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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

We should take the lead on Human Rignts in Southeast Asia

By Elaine Pearson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch

"It's not our role to tell countries what to do. These are internal affairs of the state."

These sound like the words of a Chinese official, yet this is what an Australian diplomat told me on a recent visit to South-East Asia. Geographically on the fringes of Asia and with a different culture and history, Australia is sensitive to being perceived as a big-mouthed bully in the Asia-Pacific region.

This is not to say Australia is silent on human rights. Australia has a good track record of principled diplomacy and implementing targeted sanctions against abusive military governments in Burma and Fiji. Yet it's relatively easy for Australia to speak out about countries where it has few economic interests. It takes more courage and principle to turn up the heat on countries where it has significant economic and strategic interests.

Australia has particularly good leverage for raising human rights issues in countries where it has close military ties. The Rudd Government should use it. Australia should be taking the lead in protecting rights through strong public statements, private diplomacy, and intelligent aid.

As a major donor and significant provider of military and police training, Australia already strives to improve governance and human rights and professionalise security forces in countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. Australia hopes to help these and other nations to be - or become - stable and democratic, rather than authoritarian regimes.

The Rudd Government could start by being more proactive and vocal in addressing issues such as extrajudicial killings and impunity. For example, in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, the security forces commit abuses such as extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and arbitrary arrest and detention without fear of punishment. Abusive officials are rarely, if ever, prosecuted for such crimes, while those implicated in abuses remain in the security forces and often are even promoted.

For instance, in Indonesia, human rights violators continue to be promoted within the army and its special forces, Kopassus. A Kopassus soldier convicted of abuse leading to the November 2001 death of a Papuan activist now holds a senior commander position. Of 11 soldiers convicted of kidnapping student activists in the last days of the Suharto regime in 1997 and 1998, seven were known to be serving in the military as of 2007, and all had received promotions. And those who orchestrated the 1999 massacres in East Timor remain free.

The newly appointed Deputy Defence Minister, Lieutenant General Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, is a former military officer with a long history of working with Kopassus. Although he has never been charged with a crime, various witnesses and investigative journalists have implicated him in abuses, including the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre of civilians in East Timor, and widespread violence by Indonesian troops and pro-Indonesia militias at the time of the 1999 East Timor referendum on independence. In 1993, two years after the Santa Cruz massacre, he took a two-week military training course in Perth. As a close military partner, Australia should be concerned enough about this appointment to call for a credible investigation into the persistent allegations against Sjamsoeddin.

In Cambodia, the police and military are littered with notorious rights abusers serving under Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself implicated in atrocities. In Thailand, police officers known to have been involved in abuses during the 2003 "war on drugs" and counter-insurgency operations have been promoted rather than punished. In the Philippines, despite a government commission calling for the investigation of a senior military officer for command responsibility for extrajudicial killings, the retired general is now a congressman.

Australia often claims to be addressing these problems by offering military-to-military training, including training on human rights, international humanitarian law, and military rules of engagement. But training without a serious political commitment to end abuses is not enough. Australia should put a mechanism in place to guarantee that military units and personnel participating in Australian-funded programs are carefully vetted to ensure that they haven't been implicated in human rights violations.

Although the Australian Government says it vets individuals, in Cambodia, Australian military instructors have provided training to Royal Cambodian Armed Forces units that have been implicated in gross human rights abuses. This includes live-fire weapons training to the counter-terrorism special forces, a unit refashioned out of Brigade 70 (the Prime Minister's Bodyguard Unit), which has a long and well-documented record of committing politically motivated violence and other serious rights violations with impunity.

Australia should also consider conditioning military and police assistance on progress in prosecuting abuses and reforming security forces. Bilateral security co-operation agreements (such as the Lombok Treaty) should address human rights concerns by including explicit safeguards.

Australia could have real impact in pressing countries to bring the perpetrators of abuse to justice, but this means being prepared to raise human rights in meaningful rather than abstract ways, such as publicly raising specific cases with governments. A more cautious approach only bolsters the standing of abusive governments at the expense of their people.

Elaine Pearson is the deputy director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.

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BANGKOK, The world's largest free trade area that became a reality at the start of the year is being billed as a welcome shot in the arm for the countries comprising it, namely, China and six South-east Asian countries. It offers a route out of the global financial crisis, analysts said.

