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Sunday, February 25, 2007

In Cambodia, art, hardship ebb and flow

By Christopher Smart
The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated:02/24/2007 10:06:08 AM MST

Southeast Asia In the final installment of a three-part package detailing his trip to Southeast Asia, Tribune reporter Christopher Smart visits Siem Reap, Cambodia.

SIEM REAP, Cambodia - Lounging at a sidewalk café in Siem Reap, a tropical city of about 100,000, it's hard to equate the Cambodian people with either the Khmer dynasties that built the temples at Angkor Wat or the murderous Khmer Rouge that sought to destroy every aspect of this society.

Cambodia is a place of wonder and horror.
The ancient temples of Angkor are among the man-made Seven Wonders of World, and stand today as monuments to the Khmer dynasties that date back to the ninth century.

You can wander through these giant sandstone marvels for hours, days even, awed by their architecture and mystified by their unending passages and their Hindu- and Buddhist-inspired stone carvings.

And, of course, this country of 13 million, tucked between Thailand and Vietnam, was home to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge - authors of the Killing Fields and other atrocities of the 1970s that claimed 2 million Cambodian lives. If you have a mind to, you can visit the Killing Fields. Many visitors do.

This little country is still trying to shake off the aftermath of armed conflicts that - one after another - swept through here for a decade, during and after U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

Cambodia is beautiful, but poverty-stricken. Next to Myanmar (Burma), it's the poorest country in Southeast Asia, despite the tourism boom around Siem Reap. The casual observer might reach the conclusion that if these people didn't have coconuts and landmines, they wouldn't have much of anything.

But a closer look reveals an undying spirit, and it keeps Cambodians smiling through each day. Maybe it's their belief in Buddhism, which instructs life is defined by suffering. Or perhaps it's a sense of their magnificent history. Whatever the reason, it's difficult not to be captivated by these polite people who wear quiet dignity in the face of sobering hardships.

Among the pleasures of traveling through Southeast Asia is staying at small, locally owned hotels. In these pensions, travelers are adopted as if they are special house guests. Visitors get a close view of the people and their culture than they might at large resort hotels springing up near Angkor Wat.

At the little place where I stayed, a pretty, young woman behind the desk greeted me enthusiastically. "Good morning, Mista," she offered with a big smile. "How you today?" Now that's the way to start a day.

In the evening along restaurant row in the Old French Quarter, you might bump into a couple of young Dutch women trekking across Asia. At a sidewalk table, you could buy them cold Angkor Beer for 25 cents a glass and fill the tropical night with laughter under a shimmering Cambodian moon.

Upon your return, no matter how late, your little hotel team will be waiting for you, as they were for me, making sure I got tucked in OK.

The next morning I was greeted like this: "Good morning, Mista. How you today? You have happy night last night!"

Getting around Siem Reap is quite easy by tuk-tuk - motorcycle-powered rickshaws. Just walk out the door of your hotel and half a dozen of them will offer to take you anywhere in town for 8,000 riel (about $2).

You can get to Angkor Wat and back for about $10. Or you can hire an air-conditioned car and driver and tour the entire area for about $40 a day.

The Landmine Museum is a little closer to town, although off the beaten path. The small attraction was birthed by Aki Rah, a Cambodian pressed into armed service as a child by the Khmer Rouge.

It is an important, if chilling, stop. Some 3 million landmines still dot the landscapes of Cambodia. Three people are killed or maimed each day, on average, when they trip over them. Nak Hajt, a 19-year-old guide at the museum, lost his right leg 10 years ago. He was outside his small village playing with his 10-year-old brother and 12-year-old sister when one of them tripped a hidden explosive. His brother and sister died.

This is the legacy of the Vietnam War and its destabilizing impact on Cambodia. Amputees are everywhere in Siem Reap. Few have prosthetics. Some become musicians. Some become artisans. One young man, who sold books from a push-cart near a favorite hangout in the French Quarter, had lost both arms to the elbow. Somehow, he managed to smoke a cigarette with his stumps. Others beg.

Earning a living in Cambodia is tough, even for the healthy. My tuk-tuk driver, who called himself Thomas, left Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, because there was no work there. He dodges authorities with his unlicensed cab and is happy to take his customers anywhere for practically nothing.

For about $4, he drove 12 kilometers south of town to giant Lake Tonle Sap. There, boats are for hire, making possible a visit to the floating village of Preak Toal, where people spend their entire lives on small house boats. Children even attend small schools on the water.

During the wet season, the village moves up the swollen Sangker River toward Siem Reap. In the dry season, the floating town is miles downstream. Inhabitants of the floating village cannot afford to live on land, and send pre-schoolers paddling out in tiny saucer-shaped floats to beg passing tourist boats for money.

