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Cambodia says Khmer Rouge tribunal that convicted 3 is done

November 19, 2018

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia has reiterated it intends to end the work of the U.N.-backed tribunal that last week convicted the last two surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng said the tribunal’s work had been completed and there would not be any additional prosecutions for acts that led to the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people in the 1970s. The only other person convicted was the regime’s prisons chief.

He cited the terms under which the tribunal, staffed jointly by Cambodian and international prosecutors and judges, had been established, limiting its targets to senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime that was in power from 1975 to 1979. The rules also allow prosecuting those most responsible for carrying out atrocities.

Sar Kheng spoke Saturday at a government ceremony in the northern province of Oddar Meanchey and his remarks were reported Sunday. On Friday, the tribunal convicted and gave life sentences to Nuon Chea, 92, the main Khmer Rouge ideologist and right-hand man to its late leader Pol Pot, and Khieu Samphan, 87, who was the regime’s head of state. The sentences were merged with the life sentences they were already serving after an earlier conviction for crimes against humanity.

In nine years of hearings and at a cost exceeding $300 million, the tribunal has convicted only one other defendant, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who as head of the Khmer Rouge prison system ran the infamous Tuol Sleng torture center in Phnom Penh.

Cases of four more suspects, middle-ranking members of the Khmer Rouge, had already been processed for prosecution but have been scuttled or stalled. Without the cooperation of the Cambodian members of the tribunal, no cases can go forward.

Long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly declared there would be no more prosecutions, claiming they could cause unrest. Hun Sen himself was a midlevel commander with the Khmer Rouge before defecting while the group was still in power, and several senior members of his ruling Cambodian People’s Party share similar backgrounds. He helped cement his political control by making alliances with other former Khmer Rouge commanders.

In his remarks, Sar Kheng sought to reassure former Khmer Rouge members that they would not face prosecution. “Because there are some former Khmer Rouge officers living in this area, I would like to clarify that there will be no more investigations taking place (against lower-ranking Khmer Rouge members), so you don’t have to worry,” said Sar Kheng, who is also interior minister.

He acknowledged that even without more prosecutions, the tribunal still had to hear the appeals expected to be lodged by Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, but aside from that task, its work was finished.

Cambodians vote in polls with main opposition party silenced

July 29, 2018

PHNOM PEHN, Cambodia (AP) — With the main opposition silenced, Cambodians were voting in an election Sunday virtually certain to return to office Prime Minister Hun Sen and his party who have been in power for more than three decades.

Although 20 parties are contesting the polls, the only one with the popularity and organization to mount a credible challenge, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, was dissolved last year by the Supreme Court. Its leaders have called on supporters to boycott the polls, charging they are neither fair nor free.

Along with fracturing the political opposition, Hun Sen’s government also silenced critical voices in the media and ahead of the polls, ordered the temporary blocking of 17 websites, citing regulations prohibiting media from disseminating information that might affect security. The blocked websites included those of the U.S. government-funded Voice of America as well as local media.

Hun Sen, whose 33 years in power makes him the world’s longest serving national leader, promised peace and prosperity at a rally on the last day of campaigning on Friday, but attacked the opposition’s boycott call and called those who heed it “destroyers of democracy.” Hun Sen and his wife cast their ballots south of the capital shortly after polling stations opened.

His ruling Cambodian People’s Party was alarmed by the last general election in 2013, when the race was close enough for the opposition to claim that it would have won except for manipulation of the voter registration process.

“This Cambodian election is not going to be genuine and it’s not going to be free or fair,” said Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch. “The problem is the opposition party – the CNRP – which won 44 percent in the local elections in 2017 has been barred. You’re talking about an election without an opposition.”

Hun Sen, 65, said that he intends to stay in power for at least two more five-year terms. He was a member of the radical communist Khmer Rouge during its successful five-year war to topple a pro-American government, then defected to Vietnam during Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s 1975-79 genocidal regime that left nearly 2 million dead. He became prime minister in 1985 in a Vietnamese-backed single-party communist government and led Cambodia through a civil war against the Khmer Rouge, which eased off with the 1991 Paris Peace Accords that also installed a democratic political framework.

Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy made a final appeal to Cambodians by urging them not to vote. On his Facebook page, he said that the sham election was destroying Cambodia’s future and called Hun Sen a “real traitor.”

Hun Sen on Saturday met with foreign election observers, including those from Russia, China and Indonesia. The U.S., the EU and Japan declined to send poll watchers, saying the election was not credible.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the inclusive elections in Cambodia where civil society and political parties exercise their democratic rights are essential to safeguard the country’s progress in consolidating peace.

Last week, the U.S. Congress passed the Cambodia Democracy Act “to promote free and fair elections, political freedoms and human rights in Cambodia and impose sanctions on Hun Sen’s inner circle.” The measure, which strongly condemns Hun Sen’s regime, would bar individuals designated by President Donald Trump from entering the U.S. and block any assets or property they may possess. It suggested a list of those who should be sanctioned include Hun Sen, several of his close family members and about a dozen top officials and military officers.

Cambodian officials and ruling party members rejected the measure as counterproductive interference in Cambodia’s affairs. About 8.3 million people are registered to vote. Polling stations close at 3 p.m. and preliminary results are expected on Sunday night.

Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.

Cambodian elections a choice between strongman or boycott

July 28, 2018

BANGKOK (AP) — Cambodians voting in the general election on Sunday will have a nominal choice of 20 parties but in reality, only two serious options: extend Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 33 years in power or not vote at all.

The key factor virtually ensuring a walkover by Hun Sen’s party is the elimination of any credible opposition, accomplished last November when the Supreme Court declared the Cambodian National Rescue Party complicit in trying to overthrow the government in a plot encouraged by the United States. The far-fetched allegation appears unsupported by any evidence.

The court ordered the party dissolved, also banning its leaders from holding office for five years and expelling its members from the elective positions they held. One party leader already was in exile and the other in jail awaiting trial on the treason charge.

Along with fracturing the political opposition, Hun Sen’s government silenced critical voices in the media, shutting down about 30 radio stations and gutting two English-language newspapers that provided independent reporting. A law was passed putting burdensome restrictions on the country’s brave and vibrant civil society organizations.

With control of the legislature and the bureaucracy, as well as influence over the judiciary, there are no checks and balances on Hun Sen’s administration. “Cambodia’s election is a sham process that is designed to prolong Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule and will plunge the country into further misery and repression,” said Debbie Stothard, secretary-general of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights.

The leaders of the now defunct opposition party, most of whom have fled into exile to avoid arbitrary arrest, have called for a boycott of the polls. “Going to vote on 29 July 2018 means that you play the dirty game of a group of traitors led by Hun Sen who is killing democracy and selling off our country,” Sam Rainsy, the popular, self-exiled former leader of the CNRP, wrote on his Facebook page earlier this month. “Boycotting that fake and dangerous election means that we uphold our ideals by remaining loyal to our people and determined to rescue to our Motherland.”

Ironically, a practice to fight vote fraud — dipping a finger in indelible ink to prevent multiple voting — makes Cambodians who fail to cast their ballots high-profile targets for any officials seeking to spot and punish opposition supporters.

The “Clean Finger” campaign promoted by the opposition is a form of political mobilization, said Mu Sochua, a former lawmaker and CNRP vice president. According to her, not voting, not dipping one’s finger in indelible ink, is a political gesture: “This little finger that I have, that each of you have, is a symbol of what we stand for, what you want, democracy, freedom, liberty, justice.”

Officials, claiming advocacy of the boycott is illegal, have made several arrests, but the opposition has effectively used social media to publicize its call. Nineteen small parties registered to challenge Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, but almost all are vanity affairs or vehicles serving as window-dressing to give the illusion of democratic choice.

