Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Anti-China protesters get the message

Aug 31, 2011
By M Goonan
Source: Asia Time

Anti-China protesters chant anti-China slogans during a demonstration in Hanoi August 21, 2011. Vietnamese police detained scores of people taking part in an anti-China rally in Hanoi on Sunday in defiance of a government order to end a string of demonstrations that has stretched three months and put authorities on edge. It was the 11th anti-China rally in an unprecedented series of public protests that have taken place nearly every Sunday since early June against what Vietnamese see as China's violations of their country's sovereignty in the South China Sea. REUTERS/Tu Quang (VIETNAM - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST).

Eleven weeks can be a long time. For protesters in Hanoi it was an unprecedented stretch. Anti-China protests began in May after the Vietnamese press reported that Chinese ships had cut the cables of a Vietnamese survey vessel in the South China Sea, an area where both nations claim sovereignty. They continued until last week with crowds of no more than a few hundred gathering first near the Chinese Embassy then by central Hoan Kiem Lake to march with banners and chants decrying China's actions in the disputed South China Sea.

The protests, organized near the Chinese Embassy that had a hefty security presence, were at first allowed by the government, then stopped, then allowed again and then finally stopped last Sunday, seemingly once and for all. According to reports, neighborhood loudspeakers - most often used to play the odd revolutionary song and read local news most afternoons and mornings - advised citizens to stay away from the Sunday morning protests in previous days.

Of those who did attend, some 40 were dragged to buses. Most have now been released after questioning, though some still remain in detention. Protests in Vietnam are not common; however consensus among most analysts is that the government mostly allowed them as a way to "send a message" to China and also to let public anger have some outlet. Patriotism is also seen as a more legitimate pursuit than, say, attacking corrupt officials.

As with previous arrests of those seen as unfriendly to the regime, the United States has called on the government to release these few score of peaceful protesters. An embassy spokesperson told Agence France-Presse: "We call on the Vietnamese government to release all individuals detained for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms." It voiced alarm at the detention of people for "peaceful expression of their views".

Hanoi maintains that "hostile forces", a mainstay phrase used to describe people and groups the government dislikes, were hijacking the patriotic demonstrations. The endorsement of them by Viet Tan, an overseas pro-democracy organization that is banned in Vietnam, may not have helped matters.

When dissidents or government critics have been arrested or sentenced previously the US has voiced its concern (though it's important to see the difference between the recent anti-China protesters and others calling for multi-party democracy, even if the government is less keen to do so of late).

Though the US openly criticizes these arrests and jail sentences, it does not sanction Vietnam explicitly, such as by cutting aid to the nation. Last year, a US diplomat did however get into a scrap with government officials. When trying to visit frail "dissident" priest Nguyen Van Ly, his legs were reportedly slammed with a car door. The assault was widely reported.

The US has taken a keen interest in the goings-on in the South China Sea and disputes between Vietnam and China, and China and the Philippines. It also very recently sold Hanoi another warship. This will go with the six submarines on order from Russia; another sign of Vietnam trying to beef up its presence in the contested area in light of China's more aggressive stance.

Vietnam expert Carl Thayer at the Australian Defense Force Academy says that "US interventions on human rights are routine. The US only has a strong bargaining hand when the Vietnamese want something."

Dissident Tran Khai Thanh Thuy was released recently after being tried then sentenced in 2010 to three years on an assault charge she called a "total fabrication". The US quickly issued her a visa and the release seemed an appeasement by an Hanoi eager for US support during its protracted South China Sea spat.

Despite the bumps in the road when it comes to human rights, the military relationship between the two nations is slowly growing.

However, experts such as Thayer have noted that it's important not to read too much into recent events such as the visit by US Navy ship USNS Richard E Byrd, the first visit by a ship to former US port Cam Ranh since the Vietnam War. It was there for a week for routine maintenance, said the local press. Cam Ranh opened for business for foreign ships not long ago.

"The development of military ties is moving forward at a slow pace," said Thayer. It was advisable not see the recent repair as evidence of an actual military relationship, he said.

Vietnam has yet to engage with the US military by conducting joint exercises by land, naval or air forces. However, last month saw 'joint activities' off the central coast that irritated China.

Any advance in military-to-military ties was dependent on an improvement in human rights, former US ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak noted in televised remarks on the 15th anniversary of diplomatic relations, echoing remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Both nations have an interest in maintaining harmony in the sea and will look to cooperation to further that. However, the form and extent of concessions granted on both sides will remain of interest.

M Goonan, a pseudonym, is a Vietnam-based freelance journalist.

China, Vietnam plan defence hotline: Report

Aug 31, 2011

HANOI (AFP) - China and Vietnam plan to set up a defence hotline as part of closer military links, official media reported on Wednesday, in the latest effort to publicly ease tensions after a maritime dispute.

The two sides 'agreed to promote bilateral defence cooperation' at their second annual security dialogue held in Beijing, the English-language Vietnam News reported after the weekend talks.

The newspaper said China and Vietnam would expand ties to 'new fields', among them the exchange of military delegations, including military students, as well as establishing the hotline between their defence ministries.

It did not elaborate on whether the line would be for the ministers themselves.

Meetings with Cambodia unofficial, not secret: Suthep

Democrat MP Suthep Thaugsuban said on Wednesday his meetings with Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister Sok An in Hong Kong and Kunming during the Abhisit government were unofficial, not secret as described by Cambodia.

He admitted he met Sok An as a representative of the Thai government to discuss joint maritime cooperation. "The meetings were not for personal interest," he reiterated.

The Cambodian petroleum authority has issued a statement alleging the Abhisit government tried to make a secret deal, which Phnom Penh disagreed with, on the maritime area.

Abhisit sent his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban for talks with Cambodian leaders many times, including two behind-the-scene meetings with Deputy Prime Minister Sok An in Hong Kong and Kunming in August 2009 and July 2010 respectively.

"While asking for transparency from previous governments which had dealings with Phnom Penh openly, "why under the Abhisit government was there a need for secret meetings", the statement said.

Suthep said no deals were agreed upon during those meetings.

In the meetings, Sok An proposed that both countries settle the overlapping maritime zones in the form of a joint panel. The disputed zones would be divided like a chessboard and both countries conducted a draw to know which country would be in charge of which site.

Suthep said he informed Sok An that he would let the government and the Parliament decide on any proposal.

Cambodia pulls back other 1,500 troops from disputed border with Thailand

Aug 31, 2011

PENH -- Cambodia on Wednesday withdrew its troops for the sixth time from the disputed border area with Thailand as the two neighboring countries' military tension has eased since earlier July.

Approximately 1,500 troops in the Brigade No. 5 were pulled back on Wednesday from the Thmar Doun area between the 13th century Ta Moan temple and Ta Krabei temple, 150 kilometers west of the Preah Vihear Temple, Maj. Gen. Seak Socheat, deputy commander of the front-battle region 3, told Xinhua over telephone on Wednesday.

"The pullback was made at the order of Prime Minister Hun Sen," he said. "It's the sixth time Cambodian troops have pulled back from the disputed border with Thailand."

The troops pullback ceremony was held on Wednesday at the Thmar Doun area in Oddar Meanchey province with the presence of Gen. Kun Kim, deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Force, and Gen. Chea Dara, deputy commander-in-chief of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces for Preah Vihear Direction.

Ta Moan and Ta Krabei temples were the second fighting spot between Cambodian and Thai troops after Preah Vihear Temple.

The large-scaled armed clashes at the two temples had occurred from April 22 to May 3, costing dozens of lives on both sides' troops and civilians and forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee for safe shelters.

