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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cambodian hotel is a poster child for responsible tourism

By Michael Wuitchuk, For the Calgary Herald

Think of Egypt, and the great pyramids come to mind. With France it is wine and the odd surly waiter, while London and Big Ben go together like a pint and fish and chips.

OK, now think of Thailand and Cambodia; do you think of beaches and the Angkor temples? Perhaps, especially if you stay within the tourist bubble. Look a little closer and it's not difficult to get the impression that Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have an apparently endless supply (and demand) for massage parlours and poorly disguised brothels.

The Calgary-based NGO, Future Group, has reported that the most conservative number of prostitutes and sex slaves in Cambodia alone is between 40,000 and 50,000, and higher estimates range between 80,000 and 100,000.

Many of the children are from communities so poor that girls and boys as young as six are actually sold to brothels by their own families.

The dark underbelly of southeast Asia is all the more reason to take responsible tourism seriously. If you go, consider taking a proactive approach.

On a recent trip to Cambodia, my son Daniel and I discovered that you can be an active witness to the magnificence of the region and still leave a positive footprint. Amazingly, we accomplished this not by joining an aid organization, but by staying at a hotel.

The Shinta Mani Hotel and Hospitality Institute is a lovely 18-room boutique hotel in Siem Reap. Facilities include spacious and well-appointed rooms, an atmospheric outdoor restaurant and air-conditioned indoor dining room, and a spa with the elegance and serenity one would expect of a five-star property.

Although the Shinta Mani is loaded with class and charm, there is a heart and soul to this place that was apparent from the moment we were greeted by the smiling young staff.

As responsible tourism goes, this hotel is a poster child.

Owner Sokhoun Chanpreda founded the Hospitality Training Institute in 2004 -- the first class of 21 young people selected from the poorest of families graduated in 2005.

Students, all of whom were considered "at risk" due to extreme poverty, can choose between cooking, serving, housekeeping, reception and spa services -- each are taught in nine-month modules.

The school is funded entirely with hotel funds and donations from guests and others from overseas.

We were so impressed with the Hospitality Training Institute that we extended our stay to accompany Theany, the hotel's "community liason officer," on one of her forays into the many poor villages around Siem Reap.

We drove in the hotel pickup truck loaded with treadle sewing machines, backpacks filled with school supplies, bags of rice, vegetable seeds and a bicycle -- and watched Theany and her staff do aid work, Shinta Mani style.

The model is simple -- use the labours of salaried hotel staff (who are dedicated to giving their time -- the communities are, after all, their own communities), donate $5 from every guest night to the community program, and provide an opportunity for guests to both see the program in action and donate to specific projects. Among the range of options, guests can contribute a mechanical water well ($100), a pair of pigs ($80) or even a small concrete house ($1,250).

We visited villages that had been working with the Shinta Mani staff for some time, and some that were new to the community program.

The villages that had received water wells had well maintained vegetable plots and a few small concrete houses -- in these communities the women and children turned out in numbers, their hands extended in prayerful thanks.

In a village new to the Shinta Mani program, we met a family that had been recently chosen to receive a well -- their entire worldly possessions were the clothes on their backs and a tired set of cooking pans.

These people and their neighbours seemed both desperate and skeptical -- they were clearly not used to receiving aid or good news of any kind.

Later, while sitting in the hotel's lovely outdoor restaurant, general manager and Sri Lankan ex-pat Chitra Vincent told us that Shinta Mani means "the gem that provides for all" in Sanskrit -- the place could not be better named.

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Cambodia’s Coastal Revival

In Cambodia, where a decade-long tourism boom has been driven almost entirely by safe and easy access to the ancient Angkor Wat temples, the rebirth of a seaside resort town is helping to lure visitors to the country’s long-neglected coastline.

The sleepy town of Kep on the south-east coast has been earmarked as Cambodia’s first boutique tourism destination, but for now, it bares few of the characteristics of the countless backpacker meccas and resorts scattered throughout Southeast Asia.

Tourist numbers have surged in recent years, but this town of just a few thousand people has maintained its unhurried, pastoral character.

Unlike Sihanoukville, a lively huddle of guest houses, bars and nightclubs on the central coast, Kep seems to be taking a relaxed path toward developing its tourism sector.

But with its alluringly lush rainforests, crystalline waters and bountiful seafood, Kep is finding that the tourists don’t need much encouragement.

