Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

In Phnom Penh, Hopefulness Replaces Despair

February 11, 2007
Next Stop

I

T'S a late Saturday afternoon in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and the waterfront along the Tonle Sap River is the place to be. As clusters of elderly women sit on concrete benches overlooking the water, peddlers set up stands from which they sell slices of fresh pineapple while youngsters on motorbikes deftly weave among the crush of pedestrians. Boat captains yell out to passing couples, offering sunset rides on their tiny wooden vessels, as shirtless children swim or fish in the muddy water. Suddenly, a lone elephant, gently guided by its young handler, majestically makes its way through the crowd.

At this moment, Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, seems frozen in time, as the scene in front of you plays out much the way it must have 70 or 80 years ago, when Cambodia was part of French-controlled Indochina and the city was known as the Pearl of Asia. But then you notice the bank of A.T.M.'s in the nearby storefronts, the Internet cafes crammed with fashionably dressed teenagers checking their e-mail, the sleek air-conditioned bars with names like Metro and Heart of Darkness. And all around you, you hear a polyglot of languages — English, French, Korean, Spanish, Chinese — that are a testament to this city's reappearance on the global tourism map.

In fact, after a few days in this city, you notice that Phnom Penh has something of a “next Prague” vibe about it — a place where many young people from around the world, heady with excitement and the thrill of the unknown, are coming to reinvent themselves. At least that is what it feels like as you run into groups of Americans hanging out in one of the cramped nightclubs along Sisowath Quay, or vie with Australian expatriates for a table during the crowded two-for-one happy hour at the Elephant Bar in the Raffles Hotel, or scan page after newspaper page of job listings in the English-language Cambodia Daily.

New high-end restaurants are just around the corner from stalls doing a brisk business selling street food. A stylish boutique hotel — the 10-room Pavilion — has recently opened, bridging the gap between the palatial Raffles and the tiny, bare-bones establishments catering to the backpacker crowd. And the National Museum, which after years of neglect and near-ruin under the Khmer Rouge, is slowly coming back, its incomparable collection of centuries-old Khmer art, including some stunning stone sculptures, now attracting hundreds of visitors a day.

That museum is no sleek tourist attraction, but instead a quiet, largely open-air gathering spot, with overhead fans gently cooling visitors eager to escape the sometimes oppressive midday heat. (Air-conditioning was recently installed in one room for an exhibition of Rodin watercolors from the Rodin Museum in Paris.)

On a recent morning, a visitor to the museum would have encountered a group of young monks sitting quietly in the corner of the lovely contemplative garden, while nearby a mother with a young child took a quick nap, and a British couple played several hands of gin rummy. Meanwhile, French tourists just off a bus busily made their way through the galleries before heading off to the next stop on their itinerary: the Silver Pagoda, a few streets away.

Thanks to the influence of the French, and the easily navigable grid system of wide boulevards and numbered side streets they left behind, Phnom Penh is a highly walkable city. Well, it would be if there were a few more sidewalks and if those that exist weren't crowded with parked motorbikes that make passage almost impossible at times, thrusting the unwary pedestrian out into death-defying traffic. Even the most determined of walkers will eventually give up and hire a tuk-tuk to navigate the city's neighborhoods. (Be sure to negotiate. You'll be surprised at how quickly that first price quoted you — say $4 for a trip from your hotel to the National Museum — is cut in half the moment you show any hesitancy or start looking around for another driver.)

No matter how you get around Phnom Penh — by foot or by tuk-tuk — you will undoubtedly end up at some point at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, commonly called the F.C.C.

The food here is undistinguished (at best), and the toothache-inducing fruity drinks should be passed up in favor of a cold bottle of Angkor Beer. But perhaps the best seat in Phnom Penh is one of the stools in the F.C.C.'s third-floor bar at happy hour. (Yes, happy hour seems to be a big thing here; almost every bar and restaurant in town has one.) Here, as the sun slowly sets behind you, you can watch the action below on the quay slowly shifting from day (vendors hawking their wares, young monks taking a stroll along the waterfront) to night (clubgoers ramping up the energy and noise level).

Sitting at the F.C.C.today, one can barely imagine what Phnom Penh was like in the 1970s, when the country was under the brutal repression of the Khmer Rouge -- a period later immortalized in the film, "The Killing Fields." But a remnant of that past can be found at Tuol Sleng, more commonly known as the genocide museum. No matter what you remember from history books or news reports, nothing can quite adequately prepare you for reality of what Cambodians lived through while under the four-year rule of Pol Pot, when nearly 2 million Cambodians (about a fourth of the country's population) were exterminated.

