Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Thailand inks contract-farming deal with Cambodia

BANGKOK, July 20 (TNA) – Thailand pledged to help develop farming for a number of plants in Cambodia that will supply the feedstock industry.

Speaking after hosting the second meeting of the Thai-Cambodian Joint Committee on Agricultural Development, Mr. Suthiporn Jiraphan, Deputy Permanent Secretary for Agriculture and Co-operatives said Thailand is going to offer technical support for Cambodia to grow canola oil seeds, cassava, soy, maize and oil palms. The Cambodian delegation to the meeting was led by Mr. San Vanty, Mr. Suthiporn’s counterpart.

The transfer of technology is incorporated in the contract farming agreement, in which Thailand will also offer expertise in post-harvest technology and processing. Meanwhile, Thailand can buy produce of these trees to produce feed stock and alternative energy.

Cambodia will benefit from income generation to the farmers as well as the technology. At the same time, Thailand gets to buy the raw materials it needs, said Mr. Suthiporn. Currently, Thailand has to import about two million tonnes of maize to produce chicken feed.

The areas identified to pilot these projects are in the provinces near the border such as Udonmeanchey,Siem Reap and Battambang where transport link is easy to enable regular follow-up. (TNA)-E007

Cambodian-Australian man convinced of drug trafficking

PHNOM PENH, July 20 (Xinhuanet) -- Phnom Penh municipal court convicted a Cambodian-Australian man of cross-border drug trafficking, sentencing him to 18 years in prison and a 10,000 US dollars fine, The Cambodian Press Review reported Wednesday.

Yen Karat, 23, was ruled on Tuesday guilty of trafficking two kilograms of heroin in late January. His uncle, Ek Sam Oeun, was also sentenced to 10 years in prison for transporting drugs.

Ek Sam Oeun, a 48-year-old farmer in Kandal province, admitted he stored machines for Yen Karat, but said he did not know they were used to package heroin. He said he threw the equipment in his toilet after receiving orders from Yen Karat.

The Municipal Court also sentenced in absentia two Australian citizens to 18 and 19 years in prison plus a 10,00 dollars fine respectively, Khmer newspaper Rasmei Kampuchea said.

Trafficking in drugs and other illicit items become a chronic problem in Cambodia in recent years despite that the government has strengthened the law enforcement and border security. Enditem

Cambodian police break up Vietnam refugee protest

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodian riot police on Wednesday broke up a protest by ethnic minority asylum seekers against the forced return of over 100 of their people to Vietnam, human rights workers and the United Nations said.

Around 30 Montagnards, the mainly Christian tribespeople from Vietnam's Central Highlands, staged a brief demonstration outside offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Phnom Penh.

But their protest against Wednesday morning's repatriation of 101 Montagnards to Vietnam, where human rights workers say they face persecution, was cut short by the arrival of riot police.

"Some of them got upset about the return of these people to Vietnam and they got out of the (asylum seekers' holding) center," Inna Gladkova, a UNHCR official. "But police escorted them back to the shelter. They are fine now."

Gladkova said the 101 had been sent back to Vietnam after the UNHCR rejected their claims for asylum. Another 541 Montagnards, many of them women and children, are in UNHCR holding centers in Phnom Penh while their claims are processed.

Vietnam's government, accused of rights abuses against the Montagnards who sided with the Americans during the Vietnam War, has given assurances that returnees will not face discrimination.

However, human rights workers said the way Cambodian police went about sending them back did not bode well.

"They dragged them into the trucks," said Naly Pilorge, director of human rights group LICADHO. She said at least three human rights observers had seen police wielding electric batons to force the Montagnards, including women and children, on board.

Phnom Penh police chief Heng Peov denied officers used excessive force. A Reuters television cameraman covering the subsequent protest was forced by police to erase his footage.

Since 2001, well over 1,000 Montagnards have been granted asylum in the United States after fleeing to Cambodia from central Vietnam.

However, there have been consistent reports of Cambodian troops rounding up Montagnards and sending them back for a bounty, leading to accusations Phnom Penh is taking direct orders from its larger neighbor not to admit refugees.

