PHNOM PENH – With horror images showing fields of plastic rubbish bobbing on turquoise seas around the world, one could be forgiven for welcoming the sight of one of the world’s great rivers turning a fresh blue. However the azure hue seen in recent weeks along stretches of the Mekong is stirring concerns that dozens of hydroelectric dams, the biggest of which are in China, are interrupting the river’s natural flow and blocking sediment that should be carried to farmland downriver that helps feed 60 million people. Earlier this month the Mekong River Commission, a regional intergovernmental body, put the colour change down to “extremely low flow, slow drop in the river sediments,” after warning last month that the Mekong region could face serious drought over the turn of the year.
PHNOM PENH — Despite Kem Sokha being freed from house arrest a month ago, it was later announced that he will face trial on January 15, a decision that is unlikely to bolster Cambodia’s case for avoiding sanctions. To Kem Monovithya, a leading opposition politician and a daughter of Kem Sokha, the decision to try her father shows “there is no good will from the CPP [Cambodian People’s Party] controlled court”. It is not just opposition leaders who have been targeted. Though most have since been freed, dozens of local opposition activists were rounded up in the weeks prior to Sokha’s release, as the government issued lurid jeremiads about a coup attempt allegedly being orchestrated by Sokha’s fellow opposition leader Sam Rainsy. “We are very concerned about the human rights situation there. The Cambodians now have one month to respond and we will make our final decision in Feb next year,” commented outgoing Commission trade chief Cecilia Malmstrom in a 12 November post on Twitter.
PHNOM PENH – While the rural and farming population of Cambodia remains substantial, it is declining. A 2017 report by the country’s agriculture ministry said the percentage of the labour force working in agriculture had halved since 1993. That decline continued as annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth ranged from 5.9% to 7.5% over the past decade. The lure of the city – despite the monotony of factory work or the dangers of unregulated construction sites – has drawn hundreds of thousands of people away from the land. “It is in [the] mindset of the Cambodians that neak sre, or farmers, are labelled as poor,” said Sokkea Hoy. “Therefore, parent farmers do not want their offspring to do the farming. They [would] much rather send their kids to search for jobs in the cities or neighbouring countries”.
PHNOM PENH — Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha and U.S. ambassador W. Patrick Murphy did not say much after their one-hour meeting on Nov. 11, a day after a Cambodian court allowed Sokha, who is accused of treason, to be freed from house arrest. Sokha, 66, remains barred from political activities, so he was left to apologize to journalists at the end of the meeting, saying, “I’m not sure what political language is defined as, so I’m not sure what I can say and what I cannot.” But Ambassador Murphy called for the lifting of the charges against Sokha and implored the Cambodian government to “find a way to restore Mr. Kem Sokha’s entire freedoms and liberties.” Sokha was arrested two years ago during a Cambodian government crackdown on the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was later banned, before the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all 125 seats going during the 2018 national elections, turning Cambodia into a de facto single-party state.
PHNOM PENH –Towering over low shops and French colonial–era townhouses grows a new city in tribute to the politics of the present Phnom Penh was long known as a relatively low-rise city, at least compared to towering neighbours such as Bangkok, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, and Singapore. These cities all saw their skylines shoot up in recent decades – long before Phnom Penh’s belated boom – as their country’s economies expanded and modernised. Cambodia, too, has seen heady economic growth over the past two decades, rarely dipping below 8%. Yet the ravages of war and foreign occupation from the late 1960s until at least the early 1990s meant catch-up for the capital’s skyline did not come until midway through the current decade.
PHNOM PENH — Asian governments appear increasingly reluctant to implement the kind of pro-business reforms that could help offset slowing economic growth and other debilitating impacts of the US-China trade war. The World Bank’s latest “Doing Business” survey, a comparative global index of countries’ business environments previously known as “Ease of Doing Business”, shows the number of “business climate-enhancing” reforms implemented in East Asia and the Pacific fell by a quarter over the 12 months through May this year compared with the previous year. Referring to the region, the World Bank’s survey said “the overall pace of reforms slowed.” The Doing Business survey released last week compiles 11 criteria ranging from electricity access to labor market rules that it sees as crucial to the commercial success of small and medium-sized enterprises. The survey does not take into account wider issues such as national financial systems, macroeconomic policies or perceptions of political stability.