Set incongruously in a lovely residential neighborhood, the genocide museum brings you up short almost immediately with a sign warning that any loud talking or laughter is strictly forbidden. That warning seems all but superfluous as you enter the first-floor galleries and see the walls covered with black-and-white face shots of the Khmer Rouge's many victims: Most of them, boys and girls alike, are heartbreakingly young. Some, incredibly, even managed a smile for their photographer. Silence seems the only appropriate response.

Upstairs is another photo exhibit of some of the victims, with their life stories recounted by surviving relatives or friends. You want to turn away, but you can't, so you read about the daughter snatched from home and never heard from again, or the son whose mutilated body was found years after he had left for work in the morning. You leave, like the other visitors, somewhat dazed, and find yourself at the nearby Boddhi Tree garden cafe. It looks as if some of the other patrons have sought some post-museum refuge here: More than a few seem to have a stunned look on their faces.

Then, however, it's back out into the daylight, and a leisurely walk back toward the waterfront, passing the ornate homes on Street 57, the shops and cafes on 240, all buzzing with activity, the smell of grilled meat wafting toward you, a snippet of Beyoncé heard in the air.

This, you tell yourself, is Phnom Penh today. And you feel better.

VISITOR INFORMATION

GETTING THERE

Phnom Penh is easily accessible from most major cities in Southeast Asia, with several nonstop flights each day from Bangkok on Thai, Bangkok or Siem Reap Airways. United States citizens need a Cambodian visa to enter the country. Those can be purchased upon arrival at the airport for $20, but you'll need to bring a passport-size photo. The U.S. dollar is accepted for all financial transactions in Cambodia, and most prices are quoted in dollars.

WHERE TO STAY

Raffles Hotel Le Royal, 92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh, (855-23) 981-888; www.phnompenh.raffles.com. This elegant 78-year-old hotel, which reopened in 1997 after a major renovation, is one of Phnom Penh's prime gathering spots. On weekends, the lushly landscaped pool area is often crowded with expatriates who come to see friends, catch up on local gossip or just hang out with their children. The Elephant Bar is usually jammed as well, particularly at happy hour, and Le Royal restaurant is one of the prettiest (and most expensive) dining establishments in town. Room prices start at about $260 a night, but deep discounts — particularly on the weekend — are often available if you call the reservations desk directly. The hotel also has a business center, but communication with friends back home can be expensive: You'll be charged $1 for every e-mail message sent on the hotel's computers.

The Pavilion, 227 Street 19, (855-23) 222-280; www.pavilion-cambodia.com. A small, but well-appointed boutique hotel a few blocks from the Royal Palace. The lush garden is a popular place for guests to gather for an early-evening cocktail. Double rooms start at $50 a night, and the hotel offers free Wi-Fi access.

WHERE TO EAT

Friends, 215 Street 13; (855-23) 426-748; www.streetfriends.org. One of a collection of nonprofit restaurants in the city that employ young Cambodians to help them get started on a career. Among the offerings are an excellent Kkmer seafood soup with lime, and a coconut lime cake with passion fruit syrup. Main courses run about $3 to $5.

Boddhi Tree Umma, 50 Street 113, (855-16) 865-445; www.boddhitree.com. A pleasant garden cafe, across from Tuol Sleng. A Cambodian noodle curry costs about $2.

Foreign Correspondents' Club, 363 Sisowath Quay, (855-23) 724-014. Forget Cambodian (or even Asian) cuisine here: the menu runs more toward pizza, sandwiches and salads. But the real attraction is the open-air setting and the unsurpassed views of the Mekong, plus a chance to mingle with other Western tourists. Main courses $6 to $10.

For truly authentic Khmer cuisine, one must go to nameless little places all over town where you'll spend less than a dollar — but it might not be advisable to ask just exactly what this meat you are eating is. A more upscale (and perhaps less-adventurous) alternative is Malis, 136 Norodom Boulevard, (855-23) 221-022, highly recommended by locals for its expertly prepared contemporary and traditional Khmer cuisine served in an elegant garden setting. Dinner for two should run about $30.