Cambodia to hold first film festival since 1990

PHNOM PENH, July 20 (Xinhuanet) -- Cambodia is to hold its first film festival in 15 years, local media reported on Wednesday.

The film festival featuring recent Cambodian films will take place from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2, khim Sarith, secretary of state of Ministry of Culture, announced Tuesday.

"The aim of the film festival is to promote Cambodia's film industry to a new high level through exchanges and learning from each other," he said.

Cambodia's films produced in 2004 and 2005 and with more than 90-minute long will be eligible for the first festival since 1990. Ministry of Culture Undersecretary Som Sokun said that 53 Cambodian films were made last year and 32 so far this year, despite lack of film or acting schools.

"The number of productions is increasing but the quality is lacking," he was quoted by The Cambodia Daily as saying.

Cambodia's film-making had its heyday in the 1960s and early 1970s, led by the prolific productions of former King Norodom Sihanouk, who produced, directed, wrote, acted, and scored 28 films.

Films again sputtered into production in the late 1980s but their dismal quality and competition from cheap imported movies saw them peter out. Cambodia's film revival started in 2000 and has developed gradually since then. Enditem

Blogs Taking Off in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Like many young Cambodians just now getting used to the idea of surfing the web, Mean Lux only recently heard about blogs. But his work traveling this country's back roads may soon bring a rush of Cambodians to the blogosphere.

As part of a project launched by a pro-democracy nonprofit, Mean spent most of June in dusty provincial capitals showing high-school and university students how to publish an online diary.

In an interview last week, he said the most common question was whether people in other countries could read blogs from Cambodia. He said they could.

"They also asked, 'How will people know where my blog is?' I said, 'How will they know what your phone number is? It is the same way,'" he said.

In one town, Mean wasn't able to get a reliable connection to the internet, which is not surprising considering that until two years ago, net access in Cambodia was only available in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, a tourist destination in the north. (The International Telecommunication Union estimated that only 25 in 10,000 Cambodians were net users in 2003, one of the lowest internet-penetration rates in Asia.)

Nonetheless, about a dozen students who attended Mean's training sessions were inspired to create their own English-language blogs after the three-hour workshop.

One of those blogs, called Youth Vision, contains five brief postings written in rough English. Another, entitled Cambodian Children, laments the fact that many Cambodian children can't go to school because their families are too poor, or because they do not live near a school or have access to transportation.

Nearly all of the blogs are heavy on photos. And much like Cambodia's stale, state-run television news, many of the images are unremarkable group photos from official-looking meetings and training sessions.

For example, a blog entitled Battambang Network reports on a workshop held at a university in Battambang, a provincial capital near the Thai border.

"Fifty-five Youth Network members attend(ed) the meeting, including 10 monks," the post said.

Other blogs keep it light, looking at the new venue as a way to network with others: "What are you doing? How are you?... If you have free time, can you join with us?" asks the blogger behind sonn-veasna, in what is a typical first post for many of the trainees.

Despite the modest beginnings, the local office of the International Republican Institute, or IRI, which sponsored the project, is excited about the potential for Cambodian blogs to generate more political dialogue.

"There's a growing interest. It's not overwhelming, but it's growing," said Alex Sutton, the IRI's resident program director.

Officials from IRI came up with the idea for the training workshops after hearing of the website of Cambodia's retired King Norodom Sihanouk.

Sihanouk, a revered figure in Cambodia and a political force for the last 60 years, has published his scanned-in, handwritten scribblings online since 2002. He often comments, usually in French, in the margins of local news articles and hasn't hesitated to criticize Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government. His writings have prompted sharp responses from Hun Sen in public speeches.

"The reality is that internet access is limited," Sutton said last week. "But the value of blogs is not in who is doing it. It is the power of how much conversation it then generates face to face, or on radio or television. It's the buzz they create."

Blogs in Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, would create even more of a buzz. At least that's the thinking of the coordinator of a group planning to unveil Khmer-language blog software in the next month.

