Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Friday, July 09, 2010

Cambodia: Halt US Aid to Abusive Military Units

Land-Grabbing Tank Unit to Host Upcoming Regional Peacekeeping Exercises

Source: Human Rights Watch

A member of the Cambodian military salutes from a tank during a parade to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the Brigade 70, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on October 13, 2009. © 2009 Reuters

(New York) - The US selection of a Cambodian military unit with a record of human rights abuses to be the host of an annual peacekeeping exercise in Asia undermines the US commitment to promoting human rights in Cambodia, Human Rights Watch said today.

The "Angkor Sentinel" exercise is part of the 2010 Global Peace Operations Initiative, an effort jointly run by the US Departments of Defense and State to help train peacekeepers. Co-hosted by the US Pacific Command, Angkor Sentinel will be the largest multinational military exercise held this year in the Asia-Pacific region, with more than 1,000 military personnel from 23 Asia-Pacific countries taking part.

The peacekeeping exercises will begin on July 12, 2010, with a five-day "command post" exercise in Phnom Penh. A two-week field training exercise will follow, with Cambodia's ACO Tank Command Headquarters in Kompong Speu province as the host. The US Defense Department funded construction there of a US$1.8 million training center for the 2010 initiative.

"For the Pentagon and State Department to permit abusive Cambodian military units to host a high-profile regional peacekeeping exercise is outrageous," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The US undermines its protests against the Cambodian government for rampant rights abuses like forced evictions when it showers international attention and funds on military units involved in grabbing land and other human rights violations."

For years, the ACO Tank Unit has been involved in illegal land seizures, as documented by the US State Department and by Cambodian and international human rights organizations. In November 2008, the unit seized the farmland of 133 families in Banteay Meanchey province, ostensibly to build a military base. In 2007, soldiers from the unit in Kompong Speu province used armored vehicles to flatten villagers' fences, destroy their crops, and confiscate their land.

Since 2006, the US has provided more than $4.5 million worth of military equipment and training to Cambodia. Some of that aid has gone to units and individuals within the Cambodian military with records of serious human rights violations, including Brigade 31, Brigade 70, and Airborne Brigade 911.

The Phnom Penh portion of Angkor Sentinel is likely to showcase elite Cambodian military units based near the capital, such as Prime Minister Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit and Brigade 70, both of which have been linked to a deadly March 1997 grenade attack on the political opposition, and Airborne Brigade 911, which has been involved in arbitrary detentions, political violence, torture, and summary executions.US material assistance has also gone toward rights-abusing units such as Brigade 31, formerly known as Division 44, which in 2008 used US-donated trucks to forcibly move villagers evicted from their land in Kampot province. In recent years Brigade 31 has been implicated in illegal logging, land grabbing, and intimidation of opposition party activists during the 2008 national elections. The unit was also involved in summary executions of captured soldiers loyal to the FUNCINPEC party during a 1997 coup staged by Hun Sun.

Cambodian military personnel are not held accountable for serious rights violations. Instead, Hun Sen has promoted military officers implicated in torture, extrajudicial killings, and political violence, such as Hing Bunheang, the deputy commander of Brigade 70 at the time of the 1997 grenade attack, who was made deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces in January 2009.

In December 2009, Cambodia deported 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers at grave risk back to China on the eve of a visit by senior Chinese officials to Phnom Penh. The US cancelled delivery of 200 surplus military trucks and trailers to Cambodia under the US Excess Defense Articles program. This was only the most minimal response to a serious breach of Cambodia's obligations as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Human Rights Watch said.

In February, Hun Sen announced plans for corporate sponsorship of military units as a way to support defense costs. More than 40 Cambodian businesses have agreed to subsidize military units, including some companies that have long been allowed to misuse military units as the equivalent of security contractors to protect and support their business ventures in agri-business, banking, casinos, and national media.

"By essentially auctioning off military units, Hun Sen revealed that many military units are little more than guns for hire, not the defenders of the Cambodian people," Robertson said. "The US should not be training corrupt and abusive military units for global peacekeeping."

