Friday, October 30, 2009
UDONG - Imam San was perhaps once Cambodia's most privileged Muslim. Legend has it that in the 19th century, former King Ang Duong encountered him meditating in the forest and was so captivated by the stranger's spirituality that he offered him land in the royal capital. A more cynical account relates that the Khmer royal family, at a time when its power was dwindling, found a ready and willing ally in the Muslim leader.
On the occasion of Imam San's birthday each October, the sect that emerged from his early followers gathers in the former royal city of Udong, about 30 kilometers outside of the present capital of , to honor his memory through prayer and offerings. The colorful mawlut ceremony reaffirms the sect's privileged heritage and its continued from the rest of the country's Islamic community, which is dominated by a group known as the .
The Imam San are the only group to remain outside the domain of the Mufti, -sanctioned leader of Islam in - a status that was renewed by the government in 1988. Successive Imam San leaders, or Ong Khnuur, have held the prestigious title of Okhna, originally bestowed by the palace.
Cambodia's estimated 37,000 Imam San followers live in only a few dozen villages spread throughout the country. Geography has reinforced the sect's isolation, and the mawlut has become an increasingly important opportunity to forge friendships and - more essential to the survival of the community - marriages.
At the annual ceremony, parents search for eligible suitors for their children, who otherwise would not come in contact with teenagers and young adults from other Imam San communities. The day's use for matchmaking may have new importance as the sect's long-standing isolation is challenged by pressures fromCambodia's larger Islamic community as well as from abroad.
Many Imam San followers see their sect's relationship with other Muslims as the biggest threat to their way of life, as their most vehement critics come from within their faith. For Ek Bourt, an elder member of the Imam San community, it is discrimination from other Muslims that he fears most.
"Other Muslims look down on us since we practice our religion in a different way," he said. "I'm afraid the next generation might lose our unique culture and customs."
The pilgrimage to Udong's Phnom Katera - a site of great importance for Khmers' Buddhist and royal traditions - highlights what some other Muslims see as the Imam San community's unholy cultural proximity to mainstream Khmer society. Conspicuously, the mosque on Phnom Katera is adjacent to the tombs of former Khmer kings and its name, "The Islam ChamTemple of Imam San", is written in Khmer, Cham and English, but not Arabic.
Descendants of the Cham Bani from Vietnam, who converted to Islam in the 17th century, Imam San followers view themselves as devoted adherents of the Muslim faith even as they maintain religious and cultural practices that are viewed by some as at odds with Islamic teachings. Because they blend faith in the Koran with other religious customs, including animist-like ceremonies, the Imam San followers are seen by many other Muslims as impure.
Perhaps no tradition of the Imam San community is more offensive to critics than praying only once a week, while praying five times a day is standard practice for most Muslims. And none is more bizarre than the chai ceremony, in which they dance in a possessed state, sometimes carrying prop weapons.
In fact, about 85% of Muslims consider the Imam San followers to be so heterodox as not to qualify as Muslims, according to a study by Norwegian Bjorn Blengsli, who has studied Muslims inCambodia for nearly a decade.
"They're not true followers of Mohammed," said Hussein Bin Ibrahim, a Salafi Muslim who lives in Phnom Penh. "They don't really count as Muslims. For Muslims like us in Cambodia, our Islam is now becoming more like the Islam in Arab countries. We have grown closer to Mecca." Hussein prays in the outskirts ofPhnom Penh at the Norul Ehsan mosque, which was recently renovated with funds from Kuwait.
Most of Cambodia's Muslims are ethnically Cham, whose practices have traditionally been moderate. But the last several years have seen a rise of fundamentalism in the Chamcommunity, most notably of Wahhabism, an austere form of Islam originating from Saudi Arabia.
Growing economic ties between Cambodia and Arab countries suggest the trend will only strengthen.
Last year, after making high-level state visits, Kuwait and Qatar pledged hundreds of in soft loans to Cambodiafor . The aid sparked concerns among some Western officials that the money could be used not just to invigorate Cambodia's farming, but also to radicalize its Muslims.
"There are some organizations here from the Middle East that are very radical and that are very intolerant, and they are trying very hard to change the attitude and the atmosphere of the Muslim population here in Cambodia," said then-outgoing American Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli in his farewell speech to reporters in August 2008.
The primary focus of the most recent state visits has been trade. Yet cultural ties are also at stake: Kuwait pledged some $5 million for Cambodian Islamic institutions, including renovating the dilapidated International Dubai Mosque in Phnom Penh.
