Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Friday, September 26, 2014

Gateway to Cambodia: The Mysterious Couple Who Bring Investments In To Cambodia

Megha Bahree Contributor
Forbes.com

Lao Meng Khin and Yeay Phu routinely bring in foreign investment–mainly Chinese–to their Cambodian resource plays. Typically, one of their companies will do a joint venture in which the pair are the local face and make relevant introductions, and the Chinese partners put down a big chunk of cash.

Some projects have gone forward, often with local protests, and others are at an uncertain stage. That’s how Britain’s Global Witness group sees it. It says three of the Pheapimex “economic land concessions” are joint ventures with China’s Wuzhishan Group–which in turn has a capital source out of Hong Kong — a nd Kong Triv, another tycoon, who is a senator for the prime minister’s party. Skirmishes with locals at these sites go back at least ten years.

Lao Meng Khin with wife Yeay Phu. (credit: AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Pheapimex has engaged in illegal logging, both inside and outside its concessions, with military complicity, according to Global Witness. (When these charges were first aired a decade ago, Hun Sen publicly attacked the report, telling journalists that “Global Witness has lied before, and today they are lying again.”)

Pheapimex has a range of interests beyond forests. These include salt iodization, over which the government granted it a monopoly, iron ore extraction, bamboo cultivation, pharmaceutical importation and hotel construction.

Another company Lao and Yeay set up, Cambodia International Investment Development Group (CIIDG), commenced a joint venture in 2010 with Chinese firm Jiangsu Taihu International for a 1,113-hectare special economic zone near Sihanoukville. It claimed that the two companies would spend $1 billion to develop the area. Under Cambodian law, companies developing SEZs are granted a nine-year tax holiday, as well as exemptions on VAT and import and export duties. Part of that SEZ is up and running with 15 companies operating there, according to its website.

One of the investor sin Jiangsu Taihu is Zhao Yaoting, No. 230 on the latest FORBES CHINA rich list, with an estimated $840 million.

CIIDG announced further ventures with the now troubled Chinese partner Erdos Hongjun to set up a coal plant and to mine for bauxite, as well as another coal plant with a Malaysian company.

Whatever the status of these and other projects, the Cambodian government, at least, is appreciative: In 2007 Hun Sen presented Yeay Phu with the Moha Sereiwath medal–a decoration reserved for individuals who’ve made a particularly generous contribution to Cambodia’s development.

(With inputs from Heng Shao.)

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In Cambodia, A Close Friendship With The PM Leads To Vast Wealth For One Power Couple

Megha Bahree Contributor
I write about business and development in India and its neighborhood.
Forbes.com

In summer 2013 Pal Liv, a farmer in Cambodia’s Pursat Province, 140 miles north of the capital Phnom Penh, watched as maybe ten men came on tractors and pulled up the bananas, rice, beans and corn he had planted. A larger contingent, some armed and others with badges, supervised the destruction. Nearly half his 3.5 hectares was seized. By Pal’s telling, it wasn’t the first time that his parcel and his living had been carved up–and by the Pheapimex Group, a company with powerful owners and connections.

A similar thing had happened three years before, he says. That time the men had moved in on what Pal says were 10 hectares belonging to him. His crops were surrounded by what he describes as a forest that he and his family tapped for resins and fruits. The company logged the trees for timber.

Farmer Pal Liv, seen with his grandchildren, is no longer able to make ends meet, his land carved up by Pheapimex. (credit:© Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom for Forbes)
Pal, 55, has tried to scramble back, as he also did after the Khmer Rouge took his original family homestead in the late 1970s. Land rights in the country have been in flux since. Following his first brush with Pheapimex, in a period when the Cambodian government was under pressure to respect customary possessions, he was able to get his title to the 3.5 hectares. Now that’s been shaved to 2, and he can’t make ends meet.

Cambodia, one of the poorest nations in Asia, holds potentially rich payoffs for the well-placed. In the past decade it’s seemingly moved to embrace a market economy and averaged GDP growth of 7.9% from 2000 to 2013, driven predominantly by the textile and tourism sectors. (While agriculture’s contribution to growth has fallen over the last two decades, it’s still the main source of livelihood in rural areas.)

Officially a multiparty democracy, in reality the country remains a one-party state dominated by the Cambodian Peoples Party and Prime Minister Hun Sen, a recast Khmer Rouge official in power since 1985. The open doors to new investment during his reign have yielded the most access to a coterie of cronies of his and his wife, Bun Rany. Two of these are Senator Lao Meng Khin and his equally powerful wife, Choeung Sopheap, better known as Yeay Phu. They own Pheapimex and other firms active elsewhere in the nation.

Bun Rany and Yeay Phu are friends, often traveling together and serving on the board of the Cambodian Red Cross. The U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh in a 2007 cable titled Cambodia’s Top Ten Tycoons–released by WikiLeaks–explained how the prime minister bridged political and private sectors, and maintained a pretense of civil society, by cultivating relationships with the country’s most prominent tycoons.

“These business leaders contribute money to the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP), and Hun Sen can call on them to fund charities and public works projects, and to attract foreign investment, achievements for which the CPP can claim credit,” the cable said. “In return the business tycoons enjoy the added credibility and legitimacy of having the prime minister’s support.

These symbiotic relationships illustrate the networks of business tycoons, political figures and government officials that have formed in Cambodia, which reinforce the culture of impunity and limit progress on reforms such as Hun Sen’s self-declared war on corruption.’ ”

The cable called Lao and Yeay Phu “
one of the most politically and economically connected couples in the country (after Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, and Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh and his wife).” Lao Meng Khin has been a CPP senator since 2006.

In the murky world of Cambodian business, not much is known–even by Global Witness, a British nonprofit that has been monitoring the activity–about the status of the various projects the couple has been linked with over the years, including a couple of coal-fired power plants, a hydropower plant and a bauxite mine. Along the way, however, the pair’s efforts have been a magnet for Chinese capital (see box, opposite).

Farmland in Pursat Province confiscated by Pheapimex, 140 miles north of Phnom Penh. (credit: © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom for Forbes)
Cambodia lacks transparency on such investments. What is known, says Global Witness, is that through Pheapimex and the various logging and land concessions it’s chalked up over the years, the owners control about 7% of Cambodia’s total land area–despite a law aimed at restricting any individual’s property to 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres). While the forest concessions are inactive because of a government decree banning logging, the pair remain in possession, and farmers like Pal must battle to keep what they can.

“There is growing public anger over the means by which both the government and private companies are forcing existing residents off the land,” says U.K. risk analysis firm Maplecroft in a report. “There have also been reports of the government employing the military to conduct forced evictions. Affected populations are often inadequately compensated.”

One doesn’t have to go beyond the Cambodian capital to see this play out in an area called Boeung Kak Lake. Once the largest body of water in the city and a scenic spot for villagers, it also served as a main drainage basin for managing Cambodia’s intense monsoons. The government leased the 133-hectare area in 2007 for 99 years to Shukaku, another company owned by Lao and Yeay, for $79 million, or $0.60 a square meter. In 2011 the government approved their plans to build luxury hotels, condos, shopping malls, a hospital, a school and residential and commercial buildings at a cost of $2 billion.

Since then the lake has been mostly filled with sand, and three-quarters of the 4,000 families living around it are gone, evicted, their houses razed or inundated with mud, and drainage in the area blocked–all amid repeated clashes with the police and military.

Things came to a boil in April 2011 when several residents, including two children, were manhandled by security forces in front of a Phnom Penh municipal building as they attempted to press authorities to stop pumping sand into the lake and to reach a settlement, says the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, an NGO in the capital. Nine women were arrested and forced to sign confessions admitting provocation and responsibility for the violence, the group says. (They were released a day later.)

Phan Chhunreth was one of them. She and her extended family of 12 are remaining holdouts. They bought a house in a Boeung Kak Lake village in 1993. Phan, 55, runs a small convenience store, while her husband ferries passengers on a motorbike. They rent out a room in their house for additional income. Phan doesn’t have a title to her house, like many in the country. (Some have not been recovered since the Khmer Rouge days.) Dressed simply on an August day, she says she is still waiting for the title the government promised her in 2005. “I’ve been beaten, and I’ve been to jail,” she says. “The government development policy does not provide justice and equality for all.”

