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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Love and sorrow for Cambodian bride

By Mark Freeman
Mail Tribune
May 27, 2007

Young husband's tragic death shakes Medford family; spouse remains trapped by red tape half a world away.
As Steven Bouknight's loved ones assembled May 5 in a Medford church to grieve the 21-year-old's death together, his bride was sobbing alone halfway across the world.

Sochea Bouknight, Steven's 20-year-old wife for all of seven weeks, remained stuck in her native Cambodia, snarled in red tape.

Steven's parents, Ronnie and Susan Bouknight, had pleaded with the U.S. Embassy to grant Sochea an emergency visa so she could be at the funeral with the in-laws she'd never met.

Steven's body even laid in cold storage for two weeks as the Bouknights begged to get Sochea on a plane to Medford, where the young couple had planned to settle in a guest house behind the Bouknights' west Medford home.

But U.S. officials in Phnom Penh said no, without any explanation, family members said.

"It was appalling," Susan Bouknight said.

The Bouknights had no choice but to cremate Steven's body May 10, 12 days after he fell to his death while hiking Upper Table Rock outside of White City.

Sochea missed her last chance to see the man she married in a lavish Cambodian wedding.

"This wasn't some mail-order bride thing," Susan Bouknight said. "It was one of those really special loves.

"And she couldn't even come touch him to say goodbye."

Now the Bouknights hope to salvage what's left of the couple's short union.

They want a permanent visa for Sochea to live in Medford with her in-laws, and Susan Bouknight is putting her pit-bull-like personality at work to make that happen.

She's solicited the help of U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, whose staff has made inquiries on behalf of the family. She's peppered the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia with requests, documents and even letters and poems Steven wrote to Sochea to prove this was love and not some opportunistic girl's meal-ticket to America.

"We're trying to do things legally, the right way, but we just don't understand the embassy's logic," Susan Bouknight said.

"I don't think we're ever going to put up with it," she said. "We'll fight it until our last breath."

The marriage between Sochea and Steven cemented a 27-year-old relationship of depth and breadth between two families from opposite ends of the globe.

It started in 1980, when Susan Bouknight met and befriended Chhorn Non, a Cambodian immigrant who lived around the corner from her family's apartment on Columbus Avenue.

Non taught English to new immigrants and was a frequent traveler to Cambodia, where he tried to set up schools. He then married another Cambodian native and brought her to Medford three years later.

Chhorn and Linda Non's daughter, Chandvattei, and Steven were born two weeks apart in 1986.

While the kids played together, the parents kicked a Hacky Sack around. They took turns baby-sitting.

Steven over time came to call Chhorn and Linda "Lopok" and "Nana," words of reverence in Cambodia.

"Our families have always been intertwined," Susan Bouknight said.

Through his years, Steven developed into a sensitive and complex young man who exuded charm and charisma, family members said.

He regularly watched professional wrestling with an 80-year-old, housebound neighbor, just so she could have a little company. He sang in the South Medford High School choir, and wanted one day to join the U.S. Army despite a bum knee.

Steven longed to have a family of his own in recent years, but dating was a series of relationships that always crashed and burned.

In 2006, Steven had a serious girlfriend with two young children. He acted like a father around them, Susan Bouknight said.

Steven later hocked his pickup truck to lend money to the girlfriend, who later dumped him.

"Like women who find butt-head guys, he just couldn't find a good girl," Susan Bouknight said.

As Steven brooded over this failed romance, Linda Non had an idea.

"I say, 'Why don't you meet my niece?' " she said.

Sochea Sam was 19, freshly moved from her village to live with her grandmother and attend school in Cambodia's capital city of Phnom Penh. She, too, was bubbly and sensitive and a family-oriented kid who liked to joke and "ham it up," much like Steven, Susan Bouknight said.

The Bouknights and Nons decided it was worth a shot, so they had Steven and Sochea exchange photographs.

Steven was enamored with Sochea's porcelain skin, her long black hair and engaging smile. Sochea, too, took to Steven's red curls, tall frame and soft grin.

With their mutual attraction instant, Steven and Sochea put the whirl in whirlwind.

"All the giggles on the phone, everything," Susan Bouknight said.

After six months of e-mails, phone calls and pictures, the couple decided to wed.

"They had the same ideas," said Linda Non, 50, of Medford. "That's how people fall in love."

