Friday, February 08, 2008

Pure Bliss

Nice article, Erika! I don't even know what a "gingham blouse" is, but I will trust your fashion tastes always.

Bliss Spa gives the best massages in Phnom Penh. This article provides an excellent synopsis of the hardships of expat life in Phnom Penh (tongue firmly planted in cheek).

February 3, 2008

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Bliss

To thrive in the tropics you need cotton.

This is the delight of the Bliss boutique: fabric. Not only does Bliss have clothes you can actually wear in the middle of the day — cascading petal-weight skirts, slouchy linen trousers, cool pink gingham blouses — it is piled high with stunning cottons, silks and linens from across Asia. These are sewn into clothes, pillows, quilts and cute little bags you can bring home to your friends.

Cassandra McMillan, 37, opened Bliss in 1996. Today, the shop, which added a spa four years ago, is at the heart of Phnom Penh’s growing expatriate life on Street 240, where you can also find a new chocolate shop, a wine store and a bar run by two former New Yorkers.

Bliss is a fine, neo-colonial sort of place, housed in a century-old villa that used to belong to a Chinese-Khmer merchant. Today, it has an admirably worn wooden staircase, small tile elephants, rose petals strewn languidly about and a plunge pool surrounded by frangipani trees. The Bliss spa also gives what just could be the best bikini wax in town — an important consideration for those long afternoons by the pool, coconut in hand — thanks in large part to the quality of the wax, which, like Ms. McMillan herself, comes from Australia.

Ms. McMillan, whose mother is a professional quilter, likes to blend. There are chartreuse paisleys from Australia; ravishing Indian bridal quilts hand-stitched from antique saris; silvery silks from Cambodia, Korea and China; and bright geometric floral prints from Japan.

“A lot of these are one-offs,” she said. “Once it’s gone, that’s it.”

The prices, cited in dollars as is common in Cambodia, are fairly ridiculous by the country’s standards — some of those fat pillows cost $72, more than many garment factory workers make in a month — but this is all part of the grand, gin-fueled illusion of expatriate life.

One must also pay to escape the tyranny of Asian sizes. Go to a Cambodian dress shop and try to tug those Size 4 zippers over your ribs and you’ll be told: “But sorry, ma’am, it’s a big size already.” Go to Bliss and you’ll be right back home again, mercifully, in a size small. That’s worth at least one gin and tonic, isn’t it?

Bliss, 29 Street 240, Phnom Penh, Cambodia; (855-23) 215-754;

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Monday, January 28, 2008

An International "Rap Dialectic" Dialectic

The guys behind The Rap Dialectic, Ghostride My Volvo, and Huge In Asia have just released a new video, showing off their love for San Francisco. Nate and Kai are buddies of mine, and I wait with baited breath for all new videos they create.

To make things more interesting as I introduce their new video, I propose a "Rap Dialectic" Dialectic rumble, pitting one city against another in an international battle to end all international battles.

In one corner, the city of Hanoi, Vietnam, in "Hanoi Hustle":

And in the other corner, the city of San Francisco, California, USA, in the newly-released video, "Give Me Your Heart in San Francisco (I Want to Have Sex With You)". Below is Nate and Kai's introduction to the video for your reading pleasure:

"When we returned home from the Far East a few months ago, our family and friends were quick to remind us that we had failed to become, as they mockingly quoted, "Huge in Asia." In some ways, they were right: we never got on an underwear billboard ad, put out a pop single, or presided over a religious ceremony--opportunities we had thought to be well within our grasp when we began the trip.

"But what these cynics forget is that Huge in Asia is not some game to be won or lost; it's an entire philosophy, a marriage of raw creative energy and shameless self-promotion, that we intend to follow our entire lives if possible. And with that in mind, we'd like to unveil HIA's first post-Orient release."

Here's the new video:

Who wins this first--though hopefully not last--international YouTube music video battle of the cities? You be the judge...

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Catch Dengue Fever!

Dengue Fever. I caught it in Cambodia.

They are an amazing band, 'nuff said. I can't wait to see their documentary, "Sleepwalking Through the Mekong," which will be shown as part of the San Francisco Indie Film Fest. It will screen at the Victoria Theater in San Francisco on Feb 15 at 9:30 pm and on Feb 16 at 12:30 pm.

Check out the band's website:

A recent NY Times article about the band and their 60's-Khmer-rock-psychedelic-dance funk awesomeness:

January 20, 2008

They’ve Got Those Mekong Blues Again


DENGUE FEVER is a Los Angeles band featuring a Cambodian-born singer and five American alt-rockers who regularly embarrass her onstage. On the cover of its new album, “Venus on Earth” (M80), the guitarist Zac Holtzman, with a long beard and goggles, drives a scooter with the vocalist Chhom Nimol sitting demurely behind him sidesaddle, the way a good Cambodian girl would ride through the streets of Phnom Penh. Dengue Fever, which specializes in an unlikely mix of 1960s Cambodian pop, rock and other genres, is a lot like that image. Propriety and smart aleck indie rock race by, blurring together.

