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Stories

Cambodia pardons exiled dissidents (6 February 2006)

Man-made miracle: Honest rural health care (8 January 2006)

You can't say that here (3 November 2005)

Cambodia 'suffering land crisis' (2 September 2005)

Military court jails Cambodian MP (9 August 2005)


Cambodia pardons exiled dissidents (6 February 2006)

Sam Rainsy, the Cambodian opposition leader, said Monday that he would return from exile this week after winning a royal pardon that appeared to be aimed at ending his political battle with the government.

The opposition leader and one of his top party officials, a lawmaker named Cheam Channy, were pardoned by King Norodom Sihamoni on Sunday after a surprise request from Prime Minister Hun Sen.

"I am grateful to the king for granting me this pardon. I am happy that my talk with the government, especially Prime Minister Hun Sen, has given this outcome," Sam Rainsy said by telephone from France, where has lived for the past year.
 
He was sentenced to 18 months in prison in December for defaming the prime minister with accusations that he had orchestrated a grenade attack and other violence against the opposition party.
 
Known for his verbal assaults on the prime minister, Sam Rainsy took an uncharacteristically conciliatory stance Monday, saying he sought dialogue with Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party.
 
"We want to be an effective and vibrant opposition and the first thing to do" is to establish "a dialogue with the ruling party," Sam Rainsy said. "The opposition cannot function and there can be no democracy in Cambodia without a dialogue between all political parties."
 
Last week Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy exchanged letters, with the opposition leader saying he "regretted having acted improperly against the prime minister" and vowing to build a better relationship with the ruling party.
 
In reply, Hun Sen thanked Sam Rainsy for recognizing his mistakes and said he hoped he could soon return to Cambodia.
 
Sam Rainsy fled to France after being stripped of his parliamentary immunity, along with the lawmakers Chea Poch and Cheam Channy.
 
Cheam Channy was released from prison Monday after serving just over a year of a seven-year sentence for fraud and trying to topple the government. His sentence had been handed down in proceedings the international community dismissed as a show trial.
 
"I would like to thank the king and thank Hun Sen for asking the king to pardon me," he said.
 
Hun Sen said Sam Rainsy and Cheam Channy would have their parliamentary immunity reinstated.
 
The pardons capped a dramatic week in which government lawyers said they would drop defamation complaints against seven high-profile activists who had criticized Hun Sen over a controversial border pact with Vietnam.
 
Five of the critics were arrested in a crackdown on dissent that sparked condemnation from rights groups and diplomats who accused Hun Sen of using the courts to crush his opponents.
 
The opposition party has welcomed the prime minister's peace overtures as a way of avoiding a standoff.
 
"This is a very important step, that Cambodian leaders work hand-in-hand to serve the nation and the people," said Kong Korm, acting director for the Sam Rainsy Party. International Herald Tribune

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Man-made miracle: Honest rural health care (8 January 2006)

Sovan Sna had been in labor all night long. By the 16th hour of contractions, she was in trouble. The baby, her first, was not coming out. And she was so exhausted and in such pain she could barely speak.

Her mind churned with fear. In the Khmer language, this most treacherous passage in a woman's life - childbirth - is called crossing the river. Her aunt had died giving birth to a first child, who perished in the womb. Sna wondered if she and her baby, too, would drown before reaching the other shore.
 
Not long ago, Sna would have had little choice but to give birth at home, like her aunt, and risk both her life and her baby's. But on this morning, Sna's terrified husband hired a pony cart and was able to take his wife over a deeply rutted dirt road to a small, no-frills public hospital.
 
If childbirth is a miracle of nature, then the thriving, honestly run network of clinics and hospitals here is a human marvel, managed not by the government but by one of the nonprofit groups it has hired to run entire public health districts.
 
The approach is catching on in a growing number of poor countries around the world, in Bangladesh and Afghanistan, in Congo and Rwanda, in Bolivia and Guatemala, reaching tens of millions of people.
 
These contracted services have allowed international donors and concerned governments to cut through dysfunctional bureaucracies, or work around them, and to improve health care and efficiency at modest cost.
 
