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Friday, August 22, 2008

Cambodia's athletes seek a better playing field

By Rebecca Byerly

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (CNN) -- Without proper food, shoes, or support from his government, Hem Bunting, the Cambodian Olympic marathon competitor, prepared for the Olympics and hoped for international support in late July.

"It is hard to compete at an Olympic level when you do not get any support from the government," panted Bunting, 25, who had just run intervals on the bleachers of the dilapidated Olympic stadium in the capital.

A week before the four Cambodian athletes were scheduled to attend the opening of the Olympic Games, the President of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia, Dr. Thong Kohn, appealed to all companies, suppliers, and donors for the $18,423 needed to send the four athletes and 10 supporters to the games in Beijing. The list included funds for shoes, Olympic uniforms, and pocket money.

A representative of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia said there was insufficient money for sports. Programs for sports would develop as education in the country improved.

"We need to improve and reform several sectors in Cambodia's education programs," explained Sambath Sothea, who is in charge of the Sports Marketing Program for the Cambodian Olympic Team.

"Part of this improvement should be in sports education, which is an important part of the personal development of young people who are the future of our nation. People have the tendency to forget Cambodia is a nation on the rise and need to give it some time to grow."

Once referred to as the Pearl of Asia, Cambodia's sports programs, economy, and infrastructure were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge reign, where it is estimated that 1.5 million people were killed between 1975 and 1979. The country has only now begun to emerge on the global market, with the country's first stock exchange scheduled to start in 2009.

Bunting believed the only way sports would develop was through private donors.

"If we could get sponsored, we could go somewhere with sports in Cambodia, but the government is not going to support us because they are busy with other things," said the runner, whose best marathon time of 2 hours 26 minutes, 28 seconds placed him second at the Sea Games, a competition held among South East Asian countries.

"I work really hard but do not even have the basic things I need, like nutritious food to eat or clothes for training." Bunting ran on the busy streets of the capital without proper running shoes until the American New Zealand Bank (ANZ) sponsored him.

Sothea believed the partnership between the public and private sector was critical for the development of sports in the country.

"The government needs to reform sports and give it a more reliable structure," said Sothea who earned his law degree in France. "The private sector will be responsible for making investments."

In wake of the recent elections held in the country, which ushered in relative peace and political stability, major investment companies have flocked to Cambodia. Some of these investors considered sports a potential investment opportunity.

"From supporting the training and finances of an Olympic athlete to building industrial parks and helping Cambodia become a leading rice exporter, we want to invest in areas that Cambodians take pride in," said Marvin Yeo, the co-founder of Frontier Investment Partners. Yeo's firm planned to devote over $250 million to an array of areas, which include real estate, infrastructure, manufacturing, and agriculture throughout the next decade.

Another investor was also hopeful about Cambodia's future.

"The next five years will be the time investment takes off in Cambodia and the country starts to put itself on the map," explained Douglas Clayton, founder of Leopard Capital, which manages a private equity fund that invests in Cambodia. "You will see a major change in the country, and things like sports, which have been overlooked because of the lack of government support, may start to receive some funding from the private sector."

From farming to development

The growing interest in sports is another indicator of the country's aptitude for development. Cambodia has begun to see a generation that has taken an avid interest in their educations and future careers.

"Development is good for Cambodia," said Bunting, whose village got electricity only two years ago. "I would not have gotten a good education if it had not been for the foreigners who came to my village and started a school."

Though his parents were poor, uneducated rice farmers, Bunting studied development at Cambodia University and wanted to work with foreign organizations in the remote areas of the country to improve education and infrastructure. His talent for running was first discovered when he competed in a national competition in Phnom Penh several years ago.

Bunting is part of the growing number of youths who are becoming more socially aware in Cambodia.

"The days of the Khmer Rouge are over now, and the youth in Cambodia face different challenges, like how to become socially conscious and have a voice in the development of their country," said Long Kat, 35, the director of Youth for Peace in Cambodia.

While 50 percent of the country's population is under 25, and young people between the ages of 18 and 30 comprise more than 50 percent of eligible voters, they have only recently begun to engage in politics and their communities.

"Cambodia is not competitive in sports, education, or most jobs right now because we don't have any competition and little opportunity in the country," said Bunting. "But I think with the right support this could change."

Bunting said education and employment are the greatest concerns of his generation.

Investment in education

While both of these areas are projected to improve, some individuals remain skeptical of the many flaws that remain in the system. Investors pour in, but some intellectuals' wonder what exactly is being done to improve the educational system and how this will impact the alarmingly high rate of unemployment.

"I lived in Cambodia for five years in the early 90's," exclaimed Clodagh O'Brian, who worked for an NGO in the capital at that time. "The city has transformed with buildings, paved roads, and soon skyscrapers. But, what has not changed that much are the schools. I would like to know how much investment is going back in to education."

Reports of corruption and bribes in schools are common, and children have limited opportunities in the current educational system. Education is one of the areas that Yeo and Clayton claim will improve as a result of the incoming investments.

"You will see growth in some sectors of education," said Clayton, who has worked in Asia over 20 years. "For example, as investors build more hotels in the country, others may start to invest in hotel management schools and language schools. Cambodia will gradually produce more skilled English-speaking workers."

Despite the difficulties posed by the poor infrastructure and the many challenges he faces, Bunting remained optimistic about Cambodia's future. "Being an athlete and just trying to live in Cambodia is not easy," sighed Bunting. "But, I think in several years, it could get better."

Sothea agreed.