Meantime, Shukaku’s grand plans have become dormant as a prominent investor in its Chinese partner, Inner Mongolia Erdos Hung Jun Investment, is reportedly under investigation in China. (That would be Chen Jihong of Denzheng Resources, who appeared on the 2010 FORBES CHINA rich list at $500 million.) Though the probe is not believed to be related to the Phnom Penh project, the contentious area has been given over mostly to wild grass, at the far end of which lies the prime minister’s office and newer towers in the capital’s skyline.

Boeung Kak Lake, once the largest body of water in Phnom Penh, is mostly filled in with sand as part of a stalled development project (the prime minister’s office and new towers are in the background). (credit:Omar Havana/Getty Images)


Boeung Kak Lake was also at the heart of a 2011 decision by the World Bank to place a moratorium on loans to Cambodia until the 779 families still living there were adequately compensated. The accompanying global media glare shined a rare light on the owners of Boeung Kak Lake and their relationship with the government. Two days later, on Aug. 11, 2011, Hun Sen authorized that 12.44 hectares of land within the Boeung Kak development area be allocated to the remaining families for onsite housing on plots with legal ownership. Most of those families, like Phan’s, are still waiting for their land, and as of last January the World Bank held off plans to resume lending.

Will Lao Meng Khin or Yeay Phu comment? Neither seems to have an office number or business Web address. When FORBES ASIA approached their mansion in Phnom Penh, a staff member laughed and said, “No journalists,” before quickly retreating and shutting an ornate brown-and-gold gate. The house is on a tree-lined street in a posh neighborhood, and military police guard it around the clock.

Meanwhile, away from even the meager protection that some watchful media are able to provide the landless in Phnom Penh, Pal Liv in Pursat, his ribs visible above the blue shorts, assesses his plight. “Earlier we had enough rice for everyone to eat, and we could buy new clothes for the children,” he says. The land yielded enough vegetables for his family and often extra to sell. As the skies opened up to a brief shower, a daughter and five grandchildren huddled in the doorway of the tiny one-room hut built with hay and supported on stilts, and he went on: “But ever since I’ve lost the land to the company, I don’t earn enough to send my grandchildren to school or to buy new clothes for them. There is no spare money, and we have run through our savings.”



Pheapimex cultivates cassava and potatoes on the logged land on the horizon. Pal’s wife and another daughter and son-in-law work those fields from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. but get paid only if they meet the target that has been set for the day, says Pal. Once his wife was jammed with several other workers in a mini-truck transporting them to a farther-off field when it overturned. She broke her arm, and the company gave her $50 to have it taken care of. It was not set properly, and her wrist juts out awkwardly.

It is far from the only casualty of Cambodia’s economic rush that needs a better fix.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Virginity for sale: inside Cambodia's shocking trade

On the margins of the sex industry, an ugly market in virginity has emerged in Cambodia in which rich and powerful men coerce desperate mothers into selling their daughters' innocence

Abigail Haworth - TheGuardian
The Observer, Saturday 5 July 2014

Vannith Uy is the owner of what translates from Khmer as a "mobile nail salon", although the word salon is a stretch. It's a bicycle with a plastic crate on the back filled with hand lotions and nail polishes. Uy, 42, rides it around her Phnom Penh neighbourhood – a tangle of alleys near the river where the residents' domestic lives spill out of their open front doors – until a customer flags her down. She performs a manicure or pedicure on the spot, sitting on a plastic stool by the side of the street.

Dara Keo, in the room she rents with her mother and sister in a Phnom Penh slum. Through a broker, her mother sold Dara's virginity when Dara was only 12 Photograph: Will Baxter

Three years ago, when she arrived from the countryside, Uy had a different plan. She wanted to open a hair and beauty salon on proper premises in the Cambodian capital. "But my family could find only dirty jobs," she says. "I wanted a place where my daughter and I could work together." So Uy did something she describes as her "only choice": she sold her 18-year-old daughter Chamnan's virginity to a wealthy local man for £900.

The man was a police general who frequented the beer garden where Uy worked as a kitchen help, she says. He bought Chamnan for six days and nights. He installed her in a hotel room on Phnom Penh's outskirts and visited her many times to have sex. She was allowed to call her mother once a day. By the third day, Uy recalls, Chamnan was so weak and distressed that the man summoned a doctor on his payroll to give her painkillers and a vitamin shot "so she had the strength to keep going until the end of the week".

Uy received cash payment in full, but her planned salon never materialised. The money that had represented a life-changing sum – equivalent to around five years' salary in her home village in Kandal province – soon trickled away. After she'd paid her sick husband's medical bills, given cash to her ageing parents and bought Chamnan a gold necklace to "raise her spirits", there wasn't much left. Uy had greatly underestimated the task of clawing her way out of hardship; her stricken expression as she talks suggests she also miscalculated the personal costs of selling her daughter's body to try.

Where to begin unravelling the shadowy, painful layers of Uy and Chamnan's story? It is not straightforward. Often overlooked by more dramatic tales of enslavement in brothels, the trade in virgins is one of the most endemic forms of sexual exploitation in Cambodia. It is a market sustained by severe poverty and ingrained gender inequality. Its clients are influential Cambodian men and other members of Asia's elite who enjoy total impunity from a corrupt justice system. Most misunderstood of all, many of those involved in the transactions are not hardcore criminals. They are mothers, fathers, friends and neighbours.

Cambodia is far FROM the only place where women and girls are treated as commodities. But in this country of 15 million people, the demand for virgins is big business that thrives due to cultural myth and other local factors. "Many Asian men, especially those over 50, believe sex with virgins gives them magical powers to stay young and ward off illness," says Chhiv Kek Pung, president of Cambodia's leading human rights organisation, Licadho. "There's a steady supply of destitute families for the trade to prey on here, and the rule of law is very weak."

The belief that sex with virgins increases male vigour has long held sway among powerful men in Asia, including Chairman Mao and North Korea's Kim dynasty. "Unlike sex- tourist paedophiles who seek out children under 10 years old, local men don't care so much about a virgin's age – only her beauty and the fact she's pure," says Pung. Parents who sell their daughters' virginity have little concept of child rights. "They regard their offspring as their property."

Based on Licadho's work inside communities, Pung estimates that "many thousands" of virgins aged between 13 and 18 are sold every year. As well as rich Cambodians, men from countries such as China, Singapore and Thailand are regular buyers, too. "They travel here on business and have everything prearranged by brokers: a five-star hotel, a few rounds of golf and a night or two with a virgin," says Eric Meldrum, a former police detective from the UK who now works as an anti-exploitation consultant in Phnom Penh.

The lack of hard figures is partly due to the trade's secrecy, Meldrum adds. Brokers operate underground, changing tactics and locations often. Plus the fact that close relatives are often involved means it rarely fits into strict definitions of sex trafficking – when people are tricked or abducted and sold into open-ended slavery – so it doesn't show up in those statistics either.

But there's another reason the trade is virtually invisible. Says Licadho's Pung: "In terms of activism, few organisations highlight virgin buying even though it's a devastating abuse of young women." It's seen as difficult to generate sympathy for the issue among foreign aid donors, she explains, so many NGOs sidestep the issue. (Licadho is one of the exceptions.) "The fear is that, while people might feel sorry for the girls, they'd be too outraged about parents selling their daughters to open their wallets."

That moral complexities are sometimes ignored by those purporting to help was sensationally underscored in late May. Somaly Mam, a self-styled former sex slave and Cambodia's most famous anti-trafficking campaigner, was forced to resign in disgrace from the US-based foundation that bears her name. The glamorous Mam boasted Hollywood actor Susan Sarandon and Facebook dynamo Sheryl Sandberg among her top supporters. She was feted widely in the media. On the back of heartbreaking stories about herself and Cambodian women under her wing, she raised millions of dollars at glitzy New York galas. Her downfall came after an investigation by a Cambodia Daily reporter revealed that significant parts of the stories she told were untrue.

One young woman whom Mam claimed to have rescued from a brothel after a vicious pimp gouged out her right eye had actually lost the eye, it emerged, as the result of a facial tumour. Mam's own story of woe – that she was orphaned and sold to a brothel at the age of 12 – was also dismantled.

The awful irony of Mam's rapid fall is that she didn't need to lie. Sex trafficking and exploitation exist in Cambodia, just often in less made-for-TV ways than her tragic tales suggested. (Brothels in red-light areas housing enslaved child prostitutes, for example, have been almost wiped out over the past decade.) Dishonesty aside, the greatest pitfall of her fraudulence was not so much that it misrepresented the scale of the problem. It was that it misrepresented the solutions. In promoting herself – and allowing others to do it for her – as a survivor single-handedly rescuing girls from evil predators, she made finding answers seem all too easy.

