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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Cambodian villagers searching gold at Khmer Rouge-era grave

Hundreds of villagers are hunting for golden treasure in Southern Cambodia where a Khmer Rouge-era grave has been recently discovered, an official said Tuesday. But police are now guarding the site in Kampot province from further pillaging by the villagers, said Khieu Sokhon, a provincial district police chief.

He said the site has several small graves holding remains of Cambodians who died during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 rule.

He said a group of Vietnamese soldiers on Saturday excavated the site to look for remains of their fellow soldiers who died during their occupation of Cambodia in the early 1980s but found only bones of Cambodians.

After the Vietnamese soldiers left, Cambodian villagers, armed with hoes and spades, flocked to dig up the graves because they thought valuable jewelry was among the buried bones, he said.

He said the villagers unearthed some 120 bodies and found just several earrings.

"We have now deployed police at the site to prevent people from digging it up," Khieu Sokhon said.

Digging Khmer Rouge-era graves for valuables was common after the now-defunct communist movement was overthrown by Vietnamese troops in 1979.

Khmer Rouge implemented radical policies that led to the death of some 1.7 million people from starvation, disease, overwork and execution. Those who perished were mostly buried in mass graves.

Kampot province is about 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of the capital Phnom Penh.
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A nation emerges


By Greg Mellen, staff writer


The majestic Angkor Wat temple complex. Blinded, disfigured men, hands (if they have them) out, muttering "land mine, land mine." The elegant, gilded swoops of the royal palace. Half-naked children at play in murky, disease-infested waters. The festivity of dawn in Phnom Penh along the riverwalk. Political corruption and repression. Economic vigor through tourism and expected oil revenues. Staggering rural poverty, low literacy and daunting school dropout rates. A warmth of spirit and serenity. The psychic scars of the Killing Fields and the perpetually stalled attempts to prosecute Khmer Rouge perpetrators.

It may sound like a bromide, but Cambodia is a land of immense contrasts. And after spending a week there last year as part of a journalism fellowship, that was the overriding sense I had - the stark contrasts, the curious disconnects.

What is the real Cambodia? Is it in the ubiquitous cartoon-like "happy painting" Cambodia artwork of French

painter Stef? Is it in the silence of a Khmer Rouge atrocities survivor? I guess like all things it's somewhere between, found possibly in the enigmatic half-smile in the slowly crumbling Buddha faces on the Bayon temple in Angkor Wat.
On the road

Traveling to Cambodia as a journalist was not like being a tourist. Excursions to museums, to shop, to stroll along the riverfront, to sit over cocktails at the Elephant Bar or Foreign Correspondents Club had to be squeezed in among official visits.

Don't get me wrong. No complaints. It was a magical, staggering, exhilarating and exhausting week.

The most "touristy" activity was speed-touring the 402-square kilometer Angkor Wat complex of Hindu and Buddhist temples, trying to take in in three hours what locals say takes a minimum of three days to begin to appreciate.

We were literally doing a drive-by of the Buddhist Bayon, the second most recognizable temple in the complex, before we pleaded with the local minister of tourism to stop. Dusk amid the temples was an exquisite reflective moment amid a flurry of information gathering.

In a nutshell, Cambodia is one of the almost forgotten nations of Southeast Asia. Flanked by the so-called Asian Tigers of Thailand and Vietnam, it is like the poor bumpkin cousin of those two dynamos.

Cambodia also is a nation that still shrinks in the shame of its past. In April 1975, as Saigon was falling in South Vietnam, a much less publicized yet sinister piece of history was evolving just to the west. The Khmer Rouge rode victoriously into Phnom Penh on April 17. Within days, it emptied the capital and embarked on a quest to create a pure agrarian state. What ensued was a genocidal campaign that came to be known as the Killing Fields. By the time its reign ended with the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, somewhere between 1 million and 3 million Cambodians had died from executions, disease and starvation.

The shadow of the horror, the shame of it, has left an immense scar on the Khmer heart. And many believe it may take a generation of leaders who didn't live through that time to fully restore the country.

That generation is coming of age and its challenges are formidable.

Still, Cambodia is a nation that would seem to be brimming with potential: for trade with its neighbors, through tourism to the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat, to the rowdy eclecticism of Phnom Penh and to the pristine beaches of Sihanoukville; from oil reserves found in the Gulf of Thailand; from a burgeoning young population ready to put the sad, broken legacy of the Killing Fields behind it.

And yet it seems, for every reason of hope, there is a hidden motive or agenda, for every success, there's a contravening reality. And at the end, there is the Cambodian, his face in that half-sardonic smile. He's seen it all before. He's seen much worse.

During a crowded week, my journalist compatriots and I met with all kinds of officials: United Nations, U.S. Embassy and assorted Cambodian ministry officials. We met commune leaders, garment factory representatives and textile labor overseers. And members of the understated Extraordinary Chambers in Courts of Cambodia, which has achieved only extraordinary delays in its attempts to launch tribunals against the dwindling numbers of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders.

Many of these people were there to tell us a tale of a revitalized Cambodia, a rejuvenated people pulling themselves up from the ashes of the past.

A stitch in time

So we learn about the booming garment and textile business. We learn that workers are unionized, there is a $45-a-month minimum wage and 80 percent of workers make more than that, thanks to the unions. There is international oversight that guarantees protections for workers against child abuse, excess hours, delayed paychecks and substandard working conditions.

About 250,000 workers, mostly women from poverty-stricken rural areas, work in the garment industry. Most send money home to their families, and officials estimate that 2.5 million to 3 million Cambodians benefit from the garment industries.

