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Monday, January 24, 2011

Volunteer teaching in Cambodia

Working as a volunteer teaching English to a group of Cambodian kids must be easy, right? TNT's Carol Driver discovered the reality...

There are 40 beaming faces staring up at me waiting for my next move. Their eyes sparkle and they giggle as I jump up and down on the spot in front of them, attempting to sing “with a moo-moo here and a moo-moo there” from Old MacDonald’s Farm.

I know I look ridiculous, but I’m far from caring. It’s 2pm in Cambodia and it’s a searing 40C. We are crammed into a tiny, non-air-conditioned make-shift classroom in Phnom Penh.

I’m trying desperately to keep their attention as they want to go and play.

Thankfully it works. By the time I add a pig, cat, cow, horse and dog to the story, they’ve got the right idea and start chanting the animal noises.

I manage to make it to the end of the lesson – sweat running down my back.

Destination guide - Cambodia

I’m in the country’s capital city for three weeks as part of a volunteer project, helping the charity Riverkids, which offers children at risk of being trafficked or sold into prostitution, a free education.

On my first day, I’m taken to the slums where many of the kids live. The scenes are heartbreaking. The tiny, wooden shacks balance around mud paths. There are dirty, naked toddlers wandering aimlessly. We see some women working, cooking meals, while most of the men are lying down, watching TV on dated, black-and-white screens. Many of them have drink and drug problems.

The children look helpless. It’s easy to see how celebrities such as Madonna and Angelina Jolie think they’re helping communities by adopting children. But it’s charities such as Riverkids that are really stopping the cycle of poverty.

I’m staying at a guesthouse with around 15 other volunteers who are all placed at various locations across the city.

My project is a 25-minute hair-raising tuk-tuk ride away, weaving in and out of the chaotic traffic on lawless roads. In the classroom, volunteers prepare their own lessons. It’s an early start
– my day kicks off at 7.30am with a group of nine to 15-year-olds.

As I walk into the classroom, the students stand and chant “Good morning teacher” in Khmer and then English, as they clasp their hands together in the traditional respectful greeting.

After English is computer studies – but, as Riverkids doesn’t have the resources to buy an electricity generator, and there’s a power cut every day, the lessons are always cut short.

With no electricity, there are also no fans, and the intense heat makes it increasingly difficult to concentrate.

During breaks, the children rush out into the dirt-floor playground, without a care in the world, and engage in boisterous games or sing and dance.

They chase each other, pulling one another to the floor. There are scrapes and hits as well as bruises and cuts as they get into the spirit of the game – but not once do any of them cry.

Commercially, Cambodia is growing as a traveller destination. However, due to political instability which ended only recently, it’s far behind neighbouring Thailand in terms of popularity. But tourists can help in terms of bringing money to the country.

In Phnom Penh, Friends and The Lazy Gecko cafe are two restaurants serving great local food which also help support charities. And there are great bars and restaurants around the Riverside and Lakeside areas.

To really immerse yourself in the country’s culture, you have to understand its turbulent past.

The only way to see firsthand the devastation the Cambodian people have endured is by visiting the haunting Tuol Sleng Museum and Killing Fields.

The museum is a former school used by ex-dictator Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime as a security prison where from 1975 to 1979, between one and two million people were held, starved and tortured, and then sent to their deaths in the Killing Fields.

The photos of the prisoners on the walls make for grim viewing and drives home just how recent the country’s turmoil was. For less emotive sightseeing, visit Wat Phnom temple or the National Museum, home to a fine collection of Khmer art.

Back at Riverkids for my afternoon class, I raid the charity’s limited storeroom for supplies for my last lesson.

It’s art and singing with children as young as three – some of whom speak no English, so communicating with them is difficult.

The classroom is a 15-minute walk and, although it’s a struggle carrying bags filled with paper and paints, it’s a great way to meet the locals, who are friendly – greeting me with curious smiles and acknowledgements of “hello teacher”.

Despite the fun element attached to these classes, I find them the most stressful lessons. Controlling 40 demanding children who are armed with paint, water and fingers – and who don’t understand English – isn’t easy.

I spend the next hour running around, clearing up spilt water, helping children who have difficulty drawing. At the end of the lesson, the children playfully smear colours down each other’s faces and in one another’s hair.

I shrug my shoulders and laugh as the kids line up at the small sink to wash their hands and faces.

