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Friday, March 12, 2010

Roads to protect Cambodia's Angkor from fires

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Seventeen new roads will provide quick access to Cambodia's Angkor complex in case of fires at the ancient temples, officials said Friday shortly before a blaze started nearby.

The roads will alleviate fears of damage to the country's greatest artistic treasure, especially during the dry season when blazes often break out, said Tan Sambu, an official of the Apsara Authority, the government agency that oversees the temples.

On Friday, a fire about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from Angkor Wat, the most famous of the temples, destroyed several hectares (acres) of forest and at least two village houses, said police Maj. Pheung Chandarith.

There were no reports of deaths or injuries, and Pheung said the cause of the blaze was under investigation.

Tourism is a major source of foreign currency for cash-strapped Cambodia, which hosts nearly 1.5 million foreign tourists each year, mostly from South Korea, Japan and the United States. More than half of the tourists visit Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northwestern Siem Reap province.

The temples were built when Angkorian kings ruled over much of Southeast Asia between the ninth and 14th centuries.

Earlier this month, South Korea provided $9.2 million to build a new road that will circle the temple complex and reduce traffic in the area.
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Cambodia learns lessons of its bloody history

SCHOOLTEACHER Bin Cheat has already had his lesson on the Khmer Rouge.

As a six-year-old, he saw Pol Pot's army roll into his village in Cambodia's scrappy southern countryside. Fascinated by the rare sight of a car, he trundled up to a tyre as the men stood distracted, unscrewed the cap and let out a hiss of air. Moments later he was dragged and bound, set, like many others, for death by bludgeoning.

"They tied my arms behind my back and stuffed me in a sack. I'm lucky that one of the neighbourhood women begged with them for so long that they let me go," Bin Cheat says with a laugh.

Many older Cambodians remember the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. Up to two million people were killed through executions, starvation and forced labour as the ultra-communist regime attempted to create an agrarian utopia, while erasing the history and memory of a people.

For younger generations of children, that forgetting has continued, with the four years of the Khmer Rouge regime left off the school curriculum.

Only now, after years of debate, are teachers like Bin Cheat tentatively beginning to explain Cambodia's full history. The process is delicate and painful, as former Khmer Rouge are spread throughout society, from Prime Minister Hun Sen downwards.

Key to that process is a new textbook for high school students, A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979), produced by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-CAM), a non-profit organisation given the task of recording the history of the genocide.

Other books teach the history up until the Khmer Rouge's rise in 1975 and then fall silent, only to pick up the thread long after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in a Vietnamese invasion, explains DC-CAM director Youk Chhang. The one concession granted over the years was a single photo of a seated Pol Pot, accompanied by a brief description of his regime and its genocide.

"I believe in prosecution to reach full forgiveness. But at the same time, for the future, to move beyond the Khmer Rouge, one way to prevent (such things from recurring) is to teach the children," Youk Chhang says.

Conceived in 1996, the idea for the book received only limited in-principle support from the government in 2004 and began being taught in a small number of schools at the end of last year. The plan is to have a million Khmer-language editions of the books in schools by the end of the year, being taught by 3200 teachers.

Re-engaging with the issue is proving a challenge. Of the country's 14 million people, only five million were alive during Khmer Rouge rule. The government of Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected to Vietnam and rose to the country's leadership after the regime's 1979 fall, has been at best a reluctant participant in efforts to bring former regime leaders to justice. "The Khmer Rouge aren't just in the government, trust me. They are in the opposition, the NGOs, the private sector, everywhere," he says.

"In the classroom I can assure you that at least 30 per cent are the children of former Khmer Rouge, another 70 per cent are the children of the victims.

"Among these 3000 teachers I can assure you almost 25 to 30 per cent are former Khmer Rouge themselves.

"This is a broken society, it is a fragile society, so I think you have to live for the future, commit for the future, teach for the future."

At Bin Cheat's school in Kampong Trach near the southern border with Vietnam, amid a landscape of red earth and lonely palm trees and sheer hills, the Khmer Rouge's shadow stretches longer than in most places.

Throughout the 1990s, Khmer Rouge rebels fighting the government in Phnom Penh lingered in the nearby hills, periodically sweeping down to abduct officials, including local teachers, and holding them for ransoms of rice, food and fuel. Those who were not ransomed were killed.

