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Friday, August 15, 2008

Mekong hits highest level in 100 years

BANGKOK — Four people have been killed in flooding and landslides in Laos, where the Mekong River has hit its highest level in at least 100 years after several months of unusually heavy rain, officials said on Friday.

The communist government and private citizens in the landlocked Southeast Asian country have been rushing to complete a 2.5-metre wall of sandbags to stop water inundating the capital, Vientiane.

Police have closed roads leading to the riverbank to make it easier for trucks delivering sandbags, the official Vientiane Times reported.

"We've been fighting very hard day and night for four days, but after today the water level should recede," government spokesman Yong Chanhthalansy told Reuters in Bangkok.

The Mekong, which starts in the glaciers of Tibet and ends 4,350 kilometres away in the rice-rich delta of southern Vietnam, hit 13.68 metres in Vientiane on Thursday, trouncing a high of 12.38 metres recorded in 1966, the worst floods in living memory.

That depth – measured roughly from the river's lowest level in the dry season – could rise slightly on Friday before retreating, Mr. Yong said.

Vietnam was recently hit by heavy rains, floods and mudslides as the remnants of a tropical storm caused the country's worst floods in four decades. At least 120 people were killed and another 44 remain missing.

In Vientiane, a levee built along the Mekong's northern bank after the 1966 flooding has been overrun in places, causing flooding in parts of the city of 200,000, one resident said.

There had been widespread flooding upstream and north of Vientiane, although the former royal capital of Luang Prabang had escaped with no damage to its ancient Buddhist pagodas, Mr. Yong said.

Downstream, eastern Thailand and low-lying Cambodia, where the annual flooding of the Mekong is crucial to rice and fish production, are braced for the rising waters. Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, sits right on the bank of the river.

Government officials said they had warned people living near the Mekong in the provinces of Kompong Cham, Kratie and Stung Treng to move their families and livestock to higher ground.

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Office space market primed to explode on rising demand

Written by George McLeod

A shortage of high-end office rentals in Phnom Penh will drive a boom in new office construction over the next two or three years, analysts say

RISING foreign investment is leading to an office shortage in Phnom Penh, with some analysts expecting pent-up demand to generate a building boom over the next two years.

"There is nothing of an international standard in Phnom Penh right now," said Naim Khan-Turk, director of research at CB Richard Ellis (CBRE) in Ho Chi Minh City. "Many businesses are having to rent out villas."

Analysts say the office market has not had time to catch up to the pace of economic growth, with only low- or medium-quality offices for rent in the capital. Phnom Penh has only about eight major office buildings available, with most of the space in converted colonial villas, hotels, or refurbished shophouses.

Office space is graded by its location, the quality of the construction and the amenities offered in the building. None of the existing or planned space exceeds B grade, said international property experts.

"We class Grade A as having at least 1,000 square metres of floor space, quality mechanical engineering such as high-speed lifts, efficient buildings, and car parks - but that's a loose definition.... We don't see anything in Phnom Penh meeting those standards," said Khan-Turk. "It is hard to say exactly how much pent-up demand is there, but in the next five years, if 150,000 square metres of office space hit the market, I don't think it would be saturated."

'Strong growth for 2-3 years'
Knight Frank chairman Eric Ooi said that the shortage of prime office space could make Phnom Penh a potential boom market over the next two-years.

"Phnom Penh is like Ho Chi Minh City eight or 10 years ago....I expect strong growth for the next two to three years."
Rents were rising accordingly, he noted. "In March, offices were renting for about US$10 per metre. Three months before it was $7 and now space is going for $14."

That figure is still much lower than in Ho Chi Minh City, which has more than 77,000 square metres of Grade A office space available, according to CBRE estimates. Grade B offices in Ho Chi Minh City range from $17-53 per square metre and average $36, said CBRE, even though the top-end market there has taken a hit recently due to inflation and excessive supply.
Few expect the troubles to spread to Cambodia.

A local real estate company reported surging sales this year on mainly foreign demand.

"There are a lot of companies coming to Cambodia [and] most of the growth is from Korean companies," said Heang Rental from VTrust real estate. "The quality is not up to international standards, but it is acceptable for offices."
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Win-win possible at Preah Vihear

Written by Ronnie Yimsut

Dear Editor,

It is most unfortunate that Thailand is making deeper incursions into Cambodian (Khmer) territory following the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation of Preah Vihear temple.

The reported additional incursion (and immediate denial by the Royal Thai Government) into Ta Moan Thom temple by Thai armed forces only adds additional fuel to the already raging inferno of nationalistic pride – in both countries.

Was it really pride or prejudice?

Either way, this silliness will only lead to even more tension, if not bloodshed, between the two neighbours, which have been enjoying a rather cosy relationship since the 2003 fiasco.

A “lesson” never learned is really a “mistake”. It is sad because it need not be this way.