The US government should suspend military aid to Cambodia pending an improved and thorough human rights vetting process that screens out abusive individuals or units from receiving any aid or training, Human Rights Watch said. Certain military units, as well as individual personnel from them, should be immediately banned from Defense Department assistance, including Hun Sen's bodyguard unit, Brigade 70, Brigade 31, and Airborne Brigade 911, and any of their sub-units.

"US support for peacekeeping training cannot mean turning a blind eye to soldiers and units who have violated human rights," Robertson said. "Instead, military units that are called to deploy abroad as international peacekeepers must be true professionals, not only in technical expertise, but in their respect for human rights."

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Friday, July 02, 2010

New Horizons - KEP, Cambodia

By TOM VATER - The Wall Street Journal

KEP, Cambodia--"Kep is not about the sea. Kep is about wind and mountain, precipitation and a way of life," says Rithivit Tep, owner of the Villa Thomas, the Cambodian beach town's oldest building. Dating to 1903, handsome and Gothic-looking, it was originally built to house French colonial administrators on break from their jobs in Phnom Penh.

Luke Duggleby for The Wall Street Journal Swinging chairs in the garden of Knai Bang Chatt

The French did little on this picturesque stretch of the country's southeastern coast but keep away from the tigers that used to roam the Elephant Mountains, which rise from the paddy fields behind the town. Its natural shoreline, mostly black rock and mangrove swamp, hardly invites bathing. But in the 1950s, Kep became an upscale resort town, Cambodia's version of France's Saint-Tropez. (Suitably, it was called Kep sur Mer, French for "Kep on the Sea.") A beach was created, and regularly replenished, using sand barged in from down the coast. The country's newly emerging elite, propelled into sudden affluence after independence in 1953, lined the Gulf of Thailand seafront with their villas.

Built in 1903 and soon to be a luxury resort, Villa Thomas is Kep's oldest building.

"Kep was wonderful in its heyday," says Rithivit Tep. "We had cocktail parties every night, artists and musicians stayed here. It was fashionable." King Norodom Sihanouk was a regular visitor, and bands played their locally developed brand of rock 'n' roll mixed with Khmer melodies on the beach. Those who danced themselves into a sweat could escape to Bokor hill station with its handsome casino hotel, spectacularly located on a cool plateau 1,000 meters above the beach town.

But for Kep, as for the rest of Cambodia, the bloom was brief. From the mid-1960s the country drifted into chaos: The U.S. war with Vietnam crossed the border, a coup deposed the king and the Khmer Rouge revolution brought isolation and genocide followed by almost two decades of civil war. (Rithivit Tep, then a teenager and fledgling tennis player—his father, the late Tep Kunnah, was a star—fled with his family in the early 1970s to France and Canada, not returning until 1992.) As recently as 10 years ago, Kep was a ghost town. Streets were overgrown, palm trees where lampposts once stood, as the former holiday homes, built by an elite that no longer existed, were subsumed by jungle.

Now the picture is changing. The area around Kep became a province in its own right in 2008, and has since attracted significant funds from the government for infrastructure development. New roads and administrative buildings, a new market and tentative efforts at urban planning in Kep itself are beginning to show results, and the town of 5,000 has been on the national electricity grid for more than a year. Resorts and restaurants open with increasing regularity, bringing Wi-Fi and swimming pools. Rithivit Tep this year plans to open his old villa (and adjoining bungalows) as a luxury resort; he's also purchased an island off the coast where he intends to establish an ecotourism venture. Initially, he plans to take high-end guests from his mainland resort to the island for romantic luxury dinners.

"Kep must be returned to its former glory," he says.

Jef Moons, a 47-year-old Belgian hotelier, is one step ahead of the pack. He visited Kep on his first trip to Cambodia in 2002, drawn by the lack of information on it in his Lonely Planet guidebook. "I was bowled over by the beauty of the people and the place and wanted to come back to share Kep with friends," he says. "I immediately bought three properties."