It is a band of rollicking lightness that keeps coming up deep. At a recent show in the Echo Park neighborhood here, the male members were downright goofy, but Ms. Chhom, singing mostly in Khmer and dressed in shimmering Cambodian silk garments she designs herself, looked like old-school royalty, a queen before the hipoisie. No wonder she seemed to roll her eyes from time to time onstage. But after the set, when she lighted a candle onstage to honor those killed by the Khmer Rouge, her voice broke and tears ran down her face.

“I think we balance each other out,” Mr. Holtzman said in a recent interview. “She’ll bring the whole place to a hush, and that would be a long night if it was just that. And then we smash the place up.”

Dengue Fever formed after the Farfisa organ player Ethan Holtzman, Zac’s brother, traveled to Cambodia in 1997, discovered ’60s Cambodian pop and returned with a stack of cassettes. This was not the sort of roots-driven folk sounds ethnomusicologists crave; this was locally produced, gleefully garish trash infused with the surf guitar and soul arrangements that Armed Forces Radio blasted across the region during the Vietnam War. It flourished until the Khmer Rouge came to power in the 1970s and functionally dismantled Cambodian culture.

Dengue Fever’s music is a tribute to that lost pop. But the six members of Dengue Fever form a quintessential Los Angeles crew, with a mix of backgrounds and interests that seems fitting in a region with the largest Cambodian population in the United States (in Long Beach, south of downtown Los Angeles) and a flourishing indie rock scene (in the hills east of Hollywood). The band is the musical equivalent of that ultimate modern Los Angeles marker, the polyglot strip-mall sign. It too offers a cultural mash-up; beyond the obscure Cambodian pop you can hear psychedelia, spaghetti western guitars, the lounge groove of Ethiopian soul and Bollywood soundtracks. “Seeing Hands,” on the new album, has an almost Funkadelic groove, while “Sober Driver” is an all but emo complaint about a guy who drives the cute girl everywhere and gets nowhere.

Now Dengue Fever is starting to make its mark far from its hometown. The band recently returned from the Womex world music festival in Seville, Spain, where it was one of a handful of acts to play showcase performances. British publications have included it in “next big thing” roundups, and Dengue Fever’s songs have been on television and film soundtracks, including Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers.” A new documentary, “Sleepwalking Through the Mekong,” that follows the group on its first trip as a band to Cambodia, seems likely to gain it further notice. (It plays the Mercury Lounge on the Lower East Side on March 4, and at Southpaw in Brooklyn on March 5.)

“The underground people are getting hip to world music, and the world music side is getting hip to how you don’t have to have a dreadlock wig and Guatemalan pants to be cool,” said the bassist Senon Williams, sitting in his backyard with Ms. Chhom and Zac Holtzman.

“Now that Nimol is going to start singing more in English,” he added, “it’s making new things possible for us. Nimol really wants to connect with the American audience more now.”

Dmitri Vietze, a publicist and marketer for many global music acts, sees the band as “part of a larger developmental pattern” in world music. “Can you stick them in the world-music bin at brick and mortar retail stores?” Mr. Vietze asked. “I don’t know. But as far as how they fit into world music in a larger philosophical context, they are a part of a huge and promising future.” He noted that the American market had been introduced to world sounds most often by American artists who love and emulate them, like Paul Simon. Now, he said, he sees a movement toward music made and influenced by émigrés: “We’re seeing more and more bands like Dengue Fever.”

Ms. Chhom speaks in broken English that her band mates struggle to first understand and then interpret for a reporter. Born in Battambang, Cambodia, Ms. Chhom moved to Long Beach in 2000, when she was 21. Both her parents were wedding singers, and she followed in the family business. An invitation to sing in Minneapolis brought her to America, and her sister, already living in Long Beach, introduced her to the local dinner-club scene.

Ms. Chhom stressed how important the music that inspired the Holtzman brothers was to her when she was growing up. One favorite is the great Khmer pop singer Sinn Sisamouth, who sang with Ms. Chhom’s father on a movie soundtrack. Sinn Sisamouth was a royal court singer of ballads in the 1950s who by the end of the ’60s was called “the king of Cambodian rock ’n’ roll,” with a queasy garage sound and a mellow nod to Nat King Cole, reinventing the rock wheel on a Pacific rim. Sinn Sisamouth disappeared after the Khmer Rouge took over. An artist close to the old government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, he is said to have died in a labor camp.

