Friday, October 30, 2009

In Cambodia, a threatened tribe of Islam

By Brendan B Brady

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 Phnom Penh, to honor his memory through prayer and offerings. The colorful mawlut ceremony reaffirms the sect's privileged heritage and its continued isolation from the rest of the country's Islamic community, which is dominated by a group known as the Cham.

The Imam San followers are the only group to remain outside the domain of the Mufti, the government-sanctioned leader of Islam inCambodia - 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.

Purity perceptions
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 millions of dollars in soft loans to Cambodiafor agricultural development. 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.

Islamic revivalism
The penetration of Islamic missionaries, as well as development and educational organizations 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 because we believe 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 in the way 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 freelance journalist based in Phnom Penh,Cambodia.

Cambodian temple puzzle nearly complete


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

JSM hits back at activist investors

Former top Cambodian anti-drug official charged

Updated October 26, 2009 13:06:50

The former head of the anti-drug trafficking bureau in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, has been charged for possessing 100-thousand US dollars worth of methamphetamine. Touch Muysor has been suspended after a joint investigation by local authorities and America's Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Presenter: David Boyle
Speakers: Kea Chhay, defence lawyer; Son Chhay, Opposition Sam Rainsy MP; Dr Anand Chaudhuri, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

BOYLE: Touch Muysor once held one of the highest positions in the Cambodia police force... Now he's facing drug and corruption charges. $US100,000 worth of methamphetamines was found in Touch Muysor's office. He's the second senior police officer this month to be charged with drug related offences. His lawyer, Kea Chhay, says his client was just doing his job.

KEA CHHAY: "I think he keeps the drugs in his office so I think he was working at his judicial office - it's part of his work".

BOYLE: Kea Chhay refused to br drawn further on the case but said Touch Muysor denied any wrong doing. The charges are a result of an extensive investigation by the FBI and local law enforcement. It will be alleged Touch Muysor received bribes from local drug dealers. Opposition Sam Rainsy MP Son Chhay says corruption problems are entrenched in local authorities and he's welcomed American involvement in investigations.

SON CHHAY: "It is a really complicated kind of business to deal with in Cambodia due to corruption, due to the kind of gang or group of business involved in drug in this country who have linked themselves to the very high ranking officials in government. It would not be easy for even a good official who works in combating drugs to be able to do anything. Thanks to the FBI and others who have been working with the department authority, combating drugs authority, who have been pushing that the government must do something. "

BOYLE: The National Authority For Combating Drugs is the key instrument Cambodia's government uses to prevent drug trafficking. Radio Australia was unable to contact the Cambodian government, but the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Dr Anand Chaudhuri, says the arrest of Touch Muysor is evidence that Cambodia is now taking drug prevention very seriously.

CHAUDHURI: "This is evidence of the police capacity of enforcing drug prevention - they're not even leaving their own kind. You see it's a very good example of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister taking an active interest, not today, but over a long period of time."

BOYLE: Dr Chaudhuri has heaped praise on the Cambodian Government's adoption of radical new strategies in tackling drugs, which he says are unique within mainland South East Asia. He says foreign partners like the Australian Federal Police have been instrumental in helping the government improve their drug policy.

CHAUDHURI:"There's no reason to leave out the importance Australia has placed in the Asia Pacific region as a whole on this matter and the role of Australia in supporting government to look at this problem. It's a completely new direction. Now, they're switching gears and going in for a three year action plan in which they are considering drug users as victims. Now this is a very, very important milestone in Cambodia. Cambodia is probably one of the only countries with no harm reduction policy, but still having needle syringe exchange programs going on in their capital city. They want to observe the results and they are very happy with the Australian Narcotics Control Department - the ANCD's report on needle exchange programs. They, the royal government of Cambodia, had a five year action plan which is ending this year and that action plan was targeting the supply of drugs, and they've done an efficient job on that."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cambodia offers home to Thailand's ousted Thaksin

Ousted PM is welcome anytime, says Hun Sen

Ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been offered a home in Cambodia by Prime Minister Hun Sen, Puea Thai Party chairman Chavalit Yongchaiyudh says.