Needless to say, much of the present-day land where Thai people now stand (aka Thailand) was once Khmer territory – simply annexed by way of invasion (aka robbed and stolen and other politically incorrect terms) by Thailand. It is never enough for Thai folks. They wanted and needed more, now that the Khmer have been weakened by internal strife.

Now it is this new incursion into Khmer territory (onto legally binding and recognised Khmer land) yet again by Thailand. How much more will be enough for Thailand? Of course, it is never enough for greedy folks.

There is a Khmer prophecy that stated: “Bangkok rolom, Phnom Penh roleiy, Saigon kjat Kjai, Sabay Angkor Wat (in Cambodia not Thailand).”

It is an old saying that has been repeated for generations.

Today, Saigon is already Kjat Kjai, or broken apart, Phnom Penh already roleiy, or melted (now being rebuilt – with Korean and Thai money, mostly), and Angkor Wat is already sabay, or happy with some 1.1 million tourists and growing as of June 2008.

The only thing missing thus far is this: “Bangkok Rolom, or fallen”. Perhaps this latest temple row might just do the trick and fulfill the old saying – who knows?

At any rate, there is no need for armed confrontation or conflict, which neither side will win.

Besides, Thai soldiers don’t really have the stomach for a real fight with the Khmer even with all of their fancy weaponry.

Perhaps economic cooperation between the two countries is a better way to go, as both will greatly benefit from tourism development in this poor and remote area. Yes, I am merely suggesting Thailand’s money (and ingenuity) and Khmer temples. It would be a win-win situation, the smarter way to go.

Besides, both Thailand and Cambodia will eventually share a common union, like the United States and the European Union. Yes, a deeper and more meaningful Asean ... where common money and people flow freely throughout the region, where everyone prospers under one roof. That day is coming and so this immature act by Thailand’s military along the two neighbours’ common border will look rather silly.

Do send the soldiers back home to their respective families and warm beds before it is too late; that’s [advice] for both sides. Do leave the silliness of politics to silly folks in Bangkok and Phnom Penh – that is my suggestion.

Ronnie Yimsut
Oregon, United States
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Dying to be pale: Cambodia's obsession with whitening cream

Written by Khouth Sophakchakrya

Many whitening creams contain dangerous chemicals that can harm skin but a lack of regulations means consumers remain in the dark

FOLLOWING the passage by the Council of Ministers of a new sub-decree last Friday to prevent the import of potentially harmful cosmetics, proponents of alternative medicine have been swift to raise their voices about the vulnerability of women purchasing skin cream in an unregulated market.

Commercial manufacturing of skin whitener, which comes under tight control in the US and Europe, has, up to now, gone largely unsupervised in the Cambodian market, despite wide reports of side effects.

Most of the problem products, which circulate on the black market, include over-chemicalised lotions and illegal creams.

"Many Cambodian women, especially youth, love the white bodies and faces," said Ing Sovanly, director of Neary Khmer Association for Health and Vocational Training in Phnom Penh which produces chemical-free cosmetics. "They are embarrassed when their skin is damaged later," she said, adding women have come to her with damaged and even blackened skin after using some products.

Banned chemicals common
The cast of skin whitening products currently available include chemicals such as steroids, peroxide and the popular hydroquinone bleach. The EU banned hydroquinone in 2001 after it linked it with adverse side effects.

But in Cambodia, where the market has been unmonitored for years, skin damage is so prevalent that mixing the creams with antibiotics is common.

Hao Daneth, a garment worker for Sun Tex Garment Factory in Phnom Penh, said her face went black after she used a cream mixed with antibiotics many times.

"I did not go outside except to go to work," Hao Daneth said.

Dr Soeur Chan Than, a dermatologist in Phnom Penh, said this was a sad reality.

"People know that it damages their skin, but they use it anyway."
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Thousands displaced by Cambodia lake development

Cambodia's Boeung Kak Lake is set to be filled with sand and thousands of people removed from their homes, as part of a development project starting next month.

While the exact nature of the development is unclear, the developer will dredge the water and replace it with sand with a view to build shops, apartments and hotels.

Radio Australia's Sonja Heydeman reports the plan leaves the fate of four thousand lakeside families unclear.

Boeung Kak Lake and surrounds, an area of around 133 hectares, was leased in February last year to a private developer by the Municipality of Phnom Penh.

The decision has sparked a human rights outcry.

The director of Bridges Across Borders in Southeast Asia, David Pred, told the Connect Asia program the lease agreement is illegal under Cambodian law.

"Under international law, Cambodia's human rights obligations under the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, the circumstances surrounding the development and the impending eviction have also constituted serious violations of law," he said.

"People have been intimidated, there's been lack of consultation serious lack of information, there's been no transparency surrounding the development of what's happening."

The $US79 million leasehold agreement has been made with Shukaku Inc.

Cambodian opposition MP from the Sam Rainsy party, Son Chhay, says there is some background to the deal.