Bouncing Mr. Williams’s 1-year-old son on her knee, Ms. Chhom seemed a little bored with the interview process, her deftly drawn eyebrows often forming a skeptical V. She already had a reputation as a singer in Cambodia when she auditioned, along with several other Cambodian women, for Dengue Fever in 2001. When her competitors saw her, Zac Holtzman said, they politely excused themselves, assuming she would automatically get the gig. In 2002, while Dengue Fever was recording its debut album, Ms. Chhom was stopped in a routine check by immigration agents during an orange alert and was detained for having a lapsed green card. She spent 22 days in confinement, and upon her release sang endless nights in a Cambodian dance club in Long Beach called the Dragon House to pay off her legal fees. The band’s second album was titled “Escape From the Dragon House,” a reference to Ms. Chhom having paid off her legal fees and putting her immigration troubles behind her.

As far as connecting with her band mates, that’s still a work in progress. When they first started playing together they had to establish a sense of trust across language and cultural barriers. Now they hang out sometimes after a show, but even socializing can be complicated.

“Sometimes I go out ,and I like to dance because in Cambodia I could never go to clubs and dance like that,” Ms. Chhom said.

Zac Holtzman responded, “There’s always a few nights on tour when we go out and do a few clubs and some dancing ——”

Ms. Chhom interrupted emphatically : “I don’t want to talk, I want to dance. And these guys all like to talk. I know it’s the American style, they like to drink and talk and talk, but to those people I just say, ‘Hi, bye, let’s go dance.’ ”

Older generations of Cambodians in California are sometimes critical. “They don’t want me to show off too much of my dress,” she said. “They always tell me, ‘Don’t forget you’re a Cambodian girl.’ ” But the younger generation responds to Dengue Fever and even breakdances to its reinvention of a mongrel music that is itself a reinvention of a mongrel music from the West.

Folk music it’s not, but in one crucial way Dengue Fever has folk resonances. To Ms. Chhom and other young Cambodians in the States, pop singers like Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea, who died in a labor camp in Cambodia in the 1970s, hit a nerve that blues singers or hillbilly bands do for many Americans: the music takes listeners back home, to a home that doesn’t precisely exist anymore.

“Sleepwalking Through the Mekong,” directed by the Los Angeles filmmaker John Pirozzi, shows what happens when that 1960s pop makes its way back across the Pacific. It follows Dengue Fever on a 2005 trip to Cambodia, and in the penultimate scene the band sets up a stage in a slum full of corrugated shacks and plays a concert. The reaction is festive at times, but there are also some slack-jawed, unreadable expressions. Whether that’s the impact of lost pop music coming back to life or the surreality of American rockers dropping down from postmodern Los Angeles, is a question the band is smart enough to leave unanswered.

This article can be found at:

Here are a video interview of the band:

The band's music video for "Sni Bong" can be found here:


Skyscrapers in Phnom Penh

Cambodia to get first skyscraper
Cambodian officials have attended the official sales launch of the first-ever skyscraper in the capital, Phnom Penh.

The twin towers are to be 42 storeys high - almost three times higher than the current tallest building.

It is the first of three skyscrapers planned in the capital, where the skyline has been kept low - in part to avoid overshadowing royal palaces.

But the government has encouraged the new buildings as symbols of Cambodia's development after decades of conflict.

Although Gold Tower 42 is some way from completion, the launch of its show apartment and sales office attracted government ministers and overseas ambassadors.

The BBC's Guy De Launey, in Phnom Penh, said the launch gave a taste of the shape of things to come.

He said the solid, imposing, gold-faced structure would stand out from its neighbours on Norodom Boulevard - an area of yellow-washed, wooden-shuttered French colonial-era buildings.

But Phnom Penh is in the middle of a real-estate boom - and some residents hope that building up will bring the price of homes down.

"It's more affordable for people wanting to stay in town, and I think it's good. It's secure and they have all the facilities," one resident said.

But other locals worry about the effect tall buildings will have on the city's character

"The original Phnom Penh city [was developed to] be horizontal, not vertical," one resident said.

South Korean companies are building Gold Tower 42 and another even taller skyscraper near the Mekong River.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Here are two commercial segments for the Gold Tower 42:

Saturday, September 22, 2007

So Meta Right Now...

Blogs open communication in Cambodia

Fri Sep 21, 3:00 PM

By Ker Munthit, The Associated Press

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - A Cambodian blogger asked recently whether former King Norodom Sihanouk should be considered the country's founding father of blogging.

He got no definitive answer. Cambodian blog watchers say the 84-year-old monarch may not have known he was blogging when he unveiled his website, updated daily by his staff since 2002 with his views on national affairs, correspondence with his admirers and news about his film-making hobby.

But it is clear that young, tech-savvy Cambodians are joining Sihanouk in embracing blogs. The trend is changing their lives and their communication with people abroad - even as electricity remains an unreachable dream for most households in this poverty-ridden nation of 14 million.