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Monday, February 12, 2007

rule of law in Cambodia is being deliberately hindered by the elite who are benefiting financially from their draconian grip on power

Dear friends,

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) wishes to forward to you the following statement which appeared in the Phnom Penh Post: AHRC Fernando: "rule of law in Cambodia is being deliberately hindered by the elite who are benefiting financially from their draconian grip on power"

Asian Human Rights Commission
Hong Kong

-------------
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
FS-009-2007
February 12, 2007

A Forwarded Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)

CAMBODIA: AHRC Fernando: "rule of law in Cambodia is being deliberately hindered by the elite who are benefiting financially from their draconian grip on power"

CPP assailed by rights groups, again

By Cat Barton and Cheang Sokha
Phnom Penh Post, Issue 16 / 03, February 9 - 22, 2007

"We don't want to say the are always right but we take into consideration the points they raise," he said. "We are happy that the real situation of human rights in Cambodia is not bad or serious like what those NGOs report." -sic!-
- Om Yentieng, Hun Sen's adviser

Pervasive land grabbing and the calculated erosion of political opponents consistently surfaced in five damming end-of-year reports from major local and international human rights organizations. "There is not even a semblance of rule of law in country," said Basil Fernando, director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, said. "It is not the law that is king; it is the prime minister who is king in this country."

The last year has seen a distinct centralization of political control, said one Western diplomat on condition of anonymity.

"Practically everything is controlled by one party," the diplomat said. "The CPP control the government, the National Assembly, the Senate, 99 percent of the village chiefs, the provincial government. Their influence goes through the judiciary, through the police. There should be a much stronger balance of power and system of checks and balances."

If a state does not adhere to the rule of law and is unfettered by checks and balances, power will be exercised in a way that makes human rights violations, such as those documented over the course of 2006, an inevitability, said Fernando.

"Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely," he said. "In Cambodia there is naked repression, there is no protection: law is unable to protect , the courts are unable to protect, the police is a direct instrument of the powers that be."

The political opposition has been weakened considerably over 2006, said a year-end Human Rights Watch report.

"Cambodia's veneer of political pluralism wore even thinner in 2006," the report said. "The year saw the jailing of government critics, attempts to weaken civil society, independent media, and political dissent."

The opposition has struggled to maintain its ability to challenge the government, said Mu Sochua, secretary-general of the Sam Rainsy Party.

"Who is speaking loudly, persistently regarding the lack, the total disarray of social justice, regarding the corruption of judiciary?" she said. "It is the opposition, members, leaders, not just MPs but the grass roots."

Despite attempts by the opposition to challenge and criticize, Cambodia's development will be destabilized if the government is able to behave in 2007 as it did in 2006, said Sochua.

"The rule of law is not only lacking drag Cambodia's development into total disarray if it is allowed to erode further," she said.

The international community has failed to grasp the fundamental importance of the rule of law for development, said Fernando.

"There is an inability to link development with rule of law," he said. "Donors talk abstractly about development and democracy but they don't realize the link is the rule of law."

The time has come for less "back door" diplomacy and more direct action, said Sochua.

"The money that is spent on Cambodia is not free, it is taxpayers money," she said. "Every single one of the representatives of governments in Cambodia must be responsible and that responsibility lies in having the courage to stand up when ethnic minorities, when the poor, continue to loose their land and their livelihoods, when our forests are raped, totally raped, when there is a court, a judiciary, nothing but a mockery, a masquerade of more and more injustice."

The international community is trying hard to foster the development of rule of law in Cambodia, said the diplomatic source.

"Our constructive criticism really goes to the nuts and bolts," said the diplomat. "You need a clear separation of powers, this has been repeatedly said. "

But Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, said the fact remains that Cambodia's executive dominates both the legislative and judicial branches of government.

"There is no separation of power," she said. "The executive always interfere ."

The ramifications of this lack of separation of the powers extend far beyond the immediate infringements of individual citizen's civil liberties, she said.

"Cambodia is now a member of WTO," said Galabru. "They ask for a lot of conditions and one of them is the independence of the judiciary. How can serious investors come to Cambodia [without this?]"

Without the rule of law, economic as well as human development is compromised, said Fernando.

"Rule of law is not just a question of civil liberties, it is about the management of society," he said. "Cambodia is a mismanaged society, mismanaged to irrational level."

The development of rule of law in Cambodia is being deliberately hindered by the elite who are benefiting financially from their draconian grip on power, said Fernando.

"It is for economic benefit," he said. "The rule of law is not allowed to develop in order to carry on with certain types of exploitation. The rule of law is bound with the political elite maintaining the status quo: a small number of very powerful people distinct from the rest of country which is very poor and will continue to be."

Yet "irrational" management and preventing the development of the rule of law is a contradictory policy that will ultimately backfire, said Fernando.

