Thursday, January 29, 2009

The grand theft of Dey Krahorm

Written by David Pred   

Dear Editor,

It is remarkable that Municipality representatives have stated that the wholesale destruction of the Dey Krahorm community was not an eviction [Phnom Penh Post, January 24, 2009]. I agree, however, that "eviction" is not the best way to describe Saturday morning's events. A more accurate description would be grand theft. The 7NG company grabbed 3.6 hectares of prime city-centre real estate, valued at US$44 million, with the assistance of police and other armed government forces. The homes and many of the personal belongings of community residents were demolished by company bulldozers and looted by those carrying out the demolitions. It is not surprising that this process began in the dead of night and that the area was sealed off by the authorities in an apparent attempt to hide this flagrant crime from the watchful eyes of journalists and human rights workers.

Media not telling full story
What is most unfortunate is that the media has not only failed to tell the full story of this gross and criminal violation of human rights and Cambodian law, but it has adopted the language of the perpetrators in describing the victims. Words like "squatters", "slum" and "controversial neighbourhood", which have been used to describe Dey Krahorm, give false credence to the justifications used by those responsible for this crime and deny victims' rights. 

Let's set the record straight. The land that was grabbed on Saturday morning rightfully belongs to more than 150 poor families who have refused to sell their homes to 7NG for the pittance that was offered to them. Most of these families have the documentation to prove their possession rights under the 2001 Land Law. Moreover, these families were beneficiaries of the Social Land Concession granted to the entire community by the Council of Ministers in 2003, and the Development Plan, which called for a land-sharing arrangement with a private company in exchange for onsite upgrading. 

To justify their claims over the land, the 7NG company relies on a dubious agreement signed with former community representatives to exchange the villagers' homes for flats at the Damnak Treyoeng site outside Phnom Penh. This agreement was immediately rejected by most Dey Krahorm families, who dismissed their former "representatives" and filed a civil complaint against them for breach of trust, along with a separate complaint to cancel the contract.   

Law on their side 
Article 66 of the 2001 Land Law states: 
"A person with Khmer nationality and with capacity to enter into a contract may sell or purchase immovable property." Yet, the following persons may not sell:  "A person who is not the owner of the property offered for sale."
The so-called former representatives had no legal capacity to sell the villagers' land. 7NG's agreement is, therefore, null and void under the law.   

An unbiased investigation into the facts will reveal that the Dey Krahorm families have legal rights that have been consistently denied by the competent authorities.  The families are under no legal obligation to accept the company's compensation offer. They have every right to reject it and remain on their land and in their homes.  This is not a case of expropriation of land for public interest purposes. It is a case of a private company using armed force to acquire other people's private property for their personal profit. Company representatives are on record stating that they do not even know how they intend to develop the site. Therefore, if they want this land, they need to offer the residents a price that they are willing to accept.  

However, instead of offering a mutually agreed price for the land, the company and the authorities forcibly removed the families and demolished their homes and property. This action was illegal.  Article 253 of the Land Law states:
"Any person who uses violence against a possessor in good faith of an immovable property, whether or not his title has been established or it is disputed, shall be fined from 1,500,000 riels to 25,000,000 riels and/or imprisoned from six (6) months to two (2) years irrespective of the penalty for violence against a person. In addition to the above penalty, the violator shall be liable for civil damages that were caused by his violent acts. If the violence was ordered by a person other than the perpetrator, who did not personally participate in the commission of such violence, he shall be subject to the same penalties as the perpetrators of the violence." 

The company also employed hundreds of private contractors to help carry out the home demolitions, and they are caught on film using weapons and tear gas against the villagers, many of whom sustained injuries as a result.  This was also illegal. Article 254 of the Land Law states:

"Under no circumstances shall the use of private force be authorised in order to protect a person's title to property or to enforce a court order for the expulsion or forced removal of an occupant.  Any person who uses private force for the above purposes shall be fined from three million (3,000,000) riels to twenty five million (25,000,000) riels and/or imprisoned from (6) six months to two (2) years."  

Nothing for evictees
The displaced residents of Dey Krahorm are now homeless, traumatised and reliant on the good will of humanitarian organisations to meet their basic needs. The Government of Cambodia is solely responsible, under the international law obligations to which it is bound, for addressing the humanitarian situation that it has created. The government is also legally responsible to ensure that the land and property that was taken or destroyed is restored to its lawful possessors, or that they receive just and fair compensation for their losses.  Any failure to do so should result in condemnation and sanctions by the UN and Cambodia's donor community.

The forced eviction of Dey Krahorm is unique only in that it occurred in the heart of the capital city and that it has, therefore, attracted a great deal of media attention. However, there are hundreds of communities across the country whose land is being stolen with impunity by powerful elites. This epidemic of land theft in the absence of the rule of law flies in the face of poverty-reduction efforts promoted by the government and its benefactors. It is high time that international donors - who have poured billions of dollars into development assistance in Cambodia - acknowledge that if the government continues to refuse to enforce the law and end land-grabbing, no sustainable progress can be made toward poverty alleviation, and taxpayers' money is being squandered. 

David Pred
Director, Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia
Phnom Penh

The views expressed in this letter are entirely personal.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Newest fibre-optic cable is set to set get Cambodia connected

Written by Hor Hab and Chun Sophal   

Hopes high $18 million infrastructure project will bring cheaper, faster internet to Cambodia

Photo by: Sovann Philong
Surfing the web in Phnom Penh. A new high-speed, fibre-optic cable promises to boost internet service and cut prices, which analysts say will play an important role in increasing the Kingdom’s business competitiveness.
CAMBODIA is expected to complete the latest stage of its telecoms infrastructure development in April - a fibre-optic cable to Laos that will connect to China's Yunnan Province, telecommunications officials said Monday.