Exhausted, I make the journey to meet with the other volunteers, who are also tired and stressed, and we talk about how difficult our days were and what went wrong during our lessons.
As I pull a text book from my bag, a note slips out. “I love you teacher from Srey Mai,” it reads, and it puts a smile on my face.

It’s then I realise why “voluntourism” is growing so much in popularity – more of us now want to do something useful during our holidays, to immerse ourselves in a culture and country rather than just the hotel swimming pool.

While it’s ultimately the students who I want to benefit from my time in Cambodia, I can’t help think that it’s the children – with their robust attitudes and camaraderie despite their deprived pasts and uncertain futures – who have taught me the greater lesson. And that’s what makes it so rewarding.

WHEN TO GO: Dry season runs from November to April.
GETTING THERE: Qantas (with partner Jetstar Asia) offers flights from London to Phom Penh via Singapore. Fares start from £862 (including taxes) for travel April 8 – June 15. See
GETTING AROUND: On the back of a motorbike, or there are tuk-tuks as well as taxis. Make sure you barter though.
VISAS: Required but available on arrival.
CURRENCY: Riel, although Cambodians prefer American dollars. 1 GBP = 1.6 USD = 6 RL
GOING OUT: A beer costs $2.
ACCOMMODATION: Shared accommodation is included in the i-to-i Meaninful Travel’s Teaching English in Cambodia course, which runs from four to six weeks, priced from £860.

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Five Thais Convicted in Cambodia and Sent Home

Five Thais returned to their home country from Cambodia on Saturday after being convicted of entering Cambodia illegally.

On Friday a Cambodian court convicted the five Thais. It’s been a case that has strained relations between the neighboring states.

The five, including parliament member Panich Vikitsreth, were all sentenced to nine months jail for crossing the disputed border area between Thailand and Cambodia.

The court suspended the remaining eight-month jail term but they were each fined about $247 U.S. dollars.

During the trial, the court was presented with evidence including a video clip that showed Panich talking on the phone with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit's aide, telling him that he was going into Cambodia.

Witnesses included border police and soldiers who said that Panich and others were in Cambodia intentionally.

Panich said he entered Cambodia by accident.

There were originally seven in the group which was detained last December.

The other two detainees remain in custody and face charges of espionage.

All seven said they had only been inspecting the border.

Large stretches of the Thai-Cambodian border are poorly demarcated and many border markers have been destroyed or moved during decades of conflict in Cambodia.
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Yellow shirts up the ante

Thai Yellow Shirts have threatened to protest “indefinitely” from today in a bid to pressure the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva into taking stronger action in a border dispute with Cambodia.

Chamlong Srimuang, leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, said the group wants Abhisit to withdraw from the United Nations’ World Heritage Committee, cancel a 2000 memorandum of understanding with Cambodia concerning border negotiations and urge Cambodians to withdraw from disputed border areas.

“We will gather indefinitely if Abhisit doesn’t come out to protect the country,” he told reporters in Bangkok.

He said the protest would begin at 2pm on a bridge less than a kilometre from the prime minister’s office, known as Government House, which the group occupied for three months in 2008.

“We won’t get into Government House tomorrow or the next day, but I don’t know yet about the following days,” Chamlong said.

The warning comes after Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday convicted five Thais – including Panich Vikitsreth, a lawmaker from Thailand’s ruling Democrat Party – of entering the country illegally.

Their nine-month jail sentences were suspended by the court, and the five returned to Thailand on Saturday.

Last month, seven Thais were arrested by Cambodian soldiers in Banteay Meanchey’s O’Chrou district after they reportedly travelled to the border to “investigate” the joint border demarcation process.

The remaining two members of the group – Yellow Shirt activist Veera Somkwamkid and his secretary Ratree Taiputana Taiboon – have also been charged with espionage, facing potential 10-year jail terms.

Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the prospect of more Yellow Shirt protests was an “internal affair” of Thailand, and would not affect relations with Bangkok.

“We don’t have any concerns about the continuing demonstrations by the Yellow Shirts in Bangkok,” he said.

Thai officials also denied the protests would have any negative ripple effects for the two countries’ relationship.

“I think the government has been very clear ... the government has said many times that the 2000 MoU is necessary,” said Thani Thongphakdi, deputy spokesman of the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The Thai government is very clear on this and the Cambodian government understands that the protests have nothing to do with the government.”

In 2008, the Yellow Shirts took to Bangkok’s streets for more than six months in a bid to force ex-leader Thaksin Shinawatra’s allies from power, culminating in an eight-day seizure of the city’s airports.

