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Monday, December 11, 2006

Classy and tacky clash in Cambodia's Phnom Penh by John Bordsen

McClatchy Newspapers(MCT)

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.
Ashley Macpherson, 44, has lived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, for nine months. She is a native of Zambia with a background in clinical psychology. Macpherson works for a Cambodian-based nongovernmental organization, building a native staff that can better deliver services to rural Khmers with psychosocial problems.
Q. Can you describe your neighborhood?
A. I live in what could be described as the "embassy block"; my neighbors are ambassadors and actual embassies. Interspersed with these are homes of wealthy Khmer who live in enormous, three-story homes and invariably rent out two of the floors to foreigners.
I am centrally located and can walk to the Mekong riverside, the palace, the shops and markets. The market is one block away and is a typical Khmer market that sells fruit, vegetables and meat. I get all my supplies there as well as bits and pieces to fix motorbikes and things around the home. There are also two supermarkets one block away, and one street up is a "Barang street"_"foreigner street"_that has cafes, bars, restaurants and boutiques.
Despite living a few houses away from one on the largest roads in the city, my house is extremely quiet, and I have a wonderful, leafy view, thanks to the green thumb of my Khmer landlady.
Q. What does Phnom Penh look like?
A. Phnom Penh is, along with Hanoi, (Vietnam) a very beautiful city if you can look through the dust and chaos. The architecture is fascinating, and there are examples of wonderful early Khmer architecture, French colonial villas, and large 1960s French and French-inspired Khmer designs that make for interesting viewing.
Unfortunately there is also a proliferation of tacky blue glass, shiny marble and what are known as "wedding cake" buildings.
The streets are swept regularly because there are no garbage cans and people are in the habit of throwing everything on the ground. Your view of how clean the city is is often determined by how soon before a sweeper is along that route.
There is surprisingly little pollution, but dust and exhaust fumes are bad.
Q. I've heard Phnom Penh is hot year round. Does it feel tropical?
A. It is unbelievably hot. That's the one thing that makes me want to leave. There is usually no breeze.
In the rainy season, which is now, the temperatures are usually between 82 and 91 Fahrenheit.
Most Khmer shower at least three times a day to cool down.
Q. Phnom Penh is where several rivers join the Mekong. Is it a river-oriented place? Are there parks and such along the river? Are there floods?
A. There is a park opposite the royal palace and every Saturday and Sunday evening it is packed with families, eating from street stalls and relaxing. The river has a mixture of tourist locales, businesses and private land. There is often flooding, but that is largely caused by heavy downpours, poor drainage_as well as garbage blocking drainage - and drainage points being filled by developers.
Q. We also hear about an influx of tourism and business - and corruption. Do you feel safe?
A. As a foreigner, I think Phnom Penh is an extremely safe city. It is so much more organized than I could ever have imagined, and I do feel very safe.
Phnom Penh itself has people living on the streets, but the poverty is more on the outskirts and in rural areas. Towns and villages not too far from Phnom Penh are a world apart - no running water or electricity, schools without teachers, clinics without doctors and with little work.
Corruption is the main issue here and it is endemic. Nowhere is "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer" truer than here. Corruption and nepotism are resulting in vast sums - donated and generated money - being siphoned into back pockets.
I was surprised by the number of huge black cars driven by "neak thom" - "big people"; fat cats - who do not give a damn about anyone.
Q. Cambodia was a monarchy, a republic, a rogue communist state, a republic, then a monarchy again. What do Khmer people seem to make of all this coming full circle?
A. People do seem to respect the king and the monarchy, but they are figureheads and represent the glorious past. The royal family has some interesting stories attached to them.
The Khmer Rouge tribunal is in its initial stages, and there are many mixed feelings about it. It will only bring to trial a handful of the Khmer Rouge leaders, and is costing huge sums. So there is lots of debate about whether it is a good or necessary thing that will allow people to move forward from their traumatic past.
Q. I've read that the Festival of Boat Racing is a big fall event. What's that about?
A. Om Tuk - which translates as "Water Festival" - recently finished. It is to mark when the Mekong reverses its flow at the end of the rainy season; about 1.5 million people from all over Cambodia come to participate in dragon-boat racing. The festival is exciting, fun, peaceful and far less chaotic than I anticipated, despite the huge crowds.
Q. It's said that 60 percent of visitors come to Cambodia because of the famous ruins of the religious monument Angkor Wat, but the beaches on the coast, around Sihanoukville, are also a draw. What's the seaside like?
A. It's true that most people come to Angkor, do not go anywhere else, and leave.
Sihanoukville is not my favorite place. It seems to attract backpackers because it has drinks and drugs and nice beaches. Sadly, it also attracts less savory tourists for sex tourism.
I prefer Kep, which was the beach resort for rich Khmers in the `60s. It has some wonderful falling-down or destroyed houses. Despite the beach being unexceptional, the bush-walking and tranquility are great. There is a more family feel. Kep is not about satisfying tourists, so there is a more laid back feel to it.
Q. What's the one biggest surprise about Phnom Penh?
A. How easy life is for expats. You can get anything you want or need. There is an efficient power supply: I have broadband and cable TV at home. There are restaurants from so many nations it would make the average European city blush.
Q. What's offered in restaurants as Cambodian food?
A. Many Khmer in the United States seem to be in Long Beach, Calif., and there are many restaurants here called Long Beach.
Rice is the staple diet. The food here is a mixture of Thai and Vietnamese but not as spicy or hot, and probably not as interesting. There are still some good tasty dishes. Fish sauce is used in most dishes, and pork is probably the most popular meat - it's the best pork I have eaten in my life. The pork is fresh and raised on "normal" garbage and some unmentionables as well, probably, but it is so delicious.
--- Read more!

