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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Thailand to return seized Cambodian artefacts

Fine Arts Department director-general Kriangkrai Sampatchalit said yesterday that the other 36 items wanted by Cambodia could not yet be returned because more evidence was needed to prove their origin.

The Cabinet yesterday agreed to return seven artefacts to Cambodia in a yet to be scheduled handover ceremony.

"Once more evidence is provided to us, the department will identify and verify these [36] items," he added.

The sandstone artefacts to be returned are an 86-centimetre bust of a goddess and six of demons varying in height from 60cm to 81cm. The busts date back to the 18th century and some are cracked or damaged.

Culture Minister Teera Slukpetch said the artefacts had been intercepted by customs in Samut Prakan province in May 2000, while they were being smuggled into Thailand in sea-freight cargo. They have since been in the custody of the Fine Arts Department pending completion of legal and customs procedures.

There are no details over whether anybody was arrested.

The items will be put on display at the National Museum from today before they are handed over. The Fine Arts Department's permanent secretary Weera Rojphojjanarat said it had not been decided if Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen would be invited to the handover ceremony.

The Culture and Foreign Ministries of both countries are working on diplomatic protocol to have the artefacts returned to Cambodia as soon as possible, reportedly as a sign of goodwill aimed at strengthening bilateral relations that have soured after the Phrea Vihear dispute.

Kriangkrai said the department was pursuing some 100 artefacts of Thai heritage that have reportedly surfaced in other countries.
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Typhoon or big bright sun: the economic forecast on Cambodia goes wild

Short, poor, ill and corrupt, or, in other words, the new potential composite of the average Cambodian person elaborated on the basis of statistical figures circulated here and there by various international and national organisations intervening in Cambodia. However, despite the profusion of reports, charts, tables and databases supposed to dissect the Cambodian economy and society, finding recent and reliable elements in the jungle of numbers that these statistics made in Cambodia represent remains a hard task. Alarmist views regarding the economic crisis do not help either since they provide indices which take different shapes and prove randomly malleable. And indeed, predictions for 2009 might well make one feel giddy, as they bet on an economic growth rate oscillating between 1% and... 6%, according to sources. Even though analyses disagree on the results concerning the past few years, forecasting Cambodian economy looks like a tough challenge.

GDP: who can lower the stakes?
The International Monetary Fund is definite on that point: Cambodia is going to be badly stricken by the global economic crisis. Six months ago only, the same organisation reckoned that despite a slight downturn, the Cambodian economy remained “robust”, and all indicators are today are in the red: a decrease in orders in the textile industry, a drastic drop in the number of tourists, a massive decline in the building sector ... The direct result is that the growth rate of the Gross Domestic Product, which was due to go above 7% in 2008 was revised downwards and reached an estimated 6.5% at the end of the year. For 2009, according to the latest report released by the institution, the growth rate should not go over 4.8%, a prediction which is already dubbed as optimistic by John Nelmes, IMF Resident Representative in Cambodia.

For its part, the World Bank , who also revised its estimations for the past years (the 7.5% estimated in 2008 were brought down to 6.7%), predicts for 2009 a growth rate close to 5% (4.9% to be precise, i.e. 2 points below the initial predictions). The Asian Development Bank (ADB ) forecasts for its part 4.7%. And the Economist Intelligence Unit (a branch specialising in economic statistics and forecasts within the private British group The Economist) is the naysayer in the lot, putting forward predictions of a rate close to 1%, in other words the weakest Cambodia has ever seen, at least since the Paris Accords (October 23rd 1991).

When it comes to those figures, the Cambodian government refrains from officially refuting them, for the simple reason that they were partly calculated thanks to data that the government themselves communicated to those organisations, via the Ministry of Economy and Finance , the Ministry of Planning and the National Institute of Statistics (NIS ) . However, it appears easy for the government to downplay the impact of this today, by proposing in turn its own “estimations” and its “objectives”. The prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, claimed on February 16th in front of a packed audience of international economists, that the Cambodian GDP could well increase by 6%, with a little bit of good will!

Clear skies, showers or typhoon?
Between the bright sun the government would like to dream of, the typhoon forecast by the British group and the skies alternating sunny spells and scattered showers predicted by the World Bank, the IMF and the ADB, it is hard to know who to turn to and trust. Most analysts yet speak with one pessimistic voice. Indeed, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) announces tens of thousands of unemployed people in Cambodia’s key-sectors, which will be the victims of a crisis which would supposedly affect no less than 500,000 Cambodians and might even, by the end of 2009, concern more than a million of them. The French daily newspaper le Monde also adds their own reading of the situation. Indeed, in its February 23rd edition, the Paris-based daily paper did not hesitate to display as a title for their article, “Cambodian economy suffers as a result of its opening-up to the world”, thus underlining the contrast between the golden picture of a country who for the past ten years “had yet mounted the Asian horse of growth” and a grimmer one depicting the economy which at the end of the day, is just that of “one of the poorest countries in the world”.

