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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Charitable Elizabeth back for more PCA action

By Rebekah Mercer

Winning a satellite to get into the PCA main event is very difficult to do against huge fields of experienced pros, some with million dollar online poker bankrolls. Doing it once is very difficult. Doing it two years running is bucking all the odds -- especially if you're a woman.

Last year Elizabeth Bennett-Martin was one of only 14 women in the entire tournament and one of seven female online qualifiers. She won a $24 satellite to get there. Let me say that one more time -- one of 14 women in a tournament field of 1,347 players. Although an occasional player for four years, this was her first major event and netted her $40,000 for 25th place. She's back again this year, competing against a horde of internet whiz kids and seasoned pros. My money is on her to make it happen again.

I talked to Elizabeth about her two-time satellite win and her plans for the PCA. She's very excited to be coming back to the Atlantis to enjoy a week-long holiday with her family, although if it goes according to plan, they will be on their own for a good part of it. They will most likely be enjoying the pools and slides, the aquarium exhibits, and the endless activities at the Atlantis while she sweats it out in the windowless cavern of a poker room at the Atlantis. She plans to be there every day of her vacation for ten to twelve hours a day - if she makes it to the final table. She wouldn't have it any other way. She's a poker player, and she comes to win. But she also comes to give back.

A portion of her winnings from this year's tournament are designated for a charity which provides funds for education and housing for young women in Cambodia. The charity was formed through Bennett-Martin's law firm, Bennett Gastle P.C. in Toronto, along with the help of her firm's partner, Charles Gastle, and his wife Ruth. The focus of the charity is to provide educational assistance and living expenses to help young women in Cambodia attend law school, and escape a life of poverty. The Cambodian Legal Education for Women (CLEW) was formed to help the women who live in extremely deprived, cramped conditions and sleep on mats on a bare floor. The dormitory has no furniture or cooking facilities, other than hot plates. These women hope to become lawyers to assist a population where legal help is extremely rare (in 2009 there were only 538 lawyers for a population of over 14 million people). For more information on CLEW, see their web site here

Elizabeth plans to give a portion of her winnings from the main event to the charity if she cashes. In addition, she plans to play the Ladies Event at the PCA this year, and she has designated all of the winnings from that event to go directly to the charity. This is the first year for the Ladies Tournament, and Elizabeth is excited to be a part of the inaugural event and to participate in an event that promotes women in the game.

If you get a chance to chat with Elizabeth at the PCA, she will tell you more about the charity and maybe she will share a few secrets that helped her make it two years running. But I wouldn't count on the secrets part. She didn't get this far by giving away too much -- except when it comes to helping other women who are in need.

You can here more from Elizabeth thanks to this video interview with her at last year's PCA...
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With new year, Kingdom joins world’s largest FTA

A vendor sells vegetables in a Phnom Penh market. Officials hope a China-ASEAN free trade deal will boost agricultural exports.

Cambodia has until 2015 to drop tariffs under the terms of a major regional free trade deal that takes effect today, but the alliance’s likely impact on the Kingdom is still far from certain.

TODAY marks the launch of two major free trade deals in Asia, paving the way for Cambodia to axe the majority of tariffs on imports from China and countries in the ASEAN region by 2015.

As the clock struck midnight today, Cambodia became part of the newly formed ASEAN-China Free Trade Area.

Encompassing an estimated 1.7 billion consumers, the new free trade area sees the removal of duties on 90 percent of goods traded between the founding six Asean members and the People’s Republic of China.

From today, Cambodia – which joined Asean in 1999 – will gradually reduce its levies with China until most goods become duty-free in 2015.

Midnight also marked the launch of freer trade between the ASEAN-6 nations. More than 7,000 trade tariffs were lowered to nil, enabling 99.11 percent of all goods to cross the borders of Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand for free.

As part of the Common Effective Preferential Tariffs for Asean Free Trade Area, launched in 1993, Cambodia will reduce many of its tariffs to 5 percent this year, before lowering them to zero in 2015.

