Cambodia’s great asset swap angers many, leaves government on the fringe

PHNOM PENH – As bulldozers slam down huge trees outside, Tann Sinthou brandishes a meticulously highlighted copy of Cambodia’s land law, hoping it will save her home, the latest public asset to go under the hammer in a slew of government land swaps.

"This land is state land," the defiant 54-year-old cries from her veranda at Cambodia’s fine arts university campus, where some of 28 families yet to leave after receiving an order to vacate in March have gathered.

"This is the land law, and the land law states that public schools and land cannot be sold unless the land cannot be used," the philosophy lecturer says.

But the campus has already been handed to a private company in just one particularly high-profile swap in Cambodia, where land prices are clawing upwards and legal changes that will make such deals more difficult loom.

The private sector has already received an estimated 100 properties — some historical and already demolished — in the past year from ministries seeking to line their own coffers, activists claim.

Buildings such as prisons, hospitals and ordinary offices have all been swapped or are in the process of changing hands.

"They say the government does not have the money to pay for a new building and there are companies who are willing to take the old property and replace it at a different location," opposition member of parliament Son Chhay charges.

But he says companies are receiving prime real estate in return for marginal properties on the outskirts of the city, adding that "it doesn’t make sense".

"Why don’t you auction the land, get the money and use the money to purchase another place, and have another bidding process to construct the new building?"

The vocal critic of the swaps alleges that ingrained corruption means money from the sale of assets — or the profits — never reaches the kingdom’s almost-empty coffers.

"Where is it going? They are pocketing it most of the time," he says, claiming the Finance Ministry ignores what’s going on when high-ranking officials approve the swaps.

Even lakes in the low-lying capital are being filled in and sold off, the lawmaker alleges, leaving those who used to collect wild plants and flowers from them without an income.

"It’s become a competition," Son Chhay says.

The rush to swap comes ahead of the expected passage of a law this year that will demand more transparency in such transactions, which was demanded by international donors during their annual meeting last December.

"If this subdecree is passed, they will have no chance to keep carrying out this corruption," says Vann Sin, a program officer with Oxfam Great Britain who closely monitors land issues.

Prime Minister Hun Sen acted last month to stem the flurry of swaps by passing a low-level order to halt them, but Vann Sin says it is too little too late.

"A few months after they have sold off the buildings, they issue it!" he exclaims, adding that he doubts the swaps will actually stop. "They’re smart. Even if they sell now, they’ll date the transactions back further. It’s not finished."

Koul Panha from election monitoring group COMFREL estimates that about 100 buildings, small and large, have been swapped since Hun Sen began his third government mandate in July 2004.

The figure is "not well recorded and that’s the problem — it’s our observation. You can go to the Ministry of Finance and ask them, do you have this number? They say no, we don’t have it," he says.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith insists the deals are transparent and legal.

"Every country does this, but it is important that the exchange is transparent," he says, adding that critics "should look at the law before they comment".

He says the swaps are part of a deliberate plan to shift government services to the perimeter of the city, home to 1.2 million people, to relieve increasing congestion.

Such decentralisation is making it tougher for ordinary Cambodians to access services, Koul Panha argues. The new fine arts university, for instance, is about a 45-minute drive from its current location.

"Some places are on the outskirts in this corner, other places are on the outskirts in another corner. So they are not organised. It’s very confused, there’s no masterplan at all."

History is also being lost. A notorious colonial-era prison known as T3 has been shifted far outside the capital — making it difficult for prisoners’ families to reach — while the original has been demolished.

"I am very much concerned about the historical side. If I was in the government, I would have kept it as a museum … For the future, there’s no information about T3 prison."

At the university of fine arts, Tann Sinthou’s community wins a temporary reprieve from the bulldozers as the company agrees to continue negotiations. She wants to keep a quarter of the land for the community to rebuild.

"Does the government care about the hearts of people who love arts? We are preserving the soul of Cambodia. If they kill us, they kill the soul of Cambodia," she says.

Cambodia’s first soya milk factory eyes nourishing nation’s children

PHNOM PENH – Taking a break from her job of sifting through sacks of soya beans, Cambodian Chea Bunna sighs as she remembers foraging for frogs and crabs in rice paddies to fill her family’s stomach. Now she supports them by working in the kingdom’s first long-life soya milk factory.

The 59-year-old with cataract-clouded eyes is among 52 employees at the plant in the capital. Many lived in shelters or homes run by a Swiss-based charity, Hagar, before it turned its hand to business and provided them jobs.

"I have saved some money, so my life is getting better. I rent a house and my children go to school," says Chea Bunna, using a pseudonym.

Chea Bunna did not make it past first grade, survived the horror of Pol Pot’s killing fields and now has her three children and two grandchildren living with her. It was women like her that Pierre Tami had in mind when he set up Hagar Soya, originally a micro-enterprise producing fresh soy milk, in 1998.