Cambodia and Laos signed a memorandum of understanding on January 12 in Champassak province, Laos, to finalise the arrangement. 

Cambodia Telecom has implemented the project on the Cambodian side with construction already complete, Minister of Posts and Telecommunications So Khun told the Post Monday.

The US$18 million project - built with a loan from China - would, he added, "improve the quality of internet, telecommunications and televisions system transfer".

It is part of information and communication technology [ICT] in Cambodia, he said, adding that the new infrastructure would offer greater opportunities for connectivity in Cambodia.

The project will also improve the speed of internet connections and reduce the cost of telecommunication services, said Sao Valak, CEO of internet service provider Campura System Corp.

This connection ... can integrate economic and political cooperation.

"With this cable link, Cambodia is no longer isolated from the rest of the world," he added.

Integrating with the region
The new cable has been constructed in two phases, the first a 113-kilometre section from Poipet on the Thai border up to Siem Reap province. This section is then connected to a longer 700-kilometre fibre optic cable that runs north of Siem Reap province across the Lao border at Nong Nonkhien. 

In turn, the Laotian connection extends the cable network already in place in China's Yunnan province.
Another fibre-optic cable crosses Cambodia east to west between Thailand and Vietnam - a project implemented with money from Germany - meaning the new cable to China will further develop Cambodia's telecommunications system as part of the greater Mekong subregion.

"This connection is very important because it can integrate economic and political cooperation with the region and the world," said Ken Chanthan, president of the ICT Association of Cambodia.

Still, many challenges remain, he added. Cambodia still suffers from a lack of IT human resources and very low internet connectivity in rural areas.

"We can create job opportunities for our people if we can develop ICT to a certain level, because ICT services are still limited. We always hire overseas consultants," he said.

Sao Volak called on Cambodian people - and particularly students - to take full advantage of improved infrastructure by becoming better trained in information technology.

Cambodia cuts bank reserve requirements

PHNOM PENH, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Cambodia's central bank said on Tuesday it would cut bank reserve requirements next month to 12 percent from 16 percent to try to stimulate more lending in the face of easing inflation and economic growth.

The bank was also lifting its restrictions on real estate lending as the sector had cooled off recently, reducing upward pressure on prices, director general Tal Nay Im told Reuters.

"The situation is getting better because the threats from the bubble in the real estate sector are no longer the main problem," she said.

Inflation in 2009 would be lower than the 13 percent estimated in 2008, she added.

The International Monetary Fund said in November that the continuing weakness in oil prices plus lower food prices and weaker domestic demand could bring inflation down to 7.5 percent for 2009.

Cambodia has 21 banks, many of them foreign-owned, although the sudden expansion on the back of near-double digit growth and a boom in the real estate sector around Phnom Penh has led to worries that some of th

Cambodian-Thai Demarcation talks to start in February

Thailand and Cambodia have agreed to begin demarcating their disputed border in early February after talks between the Thai foreign minister and his Cambodian counterpart.

Presenter: Zulfikar Abbany
Speaker: Carl Thayer, professor of politics, Australian Defence Force Academy

THAYER: Well, the border dispute when it erupted was with a different government that was facing attacks by the opposition in Thailand for having sold out the country, and Thailand couldn't negotiate. Everything had to be referred to parliament and a foreign minister had to resign, part of the prime minister's resignation at the time was related to this, and because parliament was in deadlock this joint border committee couldn't meet, and � vice-ministerial level and at one point Thailand didn't have a vice minister. So what's changed is we have a new government and it looks like a bit of stability in Bangkok, so the government has a foreign minister and parliament does seem set then to be the venue where the government can go back and take what it's doing for approval.

ABBANY: Thailand has mentioned that it wants to sort of get to grips with Burma as well, but do you think that this dispute with Cambodia would top Burma in terms of the foreign policy priorities for the new government in Thailand?

THAYER: Yes because last year both sides had put up about a thousand troops in armed confrontation, in some places 30 metres apart, there were incidents of deadly force, landmines, that Thai's claimed was newly planted blowing off the legs of two paramilitary rangers. So that the border was tense and it wasn't just over one spot, there's some 15 locations along a nearly 800 kilometre stretch of border that are in dispute. So while there have been serious problems in Myanmar in the past the problems with Cambodia are pressing because both sides mobilised troops, brought up artillery, armoured personnel carriers, and there's a need before they can demarcate to continue to reduce those numbers and agree on measures to prevent violent actions from reoccurring.

ABBANY: Now they've actually set some dates for these talks. The demarcation talks are to start on the 2nd of February, the talks to discuss the withdrawal of troops to start on the 6th of February. How quickly do you think those discussions will proceed to bring about an actual result?

THAYER: Well they're probably on the side of the troops they can move very quickly. Again in the past the local Thai commander was claiming that he couldn't take steps after political talks because they hadn't been approved by parliament, and he was quite worried about the authority to do so. So defusing the situation, engaging in confidence building by lowering troops, but already at the joint border commission it's been previously stated they will deal with the undisputed part of the border and demarcate that first and work towards the more complex parts. The Thais are going to go back to the turn of the 1904-1907 period to argue that the boundary should be determined by watershed and has not occurred. And so there's old principles, the sides have two different maps, so this is going to take some time for the substantive demarcating of the border. But getting the militaries to stand down that's an easier thing to do, demarcation is multi-years in prospect.

ABBANY: I imagine it would be quite a difficult and obviously sensitive issue for both these countries to be dealing with, because it seems that both countries, Thailand and Cambodia are wanting to present to the international community that they are moving on from their past. In Thailand's case the trouble of the last year or so, and in Cambodia's case well of course the Khmer Rouge tribunal is just starting. So are they going to use this perhaps as an issue to show the international community that they're moving on?

