Archive for May 26th, 2008

Week 561 – 2008-05-25: Memorable Events – “Historical Events”?

Posted on 26 May 2008. Filed under: *Editorial*, Week 561 |

The Mirror, Vol. 12, No. 561

On Monday, we mirrored a report saying that the price of crude oil had risen to US$127 per barrel [one barrel corresponding to the 55-US-gallon steel drum, known also as the 44-UK-gallon drum, and as the 200-liter drum], from around US$100 at the beginning of the year. President Bush visited Israel, celebrating its 60th anniversary, addressing the parliament without any reference to the tragedy the affected Arab population endures. The subsequent appeal by President Bush, during a visit to Saudi Arabia, asking to increase the output of oil to lower the price of oil, was rejected, and by Friday the price was up to US$ 135. Compared to these hectic changes, the increase of the high grade gasoline price by Riel 200 per liter sees to be quite moderate. Some international banking experts predict a gradual increase up to US$200 per barrel.

Not many radical plans to re-arrange the economy to deal with such coming changes are known.

The week brought also some news about planned international investments. It was reported that the former Thai prime minister intends to invest approximately US$10 billion in the Cambodian border province of Koh Kong: to establish gambling casinos and other recreational sites. The sum of 10 billion sounds enormous – five times the amount spent by the international community for the 18 months of UNTAC administration of Cambodia during 1992/1993. The purpose of the reported investment is similar to the already existing casinos in the north-western border region adjacent to Thailand. The plans are said to have been discussed already between the former Thai and the present Cambodian prime ministers over a round of golf in Siem Reap.

A Russian investor wants to create factories in Cambodia and to export Cambodian agricultural products – agricultural products, when processed to international trading standards, have often been seen as an important fields to diversify the Cambodian export industry beyond the garment sector.

And two banks intend to set up branches in Cambodia: The president of the prestigious South Korean Woori Bank [우리은행] presented this intention to the Prime Minister.

And Mr. Han Chang-Woo [한창우] who is introduced to be a world class billionaire, with the 21st rank on a list of the super-rich, is creating the Maruhan Japan Bank [マルハンジャパン銀行] in Cambodia. Though there is not one of the big Japanese banks in the background, in this case information on the Maruhan Company is publicly accessible – quite different from some other business ventures with a supposedly Japanese background: the administration of the Genocide Memorial site in Chung Ek was privatized and handed over to a Japanese company, which has only a Post Box address in Phnom Penh, and about which the Japanese Embassy in Phnom Penh could not give any information at the time when the Cambodian government transferred this historical genocide site to an unknown foreign business. – The Maruhan corporation and its plan are transparent: it has made its money mainly from the popular “Pachinko” pinball game centers in Japan, but it has also major investments in the casino industry in Macau. Its Japanese website list details of its central offices in Tokyo, and also the street address for the new bank in Phnom Penh, the name of the Chief Executive Officer in Cambodia, as well as the financial plan: to start with a capital of US$25 million – 85% will come from Maruhan, and 15% – US$3,750,000 – is expected to come from local partners in Cambodia.

In none of these investment plans are any references explaining how they relate to any general economic or social development strategies of the country – especially also in view of the world wide economic crisis related to the rising price of energy and the growing international food shortage.

The two major natural disasters – in Myanmar, and in China – were reflected in various ways in the local and in the international media. In Myanmar, the situation seems to have started to change, after the ASEAN foreign ministers met in Singapore – and it was agreed that help for the victims of the cyclone could be accepted only if it would be handled by ASEAN members, and by staff from Asian countries. At the same time unofficial voices from the very same region admitted that the ASEAN countries alone do not have the large scale logistical capabilities which were made available by many different countries during the disaster created by a tsunami in 2004, or after the major earthquake in Pakistan in 2005. Those victims who still survive in Myanmar would rather have to wait longer for attention, while the governments were sorting out how to respect the sovereignty of Myanmar, under a government which had swept away the results of an election which the military – the present powerholders – did not like.
In the meantime, the world observed how the government of China responded to their earthquake disaster: not only deploying their own resources, but welcoming foreign experts and foreign aid, under the eyes of the international press – acting as fast as possible. “Keep up the battle and do not fear exhaustion, strengthen supervision over the use of earthquake disaster relief funds to ensure relief work progresses forcefully, properly and effectively,” admonished the Ministry of Finance the public, and the vice-governor of the Sichuan province is reported to have initiated punitive action against some officials who were negligent in their efforts, or who misused relief material. He also invited the media to help supervise the distribution of relief materials; the province would publicize in detail the allocation of donated materials and cash.

