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Sunday, December 05, 2010

US Navy commander returns to Cambodian roots

In this photo taken Dec. 3, 2010, family members of the U.S. navy officer Michael "Vannak Khem" Misiewicz boarding the USS Mustine at Cambodian coastal international see port of Sihanoukville, about 220 kilometers (137 miles) southwest of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Misiewicz finally returned home Friday as commander of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Mustin, reuniting with the relatives who wondered whether they would ever see him alive, and the aunt who helped arrange his adoption. His ship departs Monday.

The distant thuds of gunfire and bombs weren't nearly as memorable for Michael Misiewicz as fishing barehanded with his older brother in Cambodia's Mekong River.

In 1973, as a 6-year-old then called Vannak Khem, he was more concerned with boys' games than the deepening war - unaware, like most Cambodians, of the trauma that the Khmer Rouge would soon inflict on the country. He had no idea that after his adoption by an American woman that same year, it would take him 37 years to go home.

Misiewicz finally returned home Friday as commander of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Mustin - reuniting with the relatives who wondered whether they would ever see him alive, and the aunt who helped arrange his adoption. His ship departs Monday.

"Chumreap suor, Om," he greeted 72-year-old Samrith Sokha in the Khmer language, clutching her in a sobbing embrace on the Mustin's sea-swept walkway. "Greetings, Auntie."

The warship has a larger mission: to help the United States as it deepens ties with Cambodia and other nearby nations in a region overshadowed by China's economic and military clout.

But the ship's arrival in the port of Sihanoukville also ends an odyssey that took Misiewicz, now 43, from the poverty of Cambodian rice fields to the farmlands of the midwestern United States to the helm of a U.S. destroyer.

The process of returning has been intensely emotional, he said: sadness for the more than 1.7 million who died or were killed by the communist Khmer Rouge when they held power in 1975-1979, combined with guilt at his escape from it and joy at seeing the relatives who helped him leave it behind.

"This isn't going to wash the guilt away but I am looking to provide some sense of closure, going back to my birth country, going back to where my family suffered, and where my dad was executed, seeing it firsthand," he said in a phone interview before his ship arrived.

Born south of the capital, Phnom Penh, Misiewicz and his family were uprooted in 1969 as Khmer Rouge fighters forced villagers to join the radical communist movement. His father didn't sympathize with it, unlike many of his mother's family, and many considered him a traitor for not joining up, Misiewicz said.

They fled north, living on the streets as beggars for a time and scraping by until settling in Phnom Penh. They lived in a stilt house over mosquito-infested waters, subsisting mainly on his father's work as an herbal medicine pharmacist. His father's oldest sister, Sokha, worked for Maryna Lee Misiewicz, a U.S. Army administrative assistant with the defense attache's office at the U.S. Embassy.

Misiewicz remembers eating popcorn and watching cartoons while his aunt cooked and cleaned Maryna's home. Eventually, he said, his father decided they should ask Maryna to adopt him and Maryna and the boy left for the United States in April 1973.

"They were concerned about the Khmer Rouge. No one had any idea what would happen, but they hoped for a better life for Mike," Maryna Misiewicz said in an interview from her home in Freeport, Illinois. "We had no idea how long it would be before they would ever see each other again."

He grew up in Lanark, a town of 1,500 people just south of Freeport, most of whom had never seen an Asian before, and he said he cried frequently, thinking about his family.

Gradually, the letters to his relatives went unanswered as Cambodia spiraled into chaos. He forgot what little Khmer he knew, graduated from local high school and enlisted in the Navy. Like most Americans, he only later realized how many had died and suffered because of the Khmer Rouge's nightmarish efforts to create an agricultural utopia. Maryna Misiewicz said she initially tried to shield her adopted son from the few reports about the Khmer Rouge's brutal actions.

"You didn't have any idea it would end up like that," Maryna said. "I felt badly for Mike and his family and I wondered what was going on, what they were going through."

