Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Thursday, December 31, 2009

KHMER RICHE

The huge Phnom Penh mansion owned by Victor's parents, General Meas Sophea. (Good Weekend Magazine)

Written by Andrew Marshall
Good Weekend Magazine for the Sydney Morning Herald

They live in one of the poorest countries on earth, yet they drive flash cars, dwell in mansions and scorn their impoverished brethren. Andrew Marshall meets the rich sons and daughters of Cambodia elite.

“I’m going to drive a little fast now. Is that Okay?” There is one place in Cambodia where you can hold a cold beer in one hand and a warm Kalashnikov in the other, and Victor is driving me there. We’re powering along Phnom Penh’s airport road with Oasis on his Merc’s sound system and enough guns in the boot to sink a Somali pirate boat. Victor is rich and life is sweet. His father is commander of the Cambodian infantry. He has a place reserved for him at L’Ecole Speciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr, France’s answer to Duntroon. And, in his passenger seat, there is a thin, silent man with a Chinese handgun: his bodyguard.

“His name is Klar,” says Victor. “It means tiger.”

Victor is only 21, but when reach our destination—a firing range run by the Cambodian special forces—the soldier at the gate salutes.

Devastated by decades of civil war, Cambodia remains one of the world’s poorest nations. A third of its 13 million people live on less than a dollar a day and about 8 out of every 100 children die before the age of five. But Victor—real name Meas Sophearith—was raised in a different Cambodia, where power and billions of dollars in wealth are concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite. This elite prefers to conceal the size and sources of their money—illegal logging, smuggling, land-grabbing—but their children just like to spend it. The Khmer Rouge are dead; the Khmer Riche now rule Cambodia.

I first met Victor at a fancy Phnom Penh restaurant called Café Metro. Outside, Porsches, Bentleys and Humvees fight for parking spaces. The son of a powerful general, Victor has his future mapped out for him. He went to school in Versailles, speaks French and English, and now studies politics at the University of Oklahoma. “My mother wanted us to get a foreign education so we could come back and control the country,” he says. The shooting range is where Victor and his friends go to relax. “I’ve grown up with guns and soldiers all around me,” he says, laying out a private arsenal on a table: two automatic assault rifles, two Glock pistols, one sniper’s rifle, one iPhone.

"My mother wanted us to get a foreign education so we could come back and control the country". Meas Victor Sophearith (above) is one of Cambodian's privileged elite.

Victor and his generation are Cambodia’s future. Will they use their education and wealth to lift their less fortunate compatriots out of poverty? Or will they simply continue their parents’ fevered pursuit of money and power? Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID), which gave almost $US30 million of its taxpayers’ money to the country in the last fiscal year, offered one answer in June, when it announced the closure of its Cambodia office by 2011. The official reason? “It was felt UK aid could have a larger impact … where there are greater numbers of poor people and fewer international donors,” said a DFID statement. But the development agency might also have tired of throwing money at a nation where so much poverty can be blamed on a grasping political elite—and their luxury-loving children. (Australia clearly has not: it has allocated $61.4 million in development assistance to Cambodia for 2009-10.)

Depressingly, the Khmer Riche Kids sometimes seem indistinguishable from the old colonial ruling class. They were educated overseas—partly because their families’ wealth made them targets for kidnapping gangs—and often speak better English than Khmer. They carry US dollars – only poor people pay with Cambodian riel – and live in newly built neoclassical mansions so large that the city’s old French architecture looks like Lego by comparison. And their connection to the Cambodian masses is almost non-existent.

Sophy, 22, is the daughter of a Deputy Prime Minister. Rich, doll-like and self-obsessed, she could be the Paris Hilton of Cambodia. She imports party shoes from Singapore, brands them “Sophy & Sina” (Sina is her sister-in-law), hen displays them in her own multistory boutique. It has six staff, no customers and a slogan: “It’s all aboutme.” Sophy’s name is spelled out in sparkling stones on the back of her car, a Merc so pimped up that I have to ask her what make it is. “It’s a Sophy!” she replies.

We meet at her hair salon, where she is prepping a model for a fashion shoot for a magazine she is starting up with her brother Sopheary, 28, and their cousin Noh Sar, 26,. All three were educated abroad and prefer to speak English together. Sopheary, who studied in New York state, seems both amused and slightly embarrassed by his wealth and privilege. “What can you do?” he asks. “Your parents give you all these things. You can’t say no. If someone gives you cake, you eat it.”

Talk to Sopheary and his friends, and Cambodia’s tragic history seems very far away. The genocidal Khmer Rouge blew up banks and outlawed money before being driven from power in 1979. Later came the 1991 Paris Accords, and the plunder of Cambodia’s rich natural resources—forests, fisheries, land –began in earnest. Cambodia’s official economy largely depend on garment, exports, but there is a much larger shadow economy in which only the ruthless and the well-connected survived and prosper. “If you’re doing business, you have to know someone high up, so he has your back,” says Victor.

The closer you get to Hun Sen, Cambodia’s autocratic Prime Minister, the better connected you are. Hun Sen staged a bloody coup d’etat in 1997 and has kept an iron grip on power ever since. Opponents have been silenced while loyalists have grown rich. This includes ministers, a handful of tycoons and generals. Cambodians are often driven from their land by soldiers or military police. Formerly a French possession, Cambodia has been colonized all over again, this time by its own greedy elite.

But the Khmer Riche have a problem. “None of them can answer a simple question: where does all your money come from?” says a Western journalist in Phnom Penh. Ask Cambodian ministers how they got so rich on a meager government salary, and they will reply, “My wife is good at business.”

When I ask Noh Sar, whose father is a senior customs official, why he is so wealthy, he gives me a slight variation: “My mother works a lot.”

Victor’s mother is also good at business, according to “Country for Sale,” an investigation into the elite published by the London-based corruption watchdog Global Witness in February 2009. “She is a key player in RCAF [Royal Cambodian Armed Forces] patronage politics, holding a fearsome reputation among her husband’s subordinates on account of her frequent demands for money,” says the report. “RCAF sources have told Global Witness that military officers sometimes bribe [her] in order to increase the chances of her “close connections” to a major timber smuggler.

It is only in the past few years that the children of Cambodian’s elite have grown confident enough to show off their family’s wealth. “If you want people to respect you in Cambodia, you must have a good car, good diamonds, a good cell phone,” explains Ouch Vichet, 28, better known as Richard. “It’s an I’m-richer-than-you competition.” Richard is quite a competitor: he drives a $US150,000 Cadillac Escalade and wears a $US2,500 Hermes watch and a $US13,000 2.5-carat diamond ring. He doesn’t have a bodyguard, although some friends keep them as status symbols.

"Crazy money": (above) Ouch "Richard" Vichet is surprisingly candid about his wealth. (Good Weekend Magazine)

Richard was sent to New Zealand to be educated after a gang tired to abduct his brother. He is a short, affable man with an impish grin. In a city where the elite have a tribal suspicion of outsiders, he is refreshingly candid about his wealth. “My money is from my parents,” he says, and then breaks it down. They gave him a villa, half a million US dollars, and a 400-hectar rubber plantation that will generate income for the rest of Richard’s life. His parents-in-law gave him $US100,000 in cash and another villa, worth $200,000, which he sold and invested in real estate. Richard also runs a busy Phnom Penh nightclub called Emerald – his parents made their first fortune in gems – which provides him with “pocket money”. A party of rich kids can spend $US2,000 on drinks in a single night, more than an average Cambodian earns in 3 years.

His parents’ second, much larger, fortune comes from real estate. A few years ago they bought about five hectares of land just outside Phnom Penh for $US14 a square metre, then sold it for $US120 a square metre two years later, making more than $US5 million in profit. “Where else can you make profits like that?” grins Richard. “It’s crazy money.” He has a daughter called Emerald and a son called Benz. (His other Benz is a GL450.) They all live with his parents in a newly built mansion.

