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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

New species of gecko discovered in Cambodian mountain range

By Wil Longbottom

Blending perfectly into the green of the tree underneath him, this new species of exceptionally well-camouflaged gecko has been discovered by a team of scientists in a previously unexplored part of Cambodia.

The species, named Cnemaspis neangthyi, was discovered during a reptile and amphibian survey in the rocky foothills of the Cardamom Mountains.

Its unique combination of colour pattern and scale characteristics mean it is almost undetectable when it blends in to the rock crevices and trees on which it lives.

Discovery: The Cnemaspis neangthyi gecko has been found in an unexplored part of Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains

It was found during a reptile and amphibian survey led by Dr Lee Grismer, La Sierra University and conservation charity Fauna & Flora International (FFI).

A statement from the FFI said: 'Cnemaspis geckos have a relatively ancient body plan characterised by a broad flattened head, large forward and upward directed eyes, flattened body, long widely-splayed limbs and long inflected digits that help them to climb trees and hide within crevices.'

There are now 75 species of Cnemapsis known to science, of which 30 live in Southeast Asia.

FFI's biological surveys of the Cardamom Mountains have shown the area to be one of the most important areas for biodiversity conservation in Asia.

The area is home to more than 62 threatened animals and 17 threatened tree species, many of them unique to the region.

The Cardamom Mountains contain three protected areas - Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary and the Central Cardamoms Protected Forest.

This gecko has been named after Cambodian scientist Neang Thy, who heads the FFI research group, in recognition of his studies into the country's reptiles and amphibians.

He said: 'I am very happy and proud to have a species named after me. It gives me much pleasure and makes me feel my work as a herpetologist is being recognised.

'There are likely many more species to be discovered in the Cardamom Mountains.

'Maybe this will also help to involve Cambodian people more in the conservation of species, landscapes and habitats.

'If we do not do this, many animals in Cambodia may soon become extinct and we will not be able to show them to our children.'

The Greater Cardamoms cover over 2million hectares of forest, one of the largest remaining blocks of evergreen forest in South East Asia.

It is under increasing pressures from development, the FFI added.

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Cambodia army says 88 Thais dead in two-year border clashes

PHNOM PENH — A senior Cambodian army official said Wednesday his troops have killed at least 88 Thai soldiers over the past two years in clashes near an ancient temple on a disputed frontier.

General Chea Tara, a Cambodian deputy commander-in-chief who oversees military operations in the area near the Preah Vihear temple, said that 38 Thai soldiers were killed in October 2008 and another 50 in April 2009.

"We helped them to find the bodies but they still hide the figure," he said at a briefing of government officials and lawmakers about developments in the border spat. He said only two Cambodian soldiers were killed in the clashes.

The Thai military has previously said that only three of its soldiers were killed in the 2009 gunbattle. Thai army spokesman Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd denied the new claims.

"The information is not true. If that many Thai soldiers were killed, it would have been big news since then," he told AFP.

Chea Tara said that soldiers on both sides have remained on "high alert", but added that the situation near the temple was now quiet.

"Cambodian troops have enough ability to protect the territory and we have all kinds of modern weapons to counter Thai soldiers," he added.

Cambodia and Thailand have been locked in nationalist tensions and a troop standoff at their disputed border since July 2008, when Cambodia's 11th century Preah Vihear temple was granted UNESCO World Heritage status.

The Thai-Cambodia border has never been fully demarcated, partly because it is littered with landmines left over from decades of war in Cambodia, which ended in 1998.

Earlier this month Cambodia mounted a rare public test of rockets to protect against "invaders", while Prime Minister Hun Sen has made several fiery speeches accusing Thai leaders of infringing on his territory.

The World Court ruled in 1962 that the temple belonged to Cambodia, although its main entrance lies in Thailand. The exact boundary through the surrounding grounds remains in dispute.

Relations deteriorated further in November after Hun Sen appointed ousted Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra as his economic adviser and refused to extradite him to Thailand, which he fled to avoid a jail term for corruption.
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The Dark Side of China Aid


A growing number of developing countries receive billions of dollars a year in assistance, loans, and investments from China. Already in 2010, Beijing has committed $25 billion to Asean nations. In March, Zambia’s president returned from a trip to China with a $1 billion loan in hand.

As Beijing’s levels of foreign assistance swell and its relationship deepens with countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America, a key question emerges: What impact will investments by an opaque and repressive superpower have on governance standards in the developing world?

Findings from a Freedom House analysis, “Countries at the Crossroads,” point to the challenges that many of these recipient countries confront as they struggle to build more transparent and accountable systems. Fighting corruption and safeguarding freedom of expression and assembly are proving especially difficult. The dark side of Beijing’s engagement, with its nontransparent aid and implicit conditions, risks tipping the balance in the wrong direction.

