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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Milton students to attend school dedication in Cambodia

It is a foreign school they 'built"

By Wayne Laepple

MILTON -- At 2:45 this morning, eight students, six teachers and chaperones were climbing aboard a bus to begin an epic journey, the culmination of their yearlong quest to build a school in Cambodia.

By airplane, boat and bus, their trip will take them to a tiny village called Mean in Kampong Cham Province to see the dedication of the Milton School, believed to be the first school in Cambodia built with funds raised by American public school students.

They will see first-hand what their work has meant to the children of the poverty-stricken Southeast Asian country. It was their efforts to raise money that built the school.

Larissa Luu, a Milton senior who is the spark plug of what came to be known as Educate Cambodia, is among the group taking the trip. She became the face of the effort, speaking before church and civic groups, urging her fellow students on, and her work brought her the 2008 Young Heroes Award from the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia.

"I'm really excited that it's built," she said. "But I'm nervous about the trip."

The trip is costing each of the participants about $3,300, a price that includes a deep discount by American Council for International Studies, of Boston, which made all the travel arrangements.

Michael Conn, who teaches history and world cultures at Milton, visited Cambodia during the summer of 2007. He saw the desperate poverty and hunger for knowledge and made the initial pitch to help build the school.

Luu and her fellow students took it from there.

Conn and two other teachers, high school Principal Bryan Noaker, a teacher's sister and a parent, will accompany the students.

Conn said there hasn't been much contact with the people in Mean.

"We got an e-mail last Friday telling us the school was open and kids were attending," Conn said. "That's when it really hit us that we had done it."

The Milton School in Mean has 145 students and 11 teachers, and more pupils are expected as word spreads through the region about the school.

A week from today, Luu and her fellow students plan to wear the "Educate Cambodia" T-shirts they sold as fundraisers to the dedication.

Community response phenomenal'

William Clark, Milton's superintendent, said those going on the trip are "ambassadors of educational goodwill."

Clark has been supportive of the trip ever since Conn pitched the idea to him a year ago.

"It's an opportunity that shows a teacher with a passion for kids can take it to a higher level," Clark said.

"The outpouring of support from the community has been phenomenal," Clark said. "You get a broader perspective of the world when you understand what's outside Milton."

Milton students -- kindergarteners through seniors -- raised more than $36,000 since last December to build the school.

They held car washes, spaghetti dinners, penny wars and other fundraisers. They did chores and sold T-shirts. They manned booths at Wal-Mart and at various community events. The Milton community rallied behind them, and service clubs, churches and individuals added to the tally.

In fact, their $30,000 goal was reached in fewer than five months.

They worked through American Assistance for Cambodia, a charity based in Tokyo that has helped to open 366 schools in Cambodia and has 72 others under construction.

Many of the schools in Cambodia were financed by individuals and schools in Japan, Australia and Britain. The Milton School is the first sponsored by a public school in the United States, although two private schools have done so.

During a 20-year period, when the Khmer Rouge ruled the country, schools were razed, teachers were executed and books were burned. The country is still struggling to recover from that period, when more than 2 million citizens were killed by the government.

Sarah Haas, a Milton junior, said she's feeling emotional about making the trip.

"I think I'll be overwhelmed when we finally get there," she said. "It's a product of what we did here."

School is in session

When the first $15,000 was raised by Milton students, the school building was constructed and staffed, equipped with textbooks and solar panels to power a computer.

The seven-room school will educate children in Khmer, English, math and science. The additional funds raised will go to continue operating the school, provide a well for clean water and plant a garden to help feed the students and their families.

The group will fly from New York to Hong Kong today, and after a short layover, will fly on to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, arriving there around 6 p.m. Friday -- 6 a.m. Friday, Milton time.

The flight to Hong Kong will take more than 17 hours. Because the students will cross the International Date Line, it will be Friday afternoon when they arrive in Hong Kong.

Extraordinary field trip

The group will tour Vietnam for a couple of days before traveling by boat along the Mekong River to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, on Tuesday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, they will visit cultural and historic sites, including the infamous "killing fields," where thousands of Cambodians were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge.