Yet Richard’s house is modest by the operatic standards of Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kuok precinct, part of which was once a notorious red-light district. A taxi driver shows me the neighborhood – it’s like a “homes of the stars” tour in Beverly Hills, except that Tuol Kuok’s backstreets are piled with rubbish. My driver points out giant mansion after mansion, and tells me who lives there. Hun Sen’s son, Hun Sen’s daughter, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Labour. A Deputy PM—Sophy and Sopheary’s dad. A four-mansion compound with lots of razor wire, and a gate guarded by special forces soldiers – Victor’s family.

Tuol Kuok’s houses are well-guarded for a reason: until there was real estate to invest in, many wealthy Cambodians kept their money at home in bricks of cash. “We don’t trust banks,” says Richard. “The old generation kept their money under the bed. The new generation keep it in safes in their houses.” Victor says his family also stays away from banks, but for a slightly different reason. “If you put your money in a bank, everyone will know how much you have,” he explains.

I had also heard that rich Cambodians had repatriated hundreds of millions of dirty dollars from Singapore banks after a post-September 11 shake up of global banking, and that his money had helped fuel the land speculation.

For the children, the wealth comes with one big condition: they must do what Mum and Dad tell them. “I wanted to go to art school but my parents wouldn’t let me,” says Sopheary. Most kids dutifully join the family business—Richard translated for his father during overseas gem-buying trips. For some, that business is politics. Concept like nepotism and conflict of interest don’t count for much in Cambodia. Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh—whose giant house resembles an airport departure hall, one with its own jet-ski lake – gave a ministry position to his wife and made his daughter his chief of cabinet. Cambodia’s ambassadors to Britain and Japan are brothers, and their boss is also their father: Foreign Minister Hor Namhong. He says he hired his sons on merit. “It’s not nepotism,” he insists.

Their parents also expect them to marry young—men in their 20’s, women in their teens—and strategically, meaning to someone from a rich and influential family. These marriages are often arranged. “It’s like medieval times in France,” complains Victor, still a bachelor. This means that many high-society Cambodians soon find themselves trapped in loveless unions; affairs are common. Sophy was married off at 17 to the son of the rich and powerful Interior Minister.

The web of marriages binds together Cambodia’s political and business elite and ensures the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s stranglehold on power. At the centre of the web sits Prime Minister Hun Sen. His three sons and two daughters are all married to the children of senior ruling party politicians or, in the case of his son Hun Manit, to the daughter of the late national police chief. Now in his 30’s, Hun Manit is being groomed to succeed his father. He graduated from West Point, the US military academy, in 1999, amid protests by members of the US Congress over his father’s human rights record. In July, Global Witness urged the British Government to revoke the visa of the Cambodian Prime Minister, who visited Bristol University to watch Hun Manit receive a doctorate in economics.

Senior Khmer Rouge figures such as Comrade Duch, the mass-murdering commandant of Tuol Sleng prison, are currently on trial at a United Nations-based tribunal in Phnom Penh. The Khmer Riche, on the other hand, remain above the law. Victor displays a military VIP sticker on the front dash of his Mercedes. “It means the police cannot touch me,” he says. Richard is an advisor to a military police commander, which also effectively grants him legal immunity.

Many of his generations abuse such privileges. Last August Hun Chea, a nephew of the Prime Minister, hit a motorcyclist with his Cadillac, ripping off the man’s leg and arm. Hun Chea tried to drive off but couldn’t because the accident had shredded a tyre. Military police arrived, removed the car’s license plates and, according to “The Phnom Penh Post”, told Hun Chea: “Don’t worry. It wasn’t your mistake.” Hun Chea walked away. The motorcyclist bled to death on the road.

Hun Sen has yet another bad-boy nephew, the widely feared and mega-wealthy Hun To (“Little Hun”). In 2006 a newspaper editor filed a lawsuit against Hun To for alleged death threats, then fled overseas to seek asylum with the United Nations’ help. Hun To was also once spotted sitting in his luxury speedboat, its sound system cranked up high, being towed around Phnom Penh by a Humvee. A few weeks before, Victor had been in Los Angeles, where he test-drove Hun To’s latest acquisition before it was put in a Cambodia-bound shipping container: a $US500,000 Mercedes McLaren SLR supercar.” He has already built a special garage for it,” says Victor.

Victor will not – dare not—criticize Hun To. But he is critical of Cambodian society. “From top to bottom, everyone is corrupt,” he says. He hopes to one day set up a foundation to help poor Cambodians send their children to study overseas. “We want to change things, but we’ll have to wait until our parents retire,” he says.

But older generation shows no sign of retiring – not when there’s so much cake left to eat. In January, foreign donors pledged $US1 billion to Cambodia, its biggest aid package yet. The Government relies on foreign aid for almost half its budget. It could break this reliance by exploiting its reserves of oil, gas and minerals: the International Monetary Fund estimates Cambodia’s annual oil revenues alone could reach $US1.7 billion by 2021. Could, but probably won’t. Why? Because the same elite who cut down the trees and sold off the land are now poised to extract the oil and minerals, with the help of their children.

Some Hun Sen loyalists have already been allocated exploratory mining licences. One of them is General Meas Sophea, the army chief. He recently hired a temp to act as his foreign liaison officer. The temp is his son. His son’s name is Victor.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Where Gods and Soldiers Tend the Border in Cambodia

Visitors, including Buddhist monks, make their way along a stone-paved pathway at Preah Vihear Temple on a mountaintop in northern Cambodia.


By DANIEL ROBINSON
Published: December 27, 2009

IN the wet season, the roads through the northwestern region of Cambodia turn into an undulating sea of muck, with potholes the size of cars and ruts as deep as truck axles. To figure out which routes were least likely to leave me wet, muddy and stranded, I buttonholed a dozen long-distance taxi drivers before settling on the toll road from Dam Dek, which had the added attraction of passing by two out-of-the-way Angkorian temples, Beng Mealea and Koh Ker.

My destination was an even more remote Angkor-era complex: Preah Vihear Temple, awesomely perched 1,700 feet above Cambodia’s northern plains, near the country’s border with Thailand. Designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008 — not without some international controversy — it makes an adventurous alternative to far-better-known Angkor Wat. While several thousand foreign tourists visit the temples of Angkor on a typical day, Preah Vihear Temple gets, on average, just five.

I was traveling with my friend and driver, Hang Vuthy, in a 1991 Toyota Camry with a surprising New York past: according to a window sticker, it had once belonged to a member of the Yonkers Police Captains, Lieutenants and Sergeants Association. Imagining the car in a mid-Atlantic blizzard, it occurred to me that wet-season driving in outback Cambodia is not entirely unlike navigating unplowed snowy side streets. Indeed, for much of our journey we avoided the most treacherous stretches of mire and snaked around potholes of indeterminate depth by religiously following a single serpentine track rendered navigable by earlier cars and trucks.

Preah Vihear Temple — the name means Mountain of the Sacred Temple — is the most spectacularly situated of all Angkorian monuments. Built from the ninth to the 12th centuries atop a peak of the Dangkrek Mountains, it occupies a triangular plateau rising from the Thailand border to a prow-shaped promontory.

An ever-changing architectural, mythological and geological panorama unfolds as visitors progress along the temple’s 2,600-foot-long processional axis, up a series of gently sloping causeways and steep staircases through five gopura, or pavilions, each more sacred than the last.