The conflict between Cambodia and Thailand broke out just a week after Cambodia's Preah Vihear temple was listed as World Heritage Site on July 7, 2008.

Thailand claims the ownership of 4.6 sq km of scrub next to the temple.

However, the military tension has eased since the former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Pheu Thai Party won a landslide victory in July's general election.


Philippines - President Aquino receives winners of the 2011 Magsaysay awards

Aug 31, 2011

President Benigno S. Aquino III received this year’s winners of a prestigious award-giving body that recognizes personalities and groups whose lives and work paint a portrait of remarkable change and achievement, addressing issues of human development in Asia with courage and creativity and transforming their societies for the better.

The winners, composed of five individuals from Cambodia, India, Indonesia and a group from the Philippines, paid a courtesy call to President Aquino at the President’s Hall of Malacanang Palace, Friday. They were gladly congratulated by the Chief Executive along with Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda.

The 2011 Ramon Magsaysay awardees include a Filipino group, the Alternative Indigenous Development Foundation, Inc. (AIDFI) that was given recognition for their collective vision, technological innovations and partnership practices to make appropriate technologies improve the lives and livelihood of the rural poor in the country’s upland communities and elsewhere in Asia.

Harish Hande from India was given recognition for his passionate and pragmatic efforts to put solar power technology in the hands of the poor through a social enterprise that brings customized, affordable, and sustainable electricity to India’s vast rural populace, encouraging the poor to become asset creators.

The holistic, community-based approach to pesantren of Hasanin Juaini of Indonesia creatively promoted values of gender equality, religious harmony, environmental preservation, individual achievement and civic engagement among young students and their communities.

Koul Panha from Cambodia was honored for his determined and courageous leadership in a sustained campaign to build an enlightened, organized and vigilant citizenry who will ensure fair and free elections – as well as demand accountable governance from elected officials – in the country’s nascent democracy.

Nileema Mishra from India, was recognized for her purpose-driven zeal to work tirelessly with villagers in Maharashtra, India organizing them to successfully address both their aspirations and adversities with collective action and heightened confidence in their potential to improve their own lives.

The efforts of Tri Mumpuni from Indonesia was honored for her determination to promote micro hydropower technology, catalyze needed policy changes and ensure full community participation in bringing electricity, as well as the fruits of development to the rural areas of her country.

Established in 1957, the Ramon Magsaysay Award is Asia’s highest honor and is widely regarded as the region’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. It celebrates the memory and leadership example of the third Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay and is given annually to individuals or organizations in Asia who manifest the same sense of selfless service that ruled the life of the late and beloved Filipino leader.

The winners, dubbed as Asia’s living heroes, join 284 other laureates who have received the region’s highest honor to date. Each of them receives a certificate, a medallion bearing the likeness of the late President Ramon Magsaysay and cash prize.

The awardees will be formally conferred the Magsaysay Award during the Presentation Ceremonies to be held on August 31, Wednesday at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

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Vietnam Stocks: Petro Capital, Tay Nguyen Electricity, Vien Dong

Shares of the following companies had unusual moves in Vietnam trading. Stock symbols are in parentheses, and prices are as of the 11 a.m. local-time close.

The VN Index, the benchmark measure of the Ho Chi Minh City Stock Exchange, rose for a fifth day, advancing 1.3 percent to 424.71. The gauge climbed 4.7 percent this month, the biggest monthly gain since January.

Petro Capital & Infrastructure Investment Joint-Stock Co. (PTL VN), a construction company, surged by the daily limit of 5 percent to 8,400 dong, the highest since July 26. The Ho Chi Minh City-based company plans to buy back 7 million shares from Sept. 6 to Dec. 6, according to a filing with the bourse.

Tay Nguyen Electricity Investment Joint-Stock Co. (TIC VN) a power company that also engages in construction of civil engineering works and production of rubber products, increased 1.3 percent to 7,600 dong. The company plans to buy back 300,000 shares from Sept. 12 to Nov. 12, according to a statement on the exchange’s website.

Vien Dong Pharma Joint-Stock Co. (DVD VN), a Ho Chi Minh City-based drugmaker, fell a fourth day, losing 2.7 percent to 3,600 dong, a record low. Vien Dong will be delisted on Sept. 5 and its last trading day is tomorrow, the bourse said in a statement on its website.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Darren Boey at

Bird flu no threat to Australia: medical chief

Aug 31, 2011

CANBERRA -- Australia's new chief medical officer, Professor Chris Baggoley, on Wednesday said Australian should not be worried about reports that a mutant strain of the deadly bird flu virus is spreading across Asia and beyond.

On Monday, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said a mutant strain of the deadly avian influenza virus was spreading in Asia and issued a warning that the bird flu could spread from poultry to humans. It urged "heightened readiness and surveillance" as the mutant strain posed "unpredictable risks to human health."

But Professor Baggoley, who took office on Tuesday, said Australia is well served by strict testing and customs regimes, adding that avian migration patterns also mean infected birds are highly unlikely to arrive in Australia.

"I don't think we should be worried," Prof Baggoley told Sky News.

"The country and the Australian government is certainly vigilant in relation to bird flu."

Prof. Baggoley insisted the H5N1 virus remains overwhelmingly a disease of birds and it is very uncommon for humans to catch it. It is also exceedingly rare for humans to spread it among themselves.

He said that even if bird flu did arrive and affected humans, Australia is ready to respond to any new and significant developments in bird flu.

"Australia tests migratory wild birds, looking for H5N1, and has been doing this for some years and has never found it," he said.

"On the human side of things, Australia has been preparing for a possible outbreak of H5N1 since 2004.

"We've got the laboratory capacity to diagnose influenza; we've got arrangements in place for a rapid production of an H5N1 vaccine for humans, and we've got ready access to antivirals."

There have been no outbreaks of bird flu in Australia to date.

The UN said the latest human death from bird flu occurred earlier this month in Cambodia, which has registered eight cases of human infection this year, all of them fatal.

H5N1 has infected 565 people since it first appeared in 2003, killing 331.

Editor: An

Cambodia seeks to resume oil deal talks with Thailand on overlapping area

Aug 30, 2011

PHNOM PENH -- The government of Cambodia on Tuesday issued a statement announcing that Cambodia is looking forwards to resume the negotiation with Thailand on a plan for joint development of overlapping maritime claims in the Gulf of Thailand for the two countries' interests, according to a statement from the Cambodian National Petroleum Authority.

"The government of Cambodia would welcome the resumption of open and official negotiation on this issue and will pursue such a course as soon as practicable in the mutual interests of both peoples and countries," said the statement.

"Cambodia has a firm commitment to finding an equitable and transparent solution to the overlapping claims area (OCA)," it added.

The statement said that so far, the newly formed government of Thailand led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has not yet held any meeting or raised any proposal with the government of Cambodia to resolve the OCA, let alone any proposal to settle the dispute in exchange for any private individual gains as alleged by Democrat Party Member of the House of Representatives Anik Amranand during the meeting of the National Assembly on Aug. 23-25.

Cambodia and Thailand entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) regarding the area of their overlapping maritime claims to the continental shelf in June 2001, setting out an agreed area to be delimited and an agreed joint development area (JDA), it said.

Both countries subsequently dedicated considerable attention and resources to implementing the MoU by establishing the Joint Technical Committee (JTC) and two working groups on delimitation and joint development respectively.

The constructive discussions and negotiations between the two countries, which took place from 2001 to 2007, were extremely fruitful, giving rise to two alternate proposals for the JDA: Cambodia's break-through proposal and Thailand's three-zone proposal.

However, the official talk on the issue between the two countries was in limbo during the former Thai government under Abhisit Vejjajiva's administration.

