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Friday, February 23, 2007

Cambodia's poor scavenge unexploded ordnance

SEP VILLAGE, Cambodia (AP) -- Cambodians mark February 24 as Land Mine Awareness Day, a grim reminder of their country's war-torn past but a symbol of hope for fighting a deadly scourge.

Meetings and speeches were set for Saturday to drive home the message that, although the country's decades of war and civil conflict ended eight years ago, their brutal legacy remains in the form of land mines and unexploded ordnance, or UXO.

For at least several hundred poverty-beset Cambodian villagers, however, that legacy represents a livelihood.

Armed with homemade metal detectors, they risk injury and death to comb rice fields and hillsides -- some littered with mines or bombs -- for pieces of scrap metal they can sell.

An estimated 4 million to 6 million mines and other pieces of unexploded ordnance remain buried in Cambodia. Land Mine Awareness Day was established in 2000 to highlight the problem.

Mines killed or maimed at least 418 people last year, according to Khem Sophoan, director general of the government's land mine clearing agency, the Cambodian Mine Action Center or CMAC.

The Land Mine Risk/UXO Risk Education project of the Cambodian Red Cross hopes to reduce the number of victims to 200 by 2010, and to zero by 2012.

But good intentions cannot overcome the lack of economic opportunities that drives men like Chong Nhep, 29, to hunt for this dangerous buried treasure with a metal detector and a hoe.
Watching him work is unnerving. Alerted by the detector, he digs with his hoe and finds the broken tail of a mortar shell.

Picking it up with his bare hand, he tosses it into his bag and calmly carries on scanning the ground.

"I usually don't know if it is a land mine, bomb or unexploded ordnance," he said. "But one thing I am sure of is there must be some metal."

If lucky, he said, he can collect 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of scrap metal a day; on a bad day he might fetch 2 kilograms (4 pounds).

One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of scrap steel sells for 1,000 riel (US$0.25; euro0.20), but aluminum and bronze pieces fetch 3,000 riel (US$0.75; euro0.60) and 5,000 riel (US$1.2; euro0.90) respectively.

"This is a very dangerous occupation that we have constantly tried to prevent," said CMAC's Khem Sophoan. He said scavengers often try to evade authorities.

Nonetheless, a cottage industry has developed to produce metal detectors.

At Sep village, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) north of the capital, Phnom Penh, 35-year-old Sem Seng has turned his radio repair shop into a lucrative business by making the detectors. He has sold about 300 in the past four years.

"I first did not know how to make (metal detectors), until one day a scavenger brought a broken detector to my shop and asked me to fix it," he said, sitting by a wooden desk strewn with radio parts and repair tools.

Wearing only a loincloth over his underpants, he spoke without taking his eyes off a detector he was assembling.

"In this area, I am the only person who can produce it," he said.

A detector is made of locally available material, including used radio parts. It consists of a plastic handle connected to an aluminum hoop, which is wired to a transmitter box. The box is attached to an amplifier that sends a signal to a headphone.

It runs on four flashlight batteries and sells for about 100,000 riel (US$25; euro19).

Khem Sophoan said that such business is illegal, and that local authorities have been asked to crack down on it.

Sem Seng said police regularly visit his shop -- but only to collect payoffs to turn a blind eye to his business.

"As long as the people still collect scrap metal, I still keep the production going because there are a lot of poor people, and their job is collecting metal," he said.

Chong Nhep, the scrap hunter, said police used to confiscate his detector but would return it for a bribe of 50,000 riel (US$12; euro9).

At a nearby village, Hap Mat, 38, recalled how he had been scavenging in 2003, when his hoe hit a bomb fuse and triggered an explosion.

He was wounded in his right arm and thigh. A friend nearby was wounded in the abdomen, while another lost sight in one eye and had to have one of his arms amputated.

"Since that day I swore with my life that I will never scavenge for metal again," Hap Mat said.
Still, the potential rewards remain hard to resist.

"I don't think I can find another better job than to be a scrap metal collector," said father of four Chuk Sok Khoy, 28.

Without any safety measures or protective gear, he asks a spirit to safeguard him each morning before he goes scavenging.

One day about three years ago, he thought his lucky day had arrived when his detector emitted a particularly strong signal.

"I thought I found a huge treasure. But after I dug it up, I saw a very big B-52 bomb," he said. Disappointed, he walked away from the find.
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Equity News back for Cambodia's commune councils election

The Equity News Elections Bulletin, a joint UNDP-TVK project, is retuning to state television and radio for the run-up to the commune councils elections to climax on April 1, said a press release on Friday.

The 15-minute Equity News program will provide coverage of political parties and platforms and follow campaign activities in a wide range of communes throughout the country, said the release jointly issued by Ministry of Information and the UNDP.

It will be broadcast every evening at 07:30 p.m. local time after the regular TVK news on weekdays with a summary edition on Saturdays during the campaign period from March 16 to 30, it said.

Equity News will also resume during the campaign period for the National Elections in 2008, it added.

To mark its return, a ceremony for the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding by Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith and UNDP Program Director Anne-Isabelle Degryse-Blateau in the presence of the UN Resident Coordinator Douglas Gardner will be held at the Ministry of Information on Monday (February 26).

