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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Undercover in SE Asia's brothels

Reporter Thembi Mutch spent seven weeks in Thailand and Cambodia, finding out what life is like for children trafficked into the region's thriving sex industry.

I arrived in Thailand on Friday morning, and by the evening my researcher and I were already scouring the bars of Bangkok, attempting to work out our game plan.

We were in the region to find children who had been trafficked into sex work - those who are hidden away, often by armed pimps and traffickers in suburban bars and houses.
Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, although women and men are allowed to do bar work over the age of 18.

But in both Thailand and Cambodia, sex work is so lucrative for everyone involved that it is more blatant than almost anywhere else in the world.

It is not just tolerated, but unofficially, according to many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), it is actively encouraged by both the police and the government.

Posing as tourists

A recent memorandum of understanding between the countries in the Mekong region - including Thailand and Cambodia - has done much to stem child prostitution.

So too has more 10 years of aid work and advocacy by NGOs such as Save the Children and World Vision.

But despite this, resorts like the Thai beach town of Pattaya seem to be more like industrialised brothels than functioning towns.

The sex industry has also expanded to Cambodia, with many children employed as domestic workers, bricklayers, in fish processing plants, while at the same time dipping in and out of the best paid option, sex work.

Most of these children are not there voluntarily - they are trafficked.
Trafficking is helped along by the economic boom in South East Asia. The frantic rate of construction springing up in the region has brought more staff with a desire for young sex workers.

It is not an easy task to pose as "interested tourists" in these areas. We hung out on the streets at night, and got information of where children were working from local sex workers.

We recorded in blacked-out vehicles, changed hotels regularly, and I could never let the recording equipment be seen, or check my recordings, until I was safely inside the hotel.

Once, in Cambodia, we recorded traffickers making deals of children over coffee in a cafe in broad daylight.

The atmosphere was hostile, and the men were clearly on hard drugs, and drinking.

"Who are these people," I muttered to Ang, the ex-prostitute who was my fixer.

"They're Vietnamese and Cambodian government officials," she replied, and my heart sank.

We left immediately, aware that it costs $50 (£25) to hire a hit man in Cambodia.

We were followed almost continuously that day, and also on several others. Men on mopeds and motorbikes would pull up beside us as we raced through the capital Phnom Penh - me clutching Ang's waist, sitting pillion on her moped.

They would take a good, thorough look at my face, and then fall back behind us.

Tales of trafficking

As for the trafficked children, their stories defy words.

A 15-year-old girl in Cambodia said her parents had sold her to a man for her virginity. The man had drugged and raped her whilst she was unconscious.

After a week in the hotel room with this man, she was sold onto a brothel. There, she was gang-raped by 10 men posing as clients.
She escaped, by hiding in a rubbish bin, but was then tricked into prostitution again, staying for three years. Eventually she escaped, and knocked on the door of some strangers, who cared for her.

She then made a two-day bus journey to Phnom Penh, where she arrived three months ago.

I also met a chatty, bright and wide-eyed nine-year-old, who, under a mango tree in the countryside, described how she had been kidnapped from the streets of the capital, locked in a house for a month, and made to watch pornography and drink water with human faeces in it.

The traffickers know what they are doing. She and the other girls were beaten regularly and never allowed out - all part of a systematic campaign to break down the children so they were too confused to do anything about it.

These children did not even know what sex or trafficking is, and whether they will ever "recover" from their ordeal is an ongoing debate.
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Cambodia's temple tranquillity

ALWAYS thought that visiting Cambodia's Angkor temples would be like exploring a lost city.

For many years I had heard tales of crumbling ruins hidden from time by steamy triple-canopy jungle that echoed with birdsong and the call of mysterious animals.

I imagined walking along jungle tracks, coming upon a faded ruin only after the last strike of a guide's machete cleared an overgrown patch of scrub. But the reality of Siem Reap's Angkor is this: hordes of tourists and well-worn paths leading to crowded temples.

Pick the wrong time of the day to visit Angkor Wat, the most famous of the region's temple complexes and the symbol on the Cambodian flag, and you'll be sharing the site with thousands.