Here in Cambodia, the nonprofit groups, all of them international, are instilling discipline and clarity of purpose in a health care system enfeebled by corruption, absenteeism and decades of war and upheaval. They have introduced incentives to draw Cambodia's own doctors and nurses back into the system. Patients, especially the poorest ones, have followed in droves.
 
"All the evidence is that this worked very well in a situation where nothing much else worked very well," said Shyam Bajpai, the representative here for the Asian Development Bank, which financed the original contracts.
 
Cambodia's health care system is still recovering from the traumas of the murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge, which in the 1970s singled out the educated for slaughter, decimating the ranks of medical professionals. Decades of war that drew to a close only in 1998 destroyed hospitals and deepened poverty.
 
Today international donors provide about two-thirds of the public spending on health and over the years have financed the construction of hundreds of hospitals and clinics. But money and buildings alone were not enough to overcome a bureaucratic culture afflicted by favoritism and lackadaisical accountability.
 
The Health Ministry began testing the use of contractors in 1999. Then, the main hospital in the Pearaing district was a crumbling shell. It had fallen so far into disuse that termite mounds rose on the broken tile floors and farm animals rooted in the yard, chewing on mangy bits of grass.
 
"We saw more cows than patients," said Sopha Sum, a nurse then assigned to the hospital.
 
Six years after turning it over to Health Net International, based in the Netherlands, Pearaing's hospitals and clinics now see thousands of patients a week. In just the first nine months of 2005, more than half the district's 200,000 people sought care.
 
And the government and donors are spending only $4 a year per person on health care in the district.
 
The five nongovernmental organizations running parts of the health system - Health Net and Save the Children Australia, among them - are paid based on their performance in improving services, like childhood immunizations and the proportion of women getting prenatal care and delivering babies in a health center. With additional support from Britain and the World Bank, the government recently expanded the approach to cover 1 in 10 Cambodians.
 
Districts managed by the nongovernmental organizations have been much more successful in improving health services than districts run by the government, a World Bank study found, though both have made progress. The study randomly assigned districts to be managed by nonprofits, or by the government, then measured results through household surveys conducted in 1997 and 2003.
 
"There were fantastic improvements," said Michael Kremer, a Harvard economist.
 
Those changes did not happen overnight. For years, Dr. Fred Griffiths, the 54-year old Pakistani who runs the Pearaing district for Health Net, said most of his operating budget from the Cambodian government was siphoned away as it made its way through layers of bureaucracy.
 
Sao Chhorn, who then monitored the contracted districts for the Health Ministry, said officials simply took the money through various corrupt practices.
 
"At least 40 percent of the budget just disappears," said Chhorn, who now works for a management consulting firm. "And this is the best situation. In the worst situation, almost all of it disappears."
 
Griffiths said he found himself in the worst of situations. "We screamed at workshops and conferences, wherever there was a forum," he said.
 
Last year, to his relief, the government began transferring the funds directly from the national treasury to the contractors, bypassing potential layers of graft.
 
But he said his toughest job was motivating the staff. Griffiths realized he would never get the system functioning unless he could improve the health workers' earnings.
 
The government paid poverty wages: $20 a month to a doctor, $15 for a nurse. The staff pocketed the paltry government salaries and spent almost all their time operating private practices.
 
A hospital in Snay Pol, a three-hour ride from the capital, Phnom Penh, was like a stolen car stripped of its parts. Griffiths said the equipment had simply disappeared, probably into the staff members' private practices.
 
Thermometers, stethoscopes, speculums, obstetrical instruments - all were missing.
 
Griffiths decided to use part of his contracting budget to supplement his staff's pay. Pearaing also introduced small fees, charging 25 cents to see a doctor and 75 cents for a day's stay at the hospital.
 
Health Net used the revenue to bolster the staff's incomes, paying incentives for punctuality and reaching targets to immunize children, and generally instilling a culture of accountability. Despite grumbling, most of the staff gave up their side jobs to work full-time and provide 24-hour coverage. Nurses now earn $60 to $200 a month depending on their qualifications and performance, while doctors make $200 to $250.
 
