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Friday, June 10, 2011

Cambodia trip crosses racial divide

By Erin Spandorf

All study abroad programs are designed for the purpose of education, but not all are done for humanitarian reasons. From Jan. 10-24, five Cal State Long Beach students went to Cambodia to improve not only their own academic experiences, but also the lives of impoverished citizens.

Nayeli Barragan, Monica Cardenas, Tina Flores, Petry Rivera and Liliana Zepeda did not know what to expect, but what they experienced left a massive impression on them.

According to Barragan and Zepeda, when they arrived in Cambodia after the 16-hour plane ride from LAX to Taiwan, their first thought was that it reminded them of Mexico. They could see the poverty around them, but even in that condition the people of Cambodia were calm and smiling. The girls felt welcome and even developed a sense of belonging while in the country.

"Many people asked me and the girls why we were so involved with this Cambodian culture when we are, in fact, Hispanic," Rivera said.

"What I learned during those two weeks is that ethnicity and race shouldn't affect how much you care about a child's life." Rivera added. "Just because I am Mexican and these children are Cambodian does not mean I will care for them any less. We are all humans struggling to survive; and unfortunately some more than others."

The language spoken in Cambodia is Kumai, but most people there speak English. The girls had Cambodian translators with them to help them communicate with people who did not speak English.

They traveled through about six or seven towns and visited temples. They got to experience the culture of Cambodia through the food, environment and religion of the country.

The five girls worked with their professor, Alex Morales, as he helped them to get in contact and work with the volunteer organization Hearts Without Boundaries. Through this organization the girls delivered food to villages, handed out school supplies at elementary schools, helped with donations and even met with and interviewed teachers and principals while visiting different schools.

"It was easy to flow into their lifestyle," Barragan said.

While in Cambodia the girls also visited with the family of a three-year-old boy named Bunlak Song. Song has a severe heart condition where there is a hole in his heart. His birth mother had abandoned him at the hospital and afterward another woman had adopted him. Song was the fourth child she had helped and the girls were able to visit the three surviving children as well.

Song's adoptive mother said he brings her luck. She owns a small gasoline store in the village.

"When I came back home, volunteering was the only thing on my mind," Rivera said. "Bunlak Song is a wonderful child. Even with the language barrier the girls and I have connected with him on such an emotional level and cherish every moment we get to see him. He really needs help from both the organization and the community."

After the girls returned home in March, Song came to the U.S. where the girls greeted him at the airport.

Since their return to the U.S., the girls have put together a fundraiser for Song with the help of Hearts Without Boundaries. They were able to raise $1,500 for the cause by selling bracelets.

"It kind of put into perspective what I'm going to be doing as an educator," said Zepeda, who plans to return to CSULB in the fall to work on her credential.

The five girls still meet at least once a week and are planning to try to go back to Cambodia in January 2012. They are currently staying in contact with Song and keep working with Hearts Without Boundaries to promote awareness and organize fundraisers for the organization. They are currently planning a fundraiser in June for Song, which will be planned by the five girls and Hearts Without Boundaries.

Barragan said that she started out with an open mind and the desire to leave her comfort zone. In the end she made a lot of connections, gained an appreciation for the Asian culture and was even able to say that Cambodia felt like home.

"I learned that we need to put our differences aside to truly care and help one another no matter the race, ethnicity or culture," Rivera said. '"Many people need to realize that it doesn't take a millionaire to contribute to the cause, a dollar or even a penny can go a long way when it's from the heart."
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Time Again To Think About Elections, Democracy: Advocate

With local elections on the not-too-distant horizon, a democracy advocate said Thursday Cambodians must now start thinking about political parties specifically and the functions of democracy generally.

“Voters must remember that we are the owners of power,” said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, as a guest of “Hello VOA.” “So those who own the power must actively work, not just think that we are the owners of power, than abandon our obligations, our duties. We all have to participate.”

Elections for commune leaders are slated for 2012, with parliamentary elections to follow the year after. But there are already issues the electorate must be thinking about, Koul Panha said.

That includes maximizing the inclusion of opposition candidates, media equity programs and more transparency, especially in funding, he said. Campaigning and voting systems also need improved, he said.

Comfrel, which was an election monitor until 1998, how works to educate voters on democracy issues, he said.

“We let the people and the political parties observe for themselves whether it’s free and fair,” he said. “For us, we just try to highlight irregularities.”

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Opposition Still Hopeful After Hun Sen Speech

An official for the Sam Rainsy Party says that recent rhetoric about the opposition in a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen may signal a willingness to find a political solution to the exile of the country’s main opposition leader.

Cambodia is gearing up for local elections in 2012 and parliamentary elections the year after, but the Sam Rainsy Party has been operating with its leader abroad and facing criminal charges he says are political.

Hun Sen has previously said he will not broker a compromise to bring Sam Rainsy back, but Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the Sam Rainsy Party, said Thursday that a speech the premier gave earlier this week may signal a shift in that position.

He noted that Hun Sen had told students at a graduation ceremony on Monday that Cambodians must solve their problems peacefully, among Cambodians.

“We must talk mutually,” he said, “which is better than chopping and stabbing.”

“Each country must have democracy, pluralism, and allow the establishment of parties, give the to set up NGOs and to have press freedom,” he said.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy remains in self-imposed exile and is facing 12 years in prison on charges he says are political if he returns.

Cheam Yiep, a lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said Sam Rainsy’s return ahead of elections could be possible.

“So far there has been tolerance and forgiveness from [Prime Minister] Hun Sen, who has been sympathetic,” he said.

However, he noted, Sam Rainsy is now engaged in a campaign to file charges against Hun Sen in international courts.

Sam Rainsy has said he considers military campaigns led by Hun Sen in the 1980s led to unnecessary deaths of civilians near the Thai border, as government troops fought the Khmer Rouge.

Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said he hoped Sam Rainsy will be allowed to return, which would signal a type of “maturity” in Cambodia’s democratic system.

“This is the process of a good culture, or good behavior, for politicians to compromise and mutually and politically forgive each other,” he said.

He added that the charges against Sam Rainsy—linked to his uprooting of border markers near Vietnam in 2009—are not serious and can likely be ironed out.

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