Finally, on Thursday, they will travel several hours by bus from Phnom Penh to the village of Mean for the dedication of the Milton School.

Luu will speak during the ceremony.

"I didn't write anything down," she said. "I want to be open to say what I feel at that moment."

Reflecting on the yearlong campaign to raise the money, she praised her fellow students.

"I hoped we'd get to this point, but I never expected it to happen the way it did," she said. "And I never expected to be going there."
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China, Cambodia agree to further comprehensive, cooperative partnership

PHNOM PENH, China and Cambodia agreed here Thursday to further promote bilateral comprehensive and cooperative partnership during the talks between China's top political advisor Jia Qinglin and Cambodian Senate President Chea Sim.

Jia, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), spoke highly of the development of bilateral relations in the past five decades of diplomatic ties.

He said China attaches great importance to its relations with Cambodia and the Chinese side will work with the Cambodian side to explore potentials and continuously push forward bilateral partnership of comprehensive cooperation so as to achieve reciprocal and win-win results.

The further development of bilateral traditional friendship is the common aspiration of the two peoples, conforms to the fundamental interest of the two countries, and will contribute to regional prosperity and development, said Jia, who arrived here Tuesday on an official goodwill visit as Chea Sim's guest.

He said the Communist Party of China attaches importance to its relations with the Cambodian People's Party and Funcinpec Party, and the CPPCC will strengthen exchanges and cooperation with the Cambodian Senate.

Chea Sim said Cambodia takes China as a close friend, neighbor and cooperative partner, hoping that the two sides will actively push forward bilateral cooperation in such fields as economy, trade, tourism culture and education.

He also hoped that the two sides will enhance cooperation within the framework of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and strengthen coordination in international and regional affairs.

Cambodia is the last leg of Jia's four-nation visit which has taken him to Jordan, Turkey and Laos.

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ADB gives $10 mln for Cambodia to improve public financial management

PHNOM PENH, The Asian Development Bank is (ADB) providing 10.81 million U.S. dollars to support efforts by Cambodia to improve its public financial management to ensure thatmuch-needed government funds reach the rural poor, said an ADB press release here on Thursday.

The program consists of a 6.71 million U.S. dollars of grant for the first of two sub-programs that will strengthen public financial management (PFM) reforms in the three ministries supporting rural development, namely the Ministry of Rural Development, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, it said.

Another 4.1 million U.S. dollars of grant will fund an institutional and capacity development project under the program.

The two grants will focus on improving the capacity of the three ministries in PFM subsystems relating to budget formulation,execution, procurement, and reporting; and internal audit for better service delivery to rural communities.

The two grants support Cambodia's Public Financial Management Reform Program, which was launched in December 2004 by the Ministry of Economy and Finance to address weaknesses in the public financial management system, according to the release.

While the benefits of recent growth have been widely spread across Cambodia, the rural poverty rate has not declined as expected. The poverty rate in rural areas was estimated at 39 percent in 2004 compared with the national rate of 34 percent.

With an estimated 80 percent of the population living outside the main urban centers, this translates to more than 4 million people living below the poverty line in rural areas, said the release.

Poverty reduction is severely hampered by the limited effectiveness of public spending due to the weak link between policy and the budget.

"The ministries that support rural development in Cambodia are currently the weakest and most underfunded of all the ministries. As a result, service delivery in rural areas is slow and the ruralpoor do not have many economic opportunities," Prasanna Kumar Jena, Governance Specialist of ADB's Southeast Asia Department, was quoted as saying.

A strong public financial management system will help the government implement its National Strategic Development Plan, which aims to reduce poverty, particularly through policy and financial support to the agricultural sector, which employs an estimated 70 percent of the rural population and accounts for a third of gross domestic product, said the release.

The capacity development needs of the government's National Audit Authority will also be taken into account by the program to improve the overall governance framework of Cambodia's public sector, it added.
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Cambodia's elite applaud Vancouver director's ambition


PHNOM PENH — Director Robert McQueen's first taste of meshing opera with diverse cultures came by way of the Vancouver Opera, which asked McQueen to set Mozart's The Magic Flute among British Columbia's native people. His 2007 production used a forest setting with props and costumes inspired by traditional designs from 10 West Coast native groups, and he modified the text to include words from a Coast Salish language. But "the story remained the same," McQueen said, "and I did not touch one note of the music."

