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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

PM again refutes UK report purporting instability of Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has once again dismissed a UK report claiming that the kingdom is among the top five countries at high risk of political instability amid the current global economic climate, the official Agence Kampuchea Presse (AKP) said on Tuesday.

With its report, British think tank the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) possibly aimed to interrupt the foreign investment in Cambodia, the AKP quoted the premier as telling the 5th Asia Economic Forum here on Monday.

Fortunately, all the projects in Cambodia were now going ahead, and didn't retreat, he added.

The premier also revealed that the EIU had invited him to visit England in September and he still hesitated whether to accept it or not.

The recently issued EIU report classified the risk of social upheaval and political unrest as high or very high in 95 countries, as a result of the current global financial crisis. Cambodia was ranked fourth in terms of such threat.

In late March, Hun Sen had already rejected the report, saying that "we have political stability and live in peace now."

"We know that their assessment had other purposes inside," he added.
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Cambodia picks up 138 troops for UN missions in Chad, Central Africa

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia here on Tuesday declared the list of 138 troops, who will undertake UN peacekeeping missions in Chad and Central Africa, but their departure date has not been set yet.

The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) held a ceremony at the headquarters of its special armed forces in the outskirts of Phnom Penh to highlight the honor.

In late March, Prime Minister Hun Sen told a university graduation ceremony that Cambodia will send its soldiers as UN peace keepers to these two countries according to the request of the UN Secretary General.

"We already sent three groups of soldiers for mine clearance in Sudan under the UN peacekeeping umbrella," he said.

In 2006, Cambodia sent 135 deminers to Sudan for UN peacekeeping mission, and then 139 in June 2007 to replace the old ones. The deminers were renewed again in 2008.
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Ousted Thai PM Thaksin not in Cambodia: Official

PHNOM PENH, A government spokesman here on Tuesday dismissed the rumor that ousted Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra once stayed in Cambodia to carry out his political agenda.

"The Thai side heard some wrong information about Thaksin. They got the rumor about the presence of Thaksin in Cambodia. Thaksin actually didn't have any presence in our country," said Phay Siphan, secretary of state and spokesman of the Council of Ministers.

For anything that he did, Thaksin could observe his own country's law and the international law, he said.

In addition, Thailand could not order Cambodia to do this or that, because Cambodia was independent, had its sovereignty and could make any decision by itself, he added.

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya once told reporters that the bilateral ties between Thailand and Cambodia could be affected adversely, if the ousted premier was allowed to launch political attacks from Cambodia.
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Pain of Khmer Rouge Era Lost on Cambodian Youth


TRAPAENG SVA, CAMBODIA — Thirty years after the killing stopped, Cambodia suffers from a particularly painful generation gap — between those who survived the brutal rule of the Communist Khmer Rouge and their children, who know very little about it.

“I used to tell my children the stories, but they only believed a tiny bit, like nothing,” said Ty Leap, 52, who sells noodles and fruit drinks from a roadside stall. “I don’t like it, but what can you do? It really is unbelievable that those things happened.”

For nearly four years, from 1975 to 1979, the Communist Khmer Rouge caused the deaths of 1.7 million people from overwork, starvation and disease as well as torture and execution as they attempted to construct a peasant utopia.

Almost everyone here of a certain age has stories to tell of terror, abuse, hunger and the loss of family members.

“Some older people get so upset at their children for not believing that they say ‘I wish the Khmer Rouge time would happen again; then you’d believe it,”’ Mr. Ty Leap said.

As much as 70 percent of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 30, and four out of five members of this young generation know little or nothing about the Khmer Rouge years, according to a survey last fall by the Human Rights Center, University of California, Berkeley.

That ignorance — among both young and old — seems also to embrace the trials of five major Khmer Rouge figures that began last month, a process that is meant, in part, to begin a process of healing and closure.

Parts of the trial sessions are being broadcast and newspapers are carrying reports, but even in this village at the edge of a former killing field 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, south of the capital, Phnom Penh, many people said they were not aware that the hearings were under way.

“I miss some programs so I don’t know about that,” said Khieu Hong, 36, who was listening to a small transistor radio. “If you want to know about the trials you should ask the police or the old people.”

Hun Ret, 36, a cattle trader who lives nearby, said he strongly supported a trial in order to punish Khmer Rouge perpetrators. But he was surprised when he was told that the trials had already started.

Again the Berkeley study seemed to support the perception of widespread ignorance. Only 15 percent of the people it surveyed said they knew much at all about the trials, although that number is likely to have risen since the hearings began. The study was based on personal interviews with 1,000 people during the last three weeks of September.

