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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Slow food movement begins to take root in Cambodia


A growing number of people in the Kingdom are determined to promote organic produce and celebrate taste and the senses over expedience

Founded in Italy in 1986, the slow food movement has grown in response to the rise of fast food and fast living. In two decades, the movement has blossomed into a global network of people, organisations, businesses and whole cities supporting the concept of eco-gastronomy - the recognition of the strong connection between the plate and the planet.

Starting at the table, the movement promotes an unhurried way of life founded on the idea that everyone has a right to culinary pleasure but that everyone must also take responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition and culture that make this celebration of the senses possible.

"The idea of slow food is very challenging in many ways," said Manuel J Garcia, owner and manager of the chain of Boddhi Tree restaurants and guesthouses in Phnom Penh. "It tests our rigid concept of how we approach things, of living in the fast lane."

Some six months ago, Boddhi Tree, with its three establishments, became one of the first businesses in Cambodia to join the slow food movement.

"Ever since its beginning, the Boddhi Tree restaurant has been very much into the healthy side of cooking. We are concerned about how we get our produce, and how that is linked to development more generally," Garcia said. "It's about looking at the whole picture of why we're in the hospitality industry, why we provide food for customers and where that food comes from. I think most of our customers understand and appreciate the values associated with slow food."


The idea of slow food ... tests our rigid concept of how we approach things, of living in the fast lane.


While Garcia suspects Boddhi Tree is the only member of the movement in Cambodia, he is keen to create an expanding network of businesses that use organic produce.

"The organic market here is unstructured, so the idea is for us to be the centrepoint for others who are entering the business. We are now working on building links between suppliers and buyers," Garcia said.

Going organic
Garcia explained how there has been talk - even at the government level - of taking advantage of Cambodia's relatively clean soil and jumping into organic agriculture.

"They found that the land in Cambodia hasn't been exposed to chemicals or pesticides, mainly due to 30 years of war," he said. "And really, the quality of the produce in Cambodia is just exquisite - much higher than in the rest of the region."
The level of organic production in the Kingdom is, however, still difficult to measure.

According to Garcia, Phnom Penh has a few stable suppliers, such as the Farmers Association, along with several small household producers who grow fruit and vegetables organically but do not necessarily know how to promote their crops.

"At Boddhi Tree, we currently get deliveries twice or three times a week from the Farmers Association, but if we could identify the independent producers, we could also buy directly from them," Garcia said.

Nature & Sea, another Phnom Penh restaurant that markets itself as encouraging healthy food and promoting consumer consciousness, also buys its organic foodstuffs from the Farmers' Association.

"If [the association doesn't] have what we need, though, we will buy it from the supermarket," manager Seng Phalla said. "Key for us is that we serve quality, clean food to our customers."

Consumer choice
At the moment, most customers of both the Boddhi Tree and Nature & Sea are either foreign tourists or expats.
"We sometimes have Khmer customers, but many Khmers don't understand about organic produce," Seng Phalla said. "Foreigners, on the other hand, have already come to value organic."

Garcia similarly admitted that nearly all of Boddhi Tree's patrons are from overseas, though he surmised that there might be a small group of wealthier middle-class Cambodians ready to embrace the concept of slow food.

Chamroen Ouch and Dara Dy, who were enjoying lunch at locally run Khmer Village Restaurant that serves organic and local produce, seem to belong to that group.

"In my family, we are very conscious of what we eat. Organic food is good for the health and tastes better," Chamroen Ouch said. "I think there is an increased understanding of the benefits of organic food among Cambodians."

While many young Cambodians living in the capital are eagerly embracing the concept of fast food, often regarded as espousing values quite opposite to eco-gastronomy, Garcia is nevertheless conciliatory.

"I don't think the rise of fast food in Cambodia is a threat at all. There is space in the market for all kinds of business enterprises. It's great to have fast food around one corner and slow food around the other. I have nothing against it."

