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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Cambodian, Thai troops clash on border

PHNOM PENH: Cambodian and Thai troops have had a brief shoot-out on their disputed border, a Cambodian defence ministry spokesman said on Saturday, in the latest such flare-up.

Chum Socheat told AFP that soldiers from the two countries exchanged fire for two or three minutes on Friday evening.

"We are now further investigating into the problem to find out how it started. We can't tell who started it first," he said.

He added that Cambodian troops reported a Thai soldier was killed in the skirmish, however Thai military officials were not immediately available to comment.

Troops from the two countries briefly exchanged fire in disputed territory near an ancient Khmer temple last Sunday.

Cambodia and Thailand have been at loggerheads over their border for decades. Nationalist tensions spilled over into violence in July 2008, when the Preah Vihear temple was granted UNESCO World Heritage status.

Four soldiers were killed in clashes in the temple area in 2008 and three more in a gunbattle last April.

The border has never been fully demarcated, partly because it is littered with landmines left over from decades of war in Cambodia.

Relations plunged further in November after Cambodian PM Hun Sen appointed ousted Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives abroad to escape a jail term for corruption, as an economic adviser. - AFP/de
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No more excuses

By Butch Hernandez
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Filed Under: Poverty, Education


IN HER Foreword to the 2010 Education For All Global Monitoring Report (EFA GMR), Unesco director general Irina Bokova said that “rising poverty levels mean that the challenge of meeting basic human needs is a daily struggle. Lessons from the past teach us that children are often the first to suffer—as is their chance to go to school.”

One of the tools that the EFA GMR uses to determine a country’s progress is the EFA Development Index or EDI. Its indicators are the four most easily quantifiable EFA goals, namely, universal primary education, adult literacy (first part of goal 4), gender parity and equality, and quality. The EDI value for a given country is arrived at via the arithmetic mean of these four goals. An EDI of “1” means the country has fully achieved.

Lets start with the good news first.

The 2010 EFA GMR finds that the Philippines together with Fiji, Indonesia and Malaysia, is “in an intermediate position with an EDI between 0.80 and 0.94.”

And now the bad news.

The EFA GMR also says that in 2007, 9 million primary school-age children were out of school in the East Asia/Pacific region, mostly from the Philippines (1 million), Indonesia (500,000), Cambodia and Thailand (about 250,000 each).

More alarmingly, around 25 percent of those who do go to school drop out before Grade 5 due to poverty and location, “with the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and some outlying islands falling far behind the national average. Many poor and vulnerable households [have] to cut back on education spending or withdraw their children from school.”

Furthermore, in the Philippines, Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Burma, 9 percent to 14 percent of pupils drop out of the first grade; only 54 percent to 73 percent of children enrolling in primary school reach the last grade. School retention is particularly poor in the Philippines.

These figures have remained rather constant for the past five years.

What has this led to? A rising number of adult illiterates: over 1.4 million in the Philippines and 1.2 million in Vietnam.

The EFA GMR says that globally, “literacy remains among the most neglected of all education goals, with about 759 million adults lacking literacy skills today. Two-thirds are women.” The report adds that “millions of children are leaving school without having acquired basic skills.”

It seems that the Philippines has been a disappointment, because “achieving Universal Primary Education by 2015 should have been a formality, given its wealth level and starting point at the time, and there is now a real danger that, without decisive political leadership, the country will miss the goal. Education indicators for the Philippines are below what might be expected for a country at its income level. Extreme poverty and regional disparities are at the heart of this.”

Aside from conventional poverty indicators, EFA GMR also looks at “Education Poverty,” which it defines as “young adults aged 17 to 22 who have fewer than four years of education. They are unlikely to have mastered basic literacy or numeracy skills.”

Young adults with fewer than two years of education, who are likely to face extreme disadvantage in many areas of their lives, including health and employment, fall under the “Extreme Education Poverty” category.

“Despite the progress of the past decade, absolute deprivation in education among 17- to 22-year-olds is extraordinarily high in Cambodia and Myanmar [Burma], and remains significant in Indonesia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the Philippines and Vietnam,” says the UN report.

Let’s now take a look at international assessments such as the TIMSS (Trends in International Math and Science Study) and the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment.

The PISA is given to eighth graders (or 2nd year high school students). It assesses achievement in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy, “not merely in terms of mastery of the school curriculum, but in terms of important knowledge and skills needed in adult life.”