"This is a kind of cultural revolution now happening here in terms of self-expression," said Norbert Klein, a longtime resident from Germany who is considered the person who introduced e-mail to Cambodia, through a dial-up connection in 1994. "It is completely a new era in Cambodian life."

Cambodians with the skills and the means to blog are discovering a wider world and using the personal online journals to show off their personalities and views about the issues facing their country, from corruption to food safety.

"Blogging transforms the way we communicate and share information," said 25-year-old student blogger Ly Borin.

To his surprise, a recent blog post of his on poor food safety in Cambodia drew a comment from an international traveler. He said interaction with a stranger living perhaps half a world away was unimaginable in Cambodia just a few years ago.

Cambodia became one of the most isolated countries in the world during the late 1970s, when the communist Khmer Rouge were in power and cut off virtually all links with the outside world as they applied radical policies that led to the death of 1.7 million people. The Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979, but the country is still struggling to rebuild. Fewer than one-third of 1 per cent of Cambodians have regular web access.

If the Internet opened a path for news from outside Cambodia, blogging is turning the path into a two-way street.

"Having a blog brings me up to date with technology," said Keo Kalyan, a 17-year-old student whose nom-de-blog is "DeeDee, School Girl Genius! Khmer-Cyberkid." "I can do social networking and contact other bloggers" around the world.

She and three peers organized the first-ever Cambodian Bloggers Summit - the "Cloggers Summit" to the cognoscenti. Foreign professional bloggers and 200 university students took part in the two-day meeting in Cambodia last month to trade ideas.

Her team also has conducted 14 workshops for 1,700 students to share their knowledge about digital technology.

Raymond Leos, an American professor of communications and media arts at a Phnom Penh university, said Sihanouk showed his countrymen blogging's broad potential.

After seeing TV images of same-sex weddings in San Francisco in 2004, Sihanouk posted a statement expressing his support for gay marriage. When a foreigner allegedly wrote him an e-mail criticizing his stance on the subject, Sihanouk shot back on his website, saying "I thank you for insulting me" but "I am not gay."

"We can learn from him that blogging can be fun, interesting and provocative," Leos said.

One politically conscious blogger rapped Prime Minister Hun Sen's government over its failure to curb chronic corruption.

"I feel so shameful of our Prime Minister Hun Sen. We are begging the world for money," Vanak Thom wrote on his "Blog By Khmer." "(His) government is too corrupt. Without corruption, I know our Cambodia can be free from the abyss of this poverty."

Human Rights Watch continues to criticize the Cambodian government's treatment of dissent, but bloggers are able to express at least some overt criticism. And there is no official censorship.

More to the point, said John Weeks, an American who runs the web design firm in Phnom Penh, blogs are not yet relevant to most Cambodians.

"I don't see blogs where farmers talk about rainfall, or where (motorbike-taxi drivers) complain about gas prices," he said.

For starters, the blogs are generally in English, a language that's becoming more popular among the new generation than French, which is the legacy of colonial times. Yet, English is spoken and read by only a tiny fraction of the country's population, limiting usefulness of the blogs to the elite.

Although there are blogs in Khmer, the Cambodian language, their growth is also hampered by the lack of standardized native fonts, said Klein, the early Internet user.

Cambodia's Internet penetration also is among the lowest in the world, in part due to high electricity and network connection costs. An hour of access at an Internet cafe here costs about 2,000 riel, or 50 cents, while 35 per cent of Cambodians make less than the poverty-level income of 45 cents a day.

While only a tiny proportion of Cambodians go online, the Pew Internet and American Life Project says more than 71 per cent of American adults use the Internet. About 13 per cent of residents of neighboring Thailand and 19 per cent of people in Vietnam have regular access, said Preetam Rai, Southeast Asian editor of Global Voices.

Seeking to reduce poverty and encourage economic growth by narrowing the digital divide, Cambodia's government has made national computer literacy a priority. It is linking local governments and national agencies to a main government data center, using a $50 million loan from South Korea, said Soung Noy, deputy secretary-general of the official National Information Communications Technology Development Authority.

Blogger Ly Borin said modern technology such as computers are simply too advanced for many older Cambodians, who have mostly just been struggling to survive for the past 30 years. The new technology, he said, "is hard for them to follow."

Cambodia's violent past also has made many older people - though not Sihanouk - fearful of speaking their minds, Klein said.

Less elevated Cambodians than Sihanouk meanwhile said they hoped to use their blogs to show how far their country has come from its troubled past. "Cambodia is not just about Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot," said Bun Tharum, 25, referring to the now-defunct radical communist group and its late leader. "Now we have a tool to inform the outside world about how we are thinking and progressing." - On the Net:

Keo Kalyan:

Vanak Thom:

Bun Tharum:

Norodom Sihanouk:

Government's ICT development agency:

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Provision of Psychiatric Care in a Post-Conflict Setting

The multitude of mental health problems caused by living on the verge of death and starvation--both during the khmer rouge and afterwards during the vietnamese occupation--are tremendous and overwhelming. So many khmer still react to things with base emotions, and this is a central reason for sudden fits of violent rage, acid attacks, alcoholism, etc.

