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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Milton teens back from Cambodian school

By Tricia Pursell

MILTON — Their bus arrived at the Milton Senior High School around 10 a.m. Saturday, and as they were filing out, they shivered against the cold morning air, shared some hugs, gathered their luggage, and hurried to their cars.

After 38 hours of traveling by plane and by bus, eight students and six teachers and chaperones were understandably tired and glad to be home.

“I’m very glad to be home,” Milton student Sarah Haas said. “To have American food again, my own bed again.”

“We crossed the international date line heading east, so we spent Friday, crossed it, and spent Friday again. In theory, we got home before we left,” said Michael Conn, history and world cultures teacher at Milton. It takes a toll on everyone’s body, he added.

But the joy and satisfaction they experienced during the trip to Cambodia far outweighed any fatigue.

“It was truly a remarkable experience,” Conn said. He is credited for planting the dream and inspiration in the hearts of his students to build a school in previously war-torn Cambodia.

“My daughter and I went to Cambodia last year, where we saw the level of poverty and the plight of children there, and it just really touched both of us,” Conn said. “When I came back, I felt like I needed to do something. When school started in the fall, I showed my students pictures of what I saw in Cambodia. We started talking, and we decided we wanted to do something to help the children.”

He found an organization that was building schools in Cambodia, and after some research, presented the idea to his students.

“The kids were very excited about it, then went and got the approval of the superintendent. In November, we went to the school board in rural Cambodia, and everywhere we went, there was strong support. It started with the kids; the kids wanted to do something. I presented them with what I saw, and there was genuine concern, compassion, and an outpouring of support for doing something to help the kids.”

Conn calls Larissa Luu, a senior at Milton, the face of Team Cambodia. “Every time I spoke somewhere, she was right there with me, making presentations,” he said. Three other students designed T-shirts, labeled “Educate Cambodia,” the sale of which raised several thousand dollars for the school. The team raised $30,000 in four and a half months, Conn said.

‘There wasn’t a dry eye’

On Thursday, they saw the school firsthand.

“When we got off the bus at the school — which was as rural as a school can be — all the students were lined up, and in uniforms,” Conn said. “As we approached, they all started to applaud. The elders of the village were also there.”

“There wasn’t a dry eye during the ceremony,” said Bryan Noaker, principal of Milton Senior High School.

“It made me feel so proud of everybody back here at home,” Luu said. “It was kind of like a hero’s welcome. Something you can’t experience in the United States.

“Seeing those kids and how appreciative they were of a little schoolhouse,” Luu said, “changes your perspective, makes you rethink everything.”
“The happiest moment of my life was when we saw the school,” said Haas. “I will always remember that. Nothing can stop that for me. It made everything so worth it.”

The approximately 150 students at the school, all at the seventh-grade level, had been attending classes there for about a week before this dedication ceremony took place. The school is labeled “Milton School” in both English and Cambodian languages.

“It was so touching. We all cried. All 14 of us cried,” Conn said. “None of us will forget the images of our bus pulling away, many of the children running alongside the bus. None of us will ever forget that experience as long as we live.”

At the killing fields

Just one day earlier, the group had visited the killing fields outside Phnom Pen, where thousands of people were brutally killed during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, firmly set on “ethnic cleansing.” As a result of these killings, Conn said half of the population of Cambodia is 19 years of age or younger.

The location of the Milton School in Cambodia is part of the region hardest hit by this rule.

“These two consecutive days were the most moving days of the trip,” Conn said. “But different emotions.”

When the group visited these killing fields, Haas was ironically celebrating her birthday. “It was so sad,” she said. It was so overwhelming. The places where they were located were so peaceful and so beautiful, but what happened there was so horrible. We can’t imagine.”

“What these people had been though, is almost incomprehensible, but their spirit is still there,” Conn said. “The children are beautiful, bright-eyed. They just need opportunity. These are not people that are incapable of helping themselves. They just have suffered a huge setback. They just need tools.”

Spark of hope

And that’s what the Milton students have given them. The money they raised, matched by other organizations, built the school, supplied solar panels for power, teachers, textbooks, a well for fresh water supply and a computer with access to the Internet.

“We saw the level of poverty, but we saw at least there was a spark of hope that these kids could learn new skills and new knowledge that could provide a better life for themselves and their families,” Conn said. “What a lesson for our kids.”

Every two to three years of the school’s existence, Conn said they will need to raise an additional $2,500 to support the expected growth of the school.

“My hope is, after seeing the school and seeing the need in that part of Cambodia, we can even do more,” Conn said. “I would love for us to take a group back there in the next year or two and stay more at the school, spend more time at the school, do some activities with them.”

