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Friday, March 25, 2011

Labor Leaders Threaten Protest Over Draft Law

A Cambodian garment worker speaks on a loud speaker as she leads a strike in front of a factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Sept. 13, 2010.

Labor leaders say they want the Ministry of Labor to accept their recommendations to a law now being drafted to regulate union activity, threatening they will hold mass demonstrations otherwise.

“If they do not take the recommendations of the unions, there will be a big, peaceful demonstration until they change it,” said Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, as a guest on “Hello VOA” Thursday.

Union officials say they are opposed to the current version of the Ministry of Labor’s draft law, which they say will make it harder for unions to function and easier for factories to sue labor leaders. Proponents of the law say it will help regulate a sometimes unruly sector and important economic engine.

A second “Hello VOA” guest, Ath Thun, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said too that his and other unions will protest if their recommendations are not adopted.

“In the first stage, we have had discussions with all union leaders in Cambodia, from every political spectrum, and we are all agreed and share the same concerns,” he said.

Ath Thun said the current draft does not allow freedom for unions to execute their duties and makes it more difficult for them to recruit members, by requiring regular reporting to ministries and increasing fines and punishment for union leaders.

The draft will also require unions to run their membership dues through the employer, he said. “That we can’t do, as the employers do not want unions,” he said.

The draft also makes it easy for authorities to suspend or cancel a union’s license or to “punish” unions, he said, a contravention of international conventions.

“If this law is passed without incorporating the opinions of the unions and workers, that means there are no unions’ rights, and violations of the law will increase, because no one will take the risk to be a union leader anymore,” he said.

Rong Chhun said the unions will resubmit their recommendations to the Ministry of Labor on Friday.

The ministry said this week that the draft is meant to benefit workers, not restrict unions. Cambodia has at least 62 unions that represent many of the nation’s 300,000 factory laborers.

Both labor leaders said Cambodians are traveling to outside countries like Malaysia, South Korea, Vietnam or Thailand in search of work, because the government has not created jobs for them at home.

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Women in Garment Factories Help Cambodia Out of Poverty

PHNOM PENH, Mar 25, 2011 (IPS) - Cambodia’s rise out of poverty continues to depend on the nimble fingers of young women like Khiev Chren. She has spent the last three years in a garment factory on the outskirts of this capital city, churning out clothing for international name brands such as Levis, Dockers and GAP. "This is my first job and I need the money to help my family in the province," the 23-year-old said, barely pausing as her fingers guided the left leg of a white trouser under the needle of her electric sewing machine.

Around her rose a hum from nearly 2,000 sewing machines, behind which sat women stitching garments from jeans to shirts, in a well-lit cavernous hall. "This is a more secure job than working in the rice fields back home," Chren admitted, alluding to the hardship of life in her rural-rice-growing province of Takeo, south of Phnom Penh.

The increasing dependence on women like Chren for this Southeast Asian country’s journey out of poverty was brought home Monday by the World Bank’s ‘East Asia and Pacific Economic Update’. "Garment exports registered a 24 percent growth in 2010 after shrinking 20 percent during the 2009 [global financial] crisis," the international financial institute revealed of the main driver of Cambodia’s fledgling export economy.

"Two of Cambodia’s growth drivers rebounded faster than expected," the Bank added in its assessment of the country’s economy, referring to the garment and footwear sectors. "As a result, some 55,300 new jobs have been created by both industries in 2010, recovering most of the jobs lost during the 2009 economic downturn."

Women in this country of 14 million have benefited from this windfall in new jobs, amplifying the trend in the garment sector from the time it set its roots in the mid-1990s helping Cambodia recover from decades of conflict, genocide and occupation - which ended with the 1991 Paris peace accords - and extreme poverty. Today, the face of the 320,000 workers in the country’s 270 garment factories remains a feminine one.

The garment factories, which serve as a base for this country’s limited industrial sector, are also pivotal as an employment magnet for the bulging youth population. Nearly 35 percent of the population is between 10 and 24 years old, earning this country the distinction of having the biggest youth population in Southeast Asia, according to U.N. estimates.

It is the labour of the female workforce, in fact, that has contributed to over 70 percent of export earnings from garment sales to markets in the United States and Europe. In 2008, before the global financial crisis, exports earned 4.07 billion U.S. dollars, dropping to 3.5 billion U.S. dollars in 2009 following the crisis - which saw U.S. markets shrink. But by last year, the export market, led by garments, had rebounded, with earning inching close to 4.6 billion U.S. dollars.

And the monthly income of the female labour-force - above 90 U.S. dollars - has been a significant element in helping alleviate poverty in a country still ranked among the world’s 48 Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that Cambodia, which has a third of its population living below the poverty line, will fall short of meeting a 2015 global millennium development goal (MDG) of slashing by half the number people who had been living on less than one dollar a day in 1990.