In 2003, during the parliamentary elections, Equity News was seen as a breakthrough in Cambodian election broadcasting. It was the first time that all main political parties received balanced and impartial coverage on television and radio.

It was also the first time that opposition leaders were both seen and heard on the news explaining their platforms and that the concept of equity was employed as a system of allocating air time coverage for political parties on the electronic media.

Source: Xinhua Read more!

Over 100,000 candidates to join Cambodia's commune councils election

The Cambodian National Election Council (NEC) announced on Friday that 102,266 candidates from 12 political parties will compete in the 2007 commune councils election.

The ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), the co-ruling Funcinpec Party and the Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP), each with over 20,000 candidates, are the four major parties to compete in the provinces and the municipalities, according to a press release issued by the NEC.

The CPP, with 26,600 candidates, or the most among the 12 parties, is to compete in all 1,621 communes, the press release said.

Meanwhile, the SRP with 24,870 candidates is to compete in 1, 596 communes, Funcinpec with 21,791 candidates in 1,460 communes, and NRP with 22,169 candidates in 1,431 communes, it added.

In addition to the four major parties, eight other parties with hundreds of candidates each will just compete in parts of the communes.

They are the Khmer Democratic Party, Sangkum Jatiniyum Front Party, League for Democracy Party, Hang Dara Democratic Movement Party, Khmer National Party, Democratic Society Party, United People of Cambodia Party and Cambodian Progress Party, according to the press release.

The process of the 2007 commune councils election started on September 21, 2006, and will end on May 23, 2007. Final results will get published on April 1.

Source: Xinhua Read more!

New World mysteries test Cambodia's lost tribe

LY KAMON clears his land with a stubby bush scythe, diligently felling the jungle he once used as a shield to hide from Vietnamese soldiers.

It has been two years since he and a tribe of 33 others emerged from 25 years of hiding in the jungles of north-east Cambodia to find that the Vietnamese no longer ruled the country. They had left 15 years earlier.

Mr Kamon came home to a world he did not recognise, a world of mobile phones, bottled water and cars. He thought that coming home would mean he could finally stop running, but it didn't turn out that way. Mr Kamon is running, to catch up, and it is proving harder than he thought.

"Life in the village is better, we have food to support our children. In the jungle, the children were going hungry," Mr Kamon, 42, a father of seven, told The Age at the bamboo worker's shack on his small plot. Later, he admitted that while life had improved, his family still did not have enough. "One small thing makes me worried — the food shortage," he said.

He is also discovering that the seductive new world of technology has its limits. When we met two years ago, he proudly showed off a gold wristwatch his parents had just given him.

He laughs and shrugs when asked about it now. "It broke," he said.

His wife, Banyao At, sitting bare-breasted, has no regrets about their return — relishing the food and the company. Her children crowd around to look at an Age newspaper clipping titled The Lost Tribe documenting their return to the village. They point themselves out in the picture.

Still wearing the Khmer Rouge bob hairstyle she had then, she says: "In the jungle it was difficult to grow vegetables. In the village we have neighbours. In the jungle all you could see was the jungle all around you. I had a small farm but it was difficult to find food and especially ingredients for cooking."

"Life is happier now."

But the couple feel a little cheated by their years in the jungle. In 1979, they were part of a group of 100 villagers who ran to the forests as the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed, told they would be tortured and killed by the invading Vietnamese army.

For 10 years, they cleared land and lived in the forest. Then the Vietnamese discovered their hiding place and, suspecting they were a rump of Khmer Rouge forces, surrounded the village.
The community split up. Mr Kamon joined a group of 12 — four couples, each with a small child — and moved into the dragon's tail, an arrow of Cambodian territory bounded by Laos and Vietnam. All they took with them was a small tin of rice, herbs and vegetable seeds.

Using their subsistence farming skills, they built a new life in the jungle. They had one machete, a cooking pot for each couple and woven back baskets. In the next 15 years, the group grew to 34, their children married and had children of their own, only one older man died.

When news of the tribe's extraordinary survival emerged two years ago, the world's media came calling. Their story was featured in Paris Match and Marie Claire and on the front page of The Age.

At first there was help. The group, made up of ethnic Kreung and Tom Puon people, was warmly received by local and international authorities. Their old villages gave each family a small plot of communal land to farm. The Ratanakiri provincial governor gave each family a tonne of rice to help them through the first year.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees helped with housing and everyone got a medical screening. Mr Kamon says he built his one-room wooden house in Krala village with $A380 given to him by a European magazine for an interview.

But the media caravan moved on, and there was no more assistance from provincial authorities. Mr Kamon and his family were left to find their own feet.

Chung Ravuth, the UNHCR's senior field officer in Phnom Penh, says the families were given rice and housing, "but we only gave once. We don't have a program for them any more, they were welcomed by their local community. There is no ongoing special assistance, they were provided land by their local communities."

Krala village, a traditional Kreung community, has given Mr Kamon one hectare of land each year to clear and cultivate. Each day he and his wife hack away at the forest and tend the young cashew nut trees they have planted. They will not bear nuts for five years. Below the trees are sparse clumps of wild rice.