"Even during the past few years when the JTC did not meet formally, the Abhisit government continued to engage the government of Cambodia in negotiations on the OCA on multiple occasions," said the statement.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen and former Thai deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban and former Thai defense minister Pravit Wongsuwan held a meeting on June 27, 2009 in Cambodia's Kandal province. Behind-the-scenes discussions were also held between Suthep Thaugsuban and Cambodia's deputy Prime Minister Sok An in Hong Kong on Aug. 1, 2009 and in Kunming on July 16, 2010.

"Mr. Suthep Thaugsuban indicated a strong preference to resolve this issue during the mandate of the Abhisit government," said the statement.


Thai defense minister to visit Cambodia in September

Aug 30, 2011

BANGKOK -- Thailand's Defense Minister Gen. Yuthasak Sasiprapha would visit Cambodia in late September at the invitation of his counterpart Gen. Tea Bahn, Thai defense ministry spokesman said Tuesday.

His visit will be an informal one in order to pave the way for the upcoming General Border Committee (GBC) meeting, according to the spokesman's statement.

Gen. Yuthasak would also meet with Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen and His Majesty Narodom Sihamoni.

Army Spokesman Colonel Thanathip Sawangsaeng informed that the defense minister would held a meeting of the Office of National Security Council with relevant agencies and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra within two weeks in a bid to discuss GBC meeting.

GBC meeting is normally co-chaired by both countries' defense ministers with the purpose of dealing with border problems and demarcation.

Regarding the outcome of the Regional Border Committee (RBC) meeting during Aug. 23-24 in Thailand's northeastern Nakhon Ratchasima province, Gen. Yuthasak said he was satisfied.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Degar Montagnards: Not A Prayer For US-Vietnam Diplomacy

by Asia Times Online

While much has been made of the role leaked confidential United States diplomatic cables have played in the political convulsions now sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, there is at least one batch of documents that show how US President Barack Obama's government has wilfully looked away from sustained abuses committed by an emerging strategic ally in Asia: Vietnam.

The cables in question, entitled "Vietnam Religious Freedom Update - the Case Against CPC [Country of Particular Concern]", were written in 2010 by US ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak and published by WikiLeaks in January this year. The leaked correspondence which assessed Vietnam's freedom of religion situation blatantly failed to mention the hundreds of Christian Montagnards, or Degar people, currently imprisoned for practicing their religion and the sustained persecution of independent house churches.

The leaked cables dismiss Vietnam's religious repression as "primarily land issues" and that such actions "should not divert our attention from the significant gains in expanding religious freedom that Vietnam has made".

For years, human-rights groups and concerned US Congressmen have complained about Vietnam's abysmal freedom of religion record. The US State Department, keen to foster ties with Hanoi in a bid to counterbalance China's regional rise, has through its silence effectively validated Vietnam's consistent denials about committing human-rights abuses, including its persecution of the Montagnards.

A recent report by rights watchdog Human Rights Watch entitled "Montagnard Christians in Vietnam: A Case Study in Religious Repression" states that "during the last decade, the Vietnamese government has launched a series of crackdowns on Montagnards in the Central Highlands" and "more than 350 Montagnards have been sentenced to long prison sentences on vaguely-defined national security charges for their involvement in public protests and unregistered house churches".

The report notes that the "arrests are ongoing, with more than 70 Montagnards arrested or detained during 2010" and "at least 25 Montagnards have died in prisons, jails, or police lock-ups after beatings or illnesses sustained while in custody".

In 2004, the State Department designated Vietnam as a CPC, which places it on an official watch list punishable by sanctions of nations that habitually commit egregious violations of religious freedom. At the time Vietnam was desperately seeking accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and effectively required Washington's approval through normal trade relations to join the club.

The two sides negotiated to remove Vietnam as a CPC in 2006 after Hanoi committed to improve its rights record and subsequently normalized trade ties. However, soon after Vietnam entered the WTO in January 2007 the communist-led regime reverted to its old repressive ways. Out of diplomatic expediency or embarrassment, the plight of the Montagnards and other persecuted religious groups has since been ignored by the State Department.

In light of the US's deep history with the Montagnards, that blind eye is an act of betrayal. Tens of thousands of Montagnards were recruited and trained by US troops and were loyally served Washington during the Vietnam War. Their bravery in fighting against the communists was legendary, according to US soldieraccounts. Over the life of the conflict it was estimated some 100,000 Montagnards fought alongside US troops and at any given time some 30,000 were actively serving. By the end of the war in 1975, an estimated quarter of the Montagnard population, or over 200,000 people, had perished in the conflict.

The survivors were left to face unassisted the victorious communists' vengeance. On taking over South Vietnam, the communists imprisoned and executed the Montagnard's political and religious leaders. The wider Montagnard population was subjected to forced relocations and thousands were condemned to live on some of the country's poorest cropland. The military also deforested the Montagnard's ancestral lands while expanding their logging operations into neighboring Laos and Cambodia. The Montagnards have been deliberately marginalized as losers of the war and survive today in a cycle of crushing poverty.

Disposable allies
Take, for instance, the case of Puih Hbat, a Montagnard Christian and mother of four whose father served with the US during the Vietnam War. On April 11, 2008, in the dead of night, eight security officials bundled her off screaming into a waiting truck that took her to prison. Her crime: hosting Christian prayer services in her longhouse. Tellingly, her name did not appear in the leaked US cable that claimed to assess Vietnam's freedom of religion situation.

Yet the State Department has detailed knowledge of her and hundreds of other Montagnards now in detention. In 2006, John Q Adams, then the State Department's Vietnam desk officer, received a painstakingly detailed report with names and photographs of over 350 Montagnard prisoners arrested for non-violent activities, including merely practicing their faith.

These same prisoners have also been documented by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). In January 2009, the European Parliament confirmed Puih Hbat had been imprisoned "for leading prayer services for Christians in her house". Sources confirm that US Embassy officials in Hanoi had investigated her arrest.

The leaked cables make repeated mention of the "significant gains" Vietnam has supposedly made on upholding religious freedoms. That assessment includes references to the "registration of scores of new religions" and the "training of hundreds of new Protestant and Catholic clergy".

"Registration" and "training" are in reality codewords for mechanisms of state control over religious congregations. The so-called "new religions" are in fact government implemented programs designed to control how Vietnamese practice their faith. Hanoi has changed only its tactics of repression since being dropped as a CPC in 2006.

Since then thousands of Montagnard Christians have been arrested, beaten, tortured and then released in a deliberate policy to repress house churches from expanding their memberships. Over the past decade, Protestant congregations, many of which meet and pray underground, have reportedly grown by 600%, a statistic that has reportedly alarmed communist officials. By praising the successful expansion of government registered churches, including the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam, the State Department has effectively legitimized the communist government's oppressive tactics against independent churches.

The USCIRF, an independent US federal agency, has called for Vietnam to be redesignated a CPC every year since it was delisted in 2006. In May 2010, the agency specifically identified Montagnard prisoners as just cause for redesignation.

It stated that "hundreds of Montagnard Protestants arrested after the 2001 and 2004 demonstrations for religious freedom and land rights remain in detention in the Central Highlands. The circumstances and charges levelled against them are difficult to determine, but there is enough evidence available to determine that peaceful religious leaders and adherents were arrested and remain incarcerated."

The USCIRF also said "The State Department's standard for determining who is a religious ‘prisoner of concern' draws an arbitrary line between 'political' and 'religious' activity not found in international human-rights law." In other words, the USCIRF believes that the State Department makes up its own rules of classification when dealing with Vietnam. The leaked cables, meanwhile, show that US diplomats have ignored the fate of Montagnard prisoners while simultaneously praising the ruling communist's intensifying controls over religion.