A three-hour drive from the capital Phnom Penh, Kep has become a favorite weekend retreat for expatriates and Cambodia’s burgeoning middle class.

The town is only 20 minutes from a recently opened Vietnamese border crossing, making it a perfect place to say hello or goodbye to Cambodia.

“They told us to expect fewer tourists in Cambodia this year,” a local taxi driver says. “But more and more come here every week, to see the mountains and the caves, and of course, to eat.”

Kep’s famous crabs were among the many treasures that helped the town become a playground for Cambodia’s French rulers in the early 20th century. Along with former king and independence leader Norodom Sihanouk, the French elite built dozens of mansions in the hills along the coastline and sailed their yachts in the calm, protected waters in the Gulf of Thailand.

But like many regions in Cambodia, Kep was ravaged by the United States’ secret bombing campaign during the Indo-Chinese War and was forcibly evacuated during the Khmer Rouge’s rule.

The ultra-communist group considered the town a symbol of bourgeois hedonism and colonial oppression, and destroyed most of its infrastructure.

Kep lay dormant for more than a decade, and the scars of its troubled past are still visible among the poor local population and neglected amenities.

The seaside villas left standing have become overgrown with vines and tree trunks and now only the smallest of fishing boats can dock in the once-bustling port.

But Kep’s striking beauty has not paled despite years of conflict, neglect and civil war. Guesthouses and hotels catering to all budgets have been built along the coast, including the exclusive Knai Banh Chatt hotel, which boasts views of the imposing Bokor Mountain from its infinity pool.

While the town has no beach and is separated from the sea by a strip of coarse red stones, a cheap 30 minute boat ride to Koh Thonsay, known as Rabbit Island, reveals one of Cambodia’s unspoilt, pristine beaches.

Budget accommodation is compulsory, as the island’s only available beds are housed in palm-wood bungalows, which can be rented for between $7 and $10 per night. The bungalows’ power generators are switched off at 10 p.m. and as the fluorescent lights along the beach fade, a spectacular night sky is revealed.

But Kep’s greatest attraction may well be the variety of seafood on offer in the restaurants and stalls downtown. Crabs cooked with local pepper sell for between $3 and $10, and grilled fish on skewers cost less than $5. For the more adventurous, or rather less eco-conscious, grilled sea horse is also available.

Driving past the various building sites, road workers and bulldozers on the road out of town, one gets the impression that the place is on the verge of a tourism storm.

A good road now runs straight to the nearby riverside town of Kampot, which is enjoying its own tourism rebirth, and there are signs of a coastal tourism trail emerging.

So as travellers look for cheaper tropical escapes in Southeast Asia, now might be the time to experience Kep and beat the rush.

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Cambodia, Vietnam re-affirm their vows

By Stephen Kurczy

PHNOM PENH - In 1977, a low-level Khmer Rouge cadre entered Vietnam from Cambodia
during a cross-border raid. He was captured, detained and interrogated by Vietnamese military intelligence. With information gleaned from the skinny, young communist, Vietnam began planning a major counterattack on Cambodia after a series of Khmer Rouge massacres on its territory.

His name was Hun Sen, and he was soon joined in Vietnam by other Khmer Rouge cadres fleeing the internal purges led by Pol Pot, then the radical Maoist group's leader. Heng Samrin, who headed the Khmer Rouge's Eastern Zone Fourth Division, defected and brought with him some 2,000 to 3,000 troops, while Chea Sim, an Eastern Zone district chief, is known to have escorted some 300 people across the Vietnamese border.

All three men assumed control of Cambodia on January 7, 1979, after Vietnamese forces sacked Phnom Penh, ousted the Khmer Rouge and installed them as the leaders of a puppet government. They ruled during a subsequent decade-long Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia that heightened the traditional animosity between the nations.

Thirty years later, Chea Sim is president of the Senate and number one in the ruling and dominant Cambodian People's Party (CPP). Hun Sen, the country's long-running prime minister, is the party's second highest-ranking member. Heng Samrin is president of the National Assembly and number three in the CPP.

Despite Cambodia's transition from a single-party Leninist state to multi-party constitutional monarchy, members of the CPP currently assume every ministerial position and control three-fourths of the National Assembly's seats. The CPP maintains close ties with Vietnam, bonds that have strengthened as Cambodia looks east for a political ally and trade partner while links to Thailand come under strain from a border conflict and political protests that have targeted Hun Sen's government.