Steven flew to Cambodia in late February. He was soon followed by the Nons, who were on a long-planned extended trip to visit family there.

The Bouknights, both in their 50s and on disability, couldn't afford the flight. So the Nons stood in for the Bouknights during their traditional Cambodian wedding March 10.

The ceremony lasted three days and drew 300 people. Nine hundred attended the reception. Bright traditional dress and swords gave way to western suits, tuxedoes and white gowns like costume changes.

"Everyone who saw them together said it was magical," Susan Bouknight said. "Even the photographer who took their pictures was so impressed by them. The photographer even cried."

So did Steven two weeks later when he flew home to Medford alone, eager to clear the route for his bride to follow.

Working two jobs and still holding onto his military dream, Steven began a workout regimen that included regular hikes up Upper Table Rock. There, on April 28, the worlds of two families on two continents fell apart.

As Steven peered over a ledge, rocks gave way under his feet. He fell 30 feet and died from injuries while in the arms of his brother, Billy Simmonds.

That night, the loss spread across the International Dateline.

Linda Non, still in Cambodia, became physically ill when Susan Bouknight called with the news.

A group of family members told Sochea. She collapsed in a pile of sobs that still have yet to subside.

"I can't talk long with her because she's still crying," Non said. "I don't know what to say.

"This broke my heart," she said.

Immediately, Susan Bouknight began telephoning the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, seeking an emergency visa so Sochea could attend the funeral. Embassy officials asked for a death certificate, but Steven's body was still at the state medical examiner's office.

The family sent a news clipping about the accident instead.

Sochea went to the embassy, asking for the visa. Officials said no and sent her home.

The Bouknights then faxed the embassy copies of Steven's death certificate, the couple's shared e-mails, letters about other family members in the United States, and an affidavit vowing the Bouknights' financial support for Sochea.

This time, embassy staff called Sochea "a silly girl," told her to stop crying and go home, Susan Bouknight said.

One time, embassy officials asked for a letter from Steven detailing how he wanted Sochea to move to the United States. Steven can't write one, the Bouknights responded. He's dead.

Two e-mail inquiries on the family's behalf from Smith's staff in Washington, D.C., have gone unanswered, Smith spokesman R.C. Hammond said.

"We're trying to help the family to the best of our abilities," Hammond said. "We've yet to hear back from them."

In an e-mail response to the Mail Tribune, J. Jeff Daigle, the embassy's public-affairs officer in Phnom Penh, said visa applications are protected by privacy laws and cannot be discussed with the media.

"Therefore, I am unable to confirm or deny that a visa application was made in this case," Daigle wrote.

The Bouknights said they are tired of what they consider to be perpetual snubs from the embassy.

They just want the government to get out of the way and let their daughter-in-law come to Medford.

"It's hard. It tests your faith," Susan Bouknight said. "But all these people from all around the world came together for Steven and Sochea.

"I just have to remind myself that it's part of a bigger picture," she said.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail
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Cambodia firm tees up new golf course

HA NOI — The Tay Ninh People’s Committee from the southern western province has recently sent an application to the Government to allow Cambodian CVI Resort Ltd build a golf course at Moc Bai border gate between Viet Nam and Cambodia.

The project is part of the co-operative framework on social economic development between the neighbouring provinces of Viet Nam’s Tay Ninh and Cambodia’s Svay Rieng which was agreed and signed by the leaders of both sides on January 12 this year.

Under the plan, the golf course will cover an area of 120ha with half each to be located in Viet Nam and Cambodia. The golf course will consist of a park, 18 hole-course, hotels, restaurants, and tax free shops.

According to the project investors, the area in Cambodia has been granted a licence by the Cambodian goverment and they have made detailed plans for the Vietnamese goverment approval. — VNS
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'I'll never get over Cambodia'

Many children expertly navigating bowls and pots approach tour boats to beg.

Homes on stilts are built on quiet river banks.

This Killing Field monument in Siem Reap is half-full of bones of Khmer Rouge victims. As many as three million people may have died during that dreadful time.

Country a paradox of both riches and tragedy
"Why are we going to Cambodia?" I kept asking my husband, who had signed up for it as an extension to our China trip last fall.
"Because it's in the neighborhood," he would reply.

What a paradox is Cambodia. We stayed in the burgeoning city of Siem Reap and found a beautiful, tropical place, filled with warm, friendly, hospitable people.

