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Monday, April 07, 2008

Cambodia's KRouge genocide inspires first of its kind art exhibit

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — Forced from his home by the Khmer Rouge, Svay Ken remembers joining tens of thousands of other Cambodians choking the roads leading away from the capital Phnom Penh more than 30 years ago.

Carrying what few household goods he could grab in the frantic hours after the communist guerrillas' seizure of the city, he clutched his children's hands, terrified they would be swallowed by the crush of bodies.

Although not yet the painter he would become, Svay Ken -- now a frail but driven 76-year-old who has emerged as one of Cambodia's pre-eminent contemporary artists -- remembers desperately trying to commit each moment of his ordeal to memory.

"I thought that if I survived this, I would record these experiences in paint to preserve the memory of what I experienced," he recalls, sitting in the living room of his Phnom Penh apartment.

One of those memories, rendered in a primitive style, shows grim, black-clad patients lining up to be fed out of a communal bucket.

Entitled "Khmer Rouge hospital," it is among two dozen works displayed at Phnom Penh art gallery Meta House in the first exhibit of its kind, called "Art of Survival".

Through paint, sculpture, charcoal or pencil, Cambodian artists have converged to create works inspired by the 1975-1979 rule of the Khmer Rouge, during which as many as two million people died of starvation and overwork, or were executed by the regime.

But organisers say it reaches beyond Cambodia's genocide to illuminate some more universal truths about humanity and its capacity to both hurt and heal, and they hope to take the exhibit on the international circuit.

"Examining the complexity and horror of the Pol Pot regime is not only important and relevant for the Cambodian people -- it is of great concern for the rest of the world as well," says American artist Bradford Edwards.

"The weathered cliche 'It can happen anywhere' must be applied here, for no nation is immune to the possibility of genocide," he adds.

For Edwards, who has set out to expand the show in order to introduce a global audience to Cambodian artists, "Art of Survival" serves dual purposes: to create art out of one of Cambodia's most destructive periods and to open a window onto the country's nascent art scene.

"I'm trying to make this exhibition appeal to the widest variety of people," he said.

-- Dialogue through art --

"Art of Survival" spans the range of emotions and experiences that are tied to the defining moment in modern Cambodia's history.

Fear and violence are evident in the more literal works of older artists who survived the regime -- bleached skulls crowding canvases, or a bound and blindfolded figure bending under the foot of a Khmer Rouge cadre.

Younger artists born in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge's rule produced more abstract interpretations of the genocide, like Vandy Rattana's "Going Fanatic," a photograph of squares of light crowded between the communist movement's hammer and sickle and two blocks representing the United States.

"It's a political chessboard," says the 28 year-old.

"Cambodia's war was not just created by Cambodia -- it belonged to the world. If we talk about war in Cambodia we need to talk about Vietnam, the United States," he adds.

The exhibition, he says, "gives me a voice to say something about my history".

Edwards says this dialogue through art is long overdue, and calls the exhibit "an accumulation of years" of collective trauma and recovery.

"We've been waiting for an art show that deals with the Khmer Rouge period specifically. I would call this a 29-year process," he says.

"It is much more than an art exhibit because of the context in which it is taking place," he adds.

The "Art of Survival" coincides with efforts to bring former Khmer Rouge leaders to justice after nearly three decades.

Cambodia's genocide tribunal expects later this year to prosecute the first of five senior cadres currently in its custody in what many see as the biggest step yet towards the country's reconciliation with its brutal past.

The UN-backed court gives weight to the art. The art, in turn, is a tangible sign of Cambodia's emergence from beneath the shadow of the Khmer Rouge, says Meta House's director Nico Mesterharm.

"Art is a marker of development," says Mesterharm, a German documentary maker who has positioned his gallery at the forefront of Cambodia's cultural recovery.

"We see 'Art of Survival' as a platform for a community dialogue. We hope that our project contributes to the reconciliation process," he says.
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Iloilo City inks twinning pact with Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The chief city executive of this southern metropolis inked Friday a twinning agreement with officials of Phnom Penh, Cambodia for a collaboration to strengthen Phnom Penh's promotion of improved sanitation and environment health.

Iloilo City, on the other hand, will share its experience and lessons learned in implementing a sanitation promotion program.

A letter of intent was signed at the office of city Mayor Jerry P. TreƱas between the city mayor and Deputy Governor H.E. Mann Chhoeurn of the municipal government of Phnom Penh.