"Politically speaking, it is a very unique, special relationship," said Cambodian political observer Chea Vannath. "Vietnam still plays big brother whenever the CPP needs it."

In recent months there has been a flurry of bilateral exchanges. Vietnam announced its intention to strengthen ties during a January visit by Heng Samrin to Hanoi, where he met with Vietnamese Party General Secretary Nong Duc Manh and President Nguyen Minh Triet. Both Vietnamese leaders said that they prioritized relations with their smaller neighbor.

"Vietnam and Cambodia were side-by-side with each other in the past struggle for national independence, therefore it is necessary for today's generation to continue this solidarity to ensure further development," Triet said, according to the government-run Vietnam News Agency (VNA).

In February, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung highlighted recent collaboration between the two countries across many disciplines, including politics, diplomacy, economics, trade, culture, arts, technology, security and defense. That same month, Vietnamese military-owned mobile phone company Viettel inaugurated its cell phone service in Cambodia after giving away some one million free SIM cards to Cambodia's students and armed forces.

According to VietNamNet, Viettel has already signed up 500,000 subscribers, making it Cambodia's third largest mobile phone provider. On February 21, Vietnam's defense minister paid a visit to Hun Sen and pledged to continue to provide training for Cambodian soldiers in Vietnam, including over 100 in residence at Vietnam's infantry academy.

Hun Sen on Sunday applauded 21 high-ranking officers of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, including Commander-in-Chief Pol Saroeun and Deputy Commander-in-Chief Kun Kim, for earning degrees in military science from Vietnamese military institutes. According to VietNamNet, Hun Sen also thanked Vietnam for helping to protect Cambodia's national defense and economic development.

Hun Sen in February also met twice with a Thai military delegation, but their meetings focused on the heated border dispute and Thailand's supposedly accidental firing of artillery into Cambodia earlier that month, rather than collaborative opportunities.

In early March, Cambodia and Vietnam quietly planted the 281st border marker at the edge of Cambodia's Takeo province, reflecting Hun Sen's ongoing policy to quickly demarcate the two countries' contentious eastern border. That marks a difference from the political opposition, which has frequently criticized Hun Sen as being Hanoi's puppet. In 1996, bilateral tensions flared when then-first prime minister Norodom Ranariddh said a military solution "may be found" to Vietnam's alleged annexing of Cambodia's eastern lands.

Shifting borders
Hun Sen has insisted that border problems with Vietnam would be solved through peaceful means. Controversy erupted in 2005 when under a veil of secrecy the CPP-controlled National Assembly ratified a supplement to Cambodia's 1985 border treaty with Vietnam. At the time, Hun Sen threatened to sue anyone who accused him of ceding land to Vietnam. Criticism of the treaty earned several persons, including a prominent opposition radio host, jail time on charges of defamation and incitement.

Soon after the recent border agreement, Vietnam's parliamentary vice president met in mid-March with Hun Sen, Chea Sim and Heng Samrin to call for stronger economic ties. In that vein, on March 16, Hun Sen met with Vietnam's Minister of Industry and Commerce and Cambodia announced that its citizens no longer need visas to enter Vietnam and vice-versa. The next day, Vietnamese Minister of Public Security Le Hong Anh and Cambodian Minister of Interior Sar Kheng signed a 2009 cooperation accord.

Anh also visited Hun Sen and laid a wreath at the Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship Monument, a prominent structure in the center of Phnom Penh that abuts Hun Sen Park. No similar Thai-Cambodia friendship monument exists in Phnom Penh. On March 30, Cambodian Information Minister Khieu Kanharith visited Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in Hanoi, where the two pledged to "promote the dissemination of information, helping to boost bilateral cooperation and refute hostile forces' slanderous allegations".

"We are trying to strengthen the bilateral cooperation that we've had since long ago," said Koy Kuong, an undersecretary of state at the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Between Cambodia and Vietnam, we have a long [history of] friendship and cooperation." Koy Kuong dismisses suggestions that Cambodia's current border dispute with Thailand over land surrounding the ancient Preah Vihear temple has prompted Cambodia to replace declining trade and diplomatic relations to Thailand with more robust ties to Vietnam.