It's also a place steeped in poverty, illiteracy, and memories of the terrors suffered under the Khmer Rouge some 30 years ago.

The women mostly stay home with their children or sell things in the markets. They outnumber men almost two to one, meaning the men may have several wives and many, many children -- all of them, near as I could tell, adorable.

It's hot and humid in Cambodia, and things move slowly -- the rivers, the people (except those on motor scooters), progress. The people are struggling against terrible odds to move into a more contemporary way of life and become a modern society attractive to tourists.

And they're succeeding. We did many interesting things beyond our usual sphere of activities, such as taking an ox-cart ride, going up in an air balloon, eating lotus roots, and happening upon a colorful Buddhist wedding celebration.
We saw monkeys, live pigs being taken to market on motor scooters, begging children paddling around in pots on a lake, homes with TVs and stereos but no refrigerators, and a monk smoking a cigarette. ("Oh, he'll be going to Hell," explained our guide carelessly.)

We spent a fascinating morning at a silk farm, where we saw the entire process from the field of mulberry trees, the feeding of the silkworms, and the caring for the cocoons, to the dying, spinning, and weaving, and finally (perhaps my favorite part) the gift shop.

Another day we visited a lake with an entire community, including shops, school, and church, floating on its surface. More than 5,000 people live there in houseboats, relocating as indicated by fishing consitions and seasonal flooding. One home even sported a pig lounging on an attached raft.

We were captivated by assorted ruins of ancient temples. The most famous one is Angkor Wat. This is a huge, sprawling structure, and you must climb some really ghastly, steep stairs if you want to see all of it.

I declined to do this, figuring I might possibly get up, but there was no way I would ever get down. Eventually I came upon a cool first-level niche full of other overweight elderly people awaiting their more ambitious companions.

It's taken me a long time to write about Cambodia, mostly because it had such a profound effect on me. Actually, it kind of broke my heart. You can't get away from the war and the awful legacy of the Khmer Rouge. So many who lived through it refer to the most appalling atrocities with horrifying casualness.

These wonderful, poor people. Most can't even afford to love their pet dogs; they know they may be forced by hunger to eat them. How wealthy Americans are -- we can love our pets!

Why go to Cambodia? Because the people have so much culture, beauty, history and tradition to share. Because it is a society rising from its ashes with pride and determination. Because it's a very real part of our world.

I'll never get over Cambodia -- I don't think I ever should.

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U.S. Chevron to produce oil, gas in Cambodia in 2008

The U.S. oil giant Chevron has finished its exploration at offshore Cambodia and will start oil and gas production in 2008, local media said on Sunday.

Chevron has transferred its exploration equipment from Cambodia 's seaport city Sihanoukville to its working site and now plans to import new equipment through the port for oil and gas production, the Chinese language newspaper Sin Chew Daily quoted a municipal government official as saying.

"Senior Chevron staff members told me by phone that the exploration is completed and the rigs will start working to produce oil and gas next year," said Lou Kim Chhun, whose capacity in the government remained unclear.

Meanwhile, the Cambodian Natural Gas and Petroleum Agency confirmed that it imposes no control on Chevron's activities in Cambodia.

Chevron, together with LG from South Korea and a Japanese company, is allowed by the Cambodian government to invest and conduct exploration at its western sea shore.

At least 700 million barrels of crude oil are estimated to lie off the coast and the Cambodian government is now preparing an oil and gas management law in anticipation of oil and gas revenues starting from 2009 or 2010.

Source: Xinhua

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Cambodia starts wheelchair race for handicapped Olympics

Cambodia held the first round of the ANZ Royal-CNVLD Wheelie Grand Prix in Phnom Penh on Saturday to select the best racers of the kingdom for the upcoming handicapped Olympics next year in Beijing.

One man and one woman athletes aced out from 25 other contenders in Satruday's 500-meter and 5,000-meter races and they are expected to attend more races in the future, until the best ones are found for the Olympics.

Around 200 peopel watched the prix in downtown Phnom Penh, under the banners which read "You don't need legs to run like the wind."

The race was sponsored by the Australian-New Zealand Royal Bank.

Source: Xinhua
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Tug of War Over Indochina

Amid growing talk of creating an East Asian Community in recent years, Japan and China have been jockeying for the leadership role in what will be the long and arduous process of community building.