Gen Chavalit yesterday paid a one-day visit to Phnom Penh and said Hun Sen was willing and prepared to host Thaksin if he wished to visit Cambodia.

He said arrangements had been made to welcome the ousted prime minister who has fled a two-year jail term for malfeasance in the Ratchadaphisek land purchase.

Gen Chavalit said Hun Sen was full of praise for Thaksin and expressed sympathy for the "political injustice" he suffered in Thailand.

"He [Hun Sen] feels Thaksin is not fairly treated, politically," Gen Chavalit said. "Despite having contributed to the country, he has no place to stay. Hun Sen is in pain even though he is not a Thai.

"So he feels the need to make it publicly known he and Thaksin have always been friends."

Gen Chavalit quoted Hun Sen as saying "Thaksin is welcomed in Cambodia".

AFP also reported that state-run TVK said the Cambodian prime minister made the invitation during a private meeting with Gen Chavalit. If "former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra wishes to travel to Cambodia anytime ... ", the television channel reported.

Thaksin spends most of his time in Dubai since fleeing the country.

Gen Chavalit's one-day visit to Phnom Penh was at the invitation of the Cambodian prime minister. He was greeted by Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh.

The Cambodian prime minister also sought to bolster relations between his ruling Cambodian People's Party and Puea Thai, an official in the Chavalit delegate said.

Gen Tea Banh was assigned as a coordinator for the Cambodian People's Party while Gen Wichit Yathip was named a coordinator for the Thai side, the official said.

Hun Sen's invitation came days after Gen Chavalit joined the opposition party - a reincarnation of the two dissolved People Power and Thai Rak Thai parties.

Gen Chavalit's joining of Puea Thai was followed by a parade of some 50 former classmates of Thaksin from Class 10 of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School to the party.

Hun Sen's remarks are likely to frustrate the Thai government which has tried to establish Thaksin's whereabouts to facilitate its attempt to extradite him and make him serve his two-year jail term.

The remarks are also considered untimely ahead of the Asean summit which starts tomorrow.

Gen Chavalit played down speculation that Hun Sen's comments could cause a further deterioration in relations between the two countries. Border tensions have simmered in past months over the Preah Vihear temple issue. Both countries lay claim to the overlapping areas of 4.6 square kilometres near the temple ruins.

"The country's disputes will have to be dealt with. The relationship between Hun Sen and Thaksin is another matter," Gen Chavalit said.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said before Gen Chavalit's departure to Phnom Penh the meeting between the Puea Thai chairman and Hun Sen was "normal".

"Such a meeting is normal," he said. "I have once visited the Cambodian government [as part of] an opposition party," the prime minister said.

Mr Abhisit said he did not think the government's authority would be overshadowed by the opposition because it was clearly known who was the government and who was on the opposition bench.

Gen Chavalit said the government should not be concerned about his trip. It was a private visit, not a state affair, he said.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cambodia as a player in education

WEDNESDAY, 14 OCTOBER 2009 15:01 JOHN O'LEARY

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As Asian neighbours gain academic clout, the Kingdom must establish clear targets for itself
Opinion
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.
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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.

Challenges crippling Cambodian education

WEDNESDAY, 14 OCTOBER 2009 15:01 DIANA SAW

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Three decades after the darkest years of the civil war, the educational system in Cambodia
continues to be plagued by bribery, cheating, low wages and funding, and expensive schools

Opinion
By Diana Saw

Among students from the poorest 20 percent of the population, education costs represent 79 percent of their per capita non-food expenditure, according to a 2005 study by the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and UNICEF. Though the government has steadily increased the education budget as a part of total government spending during to 12.4 percent in 2007, according to UNESCO, households, donors, and NGOs still provide much of total financing for education in Cambodia. According to the UNICEF study, there are some 113 organisations that support 223education projects in Cambodia, at an estimated cost of US$225 million from 2003 to 2008. Efforts by the Cambodian government to improve education in the country should be recognised, but the work has been inconsistent and greeted with mixed results. So while literacy rates have increased from 62.8 percent in 1998 to 77.59 percent in 2008 (according to government census figures), there was little growth in adult literacy in the period from 2001 to 2006. And though school enrollment across all levels has also gone up, to 92 percent, completion rates are still low. 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