"At some time there is bound to be a reaction among elite: what is security of OUR property?" he said. "The implication of no rule of law runs into all areas of the economy. You can't maintain proper banking so you have much money laundering, you can't determine the value of local currency so no person, even the wealthy, feels secure. No one wants to buy land unless they have state patronage. On one hand, while there is this repression in the interests of the property owning class can't forever remain at this level. You have to enter a modern economy. Cambodia's future is tied to regional economies and there are so many possibilities for its development all around. But all that is negated by the present form of the management."

Om Yentieng, adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen and head of the government's human rights committee said that the human rights situation in Cambodia had improved over the course of 2006.

"The human rights situation in Cambodia in 2006 is better than before," he said. "We have seen an end of the pretrial detention procedure, we have reformed our prisons, the general economic situation is good, the media is also able to write freely."

Although land grabbing is a problem, it is incorrect to cast it as a violation of human rights, he said.

"Land grabbing is not a case of human rights abuse," he said. "These cases happen from the law, many powerful people have also lost their cases at the court regarding land grabbing - it is not human rights abuse."

The government is open to criticism, he said, but confident of its own rights record.

"We don't want to say the are always right but we take into consideration the points they raise," he said. "We are happy that the real situation of human rights in Cambodia is not bad or serious like what those NGOs report."

# # #

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.




Asian Human Rights Commission
19/F, Go-Up Commercial Building,
998 Canton Road, Kowloon, Hongkong S.A.R.
Tel: +(852) - 2698-6339 Fax: +(852) - 2698-6367


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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Boeung Kak lake latest city sell-off

By Allister Hayman and Sam Rith
Phnom Penh Post, Issue 16 / 03, February 9 - 22, 2007

Thousands of Phnom Penh's residents who live around Boeung Kak Lake may have to pack up and move after the Municipality's signing of a lease for an 133 hectare area.

Signed by Governor Kep Chuktema, the deal includes at least ten of the 24 villages that surround Boeung Kak - including the bar-lined strip known as "The Lake" - and will lead to the displacement of more than 3,900 families and hundreds of businesses.

The 99-year renewable lease was signed February 6 and was reportedly worth $79 million, with little known developer Shukaku Inc paying $0.60 per square meter for the leasehold.

Municipal officials said the developer plans to build a commercial and residential area, which will include shops, hotels, apartments, a university and a "green zone."

Though the plan does not specifically refer to the fate of the lake, with Boeung Kak consuming 90 hectares of the 133-hectare leasehold, economic logic and precedent suggest it will be filled. Last year, a 119-hectare land fill on the eastern shore of Pong Peay lake in the Tuol Kok district was completed as part of the "New Town Project."

Confusion now clouds the fate of the International Dubai Mosque, which lies within the leasehold.

Mosque Imam San Morhamin, 75, said he is uncertain about the future of the mosque, but said Chuktema told him that the mosque's land would not be included in the leasehold.

"We were given this land by Sihanouk in 1969," he said. "I believe it is a state asset."

Shukaku Inc is headed by Lao Meng Khin, also a director of controversial logging giant Pheapimex, which is accused of land grabbing and deforestation in Pursat province.

According to Global Witness, Pheapimex is a major donor to the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party and both Khin and his wife Choeng Soheap - the owner of Pheapimex - enjoy close relations with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Chuktema said on signing the agreement that the project was in line with the muncipality's plan for the beautification and development of Phnom Penh. Chuktema said municipal authorities would begin work immediately to notify residents and owners in the area to discuss their future.

Nuon Sokchea, a lawyer at the community legal center's public interest legal advocacy project, said she has serious concerns about the deal after a lack of consultation with the community and a lack of disclosure on the part of the developer.

"According to the law the government cannot give the lake to a private company to develop as it is public property," she said. "We are really concerned how the development will affect the people and hope it will not override their land rights."

Residents and business owners along the lakeside who spoke to the Post on February 8 were either unaware of the concession or had only read about it in a local newspaper. Many of them have lived in the area for more than a decade and claimed legal ownership of their land. None had received notification from the municipal authorities and many were worried.

Tauch Sarim, 64, the owner of the popular Lakeside Guesthouse, was shocked when he heard the news.

"It seems like I will be losing everything," he said. "When I heard this, the hair stood on the back of my neck."

Sarim said he has owned his business since 1998, and the prospect of a lakeside guesthouse without a lakeside was devastating.

"Before I heard they would take only a part of the lake, so I think that's okay. Our government has a plan to develop the area. But now it's not good. It means they take the whole area."

Sarim said he had received no information about compensation, only that the municipal authorities would "come and talk to us about moving."

