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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Xayaburi dam fight stepped up

Protesters ask for public hearing on the impacts

Xayaburi dam protesters in eight provinces plan to petition the Administrative Court to revoke a Thai-Laos contract on joint usage of electricity produced by the dam on the Mekong River.

Calling themselves the "people network" in the Mekong basin, the group took to the streets after the Mekong River Commission (MRC) began a three-day meeting in Cambodia yesterday to discuss the controversial project.

The network said it disagreed with what it claimed was a "non-publicised" cabinet resolution in June that allowed the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand to sign a contract with Vientiane on electricity usage because the project has yet to go through a complete public hearing process in Thailand.

"When we learned the government had Egat sign the joint contract without announcing it, we decided to petition the court immediately," said network leader Itthiphon Khamsuk, who was informed of the resolution yesterday morning as his group was petitioning the government to hold a public hearing.

He blamed the government for pushing the project ahead without listening to input from people in the provinces that would likely be affected by the dam. The public hearing did "not follow the correct and complete procedures" as required by the Constitution, he said.

Although environment ministers from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam will discuss the dam at the ongoing MRC meeting, Mr Itthiphon said his group would not wait for the results because the project should be stopped.

The network yesterday petitioned two Senate committees to support a proposal to delay the project for 10 years.

Senate natural resource and environment committee chairman Surachai Liaobunloetchai said his committee and the Senate committee on education and corruption scrutiny will ask the government to clarify project details.

Although the dam will be built in Laos, the project should follow Thai laws, including a mandatory public hearing because Thailand will be the main beneficiary of the project. He said Laos had contracted with Thailand's Ch Karnchang to build the dam. Four Thai banks are the project's financial sources and Egat would buy 95% of the electricity produced by the dam, Mr Surachai said.

The 1,260-megawatt dam's future is uncertain. Officials at an April 19 meeting of the MRC approved a resolution requiring further study of the dam's potential impact on the Mekong River.

Vietnam and Cambodia are worried about the dam's impact on their crops, especially rice, because of fears over reduced water flow into the two countries.
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Group of locals builds houses for the poorest of Cambodia

Homes are very basic but offer security and refuge from rains and flooding

By Penny Coles

Yolanda Henry is hooked on helping.

She has just returned from her seventh trip to Cambodia, where she and a group of friends helped build 18 houses for the poorest of people living in the underdeveloped country, and although it's hard work under blistering sun, it's also very rewarding, she says.

And while she's not committing now to returning, she says at some point in the future she will likely need her fix and go back to build more houses.

In the meantime, says Henry, now a board member of Tabitha Foundation in Canada, the non-profit agency that organizes the volunteer builds in Cambodia, she would be happy to help organize trips for groups of 10 people or more who might want to experience the .

Volunteers pay their own way, and must fundraise about $1,000 to pay for the cost of the materials and the contractors who erect the frames.

The houses are very basic—four metres by five metres, they are build of wood and tin, on stilts that lift them six feet off the ground. During the dry season, families live, cook and sleep underneath them, and when the rainy season begins, they move their meager belongings—a few cooking pots, some clothing, mats to sleep on—into their shelter to keep dry.

"They really don't have much," says Henry. "It doesn't take long for them to move in—maybe a few minutes."

The NOTL woman first visited Cambodia 2000. She was living in Singapore, and while volunteering at her children's school—they were selling handicrafts made by the women of Cambodia—she became interested in doing more. She and her daughters visited the country during their spring break, and since then, she has been back several times, volunteering through Tabitha to build secure and weatherproof homes for families of six to eight—a step up from the tarps or a hut of straw that is all that protects them when the rain comes—and is more than they ever expected to have.

Henry has just returned from a trip with a group of 14 people. The missions, she says, typically begin with someone saying they are interested in volunteering, and she begins planning dates and rounding up friends until she has enough of a group to go.

Most volunteers will plan a trip to neighbouring countries while they're there—and although there is incredible poverty, they are beautiful countries.

Dennis Kam, who just returned from an extended five-week stay with his wife Kathy Heit, once their work with Tabitha and Henry's group was complete, said a holiday can be anything from a $3 a day stay at a hostel to five-star hotel accommodation, which is still inexpensive by our standards.

They travelled with their daughter and granddaughter, and this trip, the group stayed in an eco-lodge in the jungle while they worked on the houses.

Although they say they might go back—it was their second trip—they would opt for different accommodations after sharing their cabin with a family of rats, a bat, a frog and other assorted wildlife. It's not for the squeamish, they agree, but it was an experience.

On most of the house-building missions, accommodations are in hotels in the nearest town or city, and are quite comfortable.

"You have to be tolerant and adaptable," says Dennis.

You also have to be relatively fit and able to stand the heat—the work, while not difficult, is undertaken in 34 degree heat with a humidex in the 40s.