Puih Hbat and hundreds of other Montagnards languish in prison for practicing their faith while the Obama administration concentrates on building strategic ties with Vietnam's communist regime. While her now deceased father served proudly with US forces against those same communists during the Vietnam War, it's unclear whether he would have sided with the Americans knowing that some 40 years later the US government would fail to acknowledge his wrongfully imprisoned daughter's and other Montagnard's ongoing plight.

Scott Johnson is a lawyer, writer and human-rights activist focusing on tribal peoples from Southeast Asia. He may be reached at

Floods threaten Vietnam's Mekong Delta rice basket

Rising floods in Chaktomuk River, Cambodia. Photo: RFA/Quoc Viet

Rising floods in Vietnam's Mekong Delta are threatening the country's main rice-growing area, authorities said Tuesday, reported dpa.

Water from heavy rains upstream in Laos and Thailand, combined with high tides in the low-lying areas of the river's delta, are putting thousands of hectares of the newly planted crop at risk, said Phan Thanh Minh, director of the Southern Centre for Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting.

The delta's waters were rising at a rate of 4 to 6 centimetres per day and were likely to rise to 4 metres above sea level Wednesday.

If they rise any further, Minh said, they could break dykes and flood houses in some areas and drown the rice planted in the surrounding fields.

Farmers in the Mekong Delta have planted about 600,000 hectares of rice for the year's second crop, 100,000 hectares more than the same period last year.

Although the area is protected by dykes, some would not withstand water levels above 4 metres, the centre said.

Vietnam 's Central Steering Committee for Flood Prevention and Control has ordered localities to plan to reinforce the dykes and pump water from paddy fields to protect the crops.

It has also ordered the evacuation of several thousand households in mountainous areas further upstream that are prone to landslides in bad weather.

S. Korea builder wins $1.46 bln order from Vietnam

Aug 30, 2011

Vietnam suffers from a chronic power shortage (AFP/File, Hoang Dinh Nam)

SEOUL — Hyundai Engineering and Construction, South Korea's largest builder, said Tuesday it has won a $1.46 billion order to build two power plants in Vietnam.

The deal with the Vietnamese government calls on Hyundai Engineering to complete the coal-powered plants at Mong Duong, 250 kilometres (150 miles) northeast of Hanoi, by August 2015, the company said in a statement.

The plants with a total capacity of 1,000 megawatts will help resolve a chronic power shortage in the Southeast Asian country, it said, adding the project would be mostly funded by the Asian Development Bank.

The deal brought the builder's overseas contracts so far this year to $3.8 billion.

It was Hyundai Engineering's biggest order since Hyundai Motor acquired a controlling stake in the builder in April following a bitter family feud over the former Hyundai empire.

The giant group was split into separate units after the death of its billionaire founder Chung Ju-Yung in 2001.

Thailand alerted to bird flu after patients reported in neighbouring countries

Aug 30, 2011
(MCOT online news)

BANGKOK- Thailand's Ministry of Public Health has remained vigilant for the possibility of an outbreak of bird flu after patients contracting the disease were reported in Vietnam and Cambodia, but no patients and no poultry dying of suspicious causes have been reported here.

Dr Pasakorn Akarasewi, director of Thailand's Bureau of Epidemiology said that the United Nations (UN ) warned of a possible resurgence of the bird flu outbreak, calling for all countries to heighten surveillance.

According to the latest report, a six-year-old girl is among the eight deaths from avian flu virus H5N1 in Cambodia this year.

However, in Thailand, there have been no H5N1 patients so far and no suspicious deaths of poultry.

The public health ministry has cooperated with the livestock department to monitor the situation closely after Vietnam and Cambodia reported H5N1 patients.

Regarding drug resistance problems, he said no irregularity was detected in the use of influenza drug Tamiflu (Oseltamivir).

Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) head said there have been no reports of the H5N1 avian influenza virus showing resistance to Tamiflu from Chulalongkorn University, the Disease Control Department and the public health ministry, which have duties to keep surveillance of the diseases.

More than 20 million doses of Tamiflu produced in 2009 are in Thailand's stockpile, and the drug expires seven years after its manufacturing date.

The GPO started testing live, attenuated influenza vaccine from H5N3 virus. If succeeded, it can be used to prevent the infection.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said migrating birds caused the H5N1 to spread to many countries, but no outbreak has been reported for several years in Israel, Palestine, Bulgaria, Romania, Nepal and Mongolia. Since the virus emerged in 2003, it has claimed 331 lives and infected 565 people.

Cambodia's activist monk fights on despite threats

Cambodian Buddhist monk Loun Sovath (L) prays before he blesses water for villagers during a protest in Phnom Penh (AFP/File, Tang Chhin Sothy)

PHNOM PENH — His saffron robe a rare beacon among protesters, Cambodia's most outspoken monk has been banned from temples and risked arrest for challenging rights abuses -- but he vows not to be silenced.

"The more they threaten me, the more I stand up for our rights," said the Venerable Loun Sovath, also known as the "multimedia monk" for filming forced evictions and distributing the footage.

In a country where Buddhist monks are hugely respected but rarely seen standing shoulder to shoulder with those fighting abuses, his peaceful activism has attracted praise from rights groups -- and condemnation from authorities.

"Seeing a monk amongst the crowd lifts the spirits of people defending their human rights," the bespectacled holy man told AFP during a recent interview in the capital, where he joined a rally against deforestation.

"Only one of me can make one hundred, 200, 300 people feel strong."

But his tireless campaigning has made the Buddhist hierarchy and the authorities nervous, say observers, who fear for his safety.

Police have interrupted his meetings, followed him and cursed at him. He has also been warned that he faces arrest for inciting people to protest.

Religious officials have repeatedly ordered him to stop activities or risk being disrobed for disobeying Buddhist discipline, while senior monks have tried to make him sign a pledge promising to cease his activism, Sovath said.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director with the international campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the monk's championing of villagers who have lost land to "rich and well-connected persons" makes him a high-profile target.

HRW is "extremely concerned" that Sovath, 30, could "face reprisals, and perhaps violence, because what he's doing is really a challenge to the core of Cambodia's lawless, might-makes-right political culture", he said.

Sovath, who entered the monkhood at the age of 13, became an activist after witnessing a land grab in his own village in March 2009, when police fired at unarmed villagers protesting against the confiscation of their fields.

He captured much of the confrontation -- during which his brother and nephew were injured -- on camera and successfully resisted police attempts to confiscate his material.

Since then, he has broadened his work to speak up for all victims of social injustice, becoming one of the impoverished nation's leading human rights defenders -- and the only one in orange robes.

Pressure on Sovath has increased in recent months amid what rights groups say is a growing crackdown on freedom of expression in Cambodia.

Seven international rights groups, including Amnesty International, Witness and HRW, recently asked key donor nations to urge the government to stop the threats and intimidation against the monk.

"The ongoing government harassment of Venerable Sovath constitutes a veiled attempt by the Cambodian authorities to silence those who speak out on issues that they deem controversial," they wrote in a letter leaked to AFP.

But Phnom Penh's powerful chief monk Non Ngeth, one of the country's highest-ranking clerics, told AFP that Sovath's actions were "not correct".

"A monk should not get involved in politics" or "participate in rallies and riot actions," he said.

In April, Non Ngeth banned monasteries in the capital from hosting Sovath, who lives in northwestern Cambodia -- a move that goes against the custom of temples offering shelter to visiting clergymen.

A similar order, signed by Siem Reap's senior monk Pich San, was issued to all pagodas in Sovath's own province in late August, effectively evicting him from the temple that has been his home since he was a teenager.

