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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Vietnam: Halt Abuses of Ethnic Khmer in Mekong Delta

Government Suppresses Peaceful Protests for Religious, Cultural, and Land Rights

New York, January 21, 2009) - The Vietnamese government should immediately free Khmer Krom Buddhist monks and land rights activists in prison or under house arrest for the peaceful expression of their political and religious beliefs, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Khmer Krom is a large ethnic group in the Mekong Delta that is central to Vietnam-Cambodia relations.

The 125-page report, "On the Margins: Rights Abuses of Ethnic Khmer in Vietnam's Mekong Delta," documents ongoing violations of the rights of the Khmer Krom in southern Vietnam and also abuses in Cambodia against Khmer Krom who have fled there for refuge. Wary about possible Khmer Krom nationalist aspirations, Vietnam has suppressed peaceful expressions of dissent and banned Khmer Krom human rights publications. It also tightly controls the Theravada Buddhism practiced by the Khmer Krom, who see this form of Buddhism as the foundation of their distinct culture and ethnic identity.

"Vietnam's response to peaceful protests provides a window into the severe and often shrouded methods it uses to stifle dissent," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should be trying to engage in dialogue with the Khmer Krom, rather than throwing them in jail."

Drawing on detailed interviews with witnesses in both Vietnam and Cambodia, the report shows that Khmer Krom in Vietnam face serious restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, association, information, and movement. In researching this report, Human Rights Watch came into possession of internal memos circulated by the Communist Party of Vietnam and Vietnamese government officials outlining their concerns about unrest among Khmer Krom in the Mekong Delta and strategies to monitor, infiltrate, and silence Khmer Krom activists. The documents are included in an appendix to the report.

"The official documents we publish today lay bare the efforts by the Vietnamese government to silence critics," said Adams. "This is bare-knuckled, indefensible political repression."

"On the Margins" provides a rare, in-depth account of a protest conducted by 200 Khmer Krom Buddhist monks in Soc Trang province, Vietnam, in February 2007. Protesters called for greater religious freedom and more Khmer-language education. Although the protest was peaceful and lasted only a few hours, the Vietnamese government responded harshly. Police surrounded the pagodas of monks suspected of leading the protest. Local authorities and government-appointed Buddhist officials subsequently expelled at least 20 monks from the monkhood, forcing them to defrock and give up their monks' robes, and banishing them from their pagodas. The authorities sent the monks back to their home villages and put them under house arrest or police detention, without issuing arrest warrants or specifying the charges against them. During interrogations, police beat some of the monks.

In May 2007, the Soc Trang provincial court convicted five of the monks on charges of "disrupting traffic" and sentenced them to two to four years of imprisonment. Some of the monks were beaten during interrogation. After the demonstrations, the authorities instituted stricter surveillance of Khmer Krom activists, restricted and monitored their movements, banned their publications, and monitored their telephones.

The report also examines rights abuses of Khmer Krom who have moved to Cambodia, where they remain among Cambodia's most disenfranchised groups. Because they are often perceived as ethnic Vietnamese by Cambodians, many Khmer Krom in Cambodia face social and economic discrimination and unnecessary hurdles to legalizing their status.

The Cambodian government has repeatedly stated that it considers the Khmer Krom to be Cambodian citizens. Yet the Cambodian authorities often react harshly when Khmer Krom become too critical of the Vietnamese government, a close ally of the Cambodian government. In 2007, Cambodian police forcefully dispersed a series of protests in Phnom Penh by Khmer Krom monks denouncing the rights abuses they had experienced in Vietnam.

In February 2007, a Khmer Krom monk, Eang Sok Thoeun, was killed in suspicious circumstances after he participated in a protest in Phnom Penh. In June 2007, Cambodian authorities arrested, defrocked, and deported to Vietnam a Khmer Krom activist monk, Tim Sakhorn, who was sentenced in Vietnam to a year in prison. Human Rights Watch called on the Cambodian government to investigate thoroughly the killing of Eang Sok Thoeun, and on the Vietnamese government to allow Tim Sakhorn, placed under house arrest in Vietnam after his release from prison in May 2008, to return to his home in Cambodia if he chooses.

"The killing, imprisonment, and defrocking of Khmer Krom monks sends a chilling message to Khmer Krom activists in both Cambodia and Vietnam," said Adams. "An ethnic group that should enjoy the protection of two countries finds itself stripped of protection by both."

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Tobique Valley students help Cambodia kids

A yearbook is full of memories and for the students of Tobique Valley Middle High School, the 2009 edition will evoke images of how they helped less fortunate children thousands of miles away. The students have raised $650 for school children in Cambodia and on Friday, Jan. 16, they added their signatures to a school banner that has already been signed by the Asian youngsters.