In rural Cambodia, where close to 85 percent of the population live, the number of people living below the poverty line was as high as 43 percent of the population in 1994, but had dropped to 34.79 percent prior to the 2009 financial crisis. It is a drop for which the garment sector earns kudos.

"The garment factories have been an equaliser in alleviating poverty in rural Cambodia," says Tumo Poutiainen, chief technical advisor of Better Factories Cambodia, a special initiative to ensure high labour standards involving the International Labour Organisation (ILO). "Women come to work in the garment factories not just for themselves, but to send money home."

The remittances that the 350,000 garments factory workers sent home prior to the crisis helped two million people in rural areas, ILO estimates reveal, not counting the additional 150,000 jobs the factories spawned on the fringes of Phnom Penh creating a "secondary economy".

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No Life Sentence Possible in Duch Verdict: Officials

Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, who ran the notorious Toul Sleng, a top secret detention center for the worst "enemies" of the state, appears on a television screen of the press center of the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, 2010

The Supreme Court Chamber of the Khmer Rouge tribunal will hold the final hearing in the case of torture chief Duch next week, but officials said Friday no one should expect to see a life sentence for the defendant.

Many victims of the regime and participants in the case were disappointed when Duch was handed a commuted sentence of 19 years last year. But tribunal officials told reporters Friday that even if the Supreme Court Chamber finds in favor of an appeal from the prosecution, the maximum sentence Duch will receive is 45 years.

The three-day hearing is scheduled to begin Monday and last for three days. “It will be the last sentencing for Duch,” tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath said Friday. “He cannot appeal any more.”

Duch, whose real name is Kaing Kek Iev, was found guilty by the Trial Chamber of atrocity crimes that included crimes against humanity, in the first-ever trial for the UN-backed court.

The Supreme Court Chamber will have to decide if the commuted sentence handed down from the Trial Chamber is acceptable, or whether he should be let out sooner or serve a sentence up to 45 years.

The chamber will also have to decide on an appeal from the defense that questions the legality of Duch’s trial under the court, which is tasked with trying the senior-most leaders of the regime.

“This is not a hearing about how people were tortured, how many people were killed and so on,” tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen said Friday. “It’s a hearing about legal arguments, such as, was Duch a senior leader or most responsible within the mandate of the court.

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A crooked cop, drug money and diamonds: Action-packed allegations at Montreal trial

There are the Cambodian bankers and their monk. The Quebec mobster and his psychic. The crooked cop and a bunch of Colombian cocaine traffickers.

Not to mention the axe murder, the Israeli diamonds and the Latvian bank accounts.

From Miami to Phnom Penh, this tale involves as much as $100-million in drug money, in one of the largest alleged schemes to hide proceeds of crime ever brought before the courts in Canada.

More related to this story
•Canada says it is plugging money-laundering loopholes
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•Canadian firms on hunting mission for Libyan assets

Sy Veng Chun, 63, and his wife Leng Ky Lech, 48, are charged with running what prosecutors call “a sophisticated money-laundering system” with a drug trafficker named Daniel Muir as one of their principal clients.

The Cambodian-born couple ran a tiny currency-exchange boutique in Montreal’s Chinatown, not two blocks from the courthouse where they now stand accused.

From evidence at the Montreal trial, which began a year ago, and in other court cases in Florida, a fuller picture is emerging for the first time of an alleged intricate criminal web spanning three continents.

It started with Mr. Muir, a Quebecker whose rap sheet reads like a CV for a fast-rising drug importer, graduating from busts for a few grams of coke in 1988 to hundreds of kilos by the turn of the century. A thriving independent operator, he had a cordial relationship with Mafia bosses such as Frank Cotroni and was sanctioned by the organized crime groups in Montreal.

But with success came the problem of what to do with all those profits. According to Suzanne Pépin, a clairvoyant who became Mr. Muir’s confidante, “Daniel was fed up with hiding his money,” the Montreal trial was told.

Mr. Muir heard about the services offered by Mr. Chun and Ms. Lech, who ran two companies from the same Chinatown address called Peng Heng Or Gold Inc. and A&A Services Monétaires Inc., court heard.

The pair had been in the news before, when they were executives of Credit Bank of Cambodia of Phnom Penh. In 1995, they lost $2-million trading commodities futures and were unable to meet their margin call. Their bank defaulted, setting off a scandal in Cambodia.

In early 2000, at an Old Montreal restaurant, Mr. Muir and the two accused struck a deal, according to Ms. Pépin, who attended the supper. She said Mr. Chun was described as “the courier of money to Cambodia,” and Ms. Lech told Mr. Muir she had “other clients like him.”

(If Mr. Muir had his clairvoyant, Ms. Lech had her own spiritual adviser, a Buddhist monk, to see whether it was “a good thing” to take the trafficker’s money, the trial heard.)