The students here respond blankly to questions of this recent history.

Ny Pagnavuth, 17, says he heard stories of the Khmer Rouge when he was growing up, including vague tales of an uncle and aunt killed. But he knew little of how the Khmer Rouge came to power or why they did what they did, and was shocked to hear the broader story in class.

"I was surprised and I felt it was strange. Why did the regime empty out Phnom Penh? Cities are where industry and the economy grows," he says.

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Cambodian govt accuses UN of 'flagrant interference'

PHNOM PENH — Cambodia on Friday accused the United Nations of "flagrantly interfering" in its affairs after local agencies expressed concern over a controversial anti-corruption law approved this week.

Ranked one of the most corrupt countries in the world, Cambodia passed the law in parliament on Thursday, more than 15 years after legislation to tackle graft was first proposed, but only days after the draft was shared publicly.

Opposition and rights groups said the draft was flawed and asked for more debate, and a statement this week from the UN country team in Cambodia encouraged enough time to ensure "a transparent and participatory" process.

"This so-called 'UN Country Team' should not act out of its mandate, in flagrantly interfering in the internal affairs of a UN member state," said a statement by Cambodia's foreign affairs Ministry.

"Furthermore, it should refrain from acting as if it were the spokesperson of the opposition parties," it added.

All lawmakers from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party walked out of parliament in protest just hours before the draft law was passed by 82 lawmakers, mostly from Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party.

A national anti-corruption council and an anti-corruption unit will be created to oversee investigations, but critics said it was unlikely either body would be effective because both would be controlled by the ruling party.

Public figures face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of accepting bribes, according to the draft law.

The law will take effect after receiving approval from Cambodia's Senate and promulgation from King Norodom Sihamoni, which are both considered formalities.

Cambodia was ranked 158 out of 180 countries on anti-graft organisation Transparency International's most recent corruption perception index.

It was also ranked the second most corrupt Southeast Asian nation after Indonesia in an annual poll by the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, seen by AFP on Tuesday.

Last year, a US diplomat said that graft costs Cambodia up to 500 million dollars every year, an allegation the government rejected as "unsubstantiated."

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Cambodia Passes First Law to Combat Graft

Son Chhay, a legislator with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party

Cambodia's parliament has passed the country's first law to combat corruption, but critics say it is flawed, and could entrench rather than end corruption.

After 15 years of trying, Cambodia now has a law against corruption, which is a scourge in this impoverished nation.

Parliament passed the legislation on Thursday. Among other things, it imposes prison sentences of up to 15 years on officials convicted of taking bribes. It also requires politicians, military personnel, police officers, judges, and civil servants to disclose their wealth to a new anti-corruption body. Leaders of civic action groups also must report their wealth.

The government calls the new law an important tool in fighting corruption.

But many opposition politicians and civic activists are critical.

Yong Kim Eng is from the Coalition for Integrity and Social Accountability, a collection of organizations fighting graft.

He says that since those serving on the anti-corruption body will be appointed by the ruling party and will report to the prime minister, there is the risk of political interference.

"Also we have questioned a lot about that as well - about independence, about what it will be accountable for. We want to have enough independence that this body can take action, can reduce the corruption in Cambodia," he said.

Son Chhay, a legislator with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, fears the law will be misused.

"Because the prime minister and the deputy minister of the Council of Ministers will have full control over who can be prosecuted. The target will be the opposition and civil society, or the group of businesses who are not willing to support the government, who are critical of the government. So they will be able to find something there to prosecute them," he said.

Critics complain the government ignored requests for the public to have a say in drafting the new law. Son Chhay says that among the changes the ruling party refused to consider was making financial disclosures public.

A government spokesman responded to the criticism by saying that the opposition will have the opportunity to propose amendments in the future, as with any law.

Corruption is a serious problem here. Last year, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia said that $500 million is lost to graft each year, a comment that angered Phnom Penh. And the international anti-corruption group Transparency International ranks Cambodia as one of the world's most corrupt countries.

On Friday the U.S. Embassy welcomed the passage of the law and expressed hope that rules to implement it will "clarify and enhance" its aim of combating corruption in accordance with international standards.
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