In 2003, PISA added an additional domain of problem-solving: “to continue the examination of cross-curriculum competencies.”

The UN report says that “evidence from international assessments of reading skills is even more disturbing. Among the East Asian and Pacific countries included in the 2006 assessment, the proportion of students performing at or below level 1 of the reading literacy scale ranged from less than 6 percent in the Republic of Korea to 58 percent in Indonesia.”

We would have benefited greatly from international assessments like TIMSS and PISA. Our neighbors in the region surely did. Unfortunately, the Philippines participated in neither the 2006 PISA or the 2007 TIMSS, for a variety of reasons.

So now we know what we have suspected a long time ago: Philippine education is reeling largely from self-inflicted wounds.

In his opening remarks at the launch of Education Nation’s 10-point Agenda (Inquirer, 1/23/10), Ramon R. Del Rosario of the Philippine Business for Education (PBed) said “It is time that we demand of our government leaders at all levels to demonstrate their genuine concern for the plight of millions of Filipino children. Our country deserves quality education for all. We demand it. We will watch over it. We shall fight for it. No more excuses.”

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Cambodia ship held by court, not taken by Somalis

HARGEISA (Reuters) - A Cambodian vessel reportedly hijacked off Somalia instead was detained in the Somaliland port of Berbera on court orders, a port official said on Saturday.

The Kenya-based East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme earlier in the week had said the MV Layla-S had been hijacked after discharging its cargo in the breakaway northern enclave of Somaliland last year.

However, assistant chief of Berbera port Bile Hirsi said the ship was held after a local businessman, whose goods were destroyed in a fire on board another ship that belongs to the owners Layla-S, asked the court to detain it.

"The ship is in Berbera port by the order of the regional court of Berbera, because Abdillahi Omar -- a businessman who had a lot of merchandise on the ship that burned outside the port last October -- made a complaint to the regional court and the court ordered that the ship should remain in the port," he said.

Bile said the businessman wanted compensation for merchandise destroyed in the Maria Star fire.

Somaliland, which declared itself independent in 1991, is proud of its relative stability compared with the south of Somalia, where hardline Islamist rebels control large amounts of territory and are battling a weak Western-backed government.

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Rights group criticizes Cambodia opposition leader's conviction

[JURIST] Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] on Friday called [press release] the closed door trial of Cambodia's opposition leader Sam Rainsy [official profile] and two others a "farce," saying the ruling demonstrates the government's control over the country's judiciary. Rainsy was convicted [RFA report] Wednesday, in absentia, of inciting racial discrimination and intentionally destroying posts demarcating the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. Two villagers were convicted of the same crimes. HRW Asia Director Brad Adams said the decision was the result of political motivations by Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen [official profile]:

The Cambodian government's relentless crackdown on critics continues apace in 2010. Hun Sen seems intent on reversing the political pluralism that has been created over the past two decades. Any hopes of slowing Hun Sen's assault on the political opposition now depends on the donor community, which props up the government financially. This political trial should make donors recognize the gravity of the situation.

Rainsy was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 8 million riels (approximately USD $2,000), and the two villagers were each sentenced to one year in prison. All three were required to pay 55 million riels (approximately USD $13,000) for destroying the border markings.

The charges stem from an incident [Phnom Penh Post report] in October where Rainsy joined Cambodian villagers in removing six temporary border markers, which the villagers said were placed on their lands by Vietnamese authorities. Rainsy called the planting of the border markers a border incursion and said his conviction was requested by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung [BBC profile]. Rainsy was stripped of his parliamentary immunity in November, and an arrest warrant was issued for him in December after he failed to appear for questioning about the incident. He has said he would return to the country and allow himself to be taken into custody if the two villagers are released from prison. Read more!

Cambodia: A beautiful, haunting and heart-breaking country

By Christina Patterson


I was greeted with the smell of lemongrass. After a night flight to Bangkok, and a dawn flight to Phnom Penh, and a car-ride through the chaos that is the Cambodian capital in rush-hour – a chaos full of miracles, like entire families perched on mopeds and apparently surviving – we arrived in an oasis of calm. There were mint cocktails waiting for us, and giant, carved elephants and men in pointy hats and purple knickerbockers, and grand staircases that you could imagine yourself swishing down, in evening dress, before meeting some Ernest Hemingway-type figure for martinis in the bar.

