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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Cambodia's tonle sap in distress

Nantiya Tangwisutijit

The Nation
Global warming and economic exploitation destabilise key lake's ecosystem

The Great Lake of Tonle Sap has always been Cambodia's spring of life. Abundant fish stock and seasonal flooding to fertilise rice fields have blessed the region long before the builders of Angkor Wat arrived 900 years ago.

But economic development policies are having the reverse effect. Locals are finding it more difficult to survive, a trend that may only worsen as climate change continues to take hold.

Tonle Sap is Southeast Asia's largest lake, and the source of protein-rich food for Cambodia's 14 million people. As such, the government has sought assistance to aggressively exploit its fisheries under the banner of poverty reduction. But Cambodian sociologist Mak Sithirith of the Fisheries Action Coalition Team said it is not the poor who are benefiting.

Under the scheme, the Cambodian government built infrastructure and introduced market economy to Tonle Sap communities. This has resulted in the end of interdependence between fishing and farming communities, Mak said. The traditional barter system between those growing rice and those catching fish disappeared after an industry of middlemen evolved to wander from village to village, exchanging rice and fish for cash.

"Neighbouring communities who used to rely on one another now compete for material consumption and accumulation obtained by cash and loans," Mak said.

The traditional small-scale fishermen are losing out entirely. The Cambodian government sold fishing concessions to large fishing businesses, banning villagers from the waters that ensured their livelihoods.

Scientists also suspect that changes of water flows caused by dam construction on the lower Mekong River and tributaries may affect the delicate relationship between the Mekong and Tonle Sap. During the rainy season, water flows from the Mekong to fill the lake, with the reverse occurring as the dry season settles in.

Climate change is adding a new level of anxiety. A coalition of Thai and Finnish scientists will soon begin a project to examine the potential climate-change impacts that those around Tonle Sap might experience in the next 50 years.

"Tonle Sap's topography makes the lake very sensitive to changes," Suppakorn Chinvanno of the Bangkok-based Southeast Asia Start Regional Centre said. "A water-level rise of just 0.3 metres can mean a kilometre more flooding on land because of the flat landscape."

This article is based in part on a presentation by Mak Sithirith at the third International Conference of the Asian Rural Sociology Association in Beijing.

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Lawyer they call the Devil's Advocate in court tirade

By Susan Bell
THE controversial French lawyer defending the former president of the Khmer Rouge stormed out of Cambodia's genocide tribunal yesterday – because thousands of pages of documents had not been translated into French.

Jacques Vergès is defending Khieu Samphan, 76, in his appeal against pre-trial detention on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Mr Vergès, who earned the nickname "the Devil's Advocate" for the notoriety of his client list, which ADVERTISEMENThas included the Nazi Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, the Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal and the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, declared: "French is an official language of the tribunal. There is not one page of the case file against Mr Khieu Samphan translated into French. I should be capable of knowing what my client is blamed for."

He told journalists that judges at the Phnom Penh hearing had asked Khieu Samphan to find a new lawyer. "This is a scandal," he said. "This never happens, except in dictatorships."

The Khmer Rouge leader, who has been held by the tribunal since 19 November, is charged in connection with the period his movement held power, from 1975 to 1979. About 1.7 million people died from starvation, disease, overwork and execution as a result of the Khmer Rouge's radical policies in trying to build a classless society.

The flamboyant 83-year-old lawyer is a natural choice to defend Khieu Samphan, whom he has known since both were active in left-wing student activities in Paris in the 1950s.

Biographies have documented Mr Vergès' links to the Khmer Rouge, including his meeting with Pol Pot, whom he befriended in 1949 when the lawyer was president of the Association for Colonial Students.

But there is mystery over his "missing years" – an eight-year period from 1970 to 1978 when he disappeared from public view, cutting all professional and family ties and leaving many to assume he was dead. Most of his associates now believe he had been in Cambodia during this period, a rumour that Pol Pot denied.

Born in Thailand in 1925 to a French diplomat father and a Vietnamese mother, Mr Vergès was brought up in the then French colony of Réunion. He joined the Communist Party there and in 1942 sailed to Liverpool to join the Free French Forces under Charles de Gaulle and participate in the anti-Nazi Resistance.

After the war, he did his legal training in Paris before embarking on a highly controversial career which has been shaped by his anti-colonialist communist beliefs. During the Algerian civil war, he defended many accused of terrorism by the French government, likening their independence struggle to French armed resistance to the Nazi German occupation in the 1940s.

Later, he worked on primarily political cases and has defended some of the most notorious figures of the past 50 years, including both left- and right-wing terrorists, war criminals and militants. When asked if he would have defended Hitler, he once replied: "I'd even defend Bush, but only if he agrees to plead guilty."
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