"People respond to emotional stories and they hand over their money without understanding underlying causes or long-term solutions," says Sébastien Marot, the director of Friends International, an NGO based in Phnom Penh that works with vulnerable children. But in the case of the virgin trade, he says, progress is hard. Pung agrees. "When you talk to people about this, there's a view that there are plenty of poor people in the world who don't sell their daughters, so it can't be blamed on poverty or desperation. But there are many interwoven social factors. You have to look at the whole picture."

At Vannith Uy's HOME, a dark, wide room that she rents for £10 a week at the back of a grander house, she tells me about her struggle to find work when she first arrived in Phnom Penh. Her husband had a back injury and she had two children, Chamnan and a younger son, to support. The capital overflows with rural migrants, all competing for the same menial jobs. "The only work I could find was as a kitchen help in a beer garden. I found Chamnan a job serving ice at the same place."


Hostesses at a Phnom Penh beer garden. The beer gardens are popular with men looking for virgins. There is no suggestion that these women have been sold Photograph: Will Baxter

Beer gardens are fairy-lit outdoor pubs where local men go to relax after work. In the evenings all over Phnom Penh, the sound of plaintive Khmer love songs leaks into the darkness, feedback and all, from their giant speakers. The gardens employ miniskirted young women to sell competing brands of Cambodian beer or to work as hostesses and sing karaoke. The décor at one popular place is a disconcerting mix of beer posters and Pooh Bear murals.

Uy hated the atmosphere, which she says became more drunken and predatory as the night wore on. "Chamnan is pretty and all the men loved her. They made comments about her body." While prostitution isn't openly advertised, many of the hostesses and beer girls supplement their income by selling sex to customers after hours. Brokers also frequent the gardens, touting for men who want to buy virgins or have other "special requests", which they arrange to take place at discreet locations.

Uy says the thought of selling Chamnan's virginity hadn't occurred to her until the opportunity arose. "A tall customer in his 50s noticed Chamnan. He came alone and asked her to sit beside him. One evening he asked me if she was a virgin, and said he wanted to buy her." She found out before the sale took place that he was an off-duty police general. Uy eventually agreed because, in her mind, she saw it as a chance to save Chamnan from becoming drawn into regular sex work. "It was only a matter of time if we stayed at the beer garden. All the girls who worked there seemed to do it eventually."

Economic opportunities are lacking for everyone in Cambodia, where three-quarters of the population lives below or just above the poverty line. But they are especially dire for women, who earn an average of only 27 cents for every dollar earned by a man, according to the Asian Development Bank. Apart from working in the fields, the vast garment industry is the biggest source of female employment. But wages are so pitiful at around £60 per month that workers are currently risking their lives in protests to fight for more. Working in a beer garden or karaoke bar and doing sex work on the side can bring in double that, and some women see it as their best option.

But sex work is not only criminalised under the law, leaving those who do it by choice (or lack of it) vulnerable to official abuse, it also brings deep social shame. Expectations of female chastity in Cambodia are enshrined in a code of duty and obedience known as chbab srey, or "women's law". "There's a national saying that men are like gold and women are like cloth," says Tong Soprach, an academic researcher into the sexual practices of Cambodia's youth. "If you drop gold in the dirt, it washes clean and still shines. If you drop cloth, the stain never comes out."

This absurd double standard is another reason virginity is so valued, of course. Men typically pay between £600 and £3,000 to buy a virgin for up to a week, depending on their budget and the girl's beauty. Uy didn't know the going rates, but she believed the offer of £900 for Chamnan would be enough to change their fate. "I explained my idea to Chamnan. She wasn't happy about going with the man, but she told me she understood."

In fact, chbab srey also dictates that women must obey and help their parents, a rule that is almost universally followed. It would have been difficult for Chamnan to refuse. "When she came home afterwards, I knew she was sad, but we didn't speak about it. We both felt it was better to forget it ever happened." Uy took a better-not-to-know approach with her husband, too. To preserve Chamnan's virtue in his eyes, she told him she had saved up the money from beer garden tips.

I asked Uy if I could meet Chamnan, who is now 22, but it wasn't possible. With the little money left over from her ordeal, she had returned to Kandal province and found a job in a government garment factory making underwear. Does she resent that Uy's grand plan didn't materialise? "I don't think so. She has a steady boyfriend now and hopes to marry him. She has a better life." But then, as a mother, Uy probably would think that.

Cambodian parents love their children as much as anyone, says Nget Thy, director of the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children's Rights. But it's difficult to overstate how many problems exist in some communities. "Any misfortune, from losing a family member to losing a game of cards, can push people below the level they need to eat," he says. "Attitudes that children exist for their parents' benefit, and that women exist for men's benefit, are very, very wrong and need addressing urgently. But it's the men who buy virgins who are the criminals."

At a Phnom Penh riverside slum I meet Dara Keo. Dara's mother Rotana sold her virginity when she just 12 years old, after her father died leaving gambling debts. The slum's stilted shacks are home to around 1,000 people, many of whom recycle rubbish as their only source of income. Addiction to drugs, alcohol and gambling is part of daily life. Dara, who is now 18, says almost every teenage girl there is sold for her virginity, usually in deals made with their parents by female neighbours who work as brokers. "Everyone knows it happens but nobody talks about it openly."

Dara's account, and those of other young women I speak to in the slum, reveal the trade's dehumanising efficiency. "After my mother sold me for $500 (£300), the broker took me to a doctor to have my virginity checked and a blood test for HIV," says Dara. "There were other girls there. We were made to take off our clothes and stand in a line until it was our turn to be examined." (Buyers insist on proof of virginity to make sure they are not being tricked.)

Then she was taken to meet her buyer in an exclusive hotel room. The man, who was wearing "a dark suit and a gold watch", didn't speak or look at her at all, Dara says. "He pinned me down on the bed, unzipped his trousers and forced himself into me. The pain was very great." Over the next seven days, he came to the hotel to have sex with her two or three times a day. He didn't use a condom. "A few times he asked if he was hurting me. When I told him yes, he used even more force."

I ask about the man's identity. Dara gives me the name of a Cambodian politician who is still in office. It is impossible for her to reveal his name publicly.

By the time she was allowed to return home her vagina was torn and bruised. Her mother took her to a local doctor, who gave her painkillers and told her that her injuries would "heal on their own".

A senior police officer who agrees to speak anonymously says prominent men like politicians do not fear being caught because they know the police won't act. "If you try to enforce the law with these men, you will have a big problem," the officer says, dressed in civilian clothes in a Phnom Penh coffee shop. "I have been threatened, and some of my colleagues working on this issue have had their jobs threatened."

He relates how he has been warned by "people high up" not to pursue cases of virgin buying (and also rape) because "having sex is human nature" and such issues were "not serious".

He mentions a case last year of a senior military officer who was diagnosed with cancer and given one year to live. His wife agreed to let the man use more than £1m of their family money to "enjoy himself" before he died. "We knew he was buying a new virgin every week, but there was nothing we could do," says the policeman. (The man died recently.)

Men in power or big business "who have a good relationship with each other" are the only people who can afford to buy virgins, he adds, so arresting perpetrators is blocked by corruption at the very top. Although all forms of buying and selling sex are illegal in Cambodia, not one Khmer man has ever been convicted of purchasing virgins.

During her year working at the beer garden, Uy saw firsthand how the country's male elite bought virgins with entitled ease. She saw more than 50 young women being purchased, "like they were delicious food". As well as the police general who bought Chamnan, she came to know some of the other buyers well. One was an ageing politician from the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). "Everybody loved him because he gave big tips."

She mentions the politician's name. He is someone whose name crops up repeatedly in relation to the virgin trade among journalists and activists in Cambodia. (It is not the same politician who bought Dara.) Uy said the man went further than purchasing virgins for his immediate pleasure – he "reserved" younger girls for the future. "He asked mothers to bring their underage daughters to the beer garden after-hours," she explains. "Then he chose the ones he liked, and gave their mothers some money every week to buy rice until the girls grew up." A mutual arrangement was made, she adds, that he would buy their virginity when they reached adolescence.