For this is Raffles Hotel Le Royal, built in 1929 in the heyday of French colonialism, when Cambodia was a peaceful country full of temples and paddy fields and Buddhas. It was the favoured haunt of writers and foreign correspondents, and it was here they fled in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge marched on Phnom Penh and launched one of the bloodiest regimes in history.
It's hard to believe now, as you collapse on a vast bed in a room that's all dark wood and gracious living, or wander to the Amrita Spa for a soothing massage, or sample the delicious buffet in the CafĂ© Monivong, but you can't get away from history in Cambodia, and this is a place – like everywhere else – that saw chaos and terror and death.

You could spend all afternoon, after your massage, and your lie-down, and your lunch, sipping G and Ts by the pool – and I have to admit it's tempting. The last thing you want, in fact, after no sleep, and the stress of getting yourself there, and that journey through the rush-hour traffic, is to be bussed out, in the heat of a burning sun, to a place where thousands of people were killed. But it's also, in a peculiar way, the best way to start your trip to Cambodia.

If you want sunshine, go to Torremolinos, but if you want to get a true taste of the beautiful, haunting, heart-breaking country whose capital, Phnom Penh, was once regarded as the "Pearl of Asia", you have to see the killing fields. You have to see the beauty born out of blood, and the courage that has grown – yes, like a pearl – out of suffering beyond imagining.

There are brilliant pink flowers and a stall selling canned drinks at the entrance to Choeung Ek. This was the point where the trucks stopped, two or three times a month, to deliver men, women and children to death and mass graves. Between 1975 and 1979 – a time when in Britain we were watching Starsky and Hutch and listening to Abba – about 17,000 died here, bludgeoned to death, poisoned, disembowelled or buried alive. Many of the killers were children, children who learnt to smash babies' skulls against the rough bark of a "killing tree" before later being killed themselves. Loudspeakers played music to drown out the victims' screams.

Even now, you can see bits of bone and cloth poking up through the ground. Many of the mass graves have never been disinterred. But if you can't see the bodies, you can see some of the skulls. There are more than 8,000 of them, arranged by sex and age, behind the glass panels in a Memorial Stupa, created in 1988. Green mats next to it say (in English) "Welcome" and next to them are buckets of chrysanthemums.

Inside, funeral music is playing. In a hut nearby, there's a notice, presumably put up by the Cambodian government. "They have the human form," it says of the Khmer Rouge, "but their hearts are demons' hearts."

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Back in Phnom Penh, we saw more evidence of the "demons' hearts".

When the Khmer Rouge took the city, they requisitioned the Tuol Svay Prey High School as a centre for detention and torture.

"While getting lashes or electrification, you must not cry at all" says a sign outside the former "Security Prison 21" – a sign offering detailed guidance on how prisoners should behave while having their torsos whipped with iron chains, or their organs, or bowels, cut out. In the rooms used for torture there are still iron beds, electrical sockets, and some of those chains. The floors, walls and ceiling are flecked with blood.

In rooms nearby are the most haunting photographs I've ever seen. Thousands of men and women – men with the same cropped hair, women with the same regulation bob – stare out at you, eyes frozen with fear. Upstairs are the tiny cells – some built in brick, some in wood – where they awaited torture and death. In theory, they were sent to Choeung Ek to die, but some died in those iron beds, and were beheaded so they couldn't be identified.

"I will see you down here," said our gentle guide. "I don't want to go up there," she added quietly. Like so many others in Cambodia, she is still living with the legacy of what she witnessed. She spent 14 years in a refugee camp, but was lucky to survive. Three million Cambodians did not.

You carry these thoughts with you wherever you are in Cambodia, and you're right to. This is not something you can wash away with cocktails in the Elephant Bar (there's a cocktail, the Femme Chic, in honour of Jackie Kennedy, who stayed at Le Royal) or by eating a delicious dinner in the Restaurant Le Royal, or even with a few gentle lengths in the pool. But those cocktails and that dinner provide vital tourist dollars to a country recovering from profound trauma. They won't erase it. Nothing can erase it. But to see a country, and understand its past and present splendours, you have to know its history.

