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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cambodian Supreme Court will review trade union leader’s murder

Two men convicted of the murder of trade union activist Chea Vichea in Cambodia after a seriously flawed criminal investigation and a grossly unfair trial will have their case heard by the country's Supreme Court on 31 December.

Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were sentenced to 20 years for Chea Vichea’s murder. However, their detention and trial were plagued with human rights violations, including torture or other ill-treatment and deeply flawed court proceedings that relied on unfounded and inadmissible evidence.

"The Cambodian Supreme Court must dismiss the case against both men and ensure that they are released." said Amnesty International's Cambodia researcher Brittis Edman.

The organisation has long argued that the true perpetrators of the murder remain at large. The Free Trade Union (FTU), of which Chea Vichea was President, has also repeatedly called for the release of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun.

Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun had alibis for the time of the shooting on 22 January 2004. Instead of conducting a thorough, impartial investigation, police officers threatened and detained people who would provide these alibis, and intimidated other witnesses.

Born Samnang repeatedly stated that police beat, coerced and bribed him into making a confession. Despite this, the Municipal Court accepted the confession as a central piece of evidence on the basis of which both men were convicted.

On 1 August 2005, the Municipal Court sentenced them both to 20 years’ imprisonment for murder. On 6 April 2007, the Appeal Court upheld the decision, despite the prosecutor’s acknowledgment there was insufficient evidence.

Amnesty International has repeated its calls to the Cambodian authorities to conduct an impartial and effective investigation into the murder of Chea Vichea so that those responsible for it are brought to justice.

The organisation has also urged the authorities to initiate a thorough, independent and impartial investigation into the conduct of the case - including allegations of torture or other ill-treatment by police during the initial interrogation of the two men, intimidation of witnesses and political interference with the judicial process.

Chea Vichea was murdered on 22 January 2004 after receiving a series of death threats. He was shot dead in an assassination-style killing at a news stand in central Phnom Penh. Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were arrested shortly afterwards on suspicion of his murder.

Since Chea Vichea’s death another two FTU activists have been killed in Phnom Penh. In May 2004, Ros Sovannareth, FTU President at the Trinunggal Komara factory, was murdered. Thach Saveth was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his murder in a one-hour trial described by observers as grossly unfair.

On 24 February 2007, Hy Vuthy, FTU President at the Suntex factory, was shot dead. No one has been brought to justice for this killing, and by September 2008, a Phnom Penh court official told media that the investigation had been closed for lack of evidence.
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Boy named "Lucky" travels from Cambodia to Las Vegas for heart surgery

little boy named 'Lucky' is living up to his name after traveling from Cambodia to Las Vegas to have his broken heart fixed.

Dr. Michael Ciccolo performed the operation at Sunrise Children's Hospital.

"The child has a hole between the lower pumping chambers. It's important to fix significant forms of heart disease, because if you don't they will not have a normal life expectancy," he explained.

The baby's name means "Lucky" in English.

His family thinks it's fitting that he had the procedure in Las Vegas.

They couldn't afford to pay for the surgery, so it was arranged through a charitable organization called Hearts Without Boundaries.

The hospital and the doctor donated their services as part of this international effort.

"It's quite a gift, not only to the patient, but to the patient's family. So it makes us feel very proud of the fact that we're able to do this here," said Dr. Ciccolo.

Word of the surgery's success was welcome news in Cambodia and Lucky's progress has been excellent.

He should lead a normal life with no additional surgeries.

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Saving Cambodia's musical heritage


IN 1994, young Scott Stafford, was awarded special honors from the University of Chicago Music and Composition Theory Department. His honors thesis developed group theory to analyze traditional Balinese polyrhythm, drawing new parallels with Western Harmony.

Stafford, a San Rafael resident, most recently composed music and produced additional recordings for Pixar's critically acclaimed 2008 "Presto." At the time of his graduation, he had no idea his thesis would lead him down the path to helping rescue and preserve the Cambodian musical legacy.

The story of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, graphically depicted in the poignant portrayal in the book and 1984 film, "The Killing Fields," not only left an estimated 1.7 million dead, but nearly decimated the Cambodian musical legacy of thousands of years by systematically eliminating the music teachers who could pass on the country's musical heritage.

Stafford, on a family trip to the area, traveled to Siem Rep City. There, he heard a performance of the moribund music played from an ancient instrument he had seen carved in bas relief on the walls of Bayon, one of the main temples of Angkor Wat. The instrument is called the Kse Diev, meaning one string.

You pluck harmonics on it, moving it on and off one's chest.

Some of the last generation of surviving players were nearly all wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. Stafford's fascination with the music, along with his training, impelled him to quench his curiosity as to the music's current status, leading him to the discovery of the fragile nature of its existence.

He quickly found that precious little of it had ever been recorded.