Businessmen and officials throughout the Kingdom are considering the impact of the moves, which some predict could revitalise the agricultural sector by providing increased export opportunities.

Commenting on the China deal, Chan Nora, a secretary of state for the Ministry of Commerce, said it was “a great achievement for us”.

However, some business leaders have questioned Cambodia’s ability to enter larger markets, given the limitations of domestic infrastructure and existing business models.

AT THE stroke of midnight last night, while the world was celebrating the dawn of a New Year, Cambodia’s business community ushered in an international trade deal eight years in the making.

The ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (FTA), signed in 2002, today removed trade barriers and tariffs between the six founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China on around 90 percent of all products, though it gave Cambodia an additional five years to open its markets.

As a newer Asean member along with Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar, it will gradually reduce tariffs in coming years before scrapping the majority in 2015.

The FTA will unite an estimated 1.7 billion consumers in the world’s largest free trade area in terms of population. It is the third-biggest in terms of value behind the European Union and the North American Free Trade Area.

Uncertain times
But with the nation’s entry into one of the world’s largest free trade networks, a sense of uncertainty lies among the Kingdom’s business community as to what the FTA means for Cambodia. Questions are being asked about whether the Kingdom can compete on an international scale with the Chinese, and whether Cambodia will be able to make the most of new export opportunities.

Figures released by the International Monetary Fund, using data from the National Bank of Cambodia, show that Cambodia is already
strengthening its economic ties with China. Its merchandise imports from China have risen every year for the last nine years, rocketing from just US$86.9 million in 2001 to $1.2 billion in 2008, accounting for 18.4 percent of total merchandise imports that year.

That figure was dwarfed, however, by the $4.74 billion in merchandise exports from other Asean countries, or 72 percent of all imports.

Merchandise exports to China have nearly doubled since 2001, from $16.7 million to $35.13 million in 2008, IMF statistics show, representing a significant trade deficit. Exports to other ASEAN nations grew from $76.1 million to $394.5 million over the same period, which is just a drop in the bucket compared with the $4.7 billion value of the Kingdom’s exports that year.

Leading government officials say that the new FTA can further cement economic links with China, widening the export market while giving consumers more choice as import duties come down, fuelling competition.

Chan Nora, secretary of state for the Ministry of Commerce, highlighted the potential for the agricultural sector – which, according to the WTO, accounted for just 2.8 percent of Cambodian exports in 2008 – to capitalise on the FTA by broadening Cambodia’s horizons away from trade with neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam. “When it comes into effect, we will have more direct access to export our products, especially agricultural products, to the Chinese,” he said.

According to a 2005 report from the ASEAN Bureau for Economic Integration, when Thailand signed a bilateral FTA with China it saw durian exports rise by 21,850 percent, mangosteen demand rise by 1,911 percent and mango shipments rise by 150 percent.

Chan Nora says that NGOs and development partners can help improve the quality of the country’s products to comply with international standards.

But while leading interest groups also welcome the FTA, they have asked whether Cambodia’s poorly developed trade infrastructure will make it difficult for exporters to use the opportunity to muscle in to new markets.

President of the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture, Yang Saing Koma, said: “The FTA can only be a good thing.

Products which have a market for export include rice, soya beans and cassava. But our capacity to export is questionable.

“Cambodia is very limited. Our capacity to process goods is just one factor which could affect exports. There are others, such as our roads and our ability to supply produce of a high quality and standard.”

Chan Sophal, president of the Cambodian Economic Association, said Cambodia needed to boost production of the type of goods that will be most required by China, singling out the agricultural industry as a key sector. However, he acknowledged it would not be a simple matter.

“I think we still don’t have enough ability to do this, due to the high costs of transportation, electricity and land conflict,” he said. “I think that businesses within the industrial sector will find it hard to compete with China, because they can produce products cheaper than us.”

