Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cambodia tribunal - judges bowing to political pressure?

Published on : 25 August 2011 - 10:41am | By International Justice Desk

Reuthers Pictures: Former Khmer Rouge president Khieu Samphan (2nd row from front, C, in glasses) sits at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) on the outskirts of Phnom Penh June 29, 2011. The four most senior surviving members of Cambodia's murderous Khmer Rouge regime went on trial for war crimes on Monday, three decades after its "year zero" revolution marked one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.

Judges will announce “sometime next year” if two politically sensitive cases will be heard at Cambodia’s tribunal, according to the court’s international co-prosecutor. The decision will hinge on whether the suspects can be considered “senior leaders or those most responsible” for crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge regime.

By Jared Ferrie, Kampong Chhnang

Andrew Cayley made the comments during a presentation to about 70 teachers attending a training course on Khmer Rouge history. In a question and answer period following his talk, one teacher asked about the status of the court's third and fourth cases (003 and 004), which the government has warned will not be “allowed” to go to trial.

Cayley noted that prosecutors built those cases before he was appointed to the court in 2009.

“They were put into my lap,” he told the teachers. “The only thing I can do is follow the law and the rules of the court in addressing these case. Ultimately, it will be a matter for the judges to decide whether people involved in these cases were senior leaders or those most responsible.

Mid-ranking cadres
The identities of the suspects have not been released, but leaked documents reveal that 003 involves the heads of the Khmer Rouge navy and air force, while the suspects in 004 were mid-ranking cadres who allegedly oversaw mass killings and other atrocities in areas under their control.

In a recent statement, the co-investigating judges said they had “serious doubts about whether the suspects (in 004) are ‘most responsible’”. But the judges shared no information about the nature of those doubts.

In an interview last month with VOA, Investigating Judge Siegfried Blunk expressed similar doubts about the suspects in 003.

Political pressure
Observers worry that such statements indicate the judges are bowing to political pressure and preparing to dismiss the cases. The judges ignited an ongoing controversy when they closed down the investigation into 003 despite failing to interview suspects or examine sites that may contain mass graves.

Cayley has lodged an appeal with the Pre-Trial Chamber, which can ask the judges to re-open the investigation. He said in an interview that Blunk’s statements regarding doubts that the suspects fall under the jurisdiction of the court are premature.

“I believe that you’ve actually got to carry out a full investigation before you can make that determination of whether somebody is either senior or most responsible,” he said.

An August 5 “Court Report”, released by the public affairs section of the tribunal, notes that investigations are ongoing into 004. An investigating judge interviewed key witnesses in July, and legal staff members are examining more than 50,000 pages of “evidentiary material”, according to the report.

On August 19, the court also released a redacted version of Cayley’s appeal to the Pre-Trial Chamber – a move Cayley had requested in its text.

Inadequate investigation
Among other arguments, the appeal states that the investigation carried out by the investigating judges was inadequate and did not produce enough information to determine whether the suspects fall under the court’s jurisdiction.

“Given that the PTC (Pre-Trial Chamber) has ruled that jurisdictional issues are fundamental, without further investigations it is highly possible that the entire Case 003 could be dismissed,” the document reads.

In an interview, Cayley noted that Blunk told VOA that he and his Cambodian counterpart, You Bunleng, developed a criteria to determine whether suspects fall under the jurisdiction of the court, under the categories of senior leaders or those most responsible”.

“My office will be asking for those criteria because we haven’t seen them so far,” he said. “And certainly when we can make an assessment ourselves whether that test actually falls within the remit of international criminal law.”

Jurisdiction
He added that the Supreme Court Chamber is expected to issue a judgement soon regarding the court’s first case, which will deal with the issue of jurisdiction.

“I anticipate they will be coming up with their own set of criteria which Judge Blunk will be bound by,” he said.

Cayley was referring to an upcoming judgment in response to an appeal by Duch, a Khmer Rouge prison chief who was convicted last summer. He appealed his sentence, arguing that he had no choice but to follow orders and thus did not fall under the court’s jurisdiction.

Cayley said the court is expected to issue a verdict by the end of this year.

