Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

Battle of the bulge ahead in bloated new Cambodian government

29.06.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

A deal cut by Cambodia’s feuding parties to form a government after a year-long power struggle will create a bloated political elite that threatens a new wave of infighting, analysts say.

A slew of new top-ranking posts and a ministry were announced under a power-sharing agreement struck Friday to end a stalemate between long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen and royalist leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

Analysts say the deal is likely to result in dozens of underused and overpaid ministers who could exploit the lucrative fringe benefits of Cambodia’s corrupt political system, which the country can scarcely afford.

"This was the political way out needed to satisfy the internal pressure from the different parties… That was their aim, to solve the problem, but there will be negative impacts for sure," one senior diplomat told AFP.

The crisis began when Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won national polls last July but failed to secure a two-thirds majority required under the constitution to govern alone.

Barring late hitches, Friday’s deal revives a decade-old and often uneasy partnership between the CPP and the royalist FUNCINPEC party.

It gives the CPP 60 percent of postings, including the crucial ministries of foreign affairs and economy.

FUNCINPEC, which fared dismally in the polls, has been handed the remainder, mostly marginal portfolios but will share the ministries of defense and interior with the CPP.

The overall number of positions at the level of minister, deputy minister or secretary of state has soared to 168, more than double their previous number.

With undersecretaries of state added to the equation, the new administration will have around 300 posts, creating an army of underemployed policymakers.

"They will not be assigned work — they’ll just be addressing and opening seminars, cutting ribbons, welcoming foreign guests. And that will create problems, with them competing to get assignments from their bosses," said the diplomat.

"What’s needed are more Indians, not chiefs."

Activists are also perturbed by the high price tag that will accompany the bulging bureaucracy as Cambodia recovers from decades of brutal conflict.

Ministers typically earn about 300 dollars per month and deputies 250 dollars, but their incomes are supplemented an array of perks — some acceptable, others not.

"It’s a big concern for us, how to manage society well with this high number of high-ranking government officials," prominent rights activist Thun Saray told AFP. "It’s very unfair for the poor in society."

Kek Galabru, president of rights advocacy group Licadho, said the increased cost and lack of accountability of a new government were concerns.

"It’s a burden for the country and I don’t know if more positions will help. There will be more people, more paperwork to do, more people to monitor. And who will monitor all these people — the prime minister?"

Speculation continues over whether FUNCINPEC will hand any of its posts to the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), with which it formed a surprise alliance after the polls.

Hun Sen and Ranariddh had previously agreed royalists could hand some of their positions to the SRP, headed by the outspoken Sam Rainsy, a sworn enemy of the premier.

Rainsy has said he would not take a position but the former FUNCINPEC finance minister has insisted his party will play a role, which would further complicate governing.

Despite year of drama, Cambodia’s political scene flips back to square one

27.06.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

After a year of drama and intrigue, a coalition deal snared at the weekend allows Cambodia’s politicians to get back to work but the power balance has barely changed, diplomats and analysts say.

A deal between Prime Minister Hun Sen and his coalition partner in two previous administrations, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was snared Friday, finally paving the way for a government 11 months after national elections.

With a new government expected to be formed early July, barring last-minute hiccups, a working parliament can finally pass crucial mothballed legislation, including ratification of entry into the World Trade Organisation and a bill to allow the procedure of a UN-backed trial of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders.

But when asked how Cambodians felt about the breakthrough, Hang Puthea, director of an election monitoring group, said they had almost lost interest.

"People are tired of listening to this problem, but thanks to this situation people may think more carefully about voting in the next elections."

The period has boasted endless snarling among political parties, bizarre jet-setting around the globe by leaders aimed at winning international support for their stances plus the self-imposed exile of a sulking king.

King Norodom Sihanouk spirited himself away to a palace in North Korea to wait out the crisis, from where he chimed into debate by posting comments on his website and insisted he would not return until a government was formed.

Donors to the aid-dependent country — one of the poorest in the world — have looked on askance while observers have grown so perplexed by the behind-the-scenes deal making that most stopped speculating on any outcome.

The essential result however sees Cambodia’s new government return to its make-up prior to the July 2003 polls, although minor surprises may still occur before the final sealing of the coalition deal slated for this week.

