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Obama Encourages Young Southeast Asian Leaders at Town-Hall Meeting in Laos

U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday praised young Southeast Asian leaders participating in an American government education program during a town-hall meeting in Laos and introduced three new initiatives to benefit youth in the region.

Obama met with about 400 young people, including more than 100 from Laos, who are involved in the U.S. government’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) program.

Founded in December 2013, the program aims to build the leadership abilities of youth in Southeast Asia, strengthen ties between the U.S. and the region, and promote cross-border cooperation to solve regional and global issues through educational and cultural exchanges, hands-on training, regional exchanges, and seed funding.

Operating under the auspices of the U.S. mission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the program focuses on critical issues identified by Southeast Asia youth, including civic engagement, environment and natural resources management, entrepreneurship, and economic development.

“Our goal is to empower young people with skills and resources, and the networks that you need to turn your ideas into action, and to become the next generation of leaders in civil society and in business and in government,” said Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia.

The young people at the meeting, who ranged from 18 to 35 years of age, hail from ASEAN’s 10 member countries—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The town meeting was held during a YSEALI Summit they were attending at Souphanouvong University in the northern town of Luang Prabang.

“[B]ecause your generation is the most educated, and because you are all connected through your phones, you have more power to shape the future than any generation that we’ve ever known,” Obama said. “That’s why I’ve made connecting our young people a cornerstone of American foreign policy.”

Network of 100,000

Obama said the program now has a network of 100,000 young people from all 10 ASEAN countries.

Approximately 65 percent of people who live in the ASEAN region are under the age of 35.

“[I] know that closing the development gap in innovative and in impactful ways is what you’re focused on at this YSEALI Summit in Laos,” he said.

“And that’s wonderful, because whatever sector we work in, we all have a role to play when it comes to things like educating our people, lifting communities up from poverty, and protecting the environment for future generations,” Obama said.

For those who live in a secretive, communist country such as Laos, participating in a town-hall meeting with a national leader and being able to ask him questions is an anomaly.

A university student named Sounthorn, who attended the town-hall meeting, told RFA’s Laos Service he was happy that Obama had visited an undeveloped country and called his speech inspirational.

“President Obama said the most important factor in development is human resources,” he said.

An English teacher at Souphanouvong University who was present during the town-hall meeting told RFA’s Laos Service that one of the main messages coming from the YSEALI program was that young people must first develop themselves in order to contribute to the development of their country.

“The content he brought up in his speech has many important points that can be used as lessons for all of us to learn from,” he said. “What he said can inspire us in our hearts. It can lead to the development and unity of all people.”

U.S. President Barack Obama greets guests following a town-hall meeting at Souphanouvong University in Luang Prabang in northern Laos, Sept. 7, 2016. Credit: AFP

Other new initiatives

Obama also announced the start of related initiatives, including a program called English for All which will deploy more language teachers in Southeast Asian countries and bring Southeast Asian educators to the United States for training.

“[A]t a time when English is the language of business, science, and the networked world, it’s very important that young people have English language training,” he said.

Operating under the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the initiative will offer opportunities and resources to help anyone in the world learn English via the new website, he said.

Obama also said the U.S. government has expanded its Let Girls Learn program to include Laos and Nepal to ensure that every girl receives a quality education.

“In too many countries now, women and girls are not getting the same educational opportunities as men and boys,” he said. “And research shows that when girls get an education, not only do they grow up healthier, but her children will grow up healthier also. Not only will she become more prosperous, but her community will become more prosperous.”

The U.S. president also announced the start of the U.S.-ASEAN Women’s Leadership Academy for YSEALI which will offer leadership training and mentoring for emerging women leaders from all 10 ASEAN countries on an annual basis.

“And because we’ve partnered with several multinational companies to sponsor this academy, we’re going to be able to empower women to take their place in society for decades to come,” he said.

Human rights issues

Obama, who is the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos, is in the country to attend an ASEAN summit in the capital Vientiane.

On Tuesday, he said the U.S. has a “moral obligation” to clean up millions of unexploded bombs it dropped on Laos for nine years during the Vietnam War to stop supplies flowing to communist fighters.

To achieve this, the U.S. would double its spending on ordnance cleanup in Laos to roughly U.S. $90 million over the next three years, he said.