Deaths in Cambodia ferry disaster




The ferry capsized some 160km upstream from the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh

An overloaded river ferry has capsized in a tributary of Cambodia's Mekong river, claiming the lives of at least 17 passengers.
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

Kuwait firm eyes farmland in Southeast Asia


KUWAIT-FOOD/ASIA (URGENT) (INTERVIEW)
* Kuwait China eyes farmland in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos
* Acting as "ambassador" for Kuwait's agricultural policy
* Deals could take 2-3 years to complete

By John Irish and Martina Fuchs
DUBAI, Oct 7 (Reuters) - A Kuwaiti investment firm, affiliated to the Gulf state's sovereign wealth fund, has approached governments in Southeast Asian countries to invest in underdeveloped farmland, its chief financial officer said.
Kuwait China Investment Co's (KCIC), an asset management firm, had a long-term strategy to invest in the agricultural sector, but no deals were imminent, Faisal Nawaz told Reuters.
"There is a lot of farmland in Far East Asia that is either undeveloped or underdeveloped," Nawaz said in an interview late on Tuesday.
"Our proposition to the governments is that we can help them develop the infrastructure and develop the farmland and we will then take a share of the produce."
Kuwait has said it is interested in investing in agriculture and farmland in both Asia and Africa as it looks to diversify food sources.
The world's fourth-largest oil exporter has been looking at investing in the Far East to help diversify its revenue away from heavy reliance on oil exports.
Nawaz said KCIC saw itself as an "ambassador" for Kuwait to seek out opportunities in the agricultural sector, although deals could still take as much as three years to conclude.
KCIC had approached governments in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Nawaz said.
"Vietnam will always be there," he said. "They are very open to suggestions, willing to work with us ... Cambodia, Laos are two other countries we have approached and we are seeing a good reaction."
The firm's managing director said in July it was looking to invest in Asian agribusiness and farming projects producing crops such as rice, wheat and corn for purely commercial reasons.
"It's a model which is difficult to put a timeline on because we are in discussions with multiple governments and unless we can find the right proposition ... whether it takes two years or three is difficult to pin down," Nawaz said.
The desert state, which imports most of its food, sent a delegation headed by the prime minister and included the head of Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA), visited eight Asian countries last year to boost trade ties and discuss food imports.
KCIC, which was established in 2005 with a capital of 80 million dinars ($278.7 million), is also looking at investments in the energy sector and equities and wants to buy stakes in firms in the financial and real estate sectors.
The KIA owns a 15 percent stake in KCIC. Other investors include Kuwait's family-owned conglomerate Al-Ghanim Industries.
Gulf Arab oil exporters have amassed enormous surpluses from an oil price rally that started in 2002 and enabled them to snap up foreign assets to diversify their risk.
In September, Kuwait said it hoped to secure China's approval in the first quarter of 2010 to build a $9 billion refinery and said in May it was looking to raise its stake in the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). (Editing by Inal Ersan)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Global slowdown tatters Cambodian garment industry

The global recession forced the closure of 77 garment factories in Cambodia in the first nine months of 2009, throwing more than 30,000 people out of work, the government said.

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.

After delays, Cambodia rekindles stock market dream

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."

STARTING SMALL

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

Vietnamese businesses gain traction in Cambodia

The mall, named Vinamart, is the Cambodian capital city’s number-one outlet for Vietnamese products. When it opened in 2006, Vinamart only sold a limited product range supplied by 16Vietnamese producers. But the outlet has grown larger, and now offers a vast array of both Vietnamese and Cambodian goods.

“It’s a surprise that Cambodian 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 Province in the Mekong Delta, saidVietnamese products had expanded their market shares in Cambodia and “some products have defeated those from Thailand and China.”

He said Vietnamese businesses have improved their competitiveness in terms of both quality and packaging.

Launch-pad

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 goods 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.

In need

“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.

VietNamNet/TN