Short and sickly
It is true that if one simply juxtaposes statistics found here and there on the net, the portrait is not that flattering. “The Cambodian” is pictured as poor (average annual income per capita: slightly less than USD600, according to the government), corrupt (166th country out of 180 in the 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index published by the NGO Transparency International , sickly (with an average life expectancy of 62 years, compared to 72 in Thailand and Vietnam) and short (81st out of 81 countries, with an average height of 5’31” for adult men, compared to 5’38” for the Vietnamese, 5’54” for the Thai and 6’04” for the Dutch), although this last feature is said to be considered a quality .

Everyone looking for their own figures
Data, even when published in documents and on the Internet websites of institutions well-known for their reliability, is very often obsolete or has been collected using various methods, which eventually blocks the way to any possible comparison. Thus, one can see on the public databases of many organisations (like the WHO , the World Bank , UNICEF , the CIA ...), the Cambodian population was largely over 14 – if not 15 – million inhabitants in 2006... when the last national census counted 13.39 million souls. Cambodians appear to live five years longer or shorter, depending on the sources (ranging from 57 years according to UNICEF, to 62 years according to the WHO)... And they obtained an annual average GDP per capita, in 2007, of USD540 according to the World Bank, when the IMF claims it was USD604.

Indices for developing countries?
Beyond these discrepancies, which can be explained in some cases by the techniques used, the very quality of these indices is regularly questioned. Some estimate that the indices bring a distorted vision of reality and therefore call to create new instruments or to use others which are already set up – this would allow the refining of analyses of economies and societies in the modern world, particularly in developing countries like Cambodia where the informal sector plays an essential part. Pointing at statistical mistakes a posteriori or blaming economic indicators might be a little too easy. But in any case and facing the dark perspectives drawn by those figures, this helps remind that these indicators were first elaborated as tools meant to provide a better understanding of a complex world, and were not invented to remodel or govern it.

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Despite Rapid Premium Growth, Cambodia's Insurance Sector Has a Long Way to Go

BestWire Services Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Cambodia's insurance industry has seen rapid premium growth in recent years, which largely outpaced the country's gross domestic product, yet the market has not seen marked development.

In the past year, Cambodia's insurance industry experienced 18% growth in premium income, in comparison with an estimated GPD growth of 6.8%. However, the insurance market size has only a total value of US$20.5 million. This makes it hard to attract new players, particularly foreign insurance companies, which could play a critical role in developing the market, said Youk Chamroeunrith, general manager and director at Forte Insurance, a leading local insurance company.

"We need to have more foreign investment first to drive premium growth," said Chamroeunrith in an interview. However, the global financial crisis has put pressure on insurance growth because of declining foreign investment. Chamroeunrith said premium growth already slowed down by about 2% in the past year.

Lack of a legislative framework and a low level of insurance awareness in the country are the biggest hurdles for insurance development in Cambodia, said Chamroeunrith. The country now only has nonlife insurance operators and product offerings are limited to commercial business lines for corporate clients.

Now, Cambodia only has five domestic insurance companies: Forte Insurance, Caminco, Asia Insurance [88751], Campubank Lonpac and Infinity Insurance, and one local reinsurer, Cambodia Reinsurance Co., which is 80% owned by the government, according to the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

Slow Development A Malaysian company is expected to open shop in Cambodia in partnership with a local company. Malaysia's Kurnia Asia Pte. Ltd. [86752] plans to set up a nonlife joint venture with Canadia Investment Holding Ltd., parent company of Canadia Bank in Cambodia.

State-owned Caminco also plans to sell its 75% shares owned by the government, and then a joint venture may be formed with a Thai insurance company and local investor.

In general, Cambodia's insurance sector is facing the dilemma of small market size to attract new entrants. Chamroeunrith said this is one factor that ultimately constrains further market development without more players. Established in 1999, Forte Insurance takes up about 50% of market share in terms of total nonlife insurance premiums in Cambodia.

Insurance companies generate a majority of insurance premiums from corporate sector's property, fire, motor and medical business lines in Cambodia. Individual premium only accounts for a very small proportion of insurance business, said Chamroeunrith.

Corporate clients are a major driver for future premium growth in the country, which just opened up the market for business in recent years, said Chamroeunrith. The government has tried to attract more direct foreign investment, and this will contribute to drive insurance demands. Cambodia attracted US$10 billion in foreign investment last year and the market should have the potential to grow, noted Chamroeunrith.

Currently, life insurance is nonexistent in Cambodia, where only 1% to 2% of the nation's 14 million population can afford insurance. License for life insurance was made available last year but there is no legislative framework laid down for investment products.