Radio Netherlands Worldwide

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cambodia shrugs off aid curb

A Cambodian worker (C) stands on a pipe pumping sand into the Boeung Kak lake in central Phnom Penh on August 16, 2011. Cambodia has moved to resolve a high-profile dispute about a mass eviction from a lakeside area in the capital after the World Bank froze lending to the impoverished nation over the row.

By Brian McCartan | Asia Times Online

Cambodian leaders have shrugged off a World Bank move this month to suspend new lending due to state-sponsored, large-scale evictions to clear land for development projects. While rising access to private Asian capital, particularly from China, has helped Cambodia weather previous Western donor pressure for reform, the socio-economic costs of the latest sanction could be much higher.

The World Bank had come under pressure from local and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to take a tough stance against Cambodia's government in response to well-documented forced evictions of communities. The issue centered on a large-scale urban development project planned for central Phnom Penh at Boeung Kak lake where many of the residents are involved in catering to a growing tourist industry.

The pressure increased late last year after an internal investigation found that the World Bank had violated its own social and environmental policies in supporting the project. It is being led by the privately-held Cambodian Shukaku company, which signed a 99-year lease with the government in 2007 to develop Boeung Kak and the surrounding area into a district of luxury apartments and high-end shops.

The company is chaired by Lao Meng Khin, a powerful senator affiliated with the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and a close associate of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Shukaku is partnered with the Inner Mongolia Erdos Hongjun Investment Co Ltd of China, which has pledged broadly to spend US$3 billion in Cambodia on property development, metal processing and power generation.

However, the joint venture has raised some eyebrows due to the unlisted Chinese company's murky background and ownership. Critics say that the company has no proven expertise in any of the areas in which it has pledged to invest, and there is an unusual lack of publicity around a company that has promised to commit such a large amount of capital outside China.

The developers began pumping sand into the lake in 2008, flooding homes and virtually wiping out the once tranquil lake's ecology. Land holders have had no say in the process and have been accused by the government as illegal squatters on state-owned land. These accusations, NGOs say, run counter to Cambodia's land law, which provides protections against evictions to long-time land holders. Many of the residents at Boeung Kak have lived there for decades.

However, the lake's residents were excluded from a process organized by the World Bank to adjudicate property claims. Over 2,000 have already been forced from their homes and another 10,000 now face eviction. The international lender has since called on the Cambodian government to halt the evictions and agree to fair compensation for land holders. After failing to reach an agreement, the World Bank stated on August 9, "Until an agreement is reached with the residents of Boeung Kak lake we do not expect to provide new lending to Cambodia."

The World Bank has lent Cambodia between US$50 million and $70 million annually for the past few years with the last disbursement made in December 2010. Most of the loans have been committed to health and education projects. Despite these capital commitments, Cambodian leaders have so far shrugged off the World Bank's statement about withholding future loans.

Analysts say they can afford to, given the billions of dollars of aid and investment the government now receives from China without strings attached. Cambodia's foreign donors pledged $1.1 billion in aid last year, with China committing the most of any country. China has also become Cambodia's largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI), with stated plans to spend $8 billion on 360 different projects during the first seven months of 2011.

It is difficult to separate Chinese foreign aid from investment since they are often intertwined. Chinese companies receive government subsidies to participate in projects that by Western standards would often be considered as development related. During a 2010 visit by Hun Sen to Beijing, China promised to provide a $300 million loan to construct two national highways and irrigation projects. Other deals concluded during the visit, mostly related to infrastructure, were worth around $293 million.

Hun Sen has made it clear in several speeches that he prefers Chinese to Western aid due to the lack of attached conditions. Western donors often predicate their aid packages on democratic reforms and improvements in human rights and counter-corruption. Hun Sen is apparently not alone in this opinion: the opaque regimes in Laos and Myanmar have also shown a preference for Chinese aid and investment for similar reasons.

Sphere of interest
Together with Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos are often considered Beijing's "sphere of interest" in Southeast Asia.

China became Laos' largest foreign investor in 2010 with total investments amounting $2.9 billion since 2000. Much of China's investment there is in mining, hydropower projects, agribusiness and services. It has also secured a prominent place as an aid donor through large-scale infrastructure projects such as the construction of Route 3 connecting southwestern China with northern Thailand through Laos.

Some of these projects have aimed more at securing goodwill, such as the widening of the Central Avenue in downtown Vientiane and the construction of the National Cultural Hall, than making money. That's evidenced in the fact that many loans are dispensed interest-free.

