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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Jetstar Pacific to cut flights to Nha Trang

Vietnam’s second-largest airline Jetstar Pacific, 18-percent owned by Australia’s Qantas Airways Ltd., said it will drop flights to the central beach city of Nha Trang from next month due to rising fuel costs.

Instead, the unlisted airline would open three flights in late October and early November to link Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s commercial center, with Bangkok, Cambodia’s Siem Reap and Singapore, it said in a statement.

Oil fell 1.1 percent to settle at US$113.77 a barrel Friday, but it is still well above the $70 level used by Jetstar Pacific, Vietnam’s only low-cost airline, to build its operation plans last year.

Flights to Nha Trang will cease from September 5.

The route opened in June.

Fuel accounts for 60 percent of Jetstar Pacific’s flight costs, Deputy CEO Nguyen Thi Thuy Binh said.

“Building a new business plan will focus on prioritizing to tap the routes on which travel demand is high, so that would help the airline ease the financial impact from fuel prices,” Binh said in the statement.

Nha Trang is a popular beach resort in central Vietnam, 450 km (280 miles) northeast of HCMC.
National flag carrier Vietnam Airlines said it had started collecting a fuel surcharge of up to VND180,000 ($11) on one-way tickets for domestic flights as from Friday as a measure to cope with the rising fuel cost.

The airline said in July it made a loss of $5 million during the first half of this year after high oil prices forced it to spend more than its revenue.

Jetstar Pacific said it would gradually shift its fleet from Boeing 737-400 aircraft to fuel-saving Airbus planes under a plan to have 30 A320s by 2014, the first of which will be delivered late this month or in early September.

Qantas, which owns low-cost Jetstar airline, bought an 18 percent stake in Vietnam’s Pacific Airlines last year and said it will increase its holding to 30 percent by 2010.

Pacific Airlines renamed itself to Jetstar Pacific after the share sales.

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CULTURE-CAMBODIA: Pre-War Khmer Music Making a Comback

By Andrew Nette - Newsmekong*


PHNOM PENH, Aug 17 (IPS) - Grainy black and white newsreel footage of B-52 bombing raids and fierce fighting are the images most frequently associated with Cambodia in the sixties and early seventies -- not rock and roll, hot pants and wild dancing.

But when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, emptying the cities and systematically eradicating the so-called old culture as corrupt and decadent, they almost completely destroyed what was probably, for its time, the most unique and vibrant rock and roll scene in South-east Asia.

"Cambodia definitely had one of the most advanced music scenes in Asia at the time," agrees Greg Cahill, who is currently seeking finance to turn his 30-minute film on the most famous of the era’s female singers, Ros Sereysothea, ‘The Golden Voice’, into a fully-fledged biopic.

"It is amazing that a lot of it survived at all," says Cahill, who was recently in Phnom Penh to scout for locations. "The Khmer Rouge destroyed everything related to the music scene they could get their hands on, including trashing all the recording studios and destroying all the musical recordings they could find."
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All the major singers, many of them still household names today such as Sin Sisamouth and Sereysothea, were killed.

Not only has the music survived. Its legacy of thousands of songs ranging over musical styles as diverse as psychodelia and Latin, is garnering increasing international attention.

‘The Golden Voice’ is one of two films on Cambodia’s pre-war music scene in the works. The other, Los Angeles-based cinematographer John Pirozzi’s ‘Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten’, a history of the scene, is currently in production.

Songs from the period featured on the soundtrack of the 2002 crime thriller shot in Cambodia, ‘City of Ghosts’.

It has also been given significant exposure by the six-piece Los Angeles-based band ‘Dengue Fever’, whose lead singer, Cambodian-born Chhom Nimol, covers many of the classic hits from the period.

While the music’s domestic popularity is mostly restricted to older Khmers, the pre-war artists are being sampled and mixed in hip hop and rap music tracks, slowly exposing it to a new, younger audience.

"When I first heard this music, I did not think much of it," says Sok ‘Cream’ Visal. "I thought it was just the style back then."

"The more I listened, the more I realised just how different and edgy this music was," says Visal, art director at a local advertising company who, for the past few years, has been experimenting with remixing pre-war music with more modern sounds. "Thailand, Vietnam and Laos did not have this scene. It was unique to Cambodia."

Two factors are credited with kickstarting Cambodia’s pre-war music industry.

The first was the patronage of then King Norodom Sihanouk. As part of his post-independence nation-building efforts, Sihanouk encouraged royal court musicians to experiment with new styles.

This influenced people like Sisamouth, whose career started as a ballad singer in the royal court and by the end of the sixties had become the ‘King of Cambodian rock and roll’.

In the sixties, Sihanouk began importing Western music into Cambodia. Local record labels sprung up and by the seventies, these were being supported by a well-developed network of distributors and clubs.

