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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Cambodia - Annual report 2007

Prime Minister Hun Sen took a step virtually unprecedented in the region of decriminalising defamation, soon after releasing a jailed radio boss. However threats and law suits continued against journalists investigating corruption.

Mam Sonando, director of radio Sombok Khmum (Ruche FM 105), was freed in January under international pressure, three months after his arrest along with other figures critical of the government. The head of state followed this up with a draft law to decriminalise defamation, which was quickly passed by parliament. This decision made Cambodia one of the very few Asian countries to stop imposing prison sentences for libel or slander. But Hun Sen publicly reminded journalists that they risked heavy fines if they attacked him.

Several suits were entered against journalists under laws inherited from the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) providing for one-year prison sentences for putting out “false news”.

The often partisan press faces competition from Khmer-language news programmes broadcast by international stations such as Radio Free Asia and Radio France International which are very popular in the capital and in the country’s cities.

Threats against journalists who probe corruption among high officials has never stopped. The editor of an opposition bi-weekly, was forced to flee the country after receiving a death threat in June. He had condemned the misdeeds of a nephew of Hun Sen. Five other reporters, including a Radio Free Asia correspondent, were threatened in 2006.

Government interference also extended to television. A news programme due to go out in August on Cambodia Television Network (CTN) was pulled after Hun Sen accused it of putting the country’s reputation in danger. Read more!

Cambodia: A tortured history and unanswered questions

Andre Vltchek

It is hot and dusty. The stale air of the Cambodian capital is heavy with exhaust fumes. Traffic is chaotic. Street children and beggars besiege posh-looking French caf�s on the Sap River; tourists and international workers pretending to lead a normal life by sipping foamy cappuccinos are approached by amputees and men with gangrenous limbs.

A man in his fifties, approaching caf� tables with an extended hand, is missing an entire half of his face. There is a hole instead of his right eye and it serves as base for an enormous infected tumor which covers his entire cheek. Some beggars have no arms and no legs; their families or handlers bring them in the morning to Sisowath Quay, put a big plastic bucket for donations in front of their face on the sidewalk and let them rot in the unbearable tropical heat until the evening. More than 30 years after "Year Zero" and more than a decade after the "return to democracy," Cambodia remains in a league of its own - miserable, corrupt and compassionless.

Only the toughest and the most unscrupulous can "make it" and get ahead. There is hardly any social net to speak of; the savage insanity of the Khmer Rouge has been replaced with savage capitalism, but often with the same people in charge. "Abuse a child in this country and face justice in yours" proclaim large posters on strategic intersections of Phnom Penh; "Sex with children is a crime.

" The notorious "Kilometer 11" - the terrible concentrated area of child prostitution and sex slavery - was raided by Cambodian police several years ago, after international outrage and pressure. But dilapidated shacks packed with under-age girls are popping up all over the capital again, often controlled or at least frequented by officials and police officers who are, at least in theory, supposed to fight the heinous crime of child prostitution. In one of the terrace caf�s frequented by foreign experts, the atmosphere is relatively relaxed.

Men from the U.N. and E.U. drink beer, hand in hand with their local "second wives," unwinding after a tough working day in this chaotic capital. They perform diverse tasks in this country, which used to be marked by some of the worst violence known to humankind. Some are in charge of de-mining the countryside; others attempt to convince locals to turn over the weapons which are still in abundance, one of the reasons for the high crime rate.

Marijuana smoke lazily moves through the humid and stale air. After several years in Cambodia, these experts are tough and cynical - every day is a battle. To achieve anything in this country, one has to bribe and compromise. Polite speech has been fully forgotten; conversations are brutally direct and open. Common clich�s reserved for the public in the U.S. and Europe are targets of ridicule and open scorn at these informal gatherings.

"Khmer Rouge killing more than a million Cambodians? Impossible!" frowns one of the middle-aged Europeans who has been living and working in this country for more than ten years. "They had no capacity to kill so many people. Sure, between one and two million people died between 1969 and 1978, but that number includes 500,000 of those massacred by the U.S. carpet bombing before Khmer Rouge took over.""Most of the people died because of starvation and illnesses," he continues. "Furthermore, terrible massacres did not happen because of the communist ideology of Khmer Rouge.