The collaboration between Iloilo and Phnom Penh began in August 2007 when Iloilo representatives headed by Engr. Noel Hechanova, city environment and natural resources officer, went to the capital city of Cambodia to share experience at the inception workshop for their pilot initiative on sustainable water and sanitation.

In September 2007, representatives from Iloilo and Phnom Penh attended a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Environmentally Sustainable Cities Initiative in Bangkok, Thailand where they decided that further collaboration would be mutually beneficial. They also informally agreed to twin as a means of supporting their broader goals.

The delegation from Cambodia includes Deputy Governor Chhoeurn, Say Kosal, village chief of Tuol Sangkae, one of the sub-districts in Phnom Penh; Mrs. Tep Ketsiny, a representative from local non-government organization called the Center for Development; and Khoy Khim, the ECO-Asia country coordinator.

They will learn first hand about Iloilo's efforts to improve wastewater treatment and sanitation campaigns through social marketing outreach programs and infrastructure development.

Their city itinerary include a briefing of the Iloilo River Master Plan to be presented by Arch. Manuel Tingzon, chairman of the technical working group of the Iloilo River Development Council; a tour of the Iloilo River; briefing at the Iloilo Doctor's Hospital on its treatment plant; presentation of the city's initiatives at the Western Institute of Technology; and viewing of exhibits and press conference at the Marymart Mall.

Hechanova said the exchange visit here April 4-5, 2008 of the Cambodian representatives was made possible by the Environmental Cooperation-Asia Program (ECO-Asia) of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in promoting twinning relationships between selected cities in Asia. (PNA)
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Opposition supporters rally in Cambodia

A crowd of around 300 supporters of Cambodia's main opposition Sam Rainsy Party rallied outside parliament on Sunday, in protest against double-digit inflation and demanding wage increases.

About 100 anti-riot police carrying electric prods and tear gas blocked the surrounding streets to prevent the protesters from entering neighbourhood markets.

Mr Rainsy has called on the government to reduce the price of essential items, or increase salaries in line with inflation.

Cambodia's inflation went above 10 percent late last year, and currently hovers around 11 percent.

Phnom Penh has implemented a number of measures aimed at keeping prices stable, including banning rice exports and allowing pork imports, but observers say basic foodstuff prices remain stubbornly high.
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Not all bliss for take-away Cambodian brides

By Brian McCartan

As Cambodia's once war-shattered, now booming economy opens to the world, Cambodian women are leaving in droves as several international marriage brokers have established match-making services in the impoverished country. Operating in a shadowy legal space, questions have been raised about the possible exploitative nature of the business, which some contend has acted as a front for global human trafficking rings.

Last week, the Cambodian government moved to put that trade on hold while it investigates whether any of the international brokers have ties to underworld crime syndicates. The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) had earlier drawn attention to the trade and is scheduled to release next month an investigative report on the growing numbers of South Korean men who come to Cambodia in search of brides.

The mechanics of the trade are still murky. What is known is that women from mostly rural areas are brought by brokers into the capital city of Phnom Penh and put on display for prospective foreign grooms. The brokers are usually either informal operators or connected to one of several matchmaking businesses, which until now operated freely in Cambodia.

Most of the women who contract with the matchmaking services are in their teens or early 20s and usually from rural areas where they have received basic, if any, schooling. The IOM's report says "the vast majority of [Korean-Cambodian] marriages occur through an informal and exploitative broker-arranged process".

The introductions are more transactional than romantic. Bride selection often takes place in hotel restaurants where as many as 100 women, the IOM report claims, are lined up and put on display for prospective grooms. After a woman is chosen, details are worked out between the groom and bride-to-be and the broker.

A marriage is held after a few days, followed in some cases with a short honeymoon. The groom then returns to his home country while paperwork is processed for his new wife to follow. In 2007, the number of foreign marriage licenses rose to 1,759, up from a mere 72 in 2004. There were 160 foreign marriages registered in Cambodia in January of this year.

South Koreans make up a large percentage of the men seeking brides in Cambodia. In 2005, marriages to foreigners accounted for 14% of all marriages in South Korea, up from 4% in 2000. According to the United States 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report, 72% of South Korean men in foreign marriages marry women from Southeast Asia or Mongolia. They are often lured by billboards which dot the South Korean countryside, advertising marriage services to foreigners.