The two Asian powers have competed for stronger and closer ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Although the 10 ASEAN members are much smaller than Japan and China in economic size individually, they wield a strong voice in East Asian affairs as a group.
As East Asia began to move toward greater regional economic integration several years ago, China had a head start over Japan in strengthening ties with ASEAN by signing a free-trade agreement (FTA). The Sino-ASEAN FTA took effect in July 2005. Japan and ASEAN are still negotiating an FTA, although they are expected to ink the deal this year.

Two-way trade between China and ASEAN has been growing at a much faster pace than that between Japan and ASEAN. China's investment in ASEAN is also surging sharply, although the amount is still dwarfed by Japan's investment in the grouping.

China has taken a lead over Japan on the political front as well. China signed ASEAN's 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in October 2003, a few months before Japan did. Japan initially balked at signing the ASEAN treaty, which provides for, among other things, peaceful settlement of conflicts and non-interference in internal affairs, out of political consideration to its most important ally, the United States.

In 2001, China signed a "Declaration of Conduct" with ASEAN to prevent conflicts in the South China Sea, where China, four of the ASEAN members -- Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei -- and Taiwan claim all or part of the Spratly Islands. In March 2005, China agreed with Vietnam and the Philippines to explore for oil in the disputed waters.

These aggressive Chinese peace overtures toward ASEAN apparently reflect a desire to assuage the perception of China among some in ASEAN as the most serious security threat to their countries and thereby to forge closer ties with the grouping. Cementing ties with ASEAN in general -- and the joint oil-exploration agreement with Vietnam and the Philippines in particular -- is also seen as part of efforts to preempt a possible U.S.-led containment of China.

The Sino-Japanese tug-of-war over greater influence in Southeast Asia has also opened a new front -- the Mekong River basin. Moves by Japan and China to help the development of the Mekong River basin have intensified in recent years.

The 4,425-kilometer Mekong River originates in Tibet and flows through China's Yunnan province, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam into the South China Sea. It is the main artery for Indochina. The Mekong basin, abundant in natural and human resources, has attracted much attention as an untapped frontier for development since the early 1990s, after an end to the civil war in Cambodia and other Cold War hostilities in the region.

The Mekong region is increasingly seen by many Japanese and Chinese companies as a promising investment destination. But for Japan and China, assistance in the development of the Mekong region has also become a very important avenue to strengthened ties with the entire ASEAN.

For ASEAN, correcting the so-called "ASEAN divide" -- the huge gap in wealth between rich and poor members -- is a high priority as the grouping accelerates its economic integration with an ultimate goal of creating a fully integrated ASEAN Economic Community by 2015. Per capita income of Myanmar, for example, is less than one-hundredth of that of Singapore. The Mekong River's development is widely believed to hold the key to the development of war-battered Indochina as a whole.

In the early 1990s, after years of civil war ended in Cambodia, Japan took the leadership role in efforts to develop the Mekong region, backed by its huge aid money, and secured a strong influence in the region. Japan also hosted an international peace conference for Cambodia in June 1990. It was the first time since the end of World War II that Japan had hosted an international conference to discuss peace in a third country. The warring factions in Cambodia signed a peace agreement in Paris in October the following year.

In 1992, Japan enacted a historic law enabling its Self-Defense Forces to participate in United Nations-sponsored peacekeeping operations abroad. Under the law, SDF troops were dispatched to join U.N. peacekeeping efforts in Cambodia prior to the country's first postwar election in the spring of 1993. It marked the first overseas mission for SDF troops. Sending troops abroad had previously been a taboo in Japan because of the country's war-renouncing, post-World War II constitution.

With the turn of the millennium, however, China began to turn the tables on Japan, while Japan rested on its laurels. China has aggressively sought to cozy up to individual ASEAN members, including in Indochina, as well as ASEAN as a whole in recent years. A greater commitment to the development of the Mekong region is part of such efforts. Unlike Vietnam, which has a relatively large economy, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have been heavily reliant on Thailand for economic growth. But Thailand's influence in Indochina has been eroded since the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis, and China has filled the gap.

Among other initiatives, China hosted the second summit of the Asian Development Bank (ADB)-sponsored Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Economic Cooperation program in Kunming, capital of China's Yunnan province, in July 2005. The GMS has Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and China as full members.