The other major influence was the R and B, country and rock music that was blared into Cambodia by the U.S. Armed Forces radio in Vietnam.

"This exposed Cambodian musicians to Jimi Hendrix, Phil Spector, the Doors," says Visal. "Meanwhile, from Europe we got Latin styles such as cha cha, rumba and flamenco.’

These sounds, as well as influences as diverse as do-wop, psychodelic and Motown, can clearly be heard in the pre-war music, often mixed with traditional Cambodian instruments.

From the royal court, Sisamouth became a popular radio singer in the late fifties, before branching into film and TV. Although he did many rock and Latin tunes, he is better known for his more silky crooner numbers and is often compared to singers like Nat King Cole.

Although Sisamouth was the bigger star, it is Sereysothea who had the greatest mystique and exercises the strongest contemporary interest.

Born into poverty in a small village in Battambang province, Sereysothea spent her teens performing with her family in a traditional peasant band touring Cambodia’s rural backwaters of the north-west.

Her reputation slowly grew and she moved to Phnom Penh and started performing at local clubs. By the late sixties she was a major star, producing a number of albums and starring in films. It was during this time hat she started performing with Sisamouth.

She was married for a time to another singer, Suos Mat, who was incredibly jealous of her success and is said to have beaten her regularly. Sereysothea was subsequently involved with a paratrooper in the Lon Nol army who was killed fighting the Khmer Rouge.

When the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh on Apr. 17, 1975, Sereysothea joined the rest of the city’s residents in being marched at gunpoint to the countryside.

Sereysothea and Sisamouth in particular were very creative, says Cahill, who has extensively researched the era.

Over the seven to eight years leading to the Khmer Rouge takeover, they wrote, sang and produced about 2,000 songs, often at a rate of one or two songs a day. They also recorded a wide array of covers in English and Khmer.

Under the Khmer Rouge, even the slightest western influence such as speaking a second language, having long hair or wearing flares was enough to invite a death sentence.

Sisamouth was reportedly shot. Sereysothea successfully hid her identity for some time until she was finally discovered and made to perform revolutionary songs celebrating the regime.

According to Cahill’s research, Sereysothea was in a camp in central Cambodia when her real identity was discovered. She was forced to marry one of Pol Pot’s commanders who eventually had her murdered.

The music of the sixties and early seventies is currently available on CD and cassette in markets throughout Phnom Penh. That it survived the destruction of Cambodian culture wrought by the Khmer Rouge is due to Cambodians who took it with them when they fled the country.

"In the Khmer community in Long Beach, California you cannot go down the street without hearing this music," says Cahill.

Visal remembers his parents taking music with them when they fled Cambodia to France. "Music was a part of their everyday lives," he recalls. "For them it was about memories of Cambodia in the good times."

A compilation CD of Khmer pre-war music was released in the U.S. in 1999. Called ‘Cambodian Rocks’, it was put together from cassettes bought by a U.S. tourist during a trip to Cambodia. The CD, which contained no information about the singers or names of their songs, became a cult favourite among college students.

However, it was not until the music was released as part of the soundtrack for ‘City of Ghosts’, written and directed by U.S. actor Matt Dillon, that it started to get serious international exposure.

Visal’s own path back to Cambodia’s pre-war music involved a long detour through the rap and hip that he listened to in the housing projects of suburban Paris.

"I remember seeing the tapes of artists like Sisamouth and Sereysothea for sale in the Phnom Penh in the nineties," says Visal, who returned to Cambodia in 1993. "I did not really pay any attention to the music until I bought a computer to learn design. I stumbled on music editing software and started messing around with sampling Khmer music."

"Soon, I was started going out and combing the markets, listening to every song I could find from this period and I started to mix and sample them," Visal continues. "The first reaction I had from people was shock. They thought it was blasphemy and did not understand why I wanted to do it."

Visal recently started up his own label, Klapyahandz, promoting young Khmer hip hop and rap bands and is keen to release a CD of his mixed songs. "I started remixing old music for fun but now it has become a real mission, trying to remind people now just how creative people were back then."

"In the next five years we are going to see a real explosion of the arts in Cambodia, particularly in music," predicts Visal. "I hope the pre-war songs will be part of that."
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Cambodia’s transforming tycoon

By Raphael Minder

About an hour into our meeting, Kith Meng, Cambodia’s leading entrepreneur, dips a finger into an intriguing little flask on his coffee table and applies a fragrant yellow ointment to his neck and temples. “It’s Chinese,” he says. “When you have a muscle cramp, it helps take the pain away.”

