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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

US Congress warms to Cambodia

Reports of a top al-Qaeda operative in the Southeast Asian country have prompted a thaw in relations.

By Erika Kinetz Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - When the USS Gary arrived at the touristy port city of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, last month, it became the first US military vessel to dock in this Southeast Asian nation in over 30 years. US and Cambodian military personnel played soccer, and military doctors fixed the teeth of poor Cambodian villagers.

It's a different picture from the last time the Navy came to Cambodia in 1975, after the infamous Khmer Rouge regime had seized the US merchant ship SS Mayaguez and the military launched a full-scale rescue mission in response.

The USS Gary is just one sign of warming relations between the two nations. Two days after the ship left Sihanoukville, President Bush signed into law a budget resolution for 2007 that for the first time in nearly a decade lifts the congressional ban on direct US funding to Cambodia.

This change in US policy comes as the international community calls attention to Cambodia's shortcomings on corruption and human rights. US officials say that it is a shift of strategy driven, in part, by the exigencies of the US-led war on terror.

"Our hope is to have more normal relations and draw Cambodia closer to the community of nations," says Joseph Mussomeli, the US ambassador to Cambodia.

The appearance in Cambodia in 2002 and 2003 of Riduan Isamuddin – an Indonesian better known as Hambali, who was believed to be Al Qaeda's top operative in Southeast Asia – was a wake-up call to Washington, one Cambodia-watcher and US congressional aide said on condition of anonymity. "Washington bureaucrats finally realized what Cambodia-watchers knew all along: Cambodia matters, and it is indeed a swamp in need of draining."

Sam Rainsy, the leader of the eponymous Sam Rainsy Party, which is the closest thing Cambodia has to an opposition party, praises the policy change, saying it will give the US more leverage to promote human rights and democracy in a region increasingly dominated by China.

"China does not pay any attention to human rights," he says. "We cannot leave our country to Chinese influence alone. The world must be more balanced."

China's roots in Cambodia are deep and in recent years it has emerged as one of Cambodia's most generous donors.

Moreover, Chevron's discovery of oil offshore in 2005 has led to speculation that this small, impoverished nation could become the world's newest petrostate.

Mr. Mussomeli, however, says China and oil have nothing to do with the warming relations. "The US is looking to see progress on issues that matter to the Cambodian people – greater openness, greater democratization, a higher standard of living, and a genuine commitment to stamp out corruption," he says. Congress has earmarked $15 million for democracy and rule-of-law programs in Cambodia this year.

Though Mussomeli says Cambodia is becoming a more open society, the nation still has a long way to go. In its annual review of human rights around the world, released last week, the US State Department took Cambodia to task for its "poor" human rights record, citing security forces that act with impunity, arbitrary arrests, endemic corruption, and human trafficking.

Local rights group Licadho found that nearly 40 percent of the 172 human rights abuses it documented in the first half of 2006 were perpetrated by the military or the police.

US officials stress that the lifting of the ban on direct assistance and military aid will not result in a tide of new money sloshing around government coffers. No new direct funding has yet been committed. "The absence of restrictions will not result in a major change in US government funding priorities, oversight, or project management, as we look to develop this promising bilateral relationship," says Erin Soto, the Cambodia Mission Director of USAID.

Mu Sochua, the secretary general of the Sam Rainsy Party, warns of the US loosening its oversight of the country's governance. "If the US is only thinking about fighting terrorism and lowers its standards on the performance of governments in terms of democratic social protections, that will not be beneficial to the Cambodian people."

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Cambodia's former premier dealt political blow with 18-month prison sentence

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: A former Cambodian prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison on Tuesday on embezzlement charges filed by members of the royalist political party he once led.

The action should make it difficult for Ranariddh, a once-influential national figure who is the son of former King Norodom Sihanouk, to stage a political comeback. Ranariddh was co-prime minister of the country from 1993-97, and his supporters alleged the move was politically motivated.