"As I got older it was less painful to not think about it," Misiewicz said.

It was in 1989 when he was at the U.S. Naval Academy when he was finally located by his family - and he learned of their own odyssey through refugee camps on the Thai border and in the Philippines and finally to Austin, Texas.

His birth mother, two brothers and a sister had survived but two other sisters died, most likely of disease or malnutrition. All of his mother's relatives, except for a brother, died or were killed by the Khmer Rouge, he said.

"We never knew what was going to happen," said Misiewicz's younger brother, Rithy Khem. "Thank God we were able ... to be reconnected with each other finally."

Misiewicz learned that his father, who was drafted as a medic for the U.S.-backed government that collapsed in 1975, was summoned to a meeting with Khmer Rouge officials on the anniversary of their takeover and never returned.

Misiewicz said his reunion with relatives in Cambodia would go a long way toward easing his qualms about the opportunity he had - and that his relatives did not.

"A lot of who I am is small-town America, you know, work hard trying your best at whatever you do ... but certainly the genetic thing, so many of the blessings that I've had come from my birth family," he said.

"I feel a lot of sadness for my own family, but also for so many Cambodian families," he said. "It's been a long, long time of war, genocide, civil war; my birth country and my fellow Cambodians just need a break."
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Cambodia Finds Solace in Spirituality

In the week after a stampede on a crowded Phnom Penh bridge killed 353 revelers celebrating the annual water festival, both the people of Cambodia and the country's government have been struggling to put hundreds of troubled ghosts to rest.

According to Khmer custom, the deceased believe they are merely asleep until the seventh day after their hearts stop. When they realize the truth--that they are dead forever, that they will never go home again--they grow terrified and angry.

The solution is the "seven-day ceremony," an hours-long funerary ritual to soothe the souls of the dead and placate them with offerings, speeding them on their way to the next life. On the seventh day after the stampede, the country was awash in these ceremonies, with mourners offering their dead everything from pigs' heads to fake bars of gold.

Although Buddhism is the state religion here, ancient animistic beliefs are just as important. Spirits lurk everywhere, predictable in their habits but terrifying once their anger is aroused. The ghosts of those who died in violent accidents are said to be especially restive.

The country's superstitious prime minister, Hun Sen, has already staged several traditional ceremonies designed to appease the stampede's unmoored dead. But he has been less proactive in the physical realm, presiding over an open-and-shut investigation that yielded no significant findings and refusing to concede any wrongdoing by anyone.

While Hun Sen's government has acted fast to compensate the families of victims with over $12,000, gathered from government funds and other donors, for each person killed, more than 15 times Cambodia's average per capita income, it has not even gestured toward addressing the deeper public safety concerns raised by the stampede.

The committee established to investigate the disaster was packed with government, police, and military police officials from the ruling Cambodian People's Party. One of the only exceptions was Pung Kheav Se, the wealthy and well-connected director of the company that owns both the bridge and the lavish new entertainment district it leads to, Diamond Island.

The government has a long history of closing ranks during a scandal, and an even longer history of favoring business interests over ordinary citizens. When developer OCIC pursued a 99-year lease to Diamond Island several years ago, the military summarily evicted all of the island's residents.

In a marathon two-and-a-half-hour speech on Monday, the prime minister called upon the ghosts of Diamond Island to haunt his political opposition and anyone who criticized his handling of the disaster.

"They will get back their bad deeds from the souls of the victims who died, who will do something to them," he said. "I do not know what they will do, but I pray that [the spirits] will give them backaches."

When the chief of the government's National Committee on Organizing National and International Festivals tendered his resignation, Sen refused to accept it. He said nobody would be held accountable for the stampede, which he portrayed as a freak event that could not have been anticipated, despite the frenzied crowds that pack Phnom Penh every year for the festival.

"We did not expect that people could collide with each other like motorbikes and cars," he said.