"Our purpose is to foster and facilitate communication for democracy. Blogging fits really well into that," said Javier Sola, coordinator of Open Forum of Cambodia's Khmer Software Initiative.

Cambodia has a free press law, implemented in the 1990s in the aftermath of its 1993 U.N.-sponsored election. But the government has authoritarian tendencies, and it's common for politicians to sue newspapers -- as well as other politicians -- for defamation.

But young people make up most of the country's population (the median age in Cambodia was under 20 in 2004), and one of the more inspiring sights in Phnom Penh is the rows of English-language schools behind the royal palace, where high-school and university students flock for private lessons in the afternoon and evening. Studying computers is also popular, and Cambodian youth enthusiastically take to new technologies, such as text messaging, as soon as they're introduced.

Harvard University's Global Voices Online, which recently predicted that the Cambodian blogosphere was "ready to take off," lists more than 20 blogs produced by Cambodians, not counting expatriates and Cambodians living abroad.

Bun Tharum, an Open Forum employee who has been blogging since June 2004, has ventured beyond his usual personal observations of life around Phnom Penh in recent weeks. He posted parts of a local news article on government corruption and about the problem of domestic violence.

Bun Tharum writes his twice-a-week postings at internet cafes on weekends, or at the office during the week. Whether he will start writing serious criticisms of the government is still in question.

"Oh, I'm afraid to. But maybe I'll start later," he said. "As more people learn to blog, then I think the government will try to shut them down."

Mean, who conducted the provincial trainings, recently started his own blog and has invited his friends to post as well.

Photos of his workshops make up most of the entries. In one post, he calls the Battambang training, in which several blogs were created, "a good start."

Microchip saves rare Cambodian turtle from landing in Chinese soup pot

Wildlife Conservation Society Field Veterinarian Martin Gilbert of Britain shows "the lucky royal turtle" a rare and endangered terrapin that likely was headed for a Chinese soup pot but saved by keen-eyed wildlife officers and a tiny microchip at his house in Phnom Penh. (AP/Andy Eames)

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) - They're calling him "the lucky royal turtle" - he's an endangered reptile that was saved from a Chinese soup pot by keen-eyed wildlife officers and a tiny microchip.

He was taken from a Cambodian river two months ago and toted across the Vietnamese border on a motorbike, along with a stash of other, more common, turtles. Conservationists say that at 15 kilograms, the animal was sure to have fetched a good price when it reached the smuggler's destination - food markets in China.

Turtle meat is a delicacy in China, and is often made into soup.

But a raid on the smuggler's house in southern Vietnam saved the turtle, and wildlife officers were surprised to see how big he was, and later, the microchip in his wrinkly skin.

The microchip pinpointed the turtle's exact home, where he is now being shipped back to.

He was shipped back to Cambodia last week and is undergoing health checks before being released back into the wild.

Experts say there are only about two to eight females remaining there, making this adult male turtle's return even more vital. It was tagged for research two years ago and had not been seen until its discovery in Vietnam.

Many Asian turtles are in danger because of the thriving trade in animals in the region, where a species' rarity can add to its value on a menu or as a traditional medicine.

The Batagur baska is found only in parts of India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia, and populations have been sharply declining in recent years.

After being rescued, the Vietnamese wildlife officials consulted an endangered species book, then called Doug Hendrie, an Asian turtle specialist in Hanoi for the New York-based World Conservation Society, and told him they thought they had a Batagur baska, or Asian river terrapin.

At first, Hendrie thought the wildlife officers must be joking.

"I was very surprised when I heard they had a Batagur baska down there," said Hendrie, who also works for the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. "Initially I said, 'What else do they have? A lion? A zebra?"'

But a photo soon confirmed it was indeed a Batagur baska, a species thought to have disappeared in Cambodia until it was rediscovered in 2001. Conservationists later began tagging the animals with tracking devices and monitoring their nests, and King Norodom Sihamoni personally ordered their protection.

On one river in western Malaysia, 690 Batagur baska turtles were found in 1999, compared to only 40 last year, Hendrie said.