THAYER: Well last year when the situation erupted Hun Sen tried to take it to the UN, he tried to take it to ASEAN, and in both cases he was politely and diplomatically knocked back and said it's a bilateral issue for you two to settle it. The ASEAN partners around the region, Malaysia in particular has told them to use ASEAN's peaceful way. So they're under pressure to sort it out. The stability in Thailand that I mentioned, but also this border dispute erupted in the midst of a Cambodian election, and Hun Sen and his Cambodian Peoples Party used that, whipped up national sentiment, among other things they won a landslide victory because of it, so the heat's off domestically with Hun Sen. He now can get on being more diplomatic but in July of last year that couldn't have come at a better time for him during the elections where the opposition wanted to look at corruption and land grabbing and other issues, he was able to seize the nationalist moment.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cambodian's flee bulldozers

090124dh1.jpgFleeing bulldozers, evicted Dey Krahorm residents could be seen today lobbing chairs, mattresses, framed pictures and cooking pots over a wall into an adjoining parking lot to salvage their possessions. Others hurled rocks at police, who returned fire with tear-gas cannisters, leading to injuries to four residents, according to onlookers who observed the curtains close on one of the biggest urban redevelopment stories in the capital over the last decade.

The whack of striking hammers and thud of swinging cranes drowned out the sound of roosters to awaken residents in Phnom Penh’s Tonle Bassac neighbourhood this morning. But for residents of the slum community of Dey Krahorm, the day started around 2am, when, according to residents and housing rights workers, scores of police began cordoning off the controversial neighbourhood to clear the way for workers to demolish the last of its corrugated-metal and wooden homes.

Military, municipal and Interior Ministry police, some armed, presided over the demolition carried out by hundreds of workers hired by the company planning to develop the area, 7NG. They also prevented access to the area by journalists and rights workers.

Military Police Sao Sokha, Municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth, and Interior Ministry and government spokesmen Khieu Sopheak and Khieu Kanharith, respectively, did not respond to repeated calls for comment today.

“At 6am, they started to tear down my home,” Mao Vuthy, one of residents who had still been negotiating a compensation deal, said this morning. “The company and city officials didn’t inform us they would do this today.”

Cash compensation or a home at a relocation site 16 kilometres from the city, in the village of Damnak Trayoeng, had been offered by the private developer.

The morning demolition left Mao Vuthy, who works in the centre of Phnom Penh at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, with little choice.

“I now must go to the relocation site. The cash isn’t enough to buy another home. Moving to the relocation site will be difficult for my daily life because it is very far from my job in Phnom Penh,” he said.

Speaking to reporters this morning outside Dey Krahorm, Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun said the action was not an eviction.

“The activities of tearing down the homes at Dey Krahorm is not an eviction but just an effort to clear the area for development,” he said. “For those who want compensation, the Phnom Penh Municipality and the developer will discuss the issue tomorrow [Sunday] at the new location at Damnak Trayoeng.”

Srey Sothea, chairman of 7NG, said his company recognised 91 families who had remained at Dey Krahorm and said each would receive a home at the relocation site as well as 777,700 riel ($190).

If more families could provide land ownership documents, he would extend the same compensation to them, as well, he added.

But cash compensation was off the table, he said.

“The offer of $20,000 we promised before the relocation is now finished,” he said. “I had encouraged the Dey Krahorm residents to accept it to avoid the administrative measure like we had today, but my proposition had been rejected,” Srey Sothea said.

However, Mann Choeun said today residents were still entitled to $15,000.

“As for accusations that we are abusing people’s rights… we have announced this many times already to residents. We had prepared all administrative measures and people were asked to leave Dey Krahorm,” he said.

The municipality and 7NG announced January 13 they had a “green light” to forcibly remove the remaining residents of the embattled community, but sweetened the threat of eviction by raising cash compensation from $15,000 to $20,000 per family for those who go willingly.

Mann Chhoeun said today that while several notices of imminent eviction had been issued, the most recent on December 30, some residents remained — paving the way for legal action by authorities.

Earlier this week, some high-profile residents from Dey Krahorm, chapei masters Neth Pe and Kong Nay, accepted homes within Phnom Penh and $10,000 from 7NG. But these were exceptional offers, and the rest of the residents holding out have argued $20,000 is too little to buy a new home, while the relocation properties are too far from their livelihoods in the city.

Contacted this morning by phone, Chan Vichet, a representative of the last residents, said he was “hiding” for fear authorities would intern him to prevent him from raising a public outcry against the day’s events.

“I can see my home being demolished by a bulldozer. They consider us like animals,” Chan Vichet said.

While the city had estimated that 90 families remained in the community, Chan Vichet put the figure at closer to 150 families. Trucks belonging to 7NG shuttled them to the relocation site, he said.

Rights groups flocked to Dey Krahorm in the morning to observe the demolition of a community whose right to the land they had lobbied for years.

Without any prior notification and with compensations deals outstanding for families remaining there, around 200 police “encircled” the community in the middle of the night and were followed later in the morning by more than 300 workers with bulldozers, said Chan Saveth of the rights group Adhoc.

Yeng Virak, executive director of Community Legal Education Centre, said he had entered the Dey Krahorm complex at 4am but was forced by police to leave by 6am.

“It’s not fair and it’s illegal. People have possession rights to the land and their compensation needs to be settled before they are removed,” Yeng Virak said. “In Phnom Penh, business interests come before the rights of the people. This is another example of economic development at all costs — not equitable or sustainable development.”

David Pred, director of rights group Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, said residents still have a civil complaint pending in an appeals court to cancel the land swap between the former community representative and 7NG that he said was patently invalid under the Land Law.

An estimated 800 to 1,400 residents lived in Dey Krahorm before old community leaders signed a contract with 7NG in 2005, giving it the 3.6-hectare property in return for building relocation houses in Damnak Trayoeng village. Land rights group have challenged the legality of the original contract and accused city and 7NG officials of using intimidation tactics to force residents to accept the compensation deals offered.