"We decided this year that we wanted to do something a little more meaningful than dedicating our yearbook to an individual," Dylan Mahaney, yearbook editor, said of their decision to dedicate it to the project. "This was something we thought was worthwhile."

Teacher Bridget Nugent Rideout is yearbook advisor and she suggested the Cambodian project to the students. Her dad Professor Bill Nugent and his childhood friend Gary Keenan of K-Line Construction in Woodstock are working to help the Pinocchio School for Poor Children in Sihanoukville, coastal Cambodia, and travelled there over the Christmas holidays to deliver $4,000 raised by a variety of supporters mostly in New Brunswick. The money will be used to buy school uniforms, shoes, school desks and other supplies.

On Jan. 16, the Tobique Valley middle school students watched a presentation that featured photographs of the children taken during the Cambodian visit. Dylan Mahaney along with Sabrina St. Pierre, junior editor, and Kelsey Witherly, yearbook member, explained Prof. Nugent and Keenan not only delivered much-needed money but also book bags and other school supplies that delighted the youngsters.

"They bought a lot of flip-flops," Mahaney added, noting the lightweight footwear is ideal there. "These children really don't have very much."

As students saw photographs of sparse living conditions, Mahaney noted the hammocks in the pictures serve as beds, couches and chairs. Families that number as many as 26 people live in one small home. In another photograph, the Tobique Valley students saw their school banner being signed by the Cambodian children.

"Their alphabet doesn't look like ours so some of their names don't look like words," Nugent Rideout explained. "This is the same banner that you are going to sign and then it will be on display in our school."

The majority of the funds raised by Tobique Valley Middle High School came from the 24-hour famine held by high school students recently. The middle school classrooms had donation collection jars that also brought in dollars.

Anyone who wants to help the children in Cambodia is also welcome to get involved. Paul Nugent is currently working as a professor in the English department at Yeungnam University in Korea and Gary Keenan is back in Woodstock but both men have committed to continuing to help the children.

"Paul is planning to return within the year to personally deliver any donations or items that in been donated in Woodstock or Korea," Nugent Rideout explained. "The two Monquarters will bear the costs of shipping or delivering any items that are donated."

Although Professor Nugent and Keenan have been involved in a variety of humanitarian projects, their discovery of the Sihanoukville school happened almost by accident. The men had been delivering aid in Vietnam and were spending two weeks touring Cambodia when they met the founder of an orphanage and school for the poor who was in the guest house where they stayed. Cees Chamuleau, originally from Holland, had gone to Cambodia to visit an old friend when he became aware of child labour being used to run a small stone quarry in the community. Appalled by what he saw, he brought the story to the attention of the United Nations and then decided he wanted to open a school there to give the youngsters an alternative to labouring.

Despite a lot of opposition, Cees eventually opened a school for 250 students, many of them residents of the orphanage he also established nearby.

"Children do not have to pay to attend the school as most families in the area have little or no money," Nugent Rideout stated.

"Cees and his associates give the children uniforms and shoes, a midday meal and look after their medical needs, some of which are very serious."

The visit to the school was described as "heart warming" by Nugent and Keenan who said the children were delighted to have visitors. The pupils received Canada pins and flags, a large New Brunswick and Canadian flag, as well as some candy. The children will receive some of Prof. Nugent's recently published storybooks as well as Scotiabank rulers donated by Tom and Bridget Brennan. The supporters also provided a Christmas feast of suckling pig that was enjoyed during the December visit.

"There are some Christians there and they do have Christmas but it isn't like here. They don't have all the presents. It's just a day they observe," Mahaney explained.

Items still being collected include new clothes like t-shirts, caps, school supplies, calculators and donations. A donation of $25 can buy five school uniforms, a desk or flip-flops for 50 children.

More information is available by contacting Gary Keenan at 328-9848.

When the students at Tobique Valley look back on their school year, they will have the satisfaction of knowing they did something that made a difference in the world. The photographs of Cambodian children with big, bright grins make the Tobique Valley students smile.

"You can see how excited these children are," Mahaney noted.
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Where Guns Fall From the Sky

A weapons collection in Cambodia in a scene from “Dealing and Wheeling in Small Arms.”


“I’d rather lose one son than my gun, because with a gun I can save my family,” declares a frightened Congolese villager in “Dealing and Wheeling in Small Arms,” a depressing, scattershot survey of the spread of weaponry around the world, especially in Africa.

This Dutch film, directed by Sander Francken, shifts abruptly back and forth between a ground-level view of how small arms have affected poor countries and a throw-up-your-hands analysis of the inability of any international agency, including the United Nations, to curtail the prolific, and profitable, small-arms trade. Although the film visits Cambodia, Uganda and Bosnia, it focuses mostly on Congo, where imported guns have plunged the country into perpetual civil war.

