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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Successful International Auction Raises Hopes for Cambodia's Artists

"We're trying to take the art of the ancient time and also the modern society to come together and create something new.”

Peap Tarr stands in front of a painting he has up for sale as part of Cambodia's first high-level auction, which took place on Sunday.
Peap Tarr stands in front of a painting he has up for sale as part of Cambodia's first high-level auction, which took place on March 11, 2012.

Cambodia has held its first international art auction, with the backing of the well-known art house, Christie’s. Though Khmer antiquities are highly sought-after on the global stage, the country’s modern art remains relatively unknown.

Madeleine de Langalerie has watched the country’s art scene slowly grow over the last decade and a half. When the French journalist first moved there about 15 years ago, she saw talent in the work of young artists, but originality was more difficult to find.

“I think at the very beginning they try to copy, because it is the only thing to do," Langalerie said. "But with the television, with the influence of the outside, of Thai, of Vietnamese, of Japan, mainly Japanese, I think they start to see other things.”

These days, new boutique galleries have sprung up throughout the city, showing homegrown work by local talent. A handful of Cambodian artists are already gaining notice abroad.

But what many young artists need is an extra push for international buyers to take notice.

That was the idea behind staging an international art auction here in Phnom Penh. On March 11, an auctioneer from Christie’s presided over the country’s first high-level art auction. Proceeds from the charity auction will be donated to a local arts group.

But de Langalerie says the real value will be the exposure for the country’s lesser known artists and the local galleries that support them.

“I think this push should be in help to try and put Phnom Penh as a good place for artists," she said. "If you think about artists, maybe you should come and see galleries in Phnom Penh.”

Artists like painter Peap Tarr stand to benefit. The Cambodian-New Zealander has two collaborative works for sale, including an intricately detailed acrylic-on-canvas piece measuring more than four square meters.

Tarr started out as a graffiti artist in in New Zealand, where he grew up. But he gradually began to fuse styles and elements from his Cambodian ancestry into his work.

“There is a uniqueness that comes out of Cambodia. There is a long heritage," Tarr explained. "Over a 1,000 year heritage here of art and culture. Hopefully people will learn that. In some ways I think it gains more respect for the Khmer culture. And also I think it gives back more pride to the Khmer people. Culture and art, it does in some way give culture and dignity back to a people.”

On this afternoon, the busy hotel ballroom is almost full, but most are onlookers watching as a handful of buyers bid on the artwork. At the front of the room, auctioneer Lionel Gosset playfully encourages the buyers to inflate their bids.

The crowd applauds as the most sought after piece, a large morning glory plant sculpted in rattan wood, sells for $9,000.

By the end of the afternoon, buyers have snapped up about 40 works of art, at a cost of $40,000 in all. Gosset says, it is a promising sign for the Cambodian art scene.

“I think the room was crowded. It's a good signal for Cambodia. That means that Khmer are very interested by art," Gosset said. "And the results are good. It's a good result.”

For painter Lisa Mam, it was the first time she has sold her work at auction. She says she wants to show that her country’s artists are able to fuse their well-known traditional art with a new vitality.

“Cambodian art would be something really fresh," Mam declared. "Just like what I’m doing right now is fresh and new. We're trying to take the art of the ancient time and also the modern society to come together and create something new.”

For now, Mam wants to use the exposure from the auction as a springboard for her career. And she hopes her work will play a role in growing Cambodia’s modern art scene.
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Thailand Human Trafficking Problems Continue to Draw Scrutiny

“Human trafficking has to be understood in the context of the migration of as many as two- to three-million migrant workers from Laos, Cambodia, and Burma who are in Thailand..."

Cambodian trafficked fishermen return from Indonesia after being freed or escaping from slave-like conditions on Thai fishing vessels, talks to journalists at the Phnom Penh International airport on December 12, 2011. Thousands of men from Myanmar and Cambodia set sail on Thai fishing boats every day, but many are unwilling seafarers -- slaves forced to work in brutal conditions under threat of death. Rights groups say Thailand's multi-million dollar fishing industry relies on forced labour to provide seafood for restaurants and supermarkets around the world.

Thai authorities are bracing themselves for a possible downgrade on the U.S. State Department’s watch list of countries with the worst records in combating human trafficking.

Thailand was initially classified as a Tier Two country on the Trafficking in Persons list in 2010 for not complying with minimum standards required to address the trafficking of people. If a country shows no sign of improvement after two years at that level it automatically drops into the bottom, or Tier Three, list alongside North Korea, Cuba and Burma.
This can potentially trigger non-humanitarian sanctions.