By 2001, Mr. Muir and an underling, Bernard Mondou, started to negotiate with the Colombian drug baron Elias Cobos-Munoz to import a tonne of cocaine to Canada, via the Bahamas and Florida, according to U.S. court filings.

To pay for the drugs, Mr. Mondou turned to a childhood friend, Montreal police officer Pierre Goulet, to transport $3.5-million to Miami, according to a Quebec court ruling. Hiding packs of cash in the seats and doors of a car, Constable Goulet would flash his badge to avoid scrutiny at the Quebec-New York State border.

The initial plan was to bring the cocaine by plane. However, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the air route had to be dropped and they used instead a speedboat, court documents in Quebec and Florida say.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had gotten wind of the plot and intercepted the shipment in the Bahamas in January, 2002. The DEA then took the cocaine to Miami for a sting operation, according to DEA affidavits.

Days later, in the parking lot of a Taco Bell restaurant, Colombian traffickers brought a U-Haul truck to pick up the cocaine they would deliver to Mr. Muir’s men, unaware they were dealing with undercover DEA agents. Mr. Muir had to fly to Cuba to talk with his Colombian contacts about the lost cargo, not knowing that a police operation was being mounted against them, DEA affidavits said.

Back in Montreal, Mr. Muir kept on rolling.

His ex-wife testified that he told her he had “solved his money problems” when he entrusted about $100-million to Ms. Lech, “his partner for money.”

Ms. Lech came to Mr. Muir’s home to pick up boxes full of $20 bills, court heard. Mr. Chun and Ms. Lech moved the money overseas, prosecutors said, by wiring bank drafts to Cambodia and purchasing more than $10-million in diamonds in Israel, Belgium and Switzerland that were then sent to Hong Kong, Thailand and Cambodia.

“The purchase of this quantity is consistent with the use of diamonds to store wealth via proceeds of crime,” Corporal Kelly Ross, an RCMP expert, said in a statement filed before the court.

The cash was also funnelled through Canadian financial institutions such as the Desjardins credit unions, the Bank of Montreal and the Bank of Nova Scotia, the trial heard.

In addition, prosecutors said, Ms. Lech used money “borrowed from her friend Daniel The Frenchman” to open a small bank in Phnom Penh, Peng Heng SME, which specialized in credit for small businesses.

In October, 2002, Mr. Chun and the Buddhist monk were at Montreal’s airport, about to fly to Cambodia, when agents doing a routine security check found $600,000 U.S. – in $100 bills – in Mr. Chun’s carry-on bag, court heard.

Even though no charges were filed, the RCMP seized the cash.

Mr. Muir, meanwhile, was having trouble with the Colombians.

In 2003, he sent them $3-million through Panama. The Colombian shipped him 800 kilos of cocaine via Venezuela, but half was ruined in transit. Mr. Muir had to send emissaries to Miami to negotiate with the Colombians, who said he still owed them $1.7-million for the Venezuelan delivery, Florida court documents said.

In the fall, Mr. Muir sent $1-million to the Colombians, using a circuitous route that went from accounts in Latvia and Russia, through banks in New York and San Francisco to Costa Rica, according to a U.S. Justice Department indictment.

One evening in February, 2004, Mr. Muir was leaving the Club Wanda’s strip club in downtown Montreal when two men armed with an axe and knife ran after him. Witnesses heard him scream, “They’re going to kill me!” before he was hacked and stabbed. The murder has never been solved.

At the time, “investors” had paid Mr. Muir $35-million for more drugs, but the money was now missing, according to a U.S. Justice Department case summary.

Four months later, the DEA, the RCMP and police in the Bahamas and Colombia announced a series of charges against the Colombian and Canadian organizations. Mr. Mondou, Mr. Cobos-Munoz and Constable Goulet and dozens of others were all eventually convicted.

As police began digging into Mr. Muir’s background, the money trail led them to the Chun-Lech enterprise.

“We started making the links between the two organizations,” Sergeant Benoît Roy, the RCMP’s lead investigator on the case, said in an interview.

Police say they discovered that Mr. Muir’s $1.2-million mansion at the foot of Mont St. Hilaire, south of Montreal, was in Ms. Lech’s name. The hunt was on.

Mr. Chun and Ms. Lech were arrested in January, 2005, after returning from another trip to Cambodia. It took another five years of legal wrangling before their trial finally got under way.

The defence has yet to present its side of the story, and a key witness to much of the alleged laundering, Mr. Muir, is dead.

If found guilty, they could each face a maximum of 10 years in prison. The Crown will also seek confiscation of two homes valued at more than $2-million, the $600,000 seized at the airport and 3,800 diamonds and gems.

During a break, the couple sat serenely in the court corridor.

“I’m not worried,” Mr. Chun said.

Ms. Lech nodded and smiled. “I’m not afraid of anything,” she said.

With reports from Les Perreaux and Ingrid Peritz in Montreal
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