These concerns echo those in the World Bank’s latest economic outlook report for East Asia and the Pacific, released in early October. The report’s lead author, Ivailo Izvorski, warned at the time that Cambodia was not well placed to benefit from trade with China. The Asian giant was mainly hungry for imports of commodities, parts and components for processing into finished products, as well as whiteware such as washing machines and fridges, none of which were sourced from Cambodia.

He said the only benefit to Cambodia would come as regional countries, like Korea and Japan, rose on the back of China’s continue growth. “As the rising tide lifts all ships, I think you can expect to see Cambodia benefiting from a return of tourism, a return of demand for garments, but I don’t think there will necessarily be any direct relationship between China and Cambodia.”

New opportunities
Despite these worries, many, even in the beleaguered garment industry – which has seen an annualised export drop of more than 20 percent this year – remain positive about a new relationship between Cambodia and the PRC.

Garment factories make up about 70 to 80 percent of the Kingdom’s 530 large industrial units, with the other 32,000 small and medium-sized enterprises mostly producing foodstuffs and textiles.

Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturing Association of Cambodia, said that most brands catering to the Chinese garment market choose to produce in China, but said that might well change.

“If the cost of production rises further in China, then maybe it will be a viable option down the road to produce in Cambodia for export,” he said. “We can no longer rely on just one market – the USA – which accounted for 55 percent of garment exports in 2009 and 70 percent in 2008.”

He added that an existing Early Harvest agreement with China, which has already made some goods duty-free, has paved the way for a positive relationship between the Kingdom and the superpower.

The FTA’s impact on the domestic market is also being considered. With China’s reputation for mass production of goods at cheap prices, some officials think a certain amount of protection will be needed as domestic markets adjust to a possible explosion of consumer imports.

Meng Saktheara, the director general in charge of the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy’s small and medium-sized enterprise department believes that a law setting a quality standard for imported products should be introduced. He warned that local producers must make high-quality, cheap products to compete with goods from China.

“The negative and positive impacts of the FTA will not occur in one day. There will be time for both local producers and consumers to adapt.

“Nevertheless, it is very good for our economy. We all should be happy with this because we can make our economic voice heard on the
international stage,” he said.

And some Cambodian entrepreneurs may not see a difference at all.

Scott Lewis, chief investment officer at Leopard Capital, a private equity fund focusing on Asia frontier markets, acknowledged the FTA could make it harder for domestic industries to develop in future, but questioned that it would really change much in the way of trade across the border.

“Given how porous Cambodia’s borders are, enforcing duties, tariffs and trade restrictions are very hard,” he said.

“The only people who pay are typically foreigners using legal channels. For most, it is already a semi-free trade zone.”
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FTA with ASEAN comes into force

By Wang Qian and Zhang Jin

The world's largest free-trade area (FTA) came into being on Friday, an initiative that analysts said gives a shot in the arm for global trade troubled by rising protectionism.

From Friday, most goods traded between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) attracted zero or little tariff.

The average tariff on goods from ASEAN countries is cut to 0.1 percent from 9.8 percent. The six original ASEAN members - Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand - will slash the average tariffs on Chinese goods from 12.8 percent to 0.6 percent.

By 2015, 90 percent of goods are expected to flow without tariffs between China and the four new ASEAN members: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Border traders were happy with the launch of the FTA, the world's largest in terms of population, 1.9 billion, and third largest by GDP, trailing the European Union and the North American Free Trade Area.

Dozens of trucks, mostly carrying dragonfruit from Vietnam, were waiting to be unloaded Friday morning at the Tianyuan Fruit Trade Market, one of China's largest markets for fruit imports, at Pingxiang Customs point in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

"The establishment of the free trade area is really good news," said Liu Yuzhen, who has been trading fruits for 16 years.

She sells more than 10 tons of apples, pears, oranges and other fruits to Southeast Asia everyday, and hopes her business will expand as the FTA will facilitate Customs clearance and reduce logistics costs.

Business leaders said the FTA would definitely liberalize trade.