To appreciate the “China effect” on developing countries, it is essential to understand the methods Beijing is using to exert influence and warp incentives for accountable governance.

First, as international financial institutions and donor organizations seek to encourage stronger governance norms, aid from China has become an alternate source of funds. Recipient governments use these as a bargaining chip to defer measures that strengthen transparency and rule of law, especially those that could challenge elite power.

Cambodia is a telling example. The government in Phnom Penh, which has received substantial aid from the United States and other democracies, now receives comparable amounts from China. The Cambodian authorities have used this “assistance competition” to their advantage. Rather than combating corruption and implementing sorely needed reforms to the judiciary and media sector, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has shrunk space for alterative voices and independent institutions. Western donors, fearful of losing influence, have been increasingly hesitant to penalize the regime for its failures.

In October, the Guinean government announced a $7 billion deal with the China International Fund just as the international community was considering sanctions following a massacre of opposition supporters. The case underscores how even investments by a private entity, this one with ties to Beijing, can be manipulated to undermine efforts to support human rights standards.
Second, while “no strings attached” is commonly used to describe China’s approach in the developing world, the reality is not quite so benign. A combination of subtle and not-so-subtle conditions typically accompanies this largesse. Included among these is pressure to muzzle voices critical of the Chinese government, often undermining basic freedoms of expression and assembly in these countries. The authorities in Nepal, which have recently received a 50 percent boost in aid from Beijing, have violently suppressed Tibetan demonstrations, including the arrest of thousands of exiles in 2008. In December of last year, Cambodia’s government forcibly repatriated 20 Uighurs to China, where they face almost certain imprisonment and torture. Three days later, Beijing announced a package of deals with Cambodia estimated at $1 billion.

Even more democratically developed countries are not immune to such pressures. In March 2009, the South African government barred the Dalai Lama’s attendance at a pre-World Cup peace conference.

Third, Chinese aid funds are frequently conditioned on being used to purchase goods from firms selected by Chinese officials without an open bidding process. In Namibia, anti-corruption agencies are investigating suspected kickbacks in a deal involving security scanners purchased by the government from a company until recently headed by President Hu Jintao’s son. Beijing’s response has been to stonewall investigations and activate its robust Internet censorship apparatus, sanitizing online references to the case Chinese citizens might stumble across.

Observers such as the scholar Larry Diamond have identified countries that are semi-democratic, rather than autocracies, as the most promising ground for expanding the ranks of consolidated democracies globally. The patently negative aspects of the Chinese Communist Party’s developing world influence could deal a real blow to this aspiration.

Findings from Freedom House’s global analysis of political rights and civil liberties put this phenomenon in perspective. Over the past five years countries with only some features of institutionalized democratic systems have slipped significantly — 57 countries within the “partly free” category have experienced declines, while only 38 improved.

Beijing’s deepening involvement in these cases may generate a number of effects, some perhaps positive for short-term economic development. But the dark underbelly of the Chinese regime’s involvement — the opacity of its aid and the illiberal conditions that underpin it — means that over the long haul, incentives for strengthening accountable governance and basic human rights are being warped, or even reversed.

Christopher Walker is director of studies and Sarah Cook is an Asia researcher at Freedom House.

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Local businessman escaped Cambodia for U.S. ideal

The rags to riches story has almost become cliché, however, Keo Chao’s story is not rags to riches but rather from tragedy to triumph.

Some immigrants come to the U.S. because of famine. Some come for political asylum. Keo Chao came to the U.S. to escape — a path led him to become a business owner in Bossier City.

Chao lived in Cambodia during reign of the Khmer Rouge. When the Khmer Rouge rebels took control of Cambodia they evacuated the cities.

“When the communists took over it was slavery for three-and-a-half years. They evacuated all the people from the city to live in the jungle,” said Chao.

While the Khmer Rouge Rebels occupied the cities, Cambodians had to work rice fields.

“We lived in the jungle and all we did was plant rice and you had work seven days a week. I was about 14-years-old at that time,” said Chao

Estimates vary when it comes to how many Cambodians died during this period. Some say 2.5 million; some estimate 1 million — roughly one out of eight Cambodians. Many Cambodians died of execution, disease or starvation. Chao claims to have eaten rat, snakes and other vermin to stave off starvation.

“[Rat] does not taste that bad. When you’re hungry it tastes good,” said Chao.

In 1979, the Vietnamese military invaded Cambodia. While the Khmer rebels fought the Vietnamese forces, Chao took the opportunity to escape into Thailand. He traveled by land until he crossed the Thailand border where he lived in a refugee camp.