Rights groups have meanwhile called on Obama to address Laos’ dismal record on human rights and the unresolved disappearance of U.S.-educated development specialist Sombath Samphone who was taken away by security forces at a road checkpoint on Dec. 15, 2012, and hasn’t been heard from since.

Lao authorities have made no arrests in the case, and there is little indication a serious investigation ever took place.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes is scheduled to meet with Sombath’s wife Shui Meng Ng on Thursday while Obama is still in the country.

“President Obama and world leaders gathering in Laos need to demand answers and accountability from their Lao government hosts on the case of disappeared NGO leader Sombath Somphone,” said Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

“The message has to be clear that the cover up has to end, Sombath needs to be found, and that no other outcome is acceptable,” he said.”

Reported and translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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Kem Ley Murder May Become Part of ICC Case Against Cambodia’s 'Ruling Elite'

The attorney handling an international criminal case against Cambodia’s “ruling elite” says he plans to ask the International Criminal Court based in The Hague to expand the case to include government critic Kem Ley’s murder.

“We plan to file another legal brief soon about the assassination of Kem Ley,” said Richard Rogers, a partner at the London-based law firm Global Diligence.

“There’s sufficient circumstantial evidence to suggest that this, too, was a politically motivated killing,” Rogers told RFA’s Khmer Service.

The ICC complaint was originally filed in 2014 on behalf of 10 Cambodians who are allegedly the victims of government land confiscations. The case argues that land grabs in Cambodia have been carried out by the country’s “ruling elite” on such a massive scale that they count as crimes against humanity.

While the land-grab portion of the case has caught the most international attention, another section of the case centers on political persecution.

Rogers said the case and related briefs have “cited many, many examples of political persecution” and that Kem Ley’s murder falls into that category.

“The prosecutor will be more likely to open the case if she sees that the crimes are ongoing,” Rogers explained in the Sept. 2 interview.

Investigation of the case at the ICC is still in its early stages, but Rogers thinks the court is preparing to decide if it will now move forward.

“They can’t tell me exactly what they are going to decide, but what they have told me is that this is one of the two or three cases they are taking very seriously, and that we should have a decision by the end of the year,” he said.

Getting into the ICC ‘bloodstream’

If the ICC moves on to the next step, it will decide whether or not to take on a preliminary examination, he said.

“That still sounds like an early stage in the prosecution process, but it is actually a massive step,” he said. “What it means is that the case finally gets into the bloodstream of the ICC, and it will remain there until it becomes a fully fledged investigation with all the resources and legal power of the ICC behind it.”

Rogers says that only a handful of cases have made it to the preliminary examination stage in the 14-year history of the court.

“There have only been about 15 to 20 cases that have made it to the preliminary examination stage,” he said. “I am more confident than ever that it will make it to that stage.”

Kem Ley was gunned down in broad daylight on July 10 when he stopped in a Star Mart convenience store beside a Caltex gas station in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.

Though authorities charged former soldier Oueth Ang with the killing, many in Cambodia don’t believe the government’s story that Kem Ley was killed by the former soldier over a debt.

Just days before he was gunned down, Kem Ley had discussed on an RFA Khmer Service call-in show a report by London-based Global Witness detailing the extent of the wealth of the family of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 31 years.

Slow justice

While Rogers wants to include the Kem Ley murder in the case at The Hague, in Cambodia the investigation into his death appears to be going nowhere fast.

A representative of Kem Ley’s family, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA the family is still too occupied with Kem Ley’s 100-day funeral ceremony to seek justice for him.

The 100-day ceremony is an important Buddhist ritual where prayers for the dead are chanted exactly 100 days after a person is cremated. Kem Ley’s 100-day ceremony is set to take place for three days from Oct. 14 to Oct. 16.

Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL) executive director Moeun Tola, who once asserted that he would provide Kem Ley’s family with a lawyer, said the family has not yet reached out to him for legal assistance.

Kem Ley’s widow Bou Rachana and their children have taken temporary refuge in Thailand, sources familiar with the family’s movements told RFA last month.

They have received refugee status from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and are waiting for the UNHCR’s decision to move them to a third country, according to sources.

Paris Peace Questions

Meanwhile, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), which has often been on the receiving end of government persecution, is calling for signatories to the Paris Peace Accord to hold the government of Cambodia accountable.

According to local press accounts, the government on Tuesday snarled traffic in Phnom Penh when a few CNRP lawmakers delivered petitions to embassies representing the signatories to the 1991 agreement that ended the Cambodian-Vietnamese War.

