also effective crowd control. The biggest venue Cambodia is the Olympic stadium in Phnom Penh which can seat up to 100,000 people. Participation may be limited to this number, either through local registration of participants on a first-come, first-served basis or with random-sampling based on electoral rolls.

Rules of procedure could be devised to enable participants to meet in harmony, voice their opinion and engage in debates in harmony and to break up in harmony.

As for crowd control there does not seem to be an insurmountable problem. So far, public gatherings, be they public demonstrations or protests, have been orderly. The trouble and disorder that have happened have been mainly caused by crackdowns by public forces. Mass meetings comprising thousands and even tens of thousands of people at a time, including the one organised by the ruling party in early January 2009, have been held in an orderly manner in the Olympic stadium. Additional fences may need to be erected to help this crowd control.

The real obstacle to holding the National Congress may be something else, and it is curious to note that, in the same statement, Hun Sen also said that if he were to convene a National Congress, he would only invite his party’s supporters. This part of the statement is more significant and should indicate he was not so sure he and his security forces could prevent criticism from being voiced in the congress and in his presence. He could face embarrassment to say the least.

When there is no insurmountable technical obstacle to the organization of an annual National Congress, the killing of this institution of direct democracy through a constitutional amendment is a serious violation of the Cambodian people’s constitutional rights to freedom of expression (Art. 41), and to participate actively in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the nation and have state authorities seriously consider all their proposals (Art.35), through the denial of an important venue for the exercise of these rights.

Furthermore, for a country where Buddhism is the state religion, the killing of this venue is also a derogation of one of the seven principles the Buddha taught a powerful and strong people called the Vajjians for their continued prosperity, a principle that may have inspired the establishment of the National Congress in 1958. The Buddha said that “as long as the Vajjians hold regular and frequent assemblies…as long as they meet in harmony, carry on their business in harmony and end in harmony they may be expected to prosper and not decline."

Prime Minister Hun Sen should honour his country’s international human rights obligations by meeting the constitutional rights of the Cambodian people. He should positively consider the Buddhist principle of governance above. He should abandon his scheme to remove the National Congress from the Constitution. He should instead fulfill his constitutional duty by making a law on its organization and functioning and the related rules of procedure, and convening this congress at the earliest possible moment.

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.