Life insurance is not developed in the Cambodia because people have little knowledge on the importance of buying insurance for protection. The lack of a regulatory framework is one obstacle but the fundamental issue is a low level of insurance awareness across the country, according to Chamroeunrith.

The World Bank identified life insurance as an important financial sector as its development can ultimately encourage public savings and drive productive investment. In this area, Cambodia has some way to go.
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Khmer Rouge 'First Lady' in Cambodia court tirade

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — The former Khmer Rouge "First Lady" launched an angry tirade at Cambodia's UN-backed genocide tribunal on Tuesday, telling her accusers they would be "cursed to the seventh circle of hell."

Ieng Thirith, 76, facing trial for crimes against humanity under the communist regime, at first told the court that defence lawyers would speak on her behalf during her appeal against detention, saying: "I am too weak."

But she later erupted at the prosecution's suggestion that she was aware of atrocities at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison while she served as social affairs minister during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-1979 rule.

"Don't accuse me of being a murderer, otherwise you will cursed to the seventh circle of hell," Ieng Thirith said in an 15-minute outburst.

"I don't know why a good person is accused of such crimes and I have suffered a great deal and I cannot really be patient because I have been wrongly accused," she said.

Alternating between English and Khmer, she said that "everything was done by Nuon Chea," the regime's top ideologue who is also among the five top cadres facing trial at the tribunal over the regime's atrocities.

Although Ieng Thirith regained enough strength for her vigorous denial, the health of the ageing suspects is an ongoing concern.

Ieng Thirith's husband, former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary, was hospitalised Monday evening for blood in his urine, court spokesman Reach Sambath said.

It was the ninth time Ieng Sary, 83, has been rushed to hospital since the pair were detained by the court in November 2007, the spokesman said.

In documents read to the court Tuesday, investigating judges argued it was necessary to keep Ieng Thirith in jail to protect her security, preserve public order and ensure she did not flee from trial.

But defence lawyer Phat Pouv Seang demanded her immediate release, saying that the investigating judges failed to provide adequate evidence.

After years of wrangling between the Cambodian government and the United Nations, the court was created in 2006 to try leading members of the Khmer Rouge regime.

The tribunal's long-awaited first trial started last week when the regime's torturer-in-chief, 66-year-old Kaing Guek Eav, better known by the alias Duch, went before the court.

Those proceedings were largely limited to lawyers arguing over the use of a film showing the Tuol Sleng prison controlled by Duch, where investigators say more than 15,000 people died.

Arguments and testimony in the case against Duch will begin March 30, according to an order signed Monday by trial chamber president Nil Nonn.

Duch's lawyer Francois Roux has said his client, who has converted to Christianity, wished to use the trial to publicly ask his victims for forgiveness.

The Khmer Rouge government oversaw one of the worst horrors of the 20th century, wiping out up to two million people through starvation, overwork and execution in a bid to forge a communist utopia.

The leader of the regime, Pol Pot, died in 1998. Ieng Thirith's sister Khieu Ponnary was married to him.

Duch's trial is expected to take around three months, and then the court is expected to mount its case against Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith, former "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, 82, and 77-year-old former head of state Khieu Samphan.

Judges are mulling opening cases against several former mid-level Khmer Rouge leaders after a dispute between the international and Cambodian co-prosecutors over whether to pursue more suspects.

International backers have appeared hesitant to pledge more money to the court after allegations of political interference by the government over whether the court will bring charges against more Khmer Rouge figures.

The tribunal has also faced controversy over claims that Cambodian staff paid kickbacks for their jobs.
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Vietnam, Cambodia eye closer inspection cooperation

Cambodia Kingdom or Vietnam Kingdom? A nobrain -Hun Xen government official is showing the world that Cambodia government is unable to draft corruption law

HANOI, A senior Cambodian official has asked for help from Vietnam’s Government Inspectorate in the training of personnel and making of laws regarding anti-corruption, complaints and denouncements.

The Cambodian Minister of National Assembly-Senate Relations and Inspections, Som Kim Sour, made the request during her talks with Vietnam ’s chief government inspector, Tran Van Truyen, in Hanoi on Feb. 23.

Som Kim Sour appreciated the Vietnamese Government Inspectorate for assistance it extended to the Cambodian ministry, as well as its operation results in the recent years.

Truyen briefed his guest on his agency’s work relating to socio-economic issues, complaints and denouncements and the fight against corruption in 2008 and directions set for this year.

Cooperative ties between the Vietnamese Government Inspectorate and the Cambodian Ministry of National Assembly-Senate Relations and Inspections is vivid evidence of the cooperation and friendship between the two countries, he stressed. (VNA)
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