As Cambodian foreign minister and then prime minister, Hun Sen played an important role in the 1991 Paris Peace Talks that brokered peace among Cambodia’s warring factions.

“The current political development is against the Paris Peace Accord of 1991,” CNRP’s senior lawmaker Mu Sochua said. “The agreement is about national reconciliation, a multiparty system, and respect for human rights. However, what we see now is an abuse of the democratic process.”

Mu Sochua said the massive traffic jams caused by police as they set up barricades on Sept. 6 was just a small example of the extremes to which the ruling government will go to throttle dissent.

“Our headquarters was blocked by heavily armed forces since five in the morning,” she said. “They can set up road blocks at our headquarters, but they cannot block our will.”

Reported by Chandara Yang, Moniroth Morm, and Nareth Muong for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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Temporary refuge in Thailand for Widow of Slain Cambodian Critic Kem Ley

The widow of slain government critic and scholar Kem Ley has taken temporary refuge in Thailand, sources familiar with the family’s movements told RFA’s Khmer Service on Friday.

Bou Rachana and her children, who left Cambodia for Thailand on Aug. 28, have received refuge status from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and are waiting for the UNHCR’s decision to move them to a third country, said the source, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the family’s situation.

Kem Ley was gunned down in broad daylight on July 10 when he stopped in a Star Mart convenience store beside a Caltex gas station in the capital Phnom Penh.

Cambodian authorities have charged former soldier Oueth Ang with the killing, who has said he shot Kem Ley over a U.S. $3,000 debt.

Kem Ley was buried in southwestern Cambodia’s Takeo province two weeks later after a weekend funeral procession that drew around 2 million mourners.

Just days before he was gunned down, he had discussed on an RFA call-in show a report by London-based group Global Witness detailing the extent of the wealth of the family of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 31 years.

Reported by Vuthy Huot for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Paul Eckert.

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Cambodians Keen to Register to Vote, Turn Out in Droves

Cambodians on Thursday faced long waits, technical glitches and confusion as they turned out in large numbers on the first day of the 90-day voter registration period for elections in the coming years.

Despite the problems and inconvenience, people across the country appeared to be keen to register before local commune elections in 2017 and national parliamentary elections scheduled for 2018.

While local residents in downtown Battambang complained about the wait, they bore it patiently, with one voter telling RFA’s Khmer Service they wanted a say in Cambodia’s future.

“Yes, we’re very happy because we can properly register to vote for the commune election,” one resident told RFA. “If we are unable to register, then we cannot vote to choose our leader. If I cannot register, I will regret it because it will define our country’s destiny.”

Yuom Sokhein, an official with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) in Battambang, told RFA that most of the local people have been well prepared to register and had shown up with the proper documentation.

A new system

She said a computer glitch that could have been caused by the large number of people showed up in the morning to register slowed things down.

Cambodians are using a new digital voter registration system that is designed to combat voter fraud.

Elections in 2013 were dogged by accusations of fraud, and the new system is part of a 2014 election reform deal between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) that ended almost a year of deadlock following the disputed 2013 national ballot.

Rights groups and foreign aid donors, including the European Union, have expressed concern about the election registration process which is unfolding amid rising  political tensions in Cambodia.

In particular, National Election Commission (NEC ) Deputy Secretary-General Ny Chakriya is in police custody, one of five people arrested by the government in its wide-ranging probe into an alleged affair opposition Cambodia national rescue party leader Kem Sokha had with a young hairdresser.

Comfrel’s official in Sihanouk province Cheab Sotheary told RFA that the official in charge of voter registration at the commune office was late and a number of registrars were absent, causing wait times to grow.

“People came and waited and waited a long time at some offices,” she said. “The Commune Three voter registration office opened at 8 am, one hour late, and the office’s deputy, assistant to the deputy and clerk were absent.”

Villagers living in central Siem Reap in the Tonle Sap lake region complained that registration officials were working slowly, and many villagers gave up and walked away after waiting for hours. An official there said they were only able to register 17 people.

Thai Va, a motor-taxi driver who was waiting at the Chong Khneas’s registration office, told RFA that he brought his wife and had been waiting since 8 a.m., and their number had yet to be announced by 10 a.m.

“I need time to go back to do my work,” he said. “Registering is very slow.”

Another woman told RFA that she had been waiting since 8 a.m. and she had to buy food for her children.

