Social Media Highlights Water Festival Beyond Phnom Penh

Water Festival in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. (undated, taken from web)

Water Festival in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. (undated, taken from web)

Cambodia’s traditional Water and Moon Festival or “Bon Om Touk” (បុណ្យ​​​អុំទូក អក​​​អំបុក សំពះ​​​ព្រះខែ), formerly Water Festival, is celebrated in the capital Phnom Penh and provincial towns every November to mark, amongst other things, the end of the rainy season, the reversal to normal course of the Tonle Sap river, and to honor the imperial navy of the Khmer Empire. Although likely rooted in ancient Angkor, the modern tradition is primarily focused at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, whose location at the confluence of four rivers (Chaktomouk), makes the royal capital ideal for provincial boats to float to the venue of celebration with ease. Please note that Cambodian Water Festival is not to be confused with traditional new year Water Festival in Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar which falls in April.

Carvings of Khmer fighting Cham Warriors, Bayon temple (travelsort.com)

Carvings of Khmer fighting Cham Warriors, Bayon temple (travelsort.com)

As a native of Phnom Penh, I grew up either liking or hating the crowds that converge in there. I have always heard and seen on TV some of the same though smaller celebrations in Cambodia’s smaller towns and in the former Khmer provinces in the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam. But with the boat races in Phnom Penh cancelled for many years following the tragic stampede in 2010 and the advance of social media seems to highlight the many and equally colorful events happening beyond Phnom Penh. These are perhaps reason for Phnom Penhois to, once again, enjoy Bon Om Touk, away from home.

Lowell, USA (August 15)[Click date to Facebook as post embed not working]

Please join us on August 15th 2015 from 9am to 4:30pm. We have boat races, live entertainment authentic food, merchandise and information booths.500 Pawtucket BlvdLowell, MA(978) 995-2362

Posted by Lowell Southeast Asian Water Festival on Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A family trip to Lowell Water Festival in 2015:

Lowell, USA in 2014:

Battambang (October 25): [Click date to Facebook as post embed not working]

អុំទូក បណ្តែតប្រទីត ចេញព្រះវស្សា ខេត្តបាត់ដំបងរូបភាព Sotheara GBShttp://battambangpage.blogspot.com

Posted by បាត់ដំបង – Battambang on Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Svay Rieng, Cambodia (November 1):

Long Boats Racing in Svay Rieng Province, Cambodia. from Kimlong Meng on Vimeo.

Tra Vinh (ខេត្ត​​​ព្រះត្រពាំង), Vietnam (November 23): [Click date to Facebook as post embed not working]

ពិធីប្រណាំងទូក ង ខ្នាតតូច (អុំ ១០ នាក់/ ១ ក្រុម) នាថ្ងៃច័ន្ទ ទី ២៣ ខែវិច្ឆិកា គ.ស. ២០១៥ ដែលបានចាត់តាំងឡើងដោយក្រុមគណៈកម្មការបុណ្យ អកអំបុក បណ្ដែតប្រទីប សំពះព្រះខែ នៅភូមិឫស្សីស្រុក។

Posted by Wat Veluvana on Monday, November 23, 2015

 

Soc Trang (ខេត្ត​​​ឃ្លាំង), Vietnam in 2013:

Siem Reap-Angkor, Cambodia (November 24)[Click date to Facebook as post embed not working]

Apparently, this year’s biggest.

អបអរសាទរ ព្រះរាជពិធីបុណ្យ អុំទូក អកអំបុក បណ្តែតប្រទីប និង សំពះព្រះខែ អាជ្ញាធរខេត្តសៀមរាបរៀបចំពិធីបុណ្យអុំទូករយៈពេលពីរថ្ង…

Posted by Andy Sim Photography on Monday, November 23, 2015

And back to … Phnom Penh (November 24)[Click date to Facebook as post embed not working]

“To me, a Water Festival that has no boat racing is completely meaningless.” The #WaterFestival has begun in #PhnomPenh, but the city is quiet and disappointed. #Cambodia

Posted by The Phnom Penh Post on Tuesday, November 24, 2015

 

What about other places? Where did you go during Water Festival?

 

First Chief of China-led Asia Bank Dismisses Western Concerns

Jin Liqun, president-designate of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), talks to reporters after a presentation at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, Wednesday, October 21, 2015. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer)

Jin Liqun, president-designate of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), talks to reporters after a presentation at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, Wednesday, October 21, 2015. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer)

WASHINGTON—The soon-to-be head of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has called the standards and conditions set by some Western countries “excessive conditionality” and promises to build “21st-century governance” at the new bank.

Jin Liqun, former vice president of the Asian Development Bank, was chosen as president-designate of the controversial AIIB bank in August. He is currently visiting the US.

Speaking at a panel at the Brookings Institute in Washington last week, he dismissed Western concerns that the bank would compete with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

“The AIIB is not a rival to the World Bank, ADB, or any other [multilateral development banks],” he said. “The leaders use dialogue between AIIB and all these institutions, [which] has been going very smoothly.”