Most of these protections were put in place through a 1999 agreement in which the United States guaranteed to import a quota of goods in exchange for the improvements.

All good news. Except ... In Cambodia it seems there is always an "except."

We learn that many of the women earning these wages live in overcrowded, substandard conditions. Many have to find outside work, and often this includes prostitution. And this in turn adds to the HIV/AIDS problems in the country.

At its best, the garment industry is notoriously unreliable and transient. Companies look for the best deals and the cheapest labor supplies. Several of the export-quota agreements Cambodia signed have expired, and there is fear that by instituting the U.S.-inspired protections, the country has priced itself out of the cheap labor pool.

Finally, in a theme that seems recurrent throughout the Cambodian economy, the industry is 90 percent foreign owned, meaning they have no reason to remain in-country. The chances for Cambodians to advance in the management in the foreign companies are virtually nil.

Banking on Angkor

Tourism is booming in Cambodia. At the ancient Angkor Wat complex of temples built between the 9th and 12th centuries, the number of tourists has tripled since 2001. In the gateway town of Siem Reap, 17 hotels were under construction when we visited, which boosted to 100 the number of hotels in the town. Another 150 are planned.

The population in Siem Reap has grown from 100,000 to 150,000 since 2002 and created more than 29,000 jobs in tourism. About 500,000 tourists visited last year for the World Culture Expo alone.

Again, seemingly good news. Except there is fear that Angkor Wat could literally sink under the weight of tourism.

Millions of pairs of feet are wearing away the ancient ruins, which tourists are allowed to scamper over virtually unimpeded. Millions of pairs of hands are rubbing away amazingly detailed bas-relief artwork on temple walls. And the water demands of those millions are severely taxing the environment. The water table is being sucked dry and could cave in on itself. Coincidentally, it was failed irrigation that led to Angkor Wat being deserted 500 years ago.

Millions of foreign dollars are and have been spent to build infrastructure and to replenish the water table and meet tourist needs. But studies have showed that the Bayon is sinking into the sandy earth and cracks in its base are widening.

Like the garment industry, tourism is notoriously fickle. And, as in the garment industry, the overwhelming number of hotels and tourist businesses are foreign-owned. Although there are a number of schools in Siem Reap offering classes in hotel management, as of October, not one Cambodian had risen to the level of general manager in a major hotel.

Striking oil

Then there is oil. Estimates of discoveries of oil beneath Cambodian waters in the Gulf of Thailand range anywhere from 700 million to 2 billion barrels, as well as trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. At $60 to $70 a barrel for oil, the spigot into Cambodia could be considerable indeed. Furthermore, Cambodia and Thailand may be nearing an accord to explore for petroleum in an overlapping offshore area claimed by the two countries.

Spread out over 20-25 years, Cambodia could see annual sales in excess of $7.5 billion per year, which is about twice the country's current gross domestic product.

So exciting is the news that the United Nations Development Program issued a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats report that, among other things, cautioned strongly about the so-called "oil curse."

Nigeria is the poster child for such a negative outcome. With $29 billion in oil exports in 2004, before prices spiked, Nigeria saw only a meager 2 percent climb in gross domestic production, a number exceeded by the growth in population. In other words, overall Nigeria was becoming poorer.

And then there were these words from U.S. Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli, reported in the International Herald Tribune, "This will be a watershed event for this country one way or another. Everyone knows that it will be either a tremendous blessing or a terrific curse. They are unlikely to come out unscathed."

How Cambodia will handle its possible windfall, which could begin flowing into the country as early as 2010, is anyone's guess. Given the nation's history of endemic corruption, the prospects of an oil benefit to the rural farmer may be bleak.

So, of the three pillars that would seem to girder Cambodia's growth, all are shaky at best. And when all three are undergirded by a history of autocratic rule, indifference and corruption, optimism might seem, as philosopher Jeremy Bentham proclaimed, "nonsense upon stilts."

Hanging onto hope

And yet for all that, I couldn't help but find myself buoyed by the ineffable positive spirit of the people: the survivor of the notorious Tuol Seng S-21 prison, who sat next to a Khmer Rouge interrogator and would not lay blame; children in the countryside who flock to visitors with happy faces; students learning English and excitedly talking about their future employment prospects; and educators eager to impart not only reading and writing, but citizenship and civic involvement to the next generation.

I can only hope that hope survives. That when the rest is all cleared away, there is still that.

When I think about Cambodia, I find myself ironically reminded of a line from "The Great Gatsby" and tempted to insert the word Cambodia for Gatsby, and trying not to fall into defeatism.

"No - Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams, that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men."

Greg Mellen can be reached at greg.mellen@presstelegram.com or (562) 499-1291.
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Cambodia’s Mobile Market is Growing at an Annual Rate of Around 35%

DUBLIN, Ireland--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Research and Markets (http://www.researchandmarkets.com/reports/c56097) has announced the addition of 2007 Asia - Telecoms, Mobile and Broadband in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to their offering.

This Annual Publication: Telecoms, Mobile and Broadband in Asia – Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam profiles three countries which once made up the French colonial entity known as Indochina. These neighbouring countries – Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – are still in relatively early stages of their telecommunications development with expanding national infrastructure and growing subscriber bases across all market segments.