Such optimism stems from the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (CAFTA), which went into effect on Jan. 1, almost eight years after it was signed on Nov. 4, 2002 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

"The CAFTA is an important vehicle for trade-led growth and recovery in ASEAN," said Ganeshan Wignaraja, principal economist at the Office of Regional Economic Integration at the Asian Development Bank (AsDB). "We expect trade-led recovery to grow from 3.9 percent in 2009 to 6.4 percent in 2010."

CAFTA dwarfs other free trade areas by the 1.9 billion people it will cater to, having a combined gross domestic product of six trillion U.S. dollars. Only the North American Free Trade Area and the European Union (EU) are larger in economic value.

The South-east Asian nations which will initially profit from such deeper trade ties with China are also members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN). They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. By 2015, the remaining four members of the ASEAN - Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam - will join CAFTA.

Beijing's interest to fortify this free trade terrain has been confirmed by the launch of a $10-billion infrastructure investment fund to improve roads, railways and airlines and strengthen telecommunication links between China and the ASEAN. The Asian powerhouse has also committed a $15-billion credit facility to promote regional integration.

"It will be good (for the ASEAN countries) to latch on to China's production network, to get into that value chain, and also sell to Chinese consumers," Wignaraja said during a telephone interview from the AsDB's Manila headquarters. "We think by 2017 the ASEAN region will gain 82 billion U.S. dollars at least, and this is a conservative estimate, from a zero scenario."

ASEAN countries will have to "adjust their thinking, offering a competitive advantage for companies to invest in this new climate," said Gyorgy Szirackzi, a senior economist at the International Labour Organization's Asia-Pacific office in Bangkok. "Some sectors in ASEAN will benefit early on, like the health service sector, tourism sector and the telemarketing sector."

But he cautioned that CAFTA would have birth pains, including loss of jobs in countries that cannot compete against the labour costs of their new trade partners.

"Some countries will gain, some will lose," Szirackzi told IPS. "Companies will consider how to increase their scale of production and may choose to operate from the country that makes economic sense for them."

Indonesia has already sounded such an alarm. The archipelago's trade minister, Mari Pangestu, wrote to the ASEAN secretariat this month stating that Jakarta wanted to "renegotiate" some features of CAFTA, noting that local industries like textiles and food were suffering from a flood of cheaper Chinese imports.

Filipino legislator and economist Walden Bello offered a more trenchant criticism. "The picture is more complex than that of a Chinese locomotive pulling the rest of East Asia along with it on the fast track to economic nirvana," he wrote in last Sunday's online edition of 'Business Mirror', a Manila-based newspaper.

"The reality, however, is that most of the advantages will probably flow to China," added Bello, who is also a senior analyst at Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based regional think tank.

The CAFTA has slashed tariffs on 90 percent of traded goods. These include final products from chilli, fish and soy sauces to manufactured products such as air conditioners, motorcycle parts and machinery. By 2015, goods described as "highly sensitive," such as rice, cars and petrochemical products, will be subject to a 50 percent import duty reduction.

Since CAFTA came into force, China has made deep inroads into ASEAN's economy. Trade between China and the regional bloc reached $193 billion in 2009, a fourfold increase since 2003. This rise has made China the ASEAN's third largest trading partner, replacing the United States, and next only to Japan and the EU.

According to the Jakarta-based ASEAN secretariat, trade between ASEAN and China grew at a rate of 20 percent annually between 2003 and 2008. Nearly a third of ASEAN exports to China consist of electrical and electronic products.

Against this picture of stronger China-ASEAN trade ties was the sobering reminder of how they collectively felt the impact of the global financial crisis, which saw export markets in the United States and the EU contract. China's exports dropped by 26 percent in early 2009 in contrast to the previous year, according to the World Bank, while Indonesia saw a 32 percent contraction, Malaysia 34 percent and the Philippines 41 percent during the same period.

Yet to enjoy the benefits of CAFTA, ASEAN countries have to address concerns over "trade facilitation," said Ravi Ratnayake, director of the trade and investment division at the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), a Bangkok-based United Nations regional body. "The region needs to simplify its trade procedures and documentation needed for exports."

There is a "lot of red tape" that exporters encounter at customs or with ministries of finance and some of them are "exhaustive," he said in an IPS interview. "Even if you reduce tariffs to zero, the trade is not going to see a boost unless you remove all the red tape."