The tour buses start arriving mid-morning and drop their passengers on the other side of the moat, with tourists flooding across the Naga Causeway to the dusty temple compound.

While Angkor is now firmly on the tourist track there are still ways to guarantee that you get to see the temples without being surrounded by hundreds of other people, and one is to pick the time of the day you visit.

Start early, and head into the temples while they are still quiet.

If your target is Angkor Wat, which was built by Suryavarmsan II between 1113 and 1150, start at the back gate and work forward past the teams of locals tending the grounds.

Your first view of the grand temple will rise from the path as you walk up the slight incline and you will get to see parts of the complex that many visitors don't come close to, like the detailed carvings on the long walls of the outer gallery.

Angkor Wat is a combination of corridors and courtyards, that are revealed like a Russian matryoshka doll, and it all surrounds the central towers which reach like blooming rose buds towards the sky.

When you're walking towards the front gate, with the temple behind you, make sure you leave the pedestal path and walk to one of the side ponds where you can see the structure perfectly reflected in the still water.

After visiting Angkor Wat make the short drive to Angkor Tom which was known as the Great Capital and considered to be a settlement under the protection of the gods when it was home to millions in the 14th century.

At the centre of this ancient city is Banyon which is a dilapidated structure made up of 16 towers that are clustered together and each one has four giant faces carved into the stone.

After the original inhabitants moved out of this complex around 1600 it was given back to the jungle and only rediscovered in the 19th century, by which time it had crumbled and only some of the faces remained.

This place is a maze of tiny rooms, steep staircases leading to open ledges, and dark corridors and every step will reveal a different perspective of a ruin that's built from ageing black and grey stone set against a moody humid sky.

Further along the same road is the monastery temple of Jayavarman VII, called Preah Khan, and while the secret with Angkor Wat is to start early the hint to visiting this peaceful complex is to come during lunch.

It's the hottest part of the day, when the daytrippers are hiding from the searing heat in the hotel pool, so the crowds all but disappear and the silence of the Cambodian bush that hugs this steamy site is disturbed only by the buzz of insects.

While Angkor Wat and Thom are impressive in their dilapidated beauty, it's hard to imagine anyone using those structures in the past. But Preah Khan is just as it was when it was a thriving community and while some walls have tumbled, and are now just a pile of stone blocks, it's still clear to see where one room finished and the other started.

Climbing through the dark corridor, which takes some effort because different levels have appeared as paving blocks and have moved over time, the door frames become smaller which was a design feature to thwart invading armies.

Just as with every building at Angkor there are sprays of intricate carvings on every wall and it's no different at Preah Khan with little Apsaras – Angkor's trademark celestial nymphs – or faceless buddhas on every surface.

Preah Khan was also given back to the jungle when the original community abandoned the town and now this is where you will see trees growing out of stone.

Right at the back of the complex, near the stage where dancers and musicians performed for the aristocracy, a seed dropped into a shelf in the stone wall hundreds of years ago and today the roots of a plump tree are draped over this ancient building.

There's one more temple that's worth a visit and while the first three sites are huddled together the fourth one, Banteay Srie, is a bit of a drive.

This is the Citadel of Women which was completed in 967 and today it's considered to be one of Siem Reap's treasures because of the intricate carvings, delicate structures and good repair.

This complex is also set inside a tall outer wall and protected by a moat, but while the other structures have been presented in a dull palette of black and grey this place is a rich ochre hue that glows in the Asian sun.

When a late shower falls on the area large drops plonk into the moat and make the lotus flowers dance as if they're being controlled by a puppeteer holding a string.

There are no grand structures here, just small chambers protected by false doors and connected by elevated walkways with high porches, and an old woman sits silently on a step with her back against a crumbling column to watch the tourists.

But it's the intricate carvings – more detailed and in better condition than at many other structures in the region – that make it a memorable place to visit.

It's not just the walls of carvings that tell historic tales but panels of stylised stone flowers that surround a false door and Apsaras beauties posing above a window.