Beyond the question of age, ignorance about the past appears to be a combination of culture and policy and perhaps also the passivity of a people too exhausted by history to confront its traumas.

The trials are being held under pressure from the United Nations and Western governments in a nation that might have preferred the approach of its prime minister, Hun Sen, who once proposed that Cambodia “dig a hole and bury the past.”

Hun Sen was a mid-level Khmer Rouge commander, though there is apparently no evidence that he committed major crimes. Several ranking members of his governing Cambodian People’s Party and of the military are also former Khmer Rouge.

Because of these cross-currents in recent Cambodian history, the Khmer Rouge period has not been taught in school, causing some teachers who are survivors to feel orphaned by their students.

A new high school textbook has been prepared but will reach only a portion of the country’s students.

“I talk to them but they don’t always believe what I tell them,“ said Kann Sunthara, 57, a chemistry teacher. “My father and husband and brother and sisters and many others died. Sometimes when I’m telling about them I have to turn my back and cry.”

Another teacher, Eam Mary, 41, who was severely tortured as a boy under the Khmer Rouge, said he can only catch the attention of his class when he tells weird stories, like the times he was forced by hunger to eat baby mice or lizards or worse.

“They say ‘Eew, disgusting!”’ he said. “And at the same time some of the kids in the back of the class are playing and not paying attention.”

The generation gap seems evident here at the former killing field, where dozens of skulls and bones have been preserved in a makeshift memorial — one of hundreds around the country — as evidence that the massacres really did happen.

Some older people say they still hear the cries of wandering ghosts whose bodies have not been properly laid to rest. “They come out at night and frighten people,” said Mr. Khieu Hong, the man with the radio. “They cry ‘Whoo, whoo!’ It sounds like somebody is being tortured and crying out.” But the children who graze cattle nearby seem deaf to the moans of ghosts.

For some of them, the bones are playthings. Sometimes they stick their fingers into the eyes of the skulls, like bowling balls. Sometimes they put them on their heads like scary caps, the children say. Sometimes they kick them.

But they seemed confused when they were asked whose skulls these were.

“They are the skulls of ghosts!” said Prok Poeuv, 11, standing near the small stupa that houses the bones. But he added that he did not know whose ghosts these were, and he said he had never heard of the Khmer Rouge.

Sok Dane, 12, said she knew a little more. “My grandmother tells me that in the Khmer Rouge time some people hit other people,” she said.

But that was all she knows, and the meaning of “Khmer Rouge time” was unclear to her.

Chhun Sam Ath 42, a mother of six who lives in a shanty beside the collection of skulls, is one of the better informed villagers. She has a glossy handout about the tribunal although she does not read very well.

She said some children here, deep in their souls, may know more about the past than they seem to.

“I think some of my children are reborn from the victims in the killing field,” she said. “When people come and leave offerings for the skulls, my daughter always runs to get the food, as if they were bringing it for her.”

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A Time of War

Was the Vietnam War 'unwinnable'?


America's most controversial war ended 34 years ago this month. There are two schools of thought about what happened in Vietnam. The version taught in colleges and textbooks is that it was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thanks to Cold War paranoia, the story goes, the U.S. wound up caught in the middle of a civil war that North Vietnam and its leader, Ho Chi Minh, were bound to win and that America and its ally, South Vietnam, were bound to lose.

The second, more recent, version, involving a re- examination of the evidence on the battlefield and at the Pentagon -- and drawing on testimony from the North Vietnamese themselves -- concludes that the U.S. military succeeded far better in Vietnam than was once supposed. The revisionist view suggests that the conflict was not only winnable but largely won by January 1973, when the Paris Peace Accords were signed compelling North Vietnam to recognize South Vietnam and to honor the border between the two countries (an agreement the North immediately violated). By then, however, the U.S. Congress refused to support South Vietnam any further. So America stood on the sidelines while a tragedy ensued and perhaps as many as two million innocent people lost their lives -- and communism won an unearned Cold War victory.

John Prados's "Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975" is, as its title suggests, an attempt to hold the barricades against the new version and resuscitate the old. Mr. Prados, a senior fellow of the National Security Archive at George Washington University and, as he tells us, once a Vietnam War protester, offers a detailed picture of a U.S. government unwilling to confront its mistakes and an American military baffled by a guerrilla insurgency. He weaves the story of the antiwar movement into his account of the war itself in an effort to show how he and other protesters grasped the futility of the war far earlier than the politicians in Washington.