As in previous coalition deals, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has emerged the victor, this time securing an extra three ministries at the expense of Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC, which fared dismally in the polls.

The control of ministries and receiving the perks attached to them is important in infamously corrupt Cambodia, and the issue of who would get what formed the focus of intense bargaining, according to diplomats.

"It was a two-pronged approach. While the parties working groups were openly discussing forming a government, they were definitely working secretly on this big issue," one envoy told AFP.

A 73-point joint political platform meanwhile took up weeks of negotiating, with party officials shuffling forwards — and then backwards — on a day-to-day basis.

The final power split does reflect the election results, which saw the CPP scoop 73 of the 123 national assembly seats, leaving it just nine short of the the two-thirds majority it required under the constitution to govern alone.

That left it hostage to the royalists and the outspoken opposition Sam Rainsy Party, who formed a surprise alliance in the wake of the polls. It was dealt a blow however when Ranariddh struck a sudden March deal with Hun Sen to tentatively revive their partnership.

Under that deal, the royalists can give the opposition party some of its own posts, creating a "two-and-a-half party" government. FUNCINPEC’s decision on whether it will actually hand over posts remains a major question for now.

"Despite the months of negotiations, effectively it’s a deal between the same two parties with Rainsy possibly left out in the cold again," another Asian diplomat told AFP.

However, he insisted Hun Sen, an ex-Khmer Rouge fighter and so-called "strong man" of Cambodia, would emerge winning plaudits from the international community for the peaceful resolution of the stalemate, despite taking a long time to achieve it.

Cambodia’s dangerous roads exact a heavy toll as fatalities soar

22.06.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

Cambodia’s traffic fatality rate is double the Southeast Asian average and as more vehicles squeeze onto the kingdom’s roads, deaths are expected to soar still further, experts say.

Large numbers of motorcycles jostling with creaking agricultural vehicles, cars smuggled from Thailand with steering wheels on the "wrong side", and huge trucks on a rapidly developing road system are proving a deadly combination.

"In Cambodia you still have this tremendous mix of old, dilapidated, slow and agricultural vehicles. It means you have this tremendous variation in speed," Laos-based regional road safety consultant Mike Goodge told AFP.

The common practice of overloading vehicles and even motorcycles — often with whole families of five clinging on — is another danger, along with the sheer volume of goods and animals transported.

"The slightest thing goes wrong and there’s no safety margin," Goodge said.

Road fatalities over the past three years have more than doubled to 824 in 2003, costing Cambodia’s war-ruined economy 116 million dollars, or 3.2 percent of gross domestic product — the region’s highest rate.

"The road network has improved a lot in the past three years, allowing speed increases, but people are not trained to drive on these roads so accidents are increasing," said Jean Van Wetter from Handicap International, which works on the issue with the Cambodian government.

With an estimated 23 deaths per 10,000 registered vehicles, Cambodia’s fatality rate is double the regional average and second only to military-ruled Myanmar, according to Asia Development Bank figures.

And Cambodia is at the bottom of its so-called motorisation curve, meaning its fatality rate is expected to get far worse before it gets better, said Wetter.

The concept of road safety is foreign to most Cambodians, who can easily purchase licenses, face no enforcement of road rules or pay inconsequential bribes or fines if they do, and rarely wear helmets on motorbikes.

"Road safety in Cambodia is a new issue and everything still has to be done," said Van Wetter, who acknowledges that Cambodia is largely focusing on rebuilding after decades of violent conflict that ended only six years ago.

"Road safety is considered by many as a side issue… as with everything in Cambodia, there’s a lack of funding, and there are other priorities," he said, while adding that politicians had begun to pay attention to the crisis.

A road safety action plan developed with the ADB is now awaiting implementation — but it first has to be ratified by the national assembly, which has not sat for more than a year as political parties wrangle over forming a government after inconclusive elections last July.

"We were late and we were not strong enough in campaigning on this big issue," Phnom Penh vice governor Trac Thai Sieng told AFP.

"Traffic is becoming a big issue and we will use the Cambodian way (to deal with it) which has already been successful in dealing with HIV/AIDS and demining," he said, referring to major campaigns on these other deadly issues.

Efforts so far have focused on helmets. A three-month television campaign launched in April this year has already tripled sales of the life-saving device according to vendor surveys, Wetter said.

