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Monday, October 08, 2007

Cambodia Hip Hop Artist Tells Story through Rap

Prach Ly came to the United States as a child with his family to escape Cambodia's killing fields. He grew up in Long Beach, California where he started rapping in English and Khmer about Cambodia's genocide, his community and life as an immigrant. Then he became a star in Cambodia nearly overnight after he released a homemade CD. The press dubbed him the first Khmer rap star and credited him with bringing hip-hop to Cambodia.

Prach Ly recently took a break from working on his latest album to perform at Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where he spoke to VOA's Robin Chen Delos. Here he tells his own story.
"I am a musician. I'm from Cambodia. My name is Prach. And I was born in a concentration camp during the killing field.

Toward the end of the killing field our family escaped the war and went to the border of Thailand. And we stayed there at the border and we got sponsored to America,” Ly explains.

“And when I got to California in Long Beach everything wasn't all great or anything like that. It was poverty-stricken. There was gang activities. The back of our head was, you know, if you grow up past 18 years old you probably did pretty good because of all the activities there. We were ducking drive-by shootings and stuff like that.

But then that's when the whole poetry, that's when the whole hip-hop, that's when the whole rap music came. I was surrounded by that.

I used the karaoke equipment to record my music, my lyrics. I would go buy instrumental songs, and put my word over it. And I got a CD made.

The CD was like an autobiography, coming from the whole killing field process, all the way to America and the struggle in America. And for New Year I just passed it out. And a DJ from Cambodia, DJ Sop, he was there at the New Year. He took the CD back to Cambodia, he played it over the radio and everyone was calling in to ask who's the artist.

And then the government, they censored and they banned my music. And then some of the people who heard the music they argued, they said, 'Wait a minute, why are you banning his music? It's nothing in reference to the government -- it's just talking about history.' So now the people are going to the markets and starting asking [to ask] for it and buying the CDs.

And then Newsweek and Time magazine and Asia Week, they located me and they contacted me and they like, 'We just want to ask you a question: how do you feel about having the number one album in Cambodia?' I go, "What?!' You know, I never sent it there.

The important thing was the kids was asking the parents, it was more like an educational tool. They were asking the parents and asking the elders what had really happened during the killing fields,” he says proudly.
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Cambodia welcomes Chinese investment surge

For Cambodia, struggling to regain its economic footing after 30 years of civil war and keen to shrug off its dependence on aid, Chinese investment has been welcomed with open arms and few questions asked, at least publicly.

The Chinese government is pouring money into bridges and roads (it donated 6 million dollars of steel bridges to Cambodia in 2001) and pledging military assistance in the form of new vessels for the country's dilapidated navy.

But China's emphasis is increasingly looking beyond aid towards desperately needed investment. Chinese, and now Cambodian investors, are planting hectares of bio-fuel crops like jatropha, which the Chinese industry devours insatiably.

Just last month yet another Chinese company inked a deal to grow mulberries over a tract of land in the country's south to supply raw silk to its factories and offering to build a factory to process the silk worm cocoons in Cambodia.

In May, China's fifth largest steel mill, Wuhan Steel, announced it had joined Shanghai-based Baosteel Group, Anshan Iron and Steel Group and Beijing's Shougang Iron and Steel Group to explore for iron ore in Cambodia's remote northern Preah Vihear province on the Thai border.

The relationship has not been built overnight. China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs website boasts diplomatic ties with Cambodia since 1958 and notes China's agreement to wipe outstanding loans to Cambodia five years ago - something the US, amongst others, still steadfastly refuses to do.

Cambodia's revered former king Norodom Sihanouk spends months at a time in Beijing and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao showed the value he placed on the relationship in April 2006 when he included Cambodia in a tour of New Zealand and Australia.

"Chinese companies come to Cambodia because we have a long relationship and Cambodia is openly courting Chinese investment," Chhin Cheadara, deputy director of the Phnom Penh Chamber of Commerce explained.