I began my visit at the bottom of the Monumental Staircase, which, according to the Angkor scholar Vittorio Roveda, “symbolizes the laborious path of faith needed to approach the sacred world of the gods.” The 163 gray sandstone steps, partly carved into the living rock, are flanked by statues of lions and, near the top, two magnificent nagas (seven-headed serpents) facing north toward Thailand. Also intently watching Thai territory were several AK-47-toting Cambodian soldiers in camouflage.

The first structure I came to, called Gopura V by generations of archaeologists, was an airy cruciform construction once topped by wood beams and a terra-cotta tile roof. Many of the stones have tumbled over, but the delicately balanced eastern pediment has survived to become Preah Vihear’s most recognizable icon, appearing on publicity posters, patriotic T-shirts and the new 2,000-riel banknote.

In centuries past, this pavilion was where pilgrims from the plains of Cambodia, having just climbed the steep, mile-long Eastern Staircase (mined and inaccessible for decades but soon to reopen), met their counterparts from what is now Thailand, who had completed a rather less-taxing ascent from the Khorat Plateau.

Alongside a group of saffron-robed monks, I continued north on a majestic, sandstone avenue, 800 feet long, to Gopura IV. There, I came upon a particularly vivid bas-relief depicting the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, a Hindu creation myth in which gods and demons churn the primeval waters to extract the ambrosia of immortality.

Although most of the splendid decorative carvings at Preah Vihear, including this one, depict Vishnu, the temple was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. In later centuries, it was converted to use as a Buddhist sanctuary, and today many of the visitors are Buddhist pilgrims.

As I continued my ascent, I walked under exquisite lintels and tympanums depicting more scenes from Hindu epics like the Mahabharata, and beneath richly carved double pediments adorned with finials and upturned gable ends — calling cards of Cambodian and Thai architecture to this day. Ancient inscriptions in Khmer and Sanskrit, bearing cryptic details about the history of the temple and the Angkorian kings who built it, were hidden here and there under a patina of lichen.

The temple’s culminating point, geographically and symbolically, is Gopura I, whose mandapa (antechamber) and Central Sanctuary, now a jumbled pile of carved sandstone blocks, are surrounded by galleries that call to mind a French Gothic cloister, except that here the windows are rectilinear and the galleries covered by corbelled vaults. (The Khmers, for all their architectural genius, never mastered the keystone arch.)

The entire structure is inward-looking, its outer walls almost devoid of openings despite the sweeping views just outside. Scholars speculate that while the site was considered holy in part because of its spectacular situation, the ancient architects may have believed that picture windows would distract both priests and pilgrims from their sacred tasks.

As I approached the rocky tip of the promontory, just beyond Gopura I, a breathtaking panorama came into view. Cambodia’s verdant northern plains extended majestically toward the horizon, and in the distance I could just make out Phnom Kulen, about 65 miles to the southwest, where the Khmer Empire was founded in A.D. 802. (Angkor itself lay hidden in the haze, 88 miles away.)

To the east, toward Laos, and the west, the Dangkrek Mountains stretched into the distance in a series of serrated bluffs. Looking north, almost everything I could see was in Thailand, rendered remote and mysterious by its inaccessibility.

Thailand ruled much of northwestern Cambodia, including Preah Vihear Temple, from the late 18th century until 1907, when the French colonial administration forced the Thais to withdraw to the current international frontier; Cambodian sovereignty over Preah Vihear was confirmed by the International Court of Justice in 1962.

Thailand, despite unresolved land claims, initially supported Cambodia’s Unesco bid for World Heritage status, but the temple soon became a pawn in Thai and Cambodian domestic politics, unleashing nationalist passions in both countries.

In July 2008, according to Cambodian authorities, Thai soldiers intruded into Cambodian territory near the temple. The Thai government denied that any border violations had taken place. Since then, a total of at least seven soldiers from both sides have been killed in intermittent exchanges of fire, according to local news reports. At the time of my visit, though, the frontier had been quiet for several months.

Curious about what the standoff actually looked like, I asked my guide, conveniently a moonlighting army officer, if I could get a glimpse of the Thais. He took me to the bottom of the Monumental Staircase, where I could hear the distant sounds of war — air-raid sirens and shooting — but the combat was taking place on a tiny television, which off-duty soldiers were watching with rapt attention.

We walked along a forest trail past a volleyball court and trenches, passing soldiers in hammocks with their wives stealing a moment of intimacy in an encampment with little privacy, to a forest clearing with a bamboo table at the center.

About 20 yards in front of us stood a line of neatly built bunkers; uniformed men could be seen among the dark green sandbags. “So those are Cambodian soldiers?” I asked, trying to get my bearings. “No,” my guide answered, “those are Thais. Over there” — he turned 180 degrees and pointed to a line of bunkers 20 yards in the other direction — “are Cambodians.” The table, I realized, marked the midpoint of no-man’s land.

The Cambodians’ front-line bunkers, made of disintegrating sandbags sprouting grass, were shaded by blue and green tarpaulins and surrounded by orderly gardens. Their raised observation post, topped by a thatched roof, looked as if it might have been on loan from “Gilligan’s Island.” I was in the middle of a very un-Korean Panmunjom, a laid-back, tropical version of Christmas 1914 on the Western Front.

I soon learned that the Cambodian soldiers stationed there call the site Sambok Kmom, or beehive, because, they say, the area’s many wild bees leave Cambodians unmolested but set upon any Thai who encroaches on Cambodian land. Moved by national feeling, domestic tourists wearing krama (traditional checked scarves that serve as something of a Cambodian national symbol) wandered by, distributing cigarettes and other morale-boosting gifts to the soldiers who were deployed to help the bees protect Cambodian sovereignty.

Around the clearing, soldiers from both sides, unarmed and without body armor or helmets, were relaxing in front of their own front-line bunkers. Cambodian officers seemed to find the bamboo table, shaded by trees tall enough to let breezes through, especially congenial. A few paces away, the Thais had strung a hammock between trees, and one soldier, lounging in a white T-shirt, black combat pants and black military boots, was engrossed in a cellphone call.

Despite the apparent tranquillity, I knew that if the order were given, the men on both sides of the invisible line would not hesitate to shoot. In fact, many of the Cambodian troops stationed around Preah Vihear are battle-hardened former Khmer Rouge fighters. For now, though, relations are casual and, I was told, some wary friendships have developed.

The best staging point for a visit to Preah Vihear Temple is Sra Em (also spelled Sa Em), 19 miles by road from the temple. Two years ago, it was a sleepy crossroads hamlet with a single grimy restaurant and one rundown guesthouse. These days, in the wake of the area’s military buildup, it feels like a Gold Rush boomtown, with haphazardly parked four-wheel-drives instead of tethered horses; karaoke bars sporting pink fluorescent lamps and colored lights, instead of saloons; and the gleanings of Cambodia’s recently doubled defense budget, instead of gold nuggets glinting in the stream. Armed men in camouflage uniforms abound.

Sra Em’s accommodation options are rudimentary, to put it politely. My room’s star amenity was a cold-water spigot for filling the plastic bucket used both to bathe and to flush, and below the cheap plastic mirror and its public access comb, dust bunnies had formed around the hair of guests past. Each time I returned to my room, I found a dead cricket, a new one every day, hinting, perhaps, at the presence of some sinister insecticide.

Preah Vihear Temple is, obviously, not quite ready for mainstream tourism. During the two days I spent at the temple in October, I saw only four other Westerners, including an unhappy German couple whose day trip from Angkor Wat had been rather more trying than expected, and perhaps 50 or so Cambodian tourists. But intrepid travelers who brave the diabolical (though improving) roads, substandard accommodations and alarming government travel advisories are richly rewarded.

For 40 generations, Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims have trekked to this temple, seeking to ascend toward the holy and the transcendent. Today, the awe-inspiring nature of this Angkorian masterpiece, accentuated by the challenges of getting there, confer on every trip the aura of a pilgrimage.