Continuing to shun fixed-line services, Cambodia’s healthy mobile market has passed the 1.5 million subscriber milestone and was continuing to grow at an annual rate of around 35% coming into 2007. Fixed-line services were languishing at around 42,000, with no sign of a revival in interest in this segment of the market. Surprisingly, given the apparent interest in communications, Internet penetration has remained particularly low, with the services on offer being notably expensive in comparison to other countries in the region. As the country’s efforts are directed towards strengthening its telecommunications infrastructure, Cambodia must continue to address its political problems and build its economy. Now that the country has entered a period of relative political stability, an increased effort is required to put the necessary administrative institutions and regulations in place. The telecom sector remains in need of serious regulatory reform. The good news is that foreign investor confidence appears to have returned and there are many positive signs that the economy is strengthening in a sustained manner.

After years of economic struggle, Laos has finally been reporting positive news on this front. With a number of substantial hydro-electric and mining projects now a reality, the country is at last moving forward in a confident fashion. Attention is now turning to building its national infrastructure, including telecommunications. Laos still only had a fixed line teledensity of less than two telephones per 100 people by early 2007. More foreign investment is needed to boost the telecoms sector and, most importantly, given that it is a relatively small market; the government must be judicious in deciding and licensing how this investment happens. The Lao Telecom joint venture formed by the government with the Thai company, Shinawatra, in 1996 was a wasted opportunity. Lao Telecom allowed the five year period of market exclusivity to pass without any serious attention to infrastructure building. When the market was opened up to competition in 2002, foreign capital finally started to flow into the sector, although not as much as the government would have liked. The mobile phone market took off in early 2003, with the number of subscribers increasing sevenfold in just 2 years. The Lao telecom sector still has many issues to address. Despite the recent rapid opening up of the market, the regulatory progress continues to lag behind development and has the potential to derail the progress already made if reform is not speeded up.

After a period in which foreign investors appeared to be avoiding Vietnam’s telecom sector, the country has become the target for a fresh new round of investor interest. This follows a period in which the government seemed content to ‘go it alone’. During this time, the introduction of a limited level of competition into the telecoms market, combined with a generally improved economic climate, saw some healthy growth in the sector. More recently the move to allow an increase level of ‘equalisation’ (the Vietnamese government’s word for ‘privatisation’) has sent a clear message to investors that the rules are changing in a positive way. The investment mood has been further boosted with Vietnam finally winning accession to the World Trade Organization, a step that was formally confirmed in early 2007. This adds to the already positive climate for the telecom sector expansion. As well as strong growth in its mobile sector, there has been equally strong – and some might say, surprising - growth in the country’s fixed line subscriber base. Fixed-line services have been continuing to expand at an annual rate of 100%; fixed teledensity has passed 32%. At the same time, the government’s reticence about the Internet has not stopped this segment of the market gaining a strong foothold. Internet user penetration was running at a healthy 18% in early 2007. Increased foreign investment remains the key to overall expansion. It is still not totally clear what form the government’s involvement in the telecom sector will take.

Key highlights:

-Vietnam’s mobile market had passed the 16 million subscriber mark coming into 2007. The annual growth rate in this market segment was running at around 85% and looked set to continue.

-The 2006 year saw a remarkable surge in Vietnam’s broadband Internet market with subscriber growth running at an annual rate of almost 200%. Interest in broadband services was finally picking up; but broadband penetration remains low (2% of households) we can expect continuing strong growth in this market segment.

-Vietnam received a boost to its economy generally and the telecom sector in particular with its accession to the WTO in early 2007.

-In Cambodia, mobile services continue to dominate the local market; in what is still a relatively poor country, (GDP per capita of US$430 in 2006), more than 1.5 million people subscribe to a mobile service. The market is continuing to expand at around 40% per annum.

-According to ministry figures, mobile subscribers in Laos passed the one million mark in December 2006. Recent growth in mobile has been rapid in this country of only 6 million people and the market looked set to continue to expand at an annual rate of about 40% in 2007/08.

-All three countries are making some progress with regulatory change and structural reform within their respective telecom sectors. To the outside observer, however, progress is often painfully slow. This can cause serious concern among those companies wishing to invest.

Mobile penetration and annual growth - 2007

Country Penetration Annual growth

-Cambodia 15% 37%

-Laos 21% 40%

-Vietnam 30% 60%

Topics Covered

1. CAMBODIA

1.1 Key statistics

1.2 Telecommunications market

1.3 Regulatory environment

1.4 Telecommunications infrastructure

1.5 Internet market

1.6 Mobile communications

1.7 Broadcasting market

2. LAOS

2.1 Key statistics

2.2 Telecommunications market

2.3 Regulatory environment

2.4 Fixed network operators in Laos

2.5 Telecommunications infrastructure

2.6 Internet

2.7 Mobile communications

2.8 Broadcasting market

3. VIETNAM

3.1 Key statistics

3.2 Telecommunications market

3.3 Regulatory environment

3.4 Telecommunications infrastructure

3.5 Fixed network operators in Vietnam

3.6 Internet market

3.7 Broadband market

3.8 Content and e-services

3.9 Mobile communications

3.10 Broadcasting

3.11 Forecasting

4. GLOSSARY OF ABBREVIATIONS

Tables and Exhibits

For more information visit http://www.researchandmarkets.com/reports/c56097
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Cambodia to amend labor law to reduce nighttime pay for garment workers

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen said Tuesday his government is pushing ahead with a planned amendment of the labor law to reduce nighttime pay for garment factory workers, who are paid twice as much as those on the day shift.

He said the move is crucial for creating more jobs in an industry, a major hard-currency earner for the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.

The country currently has 300 garment factories that employ 355,000 workers. But only about 10 of the factories run night shifts because the higher pay is a "disincentive," said Ken Loo, secretary-general of Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.

He said lowering nighttime payment will not only create more jobs at the factories but will also increase peripheral economic activities for those operating transport and selling food to the workers at night.

