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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Cambodian Capital Modernizing Fast

Ten years ago, the infrastructure in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, was in poor condition. Power outages were frequent. Heavy rains and poor telecommunications slowed commerce and limited outside contacts.

But in the past decade, new roads and high-rise buildings have changed the landscape. And in July, the nation's first stock exchange and a multiplex cinema opened.

Phnom Penh has several active cinemas dating from the 1950s, but they mainly screen the small number of domestically produced films or translated Thai imports. Pirated DVDs have cut into their business, keeping people at home.

Until July, the only way to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster in a theater was to catch a plane to Thailand or Vietnam.

But now, for $6, one can go to the new air-conditioned, three-screen Legend cinema in central Phnom Penh, grab a box of popcorn and settle down to watch Kung-Fu Panda 2 in 3D (three dimensions).

Michael Chai, a director at WesTec Media, which built the cinema, is aiming at a young, internet savvy Cambodian market.

“If I look at Facebook for example, I've been looking at the numbers. In May 2010 there were only about 50,000 of them on Facebook. May 2011 we had almost 400,000. So that figure alone, that kind of growth, speaks a lot already. And most of them on Facebook are communicating to each other in English.”

While it would take most Cambodians several days to earn the price of the $6 ticket, the owners are betting that a growing middle-class will become regular customers.

Prum Seila, a 24-year-old office worker, is in Chai's target demographic. Just a few weeks after the theater opened, Seila has visited twice.

“I went there to see the Transformers 3. And I've never seen 3D in my life. I just saw the Transformers 3, and I know that in Transformers 3 there is a scene in Cambodia and [so] we should have seen it. And it is just kind of supporting stuff like that in Cambodia," Seila says.

The growth in Phnom Penh has been fueled in part by garment factories, an economic pillar in Cambodia, that are located around the capital, drawing young workers to the city.

The jobs and new technology are changing things quickly. A recent survey indicates more than 90 percent of young Cambodians have access to a mobile phone. Internet usage, though low, has doubled in a year to 6 percent.

Prum Seila, the eager movie-goer, grew up in the capital. He says he and his friends now spend their free time hanging out in food halls, scores of gleaming new coffee shops and entertainment venues named Diamond Island and Dreamland, where you can sing karaoke.

He says shopping is popular.

“The people like me they have jobs, they have money," he says. "They save money to buy expensive brands like Apple, iPhone. Some of the girls they try to buy the clothes from internet, from Facebook.”

In July, officials opened the country's first stock exchange. Although no companies have yet listed, the government says three state-owned firms will do so later this year. Others are expected to follow.

Stephen Higgins heads ANZ-Royal Bank, a joint venture between the Australian banking giant and a Cambodian firm.
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North Korea propaganda unit builds monuments abroad

Building North Korea-style monuments for cash-strapped countries has become a cash lifeline for Kim Jong Il's regime.

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — Of all the North Korean work units toiling under Kim Jong Il’s regime, Mansudae should be among the least likely to ply its trade overseas.

The estimated 4,000-person unit produces artwork, much of it deifying the Kim dynasty through paintings, statues and monuments. While such propaganda keeps North Koreans under the so-called Dear Leader’s spell, there is virtually no global market for images glorifying dictators with bouffants.

But in recent years, a propaganda unit subsidiary — Mansudae Overseas Projects — has become one of Kim’s emerging foreign earners. Building North Korea-style monuments for other cash-strapped countries has become a cash lifeline worth an estimated $160 million in the last decade.

Their latest project has led the North Koreans to Cambodia, where developers and state tourism funds are rapidly commercializing the Angkor Wat temple ruins.

Said to be the world’s largest pre-industrial city, the 12th-century Angkor Wat complex is the pride of Cambodia, Southeast Asia’s answer to Egypt’s pyramids or Peru’s Machu Picchu. The ruins prove that long before the modern onset of civil war and poverty, their civilization was once capable of greatness. Tourists know the temples as a backdrop to Angelina Jolie’s “Tomb Raider” film.