It was, nevertheless, a relief to have a day of gentle sight-seeing in Phnom Penh, a vibrant mix of temples, markets and colonial buildings, and of bustle and crumbling grace. First, we went to the Royal Palace complex, still the official residence of King Sihamoni (a 50-something bachelor ballet dancer who has so far failed to produce the requisite heir) and therefore with only selected bits open to the public. Much of it is 20th-century, though there's a pavilion that was built for Napoleon in Egypt in 1869 and moved here in 1876. What the palace lacks in age, it makes up in grandeur. The Silver Pagoda, covered in 5,000 tiles and five tons of silver, is breathtaking. Inside, there are more Buddhas than you could shake a sceptre at: a massive emerald one, a life-size gold one, studded with diamonds, an 80kg bronze one, and thousands of tiny ones, surrounded by silver floral arrangements and silver cigarette boxes. Asian kings, it seems, like their bling.

One of the chief pleasures of wandering around this Disneyland-with-a-royal-Asian-twist is watching the Cambodians relaxing on a Sunday afternoon. It was one of the pleasures of our next stop, too: a small wat (temple) at the top of 300 steps. Vendors nearby were selling bacon and eggs, flowers and grilled pork to offer to the gods, or the chance to set a songbird free. Inside the temple, there was a giant Buddha (of course), accompanied by flashing neon lights and tinkling music.

The artefacts on display at the National Museum were a little more tasteful. They're magnificent, in fact – more than a millennium's worth of fabulous Khmer sculpture, including an eight-armed Vishnu from the sixth or seventh century, giant wrestling monkeys carved from sandstone and practically an army of post-Angkorian Buddhas, many rescued from Angkor Wat.

We had lunch overlooking the Mekong, and after (at last!) a few hours by that gorgeous hotel pool, we went back to it, to glide down the river in a little wooden boat, and drink beer while the sun set. In a fishing village of huts on stilts a woman swung in a hammock, girls washed their hair, and children bobbed in the water like happy ducks. As we gazed out at the pointed roofs silhouetted against a sky shot through with brilliant pink and orange, the city at last seemed at peace.

Now it was time for the temples. If you do them properly, you have to get up early, and so we got up early for the long drive to Sambor Prei Kuk, originally known as Isanapura, the pre-Angkorian capital of Chenla. On the way, we stopped off at a service station, where travellers and passersby were enjoying a wide range of snacks, including fried crickets, ants and tarantulas. One of our party grabbed a long, hairy leg and took a bite. From the expression on her face, it clearly wasn't delicious. It is, however, probably not a great idea to risk anything that might turn your stomach because the roads outside Phnom Penh can do that on their own. They may have been cleared of mines – thoughV C there are still up to four million left in the country – but they're a far cry from smooth Western Tarmac. By the time we arrived at Sambor Prei Kuk, we felt like thanking all the gods for our arrival.

And there were plenty of opportunities, because there are more than 100 temples scattered through the forest, many dating back to the early seventh century. There were plants poking through the ancient bricks and among the Sanskrit inscriptions and the carvings, and it felt like a world lost to nature and forgotten, except by the children who followed us around. They asked us – in better English than the government-sponsored guide who was thrust upon us – our names and what we earned. In Cambodia, according to our real guide (who had to defer to the government guide), everyone asks everyone what they earn.

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In the next few hours, on the bumpiest roads I've ever been on, we had the chance to see more of this fascinating country: landscape that shifted from lush green to arid brown, and then back again, animals scrabbling for food under houses on stilts, and in one village what appeared to be an entire school – dressed in the standard national uniform of white shirts and blue trousers or skirt – on bikes. In the same village, we saw men chipping away at stone Buddhas – as if there was a national shortage of Buddhas. Which, I can tell you, there isn't.

By the time our minibus juddered to a halt, at the end of a track in the depths of the jungle, we were ready to collapse. Refreshment, thank god, was at hand, but first we were taken to our accommodation – a whole tent each, with a real bed, and a separate (tented) loo and ingenious shower. In those few moments, dusk descended, and we emerged to flaming torches and margaritas.

The men looking after us – of which there seemed to be an embarrassingly large number – made top-notch cocktails, and a top-notch dinner, too. We ate and drank late into the starry, flame-lit night.