A slum area in Phnom Penh. Severe poverty and ingrained gender inequality fuel Cambodia's virgin trade Photograph: Heng Sinith/AP

I spoke to Mu Sochua, a former Minister of Women's Affairs in the CPP and now a leading light in the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). She has campaigned for years on the need to address corruption and poverty, and advance women's status. In recent months she has been braving the front line of garment workers' protests to support their demand for a livable wage. While "the rule of law is not on the agenda of the current government", she says bluntly, addressing sexual exploitation such as the virgin trade needs to be part of efforts to tackle gender inequality on all fronts. "We have to increase education about women's rights to change attitudes," she says. "We need to win public support for an effective rule of law that punishes those who buy sex, not those who sell it."

The old men of the CPP have been in power continuously for 30 years. Mu Sochua, along with many others, believes the most recent general election last year was rigged. "The Cambodian people have already voted for change, so that is hopeful," she says. When the regime finally dies, she hopes that iniquities such as the virgin trade will die with it.

But will it? Take the politician who gave big tips that Uy mentioned. It's such an open secret in Phnom Penh that he is a prolific buyer of virgins that a Cambodian journalist who knows him well offered to introduce me to him. He was sure the politician would talk if I agreed to quote him anonymously.

The journalist quickly decided not to get involved. Even so, the moment suggested the lack of shame surrounding the practice and how much men like the politician must take their impunity for granted.

To protect the safety of the women cited in the article, some names have been changed.

Follow Abigail Haworth on Twitter at @AbiHaworth

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Cambodia: US Training of Abusive Military Exposed

Source: Human Rights Watch
US troops at Angkor Sentinel train Cambodian gendarmes in seizing a building in an urban environment. (US Government photo)


Video [Beating] - http://goo.gl/LWAcM2
Video [Tense] - http://goo.gl/cOjeda
Video [LICHADO] - http://goo.gl/bIaDHn
Video [brutal beating] - http://goo.gl/Yg2ykW


(New York) – US military training to Cambodia’s abusive armed forces could easily be misused against the political opposition and labor unions and may violate US law. The US military support was evident in official publicity material and personal pages posted on Facebook during the annual “Angkor Sentinel” exercises conducted from April 21 to 30, 2014.

“It’s shocking that the US military is providing armed soldiers training in kicking down doors soon after Cambodian armed forces killed protesting workers in Phnom Penh,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “While the ‘enemy’ the US is training Cambodia to defend against isn’t stated, these forces of late have only been used against opposition protesters and striking factory workers.”

US military forces have provided training that would assist Cambodia’s military in government crackdowns on the political opposition and civil society activists, Human Rights Watch said. This includes expanded military coordination with local political authorities and the police and a situational exercise centered on “security techniques in an urban environment.” A Cambodian military video featuring the seizure of a building shows troops advancing with assault rifles and kicking down an imaginary door to enter the building while US officers supervise the exercises. A photograph on the official Angkor Sentinel Facebook page, under the caption “vehicle search technique in an urban environment” shows a Cambodian soldier stopping a vehicle by standing in front of it with his assault rifle aimed at the windshield.

US military forces have provided training that would assist Cambodia’s military in government crackdowns on the political opposition and civil society activists, Human Rights Watch said. This includes expanded military coordination with local political authorities and the police and a situational exercise centered on “security techniques in an urban environment.” A Cambodian military video featuring the seizure of a building shows troops advancing with assault rifles and kicking down an imaginary door to enter the building while US officers supervise the exercises. A photograph on the official Angkor Sentinel Facebook page, under the caption “vehicle search technique in an urban environment” shows a Cambodian soldier stopping a vehicle by standing in front of it with his assault rifle aimed at the windshield.

These and other training exercises may violate US congressional funding requirements for military training and other forms of security assistance that specifically prohibit assistance to Cambodia except in limited areas of “global health, food security, humanitarian demining programs, human rights training for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, or to enhance maritime security capabilities.” Video images show practice planning for what appears to be mountain fighting, while stills from Facebook pages depict what seem to be lowland counterinsurgency scenarios. The US Congress imposed the restrictions because of the Cambodian government’s notorious rights record. A Senate report accompanying the legislation said that assistance was restricted because of “concern with the political situation in Cambodia and the lack of political will by the Government of Cambodia to further democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.”


U.S. General John Goodale and Cambodian Gen. Hun Maneth (Hun Sen's son) at the opening of Angkor Sentinel - April 21, 2014 (US Government Phot)


The training during Angkor Sentinel 2014 also appears contrary to the Obama administration’s security assistance policy, Human Rights Watch said. An April 2013 White House Presidential Police Directive states that one of the four “principal goals” of US security sector assistance is to “[p]romote universal values, such as good governance, transparent and accountable oversight of security forces, rule of law, transparency, accountability, delivery of fair and effective justice, and respect for human rights.”

US forces’ providing direct military training to security forces that have been repeatedly deployed to suppress peaceful expression and have engaged in human rights abuses is inconsistent with that policy, Human Rights Watch said.

“Congress made clear in its last budget bill that it didn't want training like this for Cambodia,” Adams said. “The Pentagon needs to explain why it circumvented Congress and ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Angkor Sentinel
Annual “Angkor Sentinel” exercises, which began in 2010, have become the “U.S. Army Pacific's capstone Security Cooperation event with Cambodia.” The exercises are in addition to routine US assistance in English-language instruction, de-mining, bridge and school construction, and medical assistance.

The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) includes the Cambodian army, air force, navy and the gendarmerie. The gendarmerie performs police functions vis-à-vis both Cambodia’s civilian population and military personnel and is armed with military weaponry.




The RCAF and the US military made plans for Angkor Sentinel 2014 during meetings near Phnom Penh on December 11-13, 2013, opened by a deputy Cambodian army commander and a US officer identified by official Cambodian television as “the chief of the U.S. Army bureau of cooperative operations on duty in Cambodia.” According to a broadcast on Cambodian state-run television, a Cambodian commander said the “combat exercise” would “strengthen and heighten” Cambodian army personnel competences.

US Brig. Gen. John Goodale and RCAF Lt. Gen. Hun Maneth, the West Point-trained son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, presided over the Angkor Sentinel 2014 opening ceremony. Maneth is simultaneously Vice Chairman of the RCAF Joint General Staff, Deputy Commander of the Army, and Commander of Cambodia’s Counter-Terrorism Unit. He has been promoted repeatedly despite his relative inexperience and appears to be being groomed by Hun Sen, who has been prime minister since 1985, as a successor.

In an official blog on the 2014 event, US Ambassador to Cambodia William Todd, who is frequently critical of the Cambodian government, including about its conduct of the July 2013 national elections, said that it was intended “to hone [RCAF’s] humanitarian assistance and disaster relief skills for use in the event of a natural disaster or other type of humanitarian crisis,” and thereby also “contribute to a coordinated response to regional emergencies” in Southeast Asia. A US Embassy press release added thatover 470 US and Cambodian personnel were to participate in the exercises, specifying that they were to be “in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities” and to prepare Cambodian troops for United Nations peacekeeping missions. The key US unit involved was the Idaho Army National Guard’s 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team, which has been involved in every annual exercise.

Angkor Sentinel 2014 comprised four courses: medicaltraining, a command post exercise, a situational training exercise, and instructions about how to counter improvised explosive devices. A US military video of the Command Post Exercise explains that it is intended to familiarize the Cambodian military with US “military decision making process” so that they can deal not only with natural disasters, but also “other activities they have locally,” as well as assignments given to them as parts of UN missions abroad.

At the time of Angkor Sentinel’s first event, in 2010, the US said the training emphasized international “peacekeeping challenges such as insurgency, terrorism, crime and ethnic conflict,” but was also designed to effect “institutional reform” of the RCAF.

Speaking in February 2011, the then-US principal deputy assistant secretary of defense, Derek Mitchell, said that US training was intended to develop RCAF into “a professional force, while encouraging Cambodia to continue on a path of improved transparency, governance, commitment to the rule of law, sustained democratic development and respect for human rights.” He expressed the hope that the Cambodian military was embarking on “notable institutional reforms” that had the potential to create a force that respected human rights.

Pentagon officials have told Human Rights Watch in the past that all training with Cambodia military units stresses human rights standards and that one of the goals of training is to introduce a new generation of officers to military techniques and a sense of professionalism that, US officials say, the officers will seek to emulate.

Because of the Cambodian military’s entrenched politicization and corruption, there is little hope that such training efforts can succeed in bringing about a more professional and rights-respecting armed force, Human Rights Watch said. All of RCAF’s senior-most military officers sit on the central committee of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. The commander-in-chief sits on the smaller and more powerful standing committee.