Although there are other sights to see, most come here for the temples. Angkor Wat is the most famous, but there are a dozen temple complexes in the area.

It's possible to visit most of them in a day, but it's not a good idea. There is too much to take in, and a slow tour over several days is the ideal way to get a full appreciation of these intricate sandstone wonders.

The earliest temples, known as the Rulos group, were built of brick in the ninth century. But more than 1,000 years ago, the Khmer rulers harnessed elephants to haul giant sandstone blocks quarried from distant mountains to build cities like Angkor ÂThom.

You could easily spend half a day at Angkor Thom, believed to be the center of a community of 100,000 in the 13th century. Its gates were designed so one could enter riding atop an elephant. Some tourists do exactly that.

Each of the various temples has its own wonder and history, as one Khmer dynasty replaced another, century after century. But you'll want to visit the pyramidlike temples of Angkor Wat more than once. Surrounded by a huge moat, its giant towers symbolize Mount Meru, the center of the Hindu universe.

Built by King Suravarum II in the early 12th century and dedicated to Vishnu, the Hindu god and preserver of the cosmos, its many facets are mesmerizing. Among them are eight stone-carved galleries that represent great kingdoms and fierce wars between good and evil.

There are excellent books with great photos of Angkor Wat and the other temples. To make the most of your trip, read up and hire a guide before arriving at the temple grounds. (Freelance guides lurk at the temples; some are better than others.)

Return on subsequent days without a guide to peruse at your leisure, with a reference book. The temples and their histories crack a glimpse into the past as you explore the sandstone relics.

High atop Angkor Wat, you gaze down dim corridors beyond ancient stone images and out into the brilliant green Cambodian landscape. Sitting quietly, you can almost feel Khmer history - the rise and fall of great empires and the harshness of war. And your world becomes a different place.

csmart@sltrib.com
Siem Reap, Cambodia
* WHY GO? The Temples of Angkor Wat are among the seven man-made wonders of the world.
* HOW TO GET THERE: Fly to Bangkok, Thailand, and on to Siem Reap.
* WHAT IT WILL COST: Round-trip airfare will cost $1,300 and up. Once there, lodging and meals can be as low as $50 per day. You can do it in style for $100 per day per person.
* NOT TO MISS: Angkor Wat, the temples that are the crown jewel of the ancient Khmer dynasties.
* WEATHER: Hot and humid. Pack lightweight clothing.
* WHAT TO EAT: Siem Reap has many good, modestly priced restaurants. Eat anything that's cooked and nothing that isn't. Be sure to try the fish steamed in spicy coconut milk.
* WHEN TO GO: The most popular time to visit is winter. Avoid large crowds at Angkor Wat by visiting in the fall. (The rainy season runs through October.) Read more!

Human Rights issues in Communist in Southeast Asia: Red Alert

By John E. Carey
Quoc Te co ran
Feb. 25, 2007

There is something of a crises of Human Rights abuses in Southeast Asia in general and in Communist Vietnam in particular.

According to David M. Kinchen, Editor, Huntington News Network, "hardliners in Vietnam's politburo in Hanoi are obsessed with punishing, oppressing and even eliminating peoples - such as the Khmer Krom, Montagnards and Hmong Lao, that aligned themselves more than 30 years ago with the United States during the Vietnam War."

The Communist Party of Indochina, founded by Ho Chi Minh, which is the only political entity in Vietnam, is the one organization most responsible for the killing fields of Cambodia, the repression of the boat people (escape from Vietnam has been a punishable crime since 1975), and the re-education camps set up to brainwash everyone from South Vietnam who participated in any way in the war against the Communists.

International human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and the Montagnard Foundation are issuing a "Red Alert" of sorts about the human rights abuses ongoing in Vietnam for three reasons: First, the Communist Party in Vietnam has stepped up its assault on ethnic minorities once loyal to the United States and, Second, the United States seems to be looking the other way, and Third, it is difficult to determine "ground truth" in these Communist countries because all the media is strictly controlled by the Communist state.

After thousand of Hmong Lao tribal peoples fled Vietnamese and Laotian military aggressions inside of the Communist country of Laos, the Communist Party of Indochina issued an order to eliminate the more than 10,000 of the ethnic minority Hmong Lao, descendants of former CIA soldiers, who remain in hiding in remote mountain areas in Laos.Communist Vietnam is apparently using its soldiers to attack these indigenous peoples and killing thousands of Hmong Lao using extreme measures such as chemical weapons, bombs and rockets.