"Every single turtle is important to the population," he said. "This was the first case where an animal had been transferred back to where it came from in Cambodia. It was a landmark event."

Analysis: Dragon breathes down the Tigers' neck in textiles

By Ng Boon Yian

SINGAPORE - With the high-profile textile trade row between China and the US hogging recent headlines, scant attention has been paid on how the less developed economies in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) have been coping with the lifting of textile quotas since the Multifiber Agreement expired at the start of this year.

Textiles and apparel are a principal export item for some countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia. The tectonic shift in the textile trade landscape since China jumped into the fray has certainly caused some impact on the textile and apparel industries in ASEAN. Contrary to popular fears, however, the regional industries did not immediately tank when vast Chinese exports flooded major markets in the West.

According to the US Department of Commerce, ASEAN's total exports of textile and apparel to the United States fell by just 1.62% in the first four months of 2005 compared to the same period last year. Meanwhile, China's cheap exports, not surprisingly, saw a big rise of 44.95%. While the overall impact on ASEAN does not seem so severe, the picture becomes more interesting when the figures for the textile and apparel industries are examined separately.

In this light, it is clear that ASEAN's textile industries, rather than garment production, are bearing the brunt of competitive forces from low-cost powerhouses like China. In fact, while ASEAN's textile exports to the US fell 19.3%, its apparel exports actually rose by 7.9%, as all ASEAN apparel exports - except from the Philippines and Singapore - reaped gains in the first four months of the year.

Even as China is now the biggest exporter of apparel to the US with an 18.2% market share, ASEAN is not far behind with 17.2%. This suggests that ASEAN countries' apparel industries may be more resilient than is generally believed. To be sure, these indicators should be taken tentatively as it is too early to posit a long-term trend from the early figures. This is especially so since apparel buyers are not likely to shift their buying patterns too quickly so as to avoid supply chain disruption. Meanwhile, China can still be restrained from fully flexing its textile muscles because of safeguard quotas, which WTO (World Trade Organization) member countries can, until 2013, impose to restrict Chinese imports - as the US recently did.

Despite these caveats, since the Chinese textile machine kicked into overdrive, media reports suggest that it has caused painful fallout for a number of small developing countries that are dependent on textiles for exports. The latest cry of pain came from South Africa, where textile workers are clamoring for protection against the surge of cheap Chinese imports; about 75,000 jobs in the industry have been lost since 2002.

The ASEAN region, too, is not free from such transition pains, particularly on the textile front. These have been manifested in terms of factory closings, job losses or even the lowering of labor standards. Take Indonesia, for instance. According to the latest labor survey, some 300,000 jobs were lost in the textile-weaving sector in 2004. The problem is likely to worsen, given that the country's textile exports to the US fell by 21.2% in the first four months of this year, compared to the same period last year. Malaysia and the Philippines were also badly hit, as their exports fell by 31.8% and 44.6% respectively.

Like South Africa, the flood of cheap imported textiles from China - legal as well as illegal - is displacing a lot of local jobs. But how cheap is cheap? In Indonesia, for example, a meter of locally made polyester reportedly costs Rp7,000 (71 US cents) compared to Rp2,300 for the Chinese version. The cost savings are therefore irresistible. Add economies of scale to low Chinese prices, and it is simply too difficult for local competitors to maintain reasonable margins and survive.

Amidst the gloom for small low-cost operators, a silver lining in Indonesia, however, is that the mid- to high-end textile manufacturers still remain competitive, as American and European buyers continue to source such supplies there for reasons of price, quality and labor standards compliance, based on a report by the US embassy in Jakarta. While Cambodia has also been suffering from some factory closings and job losses, another social fallout - the lowering of labor standards - has been observed.

As the deluge of made-in-China products push prices down, more employers in Cambodia have allegedly been trying to justify lower pay and longer working hours by waving the "compete with China or perish" card, according to a report by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. This is a step back for Cambodia, which has been carving out a niche for itself by producing clothes with "sweat-free" status for trendy names like Gap, H&M and Levis - an outcome of the 1999 US-Cambodia trade deal in which access to the US market was tied to labor standards.

