Thursday, February 26, 2009

In Sihanouk's words: the Cambodian monarch's private archives

PARIS, Feb 25, 2009 (AFP) - In meticulously labelled boxes piled on shelves in an old Paris building lies the hidden story of Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk, his personal chronicle of 30 years of Khmer suffering and death.

This file picture taken on Feb. 24, 1995 shows King Norodom Sihanouk praying during a Buddhist ceremony at Wat Mony Prasittivong outside Phnom Penh (AFP photo / files)

After abdicating in 2004, the self-proclaimed "king-father" of the country, now aged 87, handed France his personal archives last January for safe-keeping at the National Archive.

"Rarely does a foreign head of state give archives to another country," said Olivier de Bernon, head researcher at the Far-East French Institute (EFEO) and the first to browse the "historically significant" papers.

"The archives were never in Cambodia, but came directly from Sihanouk's home in Beijing," said de Bernon.

It took him two years, with the help of two researchers and an archivist, to sift through the king's 10,000 photographs and one million documents. An inventory of the "Sihanouk Fund" is to be published this year.

Destroyed by later regimes, no personal records remain of Sihanouk's first reign, coronation or childhood. The Paris archives cover the later agitated times that followed Lon Nol's pro-American coup which overthrew Sihanouk on March 18, 1970.

Among the gems are a photograph of Sihanouk's resignation speech as head of state of the Khmer Rouge regime on April 2, 1976 and pictures of North Korea, where he was invited by the country's founder, the late Kim Il-Sung.

Head of state turned political prisoner, Sihanouk spent 1976-79 under house arrest in his Phnom Pen palace with Queen Monique.

A one-time sympathiser of the extremist Cambodian communist movement nicknamed "the red prince" during the Vietnam War, it was the king himself who came up with the name "Khmer Rouge" in 1960.

But de Bernon said Sihanouk was never a supporter of the extremists, with five of his children and 14 grandchildren killed under the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, which left a total of two million Cambodians dead.

"The king was in Beijing from April to September 1975 and was only in power for a year under the Khmer Rouge before resigning. It was only in 1977, like many others, that he understood how the regime operated, and in fact high-ranking Chinese officials had to intervene to ensure he wasn't killed," said de Bernon.

Letters signed Zhou Enlai, Malraux, Arafat, Mandela or Reagan are among Sihanouk's letters.

One from actress Jane Fonda congratulates him for the Khmer Rouge victory and offers to take up their cause in the US.

"Sihanouk has a literary style that shines through in his letters, speeches and thousands of drafts," said de Bernon.

A workaholic with a wide variety of interests, Sihanouk wrote poems, songs and even recipes, and played the saxophone and piano. He could sing in a dozen languages, sometimes for four or five hours at a time, and shot dozens of films glorifying Cambodia.


VIETNAM'S VIETTEL LAUNCHES CAMBODIAN MOBILE PHONE NETWORK

VIETNAM'S VIETTEL LAUNCHES CAMBODIAN MOBILE PHONE NETWORK

PHNOM PENH, Feb 25, 2009 (AsiaPulse via COMTEX) -- Vietnam's Military Telecom Corporation (Viettel) inaugurated its Metfone service network on February 19 in Phnom Penh , Cambodia , managed by the Viettel-Cambodia Pte. Ltd, a Cambodian subsidiary of Viettel.
Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, Viettels General Director, Hoang Anh Xuan, thanked the Cambodian Government for the support it had given the company in expanding its operations into its neighbouring market, helping to further economic development and improve the living standards of local residents.

This is also a symbol of the effective cooperation between Vietnam and Cambodia during their periods of economic development, he added.
On this occasion, the Viettel leader presented the Cambodian Minister of Education, Young People and Sports, Im Sethy, with 5 million USD to help the country to install free broadband internet transmission lines in 1,000 of the countrys schools.

The project will be implemented over the next five years.

Established in June 2007, the Viettel-Cambodia Pte. Ltd has successfully installed over 1,000 broadcasting posts and 5,000 km of cable, covering all 24 Cambodian provinces and cities.

The company plans to install an additional 1,500 posts and 5,000 km of cable this year in order to extend its coverage to Cambodia's remote villages and islands.

The project has created jobs for 700 local workers.

'Ecstasy oil' factories destroyed in Cambodian rainforest

Production of sassafras oil used to make recreational drug ecstasy pushes rare tree to extinction and ruins rainforest

Cambodian rangers destroy a sassafras distillery

Rangers dismantle machinery used to illicitly distill sassafras oil, a raw ingredient of ecstasy, deep in the rainforests of Cambodia?s remote Cardamom Mountains Photograph: D Bradfield/Flora & Fauna International

Illegal factories hidden in the Cambodian rainforest that were producing a raw ingredient for the drug ecstasy have been tracked down and destroyed by investigators from an international environmental agency, working with the Cambodian authorities.