I've met and worked with both Dr Chak Thida and Prof. Ka Sunbonat. Both are quite dedicated doctors who have taken the enormous responsibility of organizing the National Mental Health Programme and providing therapy to even just a few of the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) who could greatly benefit from such therapy.

Cambodia's long look backwards; doctors struggle to heal a troubled country

by Seth MeixnerTue Sep 4, 9:30 AM ET

"I always have nightmares about being chased by something black, a shadow," says doctor Sotheara Chhim, describing the aftermath of peering into the dark places most Cambodians are trying to forget.

"It is not something clear, but it is probably relevant to the Khmer Rouge," says Chhim, one of only 26 psychiatrists providing care for a rising tide of Cambodians who are no longer able to cope with the damage caused by the brutalities of the past.

"I listen to so many stories. I dream about being in a kind of trap, a cage," says Chhim, himself a survivor of the apocalypse that engulfed Cambodia in the late 1970s, explaining the personal toll exacted by confronting, again and again, other people's demons.

Chhim, who directs the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO), one of the country's few mental health facilities, warns that worse could be yet to come as a genocide tribunal forces Khmer Rouge victims to re-live atrocities inflicted by the regime.

But the psychological fallout of the trials only highlights a much broader need for mental health services in one of the region's most traumatised countries.

"The incidents of mental illness are getting higher from year to year, but still a lot of psychological problems are not being cared for," says Dr Ka Sunbaunat, dean at the University of Health Sciences and director of the National Programme for Mental Health.

Some 30 percent of Cambodia's nearly 14 million people reportedly suffer from a debilitating mental condition -- from anxiety and chronic unexplained physical pain to unpredictable mood swings or sudden eruptions of rage.

Millions more are thought to be plagued by less profound problems, but the true extent of mental illness in Cambodia -- caused as much by today's crushing poverty, neglect and abuse as by past upheavals -- is unknown.

What is clear to Chhim and other healthcare providers is that Cambodia is woefully unprepared to address this issue, with one psychiatrist for every half a million people.

"At the government mental health clinics, one psychiatrists sees over 30 patients a day -- you would be exhausted. I can see only three or four a day in order to provide good care," he says.

As many as 100 people line up each day outside Phnom Penh's municipal referral clinic, where the government established a psychiatric ward two years ago, one of 61 now open throughout the country.

They wait for a chance to speak with the psychiatrist on duty, or perhaps to see one of a handful of medical residents drafted from the nearby university.

"Sometimes we have problems. With mental patients you have to spend time and when we're overcrowded like this there is not enough time," says Dr Chak Thida, walking briskly amidst the dozens of mostly middle-aged men and women arriving one recent morning at the clean and, for Cambodia, well-equipped clinic.

But even with facilities such as this, Chak Thida says, "we need more resources ... we need more psychological education for the public. People don't know that they are ill".

-- Cambodia's unwanted peace dividend --

A decade of peace following the country's long civil conflict has ironically led to an eruption of mental health problems, as Cambodians, freed from the daily traumas of war, have time for perhaps unwanted reflection, stirring sometimes devastating memories, doctors say.

"After the Khmer Rouge the trauma was still going on -- people were struggling to survive. Somehow even if they felt pain, they put it aside," Chhim says.

"For Cambodia the fighting stopped less than 10 years ago, so the people have just started getting on with their lives and that pain is starting to come back."

But many do not understand the cause of that pain, and a majority of mental health cases are often un-diagnosed or mis-treated.

As many as 80 percent of Cambodians going to see general practitioners are actually suffering from psychological trauma, Ka Sunbaunat explains.

"They don't believe they have psychiatric health problems -- they believe this is normal for everybody after the war," he says.

Doctors say they are battling ignorance or heavy social stigmas that often associate mental problems with witchcraft or sorcery.

"There is no recognition of mental health, most of the people we meet never come to us straight away -- they go to traditional healers, they think that their problems are caused by black magic," Chhim says.

Chhim's TPO is engaged in an ambitious public education campaign that he says reaches as many as 10,000 people a year.

The group trains traditional village authority figures such as monks to recognise the symptoms of mental trauma, and organises counselling sessions for alcoholics or victims of domestic violence. Substance abuse and physical attacks are the most common causes and affects of mental trauma today, Chhim says.

"To help people deal with trauma, a lot of things have to be involved, we need a holistic approach bringing in things like religion and social justice," he says.