It was not on that level. U.S. carpet bombing and Lon Nol's brutal dictatorship supported by the West pitched local people against each other. Killings were performed out of vengeance, not on ideological bases. Peasants went insane from enduring B-52 carpet bombings. Many were tortured, massacred and disappeared during Lon Nol's reign. Country folks hated city dwellers, blaming them for all misfortunes and horrors they had to endure. And most Khmer Rouge soldiers and cadres came from the countryside."Just half a mile from the caf� and the detached conversations of hardened expats, the Tuol Sleng Museum (Museum of Genocide), based in a former secondary school, speaks to the unbridled brutality and sadism of Khmer Rouge cadres.

No matter how many times one visits this place, it is impossible to stay calm and not feel outrage, sadness and tremendous sympathy for the victims. In an insane attempt to give structure to the savagery, Khmer Rouge documented each case, photographing all men and women detained right after their arrest and before the torture, then taking pictures of some after the savage interrogation.After Vietnam ousted Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh at the end of 1978, this torture center was converted to a "Museum of genocide" by the Vietnamese and East Germans, who were using their experience from setting up Auschwitz Museum in Poland.

They kept interrogation cells (originally classrooms) intact, with blood-stained floors, chains and shackles, as well as primitive machines for electric shocks. Thousands of black and white photographs of inmates eerily stare at visitors, their eyes expressing horror and resignation. One of the classrooms in the notorious secondary school known as "S-21" that was converted into a torture chamber during the Khmer Rouge reign. (Photo: Andre Vltchek)Some of the most terrifying images are those created by Vann Nath, a painter and former prisoner of S-21, one of the very few who managed to survive because of his talent and ability to draw complimenting portraits of Pol Pot and of officials who were in charge of the interrogation center.

After the Vietnamese invasion, Vann Nath transferred the most terrifying memories into canvases; a mosaic depicting the barbarity and insane brutality of interrogators - a mother whose baby is being assassinated in front of her eyes, a man whose nails are being extracted by pliers, a woman having her nipple cut off. But even Van Nath, in a conversation we had almost ten years ago, claims that Khmer Rouge killed around 200,000 people during its reign, a number which he also uses in his book "A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21" (White Lotus Press).

And among Khmer survivors, there is a consensus that the majority of people died not because of Communist ideology and not because of direct orders from Phnom Penh to exterminate millions, but because of the officers and local cadres in the provinces who ran amok, taking their personal vengeance on deported city-dwellers and "elites" whom they blamed for both the savage American bombing from the past, and for supporting the corrupt and savage pro-Western dictatorship of Lon Nol. There can be no doubt that the great majority of those who died during the Khmer Rouge dictatorship (between one and two million people) were victims of famines, lack of medical care and despicable living conditions.

A substantial number vanished as a result of the U.S. carpet bombing, a fact rarely mentioned in the mainstream Western media. The U.S. Air Force had been secretly bombing Cambodia using B-52s since May 1969. Facing defeat in Vietnam in 1973, savage carpet bombing began in order to support Lon Nol's regime. Historian David P. Chandler writes:When the campaign was stopped by the U.S. Congress at the end of the year, the B-52s had dropped over half of a million tons of bombs on a country with which the United States was not at war - more than twice the tonnage dropped on Japan during WWII.

The war in Cambodia was known as "the sideshow" by journalists covering the war in Vietnam and by American policy-makers in London. Yet the intensity of U.S. bombing in Cambodia was greater than it ever was in Vietnam; about 500,000 soldiers and civilians were killed over the 4-year period. It also caused about 2 million refugees to flee from the countryside to the capital.Like in Laos, tens of thousands of men, women and children lost their lives and limbs as a result of unexploded bombs and mines. The savagery of the bombardment, the displacement of millions of people, and resentment towards the corrupt pro-Western regime in Phnom Penh paved the way for Khmer Rouge's victory and the campaign of savage vengeance.

Choeung Ek, just a few miles south of Phnom Penh, was the execution ground now also known as the "Killing Fields." It is believed that around 40,000 Cambodians were murdered here, most by blows to the back of the head to save ammunition. The entire site is now filled with homeless children - as young as five - stalking visitors, begging for money or making outrageous sexual advances. Oblivious or indifferent towards the past, they grew up in this new and "democratic" Cambodia. Their only goal in the uncertain and brutal world is to feed themselves, and to survive by any means. It is not easy to find answers in Phnom Penh. Everything is politicized here; clich�s and fabrications are passed on as truth.