In a month-long investigation the team from Fauna and Flora International (FFI) uncovered the illegal distilleries deep in the forest of the Cardamom mountains in south-west Cambodia.

The two new facilities were intended to make sassafras oil from the roots of the extremely rare Mreah Prew Phnom tree for export to neighbouring countries.

Sassafras oil is used to make cosmetics, but it can also be used as a precursor chemical to make methylenedioxymethamphetamine, more commonly known as the recreational drug ecstasy.

FFI was alarmed that the rate of the illegal production of the "ecstasy oil" could have wiped out the Mreah Prew Phnom tree within five years. The trees are felled and the excavated roots mechanically shredded and boiled in a cauldron during a process that takes about 12 hours to produce 30 litres of oil.

Surrounding trees are also felled to fuel fires for the distillation, threatening one of the last great rainforests in south-east Asia. Rivers are polluted by the effluent from the oil production.

The two factories were discovered last month during the investigation by FFI staff working with Cambodia's environment ministry, which called in the army.

The factories run by Vietnamese syndicates in the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary were destroyed and two people arrested. Sassafras oil production is illegal in Cambodia.

Last year 33 tonnes of sassafras oil that FFI helped to seize was destroyed by the Cambodian government and the Australian police, who claimed it could have been used to produce 245m ecstasy tablets with a street value of £4.82bn.

The environmental group first became involved in efforts to crack down on sassafras oil production in 2004 because of the alarming levels ofdeforestation. In the Phnom Samkos sanctuary FFI now supports 49 Cambodian environment ministry rangers who have closed dozens of factories.

FFI staff estimate there were 75 sassafras oil distilleries operating in the sanctuary at the industry's height in 2006. The number has plummeted, but tight monitoring is vital to prevent a fresh upsurge.

"The re-emergence of the sassafras factories in Phnom Samkos wildlife sanctuary is of enormous concern to us," said FFI field coordinator, Tim Wood. "Recent law enforcement operations clearly show that this threat still persists and that we must remain very vigilant in our effort to suppress this and other forest crimes.

But the policing of the illegal trade is under threat from funding cuts and FFI is calling on the Cambodian government and international donors to support the work of the rangers in combating the production.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Introduction to Banking Cambodia 2009


Photo by: Tracey SHELTON
International Data Group (IDG) Indochina Senior Advisor Derrick Tan announces the Banking Cambodia 2009 conference at NagaWorld Hotel & Casino last week


The Phnom Penh Post

Written by Derrick Tan
Monday, 16 February 2009

Comment

By DERRICK TAN

WITH the rejuvenation of the banking and finance sector in Cambodia in the 1990s after a devastating era, the industry is now growing healthily and, in turn, contributing to the country's economic growth.

This effort has been primarily due to the leadership of the government and the National Bank of Cambodia, with assistance from donor organisations such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

Developing infrastructure and information and computer technology applications are prerequisites for the modernisation of the banking and finance sector. In Cambodia, many innovation-driven banks are leading the way through technology to bring more convenience to customers, facilitate business growth and integrate with the international banking system.

Key areas of focus are the implementation of core banking systems, ATM networks, payment platforms, E-banking, mobile banking, and backroom operations and clearinghouse functions.

Other areas of promise include an upgrade of Cambodia's banking ICT infrastructure to support front-end point-of-sale (POS) systems and the development of a cheque truncation system (CTS) to facilitate non-cash payments, an online and mobile bill presentment and payment system, and e-banking and mobile banking.

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Developing infrastructure and ICT applications are prerequisites for the modernization of the banking and finance sector.

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Through the Banking Cambodia 2009 conference, co-organisers IDG and the National ICT Development Authority (NIDA) hope to introduce fresh perspectives to help keep Cambodia's banking and financial sector up-to-date on global trends.The conference and exhibition will feature new processes and best practices and assess the latest technologies currently modernising the sector.

The event, which takes place on Thursday and Friday at the prestigious international NagaWorld Hotel & Casino, marks the first of an annual series of conferences and exhibitions for the banking and finance industry. Themed the "modernisation of the banking and Microfinance Industry in Cambodia", this timely event serves as an ideal platform for the exchange of the latest ideas and best practice in ICT innovations and solutions.

It will serve as summit meeting for government ministries and agencies, local and regional banks and financial institutions, especially microfinance institutions, technology and solutions providers, and everyone who is involved in the industry.