Hun Sen has always ruled with a carefully modulated amount of repression, swinging between violence and reconciliation, but the slide into more serious authoritarian rule was triggered by the last general election in 2013, when the opposition CNRP won 55 seats in the National Assembly — a gain of 26 seats, while Hun Sen’s party lost 22. The race was close enough for the opposition to claim that it would have won except for manipulation of the voter registration process.

In local elections last year, the CNRP showed a similar dramatic upward trend. The results were alarming news for Hun Sen, who at 65 insists he will serve two more five-year terms. Hun Sen can take credit for helping put an end to the long-running threat of the Khmer Rouge, the radical communist group whose 1975-79 genocidal rule left almost 2 million dead. A Khmer Rouge officer himself, Hun Sen defected to neighboring Vietnam, with whose army he returned to help oust his former comrades. He became prime minister in a Hanoi-backed regime, and continued to battle Khmer Rouge guerrillas into the 1990s.

More recently, he has presided over a period of impressive economic growth that has helped fund the expansion of infrastructure, his major campaign promise. But with economic growth came corruption, land-grabbing and cronyism as well as a culture of impunity typical of a broken justice system.

Demographics also appear to work against Hun Sen’s party. A younger generation, without firsthand acquaintance of their country’s history of war and instability, are less likely to pay heed to his warnings. Economic growth, as well as the expanded horizons that come with a connected, globalized world, fuel rising expectations.

The breadth and depth of Hun Sen’s crackdown is a break with his historical behavior, where he teased, taunted, threatened and employed violence against his enemies, but usually paid at least lip service to the norms of democratic rule.

That seems all over now, said Sebastian Strangio, author of a 2014 biography of the prime minister. Hun Sen was beholden to the Western aid donors who funded the massive peacekeeping and nation-building U.N. mission to rehabilitate Cambodia in 1992-1993. Introduction of liberal democracy to replace the classical communist single-party state Hun Sen had been running was part of the deal.

Further financial assistance was needed to develop Cambodia, so Hun Sen at least maintained enough of a democratic framework to satisfy his benefactors. They tolerated a strongman who may not have been desirable but was capable.

If the 2013 and 2017 election results were the motivation for Hun Sen’s smackdown of his opponents, China was the enabler, said Strangio, obviating the need for Western development aid by providing hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure loans and other forms of financing with few strings attached.

For its part, Beijing gets a solid political ally in Southeast Asia who can be relied upon in international forums to back up China’s position on issues such as territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

“Over the past year we’ve seen the government decisively roll back the zones of freedom it once preserved in Cambodia as a sop to Western donor governments,” said Strangio. “Now the government doesn’t really have any need for Western support and they’re able to make more permanent adjustments to the Cambodian political landscape in line with their long-held resentments and their current political interests,” he said.

Injured former Cambodian PM Ranariddh sent to Thai hospital

June 18, 2018

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian prince who was a candidate in upcoming general elections was transferred early Monday to a hospital in neighboring Thailand after being injured in a road crash that killed his wife, said a fellow politician and a Cambodian news agency.

Prince Norodom Ranariddh, 74, was in a convoy along with senior members of his FUNCINPEC party heading toward Sihanoukville in southwest Cambodia on Sunday morning when a taxi traveling in the opposite direction slammed into his SUV, said a senior party member in the group.

Ranariddh’s wife also was standing as a candidate in Cambodia’s general election next month. His 39-year-old wife, Ouk Phalla, died in a hospital after the crash, and Ranariddh suffered head injuries and was transferred to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, for urgent treatment, Sihanoukville police chief Gen. Chuon Narin said.

Ranariddh, who was originally reported severely injured, suffered broken ribs, a politician familiar with his situation told The Associated Press. The politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information, said Ranariddh was flown to Bangkok at 1 a.m. Monday for medical care on request from the country’s Royal Palace. Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni is Ranariddh’s half-brother.

Fresh News, a news agency close to the government, also reported that Ranariddh had been taken to Thailand. Nhep Bun Chin, a FUNCINPEC spokesman, said Ranariddh’s condition had improved, but declined to confirm his evacuation to Bangkok.

