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Monday, April 14, 2008

100 tourists evacuated after Cambodian hotel fire: police

PHNOM PENH - About 100 tourists were evacuated early Saturday from one of Cambodia's biggest hotels and casinos, after a fire broke out at a construction site inside the complex in Phnom Penh, police said.

Wood being used for remodelling the NagaCorp hotel caught fire, sparking a blaze in a district of the city crowded with government offices, including the parliament and foreign ministry, military police officer Klook Chandara said.

About 50 firefighters and volunteers worked for three hours to douse the blaze, he added.

The damage was contained to one part of the hotel, and no injuries were reported, although the hotel evacuated all its guests.

"I had just woken up, and someone called me to get out of the room. I was so shocked," said Malaysian tourist Choy Meng Choong, as he hauled his belongings out of the hotel.

The NagaCorp hotel and casino attracts hundreds of tourists every day, mainly from Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea.

"As soon as we knew that something was burning at the back, we evacuated the all tourists to a safe place outside the hotel," said a hotel marketing manager, who asked not to be named.

"Everyone is safe. No one was injured," he told AFP, as a column of thick smoke billowed into the sky.

The blaze was the second major fire in two days in Cambodia's capital, after more than 200 wooden shacks in a slum area were destroyed early Friday, leaving thousands homeless.

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Cambodia Protects Endangered Bird

By Jerry Harmer

STOUNG, Cambodia (AP) — Conservationists in Cambodia think they may be turning the corner in their fight to save one of the world's rarest birds.

The Bengal Florican, known in Cambodia as "the whispering bird," is remarkable for a male mating display that amounts to a dance competition to attract a mate.

Since 2005, a rush to turn grasslands into large-scale rice farms has gobbled up one-third of the Bengal Florican's habitat in Cambodia, threatening the critically endangered bird with extinction.
Now, a land protection plan devised by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, along with British-based BirdLife International and Cambodian authorities, appears to be slowing this controversial real estate grab.

Most of the world's Bengal Floricans, believed to number less than 1,000, live in scattered pockets on the fringes of Cambodia's Great Lake. The rest are in India, Nepal and Vietnam.

The Cambodian program to protect Florican habitat bans development in five zones totaling 135 square miles. Villages and farms within the zones can remain, preserving traditional ways of life. Police patrol by motorbike during the dry season and by boat when floods come.

Since the program was adopted, three planned developments have been canceled and another put on hold, says Tom Evans, a Wildlife Conservation Society technical adviser in Cambodia.

"Some prospective developers have been deterred at an earlier stage when they learned that the areas had a special designation," he added.

More such zones, dubbed Integrated Farming and Biodiversity Areas, are planned.

In mid-March, the height of the dry season, the grasslands near Great Lake are at their bleakest. They stretch to the horizon, brown and flat under the blazing sun, with barely a tree to break the monotony. Smoke curls into the air where farmers burn off scrub to rejuvenate pasture for their cattle. Ox carts trundle down deeply rutted tracks. An occasional motor vehicle kicks up clouds of dust.

But for the patient and the sharp-eyed, this landscape offers a sight to behold: the courtship display of the male Bengal Florican.

The bird, a black-and-white bustard that looks like a small ostrich, struts into a clearing, stretches its long neck and ruffles up its feathers. Then, it flits into the air before fluttering back to the ground in an undulating pattern, like a parachutist caught in a crosswind.

As it descends, it emits a deep humming sound that has earned it its Cambodian name, "the whispering bird." The displays are usually carried out within sight of other males, in what amounts to an open dance competition to attract a mate.

"They're really unique," says Lotty Packman, a 24-year-old researcher from the University of East Anglia in England. "They're very striking and very charismatic."

Packman was spending long days in the heat, netting Floricans and attaching tracking devices to learn more about them, especially the elusive female of which very little is known.

"You can't conserve it if you don't know its natural history," Packman said after tagging and releasing a male with a solar-powered transmitter that will send back data every two days. "It's a race against time."

The species was rediscovered in Cambodia in 1999. Until then, the country's decades-long civil war had made detailed exploration of the countryside too dangerous.

But peace has proved to be a far greater threat.

Businessmen have snapped up thousands of acres of land in often murky deals and built more than 100 strip dams, which turn the grassland into emerald-green rice paddies that can produce rice during the dry season.

Conservationists have worked hard to win the villagers' support, but despite the restrictions on development, a new plantation has been laid out in one zone and preparations have been made for another. Signs marking the protected areas have been knocked down — it's not clear by whom.
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Cambodia Suspends Foreign Marriages

Cambodia has temporarily banned marriages between foreigners and Cambodians because of concerns over the rising number of brokered unions involving poor, uneducated women. The move follows the publication of a report highlighting the abuse of many Cambodian brides who went to South Korea following hastily arranged marriages. Rory Byrne reports from Phnom Penh.

The ban will at least briefly halt the increasing number of marriages of poor Cambodian women to foreign men, mostly from Taiwan and South Korea.

Most such marriages are hastily arranged by brokers who charge clients up to $20,000 for each bride. Of this, only $500 to $1,000 typically goes to the Cambodian woman's family - the brokers pocket the rest.

A recent report by the International Organization for Migration says more than 1700 South Korean marriage visas were issued to Cambodian women in 2007, up from just 72 in 2004.

The IOM says the grooms were mostly factory workers and farmers who had trouble finding wives in South Korea because of their low job status.

While the report found no evidence of systematic abuse of Cambodian women who married South Koreans, it says that many do suffer violence.

Srey Roth is the director of the Cambodia Women's Crisis Center.

"Some they cannot stay with the husband because the husband (is) so violent," Roth said. "And then the husband forces them to earn money for support their family. And they cannot get the nationality (citizenship), so it means that they stay under the husband or mother-in-law's control."

Experts say that many marriage brokers from Taiwan and South Korea have moved to Cambodia since Vietnam banned them two years ago.

Now the Cambodian government appears to be cracking down. Three South Korean marriage agencies have been closed recently, accused of using arranged marriages as a front for people trafficking.

The blanket ban on foreigners marrying Cambodians is seen as the next step in the process, designed to give the authorities here more time to properly investigate brokered marriages.

Srey Roth opposes a blanket ban on mixed-marriages, but says that the government should run background checks on all foreigners who wish to marry Cambodian women.

"I want our government (to) have one department to investigate the guy before agree(ing) the foreigner (can) marry to our Cambodian (women)," Roth said. "They should know about the background and living situation and then tell our girl and then our girl can make the decision if they want to marry or not."

Although the IOM report focuses on marriages between Cambodians and South Koreans, it emphasizes that the potential for problems exists globally. It says all brokered unions needed to be better regulated.

Cambodian officials say the ban on foreigners marrying Cambodians will be lifted after the government develops a legal framework to address these marriages.
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