More information on the slow food movement is available at
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Chicagoans Remember the Cambodian Genocide

Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood is home to the only Cambodian genocide memorial outside of Cambodia.The Killing Fields Memorial is located in Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood on the northside. Worldview Producer Nissa Rhee visited the memorial to see how Chicagoans are remembering the genocide.

When the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government of Lon Nol in 1970, Cambodians were war weary. With the help of the U.S., they had been fighting both the Communist Khmer Rouge insurgents in the northwest and Viet Cong soldiers on their border for several years.

Kompha Seth was a sergeant in the Cambodian army. He had just finished attending a U.S. military training in Thailand when the Khmer Rouge took power.

Because of his connections with Americans and the previous anti-Communist government, Kompha feared for his life. He was given the choice to stay in Cambodia or go to the United States.

SETH: Pretty, pretty hard to make a choice in those time, you know, because my family lived at home and pretty hard to make a choice. So, I don’t know why but I’m still not understand how I made the decision at that time. So I forced myself to come to the U.S. with my pain, by myself. I left my family back home. It’s pretty hard for me.

Kompha left his two sons—age 8 and 2—behind with his wife. They were all killed.

He thought that his brother’s family died as well, but his sister-in-law contacted him after the genocide. She showed him some family mementos she had buried near her house for safekeeping before the Khmer Rouge soldiers came. After the genocide, she returned home and dug them up. He showed me a picture of him as an 18-year old taped to his office wall.

SETH: This is my picture. She told me that she you know hide it in the ground with a plastic bag. When the events over she go back and then she pulled all of the evidence you know, my letter, my picture, everything. So that’s why I believe that it’s real.

His sister-in-law told Kompha that the Khmer Rouge forced them to walk many miles to an agricultural labor camp. Many people died from starvation and disease. Others were executed and thrown in mass graves, called killing fields.

RHEE: Was she able to tell you how your wife or your children died?
SETH: Oh yeah, yeah. She…I don’t want to describe. You know, it was so much painful. When I talk. She still cries when she talks with me by phone. She’s crying.

Out of their 25 member extended family, only Kompha and his sister-in-law are left. Kompha has dedicated his life to making sure that what happened during the genocide is not forgotten. He is now the Executive Director of the Cambodian Association of Illinois, the organization that houses the Killing Fields memorial.

SETH: Among the unluckiest, I’m the luckiest. That’s why we work hard to create this memorial, you know, to honor those who cannot make it. It’s the place where people come to heal the past, and also the place to honor those who cannot survive.

ambi: "Cambodian Dream" song played by Master Song San

The memorial is in the Association’s Heritage Museum, behind an exhibit on the renewal of Cambodian culture after the genocide. Its black granite walls are a solemn contrast to the colorful weavings and intricate wooden sculptures that fill the front of the museum.

Charles Daas is the Museum Director.

DAAS: What you see essentially are 80 glass panels that are back-lit. And each of these panels represents 25,000 people that perished during the Killing Fields period.
RHEE: And I see a white flower, and it says “We continue our journey with compassion, understanding and wisdom.”

DAAS: The phrase signifies the way in which the Cambodian people have approached having lived through a genocide. It’s also a window into their Buddhist beliefs which is this concept of unconditional love and compassion. That they move on from this tragic period in history and they continue to live and to thrive. The flower itself is a sacred flower in Cambodia. But it was also chosen to represent the life after this dark chapter in Cambodian history.

The museum is a gathering place for Cambodian-Americans searching for their heritage.

ambi: Kong Toch instrument

EAP: This instrument needs a lot of coordination. You have to use a lot of flexibility from one side to the next to the other side. You really need to have great body control with this.

On Sundays, young Cambodian-Americans like Kimsour Eap gather in the museum to practice traditional Khmer music. The music classes are one part of the Association’s mission to renew Cambodian culture, much of which was destroyed in the genocide.