NAIL-BITING TAXI TRIPS AND A VOLCANO AT YOUR TABLE

GETTING THERE

With the visa-free crossing from Thailand closed for the foreseeable future, getting to Preah Vihear Temple requires battling Cambodia’s famously potholed roads, which are at their worst during the wet season (about June to October).

Share-taxis, which have no set schedule and depart when full, link Sra Em with Siem Reap via the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng ($7.50 a person; 130 miles; three hours) and with the provincial capital of Tbeng Meanchey ($6.50; 65 miles; two hours). The U.S. dollar is widely accepted.

The taxis, usually “jacked-up” Toyota Camrys, carry six or seven passengers in addition to the driver, so if you want the front seat to yourself you’ll have to pay two fares. Ante up six times the single fare and you’ve got yourself a private taxi.

From Sra Em, a ride to Kor Muy on the back of a motorbike will run about $3.75. Then the three-mile ride up the mountain to Preah Vihear Temple, on a concrete road whose gradients will impress even San Franciscans, is $5 by motorbike or $20 to $25 by four-wheel-drive pickup.

WHERE TO STAY

Glassless windows, sinkless bathrooms, towels with the absorptive capacity of a plastic bag, fans that run only when a generator is sputtering outside your window (usually from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.) and laissez-faire housekeeping are, alas, the norm in Sra Em’s guesthouses. I should have stayed at the 25-room Tuol Monysophon (855-99-620-757), which opened this year. A brown, barn-like structure topped with a red tile roof, it has basic rooms downstairs with private baths, mosquito nets and wood-plank floors, for $10; smaller upstairs rooms with shared facilities are $7.50. To get there from the triangular crossroads, head west (toward Anlong Veng) for 500 yards.

WHERE TO EAT

The Preah Vihear area’s best restaurant, hands down, is Sra Em’s Pkay Prek Restaurant (855-12-636-617), an unpretentious complex of open-air, fluorescent-lit pavilions with plenty of geckos. The specialty is phnom pleoung (hill of fire; $3.75), a meat and veggie feast you grill yourself at your table on an aluminum “volcano” suspended above glowing coals.

SAFETY

Before setting out to Preah Vihear Temple, check the Phnom Penh Post (phnompenhpost.com), the Cambodia Daily or other reliable sources to make sure that Thai-Cambodian tensions are not rising.

According to the Cambodian Mine Action Center (www.cmac.org.kh), the immediate vicinity of the temple is now safe, having been cleared in recent years of more than 8,800 anti-personnel mines. However, nearby areas are still heavily mined, so do not, under any circumstances, wander off the footpaths.

WHAT TO READ

The most useful guidebook in English (and Thai) to the temple’s architecture, symbolism and history is “Preah Vihear” by Vittorio Roveda (Bangkok: River Books, 2000), but it may be difficult to find.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Deported Uyghur Had Cambodian Visa

Photo: Wikipedia Phnom Penh airport, Aug. 1, 2006

A legal visitor in Cambodia was apparently swept up in a mass deportation to China.

WASHINGTON—One of 20 ethnic Uyghur asylum-seekers deported from Cambodia to China as illegal migrants entered the country legally and on the advice of U.N. refugee officials, Radio Free Asia (RFA) has learned.

Aikebaerjiang Tuniyaz, 27, left China in March 2009 after serving a one-year jail term in Liudawan prison in Urumqi for allegedly “leaking secret information abroad.”

Tuniyaz, born in Aksu and a graduate of Shanghai Jiaotong University, spoke in 2007 with RFA’s Uyghur service about the shooting of a Uyghur man by Chinese security forces in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

Tuniyaz entered Thailand in early 2009 and sought asylum through the Bangkok office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), where a staff member suggested he might expedite the process by approaching the UNHCR office in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, instead, he said in an earlier interview.

He obtained a visa through the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok and entered Cambodia legally, he said. Tuniyaz was in Cambodia legally when deadly ethnic rioting erupted in Urumqi on July 5 this year.

The 20 Uyghur Muslims deported Saturday under intense Chinese pressure had fled to Cambodia in search of asylum after witnessing and documenting violent ethnic riots in the restive western Chinese region of Xinjiang this summer that left nearly 200 dead.

They had warned the UNHCR that they feared long jail terms or even the death penalty if they were sent back to China, according to statements obtained by The Associated Press.

Tuniyaz had been translating for and staying with the group of 21 Uyghurs in Phnom Penh—two are said to have fled—when the group was detained.

Cambodia said it expelled the Uyghurs because they had illegally entered the country. It has since been sharply criticized by Washington, which said the deportations would harm bilateral ties with the United States, though they may have strengthened relations with Beijing.

On Monday, China signed off on more than U.S. $1.2 billion in aid to Cambodia during a visit there by Vice President Xi Jinping. The assistance, including 14 agreements for grants and loans, ranges from help in building roads to repairing Buddhist temples.

More protests

The European Union said Monday it was "deeply concerned" about Cambodia's decision to return the group of Uyghurs to China and urged Beijing to respect the rights of the returnees.

On Tuesday, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak slammed the deportations.

“This is a blatant violation of Cambodia’s obligations under the principle of non-refoulement as stipulated in Article 3 of the U.N. Convention Against Torture,” Nowak said in a statement.

Nowak said that he had reports of “severe torture” in Xinjiang following the unrest and that recent executions there violated “the most basic fair trial guarantees.”

“I am calling on the Chinese authorities to treat the 20 persons humanely upon return in accordance with international standards, to grant access to them in case they are detained and to afford them due process guarantees, if charged with criminal offenses”, he added.

U.N. Independent Expert on Minority Issues Gay McDougall called on Beijing to allow U.N. rights envoys to examine ethnic tensions in Xinjiang after the deadly violence there.

Original reporting by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tribunal charges Khmer Rouge "First Lady" with genocide

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A U.N.-backed Cambodian war crimes court on Monday charged a fourth top Khmer Rouge cadre with genocide, broadening the scope of a long-awaited trial of the ultra-communist "Killing Fields" regime's top ranks.

Ieng Thirith, 78, had already been accused of "murder, imprisonment and other inhumane acts" for her role as social affairs minister in a regime blamed for the deaths of 1.7 million people.

The new charges relate to the slaughter of Cambodia's ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslim minorities during the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge era. The tribunal on Monday also charged her with torture and religious persecution.

Ieng Thirith, a former Shakespeare scholar known as the "Khmer Rouge First Lady", was arrested in November 2007 with her 85-year-old husband and ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary.

The French-educated Communist revolutionaries had lived under a government amnesty granted to Ieng Sary in 1996.

They were the closest associates of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader who died in 1998. Ieng Thirith's sister, Khieu Ponnary, was married to Pol Pot.

The Khmer Rouge-era president, Khieu Samphan, was dealt an additional charge of genocide on Friday. Similar charges of genocide were also issued for "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary last week.

They have also been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, along with two other former leaders.

Experts on the Khmer Rouge have been critical of the additional charges, which they said would bog down a trial already criticized for taking too long.

Many of the defendants were in poor health and could die before they see a courtroom, while some cases were already so complex and politicized that they may not even go to trial, the experts said.

The first trial of a senior Khmer Rouge cadre, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, came to an end three weeks ago. He was accused of overseeing the torture and murder of more than 14,000 people as head of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison.

A verdict in that case is expected by March.

(Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Martin Petty)

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China, Cambodia and the Uighurs


Just more than a year ago, Cambodia was praised by the United Nations for its work on behalf of refugees. It was one of only two nations in Southeast Asia to sign the 1951 international convention on refugees, and it opened a brand new office that seemed to suggest a new determination to protect refugees’ human rights.