Rights advocates also condemned the relocation site, which they described as allotments resembling brick shells and far from complete.

“The municipality was clearly not prepared for relocation. There is no humanitarian relief. But they were effectively organised for the eviction,” Pred said.

Sara Colm, of the Cambodian office of Human Rights Watch, said residents delivered to Damnak Trayoeng appeared stunned.

“They’re just dumped there. There are no proper homes, no water. There was a woman there who looked like she was going into premature labour from having lifted all her stuff,” she said.

“People started erecting blue tarps with sticks to get shelter from the sun and getting water from ditches in rice fields.”

Meanwhile, at Dey Krahorm, 7NG is still deliberating on the future of its development plan.

“Our company will start construction on the new site soon, but we don’t know what we will construct,” Srey Sothea said. “We’ll let people know later.”

Additional reporting by Chhay Channyda

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Cambodia Keeps Tax Breaks as Shortage of Cash Prevents Stimulus

By Daniel Ten Kate

Jan. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Cambodia, reliant on overseas aid to finance a quarter of the national budget, said it will extend tax breaks for clothing manufacturers and invest in power plants as a cash shortage restricts its ability to provide economic stimulus.

“We cannot distribute cash to the people,” Hang Chuon Naron, secretary-general of theMinistry of Economy and Finance, said in a telephone interview from Phnom Penh on Jan. 23. “What we can do is give targeted tax cuts to garment factories and spend more on infrastructure so we can prepare for economic development in the future.”

Cambodia needs to reduce business costs because it can’t afford the stimulus measures adopted by richer neighbors Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. The International Monetary Fund said the economy, Southeast Asia’s second poorest, may grow 4.75 percent this year, the slowest pace in 11 years.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said the government should ask for more grants and loans to fund a $500 million stimulus package he has proposed. The money would go to stabilizing crop prices and the construction of irrigation and road networks, he said.

“The Cambodian government is disconnected with reality and when the fallout materializes, it will be a terrible awakening,” Sam Rainsy said in an interview from Phnom Penh. “Every country around the region has announced a stimulus package, but Cambodia has done nothing so far.”

The government will extend a 2006 profit tax exemption for garment factories until the end of this year, Hang Chuon Naron said. That will help cut costs for an industry that accounted for 12 percent of gross domestic product in 2007 by supplying clothes for retailers such as Gap Inc. and Stockholm-based Hennes & Mauritz AB.


The tax breaks will be coupled with donor-funded investments in rural roads, power plants, irrigation systems and telecommunications networks, he said. More than two-thirds of the nation’s labor force work at least some of the time in the countryside, according to the Economic Institute of Cambodia.

Tourism, construction and garments, which together make up more than 60 percent of the economy, all face threats to growth this year, Hang Chuon Naron said. The number of foreign visitors may fall by 20 percent, construction will slow and garment exports might drop more than the 2 percent decline in 2008, he said.

“It’s very difficult to make a judgment about garment exports this year because we don’t sell high-end products,” he said. “We have to look at the real figures for the first quarter, which will be crucial.”

Dwindling Factories

The number of garment factories fell 10 percent to about 260 last year, leaving 20,000 workers without jobs, said Roger Tan, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers’ Association of Cambodia. The industry, which employs about 320,000 of Cambodia’s 14.2 million people, sells 70 percent of its products to the U.S., where retail sales have fallen for six straight months.

“Even if factories want to operate on the same scale, they may be forced to reduce their scale on account of reduced credit lines,” Tan said in an interview. “Buyers in Europe and America are telling us to ship on consignment.”

Cambodian lawmakers last month passed a $1.8 billion budget for 2009, increasing spending by a third from last year. The passage came days after donor countries pledged $950 million in aid, almost 40 percent more than they offered in 2008.

Last year marked an end to four straight years of economic growth in excess of 10 percent spurred by foreign-investment friendly policies such as 99-year leases for agricultural land, tax holidays and low import tariffs. The boom helped Prime MinisterHun Sen’s party win 73 percent of seats in a July election.

Stock Exchange

The country plans to open its first stock exchange in December, undeterred by a global financial crisis that halved the value of markets in neighboring Thailand and Vietnamlast year. Government coffers may soon get a boost from petroleum concessions in the Gulf of Thailand, where Chevron Corp., the second-biggest U.S. oil company, struck oil in 2005.

The government doesn’t have many options to boost the economy besides tax cuts and tackling corruption to ensure a more efficient use of donor funds, said Kang Chandararot, an economist with the Cambodia Institute of Development Studies. Transparency International, a global non-governmental organization, ranked Cambodia 166 out of 180 countries in its 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

“Not wasting the money we received from donor countries is the only way to induce private investment,” he said by phone from Phnom Penh. “Confidence in the real estate and construction sectors is in free fall.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok

Cambodian police use teargas to evict slum dwellers

PHNOM PENH, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Cambodian police fired teargas and eight people were injured on Saturday during the forced eviction of 80 families from a Phnom Penh slum, rights activists and police said. At least two of the eight slum dwellers were seriously hurt in clashes with clean-up crews hired to tear down the dwellings on government land recently sold to a private company. Police cordoned off roads around the area near the Russian embassy, as the 300 workers backed by bulldozers and cranes cleared away the decade-old community. Rights activist Am Sam Ath and witnesses said eight people were injured during the forced eviction, including two seriously hurt and sent to hospital.

Witnesses said an old woman and a boy were hit by a bulldozer, while others were hurt in clashes with the workers armed with clubs and stones. Police denied using excessive force to evict the group, who had waged a 3-year battle against their eviction.

"We did not use violence against them, but tear gas to disperse the people who resisted," Phnom Penh police chief G. Touch Naruth told Reuters.