Hong Kong action hero Jackie Chan, who is immensely popular in the kingdom, is set to play a starring role in a billboard and television campaign from September aimed at young men, who make up the vast majority of casualties.

The UN’s World Health Organisation, which forecasts that road injuries will be the number-three contributor to global disease and injury by 2020, up from a current number nine, is urging action.

"Cambodia, if it doesn’t act now, will be way up there in 2020 as one of the countries that has a major problem," program officer Pamela Messervy told AFP.

"Cambodia has a lot of health issues and it’s been quite good at identifying priorities… but I think it’s time now that they tackle the issue."

Cambodian capital fraught with danger for migrating women jobseekers

06.06.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

Lured by the hope of a better future, young women are flooding into the Cambodian capital, where experts note they are vulnerable to being trafficked into the sex trade or winding up on the streets.

Among the many impoverished Cambodians shifting to Phnom Penh, the kingdom’s only major city, women are drawn in large numbers by the prospect of a job in the booming garment sector.

Although no exact figures are available, the sudden growth of the industry in the late 1990s triggered an influx of women desperate to earn a living in the factories which now employ more than 200,000.

Cambodia’s predominantly agricultural economy is destitute and its social fabric in tatters after nearly three decades of conflict, which only formally ended in 1998 and included the murderous 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge.

Women are attracted by the excitement of the capital as much as they are depressed by the bleak outlook they face tilling ever-shrinking plots of land split between ever-expanding families.

"Phnom Penh is becoming an international, developed, modern city," said Sebastien Marot, coordinator of non-government organisation Mith Samlanh or Friends, which assists street children and their families.

Meanwhile, he told AFP little had changed in the countryside for the past 10 or 20 years, other than for poverty to become even more widespread.

Yet many heading to the city for a better life have found the realities of urban life can be just as harsh.

"The women hear from their friends that it’s easy to find a job and earn money, but in reality, it’s not," said Kong Sathia, who heads Mith Samlanh’s young migrant program, which focuses on women.

The danger of being trafficked into Cambodia’s flourishing sex industry is ever present. As soon as the women step off the bus in Phnom Penh, motorbike taxi drivers with connections to the trade offer them free rides — to what turns out to be a brothel.

Rape is another risk, as is simply running out of cash and being forced onto the streets. The lucky ones secure factory jobs, but even then they must endure life in the squalid squatter areas that surround them.

And now the future of the garment sector is also in doubt — with the conclusion this year of a global quota system that fostered its creation — and already women are finding it tough as factories tighten their belts.

"This year it’s been more difficult… And if they don’t find someone immediately here to help them, they are at risk," Kong Sathia told AFP.

Kong Sathia heads a team of outreach workers who aim to intercept women before the criminals pounce by scouring Phnom Penh bus and taxi stations and factories to monitor fresh arrivals.

Team members have nurtured relationships with bus station police and vendors, urging them to call if they come across a new face so that someone can counsel the woman and advise her of her options.

Sugarcane juice vendor Ros Saron, who plies her trade at an informal taxi station, is part of the informal network.

"I’m here every day so I get to know who is new. The new girls talk, and they often want to talk to another woman. I often see them — they just don’t know where to go," she said.

There is also help on hand for the many migrants who are trying to escape abusive situations or prostitution.

Tia, a 20-year-old sex worker from eastern Svay Rieng province, has been in Phnom Penh for just a few days but it’s the fourth time she has made the trip here — each time somebody in the ring she worked for has tracked her down.

"I just want to find a job," she told AFP at Mith Samlanh’s centre for migrants, which opened last year.

The group every month contacts some 40 migrants as they enter the capital, and is also setting up centres in the provinces so women can make informed decisions about migrating.

But Women’s Affairs Minister Mu Sochua notes that even at home unscrupulous middlemen exploit their ambitions by demanding high commissions for finding them jobs.

"Once they’re in Phnom Penh, the risks depend on how long they have to wait for employment… That’s why we are seriously addressing the issue of employment as a means for reducing poverty. We must address growth," she said.

The outlook for female migrants now hinges on how the garment sector reacts to the end of the quota system, Mith Samlanh’s Marot said.

"It’s a huge question," he said, adding that a major urban crisis was just around the corner.