Health care in Cambodia has a poor reputation, and senior officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, as well as the well-to-do, often go abroad for serious medical problems. Ranariddh was Cambodia’s co-prime minister for four years in an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with Hun Sen after his party won a United Nations-organized election in 1993. His party’s popularity was largely due to its royalist credentials, although Ranariddh’s personal relations with his popular father, late King Norodom Sihanouk, were often strained.

He was ousted in July 1997 and fled abroad when long-simmering tensions between him and Hun Sen exploded into two days of bitter fighting in Phnom Penh between his forces and those loyal to Hun Sen. Ranariddh was allowed to return to contest elections the following year but failed to repeat his success at the ballot. He slid into political irrelevancy, as FUNCINPEC became co-opted by Hun Sen, a much savvier and tougher politician than Ranariddh.

Ranariddh is currently president of FUNCINPEC. It holds 41 seats in the National Assembly, but only because seats held by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party were redistributed after CNRP was dissolved.

The dissolution was widely seen as a maneuver to ensure an easy victory for Hun Sen in the general election, with parties contesting the polls generally seen as hopelessly weak or fronting for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party so it can claim it ran a fair race by allowing opposition candidates.

Ranariddh is also president of the Supreme Privy Advisory Council to King Norodom Sihamoni. Ouk Phalla, a classical Cambodian dancer reported to be descended from a separate royal family branch, was Ranariddh’s second wife.

Cambodia’s ruling party has sure lock on Senate election

February 25, 2018

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia’s ruling party is assured of a sweeping victory in the election of a new Senate after the only real opposition to it was eliminated. The Senate has minor decision-making powers in Cambodian politics, primarily rubber-stamping legislation, but the foregone conclusion of Sunday’s vote will be a foretaste of a general election for the National Assembly. The polls in July are sure to sustain the rule of the Cambodian People’s Party and long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The only opposition party in Parliament, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, was dissolved in November after aggressive legal challenges by the government were sustained by the politicized courts. Government supporters then replaced the party’s members of Parliament and its commune councilors — the voters in Sunday’s indirect election.

Hun Sen has been in power for three decades, and while maintaining a framework of democracy, tolerates little opposition. His grip seemed shaken by 2013’s general election, when the Cambodia National Rescue Party mounted a strong challenge, winning 55 seats in the National Assembly and leaving Hun Sen’s party with 68.

The opposition also made a strong showing in last year’s commune council elections, capturing 5,007 of the 11,572 councilor positions. Hun Sen’s ruling party then stepped up its steady offensive against critics and opponents. Media outlets seen as critical of the government were forced to shut down, and most senior members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party fled abroad.

“Without the presence of the main opposition that has 55 MPs and 5,007 commune councilors representing the will of the people, there will be no real free and fair competition as determined by the principles of free, fair and inclusive elections,” said a statement on the Senate election from the Cambodia National Rescue Party, emailed by Mu Sochua, its former deputy president, now in exile.

“We urge the United Nations and the international community to denounce the holding of the Senate election this week-end and to take immediate and stringent measures including sanctions as a signal that it will not condone dictatorship,” it said.

The United States, and last week, Germany, have banned issuing visas to certain Cambodian officials considered responsible for the deterioration of democracy. Rights groups have also been highly critical.

“Unfortunately, the Cambodian Senate will continue to stand as yet another sad reminder of Cambodia’s unmitigated descent into outright dictatorship,” said Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament and chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, comprising Southeast Asian lawmakers.

Only three small parties with no national following are running Senate candidates against the Cambodian People’s Party. The commune councilors elect 58 senators, the National Assembly chooses two, and King Norodom Sihamoni, who wields no political power, names two. Senators serve six-year terms.

National Election Committee spokesman Dim Sovannarum said preliminary results are expected to be announced on Sunday after ballots are counted and the official results are to be announced on March 3.