Economic ties with Arab countries will reverberate in Islamic practices in Cambodia, according to Blengsli. "Economic ties between Cambodia and Arab countries will lead to more funding for Islamic organisations in Cambodia and, since they are often unhappy with the purity of Islam as its practiced here, there will be increasing Arab influence on local Muslim practices," he said.
The penetration of Islamic missionaries, as well as development and into Cambodia, is problematic because of the separation from other cultures these groups encourage, according to Alberto Perez, a Spanish anthropologist who is writing his PhD dissertation on the Cham.
The Imam San community has been further estranged amid a wave of Islamic revivalism embraced by the majority of Cambodia's nearly 350,000 Muslims. In the past, Imam San followers have rejected donations from wealthy Middle East-based Islamic groups and resisted pressure from foreign preachers, whose requests that they convert to orthodox Islam are frequently backed by offers to finance the construction of new mosques.
But this long-maintained separation is weakening under the same foreign influences that, according to Blengsli, have madeCambodia's mainstream Muslims one of the fastest-changing Islamic communities in the world.
The Imam San community is losing numbers to other Muslim sects, including the Salafi, Jamaat Tabligh and Ahmadiyya, which have international standing and deeper pockets, he said. In particular, young Imam San followers who are sent to Phnom Penh to continue their studies face pressure from other Muslim communities to convert to orthodox Islam.
"We're especially afraid that the young will be tempted to join other groups that are well-funded," said Kai Tam, the Imam San's current Ong Khnuur. But such concerns would not have him change his group's practices.
"Our people are strong in our ancestors and we believe in their culture and the way they practiced Islam - to change would be an insult to our ancestors. We have the same goal as other Muslims, but we get there a different way."
Ahmad Yahya, president of the Cambodian Islamic Development Association and an advisor to the government on Cham issues, has said that Imam San followers should break their isolation and reform their observance. Yahya has aggressively solicited foreign funding for Cambodian Muslims to continue their studies locally and abroad, and he believes Iman San followers should make the changes necessary to avail themselves of such opportunities.
Indeed, some Imam San villages have begun praying five times a day as a compromise to foreign donors who have financed new mosques for them. But for 19-year-old Keu Sarath, whose home is in the same village as the Ong Khnuur's, her faith of her ancestors has not wavered.
"We love God just the same as others," she said. "But we don't tell others how to practice and they should show us the same respect."
Brendan B Brady is a based in Phnom Penh,Cambodia.
On a muggy afternoon in Cambodia’s ancient Angkor complex, workers in hardhats hunch over the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle, painstakingly assembling sandstone blocks. Walled- off from camera-toting tourists, they are finally close to completing an astonishing reconstruction of the fabled 11th century Baphuon Temple. “This is not easy to plan like a construction project is,” says architect Pascal Royere from the French School of Asian Studies, who is leading the rebuilding team. Restorers dismantled Baphuon in the 1960s when it was falling apart, laying some 300,000 of its stone blocks in the grass and jungle around the site. But before the French-led team of archaeologists could reassemble the 34-metre tall temple, the hardline communist Khmer Rouge swept to power in 1975. Up to two million people died from overwork, starvation and torture as the regime tried to re-set Cambodia to ‘Year Zero’ by eliminating reminders of its past - including the records to put Baphuon back together. “The archive of the numbering system (for scattered stones) was stolen and destroyed by the Khmer Rouge,” Royere says. “We had to face a kind of jigsaw puzzle without the picture how to rebuild it.” Chinese envoy Zhou Daguan, who visited the Khmer kingdom in 1226, described Baphuon as a “an exquisite site” with a bronze tower. Baphuon was the largest monument in the Khmer empire when it was built under King Udayadityavarman II as a Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess Shiva. In the kingdom which at one time spanned parts of modern-day Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia, Baphuon’s size was only eclipsed by the famed Angkor Wat temple. “I believe that when the restoration of the temple is done, a lot of visitors will climb to see it,” says Soeung Kong, deputy director general of the Apsara Authority, which oversees Cambodia’s ancient temples. “It is high, so they can have nice views of surrounding temples.” afp
Monday, October 26, 2009
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
WEDNESDAY, 14 OCTOBER 2009 15:01 JOHN O'LEARY
By John O'leary
Universities are set to play a key role in Cambodia’s economic development, national leadership and its move forward in globalisation.
Asian higher education is on the rise and looks set to take the global stage. Global university rankings show this growth, and even the European Union’s education commissioner says the famous names that dominate such exercises should look to their laurels if they are not to be overtaken by the tigers from the East.