"If there is no more industry around, there will still be a lot of people coming but probably on a different level and with different expectations."

Cambodia’s beach resort gambles on international tourism boom

06.06.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Travel ::

With pristine beaches rivalling Asia’s best holiday destinations, a five-star hotel, a reopened airport and a planned golf course, Cambodia’s Sihanoukville is poised to jump into the global tourism arena.

Thousands of tourists are already lured to Cambodia by the ancient Angkor Wat temple complex but few other sights attract their attention or their desperately sought-after dollars.

Sniffing opportunity, the government and private investors are lining up to position the southwestern port town of Sihanoukville as a tropical getaway, competing with the likes of Thailand’s Phuket and Indonesia’s Bali.

"If we compare, the potential is better than Phuket because of the quality of sand — it’s white — and the water is clean. The offshore islands have coral reefs, there’s fishing," enthuses city tourism director Teng Huy.

A port town established in the 1950s — it remains Cambodia’s youngest city — Sihanoukville became a popular resort among the elite until the rise of the Khmer Rouge, which embarked on a genocide that decimated the country.

It was re-discovered by backpackers in the 1990s and today retains a sleepy, faded charm, with the occasional cow wandering through the streets and ramshackle restaurants on many of its beaches.

The locally-owned Sokha Hotel has extended Sihanoukville’s appeal beyond backpackers to well-heeled travellers by opening its 15-hectare, 180-room hotel in April, the first five-star operation here.

"The beach product is excellent, it’s top class. Great sand, great sea, that’s a great start, we’re out of the gate and running well," says general manager Anthony O’Neill, a 12-year veteran of the Asian tourism industry.

More government help however is needed to rebuild the infrastructure shattered from conflict that only ended in 1998, as well as better attractions, to secure Sihanoukville’s place on the international circuit, O’Neill says.

A nine-hole golf course being developed by Malaysia’s Ariston Holdings along nearby Occheuteal beach is one such crucial drawcard, he says.

"The golf course concept has to be raced along… because if you can’t get core features you simply can’t contain people in a holiday resort and even think you’re going to challenge your competitors in Asia," he says.

"I’m competing with Bali, Phuket, even Pattaya. It’s these markets we keep an eye on — can we do it here?"

Sokha is just one of several hotels positioned to enter the market.

The quirky art deco Independence Hotel, which drew fashionable crowds in the 1960s prior to the 1975 rise of the Khmer Rouge, is due to open by September, while a 120-room hotel is packaged with the golf course project.

Scheduled flights — also seen as vital to Sihanoukville’s rejuvenation — are on the horizon with the reopening of its airport in April to chartered flights. A runway extension is slated to be completed before year end, making it a potential destination for regional airlines.

Martin Standbury, the project manager for the golf course due to open within the coming year, says Sihanoukville may be sleepy for now, but its potential is enormous.

"For now tourists get a bit bored. There’s the beach, cheap beer, seafood — they probably need a few more attractions," he says.

"I reckon there is huge potential here over the next three to five years, not just for foreigners but the locals," he says, noting that Cambodia’s emerging middle class has begun holidaying here again.

Business owners — many of them foreigners who were travelling through but decided to stay, captivated by the landscape and laidback lifestyle — say they have noticed a steady increase in numbers.

"Despite the anti-Thai riots (in Phnom Penh in January 2003), SARS, (the terror attacks in) America and the elections, my trade has increased in the last year as has everybody elses," says hotel and bar owner Richard Blackley.

Teng Huy’s office puts the number of tourists who visited last year at just over 114,000, six percent less than 2002 due to the regional SARS outbreak, but for the first three months this year the figure jumped by 29 percent on 2003.

Blackley, who moved here four years ago, says the town was once awash with small arms — like the rest of the country — but has normalised and authorities are making an effort to renovate the town.

"Infrastructure is being repaired, government buildings are being repaired, you can see improvements with parks and gardens… And the race for land on the beaches is phenomenal," he says.

"I’m extremely optimistic. Every day something new is being done."

Li Li, a Chinese technical worker on a hydropower plant in a nearby province, comes here every few months with a half dozen colleagues who are drawn by the seafood and scenery.

"Sihanoukville is very, very beautiful — the water, the sky," he told AFP after a beachside seafood feast.

"I think more and more people will come to Cambodia and here."