"This will enable trade to flow more freely between China and ASEAN, it is a very good thing," said Chan Sophal, president of the Cambodian Economic Association.

He said the FTA would also create more opportunities for ASEAN countries to increase regional trade.

"Cambodia can produce more products and export more to China's market," he said.

Experts have predicted the removal of trade duties will prompt China-ASEAN trade to grow 40 to 50 percent.

Trade between China and ASEAN declined 16.7 percent year-on-year to hit $165.7 billion in the first 10 months last year, according to the Ministry of Commerce.

An ASEAN leader said the FTA is beneficial to all.

"We sincerely hope that all parties will act to ensure that the man on the street will benefit from these reductions in tariffs," ASEAN secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said on ASEAN's website on Thursday.

He added that the lower cost of inputs will allow the business community a wider choice of goods, and in the process, they will move toward becoming more globally competitive.

Beijing-based analysts said the FTA signals China's commitment to free trade although it has fallen victim to a rising number of protectionist measures taken by developed countries.

"China's efforts to establish the FTA is aimed at not only expanding overseas markets, but also promoting trade and investment liberalization, especially amid global trade protectionism," said Zhang Monan, an economist with the State Information Center.

The FTA - which follows similar trade links established between ASEAN and Japan and South Korea - "gives new vim" to world trade at a time when multinational trade talks are stalled, said Fan Ying, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University.

"The move shows China is willing to open its market although it is a victim of rising trade protection measures," she said. "The FTA will help economies recover from the financial crisis."

Deputy Commerce Minister Zhong Shan said last week that other countries launched more than 100 trade cases against China, affecting $12 billion of Chinese exports, last year. Both figures were double the figure from a year earlier.

With the FTA in place, Zhang expects economic integration between China and ASEAN to be strengthened.

She also said she hoped the Chinese currency, the yuan, can be more widely used in Southeast Asia.
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Free-trade agreement between China, ASEAN grouping comes into force

A free-trade agreement between China and Southeast Asia comes into force Friday, consolidating a six-fold surge in economic activity over the past decade between countries representing a quarter of the world's population.

The agreement expands a limited 2005 trade area between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), scrapping tariffs on about 90 percent of goods. By 2015, duties must be cut to no more than 50 percent on “highly sensitive” items, including ambulances in Brunei, popcorn in Indonesia, snowboard boots in Thailand and toilet paper in China.

China's economic clout in Southeast Asian countries has risen over the past decade as policy makers slashed tariffs on electronics, automobile parts and computer chips. Japan, India, Europe and the U.S. have followed China in courting ASEAN, home to investments from Intel Corp., the world's largest maker of computer chips, and Toyota Motor Corp., the biggest carmaker.

“This FTA is going to make a difference at the margin to some ASEAN countries but not others,” said Razeen Sally, a director of the Brussels-based European Centre for International Political Economy, a trade-policy research group. “Basically it takes down the tariffs but does little on all the non-tariff barriers where you would have much bigger gains to trade.”

China's trade with ASEAN has jumped six-fold since 2000 to US$193 billion last year, surpassing that of the U.S. China's share of Southeast Asia's total commerce has increased to 11.3 percent from 4 percent in that time, whereas the U.S.'s portion of trade with the bloc fell to 10.6 percent from 15 percent, ASEAN statistics show. During that time, ASEAN's trade deficit with China widened by five times to US$21.6 billion. The bloc reported a US$21.2 billion trade surplus with the U.S. last year, down 12 percent from 2000.

The trade agreement would hit high-tariff industries in Indonesia and the Philippines more than other ASEAN countries, Sally said. Trade in parts and components, the “central artery” of China- ASEAN economic ties, won't be affected much because most of those tariffs are already near zero, he said.

Opposition to the trade agreement has been loudest in Indonesia, where the government has sought to placate concerns that industries including textiles, food and electronics will suffer. Indonesia should renegotiate the deal because the textile industry may see its domestic market share decline by 50 percent as cheaper Chinese goods enter the market, said Ade Sudradjat, vice chairman of the Indonesian Textile Association.