“If the US military is going to engage with Cambodia's notoriously abusive, corrupt, and politicized military, it has to limit assistance only to the most necessary humanitarian operations,” Adams said. “There are not a lot of good options, but the programs chosen for Angkor Sentinel are not among them.”

In Phnom Penh and other municipalities, provinces, and districts throughout Cambodia, civilian governors or a designated deputy governor head “unified command committees” that since the 1980s have been legally empowered to exercise command authority over “mixed forces” of security units, which now can include army, gendarmes, police, and public order para-police. This is part of a system that has for decades ensured that Cambodia’s security forces are politically highly partisan in favor of the CPP. The governors or deputy governors chairing these committees are all leading CPP members in the areas they administer.

Since the fundamentally flawed July 2013 national elections, which the United States has strongly criticized, unified command committees have constantly overseen or coordinated with attempts by the army, gendarmerie, and police to prevent or suppress attempts by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and trade unions to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly and expression. These security force operations, conducted almost entirely in Phnom Penh and other urban areas, have repeatedly involved use of excessive force, including unnecessary lethal force resulting in at least seven deaths and dozens of injuries. Security forces have carried out brutal beatings of protesters, including one case in which a worker died on May 17, 2014.

Cambodian Forces Arresting Critics, Blocking Strikes, Quashing Protests
Army and gendarmerie forces have also carried out arrests of dozens of demonstrators, protesters, and people allegedly involved in social unrest, including human rights defenders and others who had committed no recognizably criminal offence, but who have since been imprisoned in unfair trials. Twenty-five people arrested since November 2013, including some taken into custody and beaten by gendarmes who stormed buildings on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on January 2-3, 2014, are currently on trial in politically-controlled courts.

Mixed Phnom Penh security forces including gendarmes are currently seeking to enforce a government ban in violation of international law on peaceful gatherings by the CNRP and civil society groups. These forces have occupied the area the government previously designated for such gatherings as “Democracy Plaza” in central Phnom Penh. Most recently, on May 16, they established a “forward defense perimeter” around the plaza to prevent any intrusion by participants in a CNRP election campaign march.

Since September 2013, various unified command committees in and around Phnom Penh have also repeatedly overseen the establishment of roadblocks, ostensibly to check vehicles traveling on access routes to the capital for hidden explosive devices, a practice that has continued this May 2014. Human Rights Watch’s observation of such operations and consistent reports by other human rights observers, the CNRP, and trade union activists make it clear that such operations have been used to harass and obstruct movement of people the security forces identify as likely to participate in demonstrations or strikes.

In addition, on February 20, Hun Sen expanded an existing civil-military-police “Committee to Solve Strikes and Demonstrations at All Targets,” the objective of which is to deal with such worker assemblies, adding numerous high-level officials to the committee’s membership. These included the Phnom Penh governor, the RCAF Supreme Commander, the National Gendarmerie Commander, and various deputy army commanders, including Hun Maneth. One committee member explained that, “The government reshuffled and created the new committee because they wanted to strengthen their work and take action against protesters.” A security force source told Human Rights Watch that this body liaises with the Phnom Penh Unified Command Committee and stands by to assist it, when deemed necessary, in planning operations to break up any strikes the government deems illegal.

While neither the Cambodian nor US governments have made public the units from which RCAF trainees were drawn, Facebook video and still images provide indications. As noted above, men wearing gendarme insignia appear in these images. A Cambodian military video of the closing ceremony includes footage of a Cambodian officer in a red beret, which are normally worn only by personnel of Army Paratrooper Special Forces Brigade 911. Brigade 911, which reports directly to the Army Command, violently broke up a January 2014 worker gathering at a factory near the unit’s base, and arrested human rights defenders who tried to defuse the situation. Personnel from the army armor unit also participated in the exercises, according to the Facebook page of a tank commander.

“The Cambodian army and gendarmerie continue to repress political opponents and protesters, most recently in the killings and beatings of labor activists and the violent break-up of opposition political rallies,” Adams said. “While training Cambodia’s security forces in disaster relief seems laudable, the Pentagon’s approach to this training has been anything but. The Angkor Sentinel exercises should be scrapped so long as the Cambodian government uses its armed forces to target opponents and fails to hold abusive personnel to account.”

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Friday, May 02, 2014

Cambodian PM Hun Sen Faces ICC Complaint Over Human Rights Abuses

Source: RFA The International Criminal Court (ICC) was asked Thursday to consider hauling Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen before the bench on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

American human rights lawyer Morton Sklar has lodged a complaint with the Hague-based ICC against Hun Sen and his government, accusing him of trying to stop the activities of a U.N.-backed tribunal prosecuting members of the notorious Khmer Rouge regime and of being responsible for "major human rights abuses against the population of Cambodia."

"The purpose of the complaint is to bring international attention and the attention of the international criminal process to the two elements of human rights abuses going on in Cambodia right now," Sklar, who represents a coalition of Cambodian human rights and democracy advocates, told RFA's Khmer Service on Thursday.

He insisted that the ICC has jurisdiction to prosecute Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for nearly three decades after ruthlessly crushing his political opponents.

"I think they have two grounds of jurisdiction — under the genocide provisions because of the efforts of Hun Sen to stop the proceedings of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, and in essence to shield the perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge genocide from prosecution, and under the crimes against humanity provisions of the Rome Statute because there has been systemic, longstanding, ongoing pattern and practice of repression of the Cambodian population in very violent ways," he said.

The Rome Statute is the treaty that established the world court.

One one Khmer Rouge defendant convicted

The Khmer Rouge tribunal, launched in 2006, so far has convicted only one defendant, Khmer Rouge prison director Kaing Guek Eav, who was sentenced to life imprisonment. Cambodia has no death penalty.

Proceedings have been hampered by underfunding, and obstruction by the government of Hun Sen, who counts surrendered Khmer Rouge leaders among his political allies. He himself defected from the group at an early stage.

Critics worry the court will not complete the trials of Khmer Rouge leaders Noun Chea and Khieu Samphan, the only two defendants still in custody and accused of playing a leading role in the Communist regime's reign of terror in the late 1970s that left up to 2 million people dead.

Sklar said Hun Sen has tried to stop the activities of the tribunal in their tracks, recollecting that the Cambodian leader had personally warned the U.N. that he will not allow any further investigations or prosecutions to take place.

"The ICC has made clear that that kind of interference in the judicial process constitutes a crime in their process and they have already indicted one person from Kenya for those kinds of abuses."

Sklar charged that Hun Sen's human rights abuses included "executions, dislocations of people from their land on a massive basis, the repression of any kind of opposition or demonstrations, including the fact there is still a ban in place on any kind of public meetings — and that constitutes a crime against humanity under the definition used by the ICC."

Hun Sen had imposed a ban on public protests in early January after a bloody crackdown on workers strikes backed by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), but the government announced a lifting of the ban in February although some demonstrations continue to be blocked.

Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) also continues to harass protests by the opposition, which has boycotted parliament and demanded new elections following July 2012 polls which the opposition says were rigged.

The government-appointed national election body declared Hun Sen's party the election winner despite objections.

Getting the case in the queue

Sklar acknowledged that the Cambodia case might not be the topmost priority of the ICC, which is bogged down with more high-profile cases, saying that what is critical is for a preliminary investigation by the prosecutors' office to determine that there is jurisdiction of the case.

"I think the Cambodia case might not be the number-one priority, but as long as the preliminary investigation takes place and as long as the finding is made that there is violation, that is sufficient because that will get the case in the queue," he said.

"That's what's most important — that it is clear that the international community is going to take action against the Hun Sen government on this for major human rights abuses."

Sklar denied suggestions that the case is linked to the political opposition.

"I'm not a politician. What I am concerned are that the human rights standards are met."

Chheang Vun, a senior official of Hun Sen's CPP and spokesman for Cambodia's National Assembly, the country's parliament, downplayed the ICC complaint, saying the government would not pay attention to it and calling it "a waste of time."

He said that the complaint is not credible enough for the court to review the case.

"It is not about justice. The opposition wants only the media attention," he said, accusing it of wanting to use the complaint to "bargain for power."

Sklar said the government should not downplay the case against Hun Sen "because the ICC operates worldwide and he is subject to their jurisdiction even if he stays in Cambodia."

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Friday, April 18, 2014

Rainsy courts Vietnamese

Phnom Penh Post Kevin Ponniah and Vong Sokheng



Opposition leader Sam Rainsy yesterday said that up to a quarter of a million ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia could be granted full citizenship rights via the Nationality Law if his Cambodia National Rescue Party were to come to power.

