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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Travel expo debut for Qatar Airways

Ho Chi Minh City: Qatar Airways made its debut at the International Travel Exhibition (ITE) in Ho Chi Minh City as one of the event's key sponsors.

The travel trade and consumer show, considered one of the highlights of the travel calendar in the region, has grown in significance with Laos, Cambodia and host country Vietnam among many nations that took part.

Record numbers of visitors attended the three-day event. The event attracted more than 120 international buyers from 22 countries.

Qatar Airways launched direct flights to Ho Chi Minh City in March from its hub in Doha, Qatar, becoming the first carrier in the Middle East to serve the country of Vietnam.

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker said the expanded format at this year's ITE travel show highlighted its growing importance as a platform to promote outbound tourism from the region.

"Qatar Airways is delighted to be supporting travel to and from this part of the world with our four weekly non-stop flights which are part of our ever-growing international network," said Al Baker.

Tourism ministers from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam officially opened the exhibition following high-level meetings between the participating tourism authorities.
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Wanted: Filipino investments

By Cielito Habito

MANILA, Philippines -- Philippine central bank figures released last week tell us that inflows of net foreign direct investment (i.e., not counting portfolio investments or "hot money") from January to July grew a whopping 70 percent over the same period last year, even better than the 50-percent growth posted last year. It would seem from the numbers that attracting foreign investments has not been a major hurdle lately.

But we have a problem. When we add foreign and domestic investments together to get total investments in our economy, the number had been falling continuously from quarter to quarter since early 2005, with the negative growth turning only slightly positive in recent quarters.

What does all this tell us? It takes simple arithmetic to figure out that the domestic part of investment must have been falling rather steeply over the last two years.

Dramatic contrast
Why this dramatic contrast between the behavior of foreign and Filipino investors? Do foreign investors know something that Filipino business people don't? Do foreigners have better faith in our economy's longer term potentials, and are manifesting that confidence in dollar votes for our future? Are Filipino investors too short-sighted and inordinately deterred by short-term distractions--as MalacaƱang would prefer to characterize our persistent woes on the political and governance front?

Or is it actually the other way around? Do Filipino business people know our country more intimately than their foreign counterparts, and know something that the latter don't? Are Filipinos better-informed and more attuned to our economy's true outlook--and are manifesting it through their own peso votes (or lack of it) for our future? The answer, of course, is for the investors themselves to tell.

Falling far behind
Whichever way it is, the cold hard fact is that we are lagging behind our Southeast Asian neighbors in the way we are investing in our own economy. Between 2002 and 2005, our annual investment growth averaged only 0.6 percent. Compare that to 3 percent in Malaysia, 4 percent in Indonesia, 11 percent in Vietnam and Thailand, and a zooming 20 percent in Cambodia! Have you been to Cambodia lately? The way tourism is booming there and with the rapid facelift Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are undergoing, we may be seeing yet another neighbor threatening to pass us by! And given more recent investment figures, we may be falling even farther behind our neighbors.

Viewed in this light, the government is right in lining up massive investments in infrastructure for the years ahead. I have already pointed out before that our extraordinary jump to 7.5-percent GDP growth is explained entirely by the steep double-digit growth in government spending, both in regular expenses and especially in infrastructure. The government has obviously been trying to pump-prime the economy. The problem is that the pump, so far, refuses to be primed. Private domestic investment has yet to follow the government's lead.

Critical link
Where do we need the investments most? With 61 percent of our 2.8 million unemployed never having gone beyond high school, I have constantly argued that agriculture (including agribusiness) and tourism will be our best bet for creating these much-needed jobs relatively quickly. There remains great job creation potential both within and near our country's farms. A critical link is agri-processing enterprises, which would expand the markets for our farm products, especially nontraditional and high-value crops, both here at home and overseas.

Local governments can play a much stronger role in fostering the right environment to attract more investments to strengthen this critical link. Over the years, our main obstacle in agriculture has been an overcentralized approach to the sector that is prone to inefficiency and graft. Worse, that overcentralized bureaucracy has had the most unstable leadership among major government departments in recent memory.