The Funcinpec party, which ousted Ranariddh as president in October 2006, had sued the prince accusing him of allegedly embezzling some US$3.6 million (€2.7 million) from the sale of the party's headquarters in August that year.

Judge Sao Meach, of Phnom Penh Municipal Court, found the prince guilty of breach of trust and sentenced him to 18 months in prison.

Muong Arun, Ranariddh's lawyer, dismissed the verdict as unjust. Ranariddh is not in Cambodia, but his exact whereabouts are not clear.

Funcinpec rejected Ranariddh as its leader on Oct. 18, citing his alleged incompetence and frequent absences from the country.

Ranariddh's longtime political rival, Prime Minister Hun Sen, had encouraged the party to eject Ranariddh. Funcinpec is the junior partner in Hun Sen's coalition government.

Since his ouster, Ranariddh has formed his own political party named after himself, the Norodom Ranariddh Party.

Tuesday's verdict would prevent Ranariddh from running for public office in Cambodia unless he serves at least two-thirds of his jail term or receives a pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni, his half brother.

But Hun Sen, in a speech Saturday, made it clear that he would not back a royal pardon for Ranariddh.

"If you are a royal engaged in politics, you are also equal before the law and (liable) to be put in jail. Let's be clear about this," Hun Sen said, without referring to Ranariddh by name.

Muth Chantha, Ranariddh's party spokesman, said the verdict "is politically motivated to prevent the prince from taking part in future elections."

He said the prince will not appeal the verdict because doing so would amount to recognizing it.
"We have believed all along that there is no justice for him in this case. This is a court that serves interest of the government, not the people," Muth Chantha said.

During the trial Tuesday, the judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence proving Ranariddh had embezzled the money.

But he said the prince was guilty of intentionally registering the new property under his name, instead of Funcinpec's, therefore "breaching the trust of the party."

He also ordered Ranariddh to pay US$150,000 (€114,000) in compensation to the Funcinpec party.

Ranariddh is also facing an adultery lawsuit lodged against him by his estranged wife, Norodom Marie Ranariddh. He faces up to a year in prison and fines of up to 1 million riel (US$245; €190)
if convicted.

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Dredge/booster barge shipped to Cambodia

Logistics specialist John S. Connor, Inc., Glen Burnie, Md., has recently completed the shipment of a dredge/booster barge for Sokimex Group, based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Sokimex will use the equipment for dredging operations in the Mekong River so that the river can accommodate more vessel traffic.

Sokimex acquired the dredge/booster barge from Renda Dredging Company.

The equipment weighed 1,135 tons, making it the heaviest shipment ever handled by John S. Connor in its 90 year history. It was so large and heavy that the dredge and barge had to be separated into two sections so it could be shipped.

After the equipment was separated, the dredge alone weighed 610 metric tons and was enormously bulky; 107-ft. long, 51-ft. high, and 43-ft. wide. The booster barge as a separate lift weighed an additional 525 metric tons.

John S. Connor made all the logistics arrangements for the shipment of the equipment.

In order to accomplish the loading of the dredge and barge onto the MV WIEBKE, a specialized heavy-lift ship, the shippers utilized the services of a naval architect and an engineering firm to ascertain lift points, weight, and the center of gravity of the dredge and the booster barge.

The loading of the two large pieces, work boats and other equipment onto the MV WIEBKE in Port Manatee, Florida, required five days. The ship has two cranes with lifting capacity of 340 tons each, plus a third crane with a lifting capacity of 220 tons. Two of the ships heavy lift cranes were married together in order to generate enough lifting capacity to load these heavy pieces.

The dredge and barge had to be lifted onto the ship directly from the water at Port Manatee.

Because of the excessive weight and size of the equipment, four lifting cradles, two for each heavy piece, had to be fabricated, each one weighing 18 tons. A diver was utilized to be sure the cradles were positioned properly to lift the equipment.