The CNRP president has sought in recent months, through a flurry of letters to newspapers and online postings, to cast off what he calls a groundless “foreign-entertained allegation” of anti-Vietnamese sentiment levelled at him and his party.

His most recent comments regarding the citizenship rights of some ethnic Vietnamese come after the Cambodian People’s Party-led government announced the creation of two new departments in the Ministry of Interior to control immigration and the issuance of identity documents.

The CPP’s platform for next month’s councillor elections also promises to address problems related to immigration and make it easier for identity documents to be obtained by those who require them.

The moves have led analysts to conclude that the ruling party is trying to catch up with public opinion regarding long-term unchecked illegal immigration from Vietnam, a hot-button issue for many who voted for the CNRP – which has talked about the issue extensively, despite it not appearing on the party’s policy platform – at last July’s disputed national election.

Speaking with the Post yesterday on the phone from Europe, where he is due to attend a political party conference in the Netherlands next week, Rainsy said he believed there were around 500,000 people “of Vietnamese descent” living in Cambodia, half of whom were eligible for Cambodian citizenship via birth.

“According to me I think that up to half of these 500,000 people of Vietnamese descent fulfil the legal requirement to be considered as Cambodian citizens. So the CNRP, we must treat those who meet the requirement to be Cambodian citizens, as Cambodian citizens,” he said.

The 1996 Nationality Law outlines that Cambodian nationality can be obtained by anyone born in Cambodia to foreign parents, if they too were “born and living legally” in the Kingdom.

But rights groups say it would be difficult for many immigrant parents to prove legal residence, given the state of Cambodia’s legal and administrative system.

In line with the laws, the CNRP wishes to “curb illegal immigration” but from a legal humanitarian standpoint, Rainsy said.

“We have to be nuanced [and] make the distinction between people of Vietnamese descent who must be treated as Cambodian [and illegal immigrants]. When the CNRP comes to power we will recognise that right officially.”

While many Cambodians are fearful and suspicious of Vietnam due to historical grievances, a feeling “hastily, unfairly and inaccurately” attributed to racism by many foreigners, the CNRP would work to educate the public to respect ethnic Vietnamese citizens, Rainsy says.

“We will educate Cambodian people as a whole to respect those people . . . Those who were wrongly considered as foreigners. We must educate Khmer people, these are Khmer citizens as you and I and we must respect their rights,” he said.

“But other people who come illegally without documents, we have to deal with them properly and the basis will not be different from [what] Europe or America uses to deal with immigration.”

According to Ang Chanrith, executive director at the Minority Rights Organization, most ethnic Vietnamese were born in Cambodia do not possess citizenship, “except those who are rich or well connected”.

In comparison to Rainsy’s figure of 500,000, Chanrith estimates that about 700,000 ethnic Vietnamese live in Cambodia, but he said there is no solid data on population figures or what proportion of the group were born in the Kingdom compared to those “who come for political and economic purposes”.

Chanrith said that he hoped the government’s new commitment to improving immigration oversight was genuine, and not just to gain votes.

According to its political platform for next month’s council elections, the CPP is promising to “resolve the problem of immigrants, control immigrants and more effectively resolve the problem of crimes [committed by foreigners] in accordance with the existing laws”.

Cheam Yeap, a senior CPP lawmaker, said his party is committed to implementing existing laws and controlling immigration flows “for the benefit of the nation”.

“We are the ruling party and the government is paying strong attention to control immigration in order to avoid criticisms from the people and the opposition party,” he said.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak last week said that a new general department of immigration would allow the government to increase its capacity to process migrant applications with greater oversight from the ministry.

Veteran political analyst Lao Mong Hay said yesterday that while it was clear the CPP was “trying to catch up with public opinion” and gain lost votes with the new measures, the opposition was also courting voters – ethnic Vietnamese ones – by promising citizenship for those who are eligible.

“They are considering this kind of support [from Cambodian-born Vietnamese].”

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Burma: ASEAN activist meet-up raises worrying parallels with Cambodia


Is Burma heading for genuine reform, or is it just following the Cambodian model? asks Daniel Quinlan

Three thousand members of civil society from across ASEAN met in Burma earlier this month to discuss human rights and development, including the record of the host country.

Not so long ago such a gathering would have been unthinkable and the event marked another symbolic step in the country’s reform process, while highlighting stalled democratization of certain neighbors.

The ASEAN Civil Society Conference (ACSC), also known as the ASEAN People’s Forum (APF), is held each year in the country that holds the ASEAN Chairmanship. Like the ASEAN summits, it provides an opportunity to discuss regional concerns and local views and experiences, albeit from a less lofty perspective.

Despite being monitored by Burma’s infamous special branch, participants were allowed to meet and discuss a host of issues that remain extremely sensitive both in Burma and across the region. The fact that participants were allowed to meet unhindered is in itself worthy of praise.

While the event itself is another symbolic example of Burma’s reform process, many of the issues brought up by local participants indicated just how far it still has to go on its road to democratic reform. Land grabbing and sexual abuse, not to mention a 60-year civil war, were just some of the local issues yet to properly addressed by government.

For local activists it was an opportunity to meet colleagues from around the region for the first time in a country long synonymous with political repression.

The meeting also highlighted another county’s failure to reform. In 2012, 19 years after the UN sponsored elections, Cambodia hosted its own ACSC/APF meet, an event that was to become symbolic of the failings of its democratic reforms. The government refused to allow discussions on land issues – or, ironically, Burma’s land issues – to take place. They pressured hotels and conference rooms to cancel events and even cut the electricity to one venue.

The brutal crackdown earlier this year on protesting garment workers after an sometimes violent election marred by allegations of fraud has only highlighted Cambodia’s democratic shortcomings and provided unfavorable comparisons.

One of the participants, returning from this year’s event, Rong Panha, an officer from the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions said, “it’s great that we can share and have discussions on finding strategies related to human rights issues amongst ASEAN countries”.

But referring to the crackdown earlier this year he warned Cambodia could end up “far behind Myanmar [Burma] as they are on their way to fast reform on their democratic journey.”

A report released two days after the end of the conference highlights some of the shared ground between the two countries.

From 2000 to 2013, Burma’s forests were relieved of some US$8 billion worth of timber which left the country through illegal and illegal trade, according to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). US$5.7 billion of that remains off the government books, raising serious questions over who is benefiting from the 22.8 million cubic meters of wood Burma has lost.

Land grabs continue to devastate urban and poor rural communities in both countries as the environment is stripped of its natural wealth.

Media reports of riots from Rakhine State in Burma last week again drew attention to another issue that offers reasons for serious concern: inter-communal violence. While inter-communal tensions in Cambodia have been simmering for years, in Burma they have exploded with worrying consistency throughout the reform period, resulting in the murder of some 240 people and the displacement of 140,000 since June 2012.

The issue remains the largest elephant in the room of Burma’s reforms and one that local activists are struggling to come to terms with. The fact that the issue was not brought up at the conference is an indication that it’s not only governments that have problems addressing certain issues.

Aid workers, seen as biased towards the country’s besieged Muslim and Rohingya minorities, were targeted by Buddhist-led mobs last week and were  holed up in the police station in the regional capital of Sittwe.

Just before one of Burma’s first highly symbolic moments, its 2012 bi-elections, an ex-political prisoner and member of the student group the 88 generation joked he hoped they would not follow the Cambodian model of democratization.

Unfortunately, Hun Sen’s 29 years in power have not gone unnoticed. His example of taking millions in aid while promising reforms year after year – all the while using brutal repression and overseeing a state of epic corruption – raises serious questions about how seriously Western governments engage with reform. The ‘reformers’ that have brought ‘disciplined democracy’ to Burma owe far more of their political thinking to Hun Sen than Thomas Paine. Democracy activists and civil society in either country are unlikely to run out of work any time soon.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

A Cambodian Spring Tsunami

March 23, 2014
By Michael Benge


Most of the major media recently missed a chance to give democracy a boost, choosing instead to ignore events in Cambodia of major significance. Millions of Cambodians overcame the horrors of the Khmer Rouge genocide and their fear of the repressive Hun Sen regime, Khmer Rouge holdovers, and turned out in en masse to vote for a coalition of democratic opposition parties known as the CNRP (Cambodian National Rescue Party) in last July’s elections.