That was then. Today, Cambodia has baldly violated its international commitments and put at risk the lives of 20 members of the Uighur minority — including two infants — who were forcibly deported back to China on Friday.

Poor, weak Cambodia is not the only villain in this piece. China shoulders even more blame for misusing its growing wealth and clout to force Cambodia to do its bidding. Already Cambodia’s largest foreign investor, China rewarded Cambodia on Monday with 14 deals, valued at an estimated $850 million, including help in building roads and repairing Buddhist temples.

The Uighurs, members of a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority who say the Chinese government discriminates against them, entered Cambodia about a month ago with the aid of Christian missionaries and asked for asylum. China has been cracking down on the Uighurs since the ethnic unrest in July, the worst in decades.

Beijing said that at least 197 people — mostly majority Han Chinese — were killed in that violence. Han Chinese retaliated and hundreds of Uighurs have since been detained. Several of the fugitive Uighurs told the United Nations in written statements that they had been involved in the unrest and feared lengthy jail terms or even the death penalty if they were returned to China.

Chinese authorities claimed the Uighurs were criminals but offered no proof. Such charges are often a specious excuse of repressive societies, but in any case the Uighurs had protected status while their asylum cases were being investigated by the United Nations’ refugee agency. China and Cambodia had a responsibility under international law to allow that process to be completed.

It is alarming that the United States, Europe and United Nations, despite making an effort, could not figure out a way to persuade Cambodia to do the right thing. They should make sure Cambodia pays a price for its behavior, but the focus must be on China, starting with an urgent demand for access to the 20 Uighurs to ensure that they are not mistreated. No Chinese refugee can feel safe if China is allowed to bully other countries into forcing them back to an uncertain and unjust future.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

After Expelling Uighurs, Cambodia Approves Chinese Investments

By SETH MYDANS
Published: December 21, 2009

BANGKOK — China signed 14 deals with Cambodia on Monday worth approximately $1 billion, two days after Cambodia deported 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers under strong pressure from Beijing.

The deportation, in defiance of protests by the United States, the United Nations and human rights groups, came on the day before a visit to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, by Vice President Xi Jinping of China.

The package of grants and loans was signed at the end of Mr. Xi’s visit. The Cambodian Foreign Ministry quoted Mr. Xi as saying: “It can be said that Sino-Cambodia relations are a model of friendly cooperation.”

The exact value of the agreements was not announced, but the chief government spokesman, Khieu Kanharith, said they were worth $1.2 billion. “China has thanked the government of Cambodia for assisting in sending back these people,” he said. “According to Chinese law, these people are criminals.”

Members of a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority living mostly in western China, the 20 Uighurs said they were fleeing persecution in a crackdown that followed riots in which the Chinese government said at least 197 people were killed.

Hundreds of Uighurs have been detained since then and several people have been executed for involvement in the rioting. At least 43 Uighur men have disappeared, according to Human Rights Watch.

Twenty-two Uighurs entered Cambodia about a month ago, aided by a Christian group that has helped North Koreans fleeing their country. Two of the Uighurs have disappeared, the Cambodian government said.

Before being deported, several of the asylum seekers told the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Cambodia that they feared long jail terms or even the death penalty, according to statements reported by The Associated Press. In the statements, which had been provided to the United Nations in support of asylum applications, the Uighurs described chaotic and bloody scenes during the rioting.

“If I am returned to China, I am sure that I will be sentenced to life imprisonment or the death penalty for my involvement in the Urumqi riots,” said a 29-year-old man.

Another man, a 27-year-old teacher, said: “I can tell the world what is happening to Uighur people, and the Chinese authorities do not want this. If returned, I am certain I would be sent to prison.”

China is Cambodia’s leading investor, committing hundreds of millions of dollars for projects including dams, roads and a headquarters for the government Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh. In October, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China met Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, in Sichuan, China, and concluded a deal worth $853 million.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Saluting American Valor: Sarun Sar

Sarun Sar
U.S. Army / Silver Star
After taking a bullet in the helmet, he shot his enemy and disrupted Taliban ambush

Master Sgt. Sarun Sar takes a break on a mountainside in Afghanistan. Sar, a native of Cambodia, was awarded a Silver Star after he slowed a Taliban ambush in 2005. (Photo courtesy of Sarun Sar)

By Kevin Maurer
© Stephens Media LLC 2009

He is no stranger to war.

Sarun Sar’s first combat experience came in his native Cambodia, where he fought with anti-Vietnamese guerrillas. But when the Vietnamese invaded, his family was split up. His father died in prison, his brother was executed for smuggling weapons for anti-government guerrillas and his mother and two other brothers died from starvation.

Sar ended up on the western side of the country, where he was wounded several times and eventually sent to a refugee camp in Thailand.

There, he met up with his older sister and eventually moved to the United States. Sar gained his citizenship while in the Army and has deployed all over the world with Special Forces to places such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Africa, Colombia and Afghanistan.

In the latter country, he would distinguish himself again.

On March 5, 2005, Sar could see the Taliban fighters running from the village as his Black Hawk helicopter touched down.

“Follow me,” Sar screamed to his 7th Special Forces Group teammates before jumping to the ground, hoping to cut the enemy off.

He could hear radio reports about the team’s other helicopter taking fire as he rushed up the snowy mountain in Paktika province along the Pakistan border. He saw several Taliban running toward some woods. Another ran into a house.

Sar reached the house, throwing himself against a wall near the door and waiting for the rest of his team.

But “I didn’t feel anyone tap me on the shoulder,” said Sar, who was the Special Forces team sergeant, the most senior enlisted soldier.

Looking back down the hill, he saw that his teammates were pinned down by enemy fire. It was just Sar and a medic trapped at the house, far from their unit.

The squat house was made of thick mud and rock with a small door cut out. As Sar peeked inside, thick smoke hung inside the room. He barreled through the small, low opening, gun at the ready, and was halfway in when the flashlight on his M-4 rifle illuminated the face of a Taliban fighter.

The enemy’s muzzle flash lit up the darkness — three times.

Two shots missed. But the third hit the edge of Sar’s Kevlar helmet at his forehead, the force throwing him back out the door.

“I will never forget that little flash I saw,” Sar said. “He was waiting. It felt like I was hit in the head with a hammer.”

Dazed, he rolled back outside and started screaming, “I’m hit! I’m hit!” to the medic. The medic searched for a wound, but the bullet hadn’t penetrated Sar’s helmet. Sar pulled a flash-bang stun grenade and threw it into the room before he re-entered the house and killed the Taliban fighter.

His charge up the mountain had disrupted the Taliban ambush and prevented his team from getting bogged down.

Maj. John Litchfield, the Special Forces team leader at the time, said Sar’s actions also inspired the team to push up the hill.

“The rest of the team was under fire and pretty well pinned down,” Litchfield said. “Human nature takes over, and you start clawing for a piece of ground. Sar did the opposite of that. We certainly wouldn’t have achieved the goal in the same manner, and some of us could have been severely wounded.”

Soon afterward, the Special Forces team cleared the other huts in the village and rounded up a huge cache of enemy weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, bomb-making materials and explosives. Sar and another soldier were the only wounded Americans.

Looking back to the time on that mountain in 2005, Sar said he wouldn’t change what he did:

“That is how we do things. I would still go in the house. Next time, the whole team would follow behind me.”

==============
Sarun Sar
U.S. Army / Silver Star

Born May 15, 1966, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Married; one daughter.

Joined the Army in January 1985, deployed to Afghanistan in October 2004. Since has been promoted to sergeant major. Has had two tours of duty to Afghanistan and numerous tours throughout the Pacific theater since the start of the war on terror.

