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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Group 34 residents say City Hall is trying to renege on land deal

Written by SAM RITH AND CHRISTOPHER SHAY


Municipality says it is still considering the community’s proposal, but will request that residents and NGOs help pay the cost of the relocation site

RESIDENTS of Group 34 say City Hall is backtracking on its promise to move the community to a plot of land close to Phnom Penh city in Dangkor district.

"People will not agree to move if the Phnom Penh Municipality does not agree to our request [to remain near the city]," said Group 34 representative, Touch Sophoan, who was among the more than 225 families who watched their homes destroyed by a suspected arson attack in May.

But Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun said City Hall had not yet ruled out the plot that the community had requested.

"We are still having discussions with each other," he told the Post.

In late May, both municipal officials and the community said that an agreement had been reached to send the community about 10 kilometres away to a spot in Dangkor district owned by Thoang Chantha, who said he was happy to sell the land.
But now, the main obstacle is money, according to Mann Chhoeun.

He said he wants the community, the company developing the land and NGOs to help the government purchase the land.

"The people themselves also have to participate in [paying money to buy the land]," he said. "We know that if the Phnom Penh Municipality just offers them the land and house with no participation from people, they will sell their land and houses, and move back," he said.

"NGOs who are used to criticising should distribute money, and the company that would like to develop the road should help buy the land too," he added.

But community members say that after the fire, they simply do not have money to give to the government.

"If the municipality requires people to help buy the land, the people here will not be able to offer any, because they have no money left," Touch Sophan said.
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PM lashes out at SRP lawmaker

Written by Meas Sokchea


Hun Sen warns Mu Sochua’s political career may be over

PRIME Minister Hun Sen warned that if the National Assembly votes to strip opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua of her parliamentary immunity, the loss could be permanent, telling a graduation ceremony Wednesday that her political career might be over.

"Lifting immunity is easy. Restoring it, in some cases, is not so easy," the prime minister told new graduates at the Royal School of Administration in Phnom Penh.

"So [Mu Sochua] will not be a parliamentarian forever; her party must replace her with a new person," he said.

Hun Sen made reference to the upcoming vote by the National Assembly on whether to lift the Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker's immunity, which will allow his defamation case against her to proceed. A decision is expected Friday.

"Immunity is lifted by two-thirds [of the Assembly]. It is restored by two-thirds. Lifting is possible, and restoring is - in some cases - impossible," Hun Sen said, adding that some lawmakers from his party had already said they would not vote to restore her immunity.

The ruling Cambodian People's Party holds more than enough Assembly seats to strip Mu Sochua of her legislative protection.

In response to threats issued Tuesday by union leaders, who said they would organise mass protests if Mu Sochua's immunity was lifted, Hun Sen mockingly encouraged the protests, saying pro-government groups would organise mass rallies in response.

He also warned outspoken NGOs to watch their step, saying that if they spoke too much "nonsense" he would file a complaint with the courts.

Mu Sochua, who sued Hun Sen for defamation, only to be countersued by the prime minister, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

But SRP lawmaker and spokesman, Yim Sovann told the Post that if the Assembly did lift her immunity, it would be an abuse of the Constitution. He vowed the party would not abandon the former minister of women's affairs.
"The Sam Rainsy Party will not find a new person," Yim Sovann said.

"If a Prime Minister has absolute power and does everything according to his emotions, there will be no democracy."
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Govt trafficking rating slips

THE US State Department downgraded Cambodia's anti-human trafficking rating on Tuesday from Tier 2 to Tier 2 Watch - the list's second-lowest rating - citing "a decline in efforts to combat trafficking in persons".

In 2008, the US raised Cambodia's status to Tier 2 for the first time in four years after the National Assembly passed anti-human trafficking legislation.

The US said at the time that the new law "provides law enforcement authorities the power to investigate all forms of trafficking and is a powerful tool in efforts to prosecute and convict traffickers".

But the State Department later determined that "not all government officials have appeared to distinguish the law's articles on trafficking offenses and non-trafficking crimes such as prostitution, pornography and child sex abuse".

Sara Bradford, a technical adviser to the Asian Pacific Network of Sex Workers, said that since Washington backed the controversial trafficking law, the US is partly to blame for Cambodia's failure to create an effective anti-trafficking campaign.

"The [Cambodian] government is combating trafficking with very few resources and little training," she said.

"I am one of many who feel that the US pushed this law upon Cambodia without proper guidance on how to implement it," Bradford added.

A press release from the sex workers network on Wednesday commended the State Department for acknowledging "a number of issues arising from the conflation of sex work and trafficking in Cambodia, as well as the misguided enforcement of the law".

US Embassy spokesman John Johnson said that, though the United States supported parts of the Cambodian trafficking law, it did not endorse it in its entirety.