Last year, largely Western aid agencies and donors cautioned Laos about racing ahead with a development plan based too heavily on natural resource exploitation without enough emphasis on health, education and capacity development among the local population.

The Lao government has stated some of its own concerns over investment, especially in terms of long-term and concessions, such as those granted to Chinese investors to build casino complexes. However, the government has made it clear it intends to reduce its high dependency on official development assistance in favor of increased access to Asian private capital, especially from China.

In Myanmar, where the country ostensibly made a transition from direct military rule to a democratic system earlier this year, there is increasing Chinese investment as the country's leaders continue to look to Beijing for economic as well as diplomatic support. Much of China's investment is in natural resource extraction, hydropower projects, and infrastructure, but there is a growing interest in acquiring agricultural land, especially for rubber.

Myanmar's rulers have long relied on Chinese investment and aid to make up for a lack of development assistance from the West. Sanctions and concern over human-rights issues have prevented Western donors from providing funding at levels similar to that donated to Laos and Cambodia. Human-rights and political opposition groups have long argued that Chinese aid has allowed the military to stay in power and continue to repress the population.

China plans in coming years to further expand its trade with the region and is making moves to develop more extensive physical trade arteries. Beijing has announced plans to pour money into road and rail projects in coming years, linking its landlocked southwestern region with ports in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. It is hoped this will increase trade, promote regional investment and tourism, as well as strengthen ties with the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

This may be music to the ears of Southeast Asian policymakers who are interested in developing their countries' economic potential as well as improving their own financial situations given the high levels of corruption in the region. However, growing Chinese influence, especially in the economic sphere, is becoming increasingly worrisome to the average farmer and shopkeeper in these countries.

For instance, there is growing discontent in Laos over what some see as too much Chinese influence in the country. Laos are especially concerned by the growing number of Chinese migrating to work in the country on Chinese projects. This became especially acute in Vientiane when plans for an urban development project near the iconic That Luang monastery came to light.

The project, which was widely perceived as building a "Chinese city" in the heart of the capital, has stirred nationalistic responses from the city's growing middle class. In addition to a penchant by Chinese companies to import Chinese workers to work on their projects, Laos are worried those workers will not return home after the projects are finished, as has been the case on certain roadway projects in remote northern areas.

Land concessions are also an issue, especially in the north where Chinese companies have been able to acquire large tracts of land for plantation agriculture. While many villagers have been able to arrange contracting agreements to provide rubber to Chinese companies, others say they have been forced to convert their land to rubber cultivation. The north is also the location of two Chinese casino, hotel and shopping complexes at Boten and Huay Xai, where sovereignty has seemingly been handed over to Chinese developers.

There is also a longstanding, but largely quiet, animosity towards Chinese influence in Myanmar. Growing Chinese economic influence in recent years has heightened a perception of Chinese as untrustworthy businessmen bent on taking over the country.

As evidence, many Burmese point to the large areas of Mandalay and other cities which have become crowded with shops with store signs only in Chinese and catering to the growing number of Chinese moving into them. This perception apparently extends to the upper echelons of government, where some leaders are reportedly alarmed by China's growing economic clout vis-a-vis the local population.

For the average Myanmar farmer, especially in the country's northern region where there is an increase in China-linked agribusiness projects, there is concern over being evicted from their lands in favor of commercial plantations. Human rights groups have documented this practice throughout the country in a process often carried out by military units.

Others are worried their land will be taken for infrastructure and other projects. Environmental groups have documented the confiscation of land to build a deep sea port in Myanmar's south that will ship oil and gas through pipelines being constructed by Chinese companies to China's land-locked southwestern region.

While not solely the work of Chinese companies, rising evictions in Cambodia are creating a huge number of landless displaced people across the country. Some analysts speculate that the sheer number of people displaced could lead to social stability problems in the future as Cambodians forced off their land and without other viable economic options become increasingly desperate.

Unless Cambodian government policymakers make a shift from their headlong rush for development and reckless policies to supply China's demand for natural resources, agricultural products and diplomatic allies, the risk will rise that their development projects cause more social problems than they resolve.

It's a message the World Bank has delivered belatedly with its suspension of new lending and advice Cambodia's leaders would be wise to heed if they are to maintain social stability amid rapid economic growth and rising Chinese influence.