Today the company is spearheading a drive to get a fortified version into the hands of malnourished schoolchildren and is also set to diversify into other beverages by the end of the year.

The micro-enterprise started out selling about 500 litres a day of soya milk and tofu locally, giving dozens of poverty-stricken women work and a newfound purpose. But Tami, Hagar’s executive director, thought they could go further.

He wanted to provide Cambodian children — who suffer among the highest malnutrition rates in Southeast Asia — with a healthy drink that would encourage them to attend school.

"When the idea came to actually being able to put fortified soya milk in the hands of every child in rural areas, I was told: ‘You’ve got to have proper packaging … otherwise how would we ever get your milk out to the provinces?’"

That meant a serious transformation — including a 1.3-million-dollar investment — with assistance and financial help from the World Bank’s Mekong Private Sector Development Facility among an array of backers.

"When you insist on a high-quality product and high-quality management, top governance and transparency, then knowing the context of Cambodia, you are bound to find a lot of obstacles," Tami says of the war-torn nation, where peace arrived only in 1998 after nearly three decades of conflict.

"It’s been like taking a rough ride on an oxen cart from here to the provinces where basically the road is filled with big potholes and big stones and it takes a lot of effort to remove those stones."

The stones have represented everything from the kingdom’s notorious corruption to its low skill base and a complete lack of home-grown materials, barring the soya beans themselves which are bought from local farmers.

"Everything is imported — sugar has to be imported, the packaging, and of course all of the machinery was imported," says Tami, adding that tradesmen even had to be brought from Vietnam to do welding.

In 2003, the company was fully commercialised and it now has a daily production capacity of 12,000 litres (more than 3,000 US gallons). Employees earn 70 to 110 dollars a month, a decent salary in a country where average annual per capita income is just 290 dollars.

"People are usually impressed by the machinery — it’s state-of-the-art technology — but actually we should be very impressed that former street women, former street kids and abused women in brothels are running that machinery right now," Tami says.

The model for Hagar Soya has the thumbs up from commerce secretary of state Sok Siphana, who argues it provides an example for hundreds of non-government organisations here to generate employment producing top-notch products.

Cambodia’s youthful population of 13 million faces a bleak employment future, with about 250,000 new entrants to hit the labour market each year over the next decade and only two sizeable sectors: garments and tourism.

"They have been able to make a product that is internationally competitive. I cannot say that about many other Cambodian products, which are struggling not to produce, but to be up to international standards," Siphana says.

"It’s not enough to have a product, it’s not enough to just develop your raw, natural resources."

Hagar Soya’s flagship product So! Soya is now supplied to more than 500 wholesalers and retailers while eight new beverages — being kept under wraps for now — are slated to hit shelves later this year.

And, finally, a fortified milk for children has been developed.

Hagar donated 5,000 cartons to a rural school last month while a pilot program for 50,000 schoolchildren to regularly receive milk is on the drawing board. An ultimate dream of supplying two million children waits to be fulfilled.

The concept has the backing of workers such as Chea Bunna.

"It’s a very good idea because it could help the poor," she says. Plus, she confesses, she loves the drink herself: "I drink the soy milk a lot so I’m getting fat. In the past — I used to be so thin!"

Kids of the dump: Cambodia’s scavengers scrap out a livelihood

PHNOM PENH – Hauv Sokhon wears his blue baseball cap low over his eyes as he pokes through the stinking refuse of Cambodia’s most notorious rubbish dump. If he finds enough plastic and aluminium amid the oozing debris, he’ll earn a dollar today.

Wielding a metal hook, the 13-year-old has eked out a living at Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey dump for three years, competing with some 500 others desperate to trawl through the raw discardings of a city of 1.2 million people.

"I don’t have any money so I come here to make some," Hauv Sokhon says matter-of-factly, then deftly plucks a pair of running shoes from the chassis of a truck roaring past.

As black smoke billows and flies mass over the stenching waste, he explains how he moved near the dump with his parents from southeastern Cambodia as they sought a better life.

"I don’t want to be working here. I’m very exhausted," he says.

One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of aluminium fetches 200 riel (five US cents) and one kilogram of rubber earns 100 riel.

The figure is attractive enough in impoverished Cambodia, which is still recovering from decades of conflict that only ended in 1998, to lure scavengers who endure headaches, dizziness and infections.

Hauv Sokhon reckons the work is better than roaming city streets.

"I used to collect rubbish in the city and this is better work. Here at least I don’t have to walk so far."

Sor Phary, a 37-year-old who scavenged here for more than a decade before setting up as a buyer — and an occasional interest-free moneylender — estimates half the waste pickers are children. Injuries are frequent.

"Almost every day someone gets hurt," she says, weighing a load of plastic on her scales. "Just yesterday someone was injured when they were buried under a falling pile."

Stung Meanchey dump, where household, industrial, medical and other hazardous waste has been indiscriminately tossed since 1965, is slated to close in less than two years, when its 6.8 hectares (16.8 acres) are finally full.