Cambodian vote in elections testing strongman’s power

June 04, 2017

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodians voted in local elections Sunday that could shake longtime ruler Hun Sen’s grip on power. Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly warned of civil war if his Cambodian People’s Party loses the majority in city and village councils to the main opposition party that made major gains in the last general elections four years ago and claimed it was cheated out of outright victory. The polls could have a major impact on Cambodia’s political landscape ahead of 2018 national elections.

Hun Sen and his wife were among the early voters Sunday. His government has been accused of using violence against opponents, but in recent years has stalked its foes mostly in courts. After casting his vote, Kem Sokha, leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said he expects to win more than 60 percent of the vote. In the last communal elections in 2012, Hun Sen’s party received 60 percent compared to the CNRP’s 30.6 percent.

On Friday, Hun Sen appealed to political parties to accept the outcome rather than make accusations of irregularities, saying courts can dissolve any party if it challenges the result of the vote. Hun Sen and some of his top ministers have frequently used strong rhetoric leading up to the vote, warning of dire consequences should the opposition win, in what has been seen as an attempt to intimidate voters into supporting him.

The ruling party could take some credit for bringing modest economic growth and stability in a country devastated by the communist Khmer Rouge’s regime in the 1970s. Hun Sen left the movement that was responsible for the deaths of some 1.7 million people from starvation, disease and executions before it was toppled in 1979.

This week, Amnesty International accused Cambodia’s government of using its grip on the judiciary system to intimidate human rights defenders and political activists. It said in a report that since the 2013 general election, Hun Sen’s government has used the courts as a tool to imprison at least 27 prominent opposition officials, human rights defenders and land activists, as well as hundreds of others facing legal cases.

Also early this month, the State Department said the U.S. was urging Cambodia’s government to “guarantee a political space free from threats or intimidation” and respect freedom of expression for all its citizens.

Cambodian court upholds life terms for 2 Khmer Rouge leaders

November 23, 2016

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A special Cambodian court on Wednesday upheld the life sentences for the two most senior surviving members of the Khmer Rouge regime, which was responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people. The court said the massive scale of the crimes showed the two men’s complete lack of consideration for the lives of the Cambodians.

The Supreme Court Chamber said the 2014 verdict by a U.N.-assisted Khmer Rouge tribunal was “appropriate” given the gravity of the crimes and roles of the two — Khieu Samphan, the 85-year-old Khmer Rouge head of state, and Nuon Chea, the 90-year-old right-hand man to the communist group’s late leader Pol Pot.

“It is a historic day for Cambodia. For the first time in 41 years someone in the national leadership has been held criminally responsible for the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge regime,” said tribunal spokesman Lars Olsen.

The two — who were sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity including extermination, enforced disappearances and political persecution — sat impassively as the lengthy verdict was read out. They were detained in 2007 and started serving their sentences in 2014 inside the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s facility, where conditions are much better than ordinary Cambodian prison. They have access to radio and television.

About 1.7 million people are estimated to have died from starvation, disease and execution due to the extremist policies of the communist Khmer Rouge when they held power from 1975 to 1979. “The gravity of the crimes should be reflected in the sentence … the crimes were not isolated events but occurred over an extended period of time,” said Kong Srim, president of the Supreme Court Chamber.

Given the “significant role of the accused, the Supreme Court Chamber considers that the imposition of the life sentence for each of the accused is appropriate and therefore confirms the sentence imposed by the trial chamber,” he said, as he wrapped up a two-hour reading of the verdict.

He added that the “massive scale of the crimes” showed a complete lack of consideration for the “ultimate fate of the Cambodian population, especially the most vulnerable group.” Lawyers for Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea filed lengthy appeals against their verdicts by the Khmer Rouge tribunal — formally called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which was set up in 2006. They had alleged a slew of legal and factual errors, as well as biases by the judges.

They suggested that their clients were unfairly being singled out while the Cambodian government sought to block the tribunal from trying other suspects. “I waited for this moment for 40 years. It has now arrived,” said Seak Ny, a 64-year-old woman from the northwestern Pursat province whose husband died of starvation under the Khmer Rouge regime. She said the Khmer Rouge also killed her older brother and his five children when they found out he was a former soldier in the previous regime.