"We know that the Vietnamese are the higher rank military commanders inside of our country Laos, Hanoi is in charge of Laos - as in the case of Cambodia. Hanoi is giving the final orders - we saw them attacking us, we hear them speaking Vietnamese, it is no secret to us who is attacking us Hmong Lao" said Faitou Vue, a Hmong Lao refugee, and CIA veteran who fled Communist Laos' widening military aggressions to refuge in Thailand.

In Vietnam, the indigenous peoples such as the Montagnards and Khmer Krom, who also sided with the U.S. during the Vietnam War, endure severe oppression and human rights violations, with many of them escaping to neighboring Cambodia."But if we stay in Cambodia, the Vietnamese will get us any minute. Cambodia listens to Hanoi, so many of our people got killed or forcefully brought back to Vietnam. The Cambodian authorities do nothing to protect us," stated one of many hundreds of Khmer Krom refugees, an indigenous peoples from the Mekong Delta, who fled further than Cambodia, hiding as an illegal migrant in Thailand.

In December, a group of about 200 Hmong refugees escaped from the Communists along the Thai-Laos border and were assaulted by Thai authorities in an effort to drive them back into the Communist side of the border. Some 22 ethnic Hmong refugees were sent to the Netherlands just two weeks ago as part of a program managed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This occurred only about one month after President Bush and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Communists Vietnam.

One director of refugee operations for the UNHCR told us, "Frankly, we are very disappointed in the response of the United States to the plight of the ethnic minorities in Vietnam and elsewhere."These Hmong moved from Thailand to the Netherlands were among 153 migrants who have been held at a detention centre near the Thai-Laos border since December for illegally entering Thailand. Also two weeks ago, inside of Vietnam - five Khmer Krom Buddhist temples, together with their Khmer Krom communities held a peaceful demonstration to request to Hanoi to be allowed to maintain their Buddhist religion, which they say was not granted.

"They abuse our people for so long, we are arrested for teaching our own language, or our history, and they always target our Buddhist monks, the heart and soul of our Khmer Krom people," said T. Thach, president of NGO Khmer Krom Federation."Our temples are the center of our communities. We are imprisoned and tortured when we listen to the radio from the outside word, or when we check the internet related to our concerns. Writing e-mails to the outside world is prohibited."T. Thach continued: "If our Khmer Krom Buddhist monks teach the sacred Buddhist language Pali - they are ordered by Hanoi to include Communist doctrines, if not, they get disrobed and are not allowed to be monks anymore, and are imprisoned as traitors and enemies of Communism .

This is not right: our religion has nothing to do with Communism, or any form of politics, it is our religion, and sacred to us. It is the teaching of peace and rightful conduct in life. But we are not allowed to maintain our religion, we are not even allowed to maintain our Khmer Krom culture, way of life, actually, they want to Vietnamize us in a manner, that nothing would be left from us, as Khmer Krom peoples, or Montagnards peoples - and we object to that.""One can always tell when a group of Montagnards escapes into Mondulkiri Province. Vietnamese army and police officials chase after them and cross the border as if they owned western Cambodia," said journalist The Co Van, from the Montagnard Foundation."The Cambodian provincial police are alerted, and the guesthouses in the capital of Sen Monorum quickly fill with Cambodian police and army officials from neighboring provinces," The Co Van added."What a tragedy that America has abandoned our former allies in the Vietnam War a second time.

Now the U.S. has the leverage to force the Vietnamese government to treat the Montagnards better but it remains silent when Hanoi glosses over their draconian human rights record in their bid for entrance into the WTO."The Montagnard Foundation reports that they hold evidence that bounty hunters capture the Montagnard refugees in Cambodia, and sell them back to the Vietnamese for $20 to $100. Twenty dollars is a month's pay for a policeman in this part of the world."Why does the mainstream media ignore the plight of the Montagnards, the Khmer Krom, and their cousins, the Hmong in Laos for over 30 years, and still continue to do so?" asked Chue Chou Tchang, from the Special Guerrilla Units (SGU) Veterans. SGU Veterans is a U.S.- based Hmong human rights organization organization.

"One has to wonder why the Vietnamese Communist Party is so paranoid and ruthless in their treatment of a few Montagnards and Khmer Krom - escaping their clutches in the middle of the night," said Van."Why Laos, under the advice of Hanoi pressures Thailand to force thousands of Hmong Lao refugees back to Laos? That's because they know they can get away with it and that the mainstream media in the West really isn't interested in the human rights abuses of Communist police states" said Van.

EDITOR's NOTE: The South Vietnamese called American military advisors "Co Van" during the war in Vietnam. But the word translates more exactly as "consultant." Mr. Carey is former president of International ("Quoc Te") Defense Consultants Inc., a company of Co Van thast has operated since 1997. Read more!