"The company which is led by Senator Lao Meng Khin will be involved in the busienss of deforestation, land concession," he said.

"They are invloved with this kind of business that not many people are able to do, unless you are very close to the ruling CPP.

"We believe that there was some share from the Hun Sen family in the company."

The amount of compensation on offer to families remains unclear, while some reports suggest there's a figure of around $US10,000 per house.

Son Chhay believes the people will be given a small fraction of what the market price actually is.
Read more!

Thousands displaced by Cambodia lake development

Cambodia's Boeung Kak Lake is set to be filled with sand and thousands of people removed from their homes, as part of a development project starting next month.

While the exact nature of the development is unclear, the developer will dredge the water and replace it with sand with a view to build shops, apartments and hotels.

Radio Australia's Sonja Heydeman reports the plan leaves the fate of four thousand lakeside families unclear.

Boeung Kak Lake and surrounds, an area of around 133 hectares, was leased in February last year to a private developer by the Municipality of Phnom Penh.

The decision has sparked a human rights outcry.

The director of Bridges Across Borders in Southeast Asia, David Pred, told the Connect Asia program the lease agreement is illegal under Cambodian law.

"Under international law, Cambodia's human rights obligations under the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, the circumstances surrounding the development and the impending eviction have also constituted serious violations of law," he said.

"People have been intimidated, there's been lack of consultation serious lack of information, there's been no transparency surrounding the development of what's happening."

The $US79 million leasehold agreement has been made with Shukaku Inc.

Cambodian opposition MP from the Sam Rainsy party, Son Chhay, says there is some background to the deal.

"The company which is led by Senator Lao Meng Khin will be involved in the busienss of deforestation, land concession," he said.

"They are invloved with this kind of business that not many people are able to do, unless you are very close to the ruling CPP.

"We believe that there was some share from the Hun Sen family in the company."

The amount of compensation on offer to families remains unclear, while some reports suggest there's a figure of around $US10,000 per house.

Son Chhay believes the people will be given a small fraction of what the market price actually is.
Read more!

Cambodia says ready for troop pullback

By SOPHENG CHEANG

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodian officials said Friday that their troops are ready to pull back from the frontier with Thailand under an agreement to ease a month of military tension on disputed territory near an ancient border temple.

The standoff erupted near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple on July 15 after UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural agency, approved Cambodia's application to have the complex named a World Heritage Site. Both countries have long held claim to the temple, but the World Court awarded it to Cambodia in 1962.

About 800 troops from Cambodia and 400 from Thailand have been facing off in the area for a month.

"We are waiting for an order to follow, but both sides must act together," Col. Meas Yoeurn, a deputy commander of Cambodian troops in the area, said by phone Friday. "If Thai troops begin pulling back, we will also begin pulling back."

Other Cambodian officials in the area said the two countries' troop pullback will begin Saturday.

But the event will take place mostly under a media blackout, targeting especially photo and television journalists, who will not be allowed near the site, said Min Sovann, a police official.

At the request of Thai officials, Cambodian authorities will also close the road to Cambodian travelers up the mountain, where the temple is located, said Hang Soth, director-general of the Preah Vihear National Authority, a government agency managing the historic site.

He declined to elaborate but only said "we just do not want to see any problems" that would interrupt the process of the pullback.

The attempt to minimize publicity appeared to be a face-saving gesture after weeks of overheated nationalist rhetoric on both sides.

On Thursday, Cambodian Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Neang Phat said the two countries have agreed to a gradual redeployment of troops from the area ahead of talks between their foreign ministers on territorial disputes next Monday in Thailand.

He said the redeployment, slated to begin during the weekend, will first apply to Thai and Cambodian troops stationed inside the compound of the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara Buddhist pagoda near the temple.

He said Thai and Cambodian military officials, during a meeting in Thailand's Surin province Wednesday, agreed to reduce the number of their troops "to the lowest number possible."

A similar step will be applied on troops stationed in areas surrounding the pagoda and Preah Vihear temple after the foreign ministers' meeting, he said.

"We hope Thailand will honor its commitment" to the agreement, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Friday.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej had backed Cambodia's World Heritage site bid, sparking demonstrations by anti-government protesters who claimed the temple's new status would undermine Thailand's claim to the surrounding area.

The protests left Samak politically vulnerable, and he had to take action to appease his nationalist critics. On July 15, Thailand sent troops to occupy the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara pagoda — claimed by Cambodia and near Preah Vihear.

Cambodia responded with its own troop deployment. The two sides came close to a shoot-out on July 17 when Cambodian monks sought to celebrate Buddhist lent in the pagoda.

Troops on both sides raised their weapons, but no shots were fired, and the Cambodians eventually backed down.

The border dispute has not been resolved despite two rounds of talks since last month, with the countries referring to two different maps.

Cambodia uses a French colonial map demarcating the border, which Thailand says favors Cambodia. Thailand relies on a map drawn up later with American technical assistance.

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