More from GlobalPost blog: North Korean propaganda cartoons reach kids

But paying North Korea’s harsh regime to commercialize Angkor Wat is “absolutely not appropriate,” said Naranhkiri Tith, a former International Monetary Fund advisor and critic of Cambodia’s current ruling party.

“I think anything that happens in Cambodia is not normal,” he said. “That is why Cambodia is called the country of the absurd ... North Korea, in my opinion, is another country of the absurd where the government is engaging in smuggling and many other illegal activities to survive.”

On a muddy work site just meters from the North Koreans’ construction grounds, Cambodian workers described their neighbors as distant. “The North Koreans? I heard they’re building a digital museum,” said Cheavy, an engineer. “But we don’t really know. They do everything behind that metal wall. They never come out.”

A wall of royal blue sheet metal obscures the North Koreans’ operation from public view. When I approached the entrance, a man in a fedora and a tank top rushed over to slam the gate shut. A furtive look inside revealed fewer than a dozen scrawny workers and a scrub grass field still void of much construction.

Though local reports vary, North Korea will be paid between $10 and $17 million for some sort of monument or museum near the temples. The head of Cambodia’s culture ministry, Khem Sarith, confirmed construction of an “e-museum” but could not confirm the cost.

Nor could he explain why a country that offers its citizens scant electricity should win an “electronic museum” contract, especially after its monuments abroad have drawn both condemnation and ridicule.

Consider the “African Renaissance” monument in Senegal. Taller than the Statue of Liberty, it is deemed a “monument to black people all over the world” by former Nigerian strongman ruler Olusegun Obasanjo.

GlobalPost in Dakar: Senegal's colossal statue stirs big controversy

But the centerpiece statue — of a man, woman and baby ascending a mountain — is rendered in the signature Stalinist North Korean style. The couple is reminiscent of Soviet-depicted Bolshevik revolutionaries, only with African heads.

In fact, in the original mock ups, North Korean designers hadn’t bothered to change the statue’s features from Asian to African, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade told the Wall Street Journal. They were altered only after his complaints. The president was later criticized for paying the U.N.-sanctioned foreign regime $27.7 million for the statue while unemployment in his own country neared 50 percent.

In total, Mansudae Overseas has earned at least $160 million in African construction projects since 2000, according to the Daily NK, an outlet specializing in information from North Korea. All Mansudae projects on the continent are acquired through a secret bidding process.

Other statues include Namibia’s “Heroes’ Acre,” a marble obelisk and statue of afreedom fighter in crisp uniform clutching an AK-47. In Zimbabwe, locals complained that a North Korean-made bronze statue of a beloved revolutionary hardly resembled him. (They argued further that it was the North Koreans who trained and armed a Zimbabwean death squad that killed as many as 10,000 — including the revolutionary’s own men.)

Mansudae sculptors have little opportunity to perfect non-Asian faces back home. All of their statues are molded in a North Korean “socialist realism” style that is little changed through decades of Kim dynasty idol worship. Deifying the Dear Leader through statues, books, murals, films and more is estimated to make up an astounding 40 percent of the national budget, according to a study by the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy in Seoul.

This “stauomania” began in 1953, after the Korean War left Pyongyang blasted to rubble, according to Jane Portal, author of “Art Under Control in North Korea.” The city’s destruction meant then-leader Kim Il Sung could rebuild a city that enshrined his greatness with huge monuments.

The dictator’s appetite for worship was endless. According to Bradley Martin, author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader,” the ruler insisted that all babies’ first words should be “Kim Il Sung.” He also slept on top of adoring teenage North Korean girls, their interlocked legs forming a “human mattress” for the plump dictator.

“Like Stalin and Mao,” Portal wrote, “the Great Leader is also ever-present in painted and sculpted form, both in town and countryside, indoors and out.”