Rural governments have even been known to subsidize marriage tours as a way of dealing with growing rural depopulation. The South Korean marriage brokering business began in the late 1990s, where it first aimed to pair Korean farmers or physically handicapped men with ethnic Koreans from China. The Korean Consumer Protection Board claims 2,000 to 3,000 marriage agencies now operate in South Korea.

Marriage tours also began in Vietnam and by 2007 the number of South Korean marriages to Vietnamese women ranked second only to brides from China. The search for foreign brides has been driven by low birth rates and the growing difficulty South Korean men have finding brides among the country's newly ambitious young females.

Many of the men coming on marriage tours to Cambodia have already arranged contacts through online services, which usually host images of eligible women on their websites. One such service is "Mr Cupid", which offers Cambodian, Vietnamese, Vietnamese Muslim and Chinese women. The agency, which has been operating since 1993 from Singapore and does not cater specifically to South Koreans, claims to customers to "transform your life in six days!"

Its operations were expanded beyond Vietnam to Cambodia and China in 2000 and Mr Cupid's website also offers franchise services. The website claims, "Come to Cambodia today and we guarantee that your visit will be fruitful, you will find the lady of your dreams waiting for you right there." From services like this, or those based in South Korea, men can arrange four- to six-day marriage tours.

Match made in hell
In many ways such services are false advertising. Marriages between Cambodian women and South Korean men are known to be fraught with difficulties, frequently caused by huge cultural and linguistic divides. "Often the women have misguided expectations of what life may be like abroad; there is a lack of realistic information about life in Korea," the IOM's report says.

Indeed, most of the women's fantasies of what their new lives will be like are based on Korean movies and television shows that have recently gained popularity in Cambodia and other parts of Asia. The new Cambodian brides often expect their South Korean grooms to be rich, successful businessmen; the reality, however, as the IOM report explains, is that they are often poor and poorly educated. This impacts the women's hopes that through marriage they would be able to send money home to support their families.

The pressures often result in disappointment and physical abuse. The deaths of several Vietnamese wives in South Korea in 2007 and early 2008 due to mistreatment by their South Korean husbands have already raised hard questions about the trade in Vietnam. One case that made headlines in both Vietnam and Cambodia involved the death of Tran Thanh Lan, a purchased bride who jumped or fell from her 14th floor balcony after only six weeks of marriage in South Korea. Her mother recently went to the country to demand an inquiry into her daughter's death.

Because the business apparently lacks a coercive element - women are allowed to turn down a marriage offer - it is not technically considered human trafficking. The business side of the trade, however, is certainly exploitative. Potential grooms pay as much as US$20,000 to brokers for their services, while the bride's family is given $1,000 as well as money to cover the costs of the wedding. The broker and agency divvy up the rest of the spoils.

The IOM report indicates that while there have been cases of abuse and domestic violence, "human trafficking has been far more difficult to identify". This may be the case in Cambodia so far, but there is plenty of documentation of Vietnamese women tricked by marriage brokers into factory work in South Korea. On February 26, police in Busan, South Korea, arrested a Vietnamese woman under suspicion of arranging sham marriages for $10,000 each. Once the purchased brides receive Korean citizenship, the women were divorced from their husbands and forced to work in factories.

Abuse against Cambodian brides has also been reported and some have ended up running away from bad marriages. The 2007 US Trafficking in Persons Report said, "NGOs [non-governmental organizations] are reporting cases of foreign women placed in conditions of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor by fake 'husbands' who work for trafficking rings or exploitative husbands who feel they 'own' the woman and can use her as a farm hand or domestic worker."

After recent crackdowns on the trade by Vietnamese authorities, the marriage brokering industry has grown rapidly in Cambodia, leading some trafficking experts to conclude that the brokers and trafficking rings have simply shifted countries. Marriage brokering is now illegal in Vietnam, but at its peak 20,000 brides were leaving the country every year.

Current Vietnamese law allows only the establishment of marriage support centers by non-profit women's groups. The Vietnamese Ministry of Justice has recently recommended legalizing the service in order to place stricter controls on it. The police, however, have recommended raising penalties, making the offering of Vietnamese women as brides on a par with human trafficking.

The Cambodian government first publicly acknowledged a potential problem in March. Sar Keng, deputy prime minister and minister of interior, said at the launch of a national anti-trafficking awareness campaign that some cases of human trafficking had been identified in the Cambodia marriage industry. Prime Minister Hun Sen has since ordered a crackdown on the industry, including cancelation of the licenses two South Korean companies engaged in the trade.

Brian McCartan is a Thailand-based freelance journalist.

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