Sen's wife, Bun Rany, made the rounds of seven-day ceremonies over the weekend, delivering donations from the Cambodian Red Cross (which she leads) and pushing the party line.

"She told us that [Sen] was just trying to construct the country and make it develop but this was an accident that was impossible to predict," one mourner said.

The man was helping to memorialize his sister, 20-year-old Tay Sibuoy, at a seven-day ceremony outside a photocopy shop. A priest dumped sack after sack of fake gold bars onto a fire dedicated to her.

"She was very gentle and quiet," her brother-in-law Lao Kimchan said. "She hardly ever went out, but she went out that night."

As Kimchan spoke, he and several other men held tight to a thin white string that formed a perimeter around the family's burnt offerings.

"We make this holy line to make sure no other spirits can come to get this stuff, only her. We've burned everything--a house, a car, a box of gold. What we burn, she will receive."

When the fire had quieted into a heap of ash, they broke the thread.

"It's all over," he said.

A similar ceremony took place in an alley in central Phnom Penh, where Cheam Yoeun offered a large paper mansion to the ghost of his youngest son, Yen, who had been 19.

A chauffeur-driven gold Lexus SUV made of paper was parked in the paper garage. Two stern-faced servants flanked the front door. The mansion was accompanied by a deed and title handwritten by Yen's brother and sister.

"We're afraid that his soul doesn't have any house to stay in," Cheam Yoeun explained. "The deed and title are to make sure the home belongs to him."

With funeralgoers looking on, a holy man blessed the paper mansion, and touched a match to it. Flaming ash and fake $100 bills swirled around the alley.

"We're feeling better and more peaceful after we did the ceremony," said Cheam Yoeun.

But although he was grateful for the government's money, which made the elaborate ceremony possible, he was still searching for answers.

"I have no idea who was responsible for the death of my child, but I really want to know who should be responsible. I want the government to tell me."

Nearly two weeks afterward, the stampede is still a matter of near-unprecedented public fascination in a country where media penetration is so low--and so many people have personal tragedies of their own to deal with--that few news stories make much of a mark.

In the days after the stampede, homemade memorials--a bunch of bananas, a glass of water, a burning stick of incense--dotted driveways across Phnom Penh. The street price of bananas doubled. Telethons to raise money for the dead and injured brought in over a million dollars, a massive sum here.

The banks of the Bassac River near Diamond Bridge were covered with everything a dead soul might conceivably need: ramen noodles, lotus flowers, fake $100 bills, cups of coffee, tangerines, rice porridge, sugarcane stalks, spoons and forks, and take-out containers of pork and rice accompanied by tiny bags of chili-flecked sauce.

Doh Soeun, who had set up on the banks to sell incense sticks and lotus flowers, said 20 raw chickens were still being offered to the dead every day as mourners and curiosity-seekers continued to visit the riverside in droves.

"Some are crying," he said, "and some just come to see and some come to pray and some parents come to call their children's souls back home, performing ceremonies and then calling them back home: 'Oh, my beloved child, come home!'

Neou Vannarin contributed reporting from Phnom Penh.
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Wang students pen pals with Cambodia counterparts

The Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- The Student Council at the Wang Middle School has established a pen-pal program with a school in Cambodia, and has been exchanging letters with Cambodian middle-school students.

The Student Council hopes to continue building a partnership with the schools in Cambodia, and send its thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families.

Here's what's happening this week in Lowell's public schools.

BARTLETT CPS: All-school assembly Monday to recognize Students of the Month and middle-school honor students. Picture retakes Tuesday.

BUTLER: Parents are invited to Parent Coffee Hour on Thursday, 9-10 a.m., in the Parent Center, Room 141; Amanda Hosmer, the school social worker, will discuss bullying. Green Team is looking for donations of house plants and/or pots; donations can be dropped off in the Parent Center; for more information, contact parent liaison Carol Sutton at 978-970-5496 or

DALEY: All students recently attended a presentation about Internet safety, such as social networking, privacy and Internet predators; parents may wish to discuss those topics at home; review the Parents' Section at

href=''> to find ways to keep children safe while surfing the Web. Thanks to all who attended Open House, and congratulations to all Term 1 Daley Diamond award winners. Seventh- and eighth-grade boys basketball tryouts are after school Wednesday.