Stafford raised funds to found Studio CLA (Cambodia Living Arts), a nonprofit ethnographic audio visual production studio with the goal of archiving Cambodia's endangered musical traditions, training local engineers in audio and visual production arts, and providing a laboratory for new creative and collaborative works.

CLA has now has four self-produced CD's for sale in Cambodia. The recent underground documentary, "Sleepwalking through the Mekong," is based on a Los Angeles and Long Beach band's pilgrimage to Cambodia to record in Stafford's studio and to collaborate with traditional CLA artists.

Stafford has plenty of in-country support for the collaborative project.

Most noteworthy are Arn Chorn-Pond and Sophy Him, whom he met in February 2002, during his first trip to Cambodia.

Arn Chorn, by playing revolutionary songs on the flute, survived the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime that turned him into a child soldier.

Today, he is an internationally recognized human rights leader, a recipient among other honors, of the Anne Frank Memorial Award and is the subject of the award winning documentary: "The Flute Player."

Sophy Him, a composer, is a professor of music and fine arts at the Royal Academy of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.

Stafford, in support of Him's work, has been part of the creative team supplying additional music and direction for "Where Elephants Weep," the first-known contemporary Cambodian rock opera with a mission to stir young Cambodians to honor their heritage within the context of the changing global society and to inspire them to learn more about Cambodia's performing living arts.

The opera had its world premiere in Cambodia this year. To learn more about the music and CLA's mission, visit

Noah Griffin of Tiburon is a public affairs consultant and a former citizen member of the IJ's editorial board.
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36 Hours in Siem Reap, Cambodia


AS captivating as the temples of Angkor may be, Cambodia’s scorching sun, gritty air and pot-holed roads inevitably take their toll on even the hardiest travelers. Perhaps it’s by necessity, then, that Siem Reap, the town that lodges and feeds Angkor’s million annual visitors, has evolved into a chic haven of rest and relaxation. An international group of chefs has set up the country’s finest tables there, and bartenders in the vibrant night life are versed in sophisticated cocktails. Contemporary art has also found itself a home, with a gallery scene intent on nurturing local artists. It’s as though Siem Reap is finally picking up where the Angkorian kings left off some 600 years ago, resurrecting itself as the center of Khmer taste and culture.


5 p.m.

With Angkor Wat’s inspiring beauty just five miles away, it’s not hard to see why Siem Reap is at the heart of Cambodia’s flourishing art scene. Galleries are popping up in renovated shop houses, and hotels now exhibit the work of young Khmers and regional expats. Art Venues, a free brochure available in upmarket hotels, maps out walking tours to the town’s best spots. McDermott Gallery (FCC Complex, Pokambor Avenue; 855-12-274-274;, known for its emotive, dreamlike photographs of Angkor, takes Asia’s cultural heritage as its curatorial focus. At the Arts Lounge inside the fashionable Hôtel de la Paix (Sivatha Boulevard; 855-63-966-000;, contemporary works fill the minimalist space, where well-heeled guests sip designer cocktails like the Oolong Kiwi Sling, made with tea and vodka.

7 p.m.

Cambodian cooking doesn’t get the attention it deserves, especially compared with the fare of its food-trendy neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. Though the basic ingredients are similar — lemongrass, garlic, ginger, fish sauce — Khmer cooking is subtler and lighter, employing less chili, pungent herbs and coconut milk. For an innovative lesson on local flavors, sample the seven-course Khmer tasting menu ($31) at Méric, a dimly lighted Art Deco-themed restaurant, also at the Hótel de la Paix (note: dollars are widely accepted in Siem Reap). Dishes, which change daily, might include chicken and pumpkin saraman (a type of Khmer curry) and stir-fried frog’s legs with holy basil served in hollowed-out bamboo reeds and miniature woks. To heighten the experience, dine on one of Méric’s hanging cushioned daybeds, which swing alongside a flame-lighted pool.

9 p.m.

Prolong the post-dinner buzz with a pre-slumber rubdown at Frangipani Spa (617/615 Hup Guan Street; 855-12-982-062; With modern art on the walls and fresh orchids in vases, the spa feels like the plush digs of a fashionable friend’s home. Sink into the low sofa as you sip tamarind juice while your feet are bathed in a frangipani-filled tub, the prep to a glorious 60-minute massage (from $22).

5 a.m.

It might be brutal, but it’s worth getting up this early to experience the famous Buddhist temples of Angkor Archaeological Park (admission, $20), the 155-square-mile area that counts Angkor Wat among its more than 100 temples. Less crowded at this hour is the ninth-century Phnom Bakheng, a five-tiered, rectangular temple built on a hill. The few lotus-shaped towers that remain are testament to the 108 that once stood. You’ll have to work for the view: it’s a 15-minute hike up to the sandstone terrace, which overlooks an endless expanse of jungle and mist-shrouded hills. It’s a mesmerizing spot from which to watch the sun paint the sky in blues and oranges.

11 a.m.