Groups like Human Rights Watch and the Mirror Foundation say Thailand has experienced an increase in trafficking, in particular young girls, in recent years, putting it in jeopardy of joining the world’s worst offenders.

Human Rights Watch Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson told a panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand that authorities have passed laws that should be sufficient to stem the tide of human trafficking, but there has been a reluctance to defend the rights of victims.

“Human trafficking has to be understood in the context of the migration of as many as two- to three-million migrant workers from Laos, Cambodia, and Burma who are in Thailand, many without documents and have no access to any sort of system that works for them," Robertson said.

Robertson says even those charged with breaking up trafficking rings are complicit in abuses against illegal workers. “The police themselves are frankly predatory. They see migrant workers as an opportunity to extort, abuse," he explained. "We have stories of instances where police have been involved in human-trafficking issues.”

Criticism has been particularly harsh after a preliminary report was released last year by the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Trafficking in Persons. It criticized Thailand for a weak and fragmented legal framework on trafficking, deep rooted corruption among law enforcement officers, and poor victim identification.

The report was backed by Eaklak Loomchomkhae from the Mirror Foundation.

He told the panel through an interpreter that there has been an increase in girls between age 11 and 15 being trafficked into prostitution. Because they are underage, they are not being forced to work out of brothels or karaoke bars and instead they are being ferried directly to the homes of clients.

He says this has made it difficult to detect the true extent of the problem. “These children’s clients, many of them are government servants or are well known people in their local area, so it is very difficult, hard, to follow them or do anything to them,” Loomchomkhae stated.

Thailand Ministry for Foreign Affairs Deputy Director General for International Organizations Chutintorn Gongsakdi defends the government’s anti-trafficking efforts, while facing a broad range of challenges in recent years.

“We are an upper middle-income country, according to the members of the committee on the rights of the child, and with that status comes greater expectation and we are finding it is not so easy to live up to those expectations," Gongskadi said. "But we have a willingness, we know we have those responsibilities.”

Gongskadi added his government has also accepted more than 130 recommendations from the U.N. report by the Special Rapporteur. But analysts say those steps may not be sufficient to sway the U.S. State Department from relegating Thailand to Tier Three status in its 2012 report, expected in June.
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PHL eye Vietnam, Cambodia for rice imports

MANILA is considering the possibility of negotiating with the governments of Vietnam and Cambodia for the purchase of as much as 120,000 metric tons (MT) of milled rice, the Department of Agriculture (DA) said on Wednesday.

The 120,000 MT of milled rice is part of the 500,000 MT initially approved by the National Food Authority (NFA) Council for importation this year. In its meeting last week, the NFA council reduced the volume and approved the tender for a total of 380,000 MT.

Agriculture Secretary Proceso J. Alcala, however, said the government is not deviating from its plan of bringing in 500,000 MT of rice into the Philippines this year.

“Resorting to government-to-government negotiations is one of the options we are considering. We have not reduced the volume that we will import. At the end of the day, [the volume of rice imports for 2012] would still total 500,000 tons,” said Alcala at the sidelines of the Food Security Strategies Forum held in Quezon City on Wednesday.

The keynote speaker during the forum was Harvard University professor Dr. Peter Timmer of the Center for Global Development who talked about the “broad-based strategies” for achieving food security.

He said the government may go the government-to-government route if only to ensure the NFA will have enough buffer stock prior to the lean months. The food agency is mandated to stock around 30 days’ worth of rice, or around 1 million tons by July.

The Philippine government has an existing rice supply agreement with Vietnam for the purchase of as much as 1.5 million metric tons (MMT) of milled rice at a negotiated price.

The agreement will expire in 2013 when the Philippines is expected to become self-sufficient in rice.

Alcala said Cambodia is keen on forging a memorandum of understanding with the Philippine government for the sale of rice.

“Cambodia is offering to sell rice at very competitive prices,” he said.

Gilbert Lauengco of the NFA’s Bids and Awards Committee said the tender for the second tranche of 190,000 MT will be held on March 26.

“It was the NFA Council’s decision to tender [a total of] 380,000 MT of rice. It’s up to the council to decide on what to do with the 120,000 tons,” said Lauengco in a telephone interview.

The NFA council is an inter-agency body that approves the volume and the manner of importing rice in a given year. Alcala chairs the council while NFA Administrator Angelito T. Banayo sits as the vice-chairman.

In December last year, the DA declared that the private sector was allowed by the NFA council to bring in the entire 500,000 MT. The NFA, which used to import the bulk of the country’s requirements, would only serve as “a clearinghouse.”
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