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Monday, August 18, 2008

Monument bombers to appeal convictions

Written by Cheang Sokha

FIVE Kampuchea Krom activists sentenced to lengthy prison terms for plotting to bomb the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument in July 2007 will launch appeals this week, their lawyers said Sunday.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Suon Samnang sentenced the men to between 15 and 17 years and fined them 500,000 riels (US$125) Thursday after convicting them of terrorism and the use of illegal explosives.

Kin Toeurn, 53; Soeng Khang, 42; Sok Kim Sovat, 51; Lim Phen, 32; and Soeng Vy, 31, were found guilty of taking part in a conspiracy to blow up the monument using three homemade fertiliser bombs, allegedly in protest against the treatment of ethnic minority Khmers by the Vietnamese government.

Lawyer Khun Sovanrithy of the Cambodian Defender's Project, who is defending Kin Toeurn and Soeng Khang, said he was not satisfied with the court's decision, labeling it "unacceptable".

"It was unfair and the sentences from the court are serious," Khun Sovanrithy told the Post Sunday. "I will talk to my clients on Tuesday and then we will file our appeal on Thursday."

Moeun Sovann, another lawyer defending the group, said that when the explosion occurred his clients were not in town, but were in Kampong Speu province with their families. "My clients were tortured and forced to confess while they were in police custody," Moeun Sovann said, adding that "the court decision was based on the police report."

Judge Suon Samnang declined comment about his decision on Sunday.
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Thailand, Cambodia Open Talks on Border Dispute

The foreign ministers of Thailand and Cambodia are meeting this week to end a border dispute over an ancient temple. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, the talks follow an agreement reached last week to pull back troops on both sides of the border.

The talks this week are the next step in reducing cross-border tensions sparked by a dispute over territory surrounding an 11th century Khmer temple that lies just inside Cambodia.

The meeting between the Thai Foreign Minister, Tej Bunnag and Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong, follows last week's agreement by both countries to withdraw more than one thousand troops from around the border.

Nationalist sentiment on both sides of the border rose after Cambodia unilaterally sought United Nations World Heritage status for the Preah Vihar temple. Thailand had previously sought a joint application that would also include nearby land under Thai control.

Several months ago, however, the Thai government agreed to allow Cambodia to apply on its own. The deal set off a political fight in Bangkok that resulted in the resignation of Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama. In turn, Cambodians bristled at what they saw as Thai backsliding on an agreement and claims on their territory.

As tensions rose, both countries sent troops to the area, leading to fears of armed conflict.

Carl Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia politics at the Australian National University, says the dispute is tied to domestic politics.

"This current situation that arose led to a foreign minister to resign - a sweeping victory for [Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen and his party in Cambodia - so it had domestic dimensions where kicking a nationalist ball is part of the political game," said Thayer.

In 1962, the International Court of Justice granted sovereignty over the temple to Cambodia, although a key access point to the area is in Thailand.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Nor Namhong said before leaving for the meeting in Thailand that he expects the talks to resolve the problem.

Thailand's Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and the Thai Army chief visited the border region Monday, to show that the dispute has been set aside.
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In Cambodia, a rock 'n roll revival

By Andrew Nette

PHNOM PENH - Grainy black and white newsreel footage of B-52 bombing raids and fierce fighting are the images most frequently associated with Cambodia in the 1960 and early 1970s - 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 Southeast Asia.

"Cambodia definitely had one of the most advanced music scenes in Asia at the time," agrees Greg Cahill, who is currently seeking financing 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."

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 psychedelia 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 realized 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 1960s had become the "King of Cambodian rock and roll".

In the 1960s, Sihanouk began importing Western music into Cambodia. Local record labels sprung up and by the 1970s, these were being supported by a well-developed network of distributors and clubs.

The other major influence was the R&B, country and rock music that was blared into Cambodia by the US 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 doo-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 1950s, 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 northwest.

Her reputation slowly grew and she moved to Phnom Penh and started performing at local clubs. By the late 1960s she was a major star, producing a number of albums and starring in films. It was during this time that 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 April 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 bell-bottoms 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 1960s and early 1970s 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 US in 1999. Called "Cambodian Rocks", it was put together from cassettes bought by a US tourist during a trip to Cambodia. The CD, which contained no information about the singers or names of their songs, became a cult favorite 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 US 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-hop 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 1990s," 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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Thousands flee as Mekong breaks flood records

TORRENTIAL rain and overflowing rivers have brought some of the worst flooding in decades to Vietnam and its neighbours in the past week, affecting cities and farmlands in five nations.

In northern Vietnam, at least 130 people have been killed, dozens are missing and thousands have been driven from their homes. Hundreds of tourists were evacuated near the hill tribe resort area of Sa Pa.