The under-fire monk admitted his current situation was "very difficult".

"Although I have no pagoda to stay in right now, the pagoda is inside my heart," he said, before adding laughingly: "The Buddha had no pagoda also."

Both directives, seen by AFP, claim Sovath is sullying the image of the religion with his activities.

Sovath believes criticism against him is the result of political pressure on his religious elders.

"I'm not doing anything wrong against Buddhism or national law," he said, adding that he had a right "to educate people and to do good things".

He said Cambodian monks have been scared off taking a stand on controversial issues after a bloody crackdown on anti-government demonstrations in 1998 left at least two monks dead and scores more injured.

"Many, many monks support me," Sovath insisted. "They know about human rights in Cambodia, injustice and social problems. But if we want them to show their faces... they are afraid."

He is determined not to give in to those fears because monks "should be representatives for justice, happiness and peace".

"The people need us to help them," he said. "This is what makes me go on."

China, Vietnam to resolve disputes by consultation

Aug 29, 2011

BEIJING - China and Vietnam pledged to resolve disputes in the South China Sea through consultations and negotiations on Monday.

The pledge came out of a meeting between Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie and Vietnamese Vice Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh.

"China is willing to work with Vietnam to firmly safeguard the two countries' common strategic interests and overall relations as well as peace and stability in the South China Sea by strengthening communication and consultation as well as preventing outside provocation that could spoil the two countries' relations," Liang said.

"China opposes complicating and internationalizing the issue of the South China Sea and insists on resolving disputes through consultations and negotiations," Liang added.

"Currently, both sides should make efforts to actively promote joint development, increase mutual trust through cooperation, and enhance stability by increasing mutual trust," he said.

Nguyen Chi Vinh said Vietnam attaches great importance to developing a comprehensive strategic partnership with China and hopes to work with China to strengthen communication and cooperation in all areas between the two countries and their militaries so as to safeguard regional peace and stability.

He said the two countries should resolve disputes in the South China Sea through mutual trust and friendly consultations, and not allow any outside forces to spoil Vietnam-China relations by intervening in the disputes.

Bird flu appears returning: UN

Aug 30, 2011

BEIJING-- The United Nations is warning authorities to be on high alert of bird flu as the virus appears to be returning.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization said in a statement Monday a mutant strain is spreading across parts of Asia, and there could be a spill-over to humans.

However, it said at this stage, there's no need for any alarm.

A mutant strain of H5N1, which can apparently sidestep defenses of existing vaccines, is spreading in China and Vietnam, it said.

It said the variant of the virus appears able to side step Vaccines.

The UN is concerned the new form of the virus could spread to Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia, as well as the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

"Wild birds may introduce the virus, but people's actions in poultry production and marketing spread it," said FAO's chief veterinary office Juan Lubroth in urging greater preparedness and surveillance, according to media reports.

Outbreaks of the virus peaked in 2006 before it was eradicated from most countries.


Editor: Fang Yang

Monday, August 29, 2011

Vietnam to free more than 10,000 prisoners in annual National Day amnesty

HANOI, Vietnam — Vietnam’s president has ordered more than 10,000 prisoners freed as part of the country’s annual National Day amnesty.

Five of those had been convicted of national security crimes, but no high-profile dissidents were included. Three were ethnic minorities from the restive Central Highlands.

Eleven of the 10,535 inmates being freed are foreigners, including nationals of the United States, Canada and Australia. National Day is Sept. 2.

Vietnam has been criticized by the United States and European Union for jailing political and religious dissidents. The Communist country does not tolerate any form of dissent and often uses national security laws to convict those deemed a threat.

CAMBODIA-THAILAND: Men trafficked into "slavery" at sea

More Cambodian men than women are trafficked
PHNOM PENH, 29 August 2011 (IRIN) - Taing Ky* and his cousin were told they would be gardeners in Thailand, but instead they were forced to work on Thai fishing boats.

Each year, hundreds of Cambodian men, many impoverished farmers, are lured from their homes with the promise of better-paying jobs in Thailand, only to find themselves on Thai fishing boats plying the waters of the South China Sea.

"We were told we would earn good money," Taing Ky, 37, a father-of-five from Cambodia's Kampot Province, about 200km southwest of Phnom Penh, told IRIN. After six months, they managed to escape while the boat was offloading on Benjina island in northern Indonesia. There they were picked up by local authorities.

Thousands of Cambodian men are now believed to be working against their will in exploitative working conditions on long-haul trawlers well beyond the reach of law enforcement agencies, and often alongside Burmese men.

"It's slavery. There's no other way to describe it," Lim Tith, national project coordinator for the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP), told IRIN.

Thousands exploited

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), about 125,000 Cambodians are registered as working legally in Thailand, including more than 25,000 in the fishing sector.

But with formal migration costs becoming prohibitive and limited economic opportunities for Cambodians at home, it is widely believed the number of undocumented Cambodians in Thailand is significantly higher; many are trafficked.

Of the 89,096 Cambodians deported from Thailand in 2009 for illegal migration, more than 20,000 (23 percent) were reportedly trafficked, according to a 2010 UNIAP Human Trafficking Sentinel Surveillance.

And while about 31 percent of Cambodian fishermen deported from Thailand reported being trafficked, those on fishing boats far from Thai shores for up to a year at a time are more difficult to track and regularly drop off the radar.

"This is a big problem, but the cases we actually receive are really just the tip of the iceberg," said Lim Tith. "The true number of men being trafficked in this manner is much higher."

In addition, the problem appears to be shifting from Malaysia to Indonesian waters, where more and more men are now being reported, 25 this year alone, he said.


Those lucky enough to escape report 20-hour work days, food deprivation, regular beatings and threats at the hands of the crew, many of whom are armed.

"The captain had a gun. We had no choice but to work," said one survivor.

So bad are conditions that those deemed expendable are tossed overboard.

"Many of these men have been badly traumatized by what's happened to them," Mom Sok Char, programme manager for Legal Support for Children and Women (LSCW), a local NGO and one of the first to monitor the trafficking of men, explained. "After months of forced labour, that's understandable."

Culturally, most men do not seek psychological support, he said, making follow-up and adjustment back into the community particularly difficult.

"More and more men are falling victim and this is a genuine concern of the Cambodian government," San Arun, chairwoman of the Cambodian Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative Against Trafficking (COMMIT) taskforce, agreed. "It's not just women and children any more," she said, calling for greater regional cooperation on trafficking.

Thai action urged

Earlier this month, the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, called on the Thai government to "do more to combat human trafficking effectively and protect the rights of migrant workers who are increasingly vulnerable to forced and exploitative labour.

"Thailand faces significant challenges as a source, transit and destination country," said the UN expert at the end of her 12-day mission to the country.

"The trend of trafficking for forced labour is growing in scale in the agricultural, construction and fishing industries," she said.

While commending the Thai government with the enactment of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2008, she warned that the implementation and enforcement of the law remained "weak and fragmented", often hampered by corruption, especially among low-cadre law enforcement officers at provincial and local levels.

"Thailand must do more to combat human trafficking effectively," Ezeilo concluded.

Thai authorities say there is little they can do about the trafficked Cambodians working on Thai fishing boats, particularly when the alleged crimes occurred outside Thai waters, if they do not report it.

According to UNIAP, most of the deportees who were exploited choose not to report their cases due to fear of their broker, employer, or the police; a lack of understanding of their rights; and/or inability to speak Thai.

Lion Forest arm to acquire land in Cambodia

Aug 29, 2011

Harta Impiana Sdn Bhd has proposed to acquire economic land concession in Kampong Thom Province, Cambodia, for US$26.1
million (US$1=RM2.94).