Another rule is the further you get from Siem Reap the more quiet the attractions become and, with dozens of ancient sites to visit, it's not hard to find a place to enjoy without the crowds.

It's so easy to get to Siem Reap and Angkor these days and it's not considered to be a dangerous place any more, with the risks of getting into trouble no higher than in any other part of Asia that's on the tourist track.

But if you do plan to explore Angkor's ancient buildings consider engaging a local guide who will take you to the different attractions and pointing out things that make a visit more meaningful.

Our guide, Sarin, was a child of the Killing Fields who fled to a Thai refugee camp after his father was murdered. He waited out the Khmer Rouge regime and then had to live with monks when he returned to Siem Reap because his mother was too poor to care for him.

Sarin knew so much about every place we visited and would give us a commentary about carvings and pavilions with stories of kings and battles.
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Cambodia, long an Asian mouse, may be ready to roar

By Erika Kinetz
Published: July 27, 2007

PHNOM PENH: Most Cambodians live with two realities: rain and rice. The country that three decades ago abolished money has today embarked on the very long process of adding two new words to the national vocabulary: stocks and bonds.

The Cambodian government recently got its first sovereign debt ratings from the global ratings agencies Standard & Poor's and Moody's, and plans are afoot to open domestic stock and bond exchanges in 2009.

Take a ride into the countryside, where the vast majority of Cambodians live and work in conditions more than one observer has described as more African than Asian, and the very notion of an incipient derivatives market seems absurd.

But in the past few years, investors - not just donors, who still prop up the economy of this tiny, impoverished nation - have started to give Cambodia a good, hard second look. That is no small accomplishment for a nation still recovering from the murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge, a radical communist group that not only abolished money during its 1975 to 1979 rule, but also oversaw the deaths of about two million people - roughly one-quarter of the population at the time. After the Khmer Rouge was ousted by the Vietnamese, Cambodia sank into two more decades of civil war.

These days, the notoriously weak judiciary, lack of openness, deep and pervasive corruption, rampant smuggling, mediocre infrastructure (the postal service is barely functional and electricity costs are exorbitant), and the lack of a well-trained work force make Cambodia what has been politely called a challenging business environment.

But not, apparently, too challenging. Foreign direct investment, led by South Korea and China, rose from $121 million in 2004 to $475 million in 2006, according to data from the National Bank of Cambodia and the International Monetary Fund. Historically high levels of liquidity in global markets, as well as a regional boom and a growing perception that, after 30 years of domestic strife, stability has finally taken root, have all helped draw investment.

In January, the country got its first investment bank, Tong Yang Investment, part of the Tong Yang Group of companies in South Korea. Tong Yang plans to start a real estate investment fund of about $100 million focused on Cambodia and Vietnam and marketed to South Korean investors by the end of this year. Other private equity funds are apparently in the works.

Although Cambodia's meager population of 14 million people means that the country is a hard sell for big consumer companies, others have been drawn by the nation's soaring gross domestic product. In the past decade, GDP growth has ranged from a low of 5 percent in 1998, following the bloody factional fighting of 1997, to a high of 13.5 percent in 2005, according to the Finance Ministry.

Over the past three years, Cambodia has sustained average GDP growth of 11.4 percent a year, and the IMF predicts GDP growth will level off to around 9 percent for 2007. Inflation was at 4.7 percent in 2006, according to the ministry. The government has also been deepening its commercial law framework.

"You've got a story of macroeconomic stability," said John Nelmes, the IMF representative for Cambodia. "That's proving comfortable for businesses to invest."

The Australian mining giant BHP Billiton, and its partner, Mitsubishi, have begun a large bauxite exploration project in Cambodia, and Oxiana, the Australian company that runs the huge Sepon copper and gold mine in Laos, is digging for gold in the jungles of northeastern Cambodia.

The promise of oil off the coast of Cambodia has attracted a host of adventurous companies, including the U.S. oil giant Chevron and China's CNOOC and China Petrotech.