"We've been pushing for this (amendment) for the last seven years, and it's only now that we are making some headway," Loo said. "With the industrialization of the country, we need to embrace the concept of shift."

Under the current law, wage for dayshift garment workers is about US$50 (€37) a month, but the amount is doubled to US$100 (€74) a month for those working at night.

The National Assembly, the country's lower house of parliament, will soon debate and mostly like pass the amendment requested by the government, Hun Sen said. The proposed amendment will allow for an increase of only 30 percent over the daytime payment, he said.

Last year's garment exports from Cambodia were worth about US$2.8 billion (€2 billion), with about 70 percent of the shipments going to retailers in U.S. market, Loo said.

Chea Mony, president of Cambodia's Free Trade Union which has claimed to have 74,000 members, on Tuesday threatened to call a strike against the amendment.

He criticized the government for kowtowing to the garment industry's demand and said the amendment will be disadvantageous for the workers.

"This government has claimed such a move would attract more investment. I do not see it will. Reducing workers' earning is not the factor for luring investors to Cambodia," he said.

The government should instead eradicate corruption, which is scaring investors away, he said.
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US and China tug at ASEAN unity

By Michael Vatikiotis

SINGAPORE - Something has changed in Southeast Asia, and no one seems to want to talk about it.

Over the past 40 years, countries of the region have fostered a tradition of loose but often effective multilateral cooperation in the shape of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Of late, however, the ASEAN spirit of consultation and consensus appears to be fading. In part that's because ASEAN has grown, now comprising 10 members instead of six. And the expansion, pulling in economic laggards Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos andMyanmar, has understandably diluted the old bonhomie among the original six members - Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines.

But the grouping is also being fragmented by intensifying US-China competition for regional influence, which is putting a premium on bilateralism with the big powers at the expense of ASEAN's ambition toward more regional multilateralism.

The framework for regional cooperation among the original six members expanded as economies boomed in the 1990s. Dialogue partners were taken on, and larger East Asian and South Asian neighbors were brought into the circle. Now, however, the global focus of attention has swung away from economic growth in ASEAN toward growth in China, which has weakened considerably ASEAN's incentive to bond as a region.

The result has been a return to reflexive bilateral engagement. Witness the recent signing in Bali of a bilateral extradition treaty and defense-cooperation agreement between Singapore and Indonesia. Both these landmark deals were tough to negotiate and brought the two sides into a degree of friction with one another. The question arises: Where was ASEAN in all this?

Why hasn't the organization crafted a regional mechanism to ensure that ill-gotten gains squirreled away from one country can be traced and recovered in a neighboring one? The question can equally be asked: What do Singapore and Indonesia need a bilateral defense agreement for in an era when regional security cooperation should be the goal? Indonesia has proposed an ASEAN security community, but the idea has languished near the bottom of official agendas at recent ASEAN meetings.

In the 1990s, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore frequently met at a high level in a more explicitly multilateral context. There were optimistic joint declarations to create zones of joint economic development, such as Sijori (Singapore, Johore and Riau) and the Northern Growth Triangle encompassing North Sumatra, the Malaysian island of Penang, and southern Thailand.

Nothing came of these projects because, while the leadership may have been willing to invest in joint development, little effort was made to break down political and bureaucratic barriers among the countries involved. More is the pity, since a regional framework like the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle, if seriously implemented, might well have dampened conflicts in Aceh and southern Thailand by providing local people with higher levels of economic growth and fostering a benign sense of regional identity that didn't threaten individual countries' sovereignty. In both cases, economic marginalization has fueled historical nationalist sentiment.

But nationalism at the state level remains as strong a political impulse today as it was half a century ago, and there is little sign of regional borders dissolving. Today, wealthy Singapore says it is different from other countries; Indonesia now thinks it is more democratic than others; and Thailand is looking inward as it confronts prolonged political crisis. Vietnam goes its own way, and Myanmar is drifting further apart from the rest of Southeast Asia.

Fading multilateralism
In other words, ASEAN nowadays is suffering from a lack of firm commitment to multilateral cooperation.

To be sure, a multitude of meetings are still held: ASEAN exists as a complex matrix of official meetings on one subject or another. However, this is also part of the problem: ASEAN has been delegated by the leadership, which turns up once a year to preside over summits that are increasingly venues for bilateral engagement on the sidelines rather than multilateral agreement at the main event. The recent announcement of an ASEAN bilateral summit with the United States to be held in Singapore in September will no doubt serve as a case in point.

Lately, ASEAN has been hijacked by bigger geopolitical forces. As China, the US and to a lesser degree India vie for regional influence, the arena of cooperation and integration has been greatly expanded. And ASEAN is arguably now part of a greater East Asian whole.

Some of the more interesting regional discussions are now held under an ASEAN Plus Three umbrella that includes China, Japan and South Korea, including this weekend's multilateral meeting in Japan to discuss the creation of a regional bond market and pooling part of the region's collective US$2.7 trillion in foreign reserves to shield regional currencies against financial speculation.

Such initiatives signal the changing power dynamic in the region being driven in large part by China's recent economic emergence. So long as China lacked the confidence to flex its diplomatic muscle, Beijing hid behind ASEAN's preceding familiarity and credibility with big Western trading partners. This started to change after 2003, when China harnessed ASEAN to its own notion of a regional framework, one that is less dependent on the West.

Much hope is now pinned on a new ASEAN charter due to be unveiled in Singapore at the end of this year. The document, once approved, is expected to reinvigorate ASEAN, endow its moribund secretariat with new powers and breathe new life into the notion of a single community. A more empowered secretary general will aim to restore some luster to this once-respected vehicle for regional diplomacy.