In a filing to Bursa Malaysia today, Lion Forest Industries Bhd (LFIB) said its wholly-owned unit has issued a notice to Seng Enterprise Co Ltd identifying six parcels of economic land concession, totalling 58,000 hectares, to be acquired. It said the land cost US$450 per ha.

LFIB said the identified land would be used for oil palm and/or rubber cultivation. It said the proposed acquisition would allow LFIB group the opportunity to tap into a new core business and also to diversify its earnings stream by investing in the land for rubber and/or oil palm.

"The exercise is expected to be completed by the second half of this year and it will be funded by internally-generated funds," it said. -- Bernama

H&M factory workers fall ill

Monday, 29 August 2011
284 Cambodian factory workers who make clothes for H&M collapsed this week in a mass illness. The factory, M&V International Manufacturing Ltd, a supplier for H&M, in Kompong Chhnang province, reported a pungent smell before the faintings reported Reuters.

Deputy provincial police chief Ly Virak blamed the mass faintings on the "weak" health of workers and said the factory suspended operations until next week to allow its 4,000 workers to rest.

H&M said it was investigating the faintings and said the government, local authorities and the U.N.'s International Labour Organization had "not found any plausible causes so far."

In July, H&M said that it was consulting state agencies, workers and independent factory inspectors to find out what happened at a different factory in Phnom Penh after about 300 workers fell sick.

Some big Western brands have launched investigations into what non-governmental organizations say are more than 1,000 faintings this year by garment workers toiling for long hours on meager salaries to help feed hundreds of thousands of poor rural families.

Among the big Western firms with clothing or other goods produced in Cambodia are Marks and Spencer Group Plc, Tesco Plc, Next Plc and Inditex, the world's biggest clothing retailer and owner of Zara.

A report in April by Reuters about a spate of illnesses at a factory producing footwear exclusively for Puma prompted the German sports brand to commission an independent inquiry by the Washington-based Fair Labor Association.

It concluded there was a "strong possibility" that an estimated 104 faintings over a two-day period were caused by exposure to chemicals, poor ventilation and exhaustion from excessive hours.

The garment sector, Cambodia's-largest currency earner followed by agriculture and tourism, has been plagued by strikes and protests over working conditions and pay, several spiraling into clashes between the mostly female employees and riot police armed with guns and electric stun batons.

Image: H&M Fall 2011
Source: Reuters ©

UN warns of possible resurgence of bird flu virus, signs a mutant strain spreading in Asia

ROME — The United Nations has warned of a possible resurgence of the deadly bird flu virus and has urged greater surveillance.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Agency says a mutant strain of H5N1 avian influenza, which can apparently sidestep defenses of existing vaccines, is spreading in China and Vietnam.

Last week, the U.N. reported that a 6-year-old Cambodian girl had died from bird flu, the eighth person to die from H5N1 this year in Cambodia.

FAO says bird migrations over the past two years have brought H5N1 to countries that had been virus-free for several years, including Israel, the Palestinian territories, Bulgaria, Romania, Nepal and Mongolia.

Globally there have been 331 human deaths from 565 confirmed bird flu cases since 2003.

New claims in Wilson murder by Khmer Rouge after 13 year adjournment

If you use this photo, please credit the photo to ECCC POOL/Heng Sinith.  Nuon Chea during a pre-trial hearing before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on 4 Feb 2008.  Nuon Chea is believed to have been Pol Pot`s second in command and he is currently charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva conventions and crimes under the 1956 Cambodian Penal Code. For more info:
If you use this photo, please credit the photo to ECCC POOL/Heng Sinith. Nuon Chea during a pre-trial hearing before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on 4 Feb 2008. Nuon Chea is believed to have been Pol Pot`s second in command and he is currently charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva conventions and crimes under the 1956 Cambodian Penal Code. For more info:

THE Australian government's handling of ransom demands for backpacker David Wilson has attracted new criticisms during an inquiry into his 1994 murder by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

West Australian man Darryl Hockey has given a statement to the Melbourne Coroners' Court containing fresh criticisms of the "sufficiency of the interventions made by the Australian government" in relation to Mr Wilson.

Mr Hockey said he gathered the information, which was not detailed in court today, from people in Cambodia claiming to have first-hand knowledge of the Melbourne backpacker's fate.

Mr Wilson, 29, and two companions were kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge during an attack on a train in which they were travelling in Cambodia in July 1994.

The Khmer Rouge demanded a ransom of US$50,000 in gold for each of the hostages, but the Australian government maintained its policy of not paying ransoms and refused to accept private offers for their payment.

Mr Wilson, Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet and Englishman Mark Slater were murdered in early September 1994, after negotiations between the Cambodian and Australian governments and their captors broke down.

Three former Khmer Rouge guerillas, including the commander of the group that kidnapped Mr Wilson, have been convicted of his murder.

At a coronial inquest that began in 1998, several criticisms of the handling of the negotiations were raised, including a detailed account by former Australian diplomat Alastair Gaisford, who was stationed in Cambodia at the time of the kidnapping.

When the inquest re-opened today after a 13-year adjournment, counsel assisting the coroner said Mr Hockey had offered his unsolicited statement following his own investigations in Cambodia.

Dr Ian Freckelton SC told the court Mr Hockey had come across information while living in southern Cambodia last year.

As a result, he travelled to the area in which the hostages had been held and interviewed several people he believed had first-hand information about the case.

Mr Hockey's information follows a newspaper article published earlier this year in which Mr Gaisford claimed the key to finding the truth in the Wilson case lay with former foreign minister Gareth Evans.

Mr Gaisford has said he was a consul in the embassy in Phnom Penh at the time of the kidnapping and murder and had worked on the Wilson case.

He said Mr Evans was in Bangkok during the week of the kidnapping but rejected embassy advice that he come to Cambodia and "use his unique influence" to assist in obtaining the hostages' release.

Dr Freckelton told the court the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade maintained Mr Gaisford did not hold the position of consul and had never risen beyond second secretary at the Australian mission.

He said Mr Gaisford would apply to appear before the inquest when it resumed and wanted to call witnesses.

Dr Freckelton told Coroner Iain West Mr Hockey's evidence might be pertinent, but it had been gathered many years after the relevant events and was hearsay.

He recommended Mr Hockey not be called as a witness.

The inquest has been adjourned to a date to be fixed.

The China Alternative: Cambodia

The China Alternative is our series covering other manufacturing destinations in emerging Asia that may start to compete with China in terms of labor costs, infrastructure and operational capacity. In this issue we look at Cambodia.

By Kaitlin Shung

Aug. 29 – Tourists to Cambodia often take similar routes, discovering the wide and stately streets of Phnomn Penh before taking a dusty six hour bus ride to Siem Reap, home of the beautiful Angkor Wat. Among the ruins of the ancient Khmer Kingdom at Angkor Wat, local Cambodian children can often be seen calling out flattering phrases, usually in Chinese and English, looking for a crisp American dollar or a few pieces of candy.

Cambodia boasts a rich and more recently, bloody, history. An underdeveloped country of roughly 14.7 million, Cambodia was set back significantly in the 1970s under the extremist rule of the Khmer Rouge. It was estimated that nearly 20 percent of the population died under the leadership of Pol Pot due to starvation, torture, and executions, and the economy was completely dismantled.

As a result of its short time under French rule, the official languages spoken are Khmer, French and English, although French appears to be scarce except among the older generations. The majority of the population is within the 15-64 age range and the country has a respectable 73.6 percent literacy rate.