"We are purely community-oriented. We train the stakeholders, especially the traditional healers, the monks, the nuns, those who help the people in the communities with their problems so that they are able to recognise these problems and provide support."

Ahead of the Khmer Rouge trials, TPO is preparing a campaign to deal specifically with mental issues that are expected to arise as a result of dredging up the blackest chapter in Cambodia's modern history.

Chhim says the group plans to distribute leaflets detailing the symptoms of post traumatic stress syndrome and other related illnesses, a well as provide counselling for those directly involved in the trials as witnesses.

"The tribunal can trigger memories," Chhim says. "The people who experienced these terrible events will (re-live) the experience when they hear about investigations or crimes. It will reactivate the traumatic memories."

Up to two million people died of starvation and overwork, or were executed by the communist Khmer Rouge which took over the country in 1975 and set about erasing modern Cambodia and trying to create an agrarian utopia in its place.

Millions were exiled to vast collective farms, while money, schools and religion were outlawed. The educated, including doctors, were systematically hunted down and killed.

Khmer Rouge leaders called the first year of their rule "Year Zero".

For most Cambodians it was simply the end of the world -- the fall of the regime in 1979 was followed almost 20 years of famine and conflict, the effects of which still echo today.

"Some people say the Khmer Rouge (regime) was so long ago that maybe the Cambodian people forgot," Chhim says. "But actually we don't forget. People have not had the chance to deal with this."

While some healthcare experts hope the trial will bring into sharp relief the failings of the current system, others are less optimistic.

"From the beginning people believed the tribunal had some miraculous healing power, when in fact it does not," says Ka Sunbaunat.

"My parents died. After a year of trial my parents remain dead -- how can I feel better? We should think about what Cambodian people are really suffering from.

"People who are victims (of the Khmer Rouge) suffer more from the poverty and hardship in their daily lives."

Cambodia's garment mills face impasse

Cambodia's garment mills face impasse

By Erika Kinetz, The Christian Science Monitor

Not much gets made in Cambodia except clothes.

Garments account for an astonishing 80 percent of this impoverished Southeast Asian nation's exports, and the World Bank estimates that the industry, which was worth $2.5 billion last year, helps support – directly or indirectly – about 1 in 5 Cambodians, according to government estimates.

US trade policy essentially created Cambodia's garment industry, thanks to a 1999 bilateral deal that granted Cambodia preferential access to US markets in exchange for guarantees on labor standards. Now some argue that US trade policy – in the form of high tariffs – is helping to undo it.

The irony is especially acute because many observers now look to Cambodia as a model of labor-friendly manufacturing, and they say that if Cambodia fails, it will mean the death not just of one industry in one nation, but of the dream of ethical manufacturing itself.

"There was a door for small countries like Cambodia," says Cambodia's minister of commerce, Cham Prasidh. "Now there is no more door. Those who can produce cheaper and faster will sell more."

And that means China.

Shifts in the global garment industry are favoring more developed nations, like China, over the world's poorest. US quotas that benefited Cambodia have expired – or will soon – and the question Cambodia now faces is how to compete with nations that have better infrastructure, more qualified labor forces, deeper supply chains, faster productivity growth, and cheaper electricity.

One easy answer for Cambodia would be to have its major trading partner – the United States, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of Cambodia's garment exports – eliminate its tariffs. Cambodian officials have been lobbying Congress since 2004 to cut those tariffs, which last year averaged nearly 16 percent. China paid, on average, just over 3 percent on its top US exports.

Mr. Cham led a delegation to Washington in July to drum up support in Congress for the TRADE Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate in February that would slash tariffs on goods from 14 poor Asian nations, including Cambodia.

The US already provides generous trade benefits to many of the world's poorest countries through regional agreements in Africa and the Caribbean, and the EU and Canada already grant Cambodia access to their markets nearly duty- and quota-free.

Cambodian officials are hoping that later this month, House Democrats will introduce legislation that would exempt all of the world's poorest nations, including Cambodia, from tariffs.

Roland Eng, Cambodia's former ambassador to the US, maintains that legislation favoring poor countries won't affect the level of US imports, merely the pattern. "Instead of importing from China, you will import more from least-developed countries," says Mr. Eng. "We're not preventing jobs from going to the US; we're preventing jobs from going to China," he adds.

For an underdeveloped nation, Cambodia already pays relatively more in duties than some developed economies. Edward Gresser, the director of the trade and global markets project at the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute, said in an e-mail that as of mid-2006, the US had collected $196 million in tariffs on $1.1 billion worth of Cambodian goods, but only $199 million on $27 billion in imports from Britain.

For its part, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh says that the United States is considering trade benefits for Cambodia, but within the stalled Doha round of negotiations at the World Trade Organization. Government and garment-industry officials in Cambodia are hoping for a faster, more localized solution. They say they can't afford to wait.