Then, used to uncharted waters, McQueen decided to take on another challenge, this time with an entirely new work: staging Cambodia's first rock opera, set in that country, and blending rock music with the eerie sounds of its traditional instruments.

Where Elephants Weep premiered last Friday in Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh. Fred Frumberg of Cambodia's non-governmental organization Amrita Performing Arts, which is producing the show, says it is the most ambitious production staged in the country since the 1960s.

So rare was the occasion that on Friday Cambodia's major players in arts and culture as well as the city's usual special-event crowd, complete with government officials and the diplomatic corps, packed the Chenla Theatre at the corner of Mao Tse Tung and Monireth boulevards.

McQueen, just days before the opening, was still nervous about the finished product. "If you're directing a Neil Simon play, you can probably figure out on day one what opening night is going to look like," he said while overseeing one of the last rehearsals in Phnom Penh. "What's kind of extraordinary for me is that I have no idea how it's going to turn out."

It was the concept, rather than the scale or newness of the work that had prompted McQueen to get involved in the project. He said the two years he spent working on The Magic Flute in Vancouver, his hometown, made him incapable of going back to the usual musical or opera fare.

Until then, McQueen's career had followed a more traditional path, which had included directing Puccini's La Bohème for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto and the musical The Spitfire Grill at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., and playing the role of associate director for Mamma Mia! at New York's Winter Garden Theatre.

While he worked on The Magic Flute, he said, "without consciously knowing it at the time, it began to alter the kind of theatre that I wanted to be doing."

McQueen said he was now eager to explore how cultures could come together in a project and not so much blend as "inform" each other.

In Where Elephants Weep, a Cambodian man visits his homeland in the mid-1990s after immigrating to the United States as a child at the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. As he finds himself a stranger in a culture he no longer knows, he falls in love with a woman pledged to her brother's business partner in an arranged marriage.

The story reflects the mixture of Western and traditional elements of today's Cambodia: women in long silk skirts next to others in short dresses or pants; men praying at Buddhist pagodas in the morning and splitting their time between karaoke bars and sex workers at night.

At Friday's performance, the artists received a standing ovation, which is quite unusual in Phnom Penh, and at the reception afterward, Cambodians as well as foreigners were enthusiastic about the show, the few dissenting voices those who dislike musical theatre in general.

Where Elephants Weep was created by Cambodian music composer Him Sophy, Franco-American librettist Catherine Filloux and U.S. executive producer John Burt. McQueen met the team in Phnom Penh in 2003 while he was travelling in Asia. But with Burt and Filloux based in New York and Him Sophy in Phnom Penh, it would be four years before the three were ready to call on McQueen finally to stage the show.

The cast consists of one Cambodian singer and New York singers with Asian roots, as no Cambodians with musical-theatre-type voices could be found in the country. Actors, dancers and the 11 rock and traditional musicians are Cambodian.

Many of the scenes, and especially those at pagodas, involved "cultural protocol considerations," McQueen said: "I couldn't just stage the scene the way that I wanted to ... because to a [Cambodian] local audience, it might be complete confusion if they see monks doing something that monks would never do."

Customs in Cambodia are mainly taught through oral tradition, so McQueen relied on his Cambodian assistants to let him know whenever a scene did not ring true. And yet, he pointed out, "I still had to draw on what I know as a theatre maker - I can't abandon that because that's me, the storyteller - and I had to include the information that was coming at me and figure out a way of weaving them together so that they meet."

Most of the opera is in English with occasional Khmer songs and dialogue; subtitles were provided in English and Khmer.

Where Elephants Weep is being staged in Phnom Penh through Sunday, with plans to tour in Asia and North America, Burt said. As for McQueen, he is heading for the Galaxy Theatre in Tokyo where he will stage "Carousel, one of the most American musicals ever written, and I'm doing it in Japanese."
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Cambodia revives Pol Pot's deadly canals

BARAY, Cambodia: The dry season has taken hold here, but water is everywhere. It pours out of sluice gates with the roar of an Alpine torrent. Playful children do back flips into the ubiquitous canals and then pull their friends in with them. Fishermen cast their nets for minnows, and villagers wash their Chinese-made motorcycles.