The eviction came after the squatters rejected the company's offer of $20,000 per family in compensation for the prime 2-hectare (4.9 acres) plot of land facing the Mekong River.

Land disputes are a hot issue in Cambodia, where garment factories and hotels have sprung up to expand the major textile and tourist industries. Last week, police opened fire on farmers protesting against a land grab south of Phnom Penh, wounding two of them, rights activists said. (Reporting by Ek Madra; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Alex Richardson)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Gen. Ke Kimyan sacked as the RCAF commander-in-chief

Gen. Ke Kimyan (R), seen here being briefed by his officers.

"If he was withdrawn from his post without real reason, there could be a reaction from soldiers and commanders," - A three-star RCAF general

Written by Post Staff 
Friday, 23 January 2009
Phnom Penh Post

GENERAL Ke Kim Yan, commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and long-time loyalist of Cambodian People's Party President Chea Sim, has been removed from his post in a sweeping reshuffle of the Kingdom's military leadership.

According to a royal decree broadcast Thursday on Apsara Television, Ke Kim Yan's deputy, General Pol Saroeun, has been appointed commander-in-chief, and seven officers have been bumped up to the post of deputy commander-in-chief, including Hun Sen loyalists General Kun Kim and General Meas Sophea.

When contacted by the Post Thursday, Pol Saroeun confirmed he had been promoted. When asked how he felt about it, he replied: "I am modest."

Nem Sowath, Cabinet chief for the Ministry of Defence, said that it was a routine reshuffle of the Kingdom's top brass. "There has been no problem," he said.

He added that Ke Kim Yan had led the army for many years and had made "enviable achievements" since being appointed to the post.

Kem Sokha, president of the Human Rights Party , said the reshuffle was likely a result of internal CPP power politics.

"We have long heard rumours that Prime Minister Hun Sen had plans to remove Ke Kim Yan from commander of RCAF because of an internal dispute," he said, referring to speculation that has abounded since 1997 when reports of Ke Kim Yan's death in the factional fighting sent his family fleeing to Thailand. Although the reports proved erronrous, it later emerged Ke Kim Yan had disputed an order to deploy the army on the streets of Phnom Penh.

In 1999, when Hun Sen appointed Kun Kim to the general staff, observers cast it as a move by the prime minister to tighten his grip on RCAF.

A three-star RCAF general who declined to be named said that he was "very surprised" to hear of the transfer.

"If he was withdrawn from his post without real reason, there could be a reaction from soldiers and commanders," he said.

But Nguon Nhel, first deputy president of the National Assembly, denied the move was a sign of internal divisions in the party. "There is no such dispute in the CPP," Nguon Nhel said. "If there was a dispute, the CPP would not have such support."

Ke Kim Yan could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Extending a hand to Cambodia

Will Hine

  • January 24, 2009
Kylie Tattersall

Future Cambodia Fund director Kylie Tattersall in Andong, a settlement outside Phnom Penh. She holds a girl whose father was shot dead over a $US2.50 debt. Photo: H Shipp

On January 7, 1979, Vietnamese forces rolled into Phnom Penh, deposing Pol Pot and sending his genocidal Khmer Rouge regime fleeing westward. Thirty years later, Australians are helping to rebuild the nation.

TODAY is a relatively pleasant day in Andong, a settlement just outside Phnom Penh. The sun is peeking through wispy cloud, and nearby rice paddies are dotted with soaring palm trees. There are bubbling green pools of fetid filth under the small, stilted huts, malnourished children with bloated stomachs wander vacantly, and groups of possibly rabid dogs eye off visitors.

But, reflects sometime Melburnian Kylie Tattersall, it's sometimes much, much worse. "It pours down in the rainy season. Within two minutes you've got black raw sewage up round your knees and children running through that … I've been in it myself."

Tattersall is one of about 2500 Australians working in Cambodia, many of them in aid and development. Three decades after the overthrow of dictator

Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge forces, Cambodia is still recovering. Pol Pot's rule, synonymous with the deconstruction of Cambodian society and the atrocities of the Killing Fields, was followed by 18 years of civil strife — the legacy of which still lies buried across the country in the form of more than 4 million landmines.

An inescapable reminder of the chaos that has plagued the country, the hidden munitions have killed more than 19,400 people and injured countless more in the past 14 years, according to the Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System.

Above the surface, there are other problems. This remains a country in which only 16 per cent of rural dwellers have access to a toilet, more than 12,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases, and gross national income is just $US490 ($A750) per capita.

Tattersall describes how more than 5000 Cambodians were forcibly evicted from their Phnom Penh homes in June 2006, driven 22 kilometres out of the city and deposited on the barren, undeveloped patch of land where they now live. Like many Phnom Penh residents, most did not have legal land title; that system fell off the rails in 1975 after Pol Pot evacuated the city and sent its former residents to work — and die — in the countryside.

Shown the road by developers and their hired guns, Andong's poor are just some of the 30,000 Amnesty International says have been evicted in Phnom Penh since 2003.

Gradually, however, the country is finding its feet, assisted in part by the Australian Government and a willing body of everyday Australians such as Tattersall.

"Some people explain (Andong) like a refugee camp, but without all the assistance," says Tattersall. "It's effectively a dumping ground. There's no sanitation, there's nothing." Save for one small enclosure, 100 metres from the edge of the slum and just across the village's "shitting field", the place reeks of despair.

But even in Andong — amid chronic disease, malnutrition and violence — there is hope. This small, fenced enclosure is "Happy Garden", a sanctuary created by Australian charity Future Cambodia Fund (FCF) for Andong's young. In any other setting, the learning complex, playing field, playground, hard court, water wells and toilets would barely raise an eyebrow. Here, the tiny compound is everything the local children could want — an escape from reality.