A new dump proposed by the Japanese aid agency as part of a city-wide, 13.5-million-dollar waste management strategy released in March will provide jobs for an uncertain number. The remainder are likely to scavenge on the streets.

The most fortunate will be those who secure schooling or training with Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (For the Smile of a Child, or PSE), a non-government organisation set up in 1995 to give child scavengers a better life.

In a gleaming kitchen a world away from the fetid dump, a dozen white-uniformed youths peel potatoes, dice vegetables and chop meat as they prepare lunch to be served in their stylish, terra cotta-floored restaurant.

Like Hauv Sokhon, the teenagers once trudged through Stung Meanchey. Now, as they complete one of PSE’s courses, they eye jobs in Cambodia’s top hotels — which have already snapped up some graduates as the tourism industry takes off on the back of Cambodia’s famed Angkor temples.

Bou Sophoan, 20 and wearing a crisp white chef’s hat, says back when he spent a year as a waste picker with his siblings he dreamed about working in a restaurant.

"People working in restaurants and hotels always have nice clothes. I used to think often about that," the student says.

Bou Sophoan is among thousands who have been given a chance to escape the dump by PSE, founded by a French couple horrified by the conditions the children were working under.

PSE’s vocational training centre director Pin Sarapich says at first the couple — currently fund-raising in France — provided breakfasts at the dump for the children. They still provide about 400 breakfasts daily there.

"They then asked what the children wanted and they said they wanted a school, so we adapted," he says. That meant evolving into an organisation employing nearly 300, including fewer than 10 expatriates.

A "catch-up school" today allows about 1,000 children who have fallen behind to study two years’ curriculum in one. Families of those who can attend public schools are given rice in lieu of lost scavenging income.

"We realised that when they got to grade 12, however, they couldn’t get jobs. What they need for the job market is real professional training," says the director.

In 2002 the first of several training programs was launched, with the latest a mechanics course due to begin in September. About 360 students have graduated and 250 have jobs with good conditions, Pin Sarapich says.

Meanwhile a medical team provides treatment to those at PSE and surrounding schools attended by child scavengers, a kindergarten cares for babies of women at the dump, and parents of the children are employed to help sew school uniforms, cook meals and drive trucks.

Even with the dump shutting down, their work will go on, says French volunteer Marie du Boisgueheneuc.

"If the garbage dump closes, the scavengers will be on the streets, looking through garbage. It’s not finished," she says.

And back at Stung Meanchey, a new arrival indicates the tough road ahead.

Six-year-old Rong Chean, wearing sandals and a T-shirt with a cuddly teddy bear, is spending her first day here helping her big sister.

"I want to earn money for my mother because she owes money," she says, smiling to reveal tiny teeth browned by decay. She complains of the stench but doesn’t let it deter her.

"I’ll come tomorrow and the next day too. I want to come back because I want to earn money."

Cambodia school siege underlines kingdom’s struggle to recover from war

PHNOM PENH – A school siege which led hostage-takers to kill a Canadian toddler has underlined the struggle Cambodia still faces in recovering from decades of war.

Sucked into the Indochinese conflict of the 1960s and early ’70s, wracked by civil war and then devastated by the 1975-1979 genocidal Khmer Rouge regime which oversaw the deaths of up to two million, Cambodia suffered unrest until 1998.

Today an undercurrent of violence simmers in the Southeast Asian kingdom. Mob killings of thieves are not unusual, sexual assaults have reached epidemic levels and other violent crime is relentlessly showcased in the local press.

"Here in Cambodia since the 1970s war, violence has been a part of our daily lives," Kek Galabru, head of local rights group the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, told AFP.

"For even the smallest things, we solve problems with violence."

Local kidnappings used to be frequent in the kingdom but dwindled about three years ago when the government tried harder to attract tourists, she said.

Cambodia is one of the world’s poorest countries, where the gap is growing between a flamboyant but tiny rich elite and the desperately poor, who mostly work in agriculture. The kingdom has virtually no industrial base.

"In Cambodia now, you don’t have much of a middle class. You have the new rich — the very rich — and with their cars and houses, they show that they are rich," Galabru said.

Expatriate aid workers and those in the expanding tourism industry centred in Siem Reap — the location of the siege and the gateway to tourist magnet Angkor Wat — also typically earn many times the salaries of Cambodians.

Foreigners are rarely targeted for attack, but that changed last Thursday when at least four men armed with a gun stormed an international school, taking about 30 young children from at least 14 countries hostage.

Police are still investigating the motive. Witnesses were baffled by how the violence unfolded and said the men seemed to lack a coherent plan when they entered the school.

During initial interrogation, Chea Sokhon, 23, told police he had been infuriated when the South Korean for whom he worked as a driver slapped him.

In revenge, police say he told them he wanted to murder the children. He had picked up a gun in Phnom Penh — where weapons are easy to obtain — but the plan went haywire when they could not find the children at the school.

