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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

China's security chief goes on tour - How is Asia reacting?

China's Politburo Standing Committee Member Zhou Yongkang arrives for a meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal, August 17, 2011. (Photo: Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters)
Over the past week, as I've traveled across Asia, I've discovered an unlikely partner in my continental peregrinations: China's security chief Zhou Yongkang. The senior Chinese envoy's travels have taken him to Nepal, Laos, Cambodia and Tajikistan. The final stop is Mongolia, where Zhou is expected to head on Tuesday.

In Zhou's wake, the narrative has tended to follow the same plot-line: first, China's state media proclaims “mutually beneficial cooperation” and “longstanding friendship” between Beijing and the local government. Then a raft of trade deals or bequeathing of military goodies is announced. Finally, an undercurrent of unease follows, with regional analysts wondering about China's growing economic and security might.
Last Saturday, Zhou was in Cambodia, where he met with Prime Minister Hun Sen. In addition to various mining, road-construction and farming deals, China has agreed to supply nearly $200 million in helicopters to Cambodia. Beijing is already the Southeast Asian nation's largest foreign investor, and Hun Sen, who has quietly evolved into one of Asia's longest-serving strongmen, has been vociferous in his support of China. His enthusiasm for Chinese largesse stands in marked contrast to his feelings toward Western donors who tend to attach pesky strings like human-rights commitments to their aid. The Phnom Penh Post quoted a local researcher worrying that “Cambodia will become subservient to China.”
Before that in Nepal, Zhou oversaw the signing of more than $50 million in trade and aid. Sandwiched between India and China, Nepal has turned into a kind of proxy ground tussled over by the two Asian giants. The Chinese delegation arrived just days after Nepal's Prime Minister had resigned. Political dysfunction, though, didn't stop the caretaker government from trying to profit from what China's 60-person delegation had to offer. During the Chinese security czar's stay, members of Nepal's Tibetan refugee community were warned against expressing any sentiment that might be considered “anti-China.” (Zhou's previous political duties have included serving on a Beijing committee that deals with Tibet; he helped oversee a crackdown on Tibetan activity in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan.)

Zhou's travels produced some consternation in India, which shares a long border with China and has skirmished with its northern neighbor over the contested boundary. On August 22, the Times of India reported that the Indian Army was considering the creation of a Mountain Strike Corps to counter a Chinese military build-up in Tibet, which borders India. Ultra-light howitzers and light tanks would possibly be stationed along parts of the 4,057-km Line of Actual Control, according to the Times. Despite such tough talk, however, it's unclear whether India is really willing to commit financial resources to a military expansion.

Luckily for China, the official reaction to Zhou's visit was far rosier in communist Laos. According to China's state-run news agency, Xinhua, Laos' President Choummaly Sayasone announced last week that “China has become a significant force in the international community and is playing a key role in promoting regional and global peaceful development, which reveals the vitality of socialism and greatly encourages the Lao people.” Socialist brotherhood doesn't get any better than that.
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Cambodia Town made official

Despite being 72 years old and living with the effects of a stroke, Chhang Song, a former Cambodian Information Minister, wasn’t a minute late in arriving to salute the recently installed Cambodia Town sign in Long Beach, California.

The Long Beach Public Works Department installs one of the first
two signs in Cambodia Town on Friday, July 8.

Wheelchair-bound, he gave a moving speech at the official unveiling of the sign on July 16, saying he was very proud and excited to be able to observe the historic event. The signs, which are visible along several streets and highways in Long Beach, are a visual representation of the resiliency and determination of the millions of Khmer currently living outside their home country.

“I wanted to say ‘thank you, Long Beach’. I wanted to embrace and thank the young men and women who made the birth of Cambodia Town possible in America,” Chhang Song says.

Having served the Cambodian government between 1970 and1975, Chhang Song was fortunate enough to have left the Kingdom bound for the United States, Virginia specifically, before the Khmer Rouge took hold of the capital in 1975. Obviously, millions of others weren’t so lucky. If being captured, murdered or put to work wasn’t one’s fate, fleeing the capital for refugee camps located near the border of Thailand was another.

Chhang Song delivers a speech at the official unveiling of the Cambodia Town sign in Long Beach, California.
Come 1978, thousands of those displaced fled to the US in search of some form of safety, security and the possibility of a better life, and Chhang Song was part of the effort to have these people rescued.

“We succeeded in having the Dole-Solarz Amendment passed by both houses of the US Congress in 1978,” says Chhang Song, who later moved to Long Beach to assist with the refugee resettlement. “By virtue of the Dole-Solarz Amendment, a total of 150,000 Cambodians who fled Pol Pot and lived in border camps in Thailand were processed for admission into the US.”

Chhang Song says the areas in which these Cambodians resettled were initially horribly depressed, though the community worked together to clear rubbish, organise self-help services and establish non-profit agencies and law offices. A new way of life was slowly becoming a possibility.

More and more Cambodian-run businesses popped up around the neighbourhood, including doughnut shops, car repairers, jewellery stores, restaurants, beauty salons, pharmaceutical clinics, fabric shops and supermarkets. Khmer culture also began to thrive with the construction of Buddhist temples, Khmer language centres and library programmes which focused on the Kingdom’s rich history.

