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Friday, March 04, 2011

Degar-Montagnards: Cambodia Must Uphold Asylum Rights

Despite the fact that the UN refuge centre is now closed, according to international standards Montagnards basic right to seek asylum cannot be denied and must be protected.

Cambodia should provide safe asylum for Montagnards fleeing Vietnam’s Central Highlands even after it closes the United Nations’ refugee centre in Phnom Penh for Montagnards on 15 February 2011, Human Rights Watch has said.

Ongoing government crackdowns in Vietnam against Montagnard Christians make it imperative for Cambodia not to deny Montagnards their basic right to seek safe asylum, Human Rights Watch said. As a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, Cambodia is obligated to protect the rights of all who seek asylum within its borders.

“Cambodia has a clear obligation to ensure that future Montagnard asylum seekers are permitted to enter a refugee screening process that is fair and based on international standards,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Closing the Montagnard refugee centre doesn’t change those obligations.”

In December 2010, the Cambodian government ordered the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to close the Montagnard refugee centre by 1 January 2011. The Cambodian government subsequently agreed to an extension of the deadline to 15 February to allow time to resettle or repatriate the Montagnards remaining at the centre.

Human Rights Watch expressed concerns that after the refugee centre closes, the Cambodian government will screen future Montagnard asylum seekers under a procedure that does not meet international standards.

A Cambodian government sub-decree passed in December 2009 allows Cambodia’s Interior Ministry, not UNHCR, to make the final decision about a refugee’s status. Human Rights Watch’s analysis of the sub-decree finds, however, that it fails to incorporate the UN Refugee Convention’s definition of what constitutes a refugee and lacks provisions to fulfil Cambodia’s other obligations as a party to the convention. The sub-decree provides Cambodian authorities great leeway to reject and expel asylum seekers, with insufficient procedural protections in place to prevent unlawful forced returns that are in violation of the Refugee Convention.

Just days after the sub-decree was passed, Cambodian authorities deported 20 Uighur asylum seekers who were at risk of torture and mistreatment to China.

“The Cambodian government has a dismal track record when it comes to deporting recognised refugees and asylum seekers under UNHCR protection – particularly those from countries such as China and Vietnam, with whom it has close relations,” said Robertson. “The UN and concerned governments should press Cambodia to make sure the Montagnards don’t suffer the same fate as the Uighurs and others who have been unlawfully deported.”

In defending the closure of the Montagnard refugee centre, Cambodian officials have declared there is no longer any need for Montagnards to flee to Cambodia, citing Vietnam’s economic progress and lack of armed conflict in Montagnard areas.

“It is time for us to close the refugee center because Vietnam has no war or armed conflict, and it is not necessary to have the refugee centre in our country,” Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters in December.

“The Cambodian foreign minister and other officials have grossly mischaracterised the definition of a refugee,” said Robertson. “A refugee is a person with a well-founded fear of being persecuted, whose flight can occur irrespective of armed conflict or economic factors.”

Since 2001, thousands of Montagnards in Vietnam have fled harsh government crackdowns to Cambodia, where most have been recognised as refugees and resettled to the United States, Sweden, Finland, and Canada.

Under a 2005 agreement between the UNHCR and the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments, the UNHCR handled the protection and refugee screening process for Montagnard asylum seekers in Cambodia. The agreement called for Montagnards whose asylum claims had been determined to be either resettled abroad or repatriated to Vietnam.

Human Rights Watch continues to receive credible reports of persecution of Montagnards in Vietnam, where more than 300 have been imprisoned since 2001 for peaceful expression of their religious or political views, or for trying to seek asylum in Cambodia.

“Montagnards will continue to try to flee Vietnam as long as the Vietnamese government systematically violates their basic rights,” said Robertson. “It’s imperative that the Cambodian government live up to its international obligations and not force asylum seekers back to a place where their lives and their liberty will be at stake.”

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Cambodia's Isolated Villagers Change Their Lives With Lower-Cost Solar

By Coco Liu of Climatewire

ROU HAL, Cambodia -- With a desire to one day become a doctor and save lives, 12-year-old Phat Sopwa devotes most of his time to study. After dark, though, his dream grew dim.

Living in this typical Cambodian village without electricity, Phat used to do homework by a kerosene lamp that emits no more light than a cigarette lighter. The dim ray hurt his eyes, made him drowsy and forced the boy to quickly give up his tasks.

That dark homework time ended in February with a gift from his aunt. What Phat received is a small solar array, which powers three light bulbs and made his wooden hut fill with bright light for the first time.

"Solar is much better [than the kerosene lamp]. I can now see characters in my textbooks clearly," said Phat, while happily flipping on and off the light switch.

Phat isn't the only Cambodian who is excited about solar. In a nation deprived of electricity infrastructure, yet rich in sunlight, rural families are increasingly adding solar products to their shopping lists.

What's driving the trend, according to solar companies, is that Cambodia's rising economy has coincided with a continuing drop in the cost of solar energy. Meanwhile, financial incentives have been rolled out to help the rural poor harness the sun.

Although electricity grids from dams, neighboring countries and fossil fuel power plants are expected to reach more than two-thirds of Cambodia's households by 2030, some villagers don't want to wait for another two decades.

Last month, three families in Phat's village already switched on solar energy. "Many other villages around here are also using solar," said Phoeuy Phen, a tourist driver on his way to Angkor Wat, a centuries-old temple complex where Angelina Jolie filmed the movie "Tomb Raider."

Where the grid peters out in the coconut trees

Modern energy is a luxury in Cambodia, where millions of rural residents live beyond the reach of the nation's power grid.

Outside Siem Reap, one of Cambodia's more developed cities, electric lines are tangled like giant spaghetti on wooden poles -- sometimes on coconut trees -- to reach scattered villages. After a few miles, the lines peter out. Then, a vast kingdom running on kerosene and batteries begins.