But perhaps the problem is not one of internal dynamics. Perhaps instead ASEAN is less a victim of its own weakness than a hostage to the new global order - one in which multilateral bodies have been damaged or weakened by the clumsy unilateralism of big powers, principally the US and China.

The United States, for example, insists on negotiating free-trade agreements bilaterally rather than with ASEAN as a whole, a deal that might have accelerated ASEAN's own incarnation as a free-trade area. Whenever ASEAN has floated notions of stronger regional management of the financial or security environment, such institutions as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have expressed fears about losing supervisory control.

On the security front, the US has always been concerned about the ASEAN Regional Forum established in 1994 with ASEAN as convener and chairman. The idea of a security forum in which the United States is not in a dominant position simply wasn't acceptable to Washington, which has mostly characterized the forum as toothless.

The so-called "global war on terror" since 2001 has further weakened ASEAN's autonomy over security concerns, with the US linking its own concerns to bilateral trade and aid. No doubt this security priority will be front and center at the commemorative bilateral ASEAN summit in September.

ASEAN enjoyed the peak of its success at the end of the Cold War, when superpower rivalry was at its nadir. This allowed ASEAN to steer its own economic and security policies and get a feel for real regional cooperation.

Now the cycle is reversing itself as US-China rivalry for regional influence intensifies and individual ASEAN member states need to demonstrate strong bilateral ties with both Washington and Beijing to benefit from access to preferential trade and security agreements.

Today, the leaders of Southeast Asia are forced to keep busy burnishing ties with the major powers as well as each of their neighbors - which are often likewise striking bilateral deals - rather than relying on their foreign ministers to sort things out collectively over a few cold drinks after a round of golf at one of those old-fashioned ASEAN meetings.

For all these reasons, just as individual countries pay less heed to the United Nations these days, so ASEAN as a grouping no longer invites the scrutiny, analysis and respect that it once did.

Michael Vatikiotis is the regional representative of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue based in Singapore.
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Charlie heads to Cambodia

By Gazette reporter

TAUNTON School pupil Charlie Walker is one of several students trying to raise money to make his way to Cambodia on a community project.

The initiative is run by the World Challenge organisation, which helps young people get to countries that would benefit from outside help.

For Charlie and his school friends the first project is expected to be in an orphanage assisting in the general running of the home and providing ongoing support to the orphans and staff.

advertisementTime will be taken out to spend a couple of days trekking through the jungle before a second community project begins.

The trip will last one month, with each student having to raise £3,000 - the money will go towards transport and accommodation.

Students have come up with their own initiatives to raise money for the trip - Charlie has his own website at www.100villas.co.uk, while others have taken on part-time jobs, a female student has completed a 15km run and raised £400.

Preparations have included fitness training and learning skills that will be needed in Cambodia, including putting up a hammock.

Taunton School will also be participating in fundraising projects - so far they have had an Easter egg sale and sold roses.

*For this and all the top local stories get the Somerset County Gazette on Thursdays.
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Cambodia's largest union threatens strike if wages decrease

Phnom Penh - Members of Cambodia's largest and most powerful union will call a national strike if the National Assembly votes to decrease night wages this month, its president said Monday.

Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTU), warned that the union's members would strike if the National Assembly decides to lower night wages from 200 to 130 per cent of day rates in a vote scheduled for May 17.

'The workers will strike and the union will support them. It is their constitutional right to do so under Chapter 13 of the Cambodian Constitution,' Mony said.

He said the FTU has 70,000 members. Most of these are in the garment industry.

Garment manufacturers have complained that Cambodia's high overheads and wages compared to other garment producing nations could make it a less desirable production base in coming years compared to cheaper countries such as Bangladesh and neighbouring Vietnam.

Cambodia relies heavily on its garment sector, which along with tourism and construction is one of three pillars on which the narrowly based national economy is firmly fixed.

Mony also warned that the issue would become a political hot potato in the lead-up to the 2008 general elections scheduled for next July for the ruling Cambodian People's Party if it used its numbers to force the bill through.

Mony took over as president of the prominent union after his brother and founding president, Chea Vichea, was shot dead in 2004. The union is generally seen as sympathetic to the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.
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Thailand gives neighbours a lift

By Daniel Ten Kate
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A few months ago, Larry Cunningham of Phuket One Realestate had a Hong Kong-based client looking to invest US$50 million in Thailand.

“We showed them several large sites, and they were making all the right moves,” he says. But then Thailand’s military-installed government shocked investors on December 18 by introducing a 30% reserve requirement on all foreign funds. For Cunningham’s client, $15 million would need to sit in an interest-free account for one year.

The proposition killed the deal with Phuket One. But the property fund still wanted to invest the money in the region, and chose Cambodia instead.

The experience typifies a trend property developers have seen of late: Thailand’s loss is very much the gain of other countries in the region.

Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia are all benefiting from the government’s poorly implemented capital controls and proposed changes to foreign ownership laws. Investors who would’ve never given those countries a look are now making inquiries, and, in some cases, closing deals.

“Absolutely Thailand’s problems have benefited neighboring countries,” says Robert Collins, managing director of Agency and Investment Services for Savills (Thailand) Limited. “Malaysia in particular has benefited, and to some extent the residential side in Vietnam.”

But though Thailand’s regional competitiveness is lagging for the moment, the news isn’t all bad by any means. Most property developers agree that once the government gets its act together and sets clear economic policies that restore certainty to the market, Thailand will again be the top choice for property funds and investors.

