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Sunday, January 21, 2007

World survey: Thailand 'no longer free'

(, Freedom House)

The year 2006 saw little change in the global state of freedom in the world and the emergence of a series of worrisome trends that present potentially serious threats to the expansion of freedom in the future, Freedom House says in its annual survey of global freedom made available today."Freedom in the World 2007," a survey of worldwide political rights and civil liberties, found that the percentage of countries designated as Free has remained flat for nearly a decade and suggests that a “freedom stagnation” may be developing.

Two countries experienced negative status changes: both Thailand and Congo (Brazzaville) moved from Partly Free to Not Free. Freedom House had condemned the Thailand coup from the beginning. "Along with friends of Thailand everywhere, Freedom House hopes for a speedy return to constitutional rule," it said last year."Thailand has ipso facto ceased to be a democracy.

No matter the rationale - and the restoration of democracy and the end of corruption are frequently cited as justification for coups the world over - no group that gains power through a coup can be accepted as legitimate by democratic governments."Asia experienced the largest proportion of lowered scores in 2006. The dominant development was the military-led coup that ousted Thailand’s democratically elected prime minister.

But other countries previously considered showcases of Asian freedom, including the Philippines and East Timor, also experienced setbacks. In addition, ethnic and religious divisions were a major problem in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Fiji. The region’s most important positive development was Nepal’s climb from Not Free to Partly Free due to the end of direct rule by the king and the return of parliament.Sixteen of Asia’s 39 countries are Free (41 per cent), while 12 are Partly Free (31 per cent) and 11 are Not Free (28 per cent). The continued weakness of democratic institutions—even after holding democratic elections—in a number of countries continues to hamper further progress.

“Although the past 30 years have seen significant gains for political freedom around the world, the number of Free countries has remained largely unchanged since the high point in 1998. Our assessment points to a freedom stagnation that has developed in the last decade,” said Jennifer Windsor, Executive Director of Freedom House, “and should lead to renewed policy attention to addressing the obstacles that are preventing further progress.” Regionally, major findings include a setback for freedom in a number of countries in the Asia-Pacific region, a more modest decline in Africa, and a solidification of authoritarian rule in the majority of countries of the former Soviet Union.

Three countries experienced positive status changes: Guyana moved from Partly Free to Free, and Haiti and Nepal moved from Not Free to Partly Free. Freedom House also noted that the trends reflected the growing pushback against democracy driven by authoritarian regimes, including Russia, Venezuela, China, Iran, and Zimbabwe, threatening to further erode the gains made in the last thirty years. The pushback is targeted at organisations, movements, and media that advocate for the expansion of democratic freedoms. Read more!

Cambodia's `jungle woman' trying to escape

TIRED OF CIVILIZATION: Villagers in Oyadao have turned the family's hut into the must-see attraction, with dozens of locals and journalists stopping by to peer inside.

At their rural home in Oyadao, Rattanak Kiri Province, about 660km north east of Phnom Penh. Cambodia's "jungle woman" seemed to be tiring of civilization and has repeatedly tried to escape back into the wild where she lived for nearly two decades before being discovered last week, her presumed brother said yesterday.

"Last night, she tried some tricks to run back to the jungle," said Rochom Khamphi, who has claimed Rochom P'ngieng as his long-lost older sister.

He said his sister -- who does not speak any intelligible language and only uses hand signals to indicate her basic needs -- indicated she wanted to go outside to relieve herself and then made a break for freedom.

"On the second visit to toilet, she removed her shirt ... and was about to make a move to run," he said.

He said his mother managed to grab her and called out for the rest of the family to help bring her back into the house.

But inside the house, the woman refused to sleep and made several moves toward the front door, Rochom Khamphi, 25, said, adding that the entire family was "sleepless the whole night" because they had to guard her.

Rochom P'ngieng, now believed to be 27, disappeared in the jungle of Rattanakiri Province in Cambodia's northeast while herding water buffaloes when she was 8 years old, according to Sal Lou, who has claimed the woman as his daughter.

Her family says she was found on Jan. 13 walking like a "monkey" out of the jungle. But since then, she continues to mesmerize villagers in Oyadao town, about 70km east of the provincial capital.

Villagers in Oyadao, a town of 100 people, have simply dubbed her "jungle woman" and turned the family's hut into the must-see attraction, with dozens of locals and journalists stopping by to peer inside for a look at her.

Unable to communicate in a language the villagers understand, Rochom P'ngieng's whereabouts the past two decades remain unclear.

Many questions remain about the circumstances of her disappearance and what happened to her, said Mao San, police chief of Oyadao District.