The two-day conference will commence with a presentation of strategic issues in banking and finance developments in Cambodia. The governors of the State Bank of Vietnam and the Bank of Laos PDR have accepted an invitation to attend and will join their counterpart, the governor of the National Bank of Cambodia, at this summit meeting, hence bringing together the central bank governors of the Indochina region at Banking Cambodia.

The first keynote - "Cambodia: Recent Economic and Monetary Policy Developments" - will be presented by Neav Chanthana, the deputy governor of the National Bank of Cambodia, updating attendees on the latest monetary policy developments in the Kingdom.

Investors looking to Cambodia as a location for good returns and growth should pay attention to the presentation of Bretton G Sciaroni, legal adviser to the Royal Government of Cambodia, as he touches on "Cambodia's Investment Environment: Sectors with Excellent Potential".

The keynotes will be followed by sessions on innovations in banking from world-class technology and solutions providers like First Cambodia, Oracle, IBM, SAP, Avaya, Wincor Nixdorf, Temenos, FPT-IS and many others.

Because of the financial crisis, central banks across the world are in high-alert mode, especially when they have the means to manage fiscal policies and implement actions and regulations to help stabilise the banking system of their countries. Business communities worldwide are now looking to their governments to help stimulate their economies, such as by freeing up credit flows so that lending by banks to businesses can return to reasonable levels to sustain business growth.

On day two, the conference will focus on the banking and microfinance sector in Cambodia. Qimiao Fan, country manager at the World Bank will deliver a presentation on the banking sector's role in helping Cambodia survive and develop during the world economic downturn.

The highlight of the conference will be a leadership forum titled "Obtaining Financing for Business Survival and Growth: What the Banks Can Do During the Financial Crisis".

The forum will discuss whether there is a role for state institutions, donor organisations and NGOs to help with loans to businesses. The panel discussion will gather authorities from the NBC, the Association of Banks in Cambodia (ABC), the World Bank, IFC, Cambodia Microfinance Association (CMA) and other international banking and finance experts.

The conference will also showcase bank technology providers such as First Cambodia, FPT-IS, Oracle Technology, Oracle Financial Services Software, IBM, Wincor Nixdorf, Temenos, Neptune Software, 3i InfoTech, Interflex, Computer Telephony Asia, Thakral.

It will also feature banks and associations including the ABC, CMA, Canadia Bank, OSK Indochina Bank, ANZ Royal Bank and many others.

The organisers welcome the entire banking and microfinance community to join Banking and Finance Cambodia 2009. We particularly urge business owners, corporations, and small and medium-sized enterprises to join us to learn how they can get business loans to grow their businesses. Similarly, farmer associations and rural businesses can learn how they can get microfinancing to buy seed, fertilisers and get export financing. Visitors will also have a chance to win attractive prizes from the organisers.

Information about the conference and showcase is available at www.idgcambodia.com/banking.

Experts: Investors still highly interested in Cambodia

SIEM REAP, Cambodia, Feb. 16 (Xinhua) -- Investors still remain highly interested in putting their money into Cambodia, despite of the global economic downturn, the Economic Conferences here on Monday quoted financial experts as saying.

    "Although the global crisis has undoubtedly had an impact on direct foreign investment, this is expected to be only temporary, as regional investors are still showing strong interest and the entry cost and risk is comparatively less than for other developing markets," said Im Channy, president and CEO of the ACLEDA Bank, a leading sponsor of the one-day Business Roundtable, which was opened here on Monday by the Economists Conferences to discuss ways for the kingdom to secure sustainable economic development.

    "The National Bank (of Cambodia) took robust measures in 2008 to squeeze credit when inflation was running high, but have been equally quick to relax them this year when the economy started to slow down," he added.

    Brett Sciaroni, senior partner of the Sciaroni and Associates, another leading sponsor of the Business Roundtable, also said that "there is still considerable interest in investment in Cambodia, despite the economic troubles that are evident in more advanced economies."

    "Businesses operating in Cambodia rate political stability and an openness of the Royal Government to engage in dialogue with the private sector as key features of the current investment environment that have attracted the attention of many potential investors," the Economic Conferences quoted him as saying in a press release issued prior to the meeting.

    "Furthermore, while much legal reform is needed, investors are impressed with the commitment of the government to getting modern commercial laws in place as evidenced by the progress that has been made both before and after Cambodia's accession to WTO," he added.

    With the same press release, the Economist Conferences warned that "the next 10 years will be more challenging for Cambodia than the past decade, and economic growth is unlikely to be as strong."