Cambodia operates as a multi-party democracy under a constitutional democracy, and the long-serving prime minister has a considerable amount of power. The head of State is King Norodom Sihamoni, who was sworn in on October 29, 2004 while the prime minister is Hun Sen.

The Cambodian currency is the riel (KHR), which traded, on average, at KHR4,145 to US$1 in 2010. In addition to the riel, U.S. dollars are also commonly accepted and according to the New York Times, almost 90 percent of deposits and credits in the banking system are denominated in U.S. dollars. With a large portion of capital and savings in the greenback, the Cambodian government ultimately has less ability to influence the economy and thus less control.

Before the global financial slowdown, Cambodia was one of the strongest economic performers in Southeast Asia, posting annual growth of around 10 percent over the previous decade. Cambodia’s economy is focused in four key industries: tourism, clothing, construction and agriculture. The lack of diversification in the economy impacted on the country hard when the Global Financial Crisis hit and since then, the government has begun efforts at initiating reforms to encourage the development of emerging industries.

Within its labor force of 8.8 million, roughly 70 percent work in agriculture which constitutes roughly one-third of Cambodia’s GDP. The country’s GDP grew 6 percent year on year in 2010 to US$11.63 billion, which is comparatively about one-fiftieth the size of China’s economy. After agriculture, services account for 45.2 percent of GDP while industry contributes 21.4 percent.

Exports totaled US$3.687 billion in 2010, with primary export partners being Hong Kong, the United States and Singapore. Comparatively, imports were US$6.005 billion and primary import partners were China, Vietnam and Hong Kong. Key exports were clothing, timber, rubber, rice and fish while key imports were petroleum, cigarettes, gold and construction materials.

FDI inflows totaled US$532.5 million in 2010, with the majority of capital coming from China. Chinese investment is often preferred because it is generally unconditional, as opposed to Western investment which is usually tied to political and economic reform. In the first half of 2011 alone, Chinese investors had already put in place plans for 360 projects worth US$8 billion in Cambodia, which is nominally the equivalent of all Chinese investment in Southeast Asia in the previous year.

As previously mentioned, Cambodia has access to a number of natural resources, but the country often does not have the infrastructure in place to take advantage of those resources. For example, nearly 70 percent of the country is covered with trees, but the lumber industry falters under illegal logging, costing vast amounts of missed revenue.

Oil and natural gas were found in Cambodia in 2005, the exact amount of which has not been released, but commercial extraction is expected to begin in 2012.

Investing in Cambodia
“We welcome investments in all sectors, including banking, insurance, and telecommunications. Investors can own 100 percent of their business here, in most countries 100 percent foreign ownership is not allowed,” Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has been quoted as saying.

Key industries for investment include agriculture (an industry which has an ample labor supply in Cambodia but lacks investment in physical infrastructure), technology to increase yields, and the country has a gaping hole where a processing and packaging industry should be. Furthermore, light industry and manufacturing are relatively underdeveloped, despite the low labor costs in the country. More information on investing in Cambodia can be found through the web site –

Taking the lead from China’s successful Special Economic Zones (SEZs), Cambodia has also begun to build SEZs, primarily along the country’s borders with Thailand and Vietnam. There are a total of 21 approved SEZs – of which five have already commenced operations and two are under construction. Cambodia’s SEZs offer tax and VAT benefits and strong government support has simplified importing and exporting into these areas.

Administratively, the government has set up two boards responsible for managing the country’s SEZs: the Cambodian Special Economic Zone Board and a separate trouble shooting committee. Both are headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and if managed properly, will help bring foreign investment into the country through these economic zones.

Investing in Cambodia has certainly been helped by the country’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2004 (Cambodia was the second least developed country to join the WTO through the full working party negotiation process). As a member of the WTO, Cambodia has taken steps to meet international trade and regulatory standards, including the implementation of a number of new legal reforms. Examples include: the Law on Commercial Enterprises (2005), the Law on Commercial Arbitration (2006) and the Law on Secured Transactions (2007).

In addition, Cambodia is also a member of ASEAN and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

The 2011 Index of Economic Freedom, a joint effort by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, ranked Cambodia 102 out of 179 countries or 17 out of 41 in the Asia-Pacific region. This is an improvement over the previous year’s ranking, attributed to improvements in monetary control, labor freedom and a reduction in corruption. Cambodia’s ranking suffers largely because of weak property rights and cumbersome bureaucracy.

Comparatively, the 2011 World Bank Doing Business Rankings ranked Cambodia as 147 out of 183 countries surveyed. A slight decrease from the 2010 rankings, Cambodia still has significant barriers in starting and closing a business as well as enforcing contracts.

Why invest in Cambodia?
Cambodia is an attractive investment opportunity for a few key reasons. First, the country has an income tax rate of 20 percent and because of its desire to attract foreign investment, also offers additional tax incentives. For example, eligible projects can receive tax holidays of between six and nine years from initial investment.

Unlike ownership requirements in neighboring countries like China, Cambodia allows for 100 percent foreign owned businesses. The lack of price controls on goods and services and no restrictions on repatriation of funds, free up investors in terms of downgrading investment risk.

Its status as an undeveloped country also works to the benefits of investors through tariff-free exports, which Cambodia has when trading with partners like the United States, Canada and Europe. Entrance into Cambodia is a gateway to the rest of the ASEAN market and domestically, the signs of an emerging middle class are appearing. With that comes the increased local consumption of goods and services.

Furthermore, as a part of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), Cambodia is strategically located in a hotspot for both economic and political influence. The GMS includes Yunan Province and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in China, as well as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Currently, over US$10 billion has been pledged for infrastructure projects which will build economic corridors between countries in the region.

The positives aside, Cambodia’s business environment is not without problems and areas of concern. The most prevalent problem for foreign investors is corruption, which is reinforced by weak governance and a lacking legal framework.

In 2010, Transparency International ranked Cambodia 154th out of the 178 countries surveyed. Lack of transparency and abuse of power by government officials have drawn scrutiny to this Southeast Asian country. For example, a story came out this year about government action against two NGOs who were highlighting the negative effects of a US$84 million railroad investment, funded in part by the Asia Development Bank, on displaced families. Pressure on these groups opened the government to criticism and highlighted problems related to free speech in Cambodia.

High reliance on imported goods and services also do not speak well to the sustainability and strength of Cambodia’s economy.

Poor infrastructure in the country has impeded the development of local and global linkages between Cambodia and the world economy. The government has prioritized building roads, airports, telecommunication networks and has received support from foreign sources like the Asia Development Bank and the governments of Australia and China.

In 2010, the government passed the National Strategic Development Plan which focused on the country’s development from 2009 to 2013. A highlight of the plan was an estimated US$1.1 billion in development assistance, which was expected to be spent in 2010.

On a final positive note, Cambodia opened its own stock market earlier this year. At the time of its opening, there were no companies prepared to go public and this was largely indicative of Cambodia’s weak financial sector and a lack of confidence in regulatory bodies’ ability to enact and enforce corporate governance and accounting laws. However, three state-owned companies are in the process of preparing to list later this year and hopefully the establishment of its own stock market will bring stability to the Cambodian economy.

Geopolitical concerns
Cambodia’s close ties with neighboring China have proven to be unnerving for American leaders, as China attempts to expand its dominance in the area. In 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visited Cambodia and warned of an overly intense dependence on China.

“I think it is smart for Cambodia to be friends with many countries… It’s like our relationship with other countries. You look for balance. You don’t want to get too dependent on any one country,” Clinton said.

U.S. concerns aside, friendly relations between China and Cambodia are evidenced by high level meetings between government officials. Last year, powerful CCP member Wu Banguo attended the signing of a contract between Cambodia’s largest mobile phone company, CamGSM, and the Bank of China in the largest financing project to ever take place in Cambodia. Wu Banguo was quoted as referring to Cambodia as a “reliable neighbor, friend and brother.”