But these plaudits apply to a relatively small proportion of universities in relatively few countries. Although spending on higher education has been rising sharply, with 10 percent growth in student numbers each year in East Asia, the poorer countries risk being left behind.
The first Asian university rankings, which were published by QS earlier this year, were dominated by Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and China. There were no universities in the top 200 from Cambodia, Vietnam or Laos, and even Thailand had only three representatives in the top 100.
Higher education has become more of a international phenomenon, with millions of students crossing borders to take a degree, universities (both public and private) establishing campuses in other countries, and global networks springing up to promote collaboration in research. Governments are desperate to have universities that are “players” in this new world, which they see as vital to prosperity as a knowledge economy.
So how realistic is it for a country like Cambodia to harbour such ambitions? What sort of a higher education system should it develop to serve the needs of its people and boost the economy?
The gap between Cambodia and the leading Asian nations in terms of participation and spending on higher education is so large that trying to compete on the international stage would surely be a waste of money. The latest UNESCO statistics showed fewer than 3 percent of Cambodians completing tertiary education, compared with more than 30 percent in South Korea and 20 percent even in the Philippines. Spending per student was less than $1,000 a year, compared with $5,000 in Malaysia.
Of course, the destruction of its universities and the loss of a generation of academics under the Khmer Rouge make Cambodia a special case.
During the Khmer Rouge regime, teachers and educated role models were killed, schools were destroyed and books were burned. Although new teachers have been trained and schools have been rebuilt, there continue to be a variety of obstacles that challenge the country’s ability to provide access to quality education. Initiatives like the World Bank’s commitment of $15 million to support public and private universities acknowledge the need for extra investment in the country’s higher education. Agreements like the one signed by the University of Texas at San Antonio with the Royal University of Phnom Penh and Pannasastra University will also help to strengthen the system.
Universities elsewhere in Asia and farther afield are increasingly keen to recruit international students. The University of Bedfordshire, in the United Kingdom, for example, offers scholarships to Cambodians of “high academic standing”.
A realistic target for the country’s universities, therefore, would be to keep more of the brightest students at home, as well as take more students in total when funding allows. As per-capita income and the numbers completing secondary education grow, the demand for higher education is certain to increase. The university system can make an important contribution to Cambodia’s development, particularly in areas such as agriculture and tourism, without worrying about international rankings.
John O’Leary is a journalist and education consultant, working for QS and a variety of newspapers and magazines, universities and national organisations. He edited The Times Higher Education Supplement from 2002 until 2007 and was previously education editor of The Times, having joined the newspaper in 1990 as higher education correspondent. He now edits the quarterly magazine Policy Review, and writes regularly on education for The Times, Education Journal and Parliamentary Monitor.
WEDNESDAY, 14 OCTOBER 2009 15:01 DIANA SAW
continues to be plagued by bribery, cheating, low wages and funding, and expensive schools
By Diana Saw
Cambodia’s education system is plagued by a range of detrimental factors including an absence of suitably qualified or trained staff, rampant corruption and a lack of morale among low-paid teaching staff coupled with the high cost of schooling.
The starting salary for primary school teachers in the cities is US$30 per month. High school teachers are paid between $50 and $60. These low salary figures in state schools fail to attract quality educators, which has resulted in a vicious cycle of uninterested teachers and hapless students. Educators are saddled with the burden of inadequate resources and a shortage of schools and classrooms, particularly in rural areas, limiting the number of children with access to basic education. Schools often have to be content with poorly trained teachers and little government funding, resulting in insufficient teaching materials and poorly furnished school facilities.
Low compensation forces teachers to collect informal school fees from students, creating a barrier to education for poor children. To supplement their income, teachers offer extra, after-school classes for a fee. Often, teachers will withhold the standard syllabi during school hours, reserving them for the private classes, to place pressure on parents to pay the extra tuition. Students who cannot afford, or who refuse to pay, risk humiliation, failing their exams, repeating their grade or dropping out of school. Although collecting fees is officially banned by the Education Ministry, the practice remains widespread. According to the Times Higher Education Supplement, Cambodian students have long admitted that examinations go hand in hand with money. It still costs around US $2,000 or $3,000 for someone to get into a school of law.