Although the trade deal no longer holds in the post-quota world, the strategy of protecting labor standards in order to keep sewing up orders from socially conscious companies will be crucial, as Cambodia still cannot compete with China in productivity terms. In fact, according to a World Bank survey of international buyers in 2004, more than 60% of companies who bought apparel from Cambodia said compliance with labor standards was of equal or greater importance than price, quality, and speed of delivery. Companies like Gap and Marks & Spencer are still continuing to source supplies from Cambodia for the same reason.

Given that the Cambodian textile and clothing accounts for 87% of exports and employs about 200,000 workers, it is crucial that the industry holds on to this advantage and stays afloat before other sources of growth can be cultivated. Like Cambodia, Laos too is highly dependent on the textile and clothing industry. However, due to its continued trading privileges with the EU - its largest market - the poverty-stricken country is still relatively shielded from the pressures. This advantage, however, will not last and it is important that Laos find new sources of growth as well.

While Vietnam is watching China's burgeoning exports nervously, it has held its own quite well so far as its exports of textiles and garments to the US rose by 9.8% in January-April 2005, thanks to more productive labor and better infrastructure. The positive outlook has led to more investment into the country's textile industry from big names like Mast Industries, one of the world's largest contract manufacturers, importers and distributors of apparel, including brand names like Abercrombie and Fitch.

Hence, while the overall picture for the region is not one of a total disaster, the challenge from China, particularly as the lower prices cut into profits, is palpable. This, however, does not mean that it is impossible for the ASEAN to maintain its competitive edge. Even if China is the cheapest and the most efficient producer of textiles and garments, it is unlikely that savvy apparel buyers will want to put all their eggs in one basket and make China their sole supplier.

As global garment manufacturing consolidates into a few key nodes, ASEAN could aspire to be one of the key players, especially when it comes to garment production, which still accounts for a chunk of its earnings. To so do, however, ASEAN needs to fine-tune its competitive edge by, for instance, enhancing vertical integration. After all, one of the major advantages that China enjoys is a high level of vertical integration. Garment assembly time has been estimated to be as much as 30% less in many Chinese firms, according to an ASEAN study.

Meanwhile,an efficient infrastructure allows for a short lead time for apparel to be exported through the ports of China and Hong Kong, which is especially important for high-fashion items such as women's and designer clothing. Against this backdrop, it is important that ASEAN hastens its efforts to enhance the regional integration of the textiles and apparel industry - one of the 11 priority areas for such an objective - by, for instance, eliminating all tariffs on the products.

As it will be difficult for ASEAN garments to compete with the likes of China on price, it is crucial that countries in the region work to differentiate their products by design and quality, by investing in research and development in these areas. Given that Western consumers are increasingly sensitive to environmental and labor issues, it is important for countries like Cambodia and Laos to enhance such standards in order to increase the appeal of their products as well as justify the higher prices.

In addition, such product differentiation will help facilitate greater intra-industry trade between China and ASEAN, taking some sting out of the competition from China. Therefore, while the challenge from China appears to be serious at this point, it is not insurmountable if the right measures are taken, quickly.

Ng Boon Yian is a research associate at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

Changzhou and Cambodia Sharing a Promising Future

According to A 12-person Cambodian delegation led by the country's minister for public projects and transportation recently paid a field visit to the city of Changzhou to learn about its economic and trading potential. The visit was primarily for a study of Qishuyan Locomotives Plant, its equipment and production capacity as well as for cooperative possibilities between the two sides.

Last year, the plant exported 2 combustion locomotives to Cambodia. Zhang Lihang, Vice Mayor of the city briefed the guests on the economic and social aspects of its latest development. He hoped that more cooperation and exchanges could be forged in the future, especially bilateral cooperation in railway transportation. The Cambodian transport minister expressed his gratitude for the warm hospitality extended by his host. He said, after his visit, he would strive to further enhance the bilateral friendship and purchase more combustion locomotives from Changzhou.