The attackers were quickly surrounded by police, and seeking a quick getaway, demanded money, more weapons and a car, killing two-year-old Canadian Maxim Michalik to show they meant business.

As they attempted to leave the school with children in the van, police overpowered the vehicle and the angry crowd severely beat the four, ending a seven-hour stand-off which grabbed world headlines.

"This shows the problems we have in society. You don’t solve problems with violence like this. If he was unhappy, he should have talked with his employer," said Galabru, who conceded that abuse of home-workers was another problem the poor often endure.

More than a third of Cambodia’s 13 million people survive on less than a dollar a day, meaning that working for the rich as maids, drivers and guards for around 60 US dollars a month is an attractive prospect for many.

The human rights worker said the hostage crisis also highlighted the need for Cambodian police to be better trained in handling intense situations, reflecting the complaint of one father of a child at the school.

"It could happen anywhere in the world," the father said a day after the tragedy.

"The thing is here, you cannot trust the police to deal with it properly. I think in a modern country, there wouldn’t have been any injuries."

Nevertheless, Hong Kong-based political and economic risk consultant Robert Broadfoot told AFP he did not expect the siege tragedy to have an impact on expatriates coming to Cambodia.

"Fortunately the types of people who go to Cambodia for postings are people who can put this kind of tragedy into the proper perspective," he said, speaking by telephone.

"This is just a reminder that security is something you’ve got to look at. You can’t take it for granted."

A Phnom Penh-based diplomat told AFP that Cambodia has moved ahead since the war years, and violence can happen anywhere.

"But the siege does highlight that there are various issues that Cambodia has yet to fully grapple with," the diplomat said. "These include things such as unemployment, poverty and how it deals with the outside world," he said, warning that such incidents were "likely to again crop up in the future".

Cambodian villagers cry foul over loss of land to Vietnam

PHUM PREY TUOL, Cambodia – The goosebumps prickle on the arms of Cambodian rice farmer Em Chouen when he recalls how he lost his land, allegedly to Vietnamese soldiers who beat him with iron rods.

"I was ploughing my fields when the Vietnamese came and accused me of taking the land," he says, speaking at a neighbour’s home in this village in southeastern Cambodia, about 300 metres (yards) from the official border with Vietnam.

"Later they said they wanted to take my buffalo too, so they beat me," the softly-spoken 35-year-old claims, adding that he lost his two hectares (five acres) of rice-paddy in the incident 2003 and was so badly injured he could not work for a month.

Villagers here say encroachment by their more powerful neighbours began in 1979, the year Vietnam toppled the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime and has continued, field by field, since then.

They allege that Cambodian authorities have taken scant action to claw back the pancake-flat territory, where sugar palms spike the large skies and water buffalo crouch in shallow roadside ponds to escape the tropical heat.

Activists in the provincial capital Svay Rieng, who have collected complaints over the years, say the land seizures here are the worst in the province, one of several with a border fronting Vietnam.

The long-disputed zones, including areas on the Lao and Thai borders, have been thrust into the spotlight in recent weeks with ex-king Norodom Sihanouk complaining about inadequate demarcations and encroachment.

The former monarch has for years accused Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government of handing over land in particular to Vietnam, which backed its rise to power after the Khmer Rouge and with whom it retains close links.

The outspoken Sihanouk, who abdicated in October last year, is chairing a new national border council which is supposed to advise the government on firming up borders, but has no independent power.

Frustrated, the cancer-stricken 82-year-old, who has been in Beijing since January receiving medical treatment and is now undergoing chemotherapy, has asked Cambodians to report their concerns about shrinking borders to him.

The issue stretches back centuries to when the Vietnamese advanced into Cambodian territory in the Mekong Delta.

Disputes were not helped by the destruction of land records under the anti-capitalist Khmer Rouge and are heightened by a vein of anti-Vietnamese sentiment that easily flares in the impoverished kingdom.

In Prey Tuol village, a cluster of wooden-and-thatch homes shaded by banana and coconut palms and passed regularly by smugglers on motorbikes weighed down by enormous loads of Vietnamese petrol and consumer goods, people need little prompting to tell their tales.

Pok Puth, a 65-year-old with cropped grey hair and mismatched rubber thongs, claims he used to plough five hectares of rice paddy now located three kilometres (two miles) deep inside Vietnam.

"The local authorities gave us back land (as compensation, in 2001) but it’s too far from here and we couldn’t grow rice on it because there are trees there," says the father of eight.

"The land now does not belong to us. Some powerful and rich people later occupied it and built strong gates and fences."

Repeated complaints to the government have fallen on deaf ears, he claims.

"The local authorities told us that they have given us back land and that from now on we have to stop saying that Vietnam grabbed our land. But how can we survive, when our farming land is grabbed by Vietnam and the new land is taken by the powerful and rich?"

In the seven villages in the area, most people have lost at least some of their farmland, the villagers here allege.

Some send their children to Phnom Penh to work in garment factories. Others move to Vietnam, where they work herding buffalo and still others travel across the border daily to harvest sugar cane, earning a dollar a day.