    Cambodia has just enjoyed a decade of blistering growth, more than doubling its per capita GDP between 1998 and 2007, thanks to political stability, deepening integration into the global trade and investment community and improved macro-economic management, according to the Economist Conferences.

Cambodia's ATM networks grow despite crisis

PHNOM PENH, Feb. 16 (Xinhua) -- Despite concerns over the impact of the global credit crunch on local financial institutions, Cambodian banks are expanding their network of ATMs to provide customers with easier access to their money, national media reported Monday.

    In Channy, president and chief executive of ACLEDA Bank, told the Phnom Penh Post that the growth of ATMs has boomed in the last few years as living conditions improve and greater progress is made in modernizing the kingdom's bank sector.

    "In 2007, (we) had 20 ATMs. Now, we have 60 ATMs with plans to reach 100 by the end of this year," In Channy said.

    "Our ATMs have been installed in all parts of Cambodia," he said.

    "Our long term expansion strategy will include an expansion of our network to 500 ATMs and 240 branch offices nationwide," he added.

    Meanwhile, Kunkanel Nong, a marketing manager at the Canadia Bank, said that Canadia currently operates 48 ATMs throughout Cambodia, up from 25 in 2007, and that the bank expects to reach 60 ATMs by the end of this year.

    The first ATM in Cambodia was introduced by Canadia Bank in June 2004, according to the National Bank of Cambodia's (NBC) 2007annual report.

News leak on ex-military chief angers Cambodian government

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, Feb. 16 (Xinhua) -- The Council of Ministers have chastised the press for publishing information from a leaked government document that revealed it began probe into the real estate holdings of recently removed military chief Ke Kim Yan, national media said on Monday.

    The publishing of information contained in the official minutes of a meeting of the Council of Ministers held on Jan. 23, one day after Ke Kim Yan's ouster as Commander in Chief of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), amounted to "incitement and provocation of a bad political environment," English-Khmer language newspaper the Cambodia Daily quoted a statement of the council as saying.

    "The government is investigating to find the people who leaked its internal documents and will take strict measures against these individuals," the statement added.

    The minutes, which found their way into the hands of several media outlets late last week, revealed that Ke Kim Yan was removed in part because of his land dealings.

    According to the minutes, "the Council of Ministers has been informed and commented on the termination of the position of commander-in-chief from HE Ke Kim Yan based on two reasons:

    "First, reforming the RCAF rank and file by adhering to work effectiveness in the military rank and file.

    "Second, involvement with land issues by a top and powerful person in the military rank and file and doing business by using the name of military for personal gain."

    The minutes went on to describe a resolution by the Council of Ministers to have both military and government bodies investigate Ke Kim Yan's land dealings.

    Since his removal, ruling party and military officials have repeatedly claimed that his ouster was solely to promote reforms within the military.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

NGO website barred in Cambodia for releasing scathing report

PHNOM PENH -- The website of UK-based corruption watchdog the Global Witness has been blocked for some local web users following its release of a scathing report on Cambodia's nascent oil and mining industries last week, national media said on Monday.

AngkorNet, one of the kingdom's leading internet service providers (ISP), had blocked the site over the weekend in a manner consistent with a deliberate attempt to prevent access, English- language newspaper the Phnom Penh Post quoted Norbert Klein, editor of the online Cambodia Mirror, as saying.

"This doesn't happen automatically. Somebody somewhere must have done something," he said, adding that the block could either have originated with the ISP itself, or "somewhere further upstream."

AngkorNet representatives confirmed the Global Witness site was barred to its customers, but could not provide further details into the reasons for the restricted access.

The 70-page "Country for Sale" report accused corrupt ruling elites of monopolizing the kingdom's mining and oil industries, aided by a "total lack" of transparency.

The report has drawn fierce criticism from Cambodian government officials since its release on January 5.

Cambodia shares the pain

By Stephen Kurczy 

PHNOM PENH - After months of official denials and upbeat forecasts, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said for the first time last week that the country's economy is not immune to the rising global financial and economic crisis. As key business sectors, including garments, tourism and construction, all show signs of weakness, the premier finally said the government must do more to stave off a crisis. 

"It is clear that if the [government fails] to take timely and appropriate measures to manage the crisis, the effects of the global financial crisis and economic downturn will become a real cause for Cambodia's financial system and economy to fall into a dangerous crisis," Hun Sen said during an address to the Cambodian Economic Forum. He also took the occasion to lower the government's 2009 gross domestic product (GDP) growth forecast to 6% from 7% previously. 


Although still higher than most outside projections - including the International Monetary Fund's 4.75% growth forecast - economists say the premier's disclosure represents a significant policy shift. The day before the February 5 forum, Cheam Yeap, a lawmaker from Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party and the chairman of the National Assembly's Finance Commission, said the global financial crisis would have "no impact" on Cambodia. 