“Thailand doesn’t have a natural competitor in the region,” Collins says. “If ownership structures become clear or sentiment reverses, we’ll see a huge outpouring of pent-up demand. It might not happen until next week or for another year. But the exciting mix and interest in Thailand is not going away.”

Until the military ousted elected premier Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup last September, Thailand’s property market was looking up. High economic growth, well-developed infrastructure and plenty of exotic tourist destinations made Thailand an attractive play for major property funds.

“Institutional investors have always had a stronger interest in Asia’s bigger property markets like Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong and Singapore,” says Aliwassa Pathnadabutr, managing director of CB Richard Ellis (Thailand) Co., Ltd. “Interest has been growing in Thailand in recent years as part of the globalization of the property industry and the availability of investment properties in Thailand.”

That upward climb was knocked off kilter by the interim government’s unclear policy measures at the end of last year. The nationalist rhetoric of several key ministers, including former finance minister Pridiyathorn Devakula and Commerce Minister Krik-Krai Jirapaet, troubled investors whose holdings were based on a nominee legal structure that was suddenly deemed illegal after decades of widespread acceptance.

Although Pridiyathorn has seen been removed and his replacement, Chalongphob Sussangkarn, has toned down the patriotic bluster, it remains unclear what the new policy will look like. The capital controls remain, albeit watered down, while several drafts of the Foreign Business Act are floating around (see story).

The confused regulatory climate has led property funds to take another glance at Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia. But though these countries are perceived to be more business-friendly at the moment, the lack of infrastructure in some areas is still limiting sales.

“Thailand’s problems have increased the level of interest in Vietnam, but we are very underdeveloped in terms of development in both the retail/residential condo and office markets as well as the tourist/resort and hospitality sectors,” says Marc Townsend, managing director of CB Richard Ellis (Vietnam) Co., Ltd.

Vietnam’s economy is humming along at seven to eight percent per year, however, and the country just entered the World Trade Organization. Although WTO entry provides mostly a symbolic boost, many investors see a good opportunity to jump in early in what looks to be a promising growth story.

“Vietnam is suddenly the flavour of the month,” said Alastair Orr Ewing, chairman of Chesterton Petty Vietnam Ltd, the longest running real estate agent in the country with a staff of 230. “WTO entry has focused attention and the vital statistics look excellent. It is a ground floor opportunity in a market with great potential.”

Andrew Brown, country head of Jones Lang LaSalle Vietnam Ltd, said “the attractiveness of the Vietnamese market is driven by the strong work ethics, social and political stability, lower labour costs, attractive tax incentives and overall government support in the country. Another key factor in Vietnam´s favour has been the MNC´s drive for the so-called China plus one scenario, wherein they seek to reduce their excessive dependence on China and to more evenly spread their business risk in Asia.”

The legal structure in Vietnam is different than Thailand primarily in that it offers leases up to 50 years that are often renewable. Thailand offers 30-year renewable leases, but it remains unclear if they are binding if the freehold owner dies. This has led some property developers here to offer money-back guarantees to lure investors, but nearly all agree the government should offer a 90-year lease.

“The biggest problem facing the property market in Thailand is not necessarily the actions, but the perceptions of what the government is doing,” says Phuket One’s Cunningham. “I have clients who bought condominiums or leasehold sending urgent emails asking if their purchase is safe and secure even though they are not affected by the foreign business law changes. What the government must do is create something positive, and the easiest way to do that is increasing the percentage of condos that foreigners can buy from 45 percent to 75 percent or 90 percent, and offer 90-year leases.”

In Cambodia, laws are very much still being developed, and property values are difficult to ascertain. Still, the government has taken early steps to make the property market more attractive, in part by cracking down on land grabbing by corrupt soldiers and bureaucrats.

After years of isolation, Cambodia is finally seeing some high economic growth rates and an emerging middle class in Phnom Penh. The prospect of an oil discovery in Khmer waters of the Gulf of Thailand has increased optimism about Cambodia’s economic prospects. Beachfront property in Cambodia from Sihanoukville to Kep is becoming very attractive to investors who want to purchase virgin territory.

Coincidentally, foreigners can own land in Cambodia through a nominee structure in the same way foreigners did so in Thailand for decades. But after Thailand’s recent crackdown on nominees, investors may want to think twice.

Foreigners can’t own land in Vietnam, but Malaysia offers freehold ownership on properties costing more than $70,000. In addition, foreigners can get 60-year leases, 10-year renewable visas and take out loans from local banks, benefits not awarded to foreign investors in Thailand.

“Malaysia offers extremely sensible limited freehold property rights,” said Collins from Savills. “Of 1,500 foreigners that bought freehold in Malaysia, I’d say about 1,000 of them would´ve bought in Thailand if a similar package was available here.”

Malaysia certainly has plenty of upsides. Laws are clear and buying property is much easier than in other countries in the region. Moreover, the government is openly welcoming foreigners to invest through campaigns like “Malaysia My Second Home.”

The Malaysian economy is growing steadily at about six percent per year, higher than Thailand, which will grow between four and five percent this year. The Malaysian government is also close to completing a trade deal with the US that will likely give a further boost to trade and investment.

For property developers, however, beachfront property in Malaysia is very difficult to own, as most is reserved for Malays only. In addition, the nightlife and entertainment generally pales in comparison to that of Thailand.

When it comes to luxury housing in resort areas, Thailand is in a league of its own. Destinations like Phuket, Koh Samui, Pattaya, Krabi and Hua Hin all have unique personalities and easy access. Resort areas in Vietnam or Cambodia are much more difficult to get to.