At the Cambodian border checkpoint, a guard says problems occur every rainy season when Cambodians turn up to farm their land but are met by armed Vietnamese who warn them against planting crops.

"Sometimes there are confrontations. People carry machetes and axes" when they go to the fields, he says, clamming up however when a man in civilian clothes identifying himself as his superior appears.

Like Em Chouen, farmer Prum Nan, 40, was involved in such a clash in 2000.

"One day I was planting my rice fields from eight to midday and suddenly the Vietnamese forces arrived, armed with electric batons … Everybody was running, and I received a shock in my back," she says.

"Our police warned me that if I persisted to grow rice and a dispute resulted in me being shot… then they would not be responsible, they would not help me."

For Prum Nan, the setting up of the new border council offers hope, even if analysts mostly believe it is unlikely to result in any resolutions.

"We are still optimistic that the king-father (Sihanouk) will be able to solve this issue. People did not have hope when he was not involved, but now he is the chairman, they do," she says.

Unwavering loyalty for Khmer Rouge in final strongholds

Sitting on the steps of the empty villa of a former Khmer Rouge commander, Cambodian San Roeun passionately defends the mass killers he fought for as a soldier.

Pol Pot’s ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime swept into Phnom Penh 30 years ago this Sunday, launching a nearly four-year pursuit of an agrarian utopia that would lead to the deaths of up to two million Cambodians.

"People who curse Pol Pot or blame Pol Pot, well that’s up to them," says 52-year-old San Roeun, who lost a leg to a landmine in 1981 but went on to make mines for the Khmer Rouge.

"But I myself do not curse him. Pol Pot was my hero," he says at the villa of former commander Ta Mok.

The regime was toppled by Vietnamese forces in early 1979 but their soldiers fought on in a fierce guerrilla war, finally beating a retreat to remote Anlong Veng district 450 kilometres (280 miles) northwest of the capital before collapsing altogether in 1998.

Pol Pot led a cloistered existence here, in a zone stretching from a plain stripped of trees to fund the resistance up into the lush Dangrek mountains where Cambodia meets Thailand.

The remnants of the house and bunker where he lived protected by guards are perched on an escarpment overlooking the district, their surroundings still littered with mines and, barring the occasional soldier, largely uninhabited.

Pol Pot died apparently of natural causes in 1998, shortly after being captured and tried for treason and murder, thus avoiding a planned UN-backed tribunal that will prosecute surviving leaders of the regime.

The gold-toothed San Roeun, clutching a checked krama — the traditional Cambodian scarf the Khmer Rouge made famous, bristles when asked what he thinks of the tribunal.

"There is no justice if this tribunal only tries the top Khmer Rouge leaders who controlled the country from 1975 to 1979. This tribunal should look beyond, to the period to 1970," he says.

"What will happen to the United States? They dropped many bombs on Cambodia. And former king Sihanouk, after he was ousted (by a US-backed coup in 1970), he appealed to the people to flee to the jungle" to resist the country’s new rulers, aligning his supporters with the Khmer Rouge, he says.

Sihanouk eventually lost many relatives to the Khmer Rouge and stepped down as their head of state while under palace arrest.

San Roeun helped build the bougainvillea-surrounded home of Ta Mok — one of only two leaders jailed awaiting the tribunal — and now acts as a caretaker here.

Behind the house are two rusting cages — "for prisoners", he explains. He has only good words for the one-legged Ta Mok, known as "The Butcher" for his hand in the regime’s deadly purges.

"Ta Mok was a good leader… He advised people on how to respect and love the nation. I myself had lunch or dinner with him and there was no discrimination from him," he says.

Bun Chhat, 46, a former singer for Khmer Rouge radio for 15 years, chimes in with his own praise for Pol Pot.

"I knew him very well because I stayed with him. I never disliked him because he educated me and invited me to do good things… The people who lived near him, the people who knew him well, they liked him very much," he says.

Support for the former regime also remains strong in the dusty border municipality of Pailin, a Khmer Rouge stronghold until 1996.

Kong Duong, today a senior civil servant in the information ministry, was a presenter for Khmer Rouge radio for a decade and is writing a book about working with Pol Pot.

"Nobody knew Pol Pot better than me. I lived with him. I knew his character, I knew what he would eat," the 49-year-old says.

"He expressed his love for people and the country. I believe he was one of the good leaders because he loved his people and country and was against the invading forces."

He concedes, however, that Pol Pot was also a cold-blooded killer.

"If he wanted to kill someone, he would invite the man to talk with him but he would never say, ‘I’m going to kill you’. The man would never know that it was Pol Pot who ordered him killed."

Kong Duong, who has two mobile phones, a gold watch and a gold pen peeking out of his shirt pocket, says the past should be forgotten and funding for the planned 56-million-dollar tribunal should instead go towards rebuilding Cambodia.

"As a Buddhist, I advise that we should say: let bygones be bygones."