Mr. Prados argues, above all, that America failed in Vietnam because it "failed to understand the Vietnamese revolution," which, in his view, was essentially a long anticolonial struggle. But the tragedy that unfolded after America left Vietnam would suggest that America's leaders, starting with Harry Truman, understood the Vietnamese "revolution" only too well, seeing Ho Chi Minh not as a nationalist but as an ideological soulmate and willing tool of both Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong -- that is, as a man prepared to extend communism's reach regardless of the cost.

In this, Ho resembled North Korea's leader, Kim Il Sung. In fact, the parallels between Korea and Vietnam become more striking over time. In both cases a Stalinist regime in the north tried to overrun its neighbor to the south; in both cases U.S. military force was deployed to fend off the aggression. Mr. Prados glosses over this part of the story, saying nothing about how the regime that took power in North Vietnam in 1954 systematically butchered its political opponents and terrorized the peasantry in ways that would prove to be frighteningly similar to those of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia 20 years later.

Mr. Prados is particularly unwilling to concede that it was the intervention of American ground troops that first halted -- and then, during the Tet Offensive of January 1968 -- finally broke the Hanoi-backed Viet Cong insurgency in the South, compelling the North Vietnamese army to pull back to its sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia. The Nixon administration's effort to smash those sanctuaries and to intensify the air war over North Vietnam was what finally forced Hanoi to the negotiating table.

Mr. Prados gives us instead a war in which the Americans can never do anything right and the communists never do anything wrong, until finally thousands of antiwar protesters, including John Kerry and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, take to the streets to force Washington and the American public to face reality and get out of Vietnam.

Far from seeing reality more clearly, however, the antiwar left constructed a fictionalized version of what was happening in Vietnam. The totalitarian Ho was portrayed as an Asian George Washington; a decisive victory like Tet was painted as an American defeat. The average American soldier was depicted as a murderous brute. Likewise, the bombing of Cambodia to prevent that country from being overrun by Hanoi -- a move that Cambodia's leaders and members of Congress knew about and approved -- was branded as secret and illegal; and the American incursion into Cambodia in 1970 to break up North Vietnamese sanctuaries and wind down the war was presented as a move that widened it.

Then, in 1975, when a massive North Vietnamese army overran the South in blatant violation of the Paris treaty and the North's former allies, the Khmer Rouge, took over Cambodia, certain members of the left celebrated the communist victory as if it were their own -- which, in political terms, it was. When Saigon fell, the headline to Sydney Schanberg's New York Times story read: "Indochina Without Americans: For Most, a Better Life."

Now we know better. We know of the 65,000 South Vietnamese murdered when Hanoi took over and of the thousands of boat people who died fleeing the communist regime and of the perhaps 250,000 who died in re-education camps. But Mr. Prados ends his book by simply pulling a veil over what ensued when America left Vietnam and the communists took over.

It is a fact that the left routinely resists, then as now: Americans fought and died in Vietnam for freedom, just as they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Whatever mistakes generals and policymakers have made along the way cannot detract from that essential truth -- which should be a part of any reliable history.

Mr. Herman's "Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age" appears in paperback later this month.
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Cambodia warned on ex-PM Thaksin

The Nation/Asia News Network

Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya warned Cambodia yesterday that bilateral ties could be adversely affected if ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra is allowed to launch political attacks from that country.

He said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was trying to verify reports that Thaksin was spotted in Cambodia.

"If Cambodia loves Thaksin that much, the ties with Thailand will certainly have problems," said Kasit.

Thaksin, who has been convicted in a corruption case, has made nightly speeches through a video link-up from overseas to his supporters gathering outside Government House. Democrat Party figure Theptai Senapong claimed he was informed that Thaksin was seen in Cambodia recently.

The foreign minister said yesterday that he had invited diplomats from various countries - including those from Latin America, the Middle East and Africa - for a meeting tomorrow when he would explain to them the Thai justice process regarding Thaksin's cases. He also would ask countries without an extradition treaty with Thailand to send back Thaksin voluntarily to face legal action.

Kasit said Thailand has informed countries with no extradition treaties with Thailand about Thaksin' status and "how he has created a crisis for the country". These states include Dubai, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

"Many countries have responded by not allowing Thaksin to use their territory in launching his attacks against Thailand," Kasit said.

Kasit was speaking at the Democrat Party headquarters while attending the celebration of the 63rd anniversary of the country's oldest political party.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva yesterday said he expected to discuss with his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen the border dispute between the two countries.