"I suspect there may be a family or someone out there still alive that might have gotten hold of her the whole time," he said on Saturday.

"I still have many questions unanswered," he said. "We would like to have blood taken for DNA testing to ascertain the case. Only by that can we end the suspicion," he added. Read more!

Silent jungle girl poses yet more riddles for Cambodia

Michael Sheridan, Far East Correspondent

THE father sets hot water before his daughter in their wooden shack. She reaches out to touch it. Then she recoils in shock and runs from the room.

After 18 years lost in the jungles of northeast Cambodia, she has forgotten what hot water is, along with all the other rudimentary comforts of peasant life.

This weekend the questions are multiplying about how the girl vanished in 1989, what she endured in the jungle and why she was not found until villagers stood guard to catch a thief last weekend.

Her fear was what struck the first independent eyewitnesses to see her, Yun Samean and Erik Wasson, the reporters who published their first-hand account in yesterday’s Cambodia Daily newspaper.

“She just sat there and stared at us remaining entirely quiet,” said Yun Samean yesterday. “She seemed very frightened.

“She is so afraid of unfamiliar things that when her father boiled water, she reached out to touch it and was so surprised to find it was hot that she ran away to her room.”

The girl has already tried to flee once, tearing off her clothes to rush back into the jungle, said Yun Samean.

She has been living for a week in a village of the Phnong ethnic minority, who inhabit the jungles of northeastern Cambodia, at least 16 hours’ drive from the capital, Phnom Penh.

Although the Phnong follow no organised religion, the family took her to a Buddhist pagoda, where monks sprinkled her with holy water and chanted sutras to calm her spirit.

Now she has become entranced by the family’s collection of DVDs. Like many poor rural Cambodians, they have enough money for an electrical generator and a DVD player.

She is trying to get used to life among the family that has claimed her as their long-lost daughter and spends her days and nights watching the films or sitting glassy-eyed while curious locals come to stare at her.

They attribute the girl’s loss of speech and traumatised behaviour to 18 years as the companion of a jungle spirit who has now abandoned her.

There is a mystery over the figure of a wild, ragged man with glaring eyes and a sword, who fled into the jungle when the girl was found. Some villagers say he was the spirit. And there is a further enigma over the fate of the girl’s sister, who vanished on the same day in 1989.

Police, social workers and members of the extended village family are bemused by the woman’s reappearance and there is as much confusion over her future as her past.

The girl’s name is Rocham Phoeung, now 28, and her missing sister was called Rocham Boeung, according to the man who says he is their father, local policeman Sar Yo, 45.

“She was naked and walking in a bending-forward position like a monkey, exactly like a monkey. She was bare-bones skinny,” he said.

But he checked her right arm. There he found a scar, just as his daughter had from an accident with a knife before she disappeared: “She looked terrible, but despite all that, she is my child.”

Rochom Khamphi, 25, her brother, said: “I saw the scar right away and I knew that she is my sister. Then tears just rolled from my eyes. That’s the proof. I remember it very clearly — I’m not making it up, because I was the one who caused the injury.”

The villagers told how they had been pestered in recent months by a strange thief, who stole food from rations left by workers around a small sawmill on the fringe of the forest.

The sawmill workers lay in wait last Saturday morning. To their amazement, a naked, dirty woman came out of the undergrowth on all fours, like a big cat. She was followed by an unkempt, straggle-haired man, also naked, who had a sword in his hand. The two parties stared at each other in mutual terror.

“The villagers told us they were very frightened because the man had great wide glaring eyes,” said Yun Samean.

Recovering their wits, the villagers chased the pair but the man vanished. They surrounded the girl and brought her to the nearest settlement, a village called O’Yadaw.

“The family told us they recognised her at once,” said Yun Samean, “and I could see that she has a strong resemblance to her sister and her mother.”

The mother, Rocham Soy, 41, told him: “This is my daughter, I am sure of it.” She now yearns to know what became of her other missing daughter.

The family have consented to medical tests to establish their relationship but they face a dilemma. Rocham Phoeung cannot communicate in any tongue and can shed no light on what befell her sister or what happened to her in the jungle.

She appears relatively normal after a week in which she was bathed, given a haircut and provided with ordinary Cambodian clothes. But the reporters noted a thick weal above her left wrist, suggesting she may have been tied up for long periods.

The local police, who are as fearful of ghosts and spirits as most Cambodians, have declined to go into the jungle in pursuit of the fugitive wild man.

Rocham Phoeung’s family hope she can learn to speak again, that she may get psychological help and go back to school, 18 years late.
Read more!