The protest ended after a court disbanded the ruling party and Abhisit took power two weeks later in a parliamentary vote.

On Sunday, Abhisit said the Cambodian court ruling would not bear on the ongoing border demarcation process.

“The ruling has no effect on the border issue because of the memorandum of understanding between Thailand and Cambodia on the survey and demarcation of land boundary signed in 2000,” he told the Bangkok Post.

Abhisit also said the government would not revoke the MoU, saying it could lead to clashes between the two countries. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY BLOOMBERG

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SRP To Rotate Parliamentarians Mid-Term

Sam Rainsy party supporters greet onlookers at a busy market during an election rally in the capital Phnom Penh, in 2008.

The Sam Rainsy Party is preparing for a repositioning of National Assembly seats for its lawmakers, halfway through the election cycle.

The opposition party’s vice president, Kong Korm, is returning from a two-day party meeting that ended in Manila Sunday, where exiled party president, Sam Rainsy, issued instructions for the rotation, officials said Monday.

The party holds 26 legislative seats in the National Assembly, and party officials say the replacement of party members to different seats will strengthen the party’s chances in upcoming elections.

The rotation is in response to a reminder from eight steering committee members reminding the president of the rotation.

Kong Korm, who is the acting party president while the president remains abroad, “will directly meet with you all to confirm and explain the decision of the party,” Sam Rainsy wrote.

Noun Vuthy, a member of the steering committee, confirmed the decision, which will be implemented in March.

The rotation of all 26 seats is determined by the amount of money candidates paid during the election campaign in 2008. The first five candidates for each province paid $24,000 in campaign funding, while the next four each paid $22,000.

The rotation will switch out the top-tier candidates for the second-tier candidates.

Am Sam Ath, head of investigation for the rights group Licadho, said the rotation would change up party experience and policy. The rotation agreement would need to be honored, he said, to avoid internal party conflict in the upcoming 2013 parliamentary election.

But the rotation could also cause problems in parliamentary coherency, he said.

Meanwhile, the party will have to prepare for 2012 commune council elections, as Sam Rainsy remains in exile to avoid criminal charges he has decried as politically motivated.

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Ousted Residents of Dey Krahorm Rally at Old Site

Former residents of Phnom Penh's Dey Krahorm community gathered at the site where they were evicted two years ago Monday. Residents say they continue to live in inadequate relocation sites far from the city and its services.

About 300 former residents of a Phnom Penh squatter community who were evicted two years ago Monday, gathered at their former neighborhood to call for a change in government.

The residents of the neighborhood, known as Dey Krahorm, called for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down from power, claiming they had been forcefully evicted and moved to inadequate relocation sites.

The demonstrators said in a statement that on Jan. 24, 2009, 144 house owners and their families had been “violently and cruelly” evicted by Phnom Penh security forces and 500 paid employees of the 7NG developer, which laid claim to the site.

Those families were “forced to accept” housing in Damnak Troyeung village, Choam Chao commune, Dangkor district, but many have had to come back to Phnom Penh to seek work, the statement said.

“This is because the relocation site is far away from employment, they cannot afford to connect to electricity, there is no access to public services, [the site is] far away from school for their children, [has] no clean water system, no drainage system and no safety and security,” the statement said.

Another 400 families are now living “under ragged tarpaulins” near Udong mountain, where “many children are infected with viruses,” due to a lack of clean water, health center, food and sanitation, the statement said.

Prolonged dissatisfaction with the conditions have angered many residents.

“Stop allowing him to have power,” former resident Dul Chantha, 53, said of Hun Sen on Monday. “Because when he’s in this position, the poor people are going toward death. I’m not afraid to say that, because I’m fed up the Cambodian government, which became a nightmare on Jan. 24, 2009.”

“Right now I’m living in the new location site worse than an animal,” he said.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said only an election can change the prime minister.

“What the people are calling for is an abuse of democracy in Cambodia,” he said. “People may have received this idea from others, calling for the step down in power. They should rethink what the government does and continue their work right now.”

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Songkitti: Cambodia will 'correct' sign

The supreme military commander of Cambodia has promised to make a "correction" to the controversial sign posted on the disputed border branding Thai troops as "invaders", Supreme Commander Songkitti Jaggabatara said on Monday.

Gen Songkitti said this after a meeting with Gen Pol Sareoun, the supreme commander of Cambodia.