"The important thing is not to win, but to take part," quoted Sambeth, who burrowed the philosophy from Baron Pierre De Cobertin, the President of the International Olympic Committee. "Instead of complaining about where Cambodia is we need to have a collective vision for where the country is going. Let's meet up again eight years from now and see where Cambodia and her athletes are."
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JOEL BRINKLEY: The world leader in corruption is - Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia —

Hun Chea, a nephew of Cambodia's prime minster, was speeding along a busy downtown street a few days ago when he ran down a man on a motorbike.

Phnom Penh's streets are teeming with motorbikes, hundreds of them, criss-crossing busy traffic without seeming to look or care where they are going. Collisions are inevitable. But that's not the point of this story.

Hun was tearing down the street at high speed when he hit the biker, witnesses reported, and his car ripped off an arm and a leg. The biker, Sam Sabo, was killed. Hun began to drive off, but running over the motorbike had shredded a tire. He had to pull over, so there he sat in his big black Cadillac Escalade SUV.

Now, listen to how the Phnom Penh Post newspaper described the events that followed.

"Numerous traffic police were seen avoiding the accident scene, but armed military police arrived. They removed the SUV's license plates and comforted Hun Chea" while Sam Sabo lay bleeding to death in the street. A military policeman was overheard telling Hun: "'Don't worry. It wasn't your mistake. It was the motorbike driver's mistake.'" A few days later, Hun gave the dead man's family $4,000 in hush money, the paper reported. Case closed.

It's no secret that Cambodia is thoroughly corrupt. As an indirect result, the rich and the powerful can commit, well, murder and face few if any repercussions.

A primary rule of foreign correspondence is to avoid applying the values of your own country on the nation you are covering. But then, some events appear so outrageous that the rule does not apply. Police actually removed the car's license plates, to conceal the driver's identity? So I asked Khieu Kanarith, Cambodia's information minister, about the case. He fumbled about for a moment and then explained, "I understand he had his wife in the car, and I don't think he was paying attention to what he was doing." OK, but the police removed the license plates? Khieu had to think about that for a moment but finally managed to say, "You try to cover the plates because it's harder to sell a car if it's been in an accident." As a reporter, sometimes it's hard to keep a straight face. But then, being Cambodia's information minister is a tough job.

Later I asked Joseph Mussomeli, the U.S. ambassador, about this, and he shook his head.

"This goes to the whole culture of impunity here. Who you are, who you know, is more important than following the law. And the police are too intimidated, too deferential, to the wealthy and powerful." Why else would the traffic police assertively avoid the scene of the accident, even with a dying man lying in the street? They knew full well that the owner of a Cadillac Escalade SUV in this exceedingly poor country is quite likely to be well connected.

Impunity is a word that comes up over and over in Cambodia. Last month, two men speeding by on a motorbike shot and killed Khim Sambor and his 21-year-old son as they walked down the street. Khim was a reporter for Khmer Conscience, an opposition newspaper, and not surprisingly the paper had been writing critically about the government.

No one has been arrested. That is true for dozens of apparent contract killings in recent years just like that one. No one has proved that government officials are behind them. But then, why else would the police make no effort to solve any of these crimes? Cambodia has come a long way in the last several years. Phnom Penh is teeming with tourists. The economy is growing. The nation has been stable for more than a decade now, which is no small accomplishment.

Over the years, I have worked in many corrupt states - Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, among others. But in none of them is the corruption so pervasive, even pandemic. Prime Minister Hun Sen just won re-election to a new five-year term. For a decade, the United States and many other countries have been pressing him to pass a comprehensive anti-corruption law. Hun continually promises but never delivers.

Cambodians deserve better. If Cambodia hopes to join the ranks of the world's prosperous and respected nations, it must enact - and enforce - an anti-corruption law. With that, in time, the shiny mantle of impunity resting softly on the shoulders of the rich and well-connected will begin to fall away.

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Kuwait loans Cambodia $546 mln, plans embassy

Cambodian children will be wearing another heavy debt $546 million on their necks. What will their future be? and the Hun Sen government will be sharing this big meal soon.

PHNOM PENH, Aug 22 (Reuters) - Kuwait has agreed to give Cambodia loans totalling $546 million to develop agriculture, build hydro-power facilities and construct roads, a Cambodian foreign ministry official said on Friday.

This is the second-biggest aid pledge ever received by Cambodia, after aid and loans totalling $601 million offered by China last year.

"This is showing a stronger relationship between Kuwait and Cambodia, both political and economic," Cambodian foreign ministry spokesman Sin Bunthoeurn told Reuters late on Thursday after the ministry hosted bilateral ministerial talks.

He said they planned to open embassies early next year. The two countries have had diplomatic ties since 1997.

A Kuwaiti newspaper reported that Kuwait had leased rice fields in Cambodia to secure food supplies after Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah met Cambodian leaders earlier this month.

Qatar's prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, paid his first official visit to Cambodia in April 2008 and Qatar plans to invest $200 million in Cambodian farmland.

Some $486 million from the Kuwaiti loan will be invested in irrigation systems and hydro-power on the Stueng Sen river in the northeastern province of Kampong Thom.

The remaining $60 million will be used for building roads in the northwestern province of Battambang, a rice-growing area, Sin Bunthoeurn said.

Kuwait has signed more than $27 billion of investment agreements with nine Asian countries during an Asian tour this month, its finance minister was reported as saying on Aug. 17. (Reporting by Ek Madra; Editing by Alan Raybould)

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