More than infra
As for tourism, our problem, as I have constantly maintained, lies more in policy and less in infrastructure. With rapidly rising numbers of affluent Chinese and Indian tourists coming out of those countries' zooming economies, there should be great opportunities for a massive increase in our tourism-related jobs. But it seems we are willingly foregoing the opportunities in the way we continue to make it more costly and difficult for those tourists to fly into the Philippines. And this we are doing by unnecessarily limiting the airline seats available, all because our seemingly captured policymakers choose to put the profits of the already lucrative dominant domestic carriers above the wider national interest. (Wonder why Cambodia has been getting far more tourists than we do?)

We can unleash far more job-creating investments by both Filipinos and foreigners than what we manage to get now. But first, our leaders must take to heart what investors appear to be saying loud and clear: Infrastructure investments are good, but what we need, more than anything else, is good governance.

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Loyal to the old regime

In their last stronghold, the former leaders of the infamous Khmer Rouge are still held with a mixture of respect and affection, writes GEORGE MCLEOD from Anlong Veng

Almost ten years after the defeat of the murderous Khmer Rouge, Anlong Veng in Cambodia's far north is a booming border town, with Cambodians and Thais flocking there to trade and farm.

Propaganda posters depicting idealised workers have been replaced by billboards advertising beer, cigarettes and condoms. Karaoke bars and brothels dot the town where army outposts once stood.

But even with the Khmer Rouge regime gone, their ideology appears to have remained intact in their last stronghold, where they clung to power up until 1998, when the Cambodian army finally wiped out the rebel movement.

Kuch, who works at one of the many new guesthouses in the town, just minutes from the grave of former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, looks back on the Khmer Rouge period with fondness.

"The Khmer Rouge leaders were always good to us," says Kuch, who goes by only one name. "We always had enough food, everybody liked Ta Mok and Nuon Chea," he said, referring to the former Khmer Rouge leaders.

Even after the arrest of Khmer Rouge mastermind Nuon Chea, residents of Anlong Veng cling to old beliefs about the defunct Maoist movement.

Prolonged negotiations between the UN and the Cambodian government saw Nuon Chea's arrest last month on charges of crimes against humanity. The ailing 82-year-old is accused of helping instigate one of the 20th century's worst mass-slaughters.

More than one million Cambodians are thought to have died under the Khmer Rouge regime from 1974-1979. They emptied Cambodia's cities and killed nearly all of the country's intelligentsia; some were executed for simply understanding a foreign language. Rural areas were turned into virtual forced labour camps where hundreds of thousands starved.

The regime was ousted by a 1979 Vietnamese invasion, but the Khmer Rouge mounted an insurgency from Cambodia's eastern borders. Anlong Veng lies about 10 miles (17km) south of the Thai border and was the last rebel stronghold to fall to the government.

I first visited Anlong Veng in 1998 only weeks after the town was invaded by the Cambodian army. North of the city, Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok and 200 die-hard supporters were still fighting the final days of a lost war.

Anlong Veng and the surrounding countryside had been hurriedly evacuated by the Khmer Rouge. Entire villages were eerily empty, some with chickens still scurrying about. Many abandoned houses still had rice sacks in their living rooms as if residents left expecting to return in hours.

After hearing stories of starvation and hardship, Anlong Veng appeared relatively prosperous even in the Khmer Rouge's last hours. The town centre had a large concrete hospital and a school, unlike most other Cambodian towns whose schools were little more than bamboo huts. Anlong Veng's roads were well-maintained and the town even had a man-made lake providing fish and water in the dry season.

Propaganda leaflets scattered near the frontlines gave some insight into the warped views taught to Khmer Rouge cadre.

Cambodia was said to be occupied by Vietnamese agents who were carrying out ethnic cleansing against the Cambodians. Many featured photos of emaciated children and mass graves, possibly Khmer Rouge mass-graves, with captions stating that the atrocities were perpetrated by the yuon _ a derogatory term for the Vietnamese.