"The US supports elements of the legislation that specifically address trafficking issues," he said.

He added that, as the law was being debated, "the embassy raised questions with the Royal Government regarding some elements of the draft that were unclear".

The chief at the Ministry of Interior's Anti-Human Trafficking office said that the State Department's claims of police corruption and a lack of effort were simply not true.

"Our police work hard to prevent human trafficking, and we have never cared whether we work during the night or day. Even on holidays, we work," Keo Sothea said, adding, "We have never let corruption hinder the protection of a victim."

The decline in prosecutions and convictions of trafficking crimes in 2008 was one of the major reasons for the drop. The report said the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted 11 trafficking offenders and prosecuted 22, down from 52 convictions in 2007.

But Lim Tith, the national project coordinator at the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region, said that using the number of convictions as an indicator is a problem because "it can push law enforcement to make more arrests without proper evidence".

Lim Tith, who said Cambodia should have maintained its Tier 2 ranking, said that the sharp decline in convictions could be the result of a successful prevention campaign or poor data collection.

He did say, however, that Cambodia needed to do more to prevent cross-border trafficking, specifically with Thailand and Malaysia, which just fell to Tier 3 status.

The Tier 2 Watch listing means that Cambodia has not reached the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but that "it is making significant efforts to do so", the report said.

The US Embassy's Johnson pointed to Cambodia's national task force on trafficking and the government's cooperation with NGOs as examples of Cambodia's efforts to deal with the problem of human trafficking.

If Cambodia drops one more rating, it risks facing economic sanctions from the US.

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a0619 BC-AS-Cambodia-Laos-Dyi 1stLd-Writethru 06-18 0764

Study: Pollution killing rare Irrawaddy dolphins

Eds: UPDATES with Cambodian government response, additional details on dolphins, conservation efforts in Cambodia. CORRECTS that study was released Thursday, not Friday.

By MICHAEL CASEY

BANGKOK (AP) -- Pollution in the Mekong River is putting the rare Irrawaddy dolphin in danger of disappearing from Cambodia and Laos, according to a study by an environmental group released Thursday.

A Cambodian government official, however, rejected the finding and demanded that the group apologize.

The World Wide Fund For Nature Cambodia said it has documented 88 deaths in the past six years of the Irrawaddy dolphin or Orcaella brevirostris along a 118-mile (190-kilometer) stretch of the Mekong River.

The Irrawaddy dolphin, which is related to orcas or killer whales, frequents large rivers, estuaries, and freshwater lagoons in South and Southeast Asia. The population in the Mekong is now believed to include as few as 64 members, the WWF said, down from 80 to 100 just three years ago.

Researchers from WWF Cambodia said they found levels of the pesticide DDT in the bodies of dead dolphin calves from the Mekong that were 10 times higher than in a similar population in India, plus environmental contaminants such as PCBs. They also found mercury, a toxin used in gold mining that can compromise the immune system of marine animals, they said.

The group said it was investigating the source of the pollutants, noting that many young calves died of bacterial diseases that only occur when immune systems are damaged. Many had black and blue lesions on their necks.

"These pollutants are widely distributed in the environment, and so the source of this pollution may involve several countries through which the Mekong River flows," said Verne Dove, the report's author and a veterinarian with WWF Cambodia.

Touch Sieng Tana, chairman of the Cambodian-run Commission for Mekong Dolphin Conservation, dismissed the findings and said there is no mercury, DDT or PCBs in the Mekong. He called on the WWF to apologize for suggesting that the Mekong was polluted.

"If the Mekong River is full of pollution, then all the Cambodians who use that water and drink it would have died," he said. "The WWF statement aims to destroy Cambodia and cause fear to foreigners who want to visit Cambodia."

Scientists do not know exactly how many Irrawaddy dolphins remain in the world -- researchers recently found a population of nearly 6,000 near Bangladesh's mangrove forests -- but the species is listed as "vulnerable" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The Mekong River subpopulation has been listed as "critically endangered" since 2004.

Brian Smith, an Irrawaddy dolphin expert with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the findings were surprising given that until now, the biggest threats facing the dolphins have been thought to be fishing, collisions with boats and habitat loss. He cautioned that more research needs to be done to establish a link between the deaths and pollution.

However, he said the extremely low survivorship of calves on the Mekong -- and the fact that many carcasses were found with lesions -- suggests that disease combined with pollutants documented in the WWF study "may indeed be an important factor threatening the population."
Seng Teak, WWF Cambodia's country director, urged Mekong River countries to develop a coordinated program to protect the dolphins that reduces pollutants at their source.

Two years ago, Cambodia launched a $700,000 plan with the World Tourism Organization to reduce threats from fishing by boosting tourism in areas known to have dolphin populations. Authorities have said the program was successful in increasing awareness among villagers and persuading some to abandon fishing for tourism jobs.
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