In some ASEAN countries, delays caused by bureaucratic procedures for exports last from 22 to 29 days, an ESCAP study revealed. "The average number of documents and time required for import/export in many (Asian) subregions remain well above the (developed country) average."
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Life West takes mission trip to Cambodia

Hayward, Calif., January 19, 2010 — Kim Khauv, a doctor of chiropractic and faculty member and alumnus from Life Chiropractic College West, led a team of twelve college interns who traveled to rural parts of Cambodia to provide chiropractic care. Over the course of two weeks in December 2009 they provided care to over 1500 patients, many of whom where children in orphanages and the sick and elderly in local villages.

This marks the first chiropractic mission trip to Cambodia from Life West. Arrangements were made with cooperation from government officials, village leaders and orphanage directors. The Life West team was joined by volunteer organizer, Aireen Navarro, and volunteer doctors, Amy Vevoda, D.C., and Nathan Clem, D.C., both from Seattle, Washington.

The trip had been a long-held dream by Dr. Khauv, whose family fled Cambodia in 1981 after the Khmer Rouge, a faction of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, began an agricultural reform leading to widespread famine and genocide between 1975 and 1979. After earning his graduate degree as a doctor of chiropractic and a master’s degree in public health, he began a non-profit organization, Well-Balanced World, with the sole intention of returning to his homeland and bringing chiropractic to his fellow countrymen.

Dr. Khauv is very grateful to have the opportunity to go back to Cambodia and offer healing to many who have little or no access to any health care. He states, “I sincerely appreciate Life West for their support. The devoted doctors and dedicated interns who came along allowed me to live out my dream of bringing chiropractic to Cambodia.” He is planning the next mission trip for December 2010 with the intention of increasing the number of locations and the number of patients served.
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Ghost Voices Come to Life on 'Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia'

Chhom Nimol remembers hearing a song on the radio in the '80s when she was a child in Cambodia.

"It was very sad, slow romantic," she says. "Sounded like a ghost voice."

She's not sure, but it may have been the insinuating 'Flowers in the Pond,' by singer Ros Sereysothea, or perhaps something else by the Cambodian star.

Ros Sereysothea, 'Flowers in the Pond':

Senon Williams, Nimol's bandmate in Dengue Fever -- a Los Angeles group that began doing versions of Cambodian pop and rock tunes in the early 2000s and which was chronicled in a 2008 Around the World column -- explains that "ghost voice" is an actual technical term in Cambodian singing as heard in this track.

"It's where you break from one octave to the next and the voice cracks," he says.

"The high key," Nimol explains.

"Ros Sereysothea was the master of that," Williams adds.

But in this case it has a double meaning: The singer on the radio, whoever it was, had almost certainly been killed during the brutal late-'70s reign of Pol Pot's totalitarian Khmer Rouge. Estimates of the total deaths attributable to the Khmer Rouge range as high as 2 or 3 million from execution, starvation and disease, most of them buried in mass graves. Musicians and artists -- pretty much anyone seen as educated or connected to the cultural identity of the earlier Cambodia -- were among those targeted for elimination.

"It is very sad," Nimol says, in halting English, sometimes with help from friend Soche Meas. "Our musicians, they are gone."

"The only people who did survive were musicians, not singers," Williams says. "John Pirozzi, who directed our film 'Sleepwalking Through the Mekong,' has done insane research for his own film he's doing about this but only found a few surviving band members, guitar players. But no one in the limelight survived."

Those ghost voices are being honored on 'Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia.' Subtitled '14 Rare Gems From Cambodia's Past,' the CD is just that -- samples of a lost era of Cambodian pop music. Much of the music exists today only via cassettes that made their ways around the Cambodian exile communities of California. A couple of previous compilations have made their way via the cultural curiosity seekers networks, notably the door-opening 1996 compilation 'Cambodian Rocks,' from the Parallel World label; and 2004's 'Cambodian Cassette Archives,' drawn from deteriorating tapes in the archives of the Oakland [Calif.] Public Library by global ephemera-centric Sublime Frequencies. These all show a culture enamored by Western pop -- the songs are redolent of quasi-psychedelia, with reverb guitars and cheesy organ -- without any sacrifice of Cambodian-ness.

'Electric Cambodia,' with proceeds being donated to the Cambodian Living Arts program promoting traditional performance in the Southeast Asian nation, digs even deeper to the point that none of the tracks had any identification -- neither titles nor artist information. They might have stayed that way but for the memory of Nimol's older sister, Chhom Chevin, herself a pop star in Cambodia in the '80s and '90s.