WHAT HE DID
Disrupted a Taliban ambush that had pinned down his unit and led a charge that eventually uncovered a large cache of enemy weapons.

WHERE HE IS NOW
Assigned to Special Forces Command-Pacific at Camp Smith, Hawaii.

WHY HE JOINED THE ARMY
“I just wanted to serve my country. I only planned to do three years. I guess it (the Army) just grew on me.”

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Does the US know who it's dealing with in Cambodia?

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy is rushed from the scene moments after a grenade attack on a political rally outside the parliament in Phnom Penh, March 30, 1997. Sixteen people were killed and more than 100 were injured in the explosions. (Reuters)

Absolutely, FBI files show.

By Douglas Gillison — Special to GlobalPost
Published: December 20, 2009 08:26 ET

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The local police not only failed to cooperate but actively tried to sabotage the FBI's investigation of Cambodia's worst peacetime atrocity.

Key evidence was doctored. Highly placed witnesses stormed out of interviews. Mischievous leaks to the media intensified threats to the FBI agents' safety. And according to the lead FBI investigator, who is now retired, Cambodian and US officials warned him that he was marked for assassination.

So much is written down in newly declassified FBI records from an investigation into the grenade attack on a peaceful opposition rally on March 30, 1997, which killed 16 children, men and women and wounded more than 100 others, including an American man. The FBI's disclosures were made this year under a Freedom of Information Act request filed in 2007 by The Cambodia Daily, a local English-language newspaper.

No arrests were ever made. What evidence could be collected in the six weeks the FBI were actively investigating here pointed to forces loyal to the man who is now Cambodia's unchallenged prime minister, to the party and the people who now dominate Cambodia unopposed and with whom the U.S., and the FBI in particular, have since sought warm
relations.

Cambodia is a small but eager partner for a United States that seeks other countries to help shoulder the burden of international peacekeeping, engage in counterterrorism efforts and police the world's remoter regions to allow trade and commerce to occur in safety.

Cambodian intelligence sharing, for example, allowed the CIA in 2003 to detain Hambali, the suspected mastermind in the 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia, which killed 202 people, and one of 16 "high-value" detainees currently held at Guantanamo Bay.

But, as the FBI records show, the broader security cooperation begun under the former administration of President George W. Bush with countries in the region — where China can compete for influence with the U.S. — may require a distasteful compromise in the promotion of human rights.

According to one U.S. Senate staffer who was briefed by the FBI in the late 1990s on the Cambodian grenade attack case, the U.S. has a tough decision to make in deciding whether to cooperate with the Cambodians, or any other known human rights abusers in Asia.

"Obviously we want to have accountability. We've been seeking that for more than a decade," the Senate staffer, who requested anonymity, said of the grenade attack.

"Do we then say that, 12 years later, it's inappropriate to have security cooperation with the government of Cambodia? It's a judgment call."

He also cautioned against assumptions that the FBI's evidence had reached an actionable threshold by the time the case was shut down. FBI briefers told Congress that physical evidence was not dispositive and that some witnesses had contradicted each other, he said.

"I don't think that it would be appropriate to withhold security cooperation with the government," he said, noting that while the U.S. remains "deeply concerned" about human rights here, the "basic policy is not to disengage with Cambodia."

According to FBI investigative reports and summaries, witnesses saw bodyguards for Hun Sen, Cambodia's current prime minister, protect and cooperate with the assailants, who then fled into a military compound used by Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party, or CPP, and were overheard discussing the attack amongst themselves.

The rally that came under attack was a protest calling for judicial reform and was staged by a fledgling member of the opposition, the Khmer Nation Party, led by Sam Rainsy, who survived unharmed. The U.S. government determined that, since an American was injured, the FBI had jurisdiction to investigate. The bureau was also invited to provide assistance by police officials from a political party in the unstable governing coalition.

Retired FBI Special Agent Thomas Nicoletti, the case agent assigned to the investigation, said the evidence amassed against the CPP, which staged a coup d'etat three months after the attack, was "substantial" but was incomplete because the investigation was cut short due to threats to his safety and mounting political tensions.

Threats on his life were relayed to him by both Cambodian police and the U.S. ambassador, who spoke of "hit teams" operating in Phnom Penh, Nicoletti said. However, the then-U.S. ambassador, Kenneth Quinn, denied relaying such information.

In the wake of the attack, and Hun Sen's armed takeover several months later, which the U.S. Congressional Research Service last year described as an "unlawful seizure of power" accompanied by as many as 100 political murders, the U.S. Congress cut off bilateral aid to Cambodia's central government and passed resolutions condemning the grenade attack and coup.

Relations did not stay sour forever, however. Military aid began in 2005. In 2006, Cambodia's National Police Commissioner, the late Hok Lundy, was awarded an FBI medal for counterterrorism cooperation. Direct bilateral aid resumed in 2007, when Hok Lundy was invited to Washington. And an FBI legal attache office, which coordinates police cooperation, was personally inaugurated in Phnom Penh in 2008 by FBI Director Robert S Mueller III.

According to Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, when the FBI gave awards to Hok Lundy and to his deputy Net Savoeun, who replaced him as National Police Commissioner after his death last year, "it was clear that the U.S. government didn't really prioritize human rights in Cambodia anymore."

"All of these people should be under investigation for serious and violent crimes, but instead are being feted and collaborated with," said Adams.

Cambodian authorities were reluctant to discuss the grenade attack. National Police Lieutenant-General Khieu Sopheak, the Interior Ministry spokesman and CPP liaison to the FBI during its investigation, said only that a suspect dubbed "Brazil" had disappeared, meaning the case had gone cold.

Adams said the apparent disconnect between U.S. interests in human rights and security cooperation has reached an intolerable level.

"This is the height of hypocrisy and cynicism and should end," he said.

"More important, this undercuts U.S. claims that promoting human rights, the rule of law and good governance in Cambodia are its main priorities. And it will alienate the many Cambodians who courageously continue to fight for rights and to move Cambodia from an authoritarian to a more democratic country."

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CAMBODIA: Media Still Struggling to Break Gender Barriers

CAMBODIA: Media Still Struggling to Break Gender Barriers
By Lynette Lee Corporal

PHNOM PENH, Dec 21 (IPS) - Cambodia's media organisations are a 'battleground' for old ways and new approaches when it comes to gender.

While more media entities are recognising the role women play in and outside newsrooms, prevailing mindsets and traditions, as well as the lack of training and experience tend to slow down progress in gender sensitivity and equality.

Although the number of media organisations have clearly increased since 1993, after the elections overseen by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia that ended decades of conflict, many Cambodians still see journalism as a 'man's world'. The Cambodian media are "still a very male-dominated industry," says Cambodia's English-language daily 'The Phnom Penh Post' editor-in-chief Seth Meixner.

As of October 2009, Cambodia has 341 newspapers, 119 magazines, 22 radio stations and seven television outfits.

Meixner adds that whatever gender sensitivity-related issues they put out in the paper will certainly reach audiences, particularly its Khmer-language edition's readers. "Will they change opinions? Maybe on a small scale. I don't think it's going to shift centuries of social thinking," he adds.

French-Khmer daily ‘Cambodge Soir’ journalist Ung Chansophea welcomes seeing more women taking communications and journalism courses in college. "I think more women are joining the media industry and are even sometimes better at it than men. There's room for improvement, though. Still, the society views the industry as a job for males and many women still agree to this thinking," she adds.

Indeed, traditional thinking still sees women as mainly homebound. The pressure usually comes from the parents themselves who discourage their daughters from pursuing a career in journalism.

"Parents don't like their daughters to go away from home and communicate with all kinds of people because they think it's not good and even dangerous," says Tive Sarayeth, executive director of the Women's Media Centre of Cambodia, a non-government organisation that was formed in 1995 to increase women's participation in the media.