Unfortunately, the government-appointed National Election Commission gave Hun Sen’s ruling party, the CPP (the communist Cambodian Peoples Party) 68 parliamentary seats (still a loss of 22) and the CNRP only 55. The CNRP claims that a free and fair election would have given it 63 parliamentary seats, leaving just 60 for the CPP. Even so, the CNRP did quite well in spite of being denied access to TV, radio and most print media.

Adhering to Mao Zedong’s principle that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” Hun Sen and his Nouveau Khmer Rouge cohorts have “won” a series of elections by controlling the ballot boxes and the National Election Committee. The late Congressman Steven Solarz, an observer of the July 1998 elections, told the author his satirical remark that those elections were a ‘Miracle on the Mekong’ was taken out of context by the media, which then blessed the elections as being legitimate – far from it!  The international community rolled over and legitimized Hun Sen’s regime and the US followed suite. All parties conveniently forgot or forgave Hun Sen’s1997 coup d'état in which his forces brutally tortured and murdered more than 100 high-ranking members of the democratically elected Royalist FUNCINPEC party in a fashion reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. "Plus ça change, plus c' est la même chose." (The more things change, the more they remain the same.)

The CNRP called for an investigation into alleged fraud in last July’s elections, demanded a new election, and began a series of demonstrations against Hun Sen and the CPP. The democratic coalition also vowed to boycott the parliament pending a resolution of the fraud investigation, thus setting up a tense political standoff. Nearly eight months later, neither the CPP nor the CNRP has mustered sufficient leverage to end the stalemate.

Besides election fraud, the Cambodian people also began protesting the kleptocratic Hun Sen regime for its corruption, land grabs, repression, human rights abuses, muzzling of the media, and near slave-labor in the garment industry. The protesters demanded greater government transparency, improvements in the rule of law, more accountability, a halt to government-sponsored killings, and the prosecution of those responsible.  According to a recently released International Labor Organization (ILO) report, 10 percent of Cambodia’s annual GDP [gross domestic product] is lost to corruption



The rising swell of pro-democracy protests started in July. In mid-December, the CNRP launched its third and most impressive protest to date by staging a permanent occupation of Freedom Park in Phnom Penh. After a week of street rallies, CMRP called for a large protest march in which an estimated million people, young and old, converged on Phnom Penh and took over the streets in the largest such demonstration in the country's history.



Just before Christmas, approximately 350,000 out of an estimated 600,000 impoverished garment factory workers who toil at near slave-labor wages in unsanitary and unhealthy working conditions went on strike for higher wages and better working conditions.  They produce garments at some 500 factories for US companies like Nike, Levi Strauss, Puma, H&M, Gap, Gap, Old Navy, American Eagle and Walmart, generating more than US$5 billion a year in exports, primarily to the US -- about 35 percent of Cambodia’s GDP.  The workers are demanding that the $80-per-month minimum wage be doubled to $160 (garment workers in Thailand receive an average of $243 a month). The present wage is barely enough to survive on, let alone support a family. However, the Hun Sen regime offered a raise of only $20 and refuses to compromise further. This propelled the garment workers into the waiting arms of the CNRP, further heating up the ongoing political mêlée.

Hun Sen first banned all demonstrations and even small gatherings, then he “let the dogs out” and used his 80 new tanks and APCs – a gift from China – to block the streets in Phnom Penh and roads in and out of the city. Next, he mobilized the notoriously brutal Brigade 911, an elite National Counterterrorism Committee’s (NCTC) Special Forces unit commanded by Hun Sen’s son, Lieutenant General Hun Manet, a West Point graduate (Latian America Déjà vu). On December 27, Brigade 911 and other units of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces were set loose against the protestors, dismantling Freedom Park, destroying a Buddhist shrine, and brutalizing demonstrators, reporters and innocent bystanders. These attacks were supported by official threats to and restrictions on the independent media.

In his infamous “cockroach” speech in 2011, given in response to the suggestion by a Cambodian critic that he should worry about the overthrow of a dictator in Tunisia, Hun Sen had stated, “I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead... and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage” (Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch, NYT commentary 05/31/2012).

According to reports, an “elite paratrooper unit showed up armed with batons and steel pipes and with brutal force beat a dozen monks and scores of demonstrators in front of a factory run by Yakjin, a joint Korean and American corporation” in the Canadia Industrial Zone. The troops then opened fire on the protestors with automatic weapons, killing five and wounding scores of others, detaining at least 23. More than 100 people are still missing. One is a 16-year-old boy who eyewitnesses say was shot and seriously wounded, then carried away by military police in their vehicle. He father fears that “he may have been thrown to the crocodiles.”

South Korea is Cambodia’s largest investor in the clothing industry and owns the majority of the 500 garment factories. There are six Korean companies in the Canadia Industrial Park, including the US/Korean-owned Yakjin factory.



Days before the attacks, the Carlyle Group had announced in a press release that it had acquired a 100% stake in Yakjin Trading Corp. and set up Yakjin Holdings Inc. Tim Shorrok of The Nation wrote that Carlyle has an array of dignitaries on their board and on their payroll, including ex-Presidents and former high-ranking officials such as George H.W. Bush, James Baker III and Frank Carlucci. Carlyle is strategically located on Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington.



After the attacks, rumors spread around Phnom Penh that they had been encouraged by the South Korean government. A video showed that an individual accompanying the troops wore a South Korean flag emblem on his army fatigues, and the image was posted on Facebook.  It is well known that (supposedly retired) Korean military officers act as advisors to units of Hun Sen’s elite troops. Geoffrey Cain wrote in the Global Post on January 9 that the South Korean embassy had issued a statement taking credit for convincing the Cambodian government to “understand the seriousness of this situation and act swiftly.” It cited “high-level lobbying over the past two weeks as contributing to the ‘success’ of protecting business interests.”



The Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) dismissed the five deaths as “collateral damage” – merely the cost of doing business in Cambodia. The Cambodian Daily reported, “The group complained that weeks of labor unrest will cost the industry $200 million.” Cambodia’s equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce, composed largely of representatives of foreign businesses exploiting Cambodian workers, claimed that “the garment workers have no legal right to strike.”

As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Murdering journalists and shooting garment workers seems to be par-for-the-course for the Hun Sen regime, for example:



  • In Bavet, Svay Rieng province, the Mayor shot and killed three garment factory workers who were protesting against squalid working conditions and for higher wages. The mayor was charged with a misdemeanor and released.
  • Several union leaders have been murdered, but no one has been brought to justice and the cases remain unsolved.
  • The November 12 shooting death of 49-year-old street vendor Ms. Eng Sokhum by police during an SL Garment factory protest has not been investigated.
  • In September 2012, Cambodian journalist Hang Serei Odom, who was investigating illegal logging, was hacked to death and stuffed in the trunk by a military officer and his wife.
  • On January 31, news reporter Suon Chan was brutally killed by a group of men on January 31, in Cholkiri, Kampong Chhnang province, reportedly in retaliation for his work for the Maekea Kampuchea newspaper on illegal fishing in the province,
  • On Easter Sunday in 1997, four grenades were thrown into the midst of a rally led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy in front of the National Assembly building, killing 17 people and wounding more than 100, including one American. It has been reported that the FBI tentatively pinned responsibility on Hun Sen’s personal bodyguards; however, no one has ever been indicted for the murders.


The list goes on….

The suffering inflicted on the Cambodian people by Hun Sen’s regime doesn’t stop there.  Cambodia is a country for sale, which enables the regime to get away with pillage, plunder and murder! Like no other country in the world, Cambodia “permits investors to form 100% foreign-owned companies in Cambodia that can buy land and real estate outright - or at least on 99-year-plus leases.” According to the Cambodian human rights NGO LICADHO, more than 400,000 Cambodians have been affected by “land grabs” and evictions since 2003. An additional 150,000 people are currently threatened with eviction. Forty-five per cent of the entire country has been sold off – from the land ringing Angkor Wat, to the colonial buildings of Phnom Penh, to the southwestern islands. Rhodri Williams of the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions pointed out that as Hun Sen began to privatize the land, “he simultaneously cut off the rights of 360,000 exiled Cambodians, awarding prime slices to political allies and friends.” The Cambodian exiles that had fled the Khmer Rouge into Thailand after 1975 had titles to the land, but when they were able to return, their titles meant nothing.