“It is now 10 a.m., and I’m standing under the heat of the sun, but still my turn has not come,” she said.

Cambodians attempting to register also encountered computer glitches and other interruptions in the process in Kampong Chhnang province.

Certain offices did not facilitate the elderly, the disabled and pregnant women who were supposed to move to the head of the line.

People from other villages who are not in the list for a particular office were also not allow to register.

There were also reports at several commune offices in which the commune chiefs were seen hanging around. Since the commune chiefs are nearly always members of the ruling party, their presence could be viewed as a way to intimidate citizens wishing to register.

A call for better organization

Comfrel official Leap Bun Heng, who was observing the process, called on the National Election Commission (NEC) to sort out the problems.

“The NEC should give further instructions to the commune authorities to have organizers who give proper guidance to people who come to register,” he said. “In this first day, I noticed that there were no organizers in front of some offices.”

Nuon Chantha, head of the provincial election commission of Kampong Chhnang, acknowledged the many technical problems and other minor issues on the first day, she said that did not interrupt the process.

Election officials need more training, she explained, pointing out that Cambodians from any village in the commune are eligible to register.

“Actually, we are conducting an open registration process at the commune office,” she said. “People from any village in the commune can come and register.”

She told RFA she was taking steps to make that clear to villagers and to staff.

“They need to go to register with the head or deputy head of the office who will enter their names into the computer system in the respective village,” she said. “This is not a restriction. This is wrong, and I will correct that mistake.”

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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Meach Sovannara Wins the First Legal Round in U.S. Case against Hun Manet

Meach Sovannar’s case in the U.S. accusing Cambodian General Hun Manet of unlawful imprisonment, torture, terrorism and other crimes cleared its first legal hurdle on Thursday when a federal district judge in the case decided the court has jurisdiction, according to one of his attorneys.

Judge George H. Wu of the Central District Court of California ruled that the case against the son of long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen could go forward, Morton Sklar told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“The judge in essence granted everything that we wanted,” Sklar told RFA. “It was a tremendous success this morning, and what he granted us was the right to carry out what’s called jurisdictional discovery under the supervision of the court.”

Sklar said the decision was a key to unlocking information necessary to the case.

“That means we’re able to obtain disclosure of vital pieces of information that the government of Cambodia and Hun Manet previously have been keeping secret, and we will be able to do this very, very quickly,” he said.

The suit alleges that Hun Manet’s family connections and leadership role within Cambodia’s security forces make him liable for the emotional and financial damage borne by Sovannara’s family.

Hun Manet heads the Cambodian military’s anti-terror unit, is deputy chairman joint staff of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and is the deputy commander of the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit – an elite unit that has often been at the center of complaints about rights abuses.

Hun Manet is widely viewed as the successor to his father Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen who has ruled the country for more than 30 years.

The country of Cambodia is also named as a defendant, and Sklar said Wu’s ruling gives Hun Manet two choices.

“What that means is that the government of Cambodia and Hun Manet have a choice: Either they can agree and let the court-ordered jurisdictional discovery proceed, so that we can ask these questions and get the answers, or they could say: ‘No, we’re not going to participate in this,’ in which case under the court rules they have automatically lost the case and we have a verdict against both the government of Cambodia and Hun Manet.”

In April, as Hun Manet toured parts of the U.S. that are home to large Cambodian diaspora communities, he was greeted by Cambodian-Americans protesting Phnom Penh’s human rights violations and domestic property seizures.

On the last day of Hun Manet’s visit, he was served with court documents by a private investigator named Paul Hayes, who was hospitalized after allegedly being thrown to the ground by Hun Manet’s bodyguards outside of a restaurant in Long Beach, California.

Hayes’s subpoena was tied to a wrongful imprisonment suit brought in a U.S. federal court by Meach Sovannara, who is the Cambodian National Rescue Party’s information director. He has dual U.S. and Cambodian citizenship.

Meach Sovannara was given a 20-year sentence for taking part in a protest in Phnom Penh in late 2014. He and 10 other activists were jailed on insurrection charges for clashing with police over the closure of a protest site in the capital.

While Cambodia’s courts are viewed as a tool of the Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the Cambodian strong man isn’t likely to find U.S. courts are so friendly.

“What we’ve been able to do with this case is get a U.S. court, not subject to the dictates of Hun Sen and the Hun Sen government, exercising independent jurisdiction to deal with what’s going on in Cambodia,” said Sklar.