The centre, now managed by Tattersall, was founded by another Australian, Leigh Mathews, also of Melbourne. Named Young Victorian of the Year late last year for her efforts in establishing FCF, Mathews is now a finalist in the Australian of the Year awards, to be announced in Canberra tomorrow.

Mathews formed FCF in 2004 after stopping in Cambodia on the way home from a working holiday in the UK. "I was deeply affected by Cambodia when I got to Siem Reap (in the country's north-west)," she says. "I hadn't been exposed to that type of poverty before."

The newly formed charity started by running a street clinic in Siem Reap and then began a program providing support for children with neurological problems. Then, in April 2007, Mathews visited Andong. "I was absolutely horrified … People were living under tarps with just pieces of cardboard and reeds. (Andong) had been there almost a year and it looked like it had been set up a week."

Future Cambodia Fund focused on alleviating the trauma of displacement. Happy Garden now caters for 100 to 180 children at a time, with staff engaging them in sports, learning, health and creative activities; on the day of this visit, the youngsters are putting on a musical performance. With a car battery powering the stereo, the young boys and girls — faces heavy with make-up — sing and dance for the audience.

One of the smaller Australian NGOs in Cambodia, FCF operates on a yearly budget of about $US50,000 ($A76,000). At the other end of the spectrum is development agency CARE Australia, running on about $US9 million a year. Funded by government aid programs and private initiatives, CARE has been working in Cambodia since 1990 in areas including agricultural development, mine removal, crisis management, health and education.

In Pailin, a remote district in the far west of the country, South Australian agriculture adviser Greg Secomb is the only Westerner living in the district. Secomb points to a 29-kilometre road built last year under CARE management and funded by AusAID to the tune of $US600,000. Unremarkable to any Western observer, the graded, red-earth road — signposted with a small Australian Government insignia — has changed lives, he says.

"There's a lot of pride in that road. You're out in the middle of Woop Woop and you see that (Australian) logo and you know the impact it's made for thousands of people."

Travel times to schools and hospitals have been cut from eight hours to three in some instances, and where farmers once had their prices beaten down by middlemen, they can now take their own produce to market and receive a fair price.

Elsewhere, at the village of Ou Chheukroam, Village Development Committee chief Chhim Chhon points out an area of 123,000 square metres. Cleared by CARE Australia under a previous program, the area was found to contain 428 anti-personnel mines, one anti-tank mine and 110 pieces of unexploded ordnance.

Farmed by starving, desperate villagers before it was cleared of mines, the minefield took five lives and maimed more than 20 others, Chhim says. Now, the land is covered with crops, and children and livestock can wander where they please. Bright blue plastic water pumps are scattered through the village and Chhim is halfway through building a frog farm with the assistance of CARE.

Working with 2654 families in just this region, CARE's activities include providing frog and fish farms, allocating land tenure, offering microfinance, setting up village councils, training in rice production and crop rotation, installing water pumps and building infrastructure.

The alternative — removing the mines and walking away — leaves villagers ill equipped to farm their land and vulnerable to land-grabbers.

Through AusAID, Australia contributed $60.7 million to development in Cambodia last year, making it the country's fourth-largest bilateral donor.

Professor David Chandler, a Cambodia scholar at Monash University, says Australia was one of the first nations to enter the state in 1989, following Vietnam's withdrawal. In the ensuing years, Hawke government foreign minister Gareth Evans was instrumental in setting up the Paris Peace Accords of 1991 in what was "a very much-Australian led" process, Chandler says. The accords paved the way for UN-sponsored democratic elections in May 1993, a key moment in the nation's history.

Today, well over 100 Australians are working in volunteer programs at any one time. Anna Olsen, 28, of Collingwood, has just finished an 18-month contract with Australian Volunteers International, which placed her with the Ministry of Women. "I loved it," she says. "I really like living in Phnom Penh and it sounds kind of twee, but I like the people."

As technical assistant to the minister, Olsen organised meetings, helped in policy formation and negotiated the tangled business practices that have led Transparency International to rank Cambodia the equal 12th-most corrupt nation in the world.

Australian Volunteers International country manager Mary Flood says the group has placed more than 270 volunteers in Cambodia since the dark days of the early 1980s. Fifteen to 20 highly qualified Australians represent it in roles across the country at any one time. "We have staggeringly good people wanting to come here," Flood says. There appears to be no shortage of Australians wanting to fill Olsen's boots.

Will Hine is a Fairfax journalist.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Phnom Penh Beer – Brewed & Canned in Cambodia

Phnom Penh Beer – Brewed & Canned in Cambodia

Phnom Penh has its first homegrown beer according to Cambodian blogger Vuthasurf. Strangely enough it is brewed and canned in Kampong Chnnang province, not Phnom Penh:

Yesterday, I went to visit the One Product One Province Expo at Modial Center in Phnom Penh, I then spotted the new brand of beer brewed in Cambodia, bearing the name “Phnom Penh Beer”.

This kind of beer just has been brewed at the early of this month in Kompong Chhnang province. I tasted it but I could not yet compare it with Angkor Beer. By the way, the Phnom Penh Beer will be able to enter the market to compete with the other beers.

Around Cambodia

The Rest of Cambodia.

Hello! We're back! The events described in the following post took place in the first weeks of December. We're trying to catch up. Enjoy!

...After our time in Siem Reap, we decided to venture to the Northeastern corner of Cambodia, which had been described to us as the "last frontier." Transport in Cambodia is rather difficult if you are trying to go anywhere other than from Phenom Penh to Siem Reap. There are two major "highways," and even these become dirt roads for large sections. To get to Rattanakiri, the NE province, we had to basically backtrack 3/4 of the way from Siem Reap to Phenom Penh. It took us 2 1/2 days to get there by bus, shared taxi, promises of a car that never came, and another bus. We eventually arrived in Rattanakiri, a dusty red dirt roaded town that reminded us of the Wild West. Although we could not afford the 60$/person National Park entrance fee, which is why we went there in the first place, we managed to see the nature of this region-- mostly dirt roads and dirt roads leading to beautiful waterfalls. We rented motorbikes and spent 4 days tooling around the area. Beware, if you go to Banlung (the provincial capital) and rent motorbikes, check the brakes first. Really. Vegetarian options in this town were minimal, making us repeat customers at the one food stall that understood our needs.

