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Friday, June 12, 2009

Tim Sakhorn confident on asylum bid

Written by Holly Pham and Neth Pheaktra

AS the June 18 deadline for his asylum application draws near, Buddhist monk and human rights activist Tim Sakhorn says he is confident the United States government will grant him political asylum and allow him to settle in America.

Tim Sakhorn, an advocate for the rights of southern Vietnam's ethnic Khmer minority, popularly known as Khmer Krom, fled from Cambodia in
April and has been living at an undisclosed location in Bangkok awaiting the US government's decision, expected next week.

"I am now waiting for an official confirmation from [the UN High Commissioner for Refugees]," Tim Sakhorn said by phone from Bangkok, adding that he is going to have a meeting with officials from the US Embassy in Bangkok soon.

"I strongly believe that I deserve asylum status since the threats from the Vietnamese authorities are real."

The 41-year-old monk, who was arrested and defrocked in Cambodia in June 2007 before being deported and jailed for a year in Vietnam on charges of undermining its national unity, fled to Thailand when Vietnamese authorities allowed him to enter Cambodia on April 4 to visit
family in his native Takeo province.

"It is difficult for Khmer Krom to stay in this country: The Thai authorities will arrest as soon as they find us," Tim Sakhorn said.

"It is a bit easier for monks since they can rely on pagodas for day-to-day support, but regular Khmer Krom have a hard time even finding shelter or paying for food. Khmer Krom will face serious problems if the UN fails to recognise our rights to refuge," Tim Sakhorn said.

The Bangkok office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has granted temporary refugee status to five Khmer Krom monks, allowing them to stay in Thailand pending the approval of an asylum bid to other countries.

Ang Chanrith, executive director of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Human Rights Organisation, said the UNHCR is expected to release the official verdict on Tim Sakhorn's case on Thursday, while the refugee status of the other five Khmer monks will be finalised by early July.

He said Thailand is now a temporary home for more than 200 Khmer Krom currently applying for residence in third countries.

Since early 2009, the UNHCR has helped four Khmer Krom refugees obtain political asylum in the United States, while an additional 71 have received temporary refugee status and are waiting to move on to another country.

Worsening situation
Thach Setha, president of Khmer Kampuchea Krom Association, said the rapid increase in the number of Khmer Krom refugees in Thailand was due to the series of protests against rights abuses committed by the Vietnamese authorities in 2007 and 2008.

"Even after having fled to Cambodia, [the Khmer Krom] are not safe. The Vietnamese authorities continue to track them down here. This is why they must seek asylum in another country," he said.

In a report on the Khmer Krom issued in January, Human Rights Watch recorded the "severe and often shrouded" methods used by the Vietnamese government to stifle freedom of religion and other basic rights of the Khmer minority in the Mekong Delta.

The US Embassy in Bangkok could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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Crisis poses added hurdles to elimination of child labour

Written by khouth Sophak Chakrya
and Christopher Shay

OU Kunthear, 19, is one of tens of thousands of garment workers in Cambodia who have lost their jobs as factories across the Kingdom have shut down as a result of the economic crisis.

As a garment worker, Ou Kunthear would regularly send US$30 back to her family in Kampong Speu province. Since losing her factory job, she can no longer send remittances, leaving her parents too poor to pay for food.

In response, her parents have taken her younger siblings - all under the age of 15 - out of school and forced them to work washing clothes and making charcoal.

"I pity my younger siblings, because they should be learning. They should not be working over charcoal stoves or washing stations," she said.

The eighth World Day Against Child Labour, observed today, marks the 10th anniversary of the adoption of an International Labour Organisation convention stressing the need to end the worst forms of child labour.
As the global economic crisis has hit Cambodia, however, pressure has mounted on families to pull their children out of school and push them into the workforce, experts said.

According to a statement released Thursday, ChildFund Australia estimated that 40 percent of all children aged between 7 and 17 years are currently engaged in some form of child labour.

But the ILO has said that efforts from the government and donors could help transform the crisis into a catalyst for the elimination of the worst forms of child labour in Cambodia.

"The economic downturn is one of the most unexpected, hardest challenges impacting child labour. But the downturn - even though it's a threat - can be turned into an opportunity," said Joseph Menacherry, the chief technical adviser at the ILO's International Program on the Elimination of Child Labour.