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Beyond Angkor Wat: Cambodia's Hidden Beaches

By Jeninne Lee-St. John

Most visits to Cambodia begin with the ancient temples of Angkor Wat or the Khmer Rouge's infamous killing fields just outside Phnom Penh. I'm not saying they're not worth seeing, but on our recent 10-day journey through Cambodia, we visited neither. My husband had already hiked Angkor Wat a couple of months back and, frankly, it just felt too depressing to center an entire vacation around mass murder. So we headed instead to southwestern Cambodia, to the developing coastline, in search of waterfalls and beaches. And we found the people there were just as welcoming as the landscape.

We flew into Phnom Penh International Airport and took a tuk-tuk (a motorized rickshaw) into town. It was a $5, 45-minute, open-air trip on the highway, which probably did bad things to our lungs but helped ease my motion-sickness from our wobbly descent into the airport. It also gave us a nice visual primer of the capital, which we were using only as a way station. Looking back, I would have liked at least another day in Phnom Penh to take in the culture — the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, for example — and the laid-back, late-going bar scene. As it was, we had time only for dinner at the Foreign Correspondents' Club (363 Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh; +855-23-210-142), where we also stayed the night, and to hit up a couple of bars, including Love Orange — a disco packed with teenagers cheering on the drag-queen-lip-synching show.

The next day, it was on to Koh Kong, a coastal frontier town on the Thai border, which until a couple of years ago was best accessed by boat. It is separated from the rest of Cambodia by the Cardamom Mountain range, a dense forest that houses endangered species like the Indochinese tiger and the Malayan sun bear, and used to be a Khmer Rouge stronghold. But a national highway, built with help from the Thais, including four bridges spanning rivers once crossable only by ferry, has cut the drive to Koh Kong from the capital in half — to four hours.

Koh Kong has one paved road, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it dock and an inordinate number of Germans. The main activity for travelers in this beach town is meeting other travelers. Most of the guesthouses and hostels in Koh Kong are run by Europeans and Australians (the proprietor and family usually live on-site) and are good for getting a drink, sitting in a hammock and chatting up your neighbor. They're also good for a cheap ($7 per night) room, if you can endure using a shared toilet. If not, I suggest you stay at the $35-per-night Koh Kong City Hotel (Street 1, Koh Kong; +855-35-936-777) on the waterfront, which is sparse and basic, but has decadent, memory-foam-style mattresses and private, Western-style bathrooms. The front-desk service here is lacking, but you'll sleep the sleep of the dead.

The tour outfits in Koh Kong aren't well advertised, but you can get yourself a seat on an organized excursion if you know whom to ask and don't mind surprises. We stumbled randomly on Otto, owner of a guesthouse called Otto's, on our first night in town. We went to his place for dinner (fantastic fried potatoes) and when we asked for advice on local tours, he pulled out his cell phone, dialed his friend Thomas and booked us instantly on a boat excursion for the following morning. His method was efficient, if mysterious. Even as we boarded the boat the next morning, we had no idea where we were going or what we would see.

There were eight other travelers aboard our long-tail motor boat, seven of whom were German and most of whom were staying at Thomas' guesthouse, Neptune. Thomas, also German, did the entertaining, while our Khmer captain steered with his foot and drank an Angkor brand beer. The first two hours took us south past islands dotted with stilted fishing villages painted in blues and greens and oranges, then through a mangrove forest, into the Gulf of Thailand. There we hit the jackpot: a school of dolphins jumping in the waves.

We stopped for lunch in a fishing village where Thomas had once stayed a night after being stranded at sea. He made friends with the villagers, and now returns often to introduce his tour groups. In general, as tourists, we try not to gawk at the poverty around us, but this was impossible at such close range. About 15 people lined up on the "dock" (really, a front porch) and helped us clamber from our boat over theirs and into their one-room home. There wasn't much dialogue between the groups, given that none of the tourists spoke Khmer and our hosts didn't know English, but there was much smiling and cooing at the babies, one of whom was cooling off in a pot of water. We ate stir-fried veggies and tofu with a cabbage salad cross-legged on the floor. Through the slats, you could see the water a few feet below. The hospitality was free: Thomas brought our lunch, and gave our hosts a case of beer as a token of friendship.

Another sail took us to Koh Kong Island, a dense national forest that is forbidden to recreational exploration. We dropped anchor off a deserted white-sand beach and hopped overboard into the clear, warm sea. The water was probably 70 degrees and not more than five feet deep, with gentle waves that glimmered in the late-afternoon sun. Then, sated and relaxed, we motored home.