Daun Penh district Deputy Governor Ek Khun Doen told local media on February 8 that the residents of the district were living on the land illegally and the area "belongs to the state."

But when contacted by the Post, Doen retracted his claim. "I don't know for sure whether the people in that area own their land or not," he said.

According to Sangkat Srah Chak Commune Chief, Chhay Thirith, all the villagers affected have legal title to their land. "Those villagers in the ten villages affected are living legally, as accepted by the Ministry of Interior," he said.

Cambodia's 2001 Land Law prohibits deprivation of ownership without due process and grants the right to apply for a land title to someone who has been in possession of a private property for five years. Article 44 of the Constitution states that the government can only deprive someone of property for "public interest" purposes and requires the payment of fair and just compensation.

Thirith said he did not know what would happen to the residents, as he had not been informed of the municipality's plans. He said he hoped the development would be in accordance with Hun Sen's stated policy of removing residents to housing within the district, rather than relocation to the city's outskirts.

When contacted by the Post, Chuktemna refused to comment further on the plans. But Soun Rindy, spokesperson for Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong, said the municipality was determining a plan for the residents, with those who are part of their community group treated differently to those who are not. "The municipality is organizing a policy to deal with the people who are living in the community," he said.

Last July, in a public relations exercise, municipal officials took residents of Boeung Kak's Village 22 to tour a housing complex constructed by Phanimex in the Borei Keila district.

Deputy Municipal Governor Mann Chhoeun said at the time he considered this kind of "in the place" development a possible solution for the Boeung Kak evictees. But Chea Sivorn, 47, a resident of Village 22, said she visited the complex and was not impressed.

"The building was too high and the apartments were only four by six meters. It is too narrow," she said.

Sivorn and other residents of Village 22 said they wanted the developer or the municipal authority to buy the land off them at a fair price so they could buy another property of their choosing.

"We won't just agree to be moved to some place like Borei Keila," Sivorn said.

Other residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they feared they would be forcibly removed to the outskirts of the city, like the evictees from Tonle Bassac, where there is a lack of amenities and the price of services is high.

Despite talk of "in the place" development, they said the muncipality's track record of forced land evictions gave them little cause for confidence.

"I don't know how I can live in the outskirts and support my family," a long-term resident of Village 6 said. "We will have income loss and spending increase. I fear I will lose everything."

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Group of Rare Vultures Found in Cambodia

BANGKOK, Thailand - Researchers in the remote forests of Cambodia said Wednesday they have discovered the only known colony in Southeast Asia of slender-billed vultures and scores of other endangered birds. The colony was discovered last month in the jungles east of the Mekong River in Cambodia's Stung Treng Province."We discovered the nests on top of a hill where two other vulture species were also found," said Song Chansocheat, manager of the Cambodia Vulture Conservation Project. The government project is supported by the World Conservation Society, BirdLife International, the World Wildlife Fund, the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds."Amazingly, there were also a host of other globally threatened species of birds and primates," Song Chansocheat said in a statement. "It's a very special place."The area was also found to be home to several other species listed as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union, including the white-rumped vulture, according to the New York-based WCS.

The team also spotted a red-headed vulture, giant ibis and an endangered primate called a silvered langur, or leaf monkey.Researchers said slender-billed vultures have been found in other parts of Southeast Asia but that the only other known colony until now was in northern India. They are believed extinct in many parts of Southeast Asia, including Thailand.Soon after the discovery, Song's team set up measures to protect against poaching and egg collecting, and are now working with local communities to ensure that they are involved in longer-term conservation measures."We already have a successful WCS model working in the northern plains where local people benefit from conservation activities," he said. "I think we have a good chance of making it work here if we can find the support."The Slender-billed vulture is one of several vulture species in Asia that have been driven to the brink of extinction in the past 12 years after eating cattle carcasses tainted with diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory painkiller that's given to sick cows and is highly toxic to vultures.Diclofenac has lead to global population declines as high as 99 percent in slender-billed and other vulture species, especially in India. Diclofenac is now being slowly phased out in South Asia, but not at a pace that assures the recovery of the vultures.Because diclofenac is almost entirely absent from use in Cambodia, the WCS said the country remains one of the main hopes for the survival of the species. Even so, the birds face numerous other threats, including lack of food due to the over-hunting of large-bodied mammals, loss of habitat, and poaching.On the Net:The Wildlife Conservation Society: http://www.wcs.org/international/Asia/Cambodi aA service of the Associated Press(AP)

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