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Monday, August 13, 2007

Sprawling Angkor engineered its own end

A NEW archaeological map confirms that Angkor in Cambodia was the biggest pre-industrial city ever founded and provides tantalising clues about its mysterious demise 500 years ago.

Sprawling about 1000sqkm out from its central religious heart with its legendary temples and reservoirs, known as Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the vast city was roughly the size of Singapore, or greater Sydney from the coast to Parramatta.

Angkor itself was the capital of a sparsely settled agricultural empire that stretched from Thailand in the north, across the flood plains, and southwards towards the Cambodia-Vietnam border.

"Like the modern world there was a vast expansion of the urban environment out into the rural world," said Sydney University archeologist Roland Fletcher, founder and co-director of the Australian, French and Cambodian Greater Angkor Project.

A goal of the project was to nail down the geographical extent of the city. According to GAP deputy director Damian Evans, a Sydney University doctoral student, the new map does just that.

"This is the culmination of about 15 years of mapping work," said Mr Evans, who led the effort to integrate the data into the map, revealed overnight in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sources included hand-drawn maps, ground surveys and airborne photography provided by GAP members and ground-sensing radar images provided by the US space agency NASA.

Not only does the map reveal the extent of Angkor -- a Khmer kingdom from the 9th to the 15th centuries -- it pinpoints over 1000 new water storage ponds and more than 74 long-lost temples. In its heyday, as many as 500,000 people may have lived in the sprawling low-density city. The map will allow scientists to tighten population estimates.

According to Mr Evans, the map also provides hard evidence backing the controversial hydraulic hypothesis.

This states that Angkor was linked by a vast network of irrigation channels, storage ponds and reservoirs. As the city grew, land was cleared, causing soil to clog the channels. Eventually, it became too expensive and complicated to keep the system free-flowing and it collapsed, taking Angkor with it.

The city, in essence, engineered its own demise by disrupting the environment.

"We can certainly see there were problems in the hydraulic networks," said Mr Evans.

"There's evidence of water courses punching through dykes and inadequate attention (to maintenance)."

Said Professor Fletcher: "It's a cautionary tale for the modern world."

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30 years later - still rebuilding Cambodia

Nun on a mission to restore education

GALESBURG -Sister Luise Ahrens is on a mission.
Or more accurately, many missions. Sr. Luise is on a two-month tour of the United States to visit with friends and family and raise money for Maryknoll, a Catholic mission group focused on ministry and missionary work overseas.

She was in Galesburg Sunday to visit her best friends from college, Pat Conklin, Galesburg, and Judy Scheider, St. Paul, Minn. Her sabbatical is part fun but also part work on her main mission.
Ahrens was invited to Cambodia in 1991 to help re-establish the Royal University of Phnom Penh and has been working toward that goal for 16 years.

"It has been like starting all over - the year zero started in 1979 for Cambodians" said Ahrens. "The country is filled with damaged people, people who don't trust each other and have no belief in what the future can bring."

During the Pol Pot regime, millions of Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge. People with educations and religious beliefs as well as civil servants were many of those murdered. Only 15 percent of educated Cambodians survived the genocide.

The Royal University was hit particularly hard during the reign of terror. Only two educators and 36 students were still alive and able to return to re-establish the University in Phnom Penh.
"If someone spoke French, had soft hands, or wore glasses, they were killed," said Sr. Luise. The majority of Cambodians died in work camps.

"Those that survived were extremely traumatized," Ahrens said. "One student was buried alive while trying to escape capture. Many survivors lost entire families."

The task of re-opening the University was difficult on many levels. "There was no electricity, no water, no books," she said. "The Khmer Rouge kept pigs in the auditorium to degrade and discourage the people." The auditorium was also a holding place before people were sent to the camps.

"One of the first things we did was teach English to the faculty," Ahrens explained. "The program grew from there."

Ahrens said many of those people educated in the 1970s came back but were poorly educated. "There was no leadership in the country," she said. "People could buy an education if they had money and many educators were very bad."

"The biggest challenge we faced was ignorance," Ahrens said. "People could not imagine what their lives could be."

It will take time and several generations to move past that way of life and mentality said Ahrens.

"Things are growing, but growing corruptly," she said. "Children learn corruption at a young age and that stays with them. It is all they have known."

Ahrens said the country has 53 universities but only eight of them are public. She said anyone with money can open a university in just a few days but most are worthless.

Positive changes are slowly happening however. Ahrens has worked closely with leaders from World Bank who recently gave Royal University $1 million to double the size of the library.

About 50 students a year from around Cambodia are given scholarships for master's programs in universities all over the world. "Nearly everyone of those kids that entered the master's programs has done well," she said. Those students sent to get a good education are the people needed to change the country.

"It has to be the Cambodians wanting change and Cambodians promoting change," she said.

Ahrens, who has a Ph.D. in English literature, no longer teaches at the University, but as an assistant vice-rector serves as a liaison between government, faculty and students.

She entered the Maryknoll Sisters Congregation in 1960. She went on to earn her master of arts in English then earned her Ph.D. in English literature in 1969.

In 1984 Ahrens was elected president of the Congregation of the Maryknoll Sisters and served for six years.

The 69-year-old Ahrens said she gets around the Phnom Penh on a motorcycle and the only thing that scares her about living in the city is the traffic.

"Life is cheap there," she said. "But I'm not worried about my safety. I have salty spit."

Ahrens said her work is rewarding.

"I would do it if I didn't like it," she said. "It is the sense that I can make a difference, even small one. The words of the Gospel are so important - planting seeds and watching them grow."
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Cambodian Appeals Court president removed in bribery scandal

Phnom Penh - The president of the Cambodian Appeals Court has been removed from her position after an Interior Ministry investigation found her guilty of accepting bribes, local media reported Monday.

Khmer-language newspaper Rasmei Kampuchea and English-language Cambodia Daily quoted Justice Minister Ang Vong Wattana as saying Ly Vuoch Leng had been removed from her position at the head of the court after a request by Prime Minister Hun Sen and himself was granted by King Norodom Sihamoni.

The newspapers quoted Wattana as saying her removal was in relation to the release of two men convicted by a lower court of human trafficking offenses after a raid on a Phnom Penh hotel, the Chai Hour 2, in late 2004.

The men were sentenced to five and four years in jail respectively in February 2006, but the sentences were overturned by the Appeals Court. They were re-arrested in February 2007 for the same offense, prompting an investigation into their prior release.

Leng was subsequently found to have asked for 30,000 dollars in bribes in exchange for their release after an Interior Ministry investigation, according to newspaper reports.

Ang Vong Wattana was unavailable for comment Monday.

Donors have consistently called for judicial reform and controls on endemic corruption in Cambodia, which Paris-based watchdog Transparency International rated as one of the world's more corrupt nations in a recent survey.

The removal of Leng, listed by Who's Who as a member of the royalist Funcinpec party, may reignite controversy over a number of other cases which have passed through the Appeals Court in recent years, according to lawyers.

The family of New Zealand national Graham Cleghorn, whose appeal against a 20-year sentence for rape was upheld by the Appeals Court at its ninth attempt to be heard last month despite his witnesses again failing to be called, said Monday they were reassessing their legal options in light of Leng's removal.

In 2006, an appeal against a 10-year sentence for child sex was upheld against Australian Clinton Rex Betterridge in absentia by the court, despite all complainants recanting at the hearing and claiming they had been offered incentives to make their allegations.

The Australian government released Betterridge from a Queensland jail the same day, saying it had reasonable doubt he could receive justice if extradited to Cambodia.

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