Kimsour is practicing the Kong Toch. He sits on a pillow in the middle of the instrument – a circular series of small gongs. He comes to the music class to reconnect with his Cambodian culture.

EAP: It’s meaningful for all young people, like us, like me actually. To see what it’s like to be a part of Cambodian civilization, to be a Cambodian person period. To come here to see all of this museum, to see this display. To think about back in time what’s going on in Cambodia. It’s great.
Kimsour was born in Cambodia six years after the Khmer Rouge was ousted from power. And his family’s history during the genocide remains a mystery to him.

EAP: You know what, I don’t really know much about it. They don’t really want to talk about it, ‘cause it’s so much painful to even think about.

That reticence of Cambodians to discuss the genocide is one of the biggest obstacles the Association faces.

DAAS: Even though we have this museum, even though we have the memorial, I think that most people continue to be unaware of what really happened in Cambodia.

Again, Museum director Charles Daas.

DAAS: What is most disheartening for me is that genocide actually has a pattern. That this isn’t just something that happens. That one genocide occurs and people actually mimic or learn from that. And so I think one of the difficulties for me is that even though we have this wonderful facility and this beautiful memorial, which again while it’s a memorial to the Cambodian people, it’s a memorial to anyone who’s been victim to war to torture and to genocide. I think the hardest thing for me is that there are so many people who don’t know that this happened and how important it is for them to understand this.

Cambodians celebrated the 30th anniversary of the end of the Khmer Rouge regime last month. But as the Cambodian Association of Illinois will tell you, the genocide still is a dark shadow on the lives of Cambodian-Americans. It will take a long time before the wounds heal. And until then, the Cambodian community will keep renewing, and keep remembering.
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Cambodian Garment Workers Face Poor Prospects

By Michael Sullivan

The impoverished Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia is another victim of the global economic slowdown.

Two-thirds of Cambodia's export earnings come from the garment industry, which employs about 360,000 people — almost all of them women. Most earn less than $100 a month. But in a country as poor as Cambodia, every little bit helps.

Now, even that little bit is under threat.

Even makers of such seemingly recession-proof garments as underwear are feeling the pinch.

Take, for instance, Whtex Garments in Phnom Penh. Six months ago, the factory had more than 500 workers in the packing department alone, manager David Teo says. Now, there are fewer than 300.

Whtex Garments supplies underwear for Wal-Mart, Kmart and Disney, among others. Teo says more than 90 percent of his production goes to the U.S. But orders in the last few months, he says, are down 30 percent.

Six months ago, the factory packed more than 100,000 pieces a day.

"Now, we hardly pack 60,000, 70,000 a day," he says. As for the future, Teo says that he doesn't know what will happen next month — and everyone is worried.

It's repetitive, mind-numbing work. And it doesn't pay much, either. Workers here bring home between $70 and $100 a month — with overtime. Nobody pretends to like the job, but many are grateful for it.

Pou Chan Thon, 28, has been working at the Whtex factory for three years and says she is worried about losing her job. Her parents are farmers, and she sends them about $30 a month. Without that money, she says, they literally couldn't survive.

A few miles away, Sin Sary, 23, irons and folds track suits at Global Apparels. There are more than 3,000 workers at this factory, which manufactures sports clothes for Adidas and Puma.

I'm worried, the young woman says, because there are rumors going around that the factory will be closed or suspend production for a time. She says she doesn't know what she or her family will do if she's laid off.

But she better start thinking fast. Management hasn't told the workers yet, but about 800 are to be furloughed for the next two months, maybe longer. And these two factories aren't isolated examples.

Van Sou Ieng, chairman of the Cambodian Garment Manufacturers Association, says factories are losing orders from a host of U.S. companies — among them, Gap, Levi's, Wal-Mart and Nike. "Everywhere, actually," he says.

He says about 90 factories have already closed or curtailed production in the past few months, and he predicts another 30 will close by the end of March.

But union leader Chea Mony is skeptical. He says unscrupulous manufacturers are using the crisis as an excuse to close factories and move them elsewhere — without compensating workers.