PHNOM PENH — In parallel signals that press freedom remains under duress in parts of Southeast Asia, courts in Cambodia and Myanmar recently ordered reruns of cases against prominent journalists. The decisions, announced within days of each other in late September and early October, came as other countries in the region weighed up new laws concerning freedom of speech. On Sept. 30, a court in the central Myanmar city of Mandalay ordered a re-hearing in a lawsuit against Swe Win, the editor of local news publication Myanmar Now, who was accused of defaming a prominent Buddhist monk. Then on Oct. 2 a judge in Phnom Penh ordered a reinvestigation of former Radio Free Asia journalists Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, who are facing between seven and 15 years in jail over charges of espionage and the production of pornography. On the day of the Cambodia announcement, Sothearin told reporters outside the court that he was “very disappointed” with the prospect of reinvestigation, which local civil society groups said showed that the charges were politically-motivated in the first place. Both the Cambodian and Myanmar decisions mean a double prolongation of cases that otherwise had looked to have run aground, and Rohit Mahajan, RFA’s vice president of communications and external relations said that the Cambodian case decision was “an admission of there being no real evidence to convict.”
PHNOM PENH — Dependent on its increasingly assertive neighbour China for investment and on faraway markets in Europe and North America for exports, Cambodia’s 16.2 million people, like residents of any small country, are exposed to the flux and churn of fortune and influence from without. Such vulnerabilities are not just economic. The national language, Khmer, is increasingly treading lexical water, as if about to be pulled under by waves of technological and scientific neologisms. “Hundreds of new technical, scientific and legal terms are added into the English dictionary every year,”said Khoun Theara of Future Forum, a Cambodian think tank.Such terms, usually coined first in English, present tongue-twisting translation dilemmas for Khmer speakers trying to localise new words in what is the mother tongue for around 97% of Cambodians. That is not to say that other tongues in the region do not face similar dilemmas. “All Southeast Asian languages have difficulty in adapting to the modern world,” said Jean-Michel Filippi, professor of linguistics at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
PHNOM PENH — With no end in sight to the so-called trade war between the US and China, the European Union (EU) sees a chance to act as the guardian of free trade and hold its own against the two giants. But as the bloc gets increasingly bogged down in spats with individual Southeast Asian countries, prospects for a wider regional trade relationship look increasingly precarious. With Cambodia’s eligibility for preferential market access to the EU coming under question and with the likelihood growing that Myanmar could be put under similar scrutiny, the EU appears to be hedging against any consequent damage to its relations with Southeast Asia by seeking free trade agreements and closer defence ties with some of the region’s countries. While for now Cambodia can export duty-free to the 28-country, 513 million-population European Union market, this week saw the end of the “monitoring and engagement” phase of a review of that access, potentially putting $5 billion worth of Cambodian garment exports at risk. A European Commission spokesperson said in an August 12 email that “over the next six months, the Commission and the European External Action Service will analyse all the evidence collected”.
PHNOM PENH – Cambodia appears to be the latest beneficiary of the US-China trade war, joining the already exhaustively profiled Vietnam among the countries enjoying increased exports to the US as tariffed Chinese goods open the door for other cheap suppliers. Latest US government data show annual imports from Cambodia rising significantly since the start of the year, with the US$1.8 billion registered from January-May a roughly 20% increase on the same period last year. Like Vietnam, Cambodia has duty-free access to American markets under the Generalized System of Preferences, a trade program designed to promote economic growth in the developing world. Trade represented 125% of Cambodia’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017, according to the World Bank. In 2018, the bulk of Cambodia’s goods exports to the US were clothing and footwear, with the Office of the US Trade Representative listing the top four sectors as knit apparel ($1.8 billion), woven apparel ($628 million), leather products ($390 million), and footwear ($329 million). Cambodia’s 2018 trade surplus with the US was $3.4 billion — which, though relatively-small compared with Vietnam’s near-$40 billion for the same year — will continue to rise this year as Cambodia’s exports to the US surge. Parsing the numbers for a direct trade war link is not as clear-cut as it may seem, however, with both Vietnam – where trade represented 188% of GDP in 2018 – and Cambodia expanding their commerce with the US since before the start of the tariff war.