Sithea San, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide who narrowly escaped the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime by crossing the landmine-riddled border into Thailand to settle in a United Nations refugee camp immigrated to Long Beach with her family in 1981. Upon arrival she spoke no English, yet went on to become fluent and graduate from high school in 1986. She then went on to tertiary study – a time which would change her own, and many others’ lives.

While studying for her bachelor of science in business management at California State University, Sithea San helped organise the first Cambodian Cultural Show through the college’s Cambodian Student Society. It was due to this event she says she developed a burning desire to continue to promote the development of a Khmer community in California.

“From these beginnings, my commitment to preserve and share my cultural traditions became the driving force for my work within and on behalf of the community,” she says.

While in the process of organising the Cambodian Cultural Show, Sithea San met her husband, Richer San, and in 2001 the pair was invited to attend a community meeting organised by the Cambodia Town Initiative Task Force. The meeting was intended to garner support for the establishment of the Cambodia Town Economic Development Project, both from members of the public and local politicians.

Now 44, Sithea San has been the chairperson of community-based organisation Cambodia Town Inc. since 2005, and says the establishment of the Cambodia Town Economic Development Project has been the most challenging experience of her professional life in the US, not least because of a complete lack of funding.

“There were no funds available to hire consultants or staff or for expenditure on publicity or public relations. This all-volunteer effort was built and funded from the ground up,” explains Sithea San, adding that the project also experienced strong opposition from certain sections of the Long Beach community.

“The critics … said the establishment of the Cambodia Town Business and Cultural District would result both in inter-ethnic gang wars between the Cambodian and other ethnic communities, and the isolation of the Cambodian community from the rest of the local communities in Long Beach,” she says.

Cambodia Town Inc. and its board members persevered, however, and spent countless hours lobbying elected officials and municipal staff, as well as leaders of other ethnic communities. Finally, after seven long years and with a 1000-strong crowd packing the council chambers, the proposed resolution of the Cambodia Town project was brought before the city council for approval on July 3, 2007.

Members of the council voted eight to one for the establishment of the Cambodia Town Business and Cultural District and the rest, as they say, is history.

While it did take four years and additional fundraising, in February of this year, Cambodia Town Inc. received approval from the city council to install the Cambodia Town signs. Come July 8 and the first two signs, erected on Anaheim Street, were installed, marking the district’s western and eastern boundaries. July 16 then saw a traditional Khmer ceremony take place, complete with blessings by Buddhist monks and a rendition of the Khmer Wishing Dance, while the remaining three posts were erected. And that’s not the end.
“We are currently collaborating with Long Beach city officials to install 14 additional signs marking the district’s northern and southern boundaries,” Sithea San says, adding that she anticipates the completion of the project by the end of this year.

It’s been a long process, one not yet done, but one that holds significance for thousands of Cambodians. In 2005, the US Census Bureau reported that the number of Cambodians residing in the US was 241,025. And according to Chhang Song, Long Beach is today believed to be home to some 50,000 of them, the highest concentration, he says, of Cambodian immigrants living outside Southeast Asia.

Chhang Song believes now that Cambodia Town, while being primarily a cultural district, will also attract businesses geared toward Khmer communities and facilitate exchanges between Cambodians, between Cambodians and other communities, and between America and Cambodia on a global scale. He says that due to this, Cambodia Town’s official existence will go on to make for meaningful economic, cultural and educational advancement for Cambodians living in the United States.

“I feel that, from this moment onward, cultural, business and other forms of trade and exchange will no longer remain the same for the Cambodians [in Long Beach].”
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Cambodian, Thai travel agents to meet as border row eases

PHNOM PENH, Aug. 23 (Xinhua) -- Cambodian and Thai tour and travel operators are scheduled to meet over the weekend to discuss ways to boost the two neighboring countries' tourism after being affected by continuous border dispute since 2008, the Chairman of Cambodia Association of Travel Agents (CATA) Ang Kim Eang said Tuesday.

The one-day meeting will be held on Aug. 27 in coastal Preah Sihanouk province, some 230 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh, he said, adding that it will bring together 28 Cambodian tour and travel agents and 66 Thai travel agents.

"As military tension over the border conflict has eased and normalcy has returned to border, the two countries' travel associations want to create close connection to boost respective tourism," he said, "Both sides will promote each country's tourism destinations and seek partners for cooperation."

Thai tourists to Cambodia have constantly declined since the two neighbors have been involved in border dispute since July 2008 when Cambodia's Preah Vihear temple was enlisted by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, but Thailand claims the ownership of 4.6 square kilometers (1.8 square miles) of scrub next to the temple.

Since then, both sides have built up military forces along the border and periodic clashes have happened, resulting in the deaths of troops and civilians on both sides.

However, the border tension between the two countries has eased since the Pheu Thai Party won a landslide victory in the July 3 general election.

The latest statistics showed that Thai tourists to Cambodia had declined by up to 36 percent to 48,136 in the first six months of this year, compared with the same period last year of 75,695.
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