Van Sou Ieng admits a handful of manufacturers have done just that — but only a handful, he says.

Meanwhile, economist Kang Chan Dararot worries about what will happen next. The Cambodian economy, he says, simply can't absorb those now being laid off from the country's two biggest industries.

"Poor families [are] very deeply involved in these two sectors — construction and garment industry. And now, so many people have been laid off. There [are] very grave prospects for … 2009," he says.

It's a future that may involve risky choices for laid-off workers desperate for cash.

Some out-of-work garment workers are already finding their way into karaoke parlors and go-go bars.

On a recent night, two young women working at a go-go bar in Phnom Penh say they were laid off last month. They haven't told their parents — and don't plan to, either. They are hoping to make enough working at the bar to continue sending money back home.

Many in Cambodia believe there will be more women in the same situation if garment orders are reduced further. Some worry the entire industry may be at risk if buyers — and manufacturers — decide to go elsewhere, like Bangladesh, where prices and wages are lower and labor standards weaker.

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Cambodia shares the pain

By Stephen Kurczy

PHNOM PENH - After months of official denials and upbeat forecasts, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said for the first time last week that the country's economy is not immune to the rising global financial and economic crisis. As key business sectors, including garments, tourism and construction, all show signs of weakness, the premier finally said the government must do more to stave off a crisis.

"It is clear that if the [government fails] to take timely and appropriate measures to manage the crisis, the effects of the global financial crisis and economic downturn will become a real cause for Cambodia's financial system and economy to fall into a dangerous crisis," Hun Sen said during an address to the Cambodian Economic Forum. He also took the occasion to lower the government's 2009 gross domestic product (GDP) growth forecast to 6% from 7% previously.

Although still higher than most outside projections - including the International Monetary Fund's 4.75% growth forecast - economists say the premier's disclosure represents a significant policy shift. The day before the February 5 forum, Cheam Yeap, a lawmaker from Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party and the chairman of the National Assembly's Finance Commission, said the global financial crisis would have "no impact" on Cambodia.

Those denials, however, had become statistically difficult to defend. The Economic Institute of Cambodia, an independent think tank, showed that exports in the first half of 2008 grew by only 6.7%, or about half the 12.6% rate recorded over the same period the previous year. That included a severe downturn in the crucial garment export sector: at least 22 garment factories were closed by the end of last year, shedding over 20,000 jobs in the process.

Tourism also saw declining growth in the second half of 2008, with arrivals dampened by an armed border dispute with neighboring Thailand and the closure of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, through which many tourists transit to Cambodia. Tourism arrivals were up a mere 5.5% year on year, the first time annual growth was below 18% since the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) scare of that year. It was also the first year since then that visits to Angkor Wat dropped, with visitor numbers down about 50,000 visitors to 1.05 million overall.

The booming construction sector, which had been driven largely by South Korea investors, has also been hit by the global turmoil. Douglas Clayton, chief executive of Cambodia's first investment fund, Leopard Cambodia, warned last September that local land values would fall as Korean investors pulled out of ventures because of sub-prime loan related problems back home.

By November, South Korean developer GS Engineering & Construction announced it was halting for at least one year construction on its US$1 billion, seven-skyscraper complex, and that it would scale back its original plan to only three buildings. With the economy slowing and South Korean investors heading for the exits, it's increasingly unclear from where the high-spending expatriates will arise to fill the high-end, high-rent complex.

Economically linked
Some analysts and commentators had earlier suggested that small, financially undeveloped Asian economies like Cambodia, which lacked exposure to toxic subprime products and had diversified their past reliance on exports to US and European markets, might "decouple" from deteriorating financial conditions in the West and maintain strong growth momentum.

But recent statistics show that "we can't say anymore that Cambodia is decoupled" from the wider global turbulence, said Stephane Guimbert, country economist for the World Bank. "Since we prepared [our 4.9%] projection [for Cambodian 2009 growth] in November 2008, most of the developments in the global economy have pointed to a deeper crisis than expected at that time," he said.