When the construction sector was growing rapidly, there was a sharp increase in demand for child labour, Menacherry said. As the boom goes bust, there are fewer jobs available to children, he said.

"This gives us an opportunity to be able to put into place sufficient awareness, sufficient sensitivity and sufficient mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement, so that once the economy starts to go up, we will be able to ensure that children do not go back to this hazardous construction sector," he said.




Menacherry said that eliminating child labour during an economic crisis has the added benefit of opening up jobs for adults, allowing more families to preserve their incomes and keep their children in school.

"Why are we sending children to work when there is an economic crisis? When there is an economic crisis we should be pulling children out of work and making sure adults go there," he said.

At the moment, however, the crisis is forcing more children into the worst forms of child labour, said Haidy Ear-Dupuy, advocacy and communications manager for World Vision Cambodia.

"Many workers have lost their jobs and seen their income drop," Ear-Dupuy said, adding that this has led many parents to force their children to find jobs.

Menacherry said the number of children working in hard labour conditions in Cambodia had grown from an estimated 250,000 in 2002 to about 300,000 this year.

Promoting economic growth
Child labour is one of the major hurdles Cambodia must clear if it is to achieve sustained economic growth in the future, said Bill Salter, director of the ILO's sub-regional office for Southeast Asia.

"Child labour has to be tackled in Cambodia - not only as a social issue, but also as an issue of human resource development that can help the economic growth of the country," he said.

The ILO, with the help of the World Bank and UNICEF, is finalising estimates of how much funding would be necessary to eliminate the worst forms of child labour in Cambodia.

Menacherry said the task would cost "not more than US$100 million", adding that he viewed the figure as "modest".

Even though child labour has increased over the last seven years, Menacherry said, the ILO's goal to end the worst forms of child labour in Cambodia by 2016 was "extremely realistic" if sufficient resources were made available.

In work, out of school
Knut Harald Ulland, country director for Save the Children, said the economic crisis could cause more teachers to begin collecting informal fees, which would make more families unable to send their children to school.

"Because teachers have felt the impact of the crisis, school fees may have increased" already, he said, calling informal school fees the biggest obstacle to education in Cambodia.

"As long as teachers don't have a living salary, it's difficult to crack down on," he added.

Four years ago, informal fees drove Ran Rin, 12, out of the classroom and into a salt-production job in Kampot province. He told the Post this week that he left school because his family could not afford the fees charged by his teachers.

"Poverty was the obstacle for my studies.... If teachers do not demand money from their students, then children of poor families like me would not have to drop out," he said.
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7 ancient treasures returned to Cambodia

Statues from 12th century Angkorian era include heads of Hindu god Shiva

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, second right, and Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, left, stand by a piece from Cambodian artifacts of the Angkorian era during a ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - Thailand returned seven treasures from Cambodia's Golden Age to its neighbor Friday as the countries pledged to prevent further smuggling of antiquities.

The statues from the 12th century Angkorian era, including six heads of the Hindu god Shiva, were handed to Cambodian officials during an official one-day visit by Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Thai authorities seized them from smugglers in 1999.

Widespread looting of Cambodia's ancient temples has occurred in recent decades, with many items smuggled into Thailand for sale on the international antiques markets or to private collectors.

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Plane hitch delays Thai PM's return from Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – The return of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva from a one-day official trip to Cambodia was delayed Friday by problems with his plane.

The chief of police at Phnom Penh's international airport, Chay Bunna, said late Friday night that that a new plane was being sent from Thailand to pick up the prime minister and his delegation, after their 9:20 p.m. departure was delayed.

"The technicians at the airport said that his plane has a very minor technical problem, so we insisted that he delay his flight schedule," said Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong.

Chay Bunna identified the aircraft, on which repairs were being made, as an Embraer 145. He said that Abhisit's party first waited at the airport for the aircraft to be fixed, but drove back to the city to wait further after it was decided to fly in a replacement plane.

It was not immediately known when the new flight would depart.

Abhisit met with Prime Minister Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihamoni during his visit, his first to the neighboring country since he became prime minister in December. He also held talks with Thai businessmen and visited a hospital.
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Malaria is more deadly than swine flu

Perhaps the alarm caused over swine flu will help us empathise with the victims of other diseases that are killing millions

It is no mean feat to knock Ronaldo off the front pages, especially when the self-regarding Portuguese footballer has just broken the club record for a transfer fee. But yesterday the World Health Organisation's Margaret Chan achieved just that by declaring the first influenza pandemic in 40 years.