It’s on an idyllic country road lined with stilt houses and lush, neon-green rice fields, but the Cambodia Landmine Museum (20 miles northeast of Siem Reap on the road to Banteay Srei; 855-12-598-951; is a jarring reminder of the country’s three decades of war. Established by a former Khmer Rouge child soldier named Aki Ra, the museum provides a detailed account of Cambodia’s political and social upheaval, including the Khmer Rouge insurgency, which ended only 10 years ago. Efforts to clear unexploded ordnance and millions of land mines have been made since the 1990s, yet it’s estimated that fewer than half have been cleared. Mr. Aki Ra has deactivated about 50,000 of them; many are on view.

12:30 p.m.

Cambodia’s heat and intensity demand long, replenishing lunches. Only a Frenchman could dream up Chez Sophéa (across from Angkor Wat; 855-12-858-003), an open-air restaurant with wooden tables and white linens that serves rillettes de canard, charcoal-grilled steaks and crème de chocolat — all next door to the temples. The owner, Matthieu Ravaux, lives on the premises, so you’re technically eating in his dining room. Set menu for $18.

4 p.m.

After a lunch-induced nap, it’s time to put your dollars to good use at some of Siem Reap’s community-friendly shops. In the center of town, Senteurs d’Angkor (Pithnou Street; 855-63-964-801; sells spices, coffee and bath products, wrapped in palm-leaf packages. For flirty frocks and custom-made quilts, try Samatoa (Pithnou Street; 855-63-96-53-10;, a fair-trade label that specializes in silk. The hand-painted cards and cute canvas bags at Rajana (Pub Street; 855-12-481-894; are produced by Cambodians down on their luck.

7 p.m.

There’s no need to reserve a table at Restaurant Pyongyang (4 Airport Road; 855-63-760-260) — it seats over 400. Besides, it would be anti-Communist. Every evening, between servings of fantastic bulgogi ($8.70) and bibimbap ($6), pretty North Korean waitresses in short red dresses put on elaborate song and dance routines. Though the tile floors and faux-wood paneling aren’t exactly impressive, the cultural pageantry is. With a karaoke screen displaying waterfalls and snow-capped mountains, the girls perform peppy propaganda tunes to a compliant and clapping audience.

10 p.m.

With a name like Pub Street, you won’t have any trouble finding Siem Reap’s prime night-life drag. But if beer girls, big-screen TVs and $3 pitchers aren’t your style, head a block north to Miss Wong (the Lane; 855-92-428-332) for a taste of vintage Shanghai. The cherry-red lantern that dangles from the doorway beckons passers-by. Inside, slip into one of the intimate leather booths for an Indochine Martini, a mixture of vodka, ginger cognac and fresh pineapple juice ($4.50). For dance beats and late-night snacks, take the party two blocks to trendy Linga Bar (the Passage; 855-12-246-912;, a mixed, gay-friendly lounge with killer mojitos.


7:30 a.m.

Early morning is social hour for Khmers, with men filling outdoor cafes to sip iced coffee and women gathering at local markets to shop and eat breakfast. At Psar Chaa, or Old Market, the butchers and produce sellers will be in full force, peddling dried fish, fruit stacked in neat pyramids, and freshly pounded kroeung (an herbal paste used in many dishes). Pull up a plastic stool at one of the food counters and order a bowl of baay sac chruuk — superthin pieces of grilled pork served with white rice and a tangy cucumber and ginger salad (about 5,000 riel, $1.27, at 4,029 riel to the dollar).

11 a.m.

Until a few years ago, tough road conditions meant that only the bravest travelers ventured to Beng Mealea (45 miles from Siem Reap on the road to Koh Ker), a sprawling sandstone temple that has been nearly consumed by the jungle. But a new route replaced the single-plank bridges and motorbike-only track, cutting the travel time from a half-day to just under an hour by car. Built in the 12th century, this forgotten sanctuary is nearly as big as Angkor Wat but gets a fraction of the visitors. The destruction is breathtaking: towers reduced to tall mounds of rubble, thick webs of tree roots snaking through the walls, and faceless carvings, their heads cut out and sold. Still, the place has seen worse: until 2003, the surrounding grounds were littered with land mines. Now it’s ripe for a fresh start.


Flights to Siem Reap from the United States require a plane change. A recent online search found an Asiana Airlines flight from Kennedy Airport to Siem Reap, via Seoul, starting at $1,200 for travel in January. From Siem Reap Airport, it’s a $5 taxi ride into town.
The Khmer-chic rooms at La Résidence d’Angkor (River Road; 855-63-963-390; have hardwood floors, silk and bamboo accents and giant whirlpool tubs. Rooms start at $175.

With its minimalist aesthetic, neutral palette and saltwater pool, the seven-room Viroth’s Hotel (0658 Wat Bo Village; 855-63-761-720; provides a welcome respite from temple overload. Rooms from $80.
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