Then and now, the Mansudae work unit is responsible for supplying the paintings and sculpture that sustain this personality cult. But many of the artists are actually quite talented, said Simon Cockerell of the Beijing-based Koryo Group, which escorts foreign tourists to Pyongyang sites such as Mansudae studios.

GlobalPost in Seoul: North Korean artist turns talents on the repressive regime

“Everything in North Korea is done in a group. If you’re a worker, you’re part of a work unit,” Cockerell said. “Just like farmers and construction workers, they have quotas to achieve. But being an artist is a fairly prestigious job in North Korea.”

Much of the unit’s output is propaganda, he said. But they also produce inoffensive nature scenes or ceramics largely bought by Chinese or Japanese customers. “There is no post-modernism, no concept of the viewer deciding the meaning,” Cockerell said. “It’s a more naive style.”

Back in Cambodia, North Korea’s “digital museum” project has largely blended in with the other construction near Angkor Wat. The largest will be a deluxe hotel, theater and golf course complex designed for Chinese and other Asian tourists. Its South Korean developer, Hyo-Soon Park, works in an air-conditioned office just a stone’s throw from his estranged kin from the other Korea.

“I don’t talk to them and they don’t make problems,” Park said. “Why do we need need to fight? It’s all just business.”

More from GlobalPost: US holds rare direct talks with North Korea on nuclear program Read more!

Rally to roar into Cambodia

Cambodia is set to partner neighbours Thailand in co-hosting the 2011 Asian Cross Country Car Rally, which is set to start this Saturday in the coastal Thai resort town of Pattaya and take the chequered flag in front of the Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap four days and 1,875 kilometres later.

As many as 14 rally drivers from India, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia will tear through some of the most challenging cross country terrain in cars of different makes, according to Vath Chamroeun, Secretary General of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia.

“There will be another 29 cars travelling with the rallyists, involving organisers, medical staff and security personnel,” he said.

“We have no [Cambodian] participants in this rally, [but] we feel privileged and honoured to be co-hosts to promote sports and tourism.”

Rally cars will be driven through the Poipet international border gate in Banteay Meanchey province next Wednesday to complete a final leg of 185 kilometres to Siem Reap.

Cambodia to host China-ASEAN race

Cambodia will host the end-up segment of the speed-based open class China-ASEAN Car race-rally on October 7 and 8.

The event, which marks the 20th anniversary of the bilateral relations between China and ASEAN, is part of a month-long commemoration beginning on September 9 and including an international touring assembly and a journalists rally.

“For the first time we will have two Cambodian cars taking part in this event. We will host the final leg of this rally race between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh,” said NOCC Secretary General Vath Chamroeun.
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FPT talks operating telcoms in Cambodia

Vietnamese company FPT Telecom aims to extend operations to the Kingdom, after its attempted acquisition of Vietnam’s EVN Telecom fell through.

FPT Telecom “has plans to expand business in Cambodia, but all is in discussion”, a spokesperson said late on Monday, declining to comment further.

The firm had been in talks to buy a stake in internet service provider MekongNet, though its CEO Sok Channda said this week the talks stalled last year when FPT turned its attention to its planned deal with Vietnamese fixed and mobile operator EVN Telecom. The deal between FPT and EVN fell through earlier in 2011.

FPT has made no attempt to restart talks with MekongNet since the EVN deal failed, she said.

“Until now they have not come to talk with us yet,” Sok Channda said. “I don’t have a plan to sell to anybody yet.”

When asked about FPT’s intentions, a number of other Cambodian ISP and telecom CEOs also claimed they knew of no attempts by FPT to purchase companies in the Kingdom.

In addition to providing ISP networking services to Cambodia and Laos, FTP has been granted a licence to test LTE, so-called fourth-generation wireless in Vietnam, according to VietNamNet. The company told the news agency that because the costs of LTE are far greater than 3G, widespread adoption of 4G is still some ways off. As a result, FPT will focus on foreign acquisitions for the time being.

FPT Information System, a separate branch of FPT, already operates in the Kingdom.
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