Cambodia Marks 450 years of Church's presence

Date: 2006-12-1o

3,000 People Gather for Closing Mass.

KOMPONG CHAM, Cambodia, DEC. 10, 2006 (Zenit.org).- At least 3,000 Cambodian Catholics gathered to celebrate the closing of the jubilee celebrations to mark the 450 years of the Church's presence in their country, reported Fides. The Vatican agency said that a solemn Eucharistic concelebration marking the milestone was presided over Dec. 3 by the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Salvatore Pennacchio. For the occasion, Benedict XVI relayed his apostolic blessing. And Cardinal Ivan Dias, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, recalled in a message that the history of the Church in Cambodia "after the period of harsh trials, can be compared to that of the early Church in Jerusalem and Rome." The place chosen for the anniversary celebration is symbolic: Here the first Cambodian bishop died of hardship under the Khmer Rouge regime in 1976. Amid the rice fields, off the tourist track, thousands of Christians praised the Lord on the First Sunday of Advent. "Although the Good News reached Cambodia late," said Cardinal Dias, "this delay must not be considered discrimination with regard to the people of Cambodia, but rather a motive for gratitude for the infinite goodness of God, who takes on workers for his vineyard at all hours of the day and treats the first and the last with the same benevolence." Cambodia's 25,000 Catholics are a small flock amid the country's 14 million inhabitants. Not long ago a Catholic community of 200 Cambodians was found in the north of the country, in an area only accessible by boat. During more than 30 years of isolation due to war, these Catholics persevered in prayer, without even the possibility of seeing a priest. Predating the French Christianity is regarded by many Cambodians, and also by the public administration, as a foreign religion imported by the French during their Protectorate (1863-1953) or by the United Nations during APRONUC's mandate for the re-establishment of peace (1992-1995). However, the Catholic Church had been present in Cambodia long before the French colonization. Last Sept. 19 a group of 28 Christians, some pastors, a priest, a nun and the faithful of the city of Kompong Cham began to visit key places connected with the birth of the Catholic Church in Cambodia. They visited Longvek, the kingdom's capital from 1515 to 1594, where Father Gaspard De Cruz, a Portuguese Dominican, presented himself to King Preah Ang Chan's court in 1555. In 1590, King Preah Borom Ricrea granted full religious liberty to the Christian religion. Converted Mandarins did not lose their privileges and owners did not have the right to hinder their slaves from practicing their faith. The pilgrims then went to Oudong, the capital from 1610 to 1866, to commemorate the arrival of a group of Japanese Christians who were fleeing from persecution and were granted political asylum around 1610. This asylum was again repeated in 1660 for a group of Indonesian Christians. In the mid-17th century, Vietnamese Catholics sought refuge in great numbers in Cambodia, fleeing from the kings' persecutions. Tests of fidelity One of the pilgrims continued to relate historical background: "In Prambei Chaom, around the tomb of Monsignor Piguel, the first apostolic vicar of Cambodia, we were able to discuss the different ways of evangelizing, the need to give life to religious congregations or catechists' schools, and to a local clergy. "Monsignor Piguel was dedicated to this mission when the war destroyed everything. Further away, in Ponhea Lu, the foundations of the old church reminded us of the negotiations of King Ang Duong, 1846-1860, assisted by Monsignor Migas, to induce the French to re-establish the kingdom. "We ended our pilgrimage in Phnom Penh's Carmel. Here we recalled the horrors of the 20th century, given that in this parish 515 Vietnamese were massacred by Lon Nol's troops in April 1970. Through sorrows and tests of fidelity, we have been able to admire the work of our predecessors and the bold spread of the Good News on Khmer soil." Read more!

REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Thailand's cynical ploy on Burmese migrant workers

Published on December 11, 2006

Thailand should stop exploiting cheap labour from Burma, Laos and Cambodia. The ethical government of Prime Minister Surayud Chulanond must find ways to provide these workers with reasonable wages and adequate social protection.
This is the single most important thing this government can do to make a difference within a year. But to do so, Surayud must be brave in exposing Thai exploiters - whoever they are - and the system that treats migrant workers as slaves.
Last week, the long-awaited plan to legalise these foreign workers hit a snag when the Rangoon junta insisted that all unregistered Burmese workers must first be sent back to Burma for nationality verification before returning to work legally in Thailand.
On the surface, the plan sounds simple enough, as it provides work permits for migrants to take up unskilled jobs. But upon close scrutiny, this turns out to be a cynical scheme concocted by the Thaksin government and the Burmese junta to help each other.
During Thaksin's last visit to Burma in August, he concluded a memorandum of understanding with General Than Shwe on migrant workers. In it, Thailand agreed to send back illegal Burmese workers for verification of their nationality. These workers would be subject to the control of the Burmese junta, which would issue travel documents to certified workers to return to Thailand.
If this myopic approach is implemented by the Surayud government, it would be tantamount to sending Burmese workers to the gallows. The procedure will enable the junta's supporters, especially those related to the pro-government paramilitary group, the USDA, to dispatch their own members and affiliates to work and spy in Thailand. Fortunately, senior Thai government officials are now having second thoughts on the issue.
Over the years, the Thai industrial sector has exploited and benefited from cheap Burmese labour, paying one-third to one-fifth of the standard wage. Currently, a total of 668,576 illegal workers from Laos, Cambodia and Burma are in Thailand. More than 80 per cent are Burmese. They crossed the border in search of a better life. At a recent policy meeting on foreign labour at Government House, the contentious issue remained unresolved on how to deal with them.
Thaksin's agreement to the scheme demonstrated how gullible he was - and how he was willing to risk the lives of Burmese workers residing in Thailand.
When the ex-junta leader, General Saw Maung came to power, it was former army chief, General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh who went to Rangoon to end the international isolation imposed on Burma following the slaughter of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988. Chavalit returned to Bangkok with fat concessions on fisheries and timber. In exchange, he pushed Burmese migrants in exile in Thailand back across the border. The result was that hundreds of them were either murdered or jailed by the Burmese regime.
Under the disguise of workers' registration, the Burmese generals hope they can further check the number of workers fleeing to Thailand. Almost 70 per cent of the Burmese workers are in fact non-Burmans belonging to various minority groups such as the Karen, Kachin and Shan. If the Thai government pushes these people back, the majority of them will be either detained or executed because of their activities inside Thailand.
Over the past few months, Laos and Cambodia have dispatched officials to Bangkok to register and verify the nationality of their workers. This method proved practical, effective and inexpensive. Now, the registration of Lao and Cambodian workers has been completed. So far, over 10,000 Burmese workers have been registered and granted work permits.
It seems the Surayud government is losing its way in the labyrinth of Thai-Burmese relations. He has followed the Foreign Ministry's guidelines, which aim to win back trust and support from the junta. Knowingly or not, he earlier gave support to the junta by saying the UN Security Council should not be discussing Burma's internal issues.
The Thai government continues to pursue the wrong policy. It's a reminder of the three million Indochinese refugees who took refuge here in the 1970s and 80s. Almost all have been resettled in third countries or have gone home. None expressed gratitude for Thailand's role during that difficult period. Indeed, they do not have reason to do so, because they were treated inhumanely during their transit here.
If Surayud does not change this Burmese policy, it will tarnish both his image and Thailand's reputation. More than the officials like to admit, these Burmese workers will eventually reside and work in Thailand because they work on jobs that Thais refuse to do. The proper way to document these workers is through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and specialised agencies.
It is about time we supported the hard-working Burmese and those who have aspirations for democratic development. Read more!