Meixner adds that tradition is so ingrained in the Cambodian society's psyche that he once heard a ministerial official say that she did not think "women are ready" to be involved in politics and that "they belong in the home."

He says, "In my previous work for another newspaper, a female colleague started out as a very good journalist, but three months afterwards, she quit (due to parental pressure)." Apart from the ‘dangers’ posed by the job, Meixner recalled his female colleague as saying that "they (parents) want me to marry this guy, I'm going to have kids and I can’t work after that."

"I do think this still exists as an issue, but at the same time, kind of parallel to that, you do have a generation of young women reporters who, I think, are much more independent-minded than perhaps their predecessors," he says.

In the ‘Phnom Penh Post’, Meixner says there are an increasing number of women applicants who are still in their third or fourth year communications course but eager to get writing experience. "There are more women applicants in general. A lot of those kids are already working for us and quite a few of them are women," he says.

Then there is a general perception even among women journalists that they can never be as good as their male counterparts. "The women themselves think that being journalists is a man's job, not a woman's. She also fears she is incapable of doing her job well because it might just be too much for her and that she might neglect her family in the process," explains Tive.

Thus, at least now, women journalists end up being assigned more to cover the so-called 'lighter news', including society, lifestyle, health, and education, to name a few.

"People still think that women journalists should write about something else other than 'more serious stuff'. When we try to get information from higher-ups, they look at us as like, 'Oh, that girl can't write that kind of story'," Ung adds.

Ung's goal is to learn how to interact with such news sources and "to feel free" doing so. "I want to show them that there are enough intelligent women journalists out there and that we can do the story as well as our male counterparts," she says.

Meixner agrees, saying "they (male reporters) just think, ‘women can’t cover that, she's just a girl and she can't actually do that."

As for women journalists getting more leverage when interviewing sources, he says it really depends on the journalists and how enlightened the sources are.

"I've seen sources refuse to speak to a journalist because she was a woman. Female journalists also get very nervous not being able to deal with an interviewee, and sometimes male interviewees flirt with female journalists," he says, adding that it is also the same with some male journalists who completely clam up in front of a police official or a government official.

Editors of the 'Post' and 'Cambodge Soir' actively try to encourage their women reporters to cover not just feature pieces but also political and social issues.

The in-house training of journalists in their respective media outfits is almost non-existent, Tive says. She also agrees that it is also difficult to gather these journalists to "sit and listen" to a one-day workshop "because they need to cover (the news)".

What she finds very difficult, however, is to invite editors-in-chief to attend skills and gender sensitivity training sessions. "Even if we try to educate journalists to be gender sensitive, if their editors don't have that kind of gender perspective, it's useless," she says.

Tive says she sees a difference in the way men and women write. Women tend to go deeper and try to understand the reasons why, say, a sex worker got into her 'profession'. In contrast, male journalists may tend to be more matter-of-fact, or worse, launch into a blame game. "If men write, he blames the woman, rather than go into the deeper aspects of an issue," she says.

"When I write about women's issues, I want to dig deeper into why things are that way and I use more sensitive words to describe the situation. I think for men, on the other hand, when they write about women's issues, they write just for information. I'm not generalising but normally, it's like that here," says Ung.

On issues like health and gender parity, Meixner notes that women are generally better informed and not as dismissive of such matters. "But it's weird... for, say, trafficking of women stories, there is not much sensitivity from the male and female reporters, especially when the women involved are non-Cambodians," he says.

Both the 'Post' and 'Cambodge Soir' staff say the publications do follow gender-sensitive language, although, admittedly, not on a consistent basis. For instance, both now try to use consistently the phrase 'beer promotion girls' rather than 'beer girls', a term often equated with girls engaged in sex work.

Of late, Tive says, there has been an increase in reports on sexual assault on women and newspapers, and that magazines -- notorious for graphic images and screaming headlines -- are presenting these on their front pages.

But many of these newspapers now also follow ethical considerations and try to present balanced views. "While magazines continue to show graphic images of dead bodies and the like, newspapers have become more sensitive," says Tive.

Likewise, she says, newspapers have stopped featuring pornographic images. Local magazines, however, are still notorious for their sensational and graphic images. Blood and gore have big readership.

"The Cambodian media are underdeveloped in terms of a sense of what's acceptable and what's not. We're talking about a very basic press corps here. There's a lack of education and lack of media experience," says Meixner.

Of this penchant for violent images, Ung explains: "I think the violent culture in Cambodia is still there, a result of the Khmer regime. Papers publish them because there are still many people who want to see these things."

For Tive, writing about women as 'victims' of a violent crime, for instance, is a double-edged sword. "Portraying women as victims reinforces the stereotype that women are weak, decorations and sex objects. But on the other hand, it is also a good way of increasing awareness about women's issues," she says.

Tive says it is important to think of different issues that touch on gender issues, such as health and economic issues that affect women.

"Through our radio programme, we always emphasise the impacts of a social issue to women," explains Tive. "So a man who smokes tobacco, for instance, not only affects a woman's health but also the family's livelihood. The landmine problem also impacts on the woman if the husband or the son becomes disabled."

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U.S. slams deportation of Uyghur refugees from Cambodia to China

Two women stand by a roadblock as they take a picture in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur region, in September

(CNN) -- The U.S. State Department said Sunday it was "deeply disturbed" at the deportation of 20 Uyghur asylum seekers from Cambodia back to China.

The deportation "will affect Cambodia's relationship with the U.S. and its international standing," said acting State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid in a statement.

It occurred on Saturday at the request of China, the U.S. said.

"The United States is deeply concerned about the welfare of these individuals, who had sought protection under international law," Duguid said.

"We are also deeply disturbed that the Cambodian government decided to forcibly remove the group without the benefit of a credible process for determining refugee status and without appropriate participation by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees."

Kitty McKinsey, a coordinator with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees agency in Asia, told CNN on Saturday that the refugees had been seeking asylum. China's northwestern region was wracked by ethnic violence between Han Chinese and Uyghur Muslims earlier this year, and the Uyghurs fled to Cambodia to escape the unrest.

McKinsey said the UNHCR considers the deportation a breach of international law, and Uyghur human rights activists have expressed concern about the move. The Uyghur American Association also expressed concern in a statement.

The 20 were held in handcuffs and leg shackles and were not given any food to eat on Friday, according to the association. They were part of a group of 22 Uyghurs seeking refuge in Cambodia, all of whom were under UNHCR protection when taken into custody.

"The United States strongly opposed Cambodia's involuntary return of these asylum seekers before their claims have been heard," the State Department said.

Duguid urged the Chinese government to "uphold international norms and to ensure transparency, due process and proper treatment of persons in its territory" now that the Uyghurs have been returned.

Cambodian and Chinese officials could not immediately be reached for a response. But a Cambodian state media outlet, Agence Kampuchea Presse, reported that Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping is to arrive in Cambodia on Sunday for a three-day visit.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Thailand preparing military action against Cambodia: Pheu Thai MP

Thai soldiers set up artillery guns on the Thai-Cambodian border. (AFP)

An opposition MP yesterday accused the government of planning military force against Cambodia if Prime Minister Hun Sen and Thaksin Shinawatra took any action deemed to violate Thai sovereignty.

This would include establishment of a government in exile for Thaksin on Cambodian soil.

Pheu Thai MP Jatuporn Prompan said the military option was suggested in a confidential paper Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya sent to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on November 16 as a guideline for handling the conflict with Cambodia in a worstcase scenario.

"Preparation of a military option is equivalent to preparing for war against Cambodia," Jatuporn said.

"The end game is the normalisation of relations rather than regime change," Jatuporn quoted Kasit as saying in the leaked paper.