In 2011, Zhou Yongkang, a member of the CCP’s Standing Committee Politiburo, traveled to Cambodia to talk economic and political cooperation.

Complicated relations with neighboring Thailand have proven to be dire enough to come to arms and it is worth continuing to observe how relations improve or deteriorate in the future. The conflict stems from a border dispute which has come to repeated fighting between both sides’ armies at a contested site. Furthermore, Cambodia’s appointment of Thailand’s former prime minister (who was charged with corruption-related crimes) as an economic advisor has accelerated tensions between the two countries.

Future outlook
“In the next 20 years, I expect Cambodia will be one of the world’s best performers in terms of improved income and living standards, better infrastructure and a lifestyle on par with middle income countries,” Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has said in an optimistic forecast.

At the 4th Cambodia Economic Forum held in February of this year, Prime Minister Hun Sen highlighted key areas the government hoped would expedite the modernization of Cambodia’s economy. The government’s strategies focused on figuring out ways to diversify the economy, reforming the nation’s SEZs, increasing investment in human capital, establishing the state’s place in industrial development and establishing the industrial sector’s position in the local and global economy.

Rising costs in China are turning eyes southward for new, inexpensive manufacturing hubs and less developed countries like Cambodia are stepping up to the plate. Cambodia is a particularly interesting investment opportunity, given benefits extended to it as a result of its development status and its simultaneous membership in the WTO. If the government can continue to effectively battle corruption and diversify its economic pillars, Cambodia could potentially rise from poverty and development aid to become a powerhouse in emerging Asia.

Thaksin leaves Japan, denies Cambodian trip plan

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who ended his six-day visit to Japan yesterday, said he had no immediate plan to visit neighbouring Cambodia, where a business interest of his is in doubt.

The former premier, who was in the media spotlight last week for his high profile visit, left Japan for Macao after meeting with senior Japanese lawmakers and visiting areas hit by the March earthquake and tsunami.

Thaksin headed for Macao on his way back to Dubai, where he has lived in exile since being toppled by a military coup in 2006.

During an interview with Kyodo news agency, Thaksin denied a report he would visit Cambodia shortly.

He reportedly cancelled his plan to visit Phnom Penh after criticism in Thailand over personal business dealings involving oil and gas concessions in the overlapping area in the Gulf of Thailand claimed by both Thailand and Cambodia.

Thaksin's travelling has been controversial and could pose political implications for the government led by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The opposition Democrat Party last week began an impeachment process to remove Foreign Minister Surapong Towichukchaikul from his post for abuse of authority in asking the Japanese to allow Thaksin a special visa to visit their country.

The former PM needed Thai government support as Japanese immigration laws prohibit entry to any foreigner who has been sentenced to more than a year in prison.

Thaksin was given a two-year term on a charge of abuse of power, but fled Thailand before serving his sentence.

The Democrats claimed Surapong, by supporting Thaksin's visa claim, helped fugitive Thaksin to avoid the court's ruling.

Surapong denied the allegation, saying that granting of a visa was the responsibility of Tokyo and his government had nothing to do with Thaksin's travels.

The killing fields of Kashmir

By Momin Iftikhar | Published: August 29, 2011

With the dismantling of Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, who killed thousands of innocent civilians to pave the way for their bloody revolution and buried them in shallow graves of the countryside, one thought that the term “killing fields” had faded into history. Yet, this feared and despicable phenomenon has come alive with a vengeance with the publishing of a report by the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission (J&KSHRC), which asserts that the Indian security forces, as a routine practice, have been killing innocent local civilians, labelling them as “crossborder terrorists”, and dumping their disfigured and mutilated bodies in the swampy mass graves strung all along the Line of Control (LoC).

The reports that there were mass graves containing bodies of innocent local residents, who had been shot and killed by the Indian security forces in fake encounters to win cash awards, gallantry citations and promotions had been doing the rounds in IHK’s civil society, even as the State Government remained in an entrenched state of denial. In fact, the J&KSHRC Commission, which has formally and officially identified the mass graves in Kashmir, was a sequel to a campaign launched by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) that, in March 2008, had released a chilling report, Facts underground, revealing the documented presence of mass graves in the bordering areas along the LoC. The report identified 1,000 unmarked graves in 55 villages across the northern regions of Baramulla, Bandipore and Handwara, following which the researchers and other social activists identified thousands of single and mass graves without markers.

In December 2009, the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights released another report, which confirmed the presence of mass graves entombing bodies of those killed in “encounters, fake encounters, and extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions.” The latest quasi-official report compiled by the J&KSHRC corroborates APDP’s Facts underground, and comes after a three-year long inquiry by an 11-member team led by Bashir Ahmad Matoo, a senior Superintendent of Police who is heading the investigative wing of the Commission.
During the course of investigations, the Commission confirmed the presence of 2,156 unidentified dead bodies that had been buried at 38 sites. There were 21 unmarked mass graves at Baramulla, three each in Bandipore and Handwara, and 11 in Kupwara. According to the report, all bodies carried bullet wounds, were disfigured, had mutilated faces, and some even partially burnt. These had been handed over by the police to the local population for Muslim burial and were classified as unidentified mujahideen from across the border. The findings of the Commission constitute the first official acknowledgement that innocent civilians killed by the Indian army and other counterinsurgency outfits lie buried in unmarked graves spread over the IHK’s landscape. The report stops short of identifying the bitter and brutal truth that innocent locals had been killed to enhance the Indian government’s hypothesis of cross border terrorism; “there is every possibility that…….various unmarked graves at 38 places of north Kashmir may contain dead bodies of locals,” it says.

With the discovery of the mass graves, the Indian government is squarely confronted with a serious charge to answer and a dilemma to surmount. Unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and torture are violations of both international human rights law and international humanitarian law set out in treaties to which India is a state party. To clear its name of charges of genocide of Kashmiris, it has to ensure that independent and impartial investigations are initiated on all identified sites of the mass graves in IHK. Whether the Indian government will ever have the political will and moral courage to follow through the findings of the Commission remains an open question.

To make the process credible, as a first step all the discovered sites need to be secured through neutral observers to ensure that the physical state of evidence is not tempered with by the strong and powerful segments of the Indian military apparatus. One has to be mindful that almost all the sites are close to LoC where the Indian military holds complete sway. Secondly, the mass graves revealed so far, only account for about 20 percent of the number of missing persons compiled by the APDP. Many more graves - their number possibly in hundreds - are waiting to be officially acknowledged and pinpointed. Certainly, there must be a serious and credible effort on India’s part to search for and locate these sites. Third, what is more important is to ensure that related investigations are conducted by forensic experts in line with the UN model protocol on disinterment and analysis of the skeletal remains. India is not advanced enough to conduct such complicated investigation and in order to accord legitimacy to the process should seek and accept offers of assistance and cooperation from international experts.
At the larger canvas, the discovery of mass graves containing bodies of locals - dubbed as foreign terrorists - has exposed the myth of “crossborder terrorism” so assiduously built up by the Indian spin doctors. It has also exposed the culture of fake encounters rampant among the officer corps of the Indian army and paramilitary units operating in the IHK to secure rewards and promotions. The immunity from prosecution and blanket powers enjoyed by the Indian security forces operating in the disputed valley through provisions of the draconian laws, like the AFSPA, can be singled out as the major contributory factor leading to the piling up of corpses in mass graves whose inmates’ silent cries go abegging for justice for the tragic end to their wasted lives.

The writer is a freelance columnist.