“Nice resort locations in Vietnam are not easy to access,” Collins said. “A buyer based in Hong Kong who has a resort for weekend use can fly direct to Phuket and take a 15-minute car drive or fly to Vietnam and take a taxi drive and then a one-hour boat ride. There’s quite a bit difference in terms of convenience.”

Thailand is also a much more mature market than others in the region. The value represented in Cambodia and Vietnam now could quickly evaporate if a flood of foreign money enters and creates a bubble.

In that regard, many developers were not opposed to restrictions on foreign ownership in the Thai market. But many said those restrictions should be carefully thought out so as not to dampen the overall investment climate and hinder economic growth.

“The leading economies such as Japan are much more open to foreign institutional property investors,” said CBRE Thailand’s Aliwassa. “As the other countries are liberalizing their country´s economies and property policies, Thailand has become more restrictive, which will weaken its position in the competition to attract property funds and investors.”

All in all, property developers here are eager to hear some good news and see the Thai market catch up with Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and China. The new finance minister may have stopped the free fall into economic nationalism, but actions speak louder than words.

“I’m sick of turning on CNN and the BBC and seeing international news programs telling people not to purchase in Thailand,” says Cunningham from Phuket One. “The government must make changes now to send out a positive vibe that Thailand does welcome foreigners.”
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Cambodia inviting for Vietnamese investors

VietNamNet Bridge – While competition in many areas is fierce in the domestic market, some companies in HCM City have begun to approach a neighbouring market – Cambodia.

The Dong Thien Joint Stock Company has nearly stopped its business in Vietnam to focus on a sand exploiting project in Cambodia. Its branch in Cambodia has been set up already and will become operational this June.

Assistant to Dong Thien’s General Director, Nguyen Phuc Son, said that the VND20 billion (US$1.25 million) sand exploiting project in Cambodia was the biggest one of Dong Thien to date. The company can exploit up to 7,000 cu.m of sand each week to export to Vietnam.

“Sand in Cambodia meets Vietnam’s standards for construction sand. The local market is now short of this material so the market for sand is extremely large,” said Mr Phuc.

Only one hour by bus from HCM City, Cambodia has become an attractive destination for many companies in the city thanks to its low labour cost, spacious land, and open market.

Twenty-seven Vietnamese companies have opened branches, representative offices and invested in projects in Cambodia. This number is double compared to two years ago. Main fields for Vietnamese investment are health, agriculture, transport, telecom, and hydro power production.

The Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI) has recently licenced the Saigon Trade Corporation (Satra) to form a joint venture with Sokimex Group to build big plants to process cashews and seafood, to breed cows and to build a supermarket in Cambodia.

Four travel companies, the Saigon Mekong Joint Stock Company, Saigontourist, Cho Lon Tourist, and Fiditour, have cooperated with Cambodian partners to bring tourists from HCM City to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap by land, air and water.

The US$10.5 million Cho Ray-Phnom Penh hospital project is underway, in which the Saigon Health Investment Joint Stock Company is contributing two-thirds of the capital and the remaining is coming from Cambodian partners. The representative office of this joint venture has been set up and is waiting for an investment licence from the Cambodian government.

However, investment in Cambodia still faces many difficulties. A project between the Viet Nga Infrastructure Investment Joint Stock Company and the Mong Reththy Group to establish a joint venture to build a road from the hub of Phnom Penh to Cambodia’s international airport in the form of build-operate-transfer (BOT) was canceled at the last minute because of some problems such as site clearance.

Nguyen Van Hung, representative of a rubber company in the southern province of Dong Nai which has a rubber growing project in Cambodia, also had to abandon his project due to problems associated with site clearance.

Deputy Director of the Department of Planning and Investment of the southern province of Tay Ninh, Tran Luu Quang, complained that even Vietnamese agencies caused problems for companies investing in Cambodia. He gave an example that many companies in Tay Ninh that want to grow cashews and cassavas in Cambodia but when they import cashews and cassavas to Vietnam as materials they face difficulties in customs formalities.

“Because of high import tax rates and no preferences, many companies are discouraged and leave their projects unfinished,” Mr Quang said. He said he hoped that relevant bodies like the Ministries of Trade and Finance and customs agencies would address these problems.

(Source: VNE)
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Interest conflict over Khmer Rouge History in Cambodia



By Erika Kinetz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 8, 2007; Page A14

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, May 7 -- In a country where half the students who enter grammar school never finish, Cheak Socheata, 18, is among the most privileged of her generation: She made it to college.

But even Cheak, a first-year medical student at Phnom Penh's University of Health Sciences, has learned next to nothing in school about the Khmer Rouge, who in a little less than four years in power executed, tortured and starved to death an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians, about a quarter of the population.

"I just heard from my parents that there was mass killing, Cheak said. "It's hard to believe." Her high school history teacher told her the basics -- the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 -- and advised her to read about the rest on her own, she recalled.

Nearly three decades after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, a battle over history is underway in Cambodia. On one side are forces eager to reckon with the past, both in school and at a special court set up to try the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Many teachers, students and activist groups say more should be taught about the Khmer Rouge years, which is virtually absent from school curriculums now.

Blunting these demands is a government whose top leaders were once associated with the now-defunct communist movement and who seem loath to cede control over such a politically sensitive chapter of Cambodian history.

"Suppose that ever since 1945, Germany had been ruled by former Nazis," said Philip Short, author of "Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare," a biography of the Khmer Rouge leader published in 2004. "Would the history of the Nazi regime be taught honestly in Germany today? This is now Cambodia's problem."