David Puttnam, member of Britain’s House of Lords and recently appointed as the British Prime Minister’s trade envoy for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, “stunned journalists, diplomats and others by praising the current Khmer government and its leader Hun Sen, for its commitment to ending corruption.”  Puttnam, the once-brilliant film-maker, is best known for producing the amazing movie of Khmer Rouge terror, “The Killing Fields.”

Adding insult to injury, both the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have spent millions of dollars on programs that do little more than disfranchise even more Cambodians. According to Human Rights Watch, “the World Bank’s Land Titling provided little more than a modicum of political cover for Hun Sen’s continued land grabs. In practice it was subject to domination by wealthy and powerful interests who diverted it to increase their land-holdings and leverage over the rural poor.”  The project has no legal protections or recourse for those who lost out in the process, ensuring that thousands more will be dispossessed from their land.

The ADB’s resettlement program for the rehabilitation of Cambodia’s railway network affected an estimated 4,000 Cambodian families, mostly very poor, who were forcibly relocated without just compensation to make way for the railway upgrade.

In addition, both the World Bank and the ADB were found to be incompetent, failing in their planning, implementation, oversight, and accounting of their programs.

Meanwhile, Hun Sen and the CPP continue to govern with half of the National Assembly empty, while the same foreign governments that urge Cambodia to investigate election irregularities continue to do business as usual with the repressive kleptocracy.

Hun Sen’s regime is rife with brutal Khmer Rouge holdovers, such as Chea Sim, Heng Samrin, Keat Chhon and Hor Namhong, top-ranking CPP and government officials who Hun Sen ordered to ignore summons to appear before international judges at the UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). The court was founded in 2006 to investigate crimes against humanity and hold those responsible to account; to date it has delivered just one conviction at a cost of some $200 million. Many Cambodians view the court as a sick joke. It is rumored that these Khmer Rouge commanders threatened to expose Hun Sen’s role in the genocide if they were indicted.



Hun Sen was reportedly educated by Buddhist monks in Vietnam, joined the communist party there at an early age, and then became a Khmer Rouge battalion commander under Heng Samrin in the Eastern Zone of Cambodia, which was controlled by Vietnam. In 1977 they fled back to Vietnam when Pol Pot (ANGKAR) put out a kill order on the leaders of the Vietnamese controlled Khmer Rouge. Hun Sen stands accused of genocide in attacks on Kompong Cham province, where hundreds of men, women, children, and Buddhist monks were slaughtered (Washington Post 10/30/89). In 1975, his battalion also oversaw a brutal crackdown against the Muslim Cham minority group, ruthlessly killing an untold number of people. During Vietnam’s invasion, occupation and attempt to colonize Cambodia from 1979-1989, the Vietnamese put Hun Sen in charge of the K-5 Plan (also referred to as the Bamboo Wall or the Petite Genocide) in which he sent tens of thousands of Cambodians to their deaths in an attempt to build an impenetrable barrier of mines and other obstacles along the Thai border to stop an invasion from there.

Two groups of International lawyers representing victims of the recent crackdown, human rights abuses and the Khmer Rouge genocide are collecting evidence to file cases against Prime Minister Hun Sen at the International Criminal Court.

Until recently, China has been a most important ally of Hun Sen; however, it is now hedging its bets and easing support in case the opposition succeeds. In turn, the dictator has reached out to Hanoi for political and economic support, even though there is a growing resentment among Cambodians of the Vietnamese, their historic enemy. Hun Sen has always enjoyed a warm relationship with his longtime patrons in Hanoi.  Intelligence reports indicate that Hanoi maintains a contingent of 3,000 troops, a mixture of special-forces and intelligence agents, with tanks and helicopters, in a huge compound 2½ kilometers outside Phnom Penh right next to Hun Sen’s Tuol Krassaing fortress near Takhmau. They are there to ensure that Hanoi’s puppet, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, doesn’t stray far from Hanoi’s policy of neo-colonization of Cambodia. The Vietnamese compound bristles with electronic surveillance equipment that would make any group’s electronic eaves-dropping outstation proud.  When Vietnamese troops were forced to withdraw in 1989 from Cambodia, as a compromise, Vietnam installed its Hanoi-trained Khmer Rouge marionette Hun Sen as Prime Minister. Vietnamese “advisors” are entrenched throughout Hun Sen’s regime, including the Cambodian army.

In an attempt to improve his image for the international community, Hun Sen has adopted Vietnam’s “talk-fight strategy” (AT 09/22/13). On Feb. 18th he allowed senior officials in the ruling party (CPP) to meet with the opposition CNRP. They agreed in principle to the creation of a joint-party commission to “prepare a framework” to implement electoral reform, although Hun Sen reiterated that he would not agree to a re-vote. Coming out their first meeting, senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said that the government is considering modifying Cambodia’s nationality law to ban those with dual citizenship from running for the office of prime minister.  Of course, the CPP is targeting opposition leader Sam Rainsy, among other leaders, “and will be in the nationality law.”

As another propaganda move, Hun Sen stated he once again opened Freedom Park and lifted the ban on on public assembly, but warned that any CNRP demonstrations will be met with counter-demonstrations by the CPP.

A day after the ban was lifted, CNRP’s leader Sam Rainsy said that if Hun Sen tries to use government forces to quash future opposition-led protests, he will call upon the police and the military to disobey the prime minister’s orders and join the opposition, as occurred during the recent political upheaval in Ukraine. He believes that more than two million people will join the opposition protests, as they did there.



Soon after, the Cambodian Daily reported that Interior Minister Sar Kheng banned a scheduled rally in Freedom Park and distributed $54, 477 (not a paltry sum in Cambodia) among his police officers as incentive pay “for their work in suppressing protesters.”



Hun Sen has also created a government Committee to Solve Strikes and Demonstrations of All Targets that is tasked with dealing with protests, and appointed to it the commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), his deputy, who commands Hun Sen’s Prime Minister Bodyguard Unit, his son, who heads the Ministry of National Defense’s counter-terrorism department, the secretary of state at the Defense Ministry, the National Military Police commander, and the National Police chief.

A Cambodian folk tale seems to be an appropriate metaphor for the present state of affairs. One day a beautiful young Cambodian maiden walking in the forest found a sick snake that begged her for help. She picked up the snake, took it home and nursed it back to health; after which the snake bit her. As she lay dying she asked, “Why?” The snake answered, “You knew I was a snake when you picked me up. Besides, it’s my nature!”

To summarize: the CNRP wants a new election; the CPP says, no way. The CPP insists that the CNRP must occupy its Assembly seats for talks to begin; the CNRP says it will not join with an illegitimate government. The tense political stalemate has continued for eight months, with no resolution in sight. Hun Sen insists that the government will continue working as normal while the opposition’s boycott of parliament continues.

Recently, a US spending bill was signed into law that included the symbolic gesture of suspending some funding to Cambodia until the government carries out an independent investigation of last July’s disputed national election and reforms its electoral system, or until the opposition ends its boycott of parliament. The only reason this happened is that it was attached to a huge spending bill that Obama and the democrats were anxious to pass. The only other response from the Administration has been tepid; a “dishonorable mention” of a few of the Hun Sen regime’s abuses in the State Department’s “Annual Country Reports on Human Rights” – comparable to twenty lashes with a wet noodle.


The plight of and the human rights violations against the workers in the garment industry in Cambodia must be addressed by the Obama Administration before seeking congressional support for fast-track approval of its Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); a trade agreement that includes many developing countries with low wages and poor working conditions. Some democratic critics see this and other trade agreements as a race to the bottom for wages and working conditions for American workers. But the Cambodian deal could be used to help raise labor standards abroad rather than lowering them at home. However, that would require the administration to have the fortitude and resolve to bring pressure to bear in the right places, seemingly as scarce as hen’s teeth in today’s U.S. foreign policy.



Given the major media’s attention-span deficit disorder, perhaps the outrages in Cambodia have been overshadowed by other political news in the Ukraine and Egypt, or political sideshows as Dennis Rodman’s debacle in North Korea. Had the media chosen to cover these events it would have strengthened the Cambodians’ resolve to force a democratic change and sparked worldwide condemnation of Hun Sen’s repressive and kleptocratic regime. It’s about time for the “free press” to stand up for what is right and provide Cambodia’s democracy movement with the international coverage it deserves.

And the band plays on ….

Michael Benge spent eleven years in Vietnam as a Foreign Service Officer; five as a POW .  He is a student of Southeast Asian politics.  He is very active in advocating for human rights, religious freedom and democracy for the countries of former Indochina and has written extensively on these subjects.

Source: AmericanThinker.com

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