The paper called Thaksin "a major threat to the government". The fugitive expremier is using a twopronged strategy to topple the government: cooperation with Hun Sen and activity by the Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship.

Thailand has already employed several diplomatic measures against Cambodia since Hun Sen appointed Thaksin as his and the Cambodian government's economic adviser. The two countries downgraded relations in late October, Thailand scrapped a maritime deal with Cambodia, and Phnom Penh rejected Bt1.4 billion in loans from Thailand.

Cambodia has also rejected Thai demands to remove Thaksin from his position and extradite him to Bangkok.

Jatuporn said the Pheu Thai Party obtained Kasit's confidential paper from a Foreign Ministry official. He distributed it to reporters during a press conference at party headquarters.

The paper suggested the government to get rid of the "major threat" (Thaksin) and bring an end to cooperation between Thaksin and Hun Sen.

It listed three possible scenarios in the diplomatic row between the two countries. Thailand could prevent Thaksin and Hun Sen from worsening the situation simply by refusing to respond to them and trying to find an influential figure or country able to persuade Cambodia to back down.

Second, if the conflict does increase in intensity, the Thai government would step up retaliation while remaining sensitive to its effect on ordinary people and the national interest.

Third, in the worst case, such as a violation of Thai sovereignty or anything resembling the establishment of a government in exile for Thaksin, Thailand would cut diplomatic relations and resort to using military force.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry yesterday would not deny the existence of the document and its content but said it would set up a committee to find whoever leaked the document to the opposition party.

The ministry will consult the Office of the AttorneyGeneral about taking legal action against Jatuporn under the Information Act of 1997, said ministry deputy spokesman Thani Thongpakdee.

Source: The Nation/Asia News Network

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Cambodia to Deport Uighurs Despite Persecution Fears


PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia plans to deport at least 20 Muslim Uighurs who fled China after deadly ethnic violence this year, a government official said on Saturday, despite concerns they will face persecution by Beijing.

The Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group involved in rioting in western China that killed nearly 200 people in July, were smuggled into Cambodia in recent weeks and applied for asylum at the United Nations refugee agency office in Phnom Penh.

"The Cambodian government is implementing its immigration law. They came to Cambodia illegally without any passports or visas, so we consider them illegal immigrants," said Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong.

Human rights groups say they fear for the lives of the Uighurs if they are deported to China.

"Cambodia will be sending these Uighurs to a terrible fate,

possible execution and likely torture," said Amy Reger, a researcher at the Washington-based Uighur American Association.

She cited the case of Shaheer Ali, a Uighur political activist who fled to Nepal in 2000 and was granted refugee status by the United Nations. He was forcibly returned to China from Nepal in 2002 and executed a year later according to state media.

Reger's group received reports at least 20 of the Uighurs were put on a flight to Shanghai early on Saturday. But she said it appeared they had not yet been deported.

Washington is "deeply disturbed" that the Uighurs may be forcibly returned, said John Johnson, U.S. embassy spokesman in Phnom Penh. "The U.S. strongly urges the Cambodian government to honour its commitments under international law."

Cambodia's Foreign Ministry spokesman said he did not know their location.

UN OFFERS HELP

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office said it believed they were still in Cambodia.

"We have conveyed a message to the Cambodian government to refrain from deporting them," said Kitty McKinsey, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR office.

The U.N. body had offered assistance to the Cambodian government to resolve the case, McKinsey said.

Beijing has called the asylum seekers "criminals," although it has offered no evidence to back up the allegations.

Rights groups say Cambodia is bound by a 1951 convention on refugees pledging not to return asylum-seekers to countries where they will face persecution. Cambodia is one of two Southeast Asian nations to have signed the convention.

When asked about Cambodia's obligations under the 1951 convention, Koy said: "We are implementing our internal laws."

The Uighurs have put Cambodia's leaders in an awkward position ahead of a visit on Sunday by Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, who is expected to sign 14 agreements related to infrastructure construction, grants and loans.

China is Cambodia's biggest investor, having poured more than $1 billion (617 million pounds) in foreign direct investment into the country.

The July 5 riots, which began with protests against attacks on Uighur workers in south China, killed 197 people, most of them Han Chinese. More than 1,600 were wounded, official figures show.

At least eight people have been sentenced to death for murder and other crimes during the rioting, and nine other people have been executed, Chinese state media have reported.

(Editing by Jason Szep and Paul Tait)

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Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan charged with genocide

Khieu Samphan in court during a public hearing in 2008Khieu Samphan applauds his soldiers in 1976
An international tribunal in Cambodia charged the country’s former head of state with genocide today, in a move that could further delay the drawn out trials of former leaders of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.

Khieu Samphan became the third Cambodian to be charged with genocide this week after Ieng Sary, the former Foreign Minister, and Nuon Chea, the second in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy after the late Pol Pot.

All have already been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as murder and torture for the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge during the four years that they ruled Cambodia after 1975.

The paperwork required by the new charges is likely to further delay the conclusion of proceedings against a group of already old and ill men.

About 1.7 million Cambodians are believed to have died during the time of the so-called killing fields, when the urban population was forced into the countryside en masse to live as peasants.

Yesterday’s charges relate to the regime’s purge of two minorities living within Cambodia: Vietnamese and the Muslim Cham, who were among the few people to mount a determined resistance to the Khmer Rouge. Between 100,000 and 400,000 of the Cham are believed to have died.

Like most of his senior Khmer Rouge colleagues, Khieu Samphan was born into what, by Cambodian standards, was a privileged family. He studied in Paris, producing a thesis on Cambodian economic development.

On returning home, he worked as an academic and journalist and became involved in left-wing politics. The year after the Khmer Rouge’s victory in the civil war he became president of the organisation’s central presidium. However, the greatest power in the country lay with Pol Pot, who died in 1998.

Khieu Samphan’s lawyers argue that his position was no more than ceremonial and that he bears no responsibility for the atrocities that took place under his Government. He was arrested in 1998 and reportedly suffered a stroke two years ago.

Source: Times Online - Richard Lloyd Parry

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Tribunal charges 2 Khmer Rouge with genocide: Nuon Chea & Ieng Sary


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The U.N.-assisted tribunal trying former leaders of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge has charged two defendants with genocide for the first time

Tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen said Wednesday the co-investigating judges issued the charges this week against the group's top ideologist, Nuon Chea, and former foreign minister, Ieng Sary.

The tribunal is seeking justice for an estimated 1.7 million people who died from execution, overwork, disease and malnutrition as a result of the ultra-communist group's policies during its 1975-79 rule.

Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary have already been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as homicide and torture. They are being held in the tribunal's jail and are expected to be tried next year.

Olsen said they were charged with involvement in the deaths of members of the country's ethnic Cham and Vietnamese communities.

Some Chams, who are mostly Muslims, were among the few Cambodians to actively resist Khmer Rouge rule. The Khmer Rouge brutally suppressed the rebellions, which occurred in several villages.

Prejudice against Vietnamese runs high among many Cambodians, who see their eastern neighbor as predatory. The Khmer Rouge shared the communist ideology with Vietnam but had very strained relations with it, and mistrusted even veteran members of their own group with ties to Hanoi. They launched bloody attacks against Vietnamese border villages, which in late 1978 resulted in an invasion by Vietnam that ousted them from power.

The tribunal tried its first defendant, prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, this year on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, murder and torture.

Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, commanded S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, where up to 16,000 people were tortured and taken away to be killed. A verdict is expected next year, and he faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment if found guilty. Cambodia has no death penalty.

Olsen said it would be determined later whether the two other Khmer Rouge leaders in custody — former head of state Khieu Samphan, and former Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, the wife of Ieng Sary — would also be charged with genocide.

Source: The Associated Press

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