After the UN Secretary-General had not received any response to his letters of concern from the leadership in Myanmar, and after they had even refused to accept his telephone calls, he traveled via Thailand to Myanmar, and was finally received by Senior-General Than Shwe, the leader of the ‘State Peace and Development Council’ – the organ of the military junta – for a two-and-a-half hour discussion. After the meeting, the UN Secretary-General announced that Burma would now allow foreign aid personnel from any nationality into all affected regions of the country, even foreign helicopters could transport aid into the country which has very limited, and partly destroyed land transport facilities. This was really a historical breakthrough: the serious restrictions on assisting the cyclone victims, which the assembled ministers of foreign affairs of ASEAN had accepted, were now removed.
An international donor’s meeting – today on Sunday in Yangon – was, however, confronted with a wide gap between different perceptions and positions. The material resources on US and French navy ships off the coast of the cyclone stricken region could be flown in within 20 minutes by helicopter – but the government of Myanmar will not allow that – the goods have rather to be loaded on small ships and brought into the port of Yangon. But these ships and the necessary unloading mechanisms on the high sea are not readily available – and even if they were, it will be much more time consuming to transport the relief goods on land, given the limited number of vehicles, destroyed roads and bridges, and therefore the difficulties to reach many affected areas. The desperate needs of many people cannot receive a timely response.

The Burmese side had prepared a list of request for US$10 billion – but the representatives of about 40 countries present were prepared to pledge only about US$50 million, because no realistic needs’ assessment and implementation plans were available. That the Burmese government continues to work with artificial figures – like on Monday: “Number of Deaths from Tropical Cyclone in Myanmar Climbed up to 77,738” – and reportedly presented on Sunday also lists with “precise numbers” of how many chicken and how many pigs had been killed by the cyclone, while the communication infrastructure in the affected ares is not functioning, created new conflicts.

The World Bank – approached for their response to the disaster – declared to be prepared to cooperate with expert personnel in assessment and planning. As Burma had discontinued to repay any loans since 1998, the regulations of the bank would not allow to extend new loans. How the opinion of the minister of foreign affairs of Singapore can be understood and handled, that the World Bank should forget about their regulations decided upon by the governments which provide its funds, only the future can show.

The concerns for the victims, and the concerns not to irritate those who assumed power over the country and hold it, had also its repercussions in Cambodia, when police were sent out on two days to confiscate an insert into The Cambodia Daily, called The Burma Daily, on 16 and 19 May 2008, for two reasons: “the articles showed a tendency critical of the government of the Burmese military junta,” as a Khmer newspaper wrote, and because they had been published without legal permission. The latter is contested by the publisher, as The Burma Daily was not sold separately, but was an insert, while the authorities claim, on the other hand, that this insert had the format of a new publication. The two confiscated issues of The Burma Daily – now available on the Internet at – are critical of the restrictive attitude of the military leadership preventing timely and effective international aid – but compared to the extraordinary efforts of the UN secretary-general to travel himself to Myanmar, after his phone calls were rejected, the criticism in The Burma Daily supplement were mild and not different from wide sections of the international press. The high praise in detail, which the UN Secretary-General has in the meantime given to the Chinese authorities for their way of acting in face of massive human suffering is an adequate comment on the situation.

That three Cambodian journalists were arrested and chained by the police, on a court official’s order, when they inquired about a truck transporting wood in an area of Kompong Thom where illegal logging is said to happen frequently, contrasts not only with the officially stated policy of the Cambodian government against illegal logging, but it is also quite different from the recently reported practice of the Chinese authorities in the earthquake disaster region, where the media are invited to help to prevent fraud. A similar clear, encouraging call from the authorities in Cambodia to the local media, followed by actual support in the case of conflicts, might become another historical step in fighting corruption.

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