The massage brings a smile to the face of a man who seems to find it hard to wind down. A self-confessed workaholic, the 39-year-old cannot imagine ever retiring or selling his Royal Group conglomerate because, he says, “this business is my passion”. He adds: “If I don’t work, I get sick. I don’t like to take it easy, I like to get things done.”

Such energy and intensity set him apart from the more relaxed attitude of the average Cambodian.

Mr Kith Meng has been at the forefront of Cambodia’s transform­ation from a backward, war-torn country into one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies, averaging 9 per cent growth a year over the past decade. Royal Group’s businesses include the country’s biggest mobile phone company, its first broadband provider and a bank that pioneered ATMs. It is about to launch phone banking.

Such activities have put Mr Kith Meng on a very different path from his fellow ethnic Chinese, who have tended to build family businesses in traditional sectors such as farming, mining and logging.

“We are going into every sector we can because Cambodia needs every sector to grow,” he says. “After that, we’ll see in what industry we want to be an Asian player.”

With such ambitions in mind, he has already started touring financial centres such as Singapore and Hong Kong to see how and when Royal Group should widen its presence in the region as well as list the equity of a company that has already made him a billionaire. (He refuses to value his assets precisely.)

Mr Kith Meng also has casino interests in Cambodia and one of his recent trips abroad was to Macao, the world’s largest gaming centre, accompanied by western bankers. His conclusion is unambiguous, and typical of a man who believes Cambodians must shed their inferiority complex towards other Asians. “Macao is already so crowded,” he says. “I think people in Macao should be looking here, not us looking there.”

Although he has so far confined his activities to his homeland, his ascent has started to draw comparisons with more renowned and far-reaching Asian tycoons, including Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai businessman and ousted former prime minister. Mr Kith Meng scoffs at that particular comparison, insisting he has no desire to use his wealth as a political launchpad as Mr Thaksin did in Thailand, where he created his own political party. “I am a businessman and just don’t have any of that [political] ambition,” he says.

In fact, insiders say Mr Kith Meng’s allegiance to Hun Sen, Cambodia’s long-standing prime minister, has been crucial to his success. Royal Group’s meeting rooms are adorned with pictures of the Hun Sen family, confirming what he describes as “very good relations with the government”.

Mr Hun Sen was returned to power in a landslide electoral victory last month with the backing of a business community that has benefited from strong growth and political stability after decades of war. Still, the government’s record has continued to be stained by international corruption studies that rank Cambodia among the most corrupt nations in the world. On that topic, Mr Kith Meng echoes government officials, emphasising the billions of dollars of foreign investment that have poured into Cambodia in recent years as vindication of Mr Hun Sen’s efforts to guarantee a fair and transparent business and legal environment.

“From outside, people can make any statement they want, but those [investors] who actually come here realise that Cambodia is a place where they should do business,” he says.

Even though he also holds the honorific title of Okhna, the Cambodian equivalent of a British peerage, associates and some other local businessmen say he steers clear of fellow Cambodian high-flyers. While Royal Group is set to build one of the skyscrapers that are redrawing Phnom Penh’s skyline, the company’s headquarters are in a nondescript office block and are entered via an electronics dealership with peeling walls.

Asked about this surprisingly low-key location, Mark Hanna, his Irish chief financial officer, says: “It might seem strange but I don’t think he’ll ever move from here. Perhaps it’s a mix of feng shui, good luck and superstition.” Meanwhile, Mr Kith Meng has his own take on good fortune: “Luck is about intelligence and timing.”

Mr Kith Meng’s workplace may be modest but he does have some flashy tastes. His oversized Cartier gold watch is overshadowed only by his diamond ring. He also has a penchant for luxury cars, owning a Rolls-Royce and a Bentley. He has no plans to settle down. “I’m single because when you’re a workaholic you don’t have time for that,’’ he grins.

Mr Kith Meng’s meteoric rise has drawn a mix of envy and disdain from some rival businessmen.“I can assure you that he has plenty of enemies here,” says a local financier. But he denies feeling threatened, describing his bodyguards as assistants who are “just here to support me”.

He makes no qualms about taking a different stance from the local elite, which tends to close ranks rather than open its doors to foreigners. “I [make joint ventures] with international companies, not Cambodian ones,” he says.

That openness may stem from an adolescence spent in Australia in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime (see below). However, despite having Australian citizenship and maintaining a home there, Mr Kith Meng has “mixed memories” from his youth in Canberra. “In the late 1980s, Australia was a very discriminatory society,” he says. “I think that society has now changed completely.”

Now, Royal Group’s most important Australian connection is its joint venture with ANZ bank. Meanwhile, its telecoms business is a partnership with Luxembourg-registered Millicom International Cellular. Mr Kith Meng also has exclusive distribution rights in Cambodia for a gamut of multi­nationals, including Canon, Siemens and Motorola, as well as the restaurant chains Pizza Hut and KFC. Mr Hanna is among a dozen English-speaking executives working for the group, including a team of former bankers from Macquarie, hired to set up an investment bank for the sprawling business empire. “We, as Cambodians, need outside expertise,” says Mr Kith Meng.