GREENHALGE: Fourth-graders continue to sell Smencils for $1. Greenhalge offers a free breakfast program for all students; third- and fourth-graders may arrive at 7:35 and go directly to the cafeteria; kindergartners and first- and second-graders eat in their classrooms at 7:40.

LINCOLN: Parents, please remind children to do their RAH (reading at home) every afternoon or evening as part of their homework; initial your child's RAH Log. Lincoln's branch of Washington Savings Bank will be open Friday, 8:30-9:30.

MCAULIFFE: First schoolwide RIF book distribution Monday. Encourage your child to be a "high five" reader, and remind him or her to participate in the lobby book swap on their way to class in the morning.

MURKLAND: "Bingo for Books" is Wednesday, 6-7 p.m., for kindergarten, first- and second-grade families; Bingo winners choose a book for their prize. Preschoolers take home "Raising a Reader" book bags each Tuesday and return them to school by Friday. We are challenging our students to collect 2,000 Box Tops for Education this month.

ROBINSON: Thanks to parents who attended a record-breaking Open House; more than 400 showed overwhelming support for our school. Student Council continues to collect nonperishable items for their food drive to make baskets for Robinson families in need. Family Night Bingo for Books is Tuesday, 6-8 p.m., in the auditorium; bring a snack and share a snack; drinks will be available; students must be with an adult. Picture makeup is Thursday.

STOKLOSA: Stoklosa is collecting nonperishable food items for needy families in our school; send items in with your child to place in the shopping cart by the main office; if your family could use help this holiday season, call Mrs. Robtoy at 978-446-7452. Eighth-grade Talent Search students will visit Northeastern University on Monday. Sign and return all dental forms to the school nurse by Tuesday. Sixth-graders will read As I Grew Older by Langston Hughes to practice making inferences; other poetry and independent reading will be used for the purpose of inferencing. In Social Studies, many students will begin studying the Himalayas.

WANG: First-quarter honor-roll assembly is Friday morning in the auditorium, grades 7 and 8 at 8:20, grades 5 and 6 at 8:35; each ceremony will last about 15 minutes; parents are invited.
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Scientists develop drought tolerant rice

Crop protection solutions for the forward-thinking soybean farmer

A new breakthrough study by scientists has led to the development of a rice crop that is not only drought tolerant but high yielding despite the lack of water.

The crop has been developed by scientists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the genotypes have been dispersed to other Asian countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan, and the Philippines.

Originally, researchers planted different rice genotypes on two separate plots at IRRI headquarters in Los Ba¤os. The field plots were of similar soil fertility and the crops were equally managed apart from receiving different amounts of water.

IRRI scientists were able to identify 26 second-generation aerobic rice genotypes that produced significant yields compared to the first generation crops.

Initial analysis of the research found rice crops grown in drought like conditions show a decrease in plant height, harvest index, and grain yield.

The rice crops subjected to less water yielded 50 percent more than the previous generation and further gains are expected as the cycle is repeated.

"Aerobic rice is a good strategy for coping with the increasing water shortage and ensuring rice food security in tropical regions. A breeding protocol is key to the success of a breeding program in developing new aerobic rice varieties, "said Dule Zhao, one of the authors of the study.

Aerobic rice breeding studies are continuing at IRRI. Researchers are attempting to develop rice crops that are drought tolerant and also weed competitive and high quality.