With a workforce of 150, Mr. Moons painstakingly restored one of Kep's handsomest beachfront properties, a 1960s villa designed by a student of Cambodia's master architect Van Molyvann. With a second, more recent villa in similarly elegant style and complemented by a pool, his stylish 11-room resort, with a staff of 45, provides Kep's highest-end accommodation.

A villa designed by a student of Cambodia's leading architect, Vann Molyvann, is today part of the resort Knai Bang Chatt.

"When we first visited Kep, we saw a full rainbow around the sun, a 'knai bang chatt' in Khmer," he recalls. "That's what I called the resort when we opened in 2004."

Veranda, on a hillside above town, offers incredible views across the Gulf of Thailand from its restaurant. Funky and attractive bungalows are connected by a warren of wooden walkways high above the grounds. Canadian-Vietnamese owner Lily Loo is happy that Kep is finding its feet again.

"We opened in 2002," she says. "In the beginning all our guests were backpackers. But in 2005, we noticed a change. Families and wealthier independent tourists began to visit. But it's been a slow process."

Slow is the word in Kep; there's not a lot to do but relax. Knai Bang Chatt has offered diversions ranging from talks by Cambodia experts to photography weekends and wellness spa weeks (not to mention several eclectic performances on the rooftop by Khuon Sethisak, Cambodia's best-known opera singer). There are pepper plantations and caves nearby to visit. The ruined villas are worth exploring—and Mr. Moons warns they may not be around for much longer.

"Many of the old houses will disappear," he says. "Khmer people want to look rich, and 1960s architecture means nothing to them. This is normal after an experience like the Khmer Rouge. Culture here is about surviving."

Luke Duggleby for The Wall Street Journal At the crab market, Kep's main attraction, the sellers keep their stock -- here a female laden with eggs -- in floating baskets.

The crab market is the town's main attraction. This long row of shacks is a hive of activity from dawn till dusk. Restaurant after restaurant, including an Italian eatery, line the curved seafront. From 4 a.m., local women, colorfully wrapped from head to toe, stand knee-deep in the surf and negotiate prices for the live crabs that are packed into wicker baskets bobbing in the shallow water. A little offshore, bright green long-tail fishing boats are anchored against the backdrop of the Vietnamese island of Phu Qoc and, to the west, Bokor Mountain. Delicious steamed crab, for which Kep is known all over the country, is served all day.

Luke Duggleby for The Wall Street Journal Just because it's called the crab market doesn't mean you can't get some grilled squid there. There's even an Italian restaurant.

A more sedate eating option is the nearby Sailing Club, also owned by Mr. Moons, an elegant wooden bungalow beside a simple pier, offering Art Deco furniture, mellow music, a short but carefully balanced menu of Khmer and Western dishes, and cocktails.

If even Kep gets to be too much, there's also the possibility of escaping to the simplest of paradises. Koh Tonsay, also called Rabbit Island, lies five kilometers off the coast, and once served as a prison. Today, simple wooden beach shacks, straw-roofed seafood restaurants and a few sun-loungers are as far as facilities stretch on the main beach, a palm-fringed bay with views of the mountainous coastline. The visitors sipping fresh coconut juice in their hammocks are a mixed bunch: backpackers, young families and wealthy, older tourists on day-trips rub shoulders along the half-kilometer sand crescent. Those not put off by the island's basic amenities can stay overnight in simple but clean beachside bungalows.

Luke Duggleby for The Wall Street Journal Koh Tonsay, or Rabbit Island, five kilometers out, offers a back-to-basics beach experience

Bokor hill station, until recently the heart of a national park, is being redeveloped into a glitzy gambling paradise, with a new resort and at least one golf course planned and even some talk of a dinosaur theme park. That's all right with Rithivit Tep; in his vision, Bokor can be for visitors seeking the shiny and new, while his beach town can appeal to those with a taste for the classic. "We have to make sure," he says, "that Kep will return to its golden age."

—Tom Vater is a writer based in Bangkok.

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