A skirmish between Thai and Cambodian troops last October at Preah Vihear temple left two Cambodian troops dead. Another flare-up in early April this year resulted in the death of one Thai soldier. Fanning those flames, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya in March referred to Hun Sen as a "gangster" in the local media. When Hun Sen demanded an apology, Kasit re-phrased his insult by calling Hun Sen "a gentleman who has the heart of a gangster", but he later issued a written formal apology.

Relations have been strained due to Hun Sen's perceived close friendship with deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is in self-imposed exile and was instrumental in stirring the recent street chaos caused by his anti-government supporters. Asia Times Online broke the news last week that pro-Thaksin groups had for the past two years funneled arms through Cambodia to Thaksin-aligned supporters in Thailand's northeastern provinces.
Democracy at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, said recently by e-mail. As a result, he added, Cambodian businessmen are reluctant to invest in and trade with Thailand.

Trade between Vietnam and Cambodia jumped 31% compared to the previous year in 2008, to nearly $1.7 billion. Bilateral trade with Thailand is still larger, but only increased 17% to $2 billion in 2008. Vietnamese goods dominate Cambodian markets, and in 2007 and 2008 Cambodians bought more Vietnamese consumer goods than they did products from any other country, VNA reported in early April. Sales of Vietnamese products to Cambodian consumers totaled $988 million in 2008, compared to $674 million of Thai goods.

"All the local investors here want to do business with Vietnam, and all the Vietnamese businesses want to do business here," said Cambodia Chamber of Commerce President Nguon Meng-Tech. "If relations are good from one government to another, that's better than with another government with problems at the border ... I don't think [Cambodian] businesses will do much business with Thailand."

Opportunistic diplomacy
Vietnam is bidding to take competitive advantage of Thailand's internal political upheaval and simmering border conflict to replace it as Cambodia's primary trade partner, said parliamentarian Sam Rainsy, the leader of Cambodia's largest opposition party and a frequent critic of Hun Sen's ties to Hanoi.

"This is part of a larger geopolitical play in this region - the current tension with Thailand benefits Vietnam, as Vietnam can increase its influence over Cambodia," said Rainsy, who likens the situation to 2003 when Hun Sen's comments alleging that a Thai actress had claimed the Angkor Wat temple belonged to Thailand prompted anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh.

Cambodians burned the Thai Embassy and vandalized Thai businesses, causing millions of dollars in damage. "Trade from Thailand declined [in 2003] and Vietnam got a stronger political influence over Cambodia ... The armed conflict at the border is having the same effect, but more prolonged," said Rainsy. He believes pro-Vietnam elements within the CPP inflamed anti-Thai sentiment to "weaken relations with Thailand, including commercial relations, and boost relations with Vietnam".

Cambodian government officials aligned with the CPP downplay those criticisms. The recent flurry of diplomatic and commercial agreements is "nothing special", said Cambodia's Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan. Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith also disputes this is an unusual trend. "If there was increased cooperation with Vietnam, it would bring suspicion from China and the United States," Kanharith said.

Scholar Kheang Un counters that neither the US nor China, nor even Thailand, are particularly concerned by stronger Cambodia-Vietnam relations. "None of these three countries see Vietnam as a threat to their national security as they did during the Cold War era, during which they viewed Vietnam as Moscow's agent in Southeast Asia," he said. "[A]s soon as Thai politicians put their house in order, Thai-Khmer relations will normalize."

Some human rights groups remain apprehensive about Cambodia's shift east, as the country's alleged mistreatment of ethnic Montagnard and Khmer Krom minorities has shown that Cambodia is willing to take instruction from its larger, wealthier neighbor. The Montagnards, ethnic hilltribe people living in the highlands of central Vietnam, have for years entered Cambodia seeking asylum with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees only to be forced back into Vietnam by Cambodian authorities.

In addition, the six million ethnic Cambodians living in Vietnam's southern Mekong Delta area, known as the Khmer Krom, have been targeted and in some cases imprisoned by Vietnamese authorities for practicing Buddhism. They have also faced oppression from the Cambodian government for protesting their treatment in Vietnam. Human Rights Watch, a US-based rights advocacy group, said Hanoi has an active agenda to monitor, infiltrate, and silence Khmer Krom activists.