China has also offered financial and other assistance programs for the development of the GMS, has forgiven more than $1 billion in debts owed by Cambodia to China, and has expanded preferential tariffs for imports from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. China has set up a special fund totaling $20 million within the ADB for poverty alleviation of the region. China has also provided military as well as economic aid to Myanmar in defiance of international criticism of that military-ruled country.

It would be fair to note, though, that China has attached a particular importance to the development of the Mekong region, primarily for domestic reasons. China hopes to turn the poorer western part of the vast country into a magnet for domestic and foreign investors and thereby to correct the widening gap in wealth with the flourishing eastern coastal areas, an issue that could threaten the country's political stability and even the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

Japan has funded infrastructure projects transcending national borders in Indochina on its own or in partnership with the ADB. China has also stepped up financial assistance for the development of that region, flexing its rapidly growing economic muscles.

Two big highway projects crisscrossing Indochina are seen by many as a symbol of the intensifying race for regional influence between Japan and China. One is the East-West Corridor project, led by Japan, to build a major highway, including the Second Mekong Friendship Bridge over the river, to link the port of Da Nang in central Vietnam, Savannakhet in southern Laos, Mukdahan in northeastern Thailand and then Mawlamyine in southern Myanmar. This project was almost completed at the end of last year.

The other is the North-South Corridor project, led by China, to build a highway linking Kunming and Bangkok via Laos. This project is expected to be completed by the end of next year. Japan balked at funding the Chinese-led project, partly for fear of lending China a hand to increase its influence southward in Indochina.

Apparently alarmed by China's rapidly growing political as well as economic influence, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan held talks with his counterparts from the so-called CLV nations -- Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam -- in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, in November 2004 for the first ever Japan-CLV summit. The second Japan-CLV summit was held in December 2005 in Kuala Lumpur.

At a foreign ministerial meeting between Japan and the CLV nations in the Philippines in January, Tokyo conveyed to the CLV nations its plan to host a ministerial meeting of Japan and five countries in the Mekong region, including the CLV nations, during fiscal 2007, which started in April, to discuss further cooperation for the region's development. In their talks earlier this month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also explained to visiting Laotian Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh Tokyo's decision to make the Mekong region a priority target area for its economic assistance and expand aid for Laos and other regional countries over the next three years.

China remains by far the most powerful magnet for Japanese and other foreign investors in Asia. But Japanese companies have been on an investment spree in Vietnam as well in the past couple of years. Vietnam's economic size and population pale before China's. But the nation has even cheaper labor. Vietnam has become an increasingly popular investment destination for Japanese firms seeking to reduce their excessive dependence on China and spread their business risks in Asia.

The investment pact between Japan and Vietnam took effect in late 2004. Japan and Vietnam also kicked off FTA negotiations in January, separately from FTA negotiations between Japan and the entire ASEAN. Vietnam was also admitted to the World Trade Organization in January. WTO membership, which obliges Vietnam to open its markets wider to foreign competition and make its trade and investment rules and regulations fully compatible with international norms, is expected to fuel Japanese and other foreign investment in the country.

Meanwhile, Japan and Cambodia are expected to sign an investment treaty next month, and a similar pact between Japan and Laos is also in the works. Investment treaties, coupled with the full opening of the East-West and North-South corridors to traffic, might give a boost to Japanese investment in Laos and Cambodia as well as Vietnam.

In his talks with Abe earlier this month, Bouasone expressed "his strong wish and commitment to develop special economic zones in other areas besides Savannakhet to make full use of the Second Mekong Friendship Bridge and highways under the East-West Economic Corridor framework," according to their joint press statement. Many Japanese-funded companies in Thailand are becoming more interested in investing in neighboring Laos to take advantage of the closeness between the Thai and Lao languages -- many Lao people can speak or read Thai -- as well as much cheaper labor in Laos.

Meanwhile, with the construction of infrastructure such as roads and bridges and simplification of customs procedures progressing between China and Vietnam as well as within Indochina, international forwarders have begun to move to establish land transportation networks linking China and Southeast Asia. TNT of the Netherlands, for example, is preparing to complete a 4,000-kilometer-long truck transportation network from Singapore to China via Vietnam by the end of this year. Nippon Express Co., Japan's largest forwarder, also plans to activate a 7,000-kilometer network liking the Chinese commercial hub of Shanghai and Singapore early next year.
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