The Congolese strife suggests a rural African equivalent of gang warfare in American urban neighborhoods, and the documentary includes more than one scene of gun-toting children wreaking havoc. Angry Congolese villagers emphasize that the guns were not made there; they were manufactured outside the country. They find their way to Congo by plane, boat and car through shadowy networks that are almost impossible to trace because the route involves so many way stations, with payoffs at each.

It is not surprising that some Congolese view the spread of small arms as a conspiracy of the haves to keep the country at war while stripping it of its natural resources. One man tells of guns’ being dropped from airplanes and of villagers’ being lined up, handed free weapons, and told to go fight one another.

Accurate statistics about the spread of small arms are hard to come by and are, at best, rough estimates. In the last 15 years, Vanessa Redgrave says in a voice-over, 100 million small arms were manufactured and sold, with Western Europe the largest supplier. Attempts to reduce the supply are pitiful.

The movie wastes precious time following the director around as he interviews gun dealers and marksmen on firing ranges about the differences between this and that automatic weapon; these scenes smack of gun fetishism, and to those who don’t share what might be called the gun gene, they are boring and creepy.

Gun love, the film suggests, is in our blood, and the manufacture and distribution of arms a rampant social pathology that is not about to end anytime soon.


Opens on Wednesday in


Produced and directed by Sander Francken; written by Joost Schrickx, Josh Lacey and Mr. Francken; narrated by Vanessa Redgrave; directors of photography, Sander Snoep, Pieter Groeneveld, Edwin Donders, Jan-Dries Groenendijk, Maarten Kramer and Mr. Francken; edited by Gys Zevenbergen; music by Rainer Michel. At the Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, at Second Street, East Village. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. This film is not rated.
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9 tips for verboten vacations

By Christopher Elliott
Tribune Media Services

(Tribune Media Services) -- When it comes to travel, forbidden is in.

Cuba, Iran and North Korea -- long off-limits to most American visitors -- might be added to the "allowed" list under an Obama administration. Other destinations that were considered too dangerous or hostile to Americans are becoming fashionable again, as travelers jettison boring "staycations" for something more exotic.

"People who love to travel will take their chances," says Glenn Strachan, a wireless communications consultant in Annapolis, Maryland. He's been to several "forbidden" places, including everyone's favorite no-no vacation hotspot, Cuba, as well as Vietnam and Cambodia when they were still closed to Americans.

"Had we been caught," he says of his visit to Cambodia years ago, "we likely would have been killed."

That's the thing about these verboten vacations: They can be risky. The State Department publishes a list of travel warnings that shouldn't be ignored. They range from Cote d'Ivoire, which is experiencing periodic episodes of political unrest and violence since a failed coup a few years ago, to the Philippines, where Americans are at risk from terrorist attacks.

Never mind the health hazards of vacationing somewhere that's off the beaten path. Or on the warpath.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes health advisories for most countries. If you're traveling to Somalia, for example, you should consider vaccines for yellow fever, Hepatitis A and B, typhoid, rabies and polio. Going to Myanmar? Add a vaccine for Japanese encephalitis and take your malaria pills, please. "We very rarely tell people that they should not go to a particular country," says CDC spokeswoman Shelly Sikes Diaz.

So when they do, you might want to heed their warning.

Still interested in going off the grid on your next getaway? Here are nine tips.

There's no such thing as safe

Even if you decide to travel somewhere familiar -- or at least government-sanctioned -- there's no guarantee you'll come back alive. "Let's face it," says Joy Thrun, who owns Classic Travel, a travel agency in Okemos, Michigan, "there is no safe place." Curiously, some of the destinations that are thought to be dangerous, including Israel, Nepal, Kenya, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Syria and the Philippines, are not as hazardous to your health as the government would have you believe, she adds. "I would not hesitate to travel there," she says. "They're wonderful travel destinations."

Ask around

That's the advice of Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, and author of "Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil." "It's very interesting to compare the U.S. Department of State advisories with the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office advisories and Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade," he told me, adding that the British ones are generally the "most measured." When he visited Afghanistan and Iraq a few years ago, he remembers the British advisories essentially saying, "This bit is really bad, this bit is probably OK, take care anywhere," he says. "They didn't simply say 'don't go.'"

Remember, you're not the first American

Brandon Wilson, author of "Dead Men Don't Leave Tips: Adventures X Africa" says if you want to go somewhere forbidden, odds are other Americans have already been there. "Fortunately, there are some great fellow-traveler resources, such as blogs and forums, where folks can address your concerns," he says. "Tap into their knowledge and see how they may have skirted around the needless bureaucracy."