Phnom Penh-based NGO Riverkids provides free education for children at risk of being trafficked. Founder Dale Edmonds describes a recent visit to a primary school that most of the children attend: “The bathrooms have been broken for a long time, and the director admitted that they had the funds to repair it, but they had kept them instead. We offered to repair the bathrooms in exchange for a discount on the unofficial daily school fees for our children, but they’d rather collect more bribes. The school is slowly falling apart, and the last time I saw the senior staff, I counted the number of gold rings on their hands.”
Wealthier parents more concerned with their child’s grades see an opportunity to exploit the system, offering to pay for school repairs or building projects, or giving gifts to teachers and principals in exchange for passes or high grades. Parents and others share their complaints over the customs that have been practised for years in this country – corruption that leads to poor delivery of real education.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, has openly criticised the government over poor management and open corruption in education. Rong Chhun added that the trading of scores for cash has gone on openly since 2001, in which student scores from two semesters are added into their final examinations in the ninth and 12th grades.
Because of this growing corruption, there are a considerable number of undergraduate students who clearly do not deserve a place in the universities. Debby Adams teaches English to second- and third-year-level students at Cambodian Mekong University (CMU), a private institution. “One-third of my students can barely speak English,” she says. “Another third are extremely brilliant students who would excel in any country. My challenge is how to help these top students and not leave the others behind.”
It seems that often there is no incentive for students to study as hard as they should in order to pass their examinations. “There is a reluctance to fail students, as failing students mean dealing with confrontational parents who put the blame on the teacher. It also means extra remedial classes. It’s just easier to let them pass,” says Adams.
Impressive statistics [see sidebar] mask a grimmer reality. Academic credentials may not be closely linked to the laurels of political and economic success. However, the culture of corruption, underachievement and worthless paper qualifications is something Cambodia cannot afford or it risks the inevitability of its neighbouring countries’ pulling further ahead of it in development.
Diana Saw manages Bloom Cambodia, aiming to build a successful social enterprise making trade fair through fair wages and fair prices. Bloom Cambodia makes consumer products such as rice bags with recycled materials.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
The accident took place overnight in northeastern Kratie province, some 160km northeast of the capital Phnom Penh, Major Leng Sarum of the police said on Sunday.
Thirty passengers had been on the boat that was on its way to a Buddhist festival.
"There was no storm or heavy rain when the boat sank. The accident happened because it was overloaded with passengers," Sarum said.
Kham Phoeun, the governor of Kratie province, said the bodies of 17 dead, which included 14 women and two children under the age 5, were being given to relatives.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Monday, October 5, 2009
Another 53 factories suspended operations in the January to September period but roughly half have since reopened, according to a report from the Ministry of Labor obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
Cambodia's garment industry is the main foreign exchange earner for the poor Southeast Asian country. Garment exports from Cambodia in 2008 were worth about $2.8 billion, with 70 percent of shipments going to retailers in the United States. The European Union is the second-biggest market.
"The closing of garment factories in Cambodia is mainly due to declining purchase orders from countries affected by the global financial crisis," said Oum Mean, deputy labor minister.
The Asian Development Bank said last month it expects Cambodia's economy to shrink 1.5 percent this year.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, said the association was trying to make Cambodian factories more competitive by reducing bureaucracy, the number of illegal strikes and the costs involved in exports.
There are about 520 garment factories operating in Cambodia, which employ some 360,000 workers, mostly women.
By Jason Szep
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Construction cranes and unfinished high-rise buildings surround the silty marshland where a year from now Cambodia hopes to turn the page on decades of upheaval by opening a stock exchange.
The idea of a Cambodian stockmarket has been floated since the 1990s but has struggled for traction in a country known for a culture of political impunity, chronic poverty and a history of violence, including the Khmer Rouge "Killing Fields."
But authorities argue those days are over and plan to sign a deal this month with World City Co Ltd, a South Korean-backed developer, to start building a $6 million, four-storey stock exchange on the waterfront of a new financial district.
"We want to do it next year," Mey Vann, director of the financial industry department at Cambodia's Ministry of Economy and Finance, said in an interview. "It'll be good timing for us with the economic recovery."
It was supposed to open in September, a target set last year when South Korea's stock exchange operator agreed with the Cambodian government to set up and run a joint stock exchange.
But the global financial crisis intervened, ending an unprecedented boom which saw Cambodia's economy expand 10 percent annually in the five years up to 2008. Foreign investment collapsed, tourist arrivals fell by double digits and garment exports, a mainstay of the economy, shrank by 15 percent.
In recent weeks, Cambodian officials have cautioned against moving too fast, in some cases questioning whether a country whose education system was decimated during Pol Pot's 1975-79 reign of terror is ready to invest in stocks.