Other former Khmer Rouge members in this municipality have not prospered as well as Kong Duong and still bear the scars of stolen childhoods.

Song Eth, a divorced shopkeeper in Pailin who was born the same year Pol Pot began his rule, says she has to accept money from a charity to help feed her three children.

She began carrying ammunition for the soldiers to the mountains when she was 10 years old and continued doing so until 1996.

"Life was difficult because when we carried ammunition to the soldiers, we did it only at night-time and we could not use lights. There were landmines and we were afraid of soldiers," she recalls.

Today, as she swings her youngest child in a hammock, she looks blankly when asked what she thinks of the looming trial of the leaders she once followed.

"I never listen to the radio — I don’t know about that," she says.

Reclusive but free, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge leaders wait for trial

Ly Kim Seng stabs her hoe into the weeds threatening her watermelons on land abutting Cambodia’s border with Thailand. She pauses to explain that her husband Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s deputy during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, is too ill to accept visitors.

A child’s bicycle lies along the path leading to the mango-tree shaded house, fuchsia flowers dot a patch of grass nearby and lovingly tended potplants add an incongruous touch to the home of an accused mass-murderer.

One of those slated to be hauled before a UN-backed international tribunal to face charges of crimes against humanity and genocide, Nuon Chea, 78, spends his days pottering around his wooden house — when he is well enough.

"He suffered diarrhoea last night and is sleeping now… And my husband is partly paralysed from a stroke," Ly Kim Seng apologises, wearing tattered socks on her hands to prevent blisters as she toils under the tropical sun.

"I cannot go far away from him, I need to stay close by. If I want to go somewhere, I have to call one of my children to stay with him."

Shadowy Nuon Chea was commonly known as "Brother Number Two" — Pol Pot’s right-hand man — throughout the regime which oversaw the deaths of up to two million Cambodians during its rule beginning 30 years ago this coming Sunday.

He served as deputy secretary general of the ruling Communist Party of Kampuchea, was responsible for all of the party’s organisations and helped oversee the national security police. He also occasionally acted as prime minister during the Democratic Kampuchea government.

When it was ousted by Vietnamese forces in early 1979, Nuon Chea continued to fight against the government installed in Phnom Penh and eventually withdrew with Khmer Rouge forces to western Pailin.

From this remote border zone 375 kilometres (233 miles) from the capital, their guerrilla war was funded by rubies and sapphires ripped from the hills and plundered timber sold to rich Thai businessmen, and was bolstered by assistance from China.

Nuon Chea surrendered under an amnesty deal along with former head of state Khieu Samphan in 1998, the same year Pol Pot died after a show trial in another remote border town, and the movement finally collapsed.

Only two of those among the half-dozen or so former leaders expected to face justice through the 56-million-dollar tribunal, for which most of the funding has already been raised, are in jail.

Ly Kim Seng, who married Nuon Chea 48 years ago, fumes about the prospect of her husband being prosecuted.

"I’m very disappointed with this tribunal. Why have they organised this tribunal to sentence people like my husband, who is a real nationalist?

"Why don’t they try the leaders who really betrayed the nation, the leaders who occupied here?" she asks.

"My husband was never a soldier or a military commander. He was only in charge of education and gave his advice and ideas. He was never in control of the military."

But Nuon Chea will attend the trial in Phnom Penh, if necessary.

"I am not afraid and the same goes for my husband, who has said many times that he’s ready to go to court. Even if he can’t walk, he’s ready to go."

Ly Kim Seng is also bitter about her family’s meagre finances compared to other ex-leaders such as Ieng Sary, the Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister, who now lives in a villa in Phnom Penh and has a second home in Pailin.

Their house is owned by Ieng Sary’s son-in-law, while a plot given to Nuon Chea next door by Pailin’s governor, another ex-Khmer Rouge fighter, lies unused. Out the front is a shuttered house Khieu Samphan lived in before moving in to the outskirts of Pailin town.

"Ieng Sary, now he’s a rich man. He doesn’t want to meet poor people like us… He took a lot of money from the country and people," she accuses.

"My life and my husband’s life relies on support from our children."

It’s a peaceful existence for Nuon Chea, who makes a brief appearance at the window of the house wearing sunglasses and a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, calling for his wife.

"He always stays inside the house. Of an evening, when it’s cool, if his health is better he walks outside near the house," Ly Kim Seng later says.

In what may be small comfort for survivors of the regime he once led, Nuon Chea no longer sleeps well, according to his wife.

"He can sleep only in the early evening. He wakes up every night at around 1:00 or 2:00am."

Meanwhile, Khieu Samphan also lives quietly in his modest pale-blue concrete home, but is often seen around town, attending weddings and dinners.

His wife opens the door promptly to a knock and the French-speaking former head of state himself appears a few seconds later. He does not deviate from the polite behaviour he is renowned for, but will not be interviewed either.