Brush up on customs

A breach of etiquette may sink your entire trip, warns Martha Wharton, a vice president at TCS Expeditions in Seattle. For instance, if you're a woman traveling to Iran, don't forget to have a separate passport photo taken for your visa, in which you're wearing a headscarf. "Also, in Muslim countries, no alcohol is allowed, and in Burma, there is no cell phone or non-government controlled Internet access," she adds. "Such is the nature of expedition."

Got money?

Your ATM card and credit card may not work in a country that's "off limits." "It's pretty tricky," says Peter Frank, who edits the travel site "Traveler's cheques are probably useless, and the last thing you want to do is carry around a big wad of cash. But depending on the destination, that may be your only choice."

Mind your own government

The biggest hurdle to visiting a "forbidden" place may not be that country's regime, but your own government. Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a Santa Monica, California, Middle East activist and blogger, says her trips abroad have left her with an FBI file listing her pre-invasion and post-invasion trips to Iraq. "It's not easy traveling to countries that the U.S. has deemed off-limits," she says. Among the challenges: securing visas, researching accommodations and getting wheels once you're in the country. "Some of these countries, like Iran and North Korea, require American tourists to have full-time minders, which really increases the cost for single travelers dramatically," she told me.

Don't break any rules -- push to change them

Another challenge in traveling to an off-limits country is making sure that you don't violate any laws, according to James Friedlander, the president of New York-based Academic Arrangements Abroad. Without the necessary permits, your trip may be illegal. "Many times, getting permission is possible through high-level cultural institutions or political contacts," he says. For instance, the U.S. government routinely allows academics and journalists to visit these banned countries. But the long-term solution is to push for these rules to be lifted. "With the change in administration in Washington, some regulations regarding travel to Cuba, for example, will be relaxed," he says.

Have a security plan

While many of these destinations aren't as dangerous as you might think, you still have to plan ahead and take certain precautions. Philip Farina, a San Antonio-based security expert, recommends you design a backup plan that enables you to get to a safe environment if you find yourself in danger. "This includes letting your friends and family know where you will be heading, checking with the U.S. Department of State and the Overseas Security Advisory Council to see who the danger-players in that country are, and how they operate," he says. Farina says you should carry a hidden kit containing a copy of your passport, emergency cash, a local phone card, a map of the travel region and the telephone number of a company that specializes in high-risk evacuations -- just in case.

Shut up

You'll be tempted to tell the world about your Cuba vacation, but you might want to think twice. Not only could you face fines and imprisonment, but also your friends might take a dim view of your choice of destination. "I think that the biggest hurdles to traveling to a forbidden destination are the propaganda machine and the hostile, uninformed reactions of fellow Americans who really know nothing about the countries in question or about the laws regarding travel there," says Julie Schwietert Collazo, the managing editor of Matador Travel and a frequent visitor to Cuba. "There's also the fear that we're doing something terribly unpatriotic by going to these off-limits places. I don't think there's anything further from the truth."

Even if more countries are open to Americans than ever before -- and even if more Americans want to visit these undiscovered destinations -- it's still likely that large parts of the globe will continue to be free of Western visitors. At least, for now. That's the assessment of Babs Ryan, who wrote a book about globalization called "America's Corporate Brain Drain."

"Unfortunately," she told me, "the beautiful, history-rich Middle Eastern countries will still be ignored by most Americans. Even frequent travelers lump Muslims and Arabs into one category or are ignorant about the difference in cultures in that region."

And in that case, ignorance is not necessarily bliss.

(Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. This column originally appeared on You can read more travel tips on his blog, or e-mail him at
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Cambodia to work out new law to punish drug traffickers

PHNOM PENH, Drug traffickers will receive harsh punishments for possessing small quantities of illegal substances if a new draft law to be worked out in March, national media reported on Wednesday.

Under the proposed law, drafted by the National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) at the Ministry of Interior, life imprisonment will be given to those who are in possession of 80 grams of heroin, according to the Phnom Penh Post.

Currently, life terms are only handed down to those who are in possession of at least 100 grams.

"The new law is more detailed. We have given greater consideration to guilt, punishment and the amount of drugs (necessary for punishment)," Lour Ramin, permanent vice chairman of NACD told the Post.

The draft, written with the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) as advisers, will also strive to comply with international drug control laws including those regarding prescription drugs available over the counter in Cambodia, officials said.

Lars Pedersen, officer in charge and project coordinator for the UNODC in Cambodia, described the new legislation as having a much "tighter control" on drug trafficking across Cambodia's borders with neighboring countries.

"The drug situation in Cambodia has escalated over the years with the use of illicit drugs increasing and drug trafficking becoming a major concern for the Cambodian government," he said.
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