Because the district's fees are much lower than those charged by the drug sellers, quacks and government doctors who used to operate private practices, peasants have flocked to the public clinics and hospitals. Health Net covers the hospital costs of the poor, about 40 percent of the patients, out of its contracting budget.
 
The hospital under Health Net's management has gradually won people's trust. Not least, the district's newfound credibility, as well as the 24-hour availability of qualified midwives and doctors, has transformed childbirth habits across this rural landscape.
 
As far back as anyone can remember, the women here in the village of Reap have depended only on traditional birth attendants - village women with no formal medical training - to bring babies into the world. But now more than half the women in the district give birth in a health center, compared with less than 10 percent in Cambodia.
 
"All our parents delivered at home," said Sna's husband, Veasna Van. "Now, nobody does. We believe the health care center can save lives if there is a problem."
 
Sna's birth attendant, Min Heng, 50, agreed. "I have only my empty hands," she explained.
 
With Heng assisting at the clinic, the midwife began to worry that Sna's labor had reached a standstill and decided she should be taken to the hospital in Snay Pol, where surgeons and better equipment were available.
 
Van gently picked up his wife and placed her in a cart. Her face crumpled when yet another contraction seized her belly.
 
As the cart jounced through the emerald green paddy fields along a road cratered by the monsoons, Sna moaned, her husband rubbed her lower back and Heng rested her hand on Sna's hip.
 
A half-hour later, they trotted up to the maternity ward at the hospital. Sorny Kong hustled into the birthing room. She started Sna on a sugar drip to give her a bit of a lift, got out the vacuum extractor - operated with a foot pedal - and attached the suction cup to the crown of the baby's head.
 
A half hour later, a healthy boy emerged into the world. International Herald Tribune

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You can't say that here (3 November 2005)

HUN SEN, Cambodia's prime minister of the past 20 years, is not the sort to follow outsiders' advice slavishly. The donors who fund half the country's budget are constantly wringing their hands about his unfulfilled pledges of reform. But the prime minister has picked up at least one foreign habit of late: suing opposition politicians and democracy activists for libel�a political tactic pioneered in Singapore and recently adopted in Thailand.

Mr Hun Sen, his Cambodian People's Party, and his royalist allies FUNCINPEC are all suing Sam Rainsy, the leader of the only opposition party in the National Assembly, for accusing them of corruption and other misdeeds. Another member of parliament for the Sam Rainsy Party (its real name) is charged with libelling Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the leader of FUNCINPEC. The head of the prime minister's bodyguard has sued two more of the party's MPs, including Mr Sam Rainsy's wife, for defamation. A fifth MP is already in jail, convicted of fomenting a rebellion. Mr Sam Rainsy fled the country in February, as his parliamentary immunity was removed.

The campaign against criticism is now spreading beyond the National Assembly. In October Mr Hun Sen accused the owner of the only independent radio station, the heads of three unions and a critical member of the royal family of misrepresenting a border treaty he recently signed with Vietnam. �I have been patient for too long,� said the prime minister, explaining his sudden litigious streak.

Admittedly, Cambodian politicians and pundits are prone to intemperate declarations laced with wild allegations. But the prime minister himself is the chief offender: in the same speech, he accused various royals of betraying the nation, implied that the army chief was insubordinate and announced to anyone contemplating a coup, �You do it, you die.�

Several of the current cases look quite flimsy, yet the treatment of the suspects has been harsh. The radio-station owner, for example, is being sued not for anything he himself said, but for allegations made by someone he interviewed. Yet he is being held without bail, and charged not under the civil code or the press law, but under the tougher criminal code. Samoura Tiulong, Mr Sam Rainsy's wife, did nothing more objectionable than translate into English a witness's account of an assassination attempt on her husband.

Opposition politicians argue that the courts are biased in the government's favour. For no apparent reason, a military rather than a civilian court heard the case against Cheam Channy, the MP accused of rebellion, with predictable results. Meanwhile, the opposition's various lawsuits against different officials have been brusquely dismissed. Local NGOs, western diplomats and the United Nations' point man on human rights in Cambodia agree that there is little hope of a fair trial in any of the libel suits.