A school book discovered near the city taught young children how to wage guerrilla warfare, and to fight the yuon invaders.

Living in the past

Attitudes appear to have changed very little in the past decade, despite the now well-known tales of the brutality vented out by Pol Pot and his cadre.

"Sure, some bad things happened (under the Khmer Rouge), but that wasn't the leaders' fault. There were many (Vietnamese) agents here, they have always tried to dominate Cambodia," says Daeng, an ethnic Lao who also goes by only one name.

When asked about the killings and purges allegedly ordered by Nuon Chea, Daeng was dismissive.

"I don't know too much about Nuon Chea, but I think he was a good person. Anything bad that happened was probably his subordinates," he said.

For many locals, the fall of the Khmer Rouge has brought uncertainty and vice.

"It was better before because the leaders protected us," said Daeng, a former soldier whose arm was disfigured from a gunshot wound sustained during the war. "There are no jobs now and a lot of bad people have come to the city."

None of the residents interviewed were aware of the UN's arrest of Nuon Chea. "I didn't know he was arrested," said another resident who came from Kompong Cham province.

Anlong Veng's hardline leader Ta Mok is remembered with a mixture of fear and fondness. In the mid 1990s, Ta Mok instituted draconian laws prohibiting prostitution, theft and drunkenness at pain of death. But for many residents, the strong rules brought stability.

"Everybody knew what to do, it was much easier back then," says Kuch.

"One benefit is that we have more freedom now. You had to be very careful what you said and did before, and you couldn't travel unless you were told to. Ta Mok had eyes and ears everywhere," he said.

With widespread apathy in former Khmer Rouge areas, some observers wonder if the Khmer Rouge tribunal has failed to connect with ordinary people.

"I think the ex-Khmer Rouge members are very happy with the peace brokered by Khieu Samphan's surrender, however, they consider modern Cambodia very corrupt compared to the Spartan ways of Ta Mok, who was fair but tough," wrote Martin Rathie, an expert on the Khmer Rouge currently teaching at Vientiane College.

"Many of the KR feel neglected by the system because all the big shots went to western Cambodia or Phnom Penh," he wrote in an email response.

According to Rathie, many Cambodians simply want to leave the Khmer Rouge period behind. "Most of the residents just want to forget the past and concentrate their efforts on getting good roads, schools and clinics."

Heather Ryan from the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), said more effort is needed to make the UN tribunal relevant to ordinary Cambodians. "I don't think nearly enough outreach has been done. That's one thing that we are really critical of the court for," she said. The OSJI is a legal NGO that has been monitoring the Khmer Rouge trial.

Ms Ryan emphasised that the pro-Khmer Rouge sympathies of many Anlong Veng residents were unusual.

"Those are the communities where there are many ex-Khmer Rouge living, so I think they have a very different attitude about the regime and the (UN) court," she said.

"Nuon Chea has lived in that community for about 20 years peacefully, so he is regarded as a member of the community," she speculated.

Ms Ryan was surprised that Anlong Veng residents were unaware of Nuon Chea's arrest. "That's very odd because the press coverage everywhere was immense," she said. "I would be cautious about taking what is said in Anlong Veng and assuming that it applies in the rest of Cambodia."

Even the grave of Pol Pot is adorned with incense and locals often visit the site for good luck. When Ta Mok died in prison last year, hundreds turned out for the funeral, many crying at the fallen strongman's death.

The houses of former Khmer Rouge leaders have become mini-tourist attractions. The biggest is one of Ta Mok's houses in the town centre. A large map of Cambodia is painted on the wall, which in 1998 said that southern Vietnam was stolen from Cambodia. The label has since been scratched out by the Cambodian government.

A nearby guard said Cambodian authorities had erased the label to prevent visitors from sympathising with the Khmer Rouge.

"Ta Mok was a good man," said a guard near Ta Mok's house who did not want to be named. "He used to go to Thailand and bring us back gifts."

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