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Friday, October 22, 2010

Clinton to visit Asia next week

WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will head next week on a visit to Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand, the State Department announced Friday.

Clinton will also travel to Hawaii where she will hold talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, whose government has been trying to weather tensions with China, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.

President Barack Obama's administration has described Southeast Asia as a key diplomatic priority, saying that the dynamic region was neglected by former president George W. Bush due to his focus on Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Obama administration has sought to build relations with Malaysia, seeing it as a potential force for moderation within the Islamic world.

Political relations were rocky when Malaysia was led by Mahathir Mohamad, who was known for his strident criticism of the West. The United States sometimes riled Malaysia with past calls to expand democratic freedoms.

Despite warm relations between the United States and Australia, Clinton will become the highest-ranking official from the Obama administration to visit.

She called off a scheduled visit in January to focus on relief after Haiti's devastating earthquake, while Obama has twice called off trips to Australia due to domestic concerns.

Clinton will visit Hanoi for the annual East Asia Summit. The United States has warming relations with Vietnam, where experts say that concerns about a rising China have trumped memories of the war against the United States.

However, Crowley said that Clinton would skip a meeting of foreign ministers of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Japan. Obama is expected to attend the full summit in Yokohama.

Clinton will meet Maehara in Hawaii and send her deputy, Jim Steinberg, to the APEC talks for foreign ministers, Crowley said.
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Cambodia opens first line of restored rail system

PHNOM PENH (AFP) – A new rail line opened in Cambodia Friday, a crucial first step towards restoring the country's devastated rail system after decades of civil war and neglect.

The newly rebuilt 120 kilometre (75 mile) stretch connects Phnom Penh to the southern town of Touk Meas, near the border with Vietnam.

It is the first part of a planned 650-kilometre (400 mile) countrywide rail network that will run from the northern border with Thailand via the capital to the southern seaside town of Sihanoukville.

The total cost of restoring the Cambodian network -- expected to be operational by 2013 -- is 141 million dollars, of which the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is providing 84 million dollars.

"This new railroad represents another important step for Cambodia in overcoming its legacy of conflict," said Kunio Senga, director general of ADB's southeast Asia department.

The link connecting Cambodia's capital and Touk Meas is also a "major step" towards a wider plan to create a rail system stretching from Singapore to China, according to the ADB.

Countries in the region are supporting the pan-Asia train network as a cheap way of transporting goods.
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Project puts trains back on Cambodia's rails

PHUM KSENG, Cambodia (AP) — The railroad is many things to people in Cambodia: playground, garbage dump, open-air toilet, livestock grazing ground, a dry path for traversing swampy terrain.

What it has not been for many years is working transportation for either people or freight. In fact, train service was halted completely last year.

That may change soon. Development specialists have persuaded the government to privatize the system, which officially reopened Friday with one freight line between Phnom Penh and Touk Meas, near the Vietnamese border.

Eventually, they promise, a refurbished railroad will revive Cambodia's economy and drag it out of decades of poverty and chaos. It would be an important missing link in a proposed regional rail system that would stretch from Singapore to Kunming, China.

"It's a powerful symbol of Cambodia's reconstruction and redevelopment," said Lachlan Pontifex, an aid expert with the Australian government, which is helping to fund the $141.6 million effort.

While an efficient transport network holds out great promise for Cambodian businesses, the reclaiming of railroad land could sink thousands into deeper poverty. Many people who live and sell goods alongside the rails — often barely subsisting — fear they will be evicted from their homes. Others, like the operators of makeshift carts that ferry people along the tracks, known as "bamboo trains," will lose a meager but reliable livelihood.

Cambodian and foreign backers said they are trying to minimize the disruptions, spending millions to compensate those affected.

French colonial rulers laid the first rails across the rice paddies and wetlands in the 1920s. By 1969, track stretched from the Thai border to the capital Phnom Penh and continued southwest to Sihanoukville, on the Gulf of Thailand.

Then Cambodia plunged into chaos, beginning with a U.S.-backed military coup and ending in the tyrannical Khmer Rouge regime. After the Khmer Rouge's ouster in 1979, the southern line was still an occasional battleground. Stations crumbled, locomotives rusted and the system ground into dysfunction.

In the past dozen years, the country has seen a sputtering economic boom, which clogged the roads with people and goods.

But the railway remained best avoided. A train ride between the capital and the provincial city Battambang, about 185 miles (300 kilometers) northwest, took more than a day, at a time when a taxi ride took less than four hours.

The Cambodian government shut the system down in November 2009 and awarded the Australian company Toll a 30-year joint venture contract to refurbish and operate it. Toll received an $84 million loan from the Asian Development Bank and others.

Earlier this month, after $5 million in investments in new rails, signs, locomotive repairs and workforce training, the freight service to Touk Meas began operating ahead of Friday's inauguration. The entire railroad — including new spurs directly to the ports — is to be operational by 2013.

"Upgrading the infrastructure will improve competitiveness in Cambodia's economy and promote direct investment in Cambodia itself," said Putu Kamayana, director of the development bank's Cambodian office.

For now, only freight will travel the rails, and the main beneficiary in the short run is likely to be Touk Meas' cement industry. Officials said the competition is already pushing down shipping costs, and should decrease costs for goods like fuel oil or rice.

Of greater concern to the thousands of Cambodians living on or near the rails, however, is what will happen to them. On Phnom Penh's outskirts, scores of families live in tin-roof shacks sometimes just an arm's length from passing trains.

As many as 3,650 families could lose either their homes or their livelihoods. The Asian Development Bank said more than $3.5 million has been budgeted to compensate people who will be moved.

That's small consolation to villagers like Khun Sarom, 38, who with his family of five runs a shop out of a bamboo-floored house just a few yards (meters) from the tracks in Phum Kseng, a village about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Phnom Penh. He said he's lived in his house for 20 years, earning about $5 a day selling cigarettes and pirated DVDs but has no title to the land. He said he knew very little about the rail project and had no idea whether he would get any money or land if he was evicted.

"I guess it's good, as long as I'm not kicked out," he said.

North of Phnom Penh, Prak Pheam, 31, said the railroad would put his bamboo train, a rickety carpet-sized contraption powered by what looked to be a lawnmower engine, out of business. He said he earns $25 in a good week, and had hoped he would get some money for losing that income. But he said only a handful of bamboo drivers have been told they would receive anything, and no one really understood how the money was being handed out.

"It's unfair that I'm not getting money," he said. "I'll have to go back to the rice fields. Or get a job on a train."
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Briton on child sex abuse charge in Cambodia orphanage

The British founder of a Cambodian orphanage is facing prosecution for sexually assaulting a boy in his care.

Nicholas Griffin, 52, was held when police raided his isolated base in countryside near Siem Reap, in the north-west of the country.

Up to 100 children were moved to a safe house in an operation that involved British and local investigators.

Mr Griffin, originally from Wales, left Britain in 2006 before founding the Cambodia Orphan Fund, one year later.

He faces a potential 10-year jail sentence over a claim he sexually assaulted a 15-year-old boy.

Fortress-like building

He was originally held on suspicion of breaking child labour laws and his orphanage licence.

The orphanage manager, a Cambodian man, has been charged with the illegal removal of a child to the orphanage.

Jim Gamble, of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop), said Cambodian police are now examining claims of "institutional abuse" within the orphanage, which occupies an unusual fortress-like building.

Mr Gamble added: "The UK and Cambodia may have different legal systems and law enforcement practices, but we share a clear, joint commitment: to prevent harm to children."

He said the operation demonstrated the value of the organisation's international child protection network.
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