No wonder, then, that several of the accused have fled the country. Mr Sam Rainsy is refusing to return until his parliamentary immunity is restored. In fact, after the most recent round of arrests, several NGO leaders who were not facing any lawsuits also took flight, just in case. That must suit the government fine: its most persistent critics have gone to ground.

Observers argue that the crackdown follows a pattern. During elections, when Cambodia is briefly under international scrutiny, the prime minister allows his critics to speak their mind. Between polls, he undermines civil liberties, prevents his opponents from organising, and makes an example of a few of the most outspoken. Still, things could be worse. Some people bleakly claim to see a shred of progress in the lawsuit fad: at least mysterious assailants seem to have stopped murdering the government's critics. The Economist

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Cambodia 'suffering land crisis' (2 September 2005)

There is a major land crisis in Cambodia, a leading United Nations human rights official has said.

The special rapporteur on adequate housing, Miloon Kothari, spent the past two weeks travelling around Cambodia.

He said that rich and powerful interests were grabbing land, leaving thousands of people dispossessed.

Over the past year land deals have been an increasing source of controversy, but this is the first time they have gained international attention.

The UN official has been to several disputed sites. They include a village in Poipet near the Thai border where five people died during forced evictions, and a river island in Phnom Penh, whose inhabitants are under pressure to sell up to a property developer.

Mr Kothari is particularly concerned about the practice of land swaps. In recent months, dozens of publicly owned facilities have been given to private companies for redevelopment without any bidding process.

The companies are supposed to build new public facilities and housing in return, but Mr Kothari said they were using poor land which did not have access to electricity or running water, and thousands of families had been displaced. He is asking for more transparency in the government's dealings.

"There is a frenzy now across the country by the rich and powerful in Cambodia to acquire land. I think the donor communities and the UN agencies need to be much more outspoken. What I find missing here is a sense of outrage that should be there," he said.

Cambodia's Prime Minister, Hun Sen, announced a moratorium on land swaps at the beginning of June, but deals are still coming to light.

Last week, the interior ministry announced that part of Phnom Penh's royal palace had been given to a property developer. BBC News

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Military court jails Cambodian MP (9 Aug 05)

A military court in Cambodia has sentenced an opposition MP to seven years in jail for trying to form a group to overthrow the government.

Cheam Channy, a senior member of the Sam Rainsy Party, had denied the charges against him.

He was arrested in February after being stripped of his parliamentary immunity.

Two other party members - leader Sam Rainsy and MP Chea Poch - were also stripped of their immunity in February and immediately left the country.

Human rights activists have strongly criticised Cheam Channy's trial, seeing it as a move by the government to stifle political dissent.

'Completely unfair'

Judge Ney Thol announced on Tuesday that Cheam Channy had been found guilty of "trying to build up covert forces".

"His main objective was to collect military intelligence and cause damage to the existing government's military," the judge said.

Cheam Channy was also found guilty of soliciting money in return for positions of authority within the rebel group he is said to have formed.

"This verdict is completely unfair to me," Cheam Channy is reported to have said as he was led off to jail.

Khom Piseth, another member of the Sam Rainsy Party, was convicted in absentia and sentenced to five years in jail.

The New-York based group Human Rights Watch also condemned the verdicts.

"The trial was a complete sham," said Brad Adams, the group's Asia director. "Once again, Cambodia's politicised judiciary has been used as a tool to silence the opposition."

Speaking to the Associated Press before the verdict, Sam Rainsy said the charges against Cheam Channy were "politically motivated".

He said they were being used by Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling party "to crack down - through a corrupt and politicised court - on its challenger at the next general election".

Sam Rainsy himself faces three lawsuits charging him of defamation and slander, which stem from his claims that the government plotted to kill its political rivals, and that coalition partner Prince Ranariddh took bribes to join the government.

He fled to Paris earlier this year after he, too, was stripped of parliamentary immunity. The Economist

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