A new high school textbook about the era, the first written by a Cambodian, was recently published by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an independent institute in Phnom Penh that specializes in Khmer Rouge history. In "A History of Democratic Kampuchea," author Khamboly Dy, 26, spells out in 11 detailed chapters the rise, reign and fall of the Khmer Rouge, who called themselves the Communist Party of Kampuchea and the country, Democratic Kampuchea.

A Cambodian government review panel deemed the book unsuitable for use in the regular curriculum. Instead, the panel said the book could be used as supplementary reference material and as a basis for the Ministry of Education to write its own textbook.

"It's a start. The door is open," said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center, which has been pushing to get a textbook into classrooms since 1999.

Short said Khamboly's text is hard to fault on substantive historical grounds. "It deserves to be not merely an approved textbook for Cambodian schools but a compulsory text, which all Cambodian schoolchildren should be required to study," he said.

Its sidelining reflects the failure of the country's current leaders to move beyond their Khmer Rouge past, he said. Prime Minister Hun Sen, National Assembly President Heng Samrin and Senate President Chea Sim were all middle-ranking Khmer Rouge officials, he said.

The three men left Cambodia for Vietnam in the late 1970s and returned with Vietnamese army forces that overthrew Pol Pot in 1979. Today, their political legitimacy rests in part on their credentials as men who helped free Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge tyranny.

Heng Samrin said it was unfair to implicate him and other top officials of the ruling Cambodian People's Party in the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.

In an interview with a Cambodian journalist, he maintained that the term "Khmer Rouge" refers only to people who joined the National United Front of Kampuchea, which in the first half of the 1970s fought the U.S.-backed Lon Nol government but later betrayed the revolution and killed innocent people.

He and his colleagues only fought to liberate Cambodia from Lon Nol and his imperialist henchmen, he said. "We were not involved in the Khmer Rouge regime," he said, adding that he had been only a "simple soldier."

Khamboly said that picking his way through politically charged points was the most difficult aspect of writing the book, which was printed with $10,000 from the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy. By citing sources, focusing on survivor stories and seeking neutral language, Khamboly said, he hoped to avoid political tussles.

It wasn't enough. The committee that reviewed the text criticized it for giving too much attention to the years after 1979, when Cambodian factions fought a long civil war, and for tracing the roots of the Khmer Rouge back to the struggle against French colonization and to Ho Chi Minh's Indochinese Communist Party.

Committee members also said naming individuals associated with the Khmer Rouge government was "unnecessary" and a threat to their safety.

History "should be kept for at least 60 years before starting to discuss it," said committee member Sorn Samnang, president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, a graduate school, according to the minutes of a Dec. 14 meeting of the review panel.

There is a long-standing political debate in Cambodia over whether Vietnam liberated or invaded the country when it ousted the Khmer Rouge.

Khamboly's book uses neither term, saying only that Vietnamese forces "fought their way into Cambodia."

"We use facts," Khamboly said. "Whether they invaded or liberated the country is an interpretation."

But in Cambodia, as in other post-conflict states, there are few facts that belong to everybody. In a Sept. 19 letter to Hun Sen, the premier, his education adviser, Sean Borat, generally praised the book but took issue with Khamboly's failure to characterize the Vietnamese action as a liberation.

He also objected to the book's characterization of Cambodians who returned with the Vietnamese in 1979 as "Khmer Rouge defectors." That phrase, Sean Borat wrote, must be deleted because "the Cambodian People's Party did not originate from Khmer Rouge soldiers but from a massive movement that emerged to oppose the brutal regime led by Pol Pot."
The offending phrase was removed from the final version of the book.

Young Cambodians haven't been formally taught much about the Khmer Rouge in school since propaganda texts of the 1980s, when Cambodia was ruled by the communist government that the Vietnamese installed. Those books depicted the Khmer Rouge with such graphic ferocity that some children grew up thinking they were actual monsters.

These books were taken out of use in 1991, when U.N.-brokered peace talks ended more than a decade of civil war and led to elections.

In 2002, a 12th-grade history textbook touching on the Pol Pot years was introduced but quickly recalled after controversy arose over the book's omission of the 1993 electoral victory of the royalist Funcinpec party. A new version of the text has yet to appear. Ministry of Education officials say they plan to publish a new book in 2009; they blame the delay on lack of funds.

In the meantime, Cambodia's youth are "a lost generation," said Chea Vannath, former president of the Center for Social Development, a local rights group. In the absence of a shared national story about the Khmer Rouge, a thousand conversations, fractured by politics, rumor, myth and the varieties of human experience are being passed down to a sometimes skeptical younger generation.

"When a kid doesn't eat all the rice on the plate, his mother tells him, 'If you were in the Pol Pot regime, you would die because you don't have enough food,' " said Nou Va, 27, a program officer at the Khmer Institute for Democracy, a nonprofit group that recently produced a documentary film about the generation gap. "The kid says, 'Oh, she's just saying that to blame us. I don't believe it.' "

The battle for history is also being waged at a former military headquarters on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where a special tribunal set up by the United Nations and the Cambodian government is struggling to bring to justice those leaders of the Khmer Rouge who survive. (Pol Pot died in 1998.)

Efforts to establish the court go back a decade. Despite recent signs of progress toward convening trials, many observers have concluded that the Cambodian government is not ready for a truly independent inquiry into this chapter of the nation's past.

"Were Hun Sen and his colleagues to permit an honest appraisal of the past, it would be the best proof that they have finally broken with that past and moved out from under the shadow of their Khmer Rouge origins," Short said. "Unfortunately, all the signs continue to point in the opposite direction."

Cheak, the medical student, has a more immediate concern. It's about Khamboly's new book. "Where," she asked, "can I get a copy?"
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