Bus ride to Rattanakiri. Even though our phrase book only contained about 30 words in Khmer that could be used for an actual conversation, we managed to keep a steady, yet repetitive dialogue with a mother and her child sitting next to us. When we stopped, they bought us some flakey food product that requires some cooking. Our phrase book didn't give us enough vocabulary to discern what it was, or how to cook it. Nevertheless, an interesting 12 hour ride. As we are typing this, Max realizes that he still has it in his pack. (It has been over a month since
we took this bus.)

While we were waiting to change buses, Kara entertains a group of Cambodian taxi drivers. The picture they are looking at is of a drunk guy who was dancing in the blistering sun for over 2 hours while we waited to embark on the next leg of our journey.

Downtown Banlung. Naga (see last post for Naga clarification) adorned roundabouts are common in Cambodia.

Crater Lake. The most unpolluted, beautiful piece of water we have seen in Asia so far. The lake is one of the biggest attractions of the area, and many locals come here to cool off and hang out. Kara swam all the way across it and back. Max was laying in bed that day, unable to move because of a horrible neck ache. Ironically enough, the bed was probably the culprit to begin with.

Local friends whose names we have since forgotten. We learned from them that Rattanakiri is an industrial province with lots of mining, logging, and other natural resource extraction processes. In our friend's old job in Kompong Cham (middle Cambodia), he was making approximately 6000 Riel/day ($1.50). In Rattanakiri, his new salary is 8,000 Riel/day. These industrial processes and the migration that they produce add to the frontier image of Rattanakiri.

When we came back to our bikes after swimming, we realized that our key was missing. There is no changing room there, as most Cambodians, both men and women, swim in their clothes. We searched the dock and Max made several dives around the dock looking for our bike key. Eventually we determined it lost, and called on the help of the local police who were going for a swim. They in turn, enlisted some random people and a big rock to break the lock. The smashing of the lock went on for about 15 minutes. As soon as it was completely destroyed, some kids emerged from the dock with our key. Ugggggggggggggg. Later, Kara's pedal fell off and that sucked too. We were able to convince our hotel that our loss of the pedal balanced out their loss of the lock. It worked.

Our view from the hotel.

Invisible graffiti collaboration.

After realizing that trekking was expensive, a minor motobike accident, seeing all the waterfalls there were to see, and a crick in the neck that would not leave, we decided it was time to make our way back to Phenom Penh. The ride there was uneventful, except for the fact that we covered the entire length of Cambodia in a single bus ride. It looks mostly the same from top to bottom, just in case you are short on time when you go.

When we arrived in Phenom Penh, we met up with the Famille Nommay, who we had previously arranged to stay with via They are an extraordinary family who extended to us the most hospitality that we have experienced on this trip. They opened their home to us and we are forever grateful, especially for the washing machine. They became vegetarians with us for the week so that we could share an evening meal together and learn about one another. Yves and Lucile are aid workers and have a young daughter, Sarah. They have both worked for Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders) and other familiar NGOS around the world. Most recently they lived in Sierra Leone and we enjoyed hearing about how relaxed and modern Cambodia was for them in comparison. Other things that happened in PP: Kara turned 25, we went to horribly depressing Khmer Rouge historic sites, and we bought the full series of The Wire for under $10. We bring you Phenom Penh:

View of the Independence Monument (de France) from the tallest building in Phenom Penh-- come to think of it, the tallest building in Cambodia.

Modern tools imitate old techniques. These buddhas are made in open workshops, basically on the streets.

Though Cambodia was not the mecca for vegetarian fare, we still managed to find some delicious and pure vegetarian restaurants in the capital. Most of them were run by ethnic Chinese families, like the one shown above. We were able to find one that had many native Cambodian dishes, which was our only opportunity to try these traditionally meat based dishes. That same restaurant also had an "American hamburger" listed on the menu. Vegetarian, of course.

Kara reviews the day's plan after being kicked out of a German photo gallery. This was the beginning of a temporary falling out between us and the German population abroad. They refused to let us see the exhibit even though we were leaving the next day. Kara pleaded and even flashed her camera in some attempt to gain profesional empathy. They weren't having it.

It's very difficult to blog about the horrific sites we have seen and knowledge we have learned. But these explorations are a large part of our journey and it is important for us to share them with you. What follows is our visits to Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21 as well as what is commonly known as "The Killing Fields."

Some background: During the US war in Vietnam, transportation of millitary supplies between the North and South was strictly limited. The North Vietnamese Arrmy (NVA), with some support from the Cambodian and Lao people, built the Ho Chi Minh trail through their two neighbors to connect "the great Base (the North) to the great Front (the South)." The United States heavily bombed the trail and the surrounding area for miles, and in some cases supported invasions on the ground. The Vietnamese did little to organize the population, being mainly concerned with their own national liberation first and foremost. Out of this brutality and neglect, the Khmer Rouge was born. A young Pol Pot rallied an army of angry peasants whose land had been used as a battle field for two other nations for many years. With the French gone from Indo-China and the Americans concentrating on Vietnam, Pol Pot gained strength and eventually marched on Phenom Penh in 1975 with a plan to "bring Cambodia back to the Stone Age." Calling themselves Communist, the Khmer Rouge's anti-industrial, anti-intellectual, anti-humanitarian vision had nothing to with the writings of Marx, or even Mao. Masked as an agrarian revolution, the Khmer Rouge managed to kill over 2,000,000 people during their 4 year reign. After being defeated by the Vietnamese in 1979, Pol Pot and the remains of the party continued to wage civil war against the new government. Pol Pot died in 1998, having never been brought to trial for the genocide he ordered and oversaw. Many members of the new and current government are former Khmer Rouge generals, including President Hung Sen.