"Excusez-moi, mais — Excuse me, I’m very sorry, but I do not receive journalists here any longer," he says, shaking his head apologetically and closing the door.

Free private hospitals saving the lives of Cambodia’s sick children

Pen Naun sits breastfeeding her two-month-old baby in an airy but crowded hospital ward with scores of other fraught Cambodians, many lying on mats covering the terracotta-tiled floor.

Receiving free treatment at this gleaming six-year-old private hospital run by a maverick Swiss doctor who plays a cello to help fund its operations, they are among destitute Cambodia’s luckiest patients.

Naun, 31, travelled with her vomiting son Phan Chandoeun for three hours by pick-up truck along bad roads from a neighbouring province hoping that he would receive free diagnosis and treatment at this ultra-modern children’s hospital.

"First I went to a private clinic in Poipet (a town near her home), but the drugs did not work so we came here," she says.

The mother-of-three had to borrow 200 baht (eight dollars) from a neighbour to pay for the clinic visit and drugs, a substantial amount in a country where more than a third of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.

When the vomiting didn’t stop, another neighbour told her about Jayavarman VII hospital on the outskirts of Siem Reap, the gateway town to Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat temple complex.

Her son, it turns out, was suffering from potentially fatal acute encephalitis. He was admitted two days ago and is likely to stay for five more.

"A private clinic would not have been able to diagnose this," a doctor at the hospital says.

Cambodia’s health system is shattered after nearly three decades of war which ended in 1998. Rife corruption, along with tiny salaries paid to doctors and nurses mean many take second jobs and make rebuilding an uphill battle.

"A lot has been done, but on paper we don’t seem to have made much progress," UNICEF’s country representative Rodney Hatfield concedes.

In Cambodia, the number of deaths of children aged under five per 1,000 rose from 115 to 140 from 1990 to 2003 despite mammoth efforts to improve health. And rural children suffer more: the rate was 50 per 1,000 live births in Phnom Penh compared to 229 per 1,000 in the kingdom’s northern provinces.

Jayavarman VII along with two other hospitals in Phnom Penh also run by doctor Beat Richner are anomalies in Cambodia’s health system, offering free treatment in spotless facilities served by more than 1,500 well-paid staff.

Doctors earn between 600 and 800 dollars per month while even cleaners earn 200 dollars a month, a very decent salary in Cambodia and far more than the 30 to 40 dollars per month doctors earn in the public system.

The three hospitals in 2004 treated 759,000 outpatients, admitted 70,000 children and carried out 15,800 surgical interventions.

Richner’s stance on free treatment, however, has earned him criticism from multilateral organisations and donors who prefer to see a user-pays system in place and who he says have accused him of subverting attempts to strengthen the system.

"This is absolutely stupid to do this liberal, capitalist idea for the health sector if people have no cash … Our idea is that all children have the right to be treated. It’s only subversion of corruption," he retorts.

"This is an emergency."

Cambodia’s health minister Nuth Sokhom says the hospitals are a "sensitive" issue.

"Some are concerned about free-of-charge services, the ones who are helping us strengthen the health system. So we are in a very difficult situation, which we have raised with the friendly countries as well as with the NGOs," he says.

"We have to have a compromise between the two."

Richner says that without his hospitals, whose annual running costs of 15 million dollars are almost completely provided by international donors, 60,000 more Cambodian children would die each year, mostly of infectious diseases.

"These children are at the mercy of donors," says the doctor, who holds twice-weekly cello concerts in a theatre attached to the hospital to elicit donations from the relatively well-heeled tourists who flock to Angkor.

"Money or blood," he demands of the old and young respectively, many of whom respond positively. In the past year tourists gave 2.2 million dollars and on average, about 300 per month give blood, 30 percent of requirements.

There are currently 800 beds at the hospitals, but with 1,100 patients some have to sleep on the floor. Extensions to Jayavarman VII and Kantha Bopha I in Phnom Penh will raise the number of beds to 1,400 when complete.

Richner was working as a doctor in the kingdom in 1975 when the genocidal Khmer Rouge seized power. He was invited back in 1991 by then-King Norodom Sihanouk to rebuild Phnom Penh’s Kantha Bopha I hospital.

For years he has been critical of the corruption and small salaries paid to health workers, refusing to work directly with the ministry of health and also arguing that the UN’s grassroots approach will not work while salaries are low.

Richner, who was named Swiss of the Year 2002, concedes that primary health care work is needed.

"Of course it’s important, but you must create facilities and the facilities must have people who are working. These health centres do not work because there are no people inside, because they have no salaries," he says.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has declared a war on the rampant corruption right across government and described the hospitals as models for the country, will this year hand the doctor 1.6 million dollars, bypassing the ministry.

"Without our system, he knows 60,000 children will die. So he knows about this corruption and that’s why he gives directly to us," Richner says.

The government gave 300,000 dollars a year for two years prior to that.

"My worry now is still the money. This is not sustainable."

Richner will head to New York soon, hoping that his cello-playing and intensive public relations will raise enough to cover running costs for the next decade.