“Today I am happy because these people have received justice,” she said, adding she came to attend the tribunal to see the faces of the Khmer Rouge leaders. The two defendants are also on trial in a second case where they are facing charges of genocide against ethnic minorities and foreigners, and implementing policies of rape and forced marriages.

Originally all the charges were to have been part of one trial, but fears that they would die before proceedings could finish led to their case being broken into two parts, known as Case 002/01 and 002/02.

Their two co-defendants, Ieng Sary, the third-ranking Khmer Rouge leader and its foreign minister, and his wife, Ieng Thirith, died during the first phase of their trial. There have been charges made against other suspects in what are known as Cases 003 and 004, but they remain in limbo because of a lack of cooperation from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.

Hun Sen has threatened to shut down the tribunal if further cases are pursued. He has repeatedly said that if the tribunal targets more defendants, it could incite former Khmer Rouge members to start a civil war. Few people share his belief, since the Khmer Rouge became a spent force almost two decades ago.

Hun Sen himself was a mid-level commander with the Khmer Rouge before defecting while the group was still in power, and several senior members of his ruling Cambodian People’s Party share similar backgrounds. He helped cement his political control by making alliances with other former Khmer Rouge commanders.

The tribunal’s operations have been complicated by its unusual hybrid nature, which pairs international and Cambodian jurists and works under complicated rules that have slowed progress.

Cambodia embraces China’s President Xi on state visit

Phnom Penh (AFP)

Oct 13, 2016

China’s President Xi Jinping promised Cambodia hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and loans on Thursday during a state visit to the nation, which is one Beijing’s staunchest regional allies.

Hundreds of students waving Cambodian and Chinese flags greeted Xi alongside officials at the airport before his motorcade sped into town for an audience with the royal family and later Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Cambodia has long been a strident supporter of Beijing’s communist rulers, who have lavished the poor country with cash.

On Thursday the two leaders signed 31 agreements that saw China give Cambodia $178 million in aid for economic cooperation, a $59 million loan, plus an additional $15 million in military aid.

Xi also forgave a $89 million debt, the leaders said in a joint announcement after a signing ceremony.

China is Cambodia’s top foreign investor and has given the country billions of dollars in grants and low-interest loans during Hun Sen’s 31-year rule.

In July it offered Cambodia nearly $550 million in aid, days after the kingdom was accused of undermining regional unity by backing Beijing in disputes over the South China Sea.

In recent years Cambodia has become a thorn in the side for neighboring nations hoping to present a unified front against China’s island building in the contested waters.

Several Southeast Asian nations have competing claims to parts of the sea and many in the region want to keep pressure on China over its efforts to militarize the sea.

But Cambodia’s unwavering support for China has scuppered regional efforts to jointly rebuke Beijing.

Ahead of Xi’s trip, a leading Cambodian newspaper published an article signed by Xi that praised the Southeast Asian nation for coming to its defense over the sea row.

“When China acted to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and maritime interests and was devoted to resolving related disputes through peaceful negotiation, Cambodia did not hesitate to speak out to uphold justice,” the Chinese president wrote in the article published by Cambodia’s Rasmei Kampuchea newspaper.

He also described the two nations’ friendship as “beaming with new vitality” and enjoying “deep political trust and win-win economic cooperation”.

Large portraits of the Chinese leader and Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni were erected along the streets of the capital Phnom Penh ahead of the two-day visit, which is Xi’s first there as president.

Hun Sen regularly praises Beijing’s “no-strings-attached” aid, compared to help from the United States and European Union which is often accompanied by calls to address corruption and human rights abuses in his country.

“For Cambodia, China is the most important strategic and economic partner,” said Vannarith Chheang, who chairs the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, adding that Cambodia, in turn, is China’s “most reliable friend in Southeast Asia”.

Source: Space War.