Although safe, Chao compared the camp to a prison.

“You had to stay in the refugee camp. You could not go anywhere, you had to stay there and wait for the Red Cross to give you food,” said Chao.

Chao lived for three years in the Thai refugee camp until the Red Cross sponsored Chao’s immigration to the U.S. in 1982. The Red Cross sent him to live in San Francisco, Calif.

Although out of Cambodia and the refugee camp, Chao found himself in a new country with no money.

“I would go through trash cans and dumpsters, dig through the trash and find some aluminum cans and trade them in,” said Chao. “Sometimes I would find a loaf of bread. I did not know anything about bread being out of date in America. I thought, ‘Dang, this country is so rich they throw away a loaf of bread and don’t open it. ‘”

Eventually Chao found work as an electronic assembler. He worked during the day and at night took English classes. On weekends he sold seafood at the local flea market.

He worked as an assembler for 20 years until a friend told him about running a Raceway gas station franchise.

Chao could have run a franchise in California but chose to come to Bossier City where he runs the Raceway on Old Minden Road.

“It’s a lot cheaper over here money wise. You make about the same amount of money as California,” said Chao. “I am really proud of myself right now. I would never think I would own this kind of business in my life.”

Chao has two children, both born in the U.S. His son currently attends the University of California — Berkley and his daughter attends Airline High School.

“They are Americanized,” said Chao. “I don’t care what country they are (from) as long, as they are doing good, I am proud of them. I like the American way anyway. It’s freedom, freedom of choice.”

Chao does not regret coming to the U.S.

“In Cambodia you have to know an insider to do business. If you have a business you have to pay the insider, it’s corrupt,” said Chao. “Here, as long as you pay taxes, you are good to go. In America, if you work hard there is a lot of opportunity. As long as you work hard, you have it made in America.”

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Niagara paramedics heading to Cambodia

For his upcoming holiday, Danny Kerr won't be spending his time going sightseeing or relaxing poolside.

Instead, the St. Catharines resident will jump on a plane headed for Cambodia to provide medical training to the locals.

Kerr is a member of GlobalMedic, a Canadian organization that deploys teams of volunteer emergency medical services workers who spend their vacation days providing assistance and training to disaster-stricken and impoverished areas around the world.

On April 15, he and fellow Niagara paramedic Shane Eickmann will join a 16-member team of paramedics, nurses, police officers and firefighters for a mission to Cambodia. For two weeks, the group will help set up medical clinics, provide vaccinations and administer basic first aid to Cambodians.

The team will also liaise with on-the-ground NGOs to deliver medical supplies and equipment, as well as provide emergency medical training and help set up water filtration systems. Kerr will also spend a few days providing advanced medical training to medical personnel from MAG, a landmine clearing group that has undertaken the task of removing some of the five million explosive devices from the country.

Kerr, who had some experience travelling to other countries for missionary work prior to joining GlobalMedic, said he was skeptical at first of the ability of the organization to make a difference on a shoestring budget.

"I had a meeting with (executive director) Rahul Singh and it sounded too good to be true to do all of what he said could be done without any overhead," he said. "But after doing my own research, I realized 95% of what he said turned out to be correct."

GlobalMedic requires its members to fundraise for their trips. To raise money, Kerr and Eickmann turned to various Niagara EMS organizations for support. Needing $1,000 each for airfare, accommodations and meals, the pair —with the help of a team of volunteers — co-ordinated a fundraising plan that netted almost $15,000 and secured two tons of surplus medical equipment for donation to Cambodia.

"Ninety nine per cent of our fundraising volunteers were from the Niagara area," Kerr said.

Kerr and Eickmann will hold a special party on Friday at the Port Dalhousie Lion's Club as a show of gratitude for volunteers who helped co-ordinate the donation drive.

In addition to raising funds for GlobalMedic, Kerr and Eickmann held information sessions to help get the word out about the agency. Their efforts netted a significant level of interest from the Niagara emergency services community.

"We've done presentations for nearly 800 people," Kerr said. "There's already 40 people who have already expressed an interest in joining."

Kerr, who is married with two young children, said his family supports his work but worries for his safety in unstable areas. He has an understanding with his family that he won't travel to potentially dangerous places such as the Gaza Strip.

"They sometimes have misperceptions of certain countries just because of what they see on the news," he said. "But, you have to listen to your family."

Amir Azimi, who has documented GlobalMedic's missions as a photojournalist since 2003, said the group has seen an increase in volunteers thanks to media coverage of the group's recent deployment to high-profile disaster areas like Haiti and Chile.
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