Never mind that to date H1N1 swine flu has killed just 144 people worldwide. With 1,300 cases now being reported in Australia, and simultaneous community outbreaks in Chile, Japan and the United States, Chan said scientists had concluded that transmission was "unstoppable" – hence the decision to declare a maximum pandemic alert at level six.

The subtext of Chan's message was that this was no time for complacency: with the winter flu season in Australia now well underway, hospital admissions in Melbourne have quadrupled in recent weeks. If the virus maintains its present level of virulence then experts are predicting that a third of the British population could be infected this autumn and as many as 36,000 could die – about three times as many as in a normal flu season.

But "could" is not the same as "will", and looking round the world you will find many more mortal and, arguably, more present threats to global health. Take HIV/Aids, for instance, a disease that has been pandemic, or at least has been spreading at epidemic levels in Africa, for 30 years. In 2007, the latest year for which figures are available, Aids-related illness killed 2 million people worldwide, including 270,000 children. But because two-thirds of the 33 million people annually infected with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa and the remainder belong, by and large, to discrete "high-risk" groups such as intravenous drug users, HIV no longer blips on our radar screens.

Or take malaria. I have just returned from western Cambodia, where scientists are now reporting the first signs of parasite resistance to the world's current frontline anti-malarial, artemisinin. Malaria, along with diarrhoeal diseases and pneumonia, is one of the leading causes of infant mortality in Cambodia. And in Uganda and other high malaria transmission countries in Africa, it is also a major killer of pregnant women (the WHO estimates that some 3,000 people a day die from malaria in sub-Saharan Africa every day, the majority of them women and children).

Unlike influenza, as yet we have no vaccine against malaria. Indeed, artemisinin is currently the best, and in some parts of the world, the only effective treatment against the deadliest strains of the parasitical disease. In other words, if resistance to artemisinin spreads worldwide – as occurred with choloroquine in the 1960s – then we have nothing else in the locker. This may not matter to you now: but it could well matter to you if you travel to Kenya and the prophylactic your GP has prescribed fails, or if your child is hospitalized with falciparum malaria during his or her gap-year travels.

Yet as with HIV, malaria strains our empathy. "When one has fought a war, one hardly knows what a dead person is," wrote Albert Camus in The Plague. "And if a dead man has no significance unless one has seen him dead, a hundred million bodies spread through history are just a mist drifting through the imagination."

Or as a taxi driver in York put it en route to York University's biology department – where scientists are currently breeding high-yielding strains of Artemisia Annua, the plant from which artemisinin is derived, to produce sufficient quantities of the drug for Cambodia – "Unless it affects someone in my family, why should I care?"

H1N1 of course could affect that taxi driver's family and the families of millions of Britons like him. Unlike seasonal strains of influenza, which are usually only dangerous to infants and the over-65s, H1N1 swine flu – like the 1918 H1N1 "Spanish" influenza virus – appears to be hitting the under-25s hardest, hence the importance of WHO's declaration yesterday and the stepping-up of vaccine production before the autumn (at present, experts predict there will only be enough vaccine to inoculate half the British population).

Yet, for all the concern about an influenza pandemic, we should keep in mind that WHO's announcement was first and foremost an exercise in risk assessment: a signal to governments who have yet to activate their pandemic plans to pull their fingers out. Its use of the term is also the reflection of changing definitions. In the past, WHO defined an influenza pandemic as causing "enormous numbers of deaths and illness". By contrast, the current definition requires only "community-level outbreaks" in two continents at the same time – a test that was actually met several weeks ago.

That WHO has delayed announcing the inevitable until now is an indication of how worried United Nations member states have become of fuelling panic at a time when the world economy is just beginning to shown faltering signs of recovery from the credit crunch. But while Chan recognised there was a danger of people overreacting, she argued that the greater danger was "complacency". She also warned that while a level six pandemic alert did not mean the virus was becoming more dangerous or that we should expect to see an increase in mortality in developed nations, there was no telling how H1N1 would behave "under conditions typically found in the developing world".

If panicking about an influenza pandemic can help us empathise with the plight of the invisible victims of infectious diseases and make those global health connections, so much the better. Like the HIV virus and drug-resistant malaria parasites, H1N1 is no respecter of borders. And whether we drive a taxi in York or live in a mud hut in Yemen, we can be bitten at any time.
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