“There has to be that outside monitoring, and outside way of checking on what’s happening in Cambodian government. Without that there will be no improvement in the human rights and democracy situation in Cambodia,” he added.

Sklar told RFA that Wu seemed to be a “very determined and very clear-cut judge” who “wants results.”

“When the counsel for the defendant tried to object to the discovery, the judge said: ‘This is my order. If you do not agree to let this take place, if you do not come to an agreement on the items to be included and the questions to be asked, I will  order it done myself.'”

Hun Manet’s attorney, John Purcell, could not be reached after the hearing, but he has previously said that the accusations made in Meach Sovannara’s complaint are “groundless.”

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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The Floating Villages on Cambodia's Tonle Sap Are Being Scuttled

Thousands of ethnic Vietnamese living in the floating villages that dot the Tonle Sap are being repatriated to Vietnam as their livelihood drains away and they can’t come up with the documentation needed to stay in Cambodia, RFA’s Khmer Service has learned.

While hard numbers are difficult to come by, VietnamNet reported that 5,000 ethnic Vietnamese families who had been living in the floating villages are now living in Vietnam.

A group of Vietnamese still living in the floating village in Kampong Chhnang’s Svay Chrum Commune told RFA that while they were born in Cambodia they are leaving because environmental damage to the Tonle Sap has decimated the fishing and they can’t prove their residency in Cambodia.

Nguyen Yaing An told RFA that while life is tough enough, Cambodian authorities have tried to move them from place to place, and lately the authorities attempted to convince them buy land to live near what is the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia.

The land offer appears genuine, but it is costly and the plots also lack titles or other documentation that prove the new owners have the right to stay.

“The land they wanted to sell to us, came with no documents and costs 1,000 to 2,000 U.S. dollars,” he said. “We do not have the money to buy them. We do not even have enough rice to cook.”

Nguyen Yaing An told RFA that if the situation becomes more difficult, his family will drag their floating house to Vietnam.

Another Vietnamese resident on the lake, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA that about 60 Vietnamese families from the Svay Chrum floating village plan to leave for Vietnam in October.

“They told us to live here temporarily, that means that they will chase us away again,” the Vietnamese said. “If they move us this time to live off the lake, we do not have the money to buy land.”

For Sale signs and empty houses

Nearly 1,500 floating houses owned by mostly by ethnic Vietnamese villagers from Psar Chhnang commune were moved to Svay Chum Commune in late 2015.  Many of those houses are vacant, or they have “for sale” signs posted on them.

Tot Kim Sroy, the Minorities Rights Organization (MIRO) coordinating official in Kampong Chhnang, told RFA that the poverty among the Vietnamese living on the lake is epidemic, but the biggest challenge is the lack of fish.

The Tonlé Sap River connects the lake to the Mekong River to form the central part of a complex hydrological system in the Cambodian floodplain. It covers a myriad of natural and agricultural habitats that the Mekong replenishes with water and sediments annually.

The natural seasonal inflow and outflow of water has been hammered by a combination of global warming, overfishing and illegal fishing, the mostly illegal clearance of surrounding forest lands and the Asian dam-building boom that threatens the entire Mekong River system.

Most threatened lake

The Global Nature Fund, based in Radolfzell, Germany, named the Tonle Sap the world’s most threatened lake in 2016.

While the lake is under stress, ethnic Vietnamese living off the Tonle Sap also fear the Cambodian authorities. Animosity between Vietnam and Cambodia goes back centuries, but it was heightened by the Vietnamese war that ousted the Khmer Rouge and paved the way for long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ascension to power.

Accusations over the demarcation of the border between Vietnam and Cambodia has become a prominent feature in Cambodian politics as Hun Sen’s opponents have attempted to paint the strong man as tool of the Vietnamese.

“We could not get the actual number of how many families are living in this area because they have been hiding in fear for their safety,” Tot Kim Sroy told RFA.

Cambodian Interior Ministry’s spokesperson Khiev Sopheak told RFA that he did not know how many Vietnamese families with legal documents have returned to Vietnam.

“Right after the liberation in 1979, our east border line was not safeguarded seriously,” he said. “I hope that Vietnamese friends will understand that the Cambodian government with the ruling CPP will fully implement the country’s immigration law.”

Reported by Sopheak Chin for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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