Jin Liqun, president-designate of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), joins a panel discussion at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, Wednesday, October 21, 2015. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer)

Jin Liqun, president-designate of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), joins a panel discussion at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, Wednesday, October 21, 2015. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer)

The infrastructure bank was proposed by China and signed on as founding members 21 other countries last year. The development bank is expected to be operational by the end of this year. The AIIB is expected to have starting funds of up to $100 billion and to ease regional demands for infrastructure investment in developing countries like Cambodia, which is a founding member. The ADB has estimated regional demands of such investment to total $8 trillion by 2020.

But civil society groups and Western donors have voiced concerns about possible loose standards, short of the World Bank and ADB levels of governance and accountability, and the potential undermining of good governance and human rights in recipient countries.

Those are reasons Japan and the United States have not joined the bank. But analysts also say the two countries see the new Asia bank as a competitor to regional projects at the ADB and the World Bank. Those concerns have not prevented US allies like the United Kingdom and Australia from joining the AIIB, however. As of September, nearly 60 countries have applied to be members of the bank.

Jin says although China was unable to join the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, he welcomes US membership in the new Asia bank. “Even though for some reason China could not be part of TPP,” he said, “the door [is] open for US membership in AIIB.”

Author Predicts ‘Evolutionary’ Shedding of Cambodia’s Old Politics

By Sophat Soeung

WASHINGTON—Editor’s note: The strong performance of the Cambodian opposition in the 2013 elections and subsequent call for leadership change surprised many observers. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Hun Sen continues his rule and has recently marked 30 years in power. Sebastian Strangio, a former reporter for the Phnom Penh Post and author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” recently joined VOA Khmer for a TV interview at the Voice of America studios in Washington, to discuss the future of Cambodia’s political system.

You moved to Cambodia in 2008, the year there was an election that was arguably the height of the popularity of Hun Sen and the ruling party. Did the results in the elections five years later surprised you?

They did, yes. I think there were very few people who guessed what was going to happen. 2008 was an overwhelming victory for the CPP. And it seemed as if they had established their dominance to such an extent that it is now beyond challenge. But what 2013 showed is that we were mistaken about a lot of this, or we overlooked many of the social and economic changes that had taken place, not only over the past five years, but over the past two decades.

After the elections, the ruling party promised deep reforms. To what extent do you think they can deliver on that promise?

Well, it’s always going to be a challenge for them. I think that Hun Sen realizes the importance of reform and that if he doesn’t do it, doesn’t take steps to improve things for ordinary people, that the party is going to have a very difficult time being reelected in 2018. You can already see that they have started to take steps in education and environmental policy, but the problem with the Cambodian political system is that Hun Sen relies so heavily on a class of tycoons and business people and powerful military commanders and government officials. And his rule has been based on keeping these people happy. Now the $60,000 question is whether he will be able to reform the system enough to keep people from switching their vote to the opposition while still maintaining the power and support of these individuals who have supported his rule for so long.

What is your sense of that?

So far the contradictions remain. The government has taken some positive steps, reforming education, for instance, but when it comes to challenging the entrenched economic interests that exist in Cambodia, the powerful tycoons and their connection to things like logging and deforestation, land grabs, that link has been very difficult to sever. There is still an incredible inertia out in the provinces. The logging continues, land grabs continue, and I think that the government has only a limited amount of power to really stop it. The system relies too heavily on this. So only time will tell whether they’re ultimately successful in getting that balance right.

Part of the question also rests on the opposition, which has also been criticized for lack of leadership. I think you mentioned that somewhere in your book as well. Now do you see the opposition as a viable alternative in the next election? And what more should they do to actually live up to some of the promises that they’ve given?

It is very difficult for the opposition, because in a political system that’s based on patronage, which is the way Cambodia works today, and the bonds of loyalty between ministers and their staff and military commanders and soldiers that serve them. It’s very difficult for the opposition to simply slot into that system and command the loyalty of all of these civil servants and soldiers and police officials. And so in that sense they face huge challenges, and I think the best thing the [Cambodian National Rescue Party] can do at the moment is to work away slowly at promoting better policies and pushing their agenda in parliament and then hope that slow, incremental change allows them more and more say in how the country is governed. I don’t think a rapid transition of power is likely in Cambodia, and, in the past, most transitions of power from one group to another have involved some sort of violence. So I think a slow sort of evolution is probably the best course, but I don’t think the party is in a position to immediately take control of the country, nor do I think Hun Sen is in a position or of an inclination to grant them that.

In your book, you seem optimistic about Cambodia’s younger generation. An analyst mentioned that the future of Cambodia rests on that generation’s ability to produce its own leaders to avoid what he called “old politics.” How and when do you think that might happen?

I think it is already starting to happen. The Cambodian population is more educated and more connected to the outside world than ever before. And so I think we’re already starting to see young people rise up, either in the NGO sector or the private sector, who have incredible leadership abilities. The question is whether the current political system will allow them to use their talents in government. So far the 18 months since the election have been pretty much politics as usual. It’s been old politics. It’s been negotiations between key individuals, a lot of egos, and not a lot of substance.