Brian McCartan is a freelance journalist. He may be reached at brianpm@comcast.net.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

AP ENTERPRISE: Sand for Sale; Environment Ravaged

By DENIS D. GRAY Associated Press
KOH KONG, Cambodia August 22, 2011 (AP)



Round a bend in Cambodia's Tatai River and the virtual silence of a tropical idyll turns suddenly into an industrial nightmare.

Lush jungle hills give way to a flotilla of dredgers operating 24 hours a day, scooping up sand and piling it onto ocean-bound barges. The churned-up waters and fuel discharges, villagers say, have decimated the fish so vital to their livelihoods. Riverbanks are beginning to collapse, and the din and pollution are killing a promising ecotourism industry.


What is bad news for the poor, remote Tatai community is great tidings for Singapore, the wealthy city-state that is expanding its territory by reclaiming land from the sea. Sand from nearby countries is the prime landfill and also essential building material for Singapore's spectacular skyline.

As more countries ban its export to curb environmental damageentire Indonesian islands have been all but wiped off the map — suppliers to Singapore scour the region for what still can be obtained, legally or not. Cambodia, a poor country where corruption is rife and laws are often flouted, is now the No. 1 source.

Singapore is by no means the only nation taking part in what is a global harvest of sand from beaches, rivers and seabeds. Officials and environmentalists from China to Morocco have voiced concern and urged curbs. As construction booms in emerging economies and more sources dry up, however, exploitation of the remaining ones is likely to intensify.

Sand mining began anew in May on southwestern Tatai River, which empties into the ocean almost directly north of Singapore, across 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) of open water.

Despite denials by the main owner of sand mining rights in Koh Kong province, two Cambodian officials told The Associated Press that the sand is destined for the island nation.

Singapore will not say where its sand comes from; the Construction and Building Authority said it is not public information. The National Development Ministry said the state's infrastructure development company buys it from "a diverse range of approved sources."

The mining visible on the Tatai River clearly violates some of Cambodia's own legal restrictions, not to mention a recent government order to suspend it temporarily.

Vessels of a Vietnamese company were tracked by boat from about 10 kilometers (6 miles) upriver to the Gulf of Thailand, where nearly a dozen seagoing barges, tugs hovering around them, took on the sand.

The AZ Kunming Singapore, a 5,793-ton (5,255-metric ton) barge pulled by the AZ Orchid, was seen arriving empty from the open ocean, its tug flying a Singaporean flag. Both are registered with the Singapore government, which would not comment on the barge's cargo or destination.

Ships from several countries, including China, were spotted in sand-mining operations in Koh Kong province, where residents joked about going to Singapore and planting a Cambodian flag there.

The vessels included one from Winton Enterprises, a Hong Kong-registered group that was subcontracted to export sand to Singapore, according to Global Witness, a London-based environmental group that published a detailed account of the trade last year.

The report said that miners had penetrated protected mangrove, estuary and sea grass areas, breeding grounds for marine life along a coastline and hinterland harboring some of the country's last wilderness areas.

Cambodia's cabinet spokesman, Siphan Phay, who was investigating the issue in Koh Kong, appeared angry that the temporary halt order was being ignored. He described the activity as illegal mining destined for Singapore, a surprising statement given that government ministers awarded the concession.

A police officer in the economic crime division, who demanded anonymity given the issue's sensitivity, also said the sand is going to Singapore.

Ly Yong Phat, who holds the major concession in Koh Kong, has at times openly acknowledged the Singapore connection. But in a recent AP interview, amid tightening restrictions and mounting criticism, he said his company had not shipped sand to Singapore for more than a year because "our sand did not meet their standards."

The dredging, he added, was for local sale and to deepen river channels.

However, a Malaysian company, Benalec Holdings, said it was ready to tap up to 530,000 tons for a reclamation project in Singapore from several sources in Cambodia, including Ly Yong Phat's LYP Group.

Known as the "King of Koh Kong," Ly Yong Phat is one of Cambodia's biggest tycoons and a senator with close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen. His holdings include hotels, a casino and agricultural plantations.