Flooding has also hit parts of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos as well as Burma, where waters rose in the Irrawaddy Delta, still recovering from a cyclone that left 138,000 people dead or missing in May.

The floods have hit much of Burma, including the main city, Rangoon, as well as Mandalay in the centre and the Karen and Mon states in the south-east.

In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, officials said the Mekong River had brought the worst flooding in memory, rising to nearly 15 metres 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.

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

Laotian Foreign Ministry spokesman Yong Chanthalansy said four people, including a child, had died in Vientiane after being injured in landslides triggered by the flooding.

Speaking by phone from Vientiane, Mr Yong said there were reports that the flooding was receding.

The flooding also cut electricity in Luang Prabang, a popular tourist destination.

In parts of north-eastern 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 had been caused by 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 were telling residents in some areas to move to higher ground with their livestock.

In the southern Mekong Delta of Vietnam, where the 4800-kilometre river flows into the sea, forecasters said rising waters had reached a critical level two weeks earlier than last year and that worse flooding lay ahead.

The most destructive flooding in recent years came in late 1999 in Vietnam's central provinces, leaving 750 people dead or missing.

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Thai, Cambodian FMs meet again for border dispute

CHA-AM (PHETCHBURI), Thailand, Aug. 18 (Xinhua) -- Foreign Ministers from Thailand and Cambodia met Monday at a central Thai resort for a second-round ministerial talks on a border dispute.

Thai Foreign Minister Tej Bunnag greeted his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong and the two had a diner together Monday evening at a hotel in Cha-am district, Phetchburi province in central Thailand, some 220 kilometers southwest Bangkok, near the beach resort town Hua Hin.
The meeting was to start officially on Tuesday morning here, ina bid to find a peaceful solution to a long border dispute regarding areas around the ancient Khmer-style Hindu temple of Preah Vihear, the 11th-century ruins listed recently as World Heritage, and to lay down foundations for future cooperation on demarcation and demining work along a 4.6-sq kilometers disputed border area.

Taking apart in the meeting also include Lt. Gen Sujit Sithiparpa, Thailand's Second Army Commander who is responsible for security in the northeastern region including the disputed area, and his Cambodian counterpart Gen. Chea Mon, Cambodia's Fourth Army Commander.

As a good gesture ahead of the talks, the two sides began pulling out their troops, believed at over 1,000 from each side earlier, stationed around the Preah Vihear Temple, which sits at the border between Thai northeastern province of Si Sa Ket and Cambodia's Preah Vihear province.

Only about ten soldiers from each side remain at a pagoda near the Preah Vihear temple now after the pull-out since Saturday, and some 20 others from each at areas nearby for patrol.

The military stand-off, which has seen a quick increase of military personnel along the disputed border zone by each side, started after three Thais, including a monk, were briefly detained by Cambodian authorities on July 15 for "intruding Cambodian territory" by breaking into the Preah Vihear temple compound to declare Thai sovereignty over the temple.

The temple was awarded to Cambodia in a 1962 verdict of the International Court of Justice, which some Thais have been reluctant to accept. The dispute became a hot issue when Cambodia launched efforts to bid for the listing of the temple as a World Heritage Site last year.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee approved Cambodia's application early last month, triggering a wave of national sentiment in Thailand urging the Thai government to take counter actions in defense of territorial sovereignty.

Then Thai foreign minister Noppadon Pattama was forced to resign last month for signing a joint communique to endorse Thai support for Cambodia's World Heritage bid without prior parliament approval, which was later held unconstitutional. Veteran diplomat Tej was appointed as the successor just in time for the first ministerial talks on July 28 in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which produced no breakthrough but an agreement to reduce military deployment along the disputed border.

Thai Foreign Ministry officials reiterated to Xinhua that the Thai side did not instigate the situation by deploying more troops to the disputed area around the Preah Vihear temple, but that Thai authorities had sent letters to Cambodian government a few times to protest the setting up of Cambodian communities around the disputed border area in breach of a Memorandum of Understanding signed by two sides in 2000, which was long before the July 15 incident.

The Cambodian authorities had not acted in response to Thailand' protests, the Thai officials said.

On Monday morning, Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and Army chief General Anupong Paochinda inspected border points near the Preah Vihear temple.

Reports from Phnom Penh quoted Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong as saying before leaving for Thailand on Monday that he was optimistic about the second bilateral meeting "to seek peaceful resolution to withdraw the troops totally from the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara Pagoda and the surrounding areas of the Preah Vihear Temple."

Following the meeting, Hor Namhong will also be granted an audience by the Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej Tuesday afternoon at the royal summer palace in Hua Hin, where the King now resides, before going back to Cambodia.
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