"Then I hope that the economic situation in Cambodia will be better and then all these hospitals can have this level that we have."

Asian governments pledge to reduce disparities to help children

Twenty-six Asian governments pledged Friday to work towards reducing disparities within their countries in a bid to improve the lives of the region’s 600 million children.

In a declaration, the countries pledged to "find ways to guarantee free or affordable services to all members of society. We recognise that the survival, growth and development of our children is a national public good that will guarantee the future success of our societies."

"We are concerned that in many countries wide gaps exist between different groups in society and/or regions in the country which exacerbate the vulnerability of children to malnutrition, ill health, exclusion from education, neglect and all forms of exploitation," the nations said.

The Siem Reap-Angkor Declaration followed three days of talks by representatives from across East Asia and the Pacific, focussing on disparities, adolescents and child survival, growth and development.

Rapid economic and social changes in the region have resulted in inequitable progress and contributed to increasing disparities that have exacerbated risks facing children, the declaration acknowledged.

Figures distributed at the talks showed that for instance in Indonesia, under-five mortality rates among the poorest were 110 per 1,000 live births compared to 28 per 1,000 among the richest quintile.

In host Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, under-five mortality was 50 per 1,000 live births compared to 229 per 1,000 in the northern provinces.

At the start of the talks the head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Carol Bellamy called for greater spending in health and education especially targeted towards communities where disparities are high.

The region spends less on average on public health per capita than any other region in the world.

According to UNICEF, Cambodia, China, Vietnam and Indonesia all appear to be experiencing growing economic and social inequalities.

Countries also pledged innovative strategies to help adolescents, a fast-growing segment of the region’s population.

Lina Laigo, executive director of the Philippines’ Council for the Welfare of Children, told AFP that the talks and declaration were "very substantive".

"The agenda that they have agreed on and what they have identified is quite important for all the countries… in the sense that we are looking at things we have neglected before," she said.

"These new things that they have identified, adolescents and disparities, are really something that we need to address."

During the talks, an alliance of non-government organisations also urged the region’s governments to address the issue of violence against children.

Young people from 19 of the participating countries meanwhile held their own three-day forum and called for a larger role in decisions affecting their welfare.

The ministerial talks were held in the northwestern Cambodian town of Siem Reap, gateway to the famed Angkor temple complex. They have been held every second year since being initiated at the 1990 World Summit for Children in New York.

UNICEF head calls for more investment in Asia-Pacific youth

Asian governments are spending much less on public health than the global average, the head of the UN children’s agency said Wednesday in an appeal for more investment in the region’s youth.

UNICEF head Carol Bellamy also said the fruits of unprecedented economic growth in the East Asian and Pacific region have not been shared equally.

"If we want to tackle disparities and achieve more equitable development we have to invest more in children. The region, for example, spends much less per capita than the global average on public health," she said.

"I urge governments to increase spending in health and education and to target these investments to communities where disparities are high."

Her comments were made to ministers, officials and experts from 26 countries attending a three-day conference focusing on child survival, growth and development with particular attention on growing regional disparities.

According to UNICEF, Cambodia, China, Vietnam and Indonesia all appear to be experiencing growing economic and social inequalities, while disparities also occur within the region.

In Cambodia, for instance, 34 percent of people live on less than one dollar a day and average life expectancy is 57 years. In neighbouring Thailand, two percent of the population get by on less than a dollar a day and live on average to 69.

Bellamy said adolescents and young people who form a growing segment of the region’s population remain among the most marginalised and are highly susceptible to economic and other forms of exploitation.

"Many families are deprived of access to basic social services that are fundamental to the fulfilment of their rights," she said.

"We need strong, concerted, unified action to ensure disparities do not become a scourge that robs us of hard-won gains and fuels division and conflict."

Bellamy, who ends her 10-year stint as head of UNICEF in April, also noted that last December’s Indian Ocean tsunami had demonstrated that the region was more prone to natural disasters than any other.

"Whether they are floods, droughts, landslides or earthquakes, they can wreak havoc on lives, infrastructure and livelihoods, and children are especially at risk," she said.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who formally opened the meeting, blamed the dismal state of children in this Southeast Asian nation, where child mortality rates have worsened in recent years, on the decades of war it has suffered.

"It’s all a consequence of mistakes made by political leaders — political mistakes," he said as he described in detail the turmoil the kingdom endured since 1970 when it first descended into unrest that only ended in 1998.

Those years included the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime headed by Pol Pot, when up to two million people died.

Former Thai prime minister and UNICEF goodwill ambassador Anand Panyarachun, meanwhile, urged governments to work constructively with civil society, saying non-government organisations were needed to point out where they went wrong.

It may be unpleasant for those in government but "we have to recognise that we don’t always get it right," he said.

A declaration will be issued at the end of the meeting making concrete commitments for children based on the talks, which were initiated after the 1990 World Summit for Children held in New York and are held every second year.