In part that's because Chinese demand for the region's products, many of them intermediate goods destined finally for Western markets, is not holding up as strongly as some had hoped. The IMF recently halved its 2009 growth forecast for Asia to 2.7%. During a February 2 teleconference announcing the Asia revision, IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn referred to the previous decoupling theory as "a funny story". "We have always been arguing here that there was not such a thing [as decoupling]," Strauss-Kahn said.

John Nelmes, the IMF's local resident representative, predicts Cambodian GDP growth will likely fall below 4.8% in 2009 and only recover to 5% to 6% next year if larger global economies implement well coordinated fiscal and monetary policies. If accurate, Cambodia's growth is expected to fall by half of recent trends; between 2004 and 2007, GDP growth averaged 11.1% annually.

"Looking forward to the near term, the global crisis is likely to take a heavy toll on Cambodia," Nelmes told Asia Times Online.

Until now, integration with global markets had buoyed the Cambodian economy. With the implementation of more market-oriented reforms, including measures to lure foreign investment, average per capita annual income more than doubled to $593 in 2007 from $285 in 1997. Now many fear a reversal of fortunes that could drive more Cambodians, already estimated at 35% of the population, back under the poverty line. Cambodia's poor were already hard hit by last year's spike in inflation, which soared to 25% last May before moderating to an overall annual rate of 13.5%.

Guimbert and others say Hun Sen's government should move to stimulate the economy through fiscal outlays towards agriculture, infrastructure and social safety nets. The World Bank also recommends more structural reforms so that Cambodia will be better-positioned to benefit when the global economy rebounds. Those suggestions include streamlining export processes and the establishment of a national arbitration center to allow foreign investors to bypass the country's notoriously corrupt courts for business disputes.

The World Bank ranked Cambodia 135 out of 185 countries surveyed for their overall business climate and in mid-2008 ranked it below every other Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) nation except Myanmar in three main categories: control of corruption, government effectiveness and rule of law.

That assessment was echoed last week by the United Kingdom-based environmental watchdog Global Witness in a new investigative report that accused Hun Sen's government of cornering and "pillaging" the country's growing mineral and petroleum industries. [See accompanying story]

Hun Sen says such assessments represent a double standard in light of the recent incompetence and corruption witnessed in the Western financial industry. "Rich countries are only blaming poor countries for corruption - they never blame one another," Hun Sen was quoted saying in the local media. "Powerful nations no longer have the right to advise small countries."

Stephen Kurczy is a Cambodia-based journalist.
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Cambodian refugee serves fellow immigrants at San Bernardino's Asian-American Resource Center

Rodrigo Peña / The Press-Enterprise
Rasmey Sam founded the San Bernardino center in 1995 because there was no place for Inland Asian immigrants to turn for help in their own languages, and in the context of their own cultures, he said.
The Press-Enterprise

Thirty years ago, Rasmey Sam was a young Khmer Rouge follower who had been brainwashed with the ideology that led the Cambodian government to murder an estimated 1.7 million of its citizens. He was taught to hate his parents and others with "contaminated" ideas.

Today, Sam leads the Asian-American Resource Center, the Inland area's only comprehensive organization for Asian immigrants. He devotes his life to helping immigrants instead of learning why to despise fellow Cambodians.

The Inland area's Asian-American population increased by 60 percent between 2000 and a 2005-07 Census estimate, to more than 217,000, or almost 6 percent.
Debi Grenfell teaches English as a second language at the Asian-American Resource Center in San Bernardino.

But the Asian population here is not as concentrated as in parts of Orange and Los Angeles counties, where some cities are half or two-thirds Asian. That can make it more difficult to reach potential clients, Sam said.