Land reclamation has enlarged Singapore by more than a fifth, and up to 100 square kilometers (nearly 40 square miles) more are slated for reclamation by 2030. What was once seabed is now Changi, among the world's finest airports, and more recently the Marina Bay complex, which includes a 2,560-room hotel and casino developed by Las Vegas Sands Corp.

Mountains of sand are needed for such fills. U.N. statistics show Singapore imported 14.6 million tons last year, ranking it among the world's top customers. Global Witness estimated that nearly 800,000 tons a year, worth some $248 million, were streaming to Singapore from Koh Kong alone.

The U.N. figures show that Cambodia supplied 25 percent of Singapore's imports in 2010, followed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar and the Philippines. With its secrecy and lax enforcement of environmental regulations, Myanmar could emerge as a major supplier.

The damage caused by sand extraction has spurred clampdowns on exports.

Malaysia imposed a ban in 1997, though the media there frequently report on massive smuggling into neighboring Singapore. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad complains that sand pirates are "digging Malaysia and giving her to other people."

An Indonesian ban came in 2007, following years of strained relations with Singapore over the sand on islands lying between the two countries. When miners finished with Nipah Island, reportedly all that was left was three or four palm trees protruding above the waterline. Environmental groups say smuggling is believed to be continuing.

Vietnam banned exports late last year.

Cambodia outlawed the export of sand from rivers in 2009 but allows it from some seabeds. Recently, some government officials said that rivers where seawater flowed into fresh water, replenishing sand naturally, were exempt.

Global Witness spokesman Oliver Courtney said the trade in Cambodia revealed a "mismatch between Singapore's reliance on questionably sourced sand and its position as a leader for sustainable development." The city-state prides itself on environmentally sound urban planning.

The dredging of the Tatai River began on May 17 "with a fury," creating a veritable traffic jam on the water, said Janet Newman, owner of the riverside Rainbow Lodge.

"Before you could see crab pots bobbing in the river everywhere and fishermen going out. Now there is nothing and nobody," the British woman said.

Chea Manith of the Nature Tourism Community of Tatai said 270 families along the river have seen an estimated 85 percent drop in catch of fish, crab and lobsters and were being forced to eke out a living from small garden plots. Tourists have all but vanished.

Armed with a petition, village leaders, tourism operators and a wildlife group met with Ly Yong Phat in early July. He appeared sympathetic, Newman said. He substantially reduced the dredging and has promised to stop altogether in October.

A subsequent letter from the Minister of Water Resources and Meteorology ordered the LYP group to halt operations temporarily on the Tatai, citing a breach of regulations. The letter was obtained by Cambodia's Phnom Penh Post newspaper, which made it available to the AP.

Hun Sen himself expressed concern over the mining in the river.

"We hoped that the prime minister's recent promise to review the impacts of the sand trade would lead to proper regulation of dredging operations," said Courtney of Global Witness. "Unfortunately, the pledge does not appear to have been followed up with meaningful action."

The mining has continued on the Tatai, and violations, such as dredging closer than 150 meters (165 yards) from riverbanks, were clearly evident.

The Post also obtained a Ministry of Industry, Mining and Energy letter extending LYP Group's concession in Koh Kong until Sept. 2012.

"We are just little people. We cannot do anything," Chea Manith said.

Newman sounded a more optimistic note. "It's my hope that the LYP Group will become sympathetic through this experience of having seen the reaction from people passionate about protecting their environment," she said. "It would be sad if they just went somewhere else to dump the same on others."

———

Associated Press writers Sean Yoong in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Alex Kennedy in Singapore; Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines; Aye Aye Win in Yangon, Myanmar; and Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cambodian Villagers Mimic Avatar Characters to Defend Forest




More than 100 Cambodian villagers dressed themselves as characters from the hit movie Avatar Thursday to protest what they say is the destruction of Southeast Asia's largest remaining lowland evergreen forest.


The villagers, wearing green and blue face paint, demonstrated in front of the royal palace in Phnom Penh and then spread across the city distributing leaflets. Police arrested dozens of them but released them without charges.

The villagers say about 200,000 people rely on the Prey Lang forest for their livelihoods. But they say it is under increasing threat from illegal logging and exploitation by rubber and mining companies. They compared themselves to the forest people in Avatar, who also fought to defend their forest from greedy corporations.

The Prey Lang forest spans about 3,600 square kilometers in northern Cambodia and is home to a number of rare plants and endangered animals.