They had discussed the controversial stone tablet erected in front of Wat Kaew Sikha Khiri Sawara, in the disputed area near Preah Vihear. Cambodia says it is where Thai troops invaded Cambodian territory.

"Cambodia said a correction will be made in a favourable way. Let's wait and see," Gen Songkitti said.

"I don't want to speak more about this. Let's take it this way, that Cambodia will make a correction in a favourable manner.

"Then this matter should come to an end."

Gen Songkitti and his Cambodian counterpart met while attending a tod pha pa ceremony at Wat Chanthorn Buriwong in Phnom Penh during which more than three million baht in donations were made.

Altogether 140 high-level officers from the three Thai armed forces took part in the merit-making ceremony. They travelled to Cambodia on two air force C130 transport planes and an Airbus aircraft.

Gen Songkitti said no matter what problems may arise, the military ties between the two country are still good, judging from the fact that the Thai visitors were given due honour and welcomed by a large number of people.

Reports said Army 2nd Region commander Lt Gen Thawatchai Samutsakorn had asked Cambodian troops to take down the sign on Monday morning, but it remained prominently in place.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said earlier he would leave it to the army to ask Cambodia to remove the sign. The political sector would not get involved.

Cambodia put the stone tablet up after Thai troops withdrew from Wat Kaew Sikha Khiri Sikha Sawara on Dec 1.

People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) co-leader Chamlong Srimuang said the yellow-shirt rally on Tuesday in Bangkok will call on the government to accede to three demands to protect the country's sovereignty.

The government must withdraw from the Unesco World Heritage Committee, revoke the memorandum of understanding on the Thai-Cambodian border signed in 2000, and expel Cambodian people [from disputed border areas], Maj-Gen Chamlong said on Monday.

"Prime Minister Abhisit can implement these three demands at any time, but he has yet to implement any of them, and this has forced us to rally tomorrow," the PAD core member said.

The problem of the seven Thais who were arrested by Cambodian soldiers on Dec 29 would not have emerged if Mr Abhisit had followed the PAD's demands.

"Our rally will end when the prime minister meets our demands. If he cannot tackle the Preah Vihear issue our rally will continue, but we will not occupy Government House as rumoured," he said.

Maj Gen Chamlong admitted there were rifts between the PAD and Chaiwat Sinsuwong, leader of the Thai Patriots Network (TPN) - a PAD splinter group.

"However, I'm getting along well with Samana Photirak [leader of the Santi Asoke sect] and the news reports about us being at odds are not true," he said.

PAD spokesman Panthep Puapongpan said Prime Minister Abhisit's televised address on Sunday night on the Thai-Cambodian border dispute was not factual.

Mr Panthep said the area where the seven Thais were arrested by Cambodian soldiers was a camp set up by Thai authorities for Cambodian refugees, and the government had allowed the fence to intrude on Thai territory.

Thai villagers could no longer use the area after Cambodian people moved into the refugee camp, he said.

"The Thai government has never raised this issue for talks with Cambodia," Mr Panthep said.

Mr Abhisit's explanation of the border issue last night might cause the country to lose more land, and he could be be liable to punishment by life imprisonment or the death penalty, according to the PAD spokesman.

"The villagers' land title deeds prove that the area belongs to Thai people, but the prime minister has no concrete measures to counter Cambodia or to stop Cambodia asserting sovereignty over our country's land," he said.

National police chief Gen Wichean Potephosree said about 3,600 police will be deployed to maintain law and order in Bangkok on Tuesday when there will be a rallies by the PAD, TPN and Santi Asoke sect.

Pol Gen Wichean said after a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban and representatives of the armed forces at Government House that the government's policy is for police to prevent the protesters from laying siege to government installations such as Government House and the parliament.

A total of four police companies, totalling about 3,600 police, will be on duty. Two companies will begin deployment at Government House and another two at the parliament on Monday night, the police chief said.

He said 3,000-5,000 people were expected to take part in the rally.

The PAD is calling on the government to revoke the 2000 memorandum of understanding on border demarcation, which it says puts Thailand at a disadvantage in its dealings with Cambodia over territorial disputes.

The TPN and Santi Asoke cult, already encamped in front of Government House, are pressing for the government to do more to secure the release of Veera Somkwamkid, a TPN coordinator, and his secretary Ratree Pipatanapaiboon, who are still in a Cambodian jail facing trial on charges of illegal entry and espionage, with a ruling anticipated on Feb 1.
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