Defender of Cambodia’s dwindling forests wins Goldman Prize

April 18, 2016

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The latest crackdown on illegal logging in Cambodia is “just a game” and big timber traders are winning, says Ouch Leng, a former government official who has spent two decades helping poor villagers fight poaching of precious tropical forests.

Leng’s tenacious and perilous crusade to stop illegal logging and stop land concessions from forcing Cambodians out of their homes has won him a Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors grassroots environmental activism.

The award follows recent announcements that Cambodian authorities plan to expand protected areas of the Southeast Asian country’s forests by about a third. Long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen, whom many consider a backer of the biggest logging group, Try Pheap, recently said he had authorized rocket attacks on illegal loggers.

But Ouch Leng (ook leng) and other critics say reports of raids and other high-profile shows of force against illegal loggers belie the lack of arrests or prosecutions of those cutting and trading in illegal timber.

Asked if the crackdown is for real, he said, “It’s just a game.” “Nobody was arrested. The media was set up,” Leng said during an interview. “The Ministry of the Environment doesn’t care. They never go inside the jungle to patrol or arrest illegal loggers.”

Much of the timber trade is protected by military units that profit from deals with the loggers, and the stakes of fighting it can be deadly. At least five deaths in Cambodia have been linked to illegal logging since 2007, including that of Leng’s fellow environmentalist Chut Wutthy, who was fatally shot in 2012 while showing journalists a logging camp in the southwest’s Koh Kong province.

It’s a risk shared with other environmental crusaders defying powerful companies and government backers around the world. Honduran indigenous leader and environmentalist Berta Caceres, a winner of a 2015 Goldman Prize, was killed by assailants who broke into her home last month. She had received death threats from police, soldiers and local landowners for her efforts to block construction of a dam.

Leng said he accepts the risks as part of his mission. “I don’t expect the government to allow me to live long,” he said. Leng wins $175,000 for this year’s Goldman Prize, as do five other winners: — Zuzana Caputova, a lawyer who led a campaign to shut down a toxic waste dump in Slovakia.

— Maxima Acuna, a Peruvian farmer fighting major mining companies’ efforts to take her land for a gold and copper mine. — Destiny Watford, a Baltimore, Maryland, student who helped prevent construction of a trash incinerator in her area.

— Edward Loure, a Tanzanian communal land rights leader. — Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera, who campaigned to create a nature reserve in Puerto Rico to protect endangered leatherback sea turtles. Leng travels into the forest armed only with a camera and a GPS locator, tracking illegal loggers. At times he works undercover by cooking for loggers, hauling cargo on docks or posing as a tourist.

Showing determination early on, Leng excelled in his studies in mostly rural Takeo province. When his village chief denied him a permit to travel to Phnom Penh to take university exams, he says he hid on a sugar cane train to get to the city. After studying law, he was assigned to the Foreign Ministry, and later to the Ministry of Planning. Drawn into politics, he moved to a nongovernmental organization and began investigating illegal logging.

Marcus Hardtke, a German environmentalist who lives in Cambodia, says the prize is well-deserved. “Ouch Leng is one of a handful of people fighting to stop forest destruction in Cambodia,” Hardtke said. “It is up to activists like Leng and affected local communities to make a stand against the short-sighted, greed-driven policies of the Phnom Penh elite. They are doing just that, often at great personal risk.”

Lately, Leng’s attention has focused on a conflict between local villagers and a Chinese company that is developing a massive resort on a choice swath of coastland near the Thai border in Koh Kong province.

Residents complain they were forced off their land and lost their main livelihood of fishing when they were relocated inland after the government granted a 99-year land lease to China’s Tianjin Union Development Group Co., which has built a golf resort and plans a yacht club, casino, villas and other luxury facilities.

“Before, those people could earn $2,500 a year, or about $100 a night fishing. Now they cannot fish because the Chinese company grabbed everything. They have nothing to eat,” Leng said. The United Nations says land rights conflicts have become Cambodia’s No. 1 human rights issue. Land concessions have forced villagers to make way for plantations and other projects. Meant to promote development, such arrangements often have left communities worse off, critics say.