Source: http://blogs.voanews.com/breaking-news/2011/08/18/cambodian-villagers-mimic-avatar-characters-to-defend-forest/

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Silencing Cambodia's Honest Brokers

By ELIZABETH BECKER | The New York Times
Published: August 17, 2011



WASHINGTON — This year is the 20th anniversary of the Paris peace accords that ended the Cambodian war and any further threat from the murderous Khmer Rouge. It required all the major powers — the United States, leading European countries, the former Soviet Union and China — as well as most Asian nations to come up with an accord, a rare achievement. In a speech last week, Gareth Evans said that during his eight years as the Australian foreign minister “nothing has given me more pleasure and pride than the Paris peace agreement concluded in 1991.”

I reported from Paris on the negotiations, which took several years of convoluted diplomacy since few countries or political parties had clean hands in the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge. When the deal was finally signed in October of 1991 there were self-congratulations all around, champagne and a huge sigh of relief that Cambodia could move on to peace and democracy.

It didn’t turn out that way. Cambodia today is essentially ruled by a single political party with little room for an opposition, has a weak and corrupt judiciary, and the country’s most effective union leaders have been murdered.

That wasn’t the scenario envisioned in Paris. Now, just as 20th anniversary commemorations are approaching, one of the few groups still enjoying the freedoms created under the peace accords are about to be silenced. The government of Cambodia is poised to enact a law that will effectively hamstring the country’s lively civil society and NGOs, among the last independent voices in Cambodia.

In Paris, the framework for Cambodia’s democracy was a much debated element of the peace accords. That debate led to Cambodia’s Constitution and its guarantee of freedom of association and speech. The proposed law on civil society would deprive these independent Cambodian groups of those rights and undermine much of their work representing the country’s most vulnerable citizens — advocating for their rights and dispensing aid, largely paid for with foreign donations. Most recently, these civil society groups exposed the government’s eviction of the poor from valuable land in Phnom Penh. As a result, the World Bank is suspending all new loans to Cambodia until those made homeless receive proper housing.

Under the new law, these independent citizen groups would have to register with the government and win approval to operate under vague criteria; if the government disapproves of a group’s behavior it can dissolve it using equally vague criteria. There would be no right of appeal.

The normally fractious Cambodian civil groups have joined together against the new law and asked the government for serious amendments to protect basic constitutional rights. They were rejected and only superficial changes were made. With little time left, one of their NGO leaders made an emergency trip to Washington to meet with international organizations, foreign embassies and the U.S. government, asking them to speak out loudly against the measure before it passes in the coming weeks.

“If this law is passed we will be silenced. Foreign donors will give us less money. The people who will suffer are the poor,” said Borithy Lun, the head of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia. He led a meeting at the offices of Oxfam America, where I am a member of the board of directors. The law would diminish the ability of international NGOs, like Oxfam, to help the poor in Cambodia as well, since it requires all foreign nonprofit organizations to work directly with official agencies, essentially becoming an arm of the government.

All of this will have a direct impact on Cambodia’s impressive economic gains. Foreign businesses have come to rely on Cambodia’s civil society groups to act as honest brokers, pointing out the pitfalls in an economy marked by corruption and weak law enforcement. Foreign governments and institutions have already warned the Cambodian government that if the proposed civil society law is passed, they will rethink the $1 billion in aid given to Cambodia every year, which is roughly half of the country’s budget. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has spoken up repeatedly in favor of strong, independent civil societies and Cambodia has made no secret of its desire to continue improving relations with the United States.

As the commemorations of the Paris peace accords begin, with more champagne and seminars, instead of looking backward to past glory, it might be better to focus on today and reinforce the accords. Countries that are rightfully proud of their role in bringing peace to Cambodia are in a good position to require preserving the independence of civil society when Cambodia comes asking for their votes at the United Nations this fall.

The Cambodian government has two big objectives: It wants to win one of the nonpermanent seats on the United Nations Security Council, and to get the United Nations to help resolve the Thai-Cambodia border dispute centered on the temple of Preah Vihear. Cambodia has dispatched senior diplomats to countries large and small to win their votes and has initiated border talks with the government of the new Thai prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. The price for greater influence and prestige in the world should be reinforcing democracy, not diminishing it.