"We wanted to keep ours more obscure, things that hadn't been released to Westerners -- all our bizarre tastes," Williams says. "And Nimol's older sister enabled us to give names to all the songs. She was the No. 1 singer there through the '80s and she remembers all the voices."

As somber and heavy as that all might sound, the music is anything but. Rather, this album portrays a "golden age," even more striking for the horror that was to follow.

"What I think is interesting about the music is it doesn't depict a time of woe and sadness, but of prosperity and joy and parties," Williams says. "It's like a time when all of us think we can't be touched, living the high life. And the next you know we're mixing concrete in the streets to make a bunker. How quickly things can go from this flowering state of beauty to complete destruction -- horrific and humbling."

Of course, for Nimol it's a little more complicated and personal.

"This is like a new awakening for me," she says of hearing these songs and of her role with Dengue Fever bringing the spirit of that era back to life. "Was a sad time for my parents. Everything was forgotten."

Asked her pick of the bunch, Nimol says, "My favorite is the song that talks about a young girl waiting for the handsome guy."

"That's all the songs, Nimol!" Williams interjects.

"Some talk about bands and flowers and teenagers," she responds. "A lot talk about broken hears and break-ups. But I think my favorite song is 'Sneaha.'"

The choice is a good illustration of the era -- and it probably sounds familiar:

Pan Ron, 'Sneaha':

Yes, that's a version of the Cher hit 'Bang Bang,' sung here in Khmer by Pan Ron. You wonder if perhaps Quentin Tarantino had heard this one it might have made it into 'Kill Bill' rather than the Nancy Sinatra recording.

"I really like that one," Williams agrees. "It's just a cover of 'Bang Bang' but not even a cover. The lyrics are different. The melody's a little different. It's kind of what we've done with Dengue Fever in reverse. The song is beautiful, for one. Amazing production. But there, this way, they take this American music and just completely make it Cambodian. There's the melody and energy and all the psychedelics, but nothing remaining of the American familiarity."

And he stresses that neither 'Electric Cambodia' nor Dengue Fever's forays into the Cambodian pop catalog are meant to be taken as novelty or ironic offerings.

"For me, it's the other way around," he says. "We're trying to give respect back to the folks that influenced us. When the idea for the compilation came up, it was appealing, a way to show fans what influenced us and maybe open their eyes to dig deeper and find out more. And it allowed us to raise money for Cambodian Living Arts, which we've worked with in the past. So it's a way to shine light back on Cambodia."

Nimol says that it's a continuation of what she's seen happen since Dengue Fever plucked her out of regular club gigs singing standard pop music shortly after she emigrated in 2001 to the Long Beach, Calif., neighborhood known as Little Phnom Penh.

"I think a lot of people from Cambodia forgot -- the young teenagers don't know much of this music," she says. "I remember last year when we were on tour in New York and Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, a lot of Cambodian people came to our show and enjoyed the music."

Williams adds, "There have been young people coming up to me of Cambodian heritage telling me, 'Wow, this is the first time I've listened to Cambodian music and I really loved it.' They'd be more into rock and hip-hop and R&B and say, 'My parents turned me on to you guys, but I'd never liked what my parents liked before.' Some of the kids and parents both are finding pride in music that comes from their own culture."

A particularly moving experience in shining the light came unexpectedly in late 2009 when Dengue Fever were invited to participate in, of all things, a Hanukkah celebration in Los Angeles.
"They did a lighting of the candles on the stage between bands," Williams says. "And Nimol went up and spoke about the Khmer Rouge and said she was lighting a candle for her ancestor people who perished under Pol Pot."

"That was a terrible time," Nimol says.

"Nimol cried," Williams continues. "And it took me by surprise. Later I got an e-mail from the organizer, a Jewish guy, who had never heard that there had been a genocide in Cambodia. That something so horrific and huge can be overlooked is remarkable."
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Cambodia jails Swede for sex with adopted son

A Cambodian court has sentenced a Swedish man to six-and-a-half years in prison for having sex with three underaged boys, including his adopted son.

Judge Chhay Kong says Johan Brahim Escori, 62, was convicted on Tuesday on charges of illegal sexual intercourse with his nine-year-old adopted son and indecent acts with two other boys.

He also ordered Escori to pay a four million riel ($1040) fine and be expelled from Cambodia after serving his sentence.

Lax law enforcement and poverty have made Cambodia a prime destination for foreigners seeking sex with minors. But police working with social activists have stepped up efforts to fight the crime, and several foreigners are serving lengthy prison terms.

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