They’ve also accelerated the loss of precious, diverse forests of increasingly rare tropical timber, as loggers push ever deeper into protected areas and also clear-cut land of less valuable wood that is sometimes sold as fuel for factories.

Cambodia remained heavily forested until relatively recently, thanks in part to lingering battles with Khmer Rouge guerrillas and massive use of land mines during the Vietnam War. As the economy opened in the early 1990s, investment from China poured in. Forest cover dropped to 48 percent in 2014 from 57 percent in 2010 and 73 percent in 1990, a loss of nearly 3 million hectares of tropical forest. Rosewood, known as “hongmu” in Chinese, is especially prized, and loggers can get $5,000 for a cubic meter of the brightly-hued timber.

Leng, who chairs the Cambodia Human Rights Task Forces organization, says the Goldman Prize money will help support forest patrols and community-level efforts to combat illegal logging. Like many in Cambodia, he views the government’s record with skepticism.

“The poverty-reduction policy of the government seems to be just to kill the poor people,” Leng said. “Their ‘master plan’ to improve living standards is set up very well and looks very beautiful. To provide jobs with fair competition and construction of schools, roads, bridges. … To provide land for the people and conserve their houses,” he said. But he added that such talk is generally not put into practice by private companies or the government.

Still, Leng believes he is making headway in convincing the public to resist the loss of their livelihoods and homes. “Many political parties, government officials, students and monks are involved in forest issues,” Leng said. “The revolution will come from the land and from the forest.”

Cambodia’s Kampot pepper wins coveted EU protection

March 02, 2016

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia’s Kampot pepper, a go-to spice for chefs around the world, has joined an elite group of gourmet food items whose names are protected by the European Union, joining products such as Gruyere cheese from France and Parma ham from Italy.

The coveted designation, known as Protected Geographical Indication, or PGI, works like a trademark protection that certifies the origin of regional foods. It means that any product sold in EU countries calling itself “Kampot pepper” must come from a designated region in southern Cambodia that includes Kampot and neighboring Kep province.

The recognition was awarded to Kampot pepper on Feb. 18, making it the first Cambodian product to receive the label, the EU office in Cambodia said in a statement this week. The peppercorns, which come in white, red and black, are described by gourmet chefs as having a complex flavor with floral overtones. Cambodian farmers from the seaside region on the Gulf of Thailand say the area’s microclimate and mineral-rich soil give the pepper its unique taste.

Like so many industries in Cambodia, Kampot pepper’s production collapsed in the 1970s during the Khmer Rouge era, when an estimated 1.7 million people died at the hands of the brutal regime and the country’s farmland was largely replaced by rice paddies.

The pepper industry’s revival came in the 1990s, after peace was restored in Cambodia following the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 reign of terror and years of subsequent civil war. In 2010, Cambodia’s Commerce Ministry took a first step toward protecting Kampot pepper by giving it a domestically issued geographical indication status. The government applied to the EU in 2014 to expand the status to the European bloc.

“It is the first Cambodian product to receive this status in the EU, a single market of more than 500 million consumers and 28 countries,” Alain Vandersmissen, charge d’affaires of the EU’s delegation to Cambodia, said in an email.

“From now on, (Kampot pepper) will benefit from a very high level of protection on the EU market,” he said. The pepper is also known in Khmer as Mrech Kampot and in French as Poivre de Kampot. Nguon Lay, president of the Kampot Pepper Promotion Association, sees the PGI designation as a seal of quality that will boost sales of the spice, which is currently grown by 342 families on 184 hectares (455 acres) of land in Kampot and tiny Kep province.

In 2015, the region produced 60 tons of Kampot pepper, of which 70 percent was exported, mostly to the EU, the United States and Japan. “We are delighted that our production has finally been recognized by the world’s biggest market, the EU,” Nguon Lay said. “The status will help improve our living standard as more and more customers become impressed with our Kampot pepper.”

Associated Press writer Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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