"Most of these investments are in the garments and construction industries, as well as mining and electricity production," said Chhin Cheadara. "This creates infrastructure and employment opportunities here, but more importantly, it is long term investment. In the future, we envisage more and more Chinese companies coming to Cambodia."

But this Chinese investment boom has worried some environmental and human rights groups. For instance, Australian mining giants such as BHP Billiton Ltd, currently exploring in the north-east for bauxite, have vast corporate responsibility programmes and are accountable to the scrutiny of media and shareholders at home.

Activists claim that Chinese companies may not feel these restraints and the Cambodian government has refused to rule out mining in environmentally sensitive areas if it deems the benefits outweigh the risks.

Chinese investors are not confined to mining either. In January one group was given the go-ahead for a hydroelectric plant in the coastal province of Koh Kong worth up to 215 million dollars.

Critics point out other potential drawbacks. The International Monetary Fund warned last month that soaring property prices constituted a risk to the country's nascent banking sector, going as far as to call the situation "a bubble" and cautioning that 90 per cent of loans were currently secured against property.

Analysts say the sudden rise in land values is due at least in part to the long Chinese tradition of property investment and speculation. Huot Pongan, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy said the benefits outweigh the risks.

"We don't have enough electricity. China is developing that for us. We don't have the resources to build mines and harvest our resources. China does. And China has been here for a long time and will stay here for a long time," said the energy minister.

By 2004, the World Bank listed China as one of Cambodia's key sources of FDI as countries like the US and Japan continue to drag their feet, preferring instead to fund aid and soft loans.

Council for the Development of Cambodia figures show domestic and foreign investment approvals more than doubled to 2.6 billion dollars in 2006 from 2005, fed by key areas which China has shown vast interest in, including mining, energy and construction.

And of foreign investment approvals, China was dominant, with 763 million dollars in approvals in 2006 - nearly double its 2005 total. In comparison, Russia was a distant second, with approvals totaling 278 million dollars for 2006.

"There are a number of reasons why Cambodia is receptive to China. One is the way it does business. China understands Cambodia. It doesn't throw us scraps of aid and then scold us in front of the world like a naughty child. That is not the Asian way - that is the colonial way," one Cambodian analyst said on condition of anonymity.


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Former Khmer Rouge foreign minister denies responsibility for crimes during his rule

BANGKOK, Thailand: The Khmer Rouge's former foreign minister, Ieng Sary, said Sunday he believes he is next to face charges by a U.N.-backed genocide tribunal, but denied responsibility for the deaths of some 1.7 million people during the group's rule of Cambodia in the late 1970s.

After arriving at Bangkok's international airport, he said he heard about the speculation on the radio earlier Sunday as he headed to the airport in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital.

"I have done nothing wrong," Ieng Sary, believed to be 77, said of his years with the Khmer Rouge regime.

"I am a gentle person. I believe in good deeds. I even made good deeds to save several people's lives (during the regime). But let them (the tribunal) find what the truth is," he said without elaborating.

He was in Thailand to receive a checkup for a heart condition, he said.

Surviving Khmer Rouge leaders have typically claimed innocence in the crimes committed when their communist group held power in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

The group's radical policies caused the death of an estimated 1.7 million people from starvation, illness, overwork and execution.

Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998, and his former military chief, Ta Mok, died in 2006 in government custody.

The tribunal's prosecutors have recommended five former Khmer Rouge leaders for trial. So far, only two of them — Nuon Chea, the former Khmer Rouge ideologist, and Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch who headed the former Khmer Rouge S-21 torture center — have been detained on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The other three suspects have not been publicly named. But Ieng Sary, who lives freely in Cambodia but in declining health, is widely believed to be on the prosecutors' list.

Ieng Sary, dressed in khaki pants, shirt and hat, flew on a Bangkok Airways flight with a Cambodian aide.

When he arrived in the Thai capital, he had to be pushed in a wheel chair, while his aide carried a walker.

Ieng Sary said he was visiting a Bangkok hospital for a regular heart checkup and would return to Cambodia in a few days.

"My heart is not functioning well following previous surgeries. My health is my big concern now," Ieng Sary said.
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