Sam founded the San Bernardino center in 1995 because there was no place for Inland Asian immigrants to turn for help in their own languages, and in the context of their own cultures. Employees speak Vietnamese, Korean, Cambodian, Mandarin and Cantonese. One speaks Spanish. Many of the more than 5,000 clients are Latin American immigrants.

Clients take English and citizenship classes, get documents translated, learn how to use computers, and receive information on low-income utility programs. Seniors enjoy Vietnamese lunches and learn about nutrition, and young people get help with their homework.

The group opened a satellite office in Rubidoux in 2003.

Sam earned a degree in business administration from Cal State San Bernardino in 1995 and quickly began researching how to start a nonprofit organization. One of his marketing professors, Victoria Seitz, helped him.

"He's really, really smart," Seitz said. "He could have used his knowledge to make a lot of money. Instead, he's using it to help his community. He wants to do the right thing."

Richard Chong, president of the Khmer Buddhist Society of San Bernardino, said the resource center is indispensable in helping Asian immigrants adjust to life in the United States.

The center started in a one-room office in downtown San Bernardino. It now sits in a 3,800-square-foot building south of downtown.

Sam was a young child when the communist Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975. They murdered politicians, intellectuals and others who they saw as part of a dangerous educated elite. They ordered residents of cities to move to the country in a plan to turn Cambodian into a fully peasant-oriented economy.

Sam's father and grandfather were early victims of the genocide. His dad was chief of police for the capital, Phnom Penh, and his grandfather was a one-star general, and thus immediately seen as enemies of the new regime, Sam said.

He, his mother, two brothers and two sisters were forced into the countryside to attend "re-education camps." His mother was seen as a lost cause, because she was older and seen as hopelessly corrupted. She spent her days doing backbreaking work in the rice fields.

The Khmer Rouge concentrated on children like Sam, whose minds were still malleable.

"They did a good job on me," Sam said. "If they had given me a gun, I probably would have shot people."

Yet even the vaunted children had to scrounge for food. Sam sometimes ate insects. One sister starved to death.

After Vietnamese troops toppled the Khmer Rouge in late 1978, Sam returned to Phnom Penh before escaping to a Thai refugee camp because of continuing instability.

He arrived as a refugee in Monterey Park in 1982. The second family he lived with moved to Rialto in 1986, and he graduated from Eisenhower High School there.

Sam is officially 36 years old, but believes he's probably 38 or 39. Workers at the Thai refugee camp he stayed at often put back children's ages so they would receive more education to make up for time lost in the camps, he said.

Sam barely knew his father, but he thinks of him often. His memory helps guide and inspire Sam.

"I was 5 when my dad was taken away," Sam said. "But he's my role model. I feel obligated to represent my family and do good for the people."

Reach David Olson at 951-368-9462 or
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Park reopens on Thai-Cambodian border

BANGKOK, A long-popular park along a disputed stretch of the Thailand-Cambodia border known for its cliffs and vistas reopened Tuesday after being closed for months.
Tourists hadn't been able to take in the scenery of Pha Mor E-Daeng cliff and the rest of Khao Phra Viharn national park in Si Sa Ket since last July. Cambodia's ancient Khmer temple ruins of Preah Vihear remain closed, however.

Kalayani Thammajari, chairwoman of the Si Sa Ket tourism association, said the reopening was widely welcomed by local businesses, the Bangkok Post reported.

"We are ready for tourists as we have waited for months for this," Kalayani said. "We expect massive tourist arrivals. Many of them are likely to come for a glimpse of the disputed area."

Thai Lt. Gen. Wibulsak Neepal said it's hoped the reopening will alleviate tensions between troops the two countries have stationed in the disputed region. He said reopening the park should encourage Cambodia to open the doors to its mountaintop temple once more.

He said he had invited his Cambodian counterpart, Gen. Chea Mon, to his army's headquarters in Nakhon Ratchasima for talks about cutting troop levels in half.

"(But) we will not leave the area. It is part of our territory too. Our troops must be present to exercise our sovereignty," he said.

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