The study is published in the issue of journal Crop Science. (ANI)
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China gains influence with development push into Cambodia

By John Pomfret

KOH KONG, Cambodia — Down a blood-red dirt track deep in the jungles of southwestern Cambodia, the roar begins. Turn a corner and there is the source — scores of dump trucks, bulldozers, and backhoes hacking away at the earth. Above a massive hole, a flag flaps in the hot, dusty breeze. It is the flag of the People’s Republic of China.

Here in the depths of the Cardamom Mountains, where the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge communists made their last stand in the late 1970s, China is asserting its rights as a resurgent imperial power in Asia. Instead of exporting revolution and bloodshed to its neighbors, China is now sending its cash and its people.

At this clangorous hydropower dam site hard along Cambodia’s border with Thailand, and in Myanmar, Laos, and even Vietnam, China is engaged in a massive push to extend its economic and political influence into Southeast Asia. Spreading investment and aid along with political pressure, China is transforming a huge swath of territory along its southern border. Call it the Monroe Doctrine, Chinese-style.

Ignored by successive US administrations, China’s rise in this region is now causing alarm in Washington, which is aggressively courting the countries of Southeast Asia. The Obama administration has cultivated closer ties with its old foe Vietnam. It has tried to open doors to Myanmar, which US officials believe is in danger of becoming a Chinese vassal state. Relations have been renewed with Laos, whose northern half is dominated by Chinese businesses.

In an Oct. 28 speech about US policy in Asia, before embarking on her sixth trip to the continent in two years, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton used military terminology to refer to US efforts: “forward-deployed diplomacy.’’

During a recent trip to Phnom Penh — the first by a US secretary of state since 2002 — Clinton, while speaking to Cambodian students, was asked about Cambodia’s ties to Beijing. “You don’t want to get too dependent on any one country,’’ she told them.

Still, China powers ahead.

China has concluded a free-trade deal with all 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while a similar US pact is only in its infancy. It is cementing ties with Thailand, a US ally, despite recent political unrest there.

In Cambodia, Chinese firms have turned mining and agricultural concessions in the eastern part of the country into no-go zones for Cambodian police. Guards at the gates to two of them, a gold mine and a hemp plantation, shoo travelers away unless they are able to pay a toll.

“It’s like a country within a country,’’ Cambodia’s minister of the interior, Sar Kheng, quipped at a conference this year.

China’s real estate development firms have barged into Cambodia with all the ambition, obtrusiveness, and verve that American fruit and tire firms employed in Latin America or Africa in decades past. One company, Union Development Group of Tianjin, in northern China, won a 99-year concession for 120 square miles of beachfront on the Gulf of Thailand.

There, Chinese work teams are cutting a road and mapping hotels, villas, and golf courses. The estimated investment? $3.8 billion. The target market? The nouveau riche from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.

In October, China pledged to support the construction of a $600 million railway between Phnom Penh and Vietnam that will bring China a major step closer to incorporating all of Southeast Asia, as far south as Singapore, into its rail network.

Across Cambodia, dozens of state-run Chinese companies are building eight hydropower dams. The total price tag for those dams will exceed $1 billion. Altogether, Cambodia owes China $4 billion, said Cheam Yeap, a member of the central committee of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

“This takeover is inevitable,’’ said Lak Chee Meng, a reporter on the Cambodia Sin Chew Daily, one of the country’s four Chinese-language dailies, serving 300,000 Khmer-Chinese and an additional quarter-million immigrants and businessmen from mainland China. “Cambodia is approaching China with open arms. It’s how the United States took over its neighborhood.’’

The perennial question about China’s rise is when will Beijing be able to translate its cash into power. In Cambodia, it already has.

Cambodia has avoided criticizing the dams under construction along China’s stretch of the Mekong River, structures that specialists predict will upend the lives of millions of Cambodians who live off the fishing economy around the great inland waterway, Tonle Sap.

Cambodia so strictly follows Beijing’s “one China’’ policy that it has refused Taiwan’s request to open up an economic office here despite the many millions of dollars’ worth of Taiwanese investment in Cambodia.
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