Everywhere in Ratanakiri, villagers are moving from subsistence crops to cash crops such as cashew nuts, increasing their chances of making money but also exposing themselves to the whims of markets they do not understand.

Inside Mr Kamon's home there is no light, no bed, no chair, and not enough to eat. "My farm is very large. I grow rice but I (only) get a little bit because my rice is not growing well," he says of the rough ridge top he was given to cultivate. "No one gives me any food. I won't get food unless I am working for them."

The story is similar for a Tom Puon family from the lost tribe, now living in Loet village, an hour to the east. The two families are related by jungle marriage. Mr Kamon's daughter married the son of Ting Luong.

Ting Luong has also received a hectare of land each year from his village. He works it in the burning midday sun, dressed in a black, long-sleeved polyester shirt and rough cotton pants. "I can find clothes to wear here, in the jungle we used the leaves of trees," Mr Luong says.

"Here you can find food. In the jungle we hunted deer, monkey, wild pig, but we had no salt or ingredients for cooking. Here we have beef and pig but also the ingredients for cooking — salt, seasoning and chilli."

Mr Luong's return to his village was tempered by loss. His youngest child died soon after birth, in their last days in the jungle. His wife died within a month of emerging from the forest. He says she ate something bad in the forest, but health authorities diagnosed her with malaria.

His daughter, Ting Khem, looks careworn at 20. She was born in the jungle and had the first of her two children there.

"My life is still difficult. It is getting better than the jungle and for the children I can grow rice and cashews, but it is still not enough. We don't have enough," she says as her 2½-year-old son wails on her back.

"I was born in the jungle and I didn't go to school, but I am willing to send my children to school."

There are village schools but the young ones in both families are helping their parents in the field.

The world's fascination with lost tribes continues. Last month, a new "jungle girl" emerged who had allegedly survived 19 years in the wilderness since she disappeared as an eight-year-old. The international media again trekked up the red dirt tracks of Ratanakiri, bypassing Mr Kamon's village for the new phenomenon.

But this jungle girl was less convincing. The callous-free soles of her feet raised doubts about how long she would have spent barefoot in the jungle.

Mr Kamon spent 25 years in the jungle. "I feel very sorry because I was lied to by someone (his community chief under the Khmer Rouge). I was told that if I came back to the village I would be tortured," he said. "I feel angry and so sad that someone would lie to me to make me live in the jungle for so long."

When they emerged from the jungle, the tribe talked about the tyre tracks they saw and wondered about cars. They would always run deeper into the forest if they heard an engine, fearing the Vietnamese. But they dreamed of seeing and riding in a car.

Now, to make a little cash, Mr Kamon sees plenty of cars. He gets occasional work upgrading the dirt track between Krala village and the provincial capital Ban Lung. There is only one car in his village, owned by a family who sold some land. He doubts that he will ever own one. Yet, amid the struggle to fill hungry bellies, there is new joy of Khmer music. In the forest, there was only birdsong. "I listen to music every day, Khmer music on a neighbour's radio," he says. "And the children are very happy to listen to music — they have never heard it before."
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Cambodia responded sharply to Oil policy recommentations by US

Phnom Penh - Cambodia's petroleum authority chief responded sharply to policy recommendations by US ambassador Joseph Mussomeli Friday, saying it was too early to dictate policy when the amount of the resource was still unknown.

In a speech to a high-level economic forum in the capital, Mussomeli recommended seven policy considerations for the government to help it manage its resources when expected oil reserves are tapped in the near future.

'Some countries have made the irritatingly human decision to use the resources to relax fiscal discipline,' Mussomeli warned. 'Like children who never think about the long-term consequences of the choices they make, they act as if the revenue will never stop flowing and they never act responsibly.'

Among the initiatives the US ambassador suggested were improved transparency, improved laws and regulations relating to disclosure and oversight of government revenues, government revenue management policy reviews and a new freedom of information law.

Director-general of the Cambodian National Petroleum Authority Te Duong Tara arrived after the ambassador's speech, saying he had been in a meeting and too busy to attend.

He dismissed concerns about the way Cambodia would handle oil revenues, predicted to be in excess of its entire current national gross domestic product, calling them 'pessimistic.'

'To say 'keep money for this purpose or that purpose' for me is too early. Wait until the money from the oil is here. The fish is not in the boat yet,' he told reporters.

He said Cambodia realized it had little experience in this area but had reached out to other, more seasoned players to learn from their human resources and marketing experience.

Tara added that Cambodia had studied the experiences of countries such as Angola and Nigeria and learned from them. Angola, he said, made the mistake of marketing by themselves and Nigeria had made errors because it did not know how to market.

Cambodia was ready for the challenge of oil revenue and would not squander the opportunity, he said.

'We have been a poor country, so now we really do not want to destroy our own money,' he said.
Cambodia has so far not begun full-scale drilling and is judging its oil reserves on exploratory wells from a number of companies including US giant Chevron. However, it has been predicted the reserves are significant and could reverse the country's current heavy dependence on aid.
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