This is my fifth working visit to Cambodia. Each time I came here I realized that answers to my uncomfortable questions could be found only outside the capital. I hire a sturdy car and recommended driver and translator in one person, and we head south on Route 3, leaving this crowded and dangerous artery, going further south on 31 as far as it takes us, then turning left, towards Vietnam. This is not the main border crossing, not even a crossing which foreigners are allowed to use. There is no asphalt road here, just a dirt path with deep potholes, surrounded by rice fields, miserable villages and water buffaloes. Ours is the only car passing in this area; locals are walking or riding ancient bicycles. It is raining and the bottom of the car is scraping against the sand.

My driver is swearing, having no idea what we are doing in this godforsaken place. Then we come to the end; a lazy river, dormant town, the last border checkpoint with a sleeping guard - Prek Kres. Just a few yards further begin the houses of the first village in Vietnam. This is where the first skirmishes between Khmer Rouge and Vietnam began, and one of the points where the Vietnamese army invaded, most definitely saving further millions of Cambodian people from certain death. But this action was seen by the West as an invasion and occupation. The U.S. condemned Vietnam, demanding an immediate withdrawal of its troops and a return of the legitimate government - meaning Khmer Rouge - to power.

In the Cold War climate and from the point of view of its geopolitical interests, it was more acceptable for the U.S. to sacrifice further millions of Cambodian lives than to allow Vietnamese influence in the region. I have no problem finding Mr. Sek Cuuin, a mayor of Prek Kres. We sit down at the outdoor table of his house and he seems to be happy to share his memories with the strangers."This huge puddle which you see in the middle of the road is what remains of the U.S. carpet bombing", he explains. "We filled the hole, but when it rains, there is still a puddle there, I don't know why.

This area was heavily bombed during the war, by B-52s. If you enter the fields, you will see small lakes all over. It's what happens during the heavy rains. These lakes are bomb craters." We walk around the village. Barefoot children are staring at us. People are gathering, wondering what brought us here. Makeshift vehicles are parked next to the primitive jetty where a traditional merchant boat is being unloaded."There were always conflicts here," explains the mayor. "There were border skirmishes during Lon Nol's regime and after, when Khmer Rouge took over in 1975. We had 700 families living in this town; 400 were forcefully relocated. When Khmer Rouge entered, I just jumped into the river and swam for my life.

Most of the remaining 300 families tried to escape to Vietnam, and Prek Kres became a ghost town - an outpost for Khmer Rouge's army which began attacking Vietnamese villages across the border." I ask him about the Vietnamese Christmas offensive in 1978."The Vietnamese army crossed this border in 1979. No matter what they say now, almost everybody was happy, welcoming their troops. Those who survived and stayed in this town simply lined along the road, waved at Vietnamese soldiers and cried.

The entire area - entire country - was ravished; destroyed by Khmer Rouge and earlier by the U.S. bombing. Vietnamese saved this nation from complete annihilation. And when they took Phnom Penh, it was obvious that the mass killing and torture would stop. But you know what happened later; gratitude evaporated and nationalism gained ground. And the foreign countries insisted that this was not a liberation but an occupation. But you can ask anybody, except members of Khmer Rouge, how they felt in 1978 and 1979 - we felt liberated, we were saved and we suddenly realized that we might survive."I ask the mayor how he would compare Vietnam and Cambodia now.

After all, on paper, Cambodia is a success story, a multi-party democracy. He grins sarcastically."Yes, now we have many political parties. But you can't eat political parties; they don't fill your stomach. Everything here is corrupt. The Vietnamese government managed to give a much better life to its people. Especially to poor people, and in this part of the world almost everybody is poor. All I can tell you is that when we are hungry and when we are sick, we don't go to Phnom Penh; we cross the border and go to Vietnam.

They know we are Khmers but they don't care; they help us. They believe - over there - that if you are hungry or sick, you have to be helped, no matter what is your nationality. People there have a big heart."It is getting dark. I wish I could stay longer, but my flight to Bangkok is leaving early in the morning. We drive in silence, almost all the way to Phnom Penh. Leaving Prek Kres I pay closer attention to the craters on the road and in the rice fields. Almost all of the answers regarding recent history of this tortured nation can be found here, in this remote corner tucked between Cambodia and Vietnam.