"It's never dry here," said Chan Mo, a 36-year-old rice farmer standing on top of an irrigation dike.

The Khmer Rouge canals have come back to life.

By the time the brutal government of Pol Pot was toppled three decades ago, 1.7 million Cambodians were dead from overwork, starvation and disease, and the country was a ruin. But the forced labor of millions of Cambodians left behind something useful - or that's how the current government sees it.

The leaders of the Khmer Rouge were obsessed with canals, embankments and dams. They presided over hundreds of irrigation projects to revive Cambodia's glorious but perhaps mythical past of an agrarian wonderland.

"There has never been a modern regime that placed more emphasis and resources towards developing irrigation," wrote Jeffrey Himel, a water resource engineer, in a recent study of Cambodia's irrigation system.

"The Khmer Rouge emptied all cities and towns, and put practically the entire population to work planting rice and digging irrigation dikes and canals." Some of the canals were poorly designed - "hydraulic nonsense," says Alain Goffeau, a French irrigation expert with the Asian Development Bank. But many were viable.

The Khmer Rouge built around three-quarters of Cambodia's more than 1,000 canal networks, according to a survey commissioned by the United Nations in the 1990s.

Now, across this impoverished nation of 14 million people, the canals are being rebuilt by a government hoping to take advantage of the world's increasing demand for rice.

The Asian Development Bank is helping finance the rehabilitation of a dozen canals, adding to projects financed by the Japanese and South Korean governments.

"There's a lot of possibility," Goffeau said.

For older Cambodians, the canals are a source of ambivalence. Men like Loh Thoeun, 61, now a rice farmer, think back to the baskets of dirt that he carried away, hour after hour.

He recalls the horrors of the Khmer Rouge - the laborers, hands tied behind their backs, who were "dragged away like cows" and never returned, the Muslim families who were thrown down a nearby well. The foremen of the irrigation project in Baray were killed after the canals and embankments were completed - without explanation. Loh says he once saw Pol Pot inspect the canals on what he described as a "speedboat."

All of the work was done by hand here in Baray, a two-hour drive north of the capital, Phnom Penh. No talking was allowed among laborers. The Khmer Rouge played revolutionary songs and banged hubcaps to encourage the workers. Contemporary photos show huge crowds toiling in the dust.

"The earth here is very hard, and when we dug deeper we got to the hardest part - the most compact ground," said Loh, sitting in a bamboo shelter beside his rice fields. "We had to hammer at it. It was like cutting down a tree."

For so many Cambodians the Khmer Rouge years, from 1975 to 1979, were about digging. Villagers and residents of Phnom Penh, who were forced to move to the countryside, were organized in small work units.

"I was a slave," said Ang Mongkol, now the deputy director general of the Ministry of Interior who was a law student when the Khmer Rouge came to power and was assigned to haul dirt.

Yet despite the sorrow of those years, there are only traces of remorse here about taking full advantage of the canals. Loh hopes the canals he built in slave-like conditions will help double or triple his rice output.

"I always recall the past to my children," Loh said. "I say, "We have water from this canal that was built by the people. And many of them died."

Ang is leading an experimental project that uses water from the canal to irrigate fields of hybrid rice varieties that promise to yield four times as much as the variety traditionally grown here. Because only about 20 percent of Cambodia's fields are irrigated, its rice farmers harvest on average half as much as Vietnam's and one third as much as China's.

The irrigation system in Baray, which is fed from water diverted from the nearby Chinit River, functioned for several years after the Khmer Rouge left power. But in the mid-1980s it fell into disrepair. It was only in 2005 that the government began rebuilding it. Today, the local municipality hires a maintenance crew to keep the water flowing.

Among the workers is Sim Vy, 48. As a teenager she was enlisted by the Khmer Rouge to help build the canals. She was told she was working for national glory but received only a watery gruel as recompense. Now she is paid $55 a month. "I prefer working this way," she said.
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