At the end of June, a delegation of French business leaders, including representatives of Total Exploration & Production, Société Générale, France Télécom, Lafarge Cement, and the hotel group Accor, came to Cambodia for a fact-finding tour. Japan sent a similar delegation this month, and Biwako Bio-Laboratory has said that it plans to invest up to $800 million in Cambodia for biodiesel production. On Monday, General Electric opened a branch office in Phnom Penh.

Bretton Sciaroni, a lawyer who has practiced in Cambodia since 1993, cited another factor in the country's appeal: the pro-business stance of the government.

Sciaroni, who also serves as a legal adviser to the government, said that when a client, the U.S. packaging company Crown Holdings, wanted to open a factory in Phnom Penh, getting the government to lower its 7 percent tariff on raw aluminum imports was as simple as asking. "The minister of economy and finance, Keat Chhon, asked my client what they wanted it to be," Sciaroni recalled. "My client said zero percent. He said, fine, and zero percent it is."

"People at the highest levels of government understand the necessity of getting stuff done," he added.

Officials describe the turn to capital markets as part of the nation's natural economic evolution. Last month, donors, including China, pledged to deliver $689 million in aid to Cambodia.

"We still need donor assistance," said Hang Chuon Naron, the secretary general of the Ministry of Economy and Finance. But he added that Cambodia would need more - and more kinds of - financing as its economy expands.

The nation's economic base is still quite narrow, dominated by tourism and the garment industry, which could suffer from Vietnam's recent accession to the World Trade Organization and the expiration of U.S. and European quotas on Chinese textiles, scheduled for the end of next year.

Cambodia also has a high level of public debt - most of it on favorable, concessional terms - and it does a poor job of collecting taxes.

On the upside, Cambodia's manufacturing base has been slowly broadening. Oil, natural gas and the mineral sector are promising, and real estate has been booming, some say too much.

Sciaroni said a number of his clients had been buying up property along Cambodia's southern beaches, hoping that the new airport in Sihanoukville would eventually draw tourists who intended to visit only the Angkor Wat temple, in the north, and then leave. "You don't see it yet, but in three to five years, you're going to see major development on the south coast of Cambodia," he said.

Look around Phnom Penh and the opportunities for growth are evident: no tall office buildings, no real golf course, few malls. But the question Han Kyung Tae, Tong Yang Investment's chief representative in Cambodia, has been asking himself lately is whether all the heady talk about surging investment and the rise of capital markets is premature.

"One day, I see the big potential," he said. "The next I'm skeptical."

Right now, Sciaroni said, few domestic companies outside the financial sector, where annual audits are required, would meet even minimal listing criteria. "Transparency doesn't exist for the majority of companies here today," he said.

That has not stopped the Korea Exchange, which operates the Korean Stock Exchange, from jumping in to help develop Cambodian securities markets.

Talk with Koreans of a certain age in Phnom Penh and they will tell you that Cambodia reminds them of their childhood home. The financial sector is no different: Fifty years ago, South Korea, like Cambodia today, depended heavily on foreign aid and was struggling to develop domestic sources of financing. Korea is now trying to share the miracle of its own growth, said Hong-Sik Choi, the executive director of Global Business Development at the Korea Exchange.

"Korea has experienced a miracle to transform itself from the poorest country to the 11th largest economy in the world during the last half century," he explained. "The securities market was at the center of Korea's economic growth."

Hang, the Finance Ministry official, knows that his country is not for the fainthearted. "Cambodia is high risk, but it's also high return," he said.

And while he concedes that Cambodia's road to economic maturity will be long, he maintains that the advent of publicly traded securities will demand new systems of accounting, openness and accountability, which could improve the quality of the business environment as a whole.

Jie Sun, the deputy director of the Research Center for International Finance at Beijing's Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that the major lesson - and perhaps the most instructive for Cambodia - that China learned in the 15 years since Deng Xiaoping opened the gates to Chinese-style capitalism, was that capital markets could help a country with the slow and challenging work of improving its business environment.

"The Chinese have realized that the main function of the stock market is to improve corporate governance," he said at a recent conference sponsored by the Economic Institute of Cambodia, an independent research institute and consultancy in Phnom Penh. "After 15 years, we have now come to the point."
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