S-21 Prison, otherwise known as Tuol Sleng. Thousands of suspected enemies of the Khmer Rouge were interrogated and tortured in this former school house. Imprisoned here were innocent men, women, and children who labeled as a threat to the government. Some of the later prisoners were former guards and soldiers themselves. As many as 30,000 people were held in this torture house. All were eventually killed.

A sign outside S-21, which now serves as a museum to the genocide.

Inside one of the interrogation rooms. Some of them still had a chalk board on a wall. All the rooms held the original beds and instruments of torture could be found on them. Pools of dried blood remain on the floor and walls, over 30 years later.

Prison rules listed on the inside of cells.

Not pictured is room after room of mug shots of many of the prisoners that came through S-21. All prisoners were photographed on arrival with a piece of paper with numbers on it that was safety-pinned to their clothes. Some prisoners were taken so quickly that they did not have time to dress and a cloth had to be draped over them to pin the number to them. We will never forget the looks of those innocent faces; they were aware of their fates. In some, their fear was palpable, in others, they were dully resigned. Only a few are smiling, perhaps at the novelty of having their photo taken, or perhaps in defiance of their captors. Max spent over an hour looking into the eyes of every single prisoner. Kara lost it there. Just remembering being there brings us to tears.

We were told that seeing Tuol Sleng was enough to understand the atrocities of the genocide. It took us a few days to collect ourselves enough to put ourselves through another visit to Cambodia's tragic past. We thought it was important to see the Killing Fields. So, we got on our motorbike and rode to where thousands upon thousands of people were buried in mass graves, just beyond the city limits of Phenom Penh. 
There were many "Killing Fields" on the outskirts of Phenom Penh used by the Khmer Rouge to execute and dump bodies. Choeung Ek is the one that has been turned into a memorial, and is where you can walk along the excavated graves.

Memorial Wat to the victims.

Inside the memorial.

The skulls are displayed because they give a record of the number of people who were killed. There is a current debate in Cambodia as to whether this is a respectful treatment of the remains of the victims. In Khmer Buddhism, the belief is that the body must be burnt so the soul can be free, but many believe that the best way to respect the victims is to show the evidence of their suffering.

Informational plaque.

One mass grave that held over 500 bodies.

The main method of execution was to make the victims kneel in front of the graves, slit their throats, and allow them to bleed to death. Some were buried alive, while the "lucky" ones were shot.

Walking through the Killing Fields.

We learned through Yves and Lucile, our host family, that there is a new generation of Cambodians that are ignorant and disbelieving of the Cambodian holocaust. They believe their elders are exaggerating, or even senile. Many adults who suffered through this time and survived are resistent to share their stories, even with their own families. We were shocked and saddened to hear this. We are glad we pushed ourselves to go here. This was real. This was horrible. This should not ever happen again. And it is happening again all around the world. RIGHT NOW.

Please take a moment to gather your thoughts as we will now come back to more pleasant experiences in Cambodia. Awkward, yes, but so is traveling. Often moments of powerful sadness are followed by trivial moments, or even great joy. Its hard and its beautiful, and we are learning, and thats why we do it.

Happy cute Sarah. Daughter of host family plays with Circle Rules Football in house.

Kara turns 25! An eventful day:

Here you can see Kara showered with gifts from Max. Just a few of her favorite things, such as: chocolate, vodka, conditioner, and cashews.

This is the best card Kara has ever recieved. It also served as a deed to Max's ears. The card is Max's left and right ear, glued together into the shape of a heart. Amazing.

Then we went to a vegetarian restaurant. It was kind of gross, but we liked the glasses. They were playing Christmas music for the duration of our meal. Just like home!

Then we went to the "Olympic Stadium." No, your memory isn't failing you. The Olympics have never come to Phenom Penh. But they are hopeful, and the 70s architecture is both functional and groovy. Max wonders how they change the lightbulbs in those towers, as there is no ladder leading up to them. The space is used all the time for football matches, amateur boxing tournaments, and concerts.

Inside the basketball court/boxing ring.

We later walked to Wat Phenom, which is the temple that sits on the highest hill of the city. Phenom means "hill," and "Penh" is the woman who founded the city when she built a temple on top of this hill. Hill not pictured. But trust us, its really just a mound.

Elephant on the street! Enough said.

Sunset boat ride on the Mekong. We managed to haggle our cheap asses onto this tourist trap for a fraction of the price and hung out with a group of Japanese tourists for an hour.

VIP Lounge, super schmancy bar that sits on top of the highest building in PP. (See first picture of this post above.) The host family and their vegetarian friend took us to a wonderful vegetarian restaurant. We later decided to go for a drink at this open air rooftop bar to check out a good view of the city. Unfortunately the VIP lounge was the only space that wasn't taken, so we awkwardly were shoved into this super air-conditioned glass box on top of the roof top bar. The disadvantage of the VIP lounge is that we were alone and we couldn't hear the lounge singer. We later were downgraded as soon as the bar cleared out so we could catch the breeze and listen to the lounge singer, who was a charming Phillipino man, singing various renditions of US pop songs accompanying himself with a Casio keyboard. Hotel California, the Asian favorite, was saved for last. Classic. Thank you, Yves and Lucile for such a wonderful evening.

The next day we flew to Indonesia. We're here right now, we are trying to catch up on blogging. If it means anything to you, we just spent 7 hours trying to post this so we can catch you up on our journey. Please keep coming back even if there is no activity for a month. Internet is slow! Life is fast!
K and M