Next year, US safeguards on Chinese garment imports are set to expire and international monitoring of Cambodia's factories, a cornerstone of Cambodia's 1999 trade deal with the US, may also cease. That could spell the end of Cambodia's labor-friendly garment sector, which has been held up as a model by the industrialized world.

But despite the good intentions, Cambodia's good labor practices cost money in the long term, and Van Sou Ieng, the chairman of the Garment Manufacturer's Association of Cambodia, says it will be hard to live up to those standards if Cambodia can't compete on price, which he says is impossible without tariff relief.

Eng says the social and economic costs of a garment sector slowdown would be enormous. Most garment workers are women, who have left the traditionally protective structures of family and village that govern rural life. Unemployed, Eng says they will be particularly vulnerable to HIV infection and human trafficking. "All the social efforts of the past ten years will be in vain," he says.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. Rachel Louise Snyder, author of the forthcoming book "Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade," says that if Cambodia's garment industry fails, the ramifications will extend far beyond the borders of this tiny nation.

"The industrialized world has set them up as an example of great positive social change that can be achieved with political and economic will," says Ms. Synder, who lives in Phnom Penh. "What does it say to the rest of the world if we allow them to fail?"

A Brief Foray into the Economics of Present-Day Cambodia

Great article, Erica! Especially the lead sentence.

Cambodia, long an Asian mouse, may be ready to roar

By Erika Kinetz, International Herald Tribune

Friday, July 27, 2007

Most Cambodians live with two realities: rain and rice. The country that three decades ago abolished money has today embarked on the very long process of adding two new words to the national vocabulary: stocks and bonds.

The Cambodian government recently got its first sovereign debt ratings from the global ratings agencies Standard & Poor's and Moody's, and plans are afoot to open domestic stock and bond exchanges in 2009.

Take a ride into the countryside, where the vast majority of Cambodians live and work in conditions more than one observer has described as more African than Asian, and the very notion of an incipient derivatives market seems absurd.

But in the past few years, investors - not just donors, who still prop up the economy of this tiny, impoverished nation - have started to give Cambodia a good, hard second look. That is no small accomplishment for a nation still recovering from the murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge, a radical communist group that not only abolished money during its 1975 to 1979 rule, but also oversaw the deaths of about two million people - roughly one-quarter of the population at the time. After the Khmer Rouge was ousted by the Vietnamese, Cambodia sank into two more decades of civil war.

These days, the notoriously weak judiciary, lack of openness, deep and pervasive corruption, rampant smuggling, mediocre infrastructure (the postal service is barely functional and electricity costs are exorbitant), and the lack of a well-trained work force make Cambodia what has been politely called a challenging business environment.

But not, apparently, too challenging. Foreign direct investment, led by South Korea and China, rose from $121 million in 2004 to $475 million in 2006, according to data from the National Bank of Cambodia and the International Monetary Fund. Historically high levels of liquidity in global markets, as well as a regional boom and a growing perception that, after 30 years of domestic strife, stability has finally taken root, have all helped draw investment.

In January, the country got its first investment bank, Tong Yang Investment, part of the Tong Yang Group of companies in South Korea. Tong Yang plans to start a real estate investment fund of about $100 million focused on Cambodia and Vietnam and marketed to South Korean investors by the end of this year. Other private equity funds are apparently in the works.

Although Cambodia's meager population of 14 million people means that the country is a hard sell for big consumer companies, others have been drawn by the nation's soaring gross domestic product. In the past decade, GDP growth has ranged from a low of 5 percent in 1998, following the bloody factional fighting of 1997, to a high of 13.5 percent in 2005, according to the Finance Ministry.

Over the past three years, Cambodia has sustained average GDP growth of 11.4 percent a year, and the IMF predicts GDP growth will level off to around 9 percent for 2007. Inflation was at 4.7 percent in 2006, according to the ministry. The government has also been deepening its commercial law framework.

"You've got a story of macroeconomic stability," said John Nelmes, the IMF representative for Cambodia. "That's proving comfortable for businesses to invest."

The Australian mining giant BHP Billiton, and its partner, Mitsubishi, have begun a large bauxite exploration project in Cambodia, and Oxiana, the Australian company that runs the huge Sepon copper and gold mine in Laos, is digging for gold in the jungles of northeastern Cambodia.

The promise of oil off the coast of Cambodia has attracted a host of adventurous companies, including the U.S. oil giant Chevron and China's CNOOC and China Petrotech.

At the end of June, a delegation of French business leaders, including representatives of Total Exploration & Production, Société Générale, France Télécom, Lafarge Cement, and the hotel group Accor, came to Cambodia for a fact-finding tour. Japan sent a similar delegation this month, and Biwako Bio-Laboratory has said that it plans to invest up to $800 million in Cambodia for biodiesel production. On Monday, General Electric opened a branch office in Phnom Penh.