"The Master and crew of the MV WIEBKE, along with their port captain, performed extremely well in completing this complicated heavy lift operation," says William Settle, bulk manager at John S. Connor.

The MV WIEBKE left port with the dredge, barge, and other additional work boats and equipment safely on board and sailed via the Suez Canal, arriving five weeks later in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. From there, the equipment was discharged and towed up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh. It will take another six months to reassemble the equipment and get it in place to begin the dredging project.

Sokimex Group, established in 1990, has over 2,000 employees and annual revenues in excess of $100 million.

John S. Connor is a full service logistics firm based in Glen Burnie, Md. The company is a leading provider of ocean freight and air freight, customs brokerage, domestic transportation, and steamship agency services. Connor has an extensive network of agents worldwide, and is a licensed NVOCC.
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Cambodia Oil Windfall Sparks Corruption Concern

Cambodia may reap billions of dollars in new revenues from offshore oil and gas fields in coming years, but experts fear such a windfall might be misspent. Prime Minister Hun Sen has so far brushed aside international concerns about lack of fiscal accountability.

Cambodia’s good fortune began in 2005 when U.S.-based Chevron found promising oil deposits at offshore test wells some 87 miles (140 kms) southwest of the port of Sihanoukville.

Preliminary estimates of the recoverable reserves are 400-500 million barrels of oil and 2-3 trillion cubic feet of gas. Cambodia’s total reserves could run as high as 2 billion barrels and 10 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to the World Bank.

In a country with an annual per capita income of about $500 last year, the discovery of oil that could sell on world markets for $60 per barrel might be good fortune indeed.

But instead of celebrations, the news has met with warnings that Cambodia lacks the strong government and civil institutions to turn oil revenue into public benefits.

A study of Cambodia for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 2005 warned that Cambodia might follow the path of Nigeria, where new oil wealth turned into a “resource curse.”

Despite huge capital inflows from oil, Nigeria’s GDP has grown less than its population since 1980, while corruption and social unrest have risen because revenues have been misspent, the report said.

But at a student graduation ceremony Feb. 28, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen showed little patience with warnings that his country could follow the same path.

“Some people are worried about the Nigerian disease, saying that it should not be allowed to reach Cambodia. I have told them that Cambodia is not that stupid,” the prime minister said in remarks reported by the Associated Press.

Legitimate concern?

In an interview with Radio Free Asia, David Dapice, a senior economist at Harvard University and author of the UNDP study, said that Cambodia should move quickly to implement reforms before the money starts flowing in.

“There is legitimate concern that Cambodia has work to do,” said Dapice.

“There is a tendency toward big, prestige, wasteful investments. There is a tendency sometimes for things to cost more than they should, even if they’re appropriately chosen. And the legal system certainly needs to be strengthened, so that if there are cases of corruption they can be identified and then prosecuted in a proper way,” Dapice said.

“These are not areas right now where, at the moment, Cambodia has strength. They need to get better in these areas.”

Dapice said that recent improvements in Cambodia’s agricultural output and poverty reduction give hope that new funds from energy can be used productively, especially if nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are allowed to serve in some watchdog role.

The greatest danger is that oil money could be diverted into pockets that have already started to concentrate wealth, especially through land ownership, said Dapice. That risk could be particularly high, he added, if large cash bonuses are paid in the awarding of oil development contracts.

“You could end up basically displacing large numbers of farmers who would then probably drift into the cities, and you would have an over-urbanized society with very few decent jobs and a lot of crowding and everything, and that typically leads to social instability.”

Dapice said that Cambodia will have to foster good governance and institutions in several sectors at once so that it can handle the new oil money transparently.

“A lot of different parts of a society have to work,” he said. “The legal system, the newspapers, the NGOs, and of course the government itself has to be committed to it.”

“So there are real challenges here, and things could go badly wrong. But if people work on it and try to direct the resources in a reasonably productive way, I think there’s nothing that says that it’s written that it has to be as bad as Nigeria.”
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