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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Democrats Abroad vote in Cambodia primary

02-12) 04:00 PST Phnom Penh, Cambodia -- Cambodia's capital played host to a U.S. primary for the first time last week , drawing U.S. citizens from around the country.

Held at a quirky restaurant called USA Donuts, the vote offered a mix of American traditions never seen before in Phnom Penh. Dozens of expatriates cast ballots in the Democratic primary, choosing mostly between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Dozens more snatched up hard-to-find foods such as Fruit Loops, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and Stove Top stuffing.

The vote at the doughnut shop is part of the Democrats Abroad program to determine 22 delegates who will attend the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Voting in the global primary, conducted online and at 76 polling places in 33 countries, began Feb. 5 and ends today for an estimated 6.5 million Americans who live overseas. In Cambodia, about 1,800 Americans are registered as residents, according to the U.S. Embassy.

The program was conceived as a way to boost participation in the nomination process, especially for those who might not have requested absentee ballots in time for their home-state primaries or those who cannot return home to attend caucuses. Democrats Abroad has been given state-level recognition by the Democratic National Committee. Its counterpart, Republicans Abroad, does not have similar recognition by the GOP, but the organization works to generate support of Americans overseas for Republican candidates.

Observers say turnout for the overseas Democratic voting - both live and online - has been high and results will be announced later this month. In Cambodia, organizers said 78 percent voted for Obama, 21 percent supported Clinton and 1 percent remained uncommitted. They also said the entire program is a test-run for individual states looking to use a similar Internet-based system.

Every element at the doughnut shop- food, music and ballots - seemed out of place in Cambodia, where locals are just beginning to confront their recent past in trials against the aging leaders of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. And even though voting has become commonplace, accusations of deep-seated corruption and blatant vote buying have been widespread.

Yet the American voters were generally giddy to be participating in a live electoral process so far from home. Regardless of age, almost everyone bobbed their heads to the eclectic mix of voter-themed music heard on the restaurant's boom box. Many more grinned or whooped it up as their ballots slid into a locked, silver vote box.

"Living abroad, it's easy to feel disconnected," said 30-year-old Carlyle Gollogy of Santa Cruz, who works as an administrative assistant at a local nonprofit hospital. "Being here today, it eliminated a lot of the (red tape) by giving you an accessible way to be part of the process."

Many voters also said they want to see a change in Washington's foreign policy.

"I think this is probably the most important and exciting election in my lifetime," said Susan Hagadorn, a San Francisco native who has lived in Cambodia for three years and works as a consultant for nonprofit organizations. "There's a deep dissatisfaction about how America is viewed from abroad. That we can come together to do something about that here, through voting, an American tradition, is really exciting."

Wayne Weightman, who helped organize Saturday's vote, agreed, saying he eagerly voted for a former Hawaii classmate, whom he knew as Barry.

Obama "was always this amazing guy who could talk to anyone," Weightman said. "To realize that you knew someone who has the possibility of making it so foreigners abroad can stop apologizing for their country, well that's just inspiring."

USA Donuts was an obvious choice for the polling site, event organizers said. Owner Johnny Ly is a 39-year-old Cambodian refugee who fled during the Khmer Rouge era with his family to Long Beach, where they operated a doughnut shop.

Ly moved back to Cambodia in 2000 to open an American-style doughnut shop. He now runs two stores with a third on the way. He imports special flour from California so that his pastries have just the right chewy consistency. The rest of his wares are shipped by relatives, who shop at Costco and Wal-Mart.

Ly gets a kick out of catering to Americans, whose culture he adopted during his 20 years in the United States.

"To be part of an election. That is American," said Ly.

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Cambodia urged to stop evictions

By Guy De Launey
BBC News, Phnom Penh

Human rights organisation Amnesty International has called for an end to forced evictions in Cambodia.

Thousands of families have already been moved from their homes in the centre of the capital Phnom Penh, and more evictions are set to follow.

The authorities say this is a necessary part of Cambodia's development.

But in its report Amnesty disputes this, and says there has been a lack of accountability and consultation with local communities.

Members of threatened communities from across Phnom Penh are fighting on, although their homes may soon be reduced to rubble.

They have held a series of meetings to express solidarity and plead for help from outsiders.

The site of the latest gathering illustrates the size of the challenge they are facing.

'Legal title'

Dey Krahom was once a vibrant slum community. Now there are empty spaces where some residents have given up and abandoned their homes.

There's no need for evictions to take place in order to develop
Brittis Edman
Amnesty International

The gaps are filled with rubble, razor wire and garbage. Bulldozers belonging to the property developers park nearby.

Many residents say they hold legal title to their land and that threats and intimidation are being used to force them to leave.

Brittis Edman from Amnesty International says developers should adopt a cooperative approach instead.

"There should be discussions with the communities before an eviction is decided and the best option would obviously be to develop while the community is here, and develop the community as it is."

But that seems unlikely to happen. The Phnom Penh authorities have said they are committed to developing the city in partnership with private companies.

So far, that has meant relocating residents to sites that are in most cases a long way from the city centre, while developers build high-end housing and shops.


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Trip to Cambodia life-changing

By Marcus Stickley

A group of Nayland College students say a two week trip to Cambodia visiting aid projects in the struggling country has changed their lives.

"The poverty never leaves you," says Alison Paton, the teacher who accompanied 13 Nayland students, and one from Taranaki, on the two week trip.

Several students had never been outside of New Zealand before they left last month.

Each student had to raise $3500 to go on the trip and the group donated a further $1600 to seven different aid projects including schools, an orphanage and a hospital which they visited.

The students also helped build a house for a family whose father had fallen ill.

They saw the extreme poverty in Cambodia, visiting people living in a rubbish dump in the capital Phenom Phen and others living in a village where they struggled to grow rice.

Some poor Cambodians they met had copper streaks in their hair from malnutrition.

Paige Bowler-Brendt, 16, said the trip made her appreciate "what we've got compared to what they've got".

The group visited Teuol Sleng, a former school turned into a prison by the Khmer Rouge to torture intellectuals and others who opposed them.

Since the regime was deposed in 1979 the building has been left as a museum complete with faded splatters of blood on the walls.

Most students left the museum with tears running down their faces, having heard the personal story of one of the museum's guides who had lived through the horror of losing family during the Khmer Rouge's reign.

The students said the country was still recovering from that period but they were impressed by Cambodians' resilience.

Bronwyn Ewers, 17, said Cambodia had something that New Zealand had lost.

"They've got that closeness of community."

For may of the students the trip has changed or reinforced what they want to do when they leave school.

Kayleigh Shaw, 18, had planned to go to Europe when she finished school but she now wants to return to South East Asia to do volunteer work.

Money went further in helping other people there, she said.


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