But there seems to be not many who are willing to search for uncomfortable answers. (Andre Vltchek is a novelist, journalist, and filmmaker who has traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia. This article, along with others featuring his personal experiences while journeying in the region, will be published in an up-coming book, "American Asia.")

ZNet online Read more!

Nearly 500 Children Jailed In Cambodia

1, 2007 10:53 a.m. EST
Komfie Manalo - All Headline News Correspondent

Phnom Penh, Cambodia (AHN) - Cambodian rights group Licadho on Wednesday revealed fresh statistics from the country's prison system that show almost 500 children under the age of 18 are currently languishing in Cambodia's overcrowded prisons. The group said the child detainees were deprived of their basic needs and subject to physical and sexual abuse.

The report was compiled by Licadho in cooperation with the Cambodian Defenders Project and the Danish charity DanChurchAid. It said the exact number of children in various prisons in the country totaled 452, nearly double the figure in 2001.

There were also 37 children under the age of six, as well as 22 infants, living with their incarcerated mothers, where their basic needs are being ignored, the group said.

Licadho said in its report, "Children who are currently living in prison lack nutrition, provisions and education vital for proper development. In addition, children are subjected to physical dangers when housed with offenders who have committed serious crimes and are also at risk of mistreatment by the guards."

The report, a result of a four-month survey, comments on widespread undernourishment, corruption and sexual or physical abuse inside the prison system.

"Sexual assaults are likely to be seriously underreported, due to coercion, feelings of shame and other psychological factors," the report said.

"The possibility of sexual assault, rape or other physical abuse remains high, particularly in prisons where women are guarded by men."

Prisoners were only given an estimated 38 U.S. cents per day for their medical and food requirements. This minimal amount has resulted in a rising number of prison deaths, which doubled in 2005, the group said. Read more!

Peace Corps makes first trip to Cambodia

Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO - Thirty young Peace Corps volunteers headed to Cambodia on Wednesday, marking the 45-year-old service organization's first program in the rapidly growing country.

The program was launched at the invitation of the Cambodian government, which was interested in volunteers who could teach English and support local instructors.

''English is essential,'' said Meng Eang Nay, of the Royal Embassy of Cambodia in Washington, D.C. ''It's important for people to find jobs, particularly in the private sector.''

The volunteers will also increase awareness of HIV/AIDS prevention and hope to branch out into other areas of need, like agricultural infrastructure development, he said.

Cambodia was listed as one of 12 ''hunger hot spots'' where the situation was ''extremely alarming'' in the 2006 Global Hunger Index of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

The United Nations' World Food Program appealed for $10 million earlier this month to distribute food to about 1.1 million Cambodians in need.

Following an initial cultural training period, the recent college graduates will fan out into the Cambodian countryside and provincial towns, where they will live with host families, said Nathan Hale Sargent, spokesman for the Peace Corps in San Francisco.

Waiting to board their flight from San Francisco to Phnom Penh, some volunteers said they were aware of the comforts they were leaving behind.

''I took a hot shower this morning and knew it would be the last time in a while,'' said Jason Park, 22, from Totowa, N.J.

The volunteers said they were cognizant of the added responsibility that comes with being the first Peace Corps delegation to set up shop in a new country.

''There's a bit of trepidation because we're not sure exactly what to expect,'' Park said. ''But there's a lot of excitement and anticipation that's been building up for months.''

Some began learning Khmer in preparation for their trip. Emi Caitlin Ishigooka, from Long Beach, reached out to the area's large Cambodian community to find a tutor.

Kara and Sam Snyder, a married couple from Rochester, N.Y., also learned the basic of the language before emabrking on the 27-month commitment.

''Were feeling a lot of pressure since we'll be the first group there,'' said Kara Snyder, 22.
The volunteers join a large body of Peace Corps workers worldwide. Cambodia is the 139th country to partner with the Peace Corps, and the service organization has about 7500 volunteers currently serving in 73 countries. The last country added before Cambodia was Mexico, in 2004. Read more!