"You have to take a lot of water breaks, and you have to pace yourself. If you don't you get heat stroke," says Henry.

While there, volunteers are given a lesson in the history and the culture of the country.

They visit a genocide museum and the Killing Fields, sites in Cambodia where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979.

In addition to hearing about the genocide, they learn that education was stripped, the middle class destroyed, that agricultural socialization resulted in famine, and that the country is still in the beginning stages of rebuilding.

And they learned that the people of Cambodia have a distrust for North Americans, who did nothing to help during that horrendous era in their past.

"Westerners don't have a lot of credibility," says Henry, "because we didn't do a lot to help them. We ignored their plight.".

House-building presents opportunities to restore trust, and those who have volunteered say the reward comes from the smiles and expressions of gratitude from those who so badly need a hand up.

"What they end up with is still subsistence living, but it's significantly improved living," says Dennis.

And volunteers who return often see the difference they have made as families are able to increase their income and add onto the houses—they are still very basic, but larger, with the original building becoming one room on a larger structure.

Families have endured poverty and hardship since the beginning of the Pol Pot era, but with the help of Tabitha Foundation, are slowly improving their quality of life, said Henry.

The reward, she says, is knowing that all the work is done by volunteers, and that every cent is spent on helping the people of Cambodia rebuild, not only their homes but their trust and their self-esteem.
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Another UN Failure

More than 30 years ago, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia, ending a four-year long genocide that killed up to two million Cambodians. This past July, the first judgment was passed down against a perpetrator of the genocide, the chief jailer of the main torture prison responsible for more than 15,000 deaths. Many Cambodians were disappointed with the 19-year sentence set down by the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, a function of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

The Cambodian government wanted that trial to be the only one held by the Tribunal and has done everything in its power to prevent more cases from being heard. Many former cadres in the Khmer Rouge are now occupying high posts in the Cambodian government, and Prime Minister Hun Sen has warned further trials could throw the country back into civil war. The court has nevertheless pushed through with “Case No. 2″ against four senior members of the former Khmer Rouge government.

The ECCC is a UN-backed court, comprised of both Western and Cambodian judges. Without experience trying a case of this magnitude, the United Nations insisted upon having Western judges involved in every aspect of the case – from investigations to sentencing. Predictably, the court has fallen apart under the mixed supervision of both local and international judges and administrators. Less predictably, the UN-appointed Western judges have been the ones to have their impartiality and effectiveness questioned by observers and even co-workers. In what many on the ground describe as a mutiny, a team of UN lawyers wrote to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report that the actions of a German judge “[breached] international standards of justice, fairness and due process of law.”

Douglas Gillison writes for Foreign Policy: “In the seven months since the letter was written, the United Nations has not offered a substantive answer to these problems. Indeed, as matters continued to worsen, officials at headquarters in New York determined that their hands were tied, leaving matters to deteriorate to the point of scandal.”

The ECCC was established in 2003 after six years of negotiations with the UN about the scope of Western countries’ involvement in the trials. Western powers were convinced the Cambodians were unable to convict Cambodians of crimes against other Cambodians, and thus had to step in. The court was constructed in such a way that there would be safeguards against Cambodian judges’ improper behavior, but none for Western judges’ abuse of power. In Foreign Policy, Gillison writes in depth about the shocking details that finally, after months, brought the resignation of the German judge. Since 2009, when the UN appointed an Australian academic and a self-proclaimed Marxist to be a liaison for Cambodian victims of the Marxist Khmer Rouge, the United States has contributed more than $10 million to the court. Despite reports from New York and Phnom Penh about the court’s dysfunction and wasteful spending, the UN, United States and other leading Western governments continue to silently watch the court daily crumble into total anarchy, all the while pouring millions of dollars into its operations. Read more!

Cambodia opens China-funded hydro electric dam

Energy-starved Cambodia has opened its largest hydro-electric dam to date, a multi-million dollar China-funded project that has drawn praise from the Phnom Penh government and criticism from environmentalists.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and a host of dignitaries witnessed the start of operations Wednesday at the 194-megawatt dam on the Kamchay river in southern Kampot province. The prime minister called the inauguration a “historic event” that will help reduce the cost of electricity in his country, where only about 15 percent of households have access to electrical power.

The $280 million project has pitted Cambodian and foreign-based environmentalists against government planners. Opponents say locals have been denied a voice in the Kamchay project and several others under construction.

The U.S.-based International Rivers organization also says the dam has destroyed hundreds of hectares of forest and farmlands, and says it will have a negative impact on fisheries in the impoverished country.

Proponents have argued that unreliable and increasingly expensive electrical utilities have severely hampered foreign investment in Cambodia, despite government efforts to reduce energy costs.
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