As we staggered out of our tents, clutching our heads, at sunrise, that no longer seemed such a great idea, but spirits rose with a spectacular, hangover-crushing breakfast and with the sight, behind us, of a vast, brick pyramid. This, it turned out, was Prasat Thom, a seven-story sandstone temple built 1000 years ago. We were in Koh Ker, for a brief period (from AD928 to 944) the capital of Cambodia, and this magnificent building looming in front of us was, it turned out, only the beginning. We were in a vast temple complex, which looked as if it hadn't been touched for centuries, and with the exception of the odd khaki-clad guard, and the cicadas, we were alone. The surrounding area was teeming with temples: temples with Shiva Linga (vast phallic symbols) in them, like Prasat Thneng and Prasat Leung, and others (like Prasat Neang Khmau) in which the gnarled tree-roots and strangler figs laced, like a lattice-work, over them, looked as old as the stones.

And now we were on our way to the biggest temple in the world, but first, thank the Buddha, there was civilisation, in the form of the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor. For 75 years, this magnificent hotel on the edge of Siem Reap has been the place where anybody who was anybody – anybody, that is, seeking a bit of 1,000-year old epic splendour – has stayed. Gracious elegance, with dark woods and antique furnishings, was just the ticket after our night under canvas, and the gargantuan pool proved irresistible.

There was more punishment ahead, in the form of a pre-dawn alarm call, but the punishment, we were assured, would be rewarded. And so it was. The sight of the sun rising over the vast, spiky skyline of one of the most spectacular spiritual buildings in history is one you'll never forget. Particularly, it has to be said, when accompanied with the tongue-tinglingly delicious patisserie in the lavish packed breakfast that Raffles had provided.

You need sustenance for the hours ahead, to drink in the delights of Angkor Wat, a three-tiered pyramid crowned by five towers, like beehives, that rise 65 metres above the ground. It was probably built as a funerary temple for Suryavarman II (1112 – 1152) to honour the Hindu god, Vishnu, who lurks (in the form of a statue) in one of the towers. But it feels more like a homage to history, religion and life. In the extraordinary bas-reliefs, which stretch around the outside of the central temple complex, and which would take a lifetime to study, you can see pictures of battles from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, military marches from the army of Suryavarman (complete with parasols, elephants and the royal tiara), armies of monkeys and scenes from heaven and hell.

Nothing in Cambodia – or indeed in much of the world – is as spectacular as Angkor Wat, but other temple complexes are fascinating in different ways. Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Angkorian empire, has an entrance flanked by 54 massive gods on one side, and 54 massive demons on the other, each with a different expression – sad, happy, sneering – on their face. The carvings in the main temple are touching in their humanity: men cooking meals, women weighed down by children, chubby-buttocked soldiers in loincloths fighting, a man wincing because his bottom has been bitten by a tortoise. Ta Promh, "discovered" by the French explorer Henri Mouhout in 1860, and left as he found it, is a symbol of human impotence in the face of nature: a magnificent, collapsing, mythical mix of giant roots and giant stones.

On our last day, we went on a boat trip to Tonle Sap, one of the biggest freshwater lakes in Asia. Four million people live on the lake, or the banks of it, many in tiny floating boats, in floating villages. There are floating schools, and floating restaurants, and floating health centres, and floating crocodile farms. It's a hard, hard life, to scrape a living and bring up a family in a space the size of a small room. But they do it. Day after day, they do it. Like so much else in this beautiful, sad, fascinating country, they weather the storms and go on.

Travel essentials: Cambodia

Getting there

* Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk) offers a nine-night trip to Cambodia from £3,195 per person. The price includes Thai Airways flights from Heathrow via Bangkok, private transfers, two nights' B&B at Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh, four nights' B&B at Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor in Siem Reap, two nights' B&B in a tented temple camp, some meals and all excursions.

* There are no direct flights between the UK and Cambodia; the gateway is Bangkok, served by Thai Airways (0870 606 0911; thaiairways.co.uk), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Eva Airways (020-7380 8300; evaair.com) and Qantas (08457 747767; qantas.co.uk) from Heathrow. Connections to Phnom Penh are offered by Thai Airways and Air Asia (0845 605 3333; airasia.com).

Staying there

* Raffles Hotel Le Royal, Phnom Penh (00 855 23 981 888) and Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor, Siem Reap (00 855 63 963 888): raffles.com

Visiting there

* National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh (cambodiamuseum.info). Open daily 8am-5pm; admission US$3 (£2).

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