Elizabeth Becker is a former New York Times correspondent and author of “When the War Was Over,” a history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge.

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Friday, August 05, 2011

Cambodian Capital Modernizing Fast

Robert Carmichael | Phnom Penh (Voice of America)

Photo: Soeung Sophat, VOA Khmer- This July 2010 photo shows construction of high-rise buildings along Preah Monivong Boulevard, Phnom Penh's main thoroughfare.

Ten years ago, the infrastructure in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, was in poor condition. Power outages were frequent. Heavy rains and poor telecommunications slowed commerce and limited outside contacts.

But in the past decade, new roads and high-rise buildings have changed the landscape. And in July, the nation's first stock exchange and a multiplex cinema opened.

Phnom Penh has several active cinemas dating from the 1950s, but they mainly screen the small number of domestically produced films or translated Thai imports. Pirated DVDs have cut into their business, keeping people at home.

Until July, the only way to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster in a theater was to catch a plane to Thailand or Vietnam.

But now, for $6, one can go to the new air-conditioned, three-screen Legend cinema in central Phnom Penh, grab a box of popcorn and settle down to watch Kung-Fu Panda 2 in 3D (three dimensions).

Michael Chai, a director at WesTec Media, which built the cinema, is aiming at a young, internet savvy Cambodian market.

“If I look at Facebook for example, I've been looking at the numbers. In May 2010 there were only about 50,000 of them on Facebook. May 2011 we had almost 400,000. So that figure alone, that kind of growth, speaks a lot already. And most of them on Facebook are communicating to each other in English.”

While it would take most Cambodians several days to earn the price of the $6 ticket, the owners are betting that a growing middle-class will become regular customers.

Prum Seila, a 24-year-old office worker, is in Chai's target demographic. Just a few weeks after the theater opened, Seila has visited twice.

“I went there to see the Transformers 3. And I've never seen 3D in my life. I just saw the Transformers 3, and I know that in Transformers 3 there is a scene in Cambodia and [so] we should have seen it. And it is just kind of supporting stuff like that in Cambodia," Seila says.

The growth in Phnom Penh has been fueled in part by garment factories, an economic pillar in Cambodia, that are located around the capital, drawing young workers to the city.

The jobs and new technology are changing things quickly. A recent survey indicates more than 90 percent of young Cambodians have access to a mobile phone. Internet usage, though low, has doubled in a year to 6 percent.

Prum Seila, the eager movie-goer, grew up in the capital. He says he and his friends now spend their free time hanging out in food halls, scores of gleaming new coffee shops and entertainment venues named Diamond Island and Dreamland, where you can sing karaoke.

He says shopping is popular.

“The people like me they have jobs, they have money," he says. "They save money to buy expensive brands like Apple, iPhone. Some of the girls they try to buy the clothes from internet, from Facebook.”

In July, officials opened the country's first stock exchange. Although no companies have yet listed, the government says three state-owned firms will do so later this year. Others are expected to follow.

Stephen Higgins heads ANZ-Royal Bank, a joint venture between the Australian banking giant and a Cambodian firm.

“Long-term the stock exchange will be a positive for Cambodia," Higgens says. "It will help raise funds for development. It provides a means for private equity firms to exit their investments, which is very important for them when they first decide to invest. But these things are going to take time. Anyone who has a short-term horizon with the stock exchange, they're going to be disappointed.”

Ten years ago only a handful of banks had the ability to dispense cash over the counter. Now there are hundreds of cash machines from around 30 local banks, and some offer electronic payment of utility bills.

“Cambodia is coming from a long way back, in terms of its development generally but including financial services," says ANZ's Higgins. "It's catching up rapidly.”

Despite the changes in the capital, what happens here generally does not affect the 80 percent of Cambodians who live in rural areas. Income inequality has worsened in recent years as economic growth benefited the wealthy more than the poor.

The country's hospitals and health clinics still offer poor quality healthcare; corruption is rampant; and the judiciary is woefully inadequate. Poverty hovers around 30 percent.

But some changes do help: better roads and access to mobile phones, for instance, make a profound difference to the lives of the majority of the country who rely on agriculture for their livelihood. And the government hopes that the improvements that have come to the Phnom Penh will eventually ripple out across the rest of the country.

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