The government is setting up a team to monitor trade practices, Hatta Rajasa, coordinating minister for the economy, told reporters in Jakarta Wednesday.

Indonesia, ASEAN's biggest economy and home to about 40 percent of the bloc's 584 million people, has required Chinese exports of garments, electronics, shoes, toys and food to be shipped from designated ports with every container inspected upon arrival. China, poised to overtake Germany as the world's largest exporter this year, faces 101 trade investigations in 19 countries, state-run Xinhua News Agency reported this month.

To help its exporters, China has halted the yuan's gains against the dollar from July last year. In 2009 the yuan has remained largely unchanged against the dollar while Indonesia's rupiah climbed 15.5 percent, Thailand's baht advanced 4.2 percent and the Philippine peso increased 2.3 percent.

ASEAN includes Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Wide economic disparity has hindered the group's efforts to form a single market, as the purchasing power of the group's four richest countries was 10 times greater than that of the other members last year, according to statistics on the bloc's Web site.

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Small Muslim Sect Worries Over New Influences

By Pich Samnang, VOA Khmer

Toothless and balding, Bhann Tes sat on a wooden bed, writing Cham script in a handheld notebook outside a mosque on Udong mountain, some 30 kilometers from Phnom Penh.

The mosque, which looks more like a Buddhist temple, might not be recognizable to more orthodox Muslims. Nor would the practices of Bhann Tes, who belongs to a rare sect of Islam whose members say is in decline.

Bhann Tes, who is 76, travels to the mosque from his home, 20 kilometers away in Kampong Chhnang province, just once a week to pray. This was required by Allah to maintain a good mind, he said. To pray five times a day, as other Muslims do, was not necessary, he said.

“Allah did not tell us to physically pray five times a day, but only to keep our minds clean of bad thoughts, like wanting to steal others’ property, telling lies, or cheating others,” he said.

Bhann Tes belongs to the Imam San sect of Islam, better known as Jahed, who comprise an estimated 37,000 Cham Muslims and whose beliefs merge the teachings of the Quran with older traditions and customs like ancestor worship.

The small group is now facing a new threat, as money and influence from other Islamic groups, including those in Arab states, have begun drawing the Jahed under their influence.

“They consider us out of their group, but we follow the same holy book,” said Kai Tam, a revered Jahed elder. “They pray with body movement, and we just pray without it.” (Women, he said, are not required to pray at all.)

“I am worried that we may lose our customs and identity in the future, as some of our members have already lost their self-identity to join with the other groups for money,” Kai Tam said in an interview at his home in Kampong Chhnang’s Kampong Tralach district.

However, Sos Kamry, who leads the majority of Cambodia’s Muslims as a mufti, denied Jaheds were being lured by material gain or money.

“Those who have joined our group did it on a voluntary basis, especially after they returned from overseas studies or pilgrimages in some Arab states, where they witnessed the true practices of Islam,” Sos Kamry said. “They call themselves Muslims, but they worship our Lord a bit differently. They may not yet know how to do it fully, but when they understand it better they follow [us] because their practices exist nowhere else in the world.”

Emiko Stock, a French anthropologist who has studied the Cham for nearly a decade, said leaders of the Imam San community often refuse aid from other Islamic sects for fear they might lose their identity.

“For instance, if they accept aid from Arab states or other countries, they said they are worried that the way of practicing their religion would be changed, such as the observance of Mawlut ceremony and the prayers for their ancestor.”

Although Cambodia’s two sects of Islam practice the same religion quite differently, no clashes or mishaps have been reported in the Buddhist-dominated country.

Min Khin, the Minister of Cults and Religion, and Senate President Chea Sim each said separately at a Buddhist conference this week that Cambodia would maintain freedom of religion.

For worshippers like Bhann Tes, the differences make no difference.

“We are all walking toward the same light,” he said. “It’s just that the way we are taking is different. Who will reach the light first, let’s just wait and see.”

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