"We've been waiting for a green light," said Intyo Lee, project director for Korea Exchange, Asia's fourth-largest bourse operator which will own 49 percent of the exchange and is recruiting and training workers for it. Cambodian will own the rest.
"We're pretty much ready," he added, "but many people say it's too early. The government is trying to build consensus."
The exchange expects to start small with just four or five companies issuing about $10 million worth of shares each, said Lee. That's comparable to neighboring Vietnam's first stock market launched in 2000 with its initial market capitalization of $43 million. Today, Vietnam's market is worth $27 billion.
Yet there are risks to Cambodian investors. In Vietnam, most of the investors were local, often unaware of the risks, and many were burned as the market steered a rollercoaster course. Meanwhile, foreign investors largely sought to dip into the potential high returns of an emerging frontier market while hedging their bets with a highly diversified portfolio.
Like its communist neighbor, Cambodia is giving privatizing state companies priority with a place to sell stock. The Finance Ministry has asked three state-owned companies to list shares: Telecom Cambodia, port operator Sihanoukville Autonomous Port and the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority.
Some of those companies have a simple question: why do it?
"We don't have any financial constraints. I don't understand the reasons we are going to be listed," said Ek Sonn Chan, who runs the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority, which employs about 600 people, has about $200 million in assets and generates about $25 million in annual revenue. He said the company is profitable. Continued...
Sunday, October 4, 2009
“It’s a surprise that people like Vietnamese goodsthese days,” said Thuyen. “They especially like Vietnamese food products… they’ve gotten to know and trust Vietnamese brands.”
Lay Vannak, deputy major of Takeo Province, which borders Vietnam’s An Giang in the Mekong Delta, said products had expanded their shares in Cambodia and “some have defeated those from Thailand and China.”
He said Vietnamese have improved their competitiveness in terms of both quality and packaging.
An Giang Province has a long border with Cambodia and accounted for 70 percent of bilateral trade between the two countries. Vietnam exported US$1.7 billion to Cambodia last year, an annual growth rate of 40-45 percent.
In August, the province officially opened the Tinh Bien Economic Border Gate Zone, where Cambodians, Vietnamese and international tourists can access duty free goods at the border.
Nguyen Minh Tri, head of the province’s Economic Border Gate Authorities, said the zone and its ten supermarkets were a strategic foundation upon which Vietnamese goods could penetrate theCambodian market.
He also said the zone acted as a depot from which exports were launched to other markets around the globe.
Ho Chi Minh City’s Industry and Trade Service said it was difficult for Vietnamese businesses to store their products in Cambodia and it would be hard for them to boost their exports to the market where local production was underdeveloped.
Vu Kim Hanh, chairwoman of the Vietnamese High Quality Goods Club, said its members planned to build a warehouse at Tinh Bien as part of their export strategy to Cambodia.
Room for improvement
Local businesses were offering strong products at competitive prices in Cambodia, but their distribution and promotion networks remain weak, according to a survey conducted in September by the Business Support Assistance (BSA) in association with Vietnamese research firm Truong Doan.
The survey of consumers and retailers in Phnom Penh and Battambong cities showed that high-qualityVietnamese goods were recognized in Cambodia but that Vietnamese products in general were attached to less competitive labeling and promotions than those from Thailand, said Truong Cung Nghia, director of Truong Doan.
Nghia said Vietnamese businesses were strong in stationaries, bicycles and two and four-wheel accessories, footwear and garments, building materials, fertilizers, seeds, home appliances and plastic products.
Consumer and retailer satisfaction with high-quality Vietnamese goods was higher than with those from Thailand and China, said the survey, which added that retailers profited more from tradingVietnamese goods.
But still, Vietnamese businesses lacked the intense promotional campaigns of their Thai counterparts, which offered free products, cost cutting and television commercials.
“We need the support of Vietnamese producers in terms of a distribution strategy,” said Thuyen from Vinamart.
Thuyen said her shopping mall dealt in Vietnamese products and she was finding it difficult to trainCambodian staff as well, due to the language barrier.
Local producers should understand the difficulties and give a hand to traders like her in the newmarket, she said
Vietnamese product prices were also less competitive than Thai rivals, which enjoyed lower import taxes in Cambodia and had the strategic support of the Thai government, said the BSA.
The firm said the Vietnamese government should increase dialogues on the issue with its Cambodiancounterparts to help Vietnamese businesses like the Thais had done.