But in the meantime, life goes on for the students at Milton Area High School.

“We expect the students back in school on Monday, with some stories to tell, I’m sure,” Conn said.
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Thongchai wins Cambodian Open by 6 strokes

BANGKOK, Thailand: Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand completed back-to-back wins by taking the Cambodian Open on Sunday, shooting a 6-under 66 on the final day to win by six strokes.

Thongchai finished at 24-under 264. Singapore's Lam Chih Bing shot a final-round 65 to finish second, with Thailand's Chawalit Plaphol (67) a further two shots back in the second staging of the Asian Tour event.

A week earlier, Thongchai won the Vietnam Masters, during which his second child was born.

"My son was born on a very good day and I believe he has given me all the luck," Thongchai said.

"I only had four bogeys throughout the four rounds and I know that my game is all coming back now."

The Volvo Masters of Asia, beginning Dec. 18 in Bangkok is the final event on the 2008 calendar.
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Economic crisis unites Asian giants

The leaders of Japan, South Korea and China have called for a regional crisis fund to be set up to help tackle the effects of the global economic downturn.

The three nations also pledged on Saturday not to create new trade barriers over the next 12 months and called for an urgent capital infusion into the Asian Development Bank at the meeting in the Japanese city of Fukuoka.

The leaders of the Northeast Asian powers, which account for 75 per cent of the region's economy and two-thirds of its trade, agreed to "strengthen co-operation" at the summit, the first between the three nations alone.

Taro Aso, Japan's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, Lee Myung-Bak, South Korea's president, said in a joint statement issued after the meeting that Asia was "expected to play a role as the centre of world economic growth in order to reverse the downward trend of the world economy".

Currency swaps

The three countries, along with the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), had in October agreed to create an $80bn joint fund by next June to avert regional financial turmoil.

The fund would supercede the Chiang Mai Initiative, a system of bilateral currency swaps set up after the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

However, much of the significance of the meeting was symbolic as China and South Korea refused to have high-level meetings until 2006 with Japan over disputes related to the second world war.

"Co-operation between ... our three countries to overcome difficulties will have real significance as the financial crisis has a big impact on economies around the world," Wen told Aso before they were joined by Lee.

China, Japan and South Korea have agreed to hold similar meetings every year in the future.

Subramaniam Pillay, an associate professor in international finance with Nottingham University in Malaysia said that the summit was historic.

"Prior to this, the countries had only met on the sidelines of other summits, like Asean summits," he said.

"It is a good move because these
countries are the
engines of growth for the rest of east
between ... our three countries to
overcome difficulties will have real
significance as the financial crisis has a
big impact on economies around
the world" Wen Jiabao, Chinese
Economic co-operation

Out of the three North Asian economies, South Korea has been hit hardest by the global financial crisis, with the country's central bank saying that the country is set for its slowest growth in over a decade.

Seoul has committed $130bn to prop up its banking system and another $25 billion in fiscal spending and tax cut plans to stave off a recession.

Japan said on Friday that it will boost its existing stimulus plans and increase its reserve fund for bank rescues to $131bn.

But the package may not be enough to tackle the recession in Japan, Jan Friederich, a senior economist with the Economist Intelligence Unit, told Al Jazeera.

"I think the additional stimulus that Japan has announced is not really that strong. Japan has a very large public debt burden and therefore is quite reluctant to increase that burden much more. It is really not enough to prevent the economy from further recession."

Tokyo has not said whether it will act to stop a surging yen from pushing the Japanese economy deeper into recession.

China, which is also facing a slowdown of its hitherto surging economy, on Wednesday said it will boost public spending and cut taxes.

Beijing has already launched a four trillion yuan ($586bn) stimulus plan but Liu Mingkang, China's senior banking regulator, said on Saturday that the country may experience outflows of capital and could face deflation.

Territorial disputes

The Northeast Asian nations also discussed territorial matters.

Aso told the Chinese prime minister that Japan was concerned by the entry of Chinese boats into waters near disputed southern islands known as the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese, a Japanese official said.

Wen said that the territory belonged to China but said that dialogue would solve the issue.

Tokyo had protested to Beijing on Monday after the ships spent nine hours near the islands, which are claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan.

South Korea and Japan are also in dispute over a group of islets which lie near fertile fishing grounds and possible maritime deposits of natural gas.

However, the subject of Japan's pre-1945 colonisation of Korea and its aggression on the Asian mainland in the first half of the last century have not made the summit agenda.
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