Unsurprisingly, he likes to monitor any international news or report relating to Cambodia.

He cites reading as a favourite hobby, although he has to check with an assistant for the exact title of the book he is currently enjoying. “Hey, what’s the name of that book that I’m reading, that you bought for me?” he shouts across the room. “ Don’t Sweat the Small Stuffby Richard Carlson,” comes the answer. Wise advice, perhaps, but probably something Mr Kith Meng worked out long before starting the first chapter.
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Destructive flooding puts Southeast Asia at risk

HANOI: Torrential rains and overflowing rivers have brought some of the worst flooding in decades to Vietnam and its neighbors, flooding cities and farmlands in five nations.

At least 130 people were killed, dozens were missing and thousands were driven from their homes in northern Vietnam and hundreds of tourists were evacuated near the hill tribe resort area of Sapa.

Flooding has also hit parts of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos as well as Myanmar, where waters rose in the Irrawaddy Delta, which is still recovering from a cyclone that left 38,000 people dead or missing in May.

According to the official press in Myanmar, the floods affected much of the country, including the main city, Yangon, as well as Mandalay in the center and the Karen and Mon states in the southeast.

In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, officials said the Mekong River had brought the worst flooding in memory, rising to nearly 14 meters, or 45 feet, above its lowest level in the dry season. The high water in Vientiane broke a record set in 1966 and overflowed a levee that was built after that flood.

Mudslides also cut the main road from Vientiane to the ancient capital of Luang Prabang, a city of temples and monasteries where the Mekong waters also rose.

In parts of northeastern Thailand, officials said the Mekong had reached its highest level in 30 years, inundating farmlands and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people in three provinces along the river, which divides Thailand from Laos.

Officials said the high water was caused by heavy downpours in southern China, Laos and Thailand.

As the high waters of the Mekong moved downstream, Cambodia and eastern Thailand prepared for major floods and officials warned residents in some areas to move to higher ground along with their livestock.

In Vietnam's southern Mekong delta, where the 4,345-kilometer, or 2,700-mile, river flows into the sea, forecasters said that rising waters had reached a critical level two weeks earlier than last year and that worse flooding lay ahead.

In northern Vietnam, the government said floodwaters peaked at close to their record levels of 1968. Military helicopters brought instant noodles and other supplies to stranded residents and airlifted hundreds of Vietamese and foreign tourists from Lao Cai, on the border with China.

Several hundred train passengers en route to the popular tourist area, including about 50 foreign tourists, took refuge in hotels before being airlifted out, according to the Vietnamese press.

In the neighboring province of Yen Bai, according to official reports, at least 35 people were killed, many of them buried under landslides that hit at night as they slept.

The government's Central Steering Committee for Flood and Storm Control said in May that over the past three years, floods and storms had become stronger and more destructive. Last year's floods were followed by a rare prolonged cold spell at the end of 2007. That was followed in turn by unexpected scorching weather and early storms in the first months of 2008, the committee said.

The most destructive flooding in recent years came in late 1999 in the country's central provinces, leaving 750 people dead or missing.
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Cambodia, Thailand to meet for new border talks

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: Cambodia and Thailand geared up Sunday for renewed border settlement talks after both sides ended a monthlong armed confrontation by withdrawing most of their troops from disputed territory around an ancient temple.

Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in the Thai resort town of Hua Hin on Monday in a bid to find a lasting solution to a lingering border dispute that brought the two neighbors close to an armed clash.

The new meeting follows two inconclusive rounds of talks.

On July 28, the two nations' foreign ministers agreed on a plan to withdraw their troops from disputed area near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple to reduce tension.

Both countries completed moving most of their troops from a nearby temple on Saturday, said Hang Soth, director-general of the Preah Vihear National Authority, a government agency managing the historic site.

He said the two sides are currently keeping only 10 soldiers from each side in the compound of the pagoda, which is located in a border area claimed by both countries.

"The tension has eased considerably. There is no more confrontation," Hang Soth said Sunday, calling the troop withdrawals a "good process giving us hope" about the new talks.

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith confirmed Sunday that there were only 20 soldiers — 10 Cambodian and 10 Thai — in the grounds of the pagoda.

The standoff began on July 15 after UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural agency, approved Cambodia's application to have the Preah Vihear temple 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 confronted each other in the area for a month.

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

The protests left Samak politically vulnerable, and he sent troops to occupy the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara Buddhist pagoda compound adjacent to Preah Vihear to appease his critics. Cambodia responded with its own troop deployment.
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