The next day, my husband and I decided to find our own adventure. We rented a motorbike for $4 and borrowed a couple of sturdy helmets from Bob, the Australian restaurateur who runs Bob's, in town. Then we headed east about a dozen miles out of town, to check out the Tatai waterfall with two friends we had met on the boat the day before — a twentysomething German woman who was traveling solo in Asia for six months and a dreadlocked guy we called The Wanderer because when asked where he was from he said, "My last address was Berlin, but I am now a man with no address," and when we asked for his name, replied, "I don't believe in names. They are so superficial."

Tatai gushes rapids during the rainy season (May to October), but during the dry time of year the river is low and dotted with warm, fresh-water pools. Families picnicked and swam. And barefoot kids climbed up and hurled themselves off the cliffs in ways that would give most parents I know a seizure.

But the real adventure of the day was the motorbikes. The last time my husband, Keirn, had driven one was 10 years ago in the Philippines. Now that we live in Vietnam, where everyone gets around on scooters or motorbikes, we were keen to practice our driving skills and happy to do so outside of Saigon's swirling, incessant traffic.

We rode the highway, over hills, across a bridge and back. It was exhilarating. But on the dirt access road from Tatai to the highway, we hit a patch of sand and lost control of our bike. Next thing we knew, Keirn and I were lying on our sides, covered in red soil, wondering if we were still in one piece. We were. We had been traveling slowly, luckily on a dirt road not asphalt, and there were lots of people around to help us.

Everyone came running. A group of five women — our saviors — pulled their truck over just past our crash. A few of them hoisted our bike into the bed of their truck, tied it down and piled in after it. My husband and I climbed into the cab with the driver, who turned out to be the proprietress of one of the nicer guesthouses in town, Koh Kong Guest House (Street 1, Koh Kong; +855-16-654-171), and took us to a pharmacy before dropping us off at our hotel.

The Wanderer, it turned out, had trained as a nurse sometime in his mysterious past. It was another stroke of luck for us. I had gouged some holes in my hand in the accident and Keirn had a deep gash on his elbow that probably should have gotten a stitch. But we felt wary of our chances at a neighborhood clinic, so The Wanderer cleaned our wounds, patched us up, and sent us back to our comfy bed to relax.

Which is what we did for the rest of our trip. From Koh Kong, we moved on to Sihanoukville, a three-hour drive southwest. Sihanoukville, named after a former king, is billed as Vietnam's up-and-coming high-end resort town, but, for now, it is more accurately described as a beach-town-for-backpackers. Hostels are abundant here and there are a couple of nice hotels, where you can get rooms for $5 to $400, depending on your budget. We got the last room, a private bungalow, at the one real resort in town, the Sokha Beach Resort (Street 2 Thnou, Sihanoukville; +855-34-935-999;, which was nice enough, but not worth the $200-plus per night.

Sihanoukville's main public beaches, Occheuteal and Serendipity, are lined with cafes that offer lounge chairs by day and become bars night. This shoreline and the roads behind it constitute the town's most popular restaurant and nightlife area, and there's enough litter piled about to prove it. We had excellent Mexican food at the new Reef Resort (Road to Serendipity, Sihanoukville; +855-012-315-338;, a boutique hotel, and practically fell asleep afterward on the huge pillows spread out on the sand at Purple Lounge (at about the midpoint of Serendipity Beach). The town's former main drag, which is a 10-minute ride northwest of that area, is called Victory Hill. The crowd there comprises mostly older Western men and their young Cambodian companions, which is a little creepy, but we had a nice French dinner at XXL (+855-92-738-641).

We pried ourselves off the beach for one day, paying a tuk-tuk driver $30 (probably too much) for a six-hour tour of town. If you like animals, ask someone to take you to the Buddhist monastery, where the legions of wild monkeys will eat out of your hand. And definitely set aside an hour to visit Boom Boom Room (Serendipity Beach Road; +855-12-219-657), where you can load up your iPod or MP3 player with supercheap music.

Recently, Russian developers have taken an interest in Sihanoukville, helming many new projects, including Snake House (a guest house, restaurant and zoo on Mittapheap Kampuchea-Soviet Street; +855-12-673-805) and the town's most impressive bar, Airport (Krong Street; +855-34-934-470): it's an open hangar housing a real Antonov-24 turboprop plane, which makes up the club's VIP section. Airport opens onto Victory Beach, which during the day offers a small, calm, shallow shoreline without the hectic scene found on Serendipity.

Sihanoukville is Cambodia's main shipping port, so there's local wealth here as well. In five years, a handful of new resorts and several middle-class housing developments will have likely sprung up. So, if you like your beach towns simple, cheap and dirty — The Wanderer, for one, thought Sihanoukville was already too bustling — you might want to go there now.

Meanwhile, if anyone wants to visit Angkor Wat, let me know.
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