Those denials, however, had become statistically difficult to defend. The Economic Institute of Cambodia, an independent think tank, showed that exports in the first half of 2008 grew by only 6.7%, or about half the 12.6% rate recorded over the same period the previous year. That included a severe downturn in the crucial garment export sector: at least 22 garment factories were closed by the end of last year, shedding over 20,000 jobs in the process. 

Tourism also saw declining growth in the second half of 2008, with arrivals dampened by an armed border dispute with neighboring Thailand and the closure of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, through which many tourists transit to Cambodia. Tourism arrivals were up a mere 5.5% year on year, the first time annual growth was below 18% since the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) scare of that year. It was also the first year since then that visits to Angkor Wat dropped, with visitor numbers down about 50,000 visitors to 1.05 million overall. 

The booming construction sector, which had been driven largely by South Korea investors, has also been hit by the global turmoil. Douglas Clayton, chief executive of Cambodia's first investment fund, Leopard Cambodia, warned last September that local land values would fall as Korean investors pulled out of ventures because of sub-prime loan related problems back home. 

By November, South Korean developer GS Engineering & Construction announced it was halting for at least one year construction on its US$1 billion, seven-skyscraper complex, and that it would scale back its original plan to only three buildings. With the economy slowing and South Korean investors heading for the exits, it's increasingly unclear from where the high-spending expatriates will arise to fill the high-end, high-rent complex. 

Economically linked
Some analysts and commentators had earlier suggested that small, financially undeveloped Asian economies like Cambodia, which lacked exposure to toxic subprime products and had diversified their past reliance on exports to US and European markets, might "decouple" from deteriorating financial conditions in the West and maintain strong growth momentum. 

But recent statistics show that "we can't say anymore that Cambodia is decoupled" from the wider global turbulence, said Stephane Guimbert, country economist for the World Bank. "Since we prepared [our 4.9%] projection [for Cambodian 2009 growth] in November 2008, most of the developments in the global economy have pointed to a deeper crisis than expected at that time," he said. 

In part that's because Chinese demand for the region's products, many of them intermediate goods destined finally for Western markets, is not holding up as strongly as some had hoped. The IMF recently halved its 2009 growth forecast for Asia to 2.7%. During a February 2 teleconference announcing the Asia revision, IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn referred to the previous decoupling theory as "a funny story". "We have always been arguing here that there was not such a thing [as decoupling]," Strauss-Kahn said. 

John Nelmes, the IMF's local resident representative, predicts Cambodian GDP growth will likely fall below 4.8% in 2009 and only recover to 5% to 6% next year if larger global economies implement well coordinated fiscal and monetary policies. If accurate, Cambodia's growth is expected to fall by half of recent trends; between 2004 and 2007, GDP growth averaged 11.1% annually. 

"Looking forward to the near term, the global crisis is likely to take a heavy toll on Cambodia," Nelmes told Asia Times Online. 

Until now, integration with global markets had buoyed the Cambodian economy. With the implementation of more market-oriented reforms, including measures to lure foreign investment, average per capita annual income more than doubled to $593 in 2007 from $285 in 1997. Now many fear a reversal of fortunes that could drive more Cambodians, already estimated at 35% of the population, back under the poverty line. Cambodia's poor were already hard hit by last year's spike in inflation, which soared to 25% last May before moderating to an overall annual rate of 13.5%. 

Guimbert and others say Hun Sen's government should move to stimulate the economy through fiscal outlays towards agriculture, infrastructure and social safety nets. The World Bank also recommends more structural reforms so that Cambodia will be better-positioned to benefit when the global economy rebounds. Those suggestions include streamlining export processes and the establishment of a national arbitration center to allow foreign investors to bypass the country's notoriously corrupt courts for business disputes. 

The World Bank ranked Cambodia 135 out of 185 countries surveyed for their overall business climate and in mid-2008 ranked it below every other Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) nation except Myanmar in three main categories: control of corruption, government effectiveness and rule of law. 

That assessment was echoed last week by the United Kingdom-based environmental watchdog Global Witness in a new investigative report that accused Hun Sen's government of cornering and "pillaging" the country's growing mineral and petroleum industries. [See accompanying story] 

Hun Sen says such assessments represent a double standard in light of the recent incompetence and corruption witnessed in the Western financial industry. "Rich countries are only blaming poor countries for corruption - they never blame one another," Hun Sen was quoted saying in the local media. "Powerful nations no longer have the right to advise small countries." 

Stephen Kurczy is a Cambodia-based journalist.