"Our government would like so much to please the Vietnamese government," said Kek Galabru, the founder of local human rights advocacy group LICADHO. She first met Hun Sen in 1983 in Angola, where her late husband was serving as the French ambassador. She invited Hun Sen to her home, and the then young foreign minister convinced her he "was not a Vietnamese puppet", she told journalist Elizabeth Becker in the book When the War was Over.

"Now, my opinion is different," Galabru recently told Asia Times Online. "Since I came to Cambodia in 1992, I can see that things are run differently."

Rights groups point to the case of Tim Sakhorn, a Khmer Krom monk who distributed bulletins and organized protests demanding Vietnamese authorities compensate Khmer Krom for allegedly stealing their farmland. He was defrocked by Cambodian authorities in 2007 and deported to Vietnam, where he was jailed on charges of "undermining solidarity" between the two countries. He has since sought asylum in Buddhist-majority Thailand.

"Who gave the order to disrobe Tim Sakhorn? What wrong did he do but to shout when there were violations of the Khmer Krom?" said Son Soubert, a member of Cambodia's Constitutional Council and the son of former Cambodian premier Son Sann. The gag on public demonstrations against Vietnam, he said, is one clear marker of Hanoi's 30-year supervision of the CPP. "You don't see [Vietnam's] presence, but they're present ... You can accuse me of being biased or paranoid, but in the eyes of Cambodians, that's the reality."

While the Cambodian army defends against Thai soldiers crossing into territory near Preah Vihear temple, Son Soubert said in comparison that 89,000 square kilometers of Mekong Delta land is occupied by Vietnam that arguably belonged to Cambodia until 1949, when the colonial French National Assembly formally ceded it to Vietnam. He said the current border skirmish with Thailand distracts from Vietnam's more serious border infringements, which as a matter of policy are overlooked by Hun Sen's allegedly Vietnam-aligned government.

Real or imagined, Soubert contends that sentiment is spreading, evident in a joke now making the rounds in Phnom Penh. Spoken in the voice of a Vietnamese, the nationalistic jab goes: "The Thais are stupid because they try to steal a stone," referring to the Preah Vihear temple. "We are smarter, we just steal the land."

Stephen Kurczy is an Asia Times Online contributor based in Cambodia. He may be reached at
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Khmer Rouge defendant: Pol Pot feigned ignorance


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot was lying when he said he was unaware that his 1970s communist regime operated a torture center, the man accused of running it testified Wednesday.

Kaing Guek Eav told Cambodia's U.N.-assisted genocide tribunal, which is trying him for crimes against humanity, war crimes, murder and torture, that he knew of no document authorizing the notorious prison, but that "whatever Pol Pot decided everybody had to implement."

An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died under the 1975-79 communist Khmer Rouge regime from forced labor, starvation, medical neglect and executions.

Kaing Guek Eav, 66, better known by his alias Duch, commanded Phnom Penh's S-21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng, where as many as 16,000 people are believed to have been tortured before being sent to their deaths.

Pol Pot said in a 1997 interview he knew nothing of the prison.

According to the interview by U.S. journalist Nate Thayer for the magazine Far Eastern Economic Review, Pol Pot claimed that S-21 was set up for propaganda purposes by the Vietnamese, who invaded the country and toppled his regime in 1979. Pol Pot died in 1998.

Duch said that he decided to talk about S-21 to journalists who found him in hiding in 1999 because he could not bear Pol Pot's false account.

"Pol Pot claimed that S-21 was a fabrication of the Vietnamese. I rejected Pol Pot's statement on this topic," he said.

According to Duch, even though there was no written order establishing the prison, "Pol Pot was the one who initiated the idea, Son Sen implemented it and Nuon Chea is the one who did the follow up. This is from my observation and from the surviving documents."

Son Sen was the Khmer Rouge military commander, killed under murky circumstance by his comrades as the group fell apart in 1997. Nuon Chea, the group's ideologist, is one of the four other senior Khmer Rouge being held for trial by the tribunal.

In other testimony Wednesday, Duch said that "Christ" led British journalist Nic Dunlop to discover him after he had disappeared and went underground in 1979.

Duch became a teacher and a born-again Christian after leaving the Khmer Rouge and gave lengthy accounts of his work to Dunlop and a U.N. human rights investigator before turning himself in to Cambodian authorities.

Duch is the first senior Khmer Rouge figure to face trial, and the only one to acknowledge responsibility for his actions. The other four in custody are likely to be tried in the next year or two.

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