There, roughly half of the people spend their nighttime with smoky kerosene lamps, a fire hazard to their wooden huts. Most can name a neighbor who lost a house and even children because of one careless moment.

This risk led some to a second popular solution. Richer Cambodians get access to electricity by using automobile storage batteries. Those batteries can do the job for a few days, and then it's time to take a bumpy journey.

In early morning, villagers load these batteries on bicycles and ply the rocky roads to diesel-powered charging stations, where they drop their empty battery off for a refill. At twilight, they come again, leave about 50 cents and take the recharged battery back home.

An Oach, who runs such a charging station, greets dozens of customers every day. Although the charging fee has gone up by 25 percent over the last six months, along with rising diesel prices, An says she believes villagers are likely to stay with her, rather than be lured away by some solar salesmen.

"For now, the price of solar is still too high, and not many know what solar is," An said, almost shouting in an attempt to be heard over the rat-a-tat-tat of her sputtering generator.

Solar isn't chicken feed to a farmer

It turns out that she isn't entirely right. A dozen miles up the road, in a small farming village called Chouk Saw, a chicken grower tells the story the other way around.

Three years ago, Bum Ma Sarith got convinced by a solar salesman and risked $1,500 from his savings to buy an Italian-made solar power system. Although his hope was simply to end tedious recharging journeys, Bum found out solar energy did more than that.

Unlike batteries, the solar power system never runs down, providing reliable and long-lasting light to his chicken farm, said Bum. Thus he was able to increase the farm's annual output by 30 percent. And every year, Bum also saves at least $500 on battery costs and enjoys an extra bonus: powering a small television and watching movies with his family.

The result whetted Bum's appetite for the technology. He now plans to buy a solar-powered pump that will fetch water from his backyard well.

Surprisingly, the popularity of solar energy is also emerging among the poorer families who can't even afford batteries.

Nouk Sarou, a 39-year-old mother of two, recently took a relative's advice and cut off her dangerous relationship with kerosene lamps. She bought a solar lantern equipped with a high-efficiency LED light.

Charged by a palm-size solar panel, the lantern provides safe light while it costs one-third of what Nouk spent on kerosene. Moreover, it also changed other aspects of her life, including the experience of going to the toilet.

Like most villagers in Cambodia, Nouk uses the forest for her private needs. But that is a scary thing to do at night, she said, adding that she used to pick up a burning branch from her cookstove and brave into the dark woods with it. Today, however, "with [bright light from] the solar lantern, there is no worries about going to the toilet," said Nouk, laughing and blushing.

A rent-a-lamp scares away the ghosts

Nouk said she is saving money for a solar power system that can operate a television -- a key channel for her to gain knowledge. Decades of war in Cambodia meant she never had a chance to go to school. Luckily for Nouk, she might not need to wait too long.

Kamworks, a solar startup in Cambodia, is making it easier for the rural poor to afford solar energy. Under its recently launched lending scheme, families can use solar products first, and gradually pay back with what they save on batteries or kerosene expenditures.

So far, more than 20 families have benefited from the pilot service, according to Jeroen Verschelling, a director at Kamworks. And the company is in talks with local banks, aiming to expand the reach of the scheme to cover half of the country, he added.

Still, despite Kamworks' efforts and complementing services from its peers and the government, the mission to power rural Cambodia with solar energy is eclipsed by three missing links.

It is hard to grow distribution networks in the remote lands, industry players noted. And investors show little interest in expansion plans, as they view solar energy and rural Cambodians a poor mix.

Other than that, generating electricity from the sun sounds too good to be real, making solar energy a hard sell to 4 out of 5 villagers who have never heard of such technology, according to Anthony Jude, an energy expert from the Asian Development Bank.

Solar entrepreneurs have been scrambling for ways to close the knowledge gap. They let solar energy be heard on radios, seen on handed-out T-shirts and also taken home without buying it.

Last year, Kamworks began renting out solar lanterns at a daily price of 8 cents -- roughly what villagers spend on kerosene. The rental business became so popular that the company plans to increase its rental outlets to 80, up from three right now, said Verschelling.

Designed by Dutch college students, the solar lantern is a favorite among rural families. According to its product leaflet, its functions include providing light to cook, study and scare ghosts -- a major need here after dark.
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Sam Rainsy Says No Apology on Criminal Charges

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy says he will not apologize to the government for his stance of the border issue with Vietnam, despite losing a Supreme Court appeal on criminal charges this week.

Political observes say the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold charges against him for uprooting markers near the Vietnamese border means a political solution is the only way to bring him back for 2012 and 2013 elections.

Sam Rainsy remains in exile abroad and faces 12 years in prison on a raft of charges stemming from his contentions that Cambodia is losing land to Vietnamese encroachment.

Political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party have received royal pardons in the past, but only at the behest of the premier to the king.

“On the issue of an apology, I do not need to apologize to anyone at all,” Sam Rainsy told VOA Khmer. “In the country, there are only the current Cambodian leaders who need to apologize to the people.”

Sam Rainsy is accused of racial incitement and destruction of property for uprooting border markers in Svay Rieng province in 2009, as well as charges of disinformation for publishing a map on his party’s website he claims shows encroachment. The courts have so far sided with government claims the map is a fabrication.

Sam Rainsy maintains the charges against him are politically motivated, and he remains confident a political solution can be reached. “It is moving forward,” he said.

CPP lawmaker Cheam Yiep told VOA Khmer Sam Rainsy’s return depends on him writing Hun Sen and whether the premier will decide to allow him to come back.

Hun Sen has said in public speeches Sam Rainsy’s cases are matters for the courts.
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