Bretton Sciaroni, a lawyer who has practiced in Cambodia since 1993, cited another factor in the country's appeal: the pro-business stance of the government.

Sciaroni, who also serves as a legal adviser to the government, said that when a client, the U.S. packaging company Crown Holdings, wanted to open a factory in Phnom Penh, getting the government to lower its 7 percent tariff on raw aluminum imports was as simple as asking. "The minister of economy and finance, Keat Chhon, asked my client what they wanted it to be," Sciaroni recalled. "My client said zero percent. He said, fine, and zero percent it is."

"People at the highest levels of government understand the necessity of getting stuff done," he added.

Officials describe the turn to capital markets as part of the nation's natural economic evolution. Last month, donors, including China, pledged to deliver $689 million in aid to Cambodia.

"We still need donor assistance," said Hang Chuon Naron, the secretary general of the Ministry of Economy and Finance. But he added that Cambodia would need more - and more kinds of - financing as its economy expands.

The nation's economic base is still quite narrow, dominated by tourism and the garment industry, which could suffer from Vietnam's recent accession to the World Trade Organization and the expiration of U.S. and European quotas on Chinese textiles, scheduled for the end of next year.

Cambodia also has a high level of public debt - most of it on favorable, concessional terms - and it does a poor job of collecting taxes.

On the upside, Cambodia's manufacturing base has been slowly broadening. Oil, natural gas and the mineral sector are promising, and real estate has been booming, some say too much.

Sciaroni said a number of his clients had been buying up property along Cambodia's southern beaches, hoping that the new airport in Sihanoukville would eventually draw tourists who intended to visit only the Angkor Wat temple, in the north, and then leave. "You don't see it yet, but in three to five years, you're going to see major development on the south coast of Cambodia," he said.

Look around Phnom Penh and the opportunities for growth are evident: no tall office buildings, no real golf course, few malls. But the question Han Kyung Tae, Tong Yang Investment's chief representative in Cambodia, has been asking himself lately is whether all the heady talk about surging investment and the rise of capital markets is premature.

"One day, I see the big potential," he said. "The next I'm skeptical."

Right now, Sciaroni said, few domestic companies outside the financial sector, where annual audits are required, would meet even minimal listing criteria. "Transparency doesn't exist for the majority of companies here today," he said.

That has not stopped the Korea Exchange, which operates the Korean Stock Exchange, from jumping in to help develop Cambodian securities markets.

Talk with Koreans of a certain age in Phnom Penh and they will tell you that Cambodia reminds them of their childhood home. The financial sector is no different: Fifty years ago, South Korea, like Cambodia today, depended heavily on foreign aid and was struggling to develop domestic sources of financing. Korea is now trying to share the miracle of its own growth, said Hong-Sik Choi, the executive director of Global Business Development at the Korea Exchange.

"Korea has experienced a miracle to transform itself from the poorest country to the 11th largest economy in the world during the last half century," he explained. "The securities market was at the center of Korea's economic growth."

Hang, the Finance Ministry official, knows that his country is not for the fainthearted. "Cambodia is high risk, but it's also high return," he said.

And while he concedes that Cambodia's road to economic maturity will be long, he maintains that the advent of publicly traded securities will demand new systems of accounting, openness and accountability, which could improve the quality of the business environment as a whole.

Jie Sun, the deputy director of the Research Center for International Finance at Beijing's Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that the major lesson - and perhaps the most instructive for Cambodia - that China learned in the 15 years since Deng Xiaoping opened the gates to Chinese-style capitalism, was that capital markets could help a country with the slow and challenging work of improving its business environment.

"The Chinese have realized that the main function of the stock market is to improve corporate governance," he said at a recent conference sponsored by the Economic Institute of Cambodia, an independent research institute and consultancy in Phnom Penh. "After 15 years, we have now come to the point."

Cambodian Opera Singer

Cambodia's Tenor a Symbol of Its Re-Emergence


PS: I had a drink with this guy on my friend Theary's balcony during Water Festival last November. A really nice guy with an amazing voice, and a very cool story!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Lee's Skype-In

I know I haven't written in quite some time, but I just acquired a new tool that will hopefully facilitate greater contact between me and the world outside Cambodia.

The tool is called called SkypeIn. SkypeIn gives me a local U.S. phone number for other people to call, and I can access that number on my computer anywhere in the world. If I am on Skype at the time, the Skype program will ring and I can answer and talk to you! If I'm not on Skype, you will be forwarded to my voicemail so you can leave a message, and I promise to call back as soon as I possibly can! Basically, you can call from your home or your mobile, and it costs the same as a local call in the US.

My Skype In number is (925) 265-8250.

I hope to hear all of your lovely voices soon!