It is generally understood that Hun Sen is grooming his children for a future transition. What will be the consequence of that?

It’s too soon to say exactly what the CPP is planning. It is certainly planning some sort of generational succession. You see that with not just Hun Sen’s children, but also many other ruling party officials have maneuvered their son and daughters into positions of power. But as with everything in the CPP, it depends not just on what Hun Sen wants but also on what all of the powerful people that have a stake in the current system, what they want. And I think that any potential candidate to take over from Hun Sen will have to have the loyalty of the majority of the country’s powerbrokers. And I think it is too soon to say who might be in a position to command that sort of loyalty.

You say in your book that the Cambodian story needs to be told. What do you think is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned from Cambodia that can be applied in the region?

I think it is the fate of Cambodia’s democratic transition. In places like Myanmar right now, we see a similar sort of transition happening: a move from a closed, isolated, and embargoed system, to one that’s welcoming international aid and foreign investment. But I think what Cambodia shows is the ability to engineer democracy in a country that has such a violent and unstable history and very little history of democratic government was always going to be a tall order, and I think it is a cautionary tale for the ease with which these sorts of systems can be simply built from the ground up. But the problem is that very few people pay attention to Cambodia anymore, and it is a pity, because I think these lessons are very clear and I think if people looked to Cambodia and analyzed what’s going on in the last 20 years since the UNTAC mission of the early 1990s, I think they would have much more temperate expectations about the democratic possibilities for somewhere like Burma.

This article originally appeared on VOA Khmer here.

Happy 2014!

It’s 2014! Happy New Year from the City That Never Sleeps.

Firework at New York harbor as seen from Brooklyn bridge, shortly after new year on January 1, 2014. (Sophat Soeung)

New year firework at New York city harbor and Financial District as seen from Brooklyn bridge, shortly after new year on January 1, 2014. (Sophat Soeung)

And as a news-junkie, what a place to start the new year – the news never sleeps either! Just look at what happened in Cambodia on Day 2. Beyond Cambodia, it’s going to be an interesting year for ASEAN, with Myanmar chairing the regional grouping for the first time. Even in tech, 2014 does not look any less buzz-rich than last year with the expected and some unexpected trends.

After an eventful 2013, this new year promises to be an even more newsy year for Cambodia, Southeast Asia, and digital media. I will be trying to update this blog more often. So stay tuned!

Officials, Observers Optimistic About Burma’s First Asean Chairmanship

Original VOA piece by Sophat Soeung, 19 December 2013

Burmar's President Thein Sein (L), chairman of the next ASEAN Summit, shakes hand with Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah after receiving the ASEAN Gavel during the Closing Ceremony of the 23rd ASEAN Summit, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Oct. 10, 2013.

Burmar’s President Thein Sein (L), chairman of the next ASEAN Summit, shakes hand with Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah after receiving the ASEAN Gavel during the Closing Ceremony of the 23rd ASEAN Summit, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Oct. 10, 2013.

WASHINGTON — Burma will become the chair of Asean in January next year for the first time in its history. The Asean chairmanship follows recent political reforms and the lifting of sanctions by the international community. Both Burmese and Western officials now see the country’s readiness for a greater leadership role in the region.

Burma’s acceptance of the 2014 Asean chairmanship in a ceremony in Brunei in October marked a symbolic moment for the country’s increased regional standing.

On the eve of this chairmanship, officials and observers alike are hopeful that despite some challenges, the country’s first chairmanship will be a success.

Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser Thein Sein, the president of Burma, also known as Myanmar, told VOA Khmer that the greatest significance of this chairmanship is political legitimacy for the Burmese regime.

“We can show our leadership in the region, and we can show that we are a responsible member to Asean,” he said, speaking on the sidelines of a conference at American University in Washington in early December.

Burma joined Asean in 1997, along with Laos and one year ahead of Cambodia. But its isolation from the international community and image as a pariah state prevented it from hosting Asean in 2006.

Both Laos and Cambodia have previously chaired Asean. But Cambodia’s hopeful second chairmanship in 2012 was marred by a historic disagreement over the South China Sea, as a result of its close relationship with China and inability to manage increased Chinese tensions with some Asean members. Brunei’s chairmanship this year has been heralded as bringing Asean together again.

Like Cambodia and unlike Brunei, Burma is a non-claimant to the sea dispute.

But Ko Ko Hlaing said that unlike Cambodia, Burma is bigger and less dependent on China economically, while, conversely, China is more dependent on Burma’s strategic location.

Despite Burma’s close ties with its northern neighbor, it is not a “master and client relationship, and the Burmese government will avoid a repeat of what happened in Phnom Penh, he said. “We can take this position of the close relationship with China for the best interest of our region.”

While Burma is in a better position than Cambodia, navigating through increased US and Chinese geo-political rivalries may prove difficult nevertheless, said Christina Fink, a professor in international development studies at George Washington University and a long-time observer of Burma.

Despite all preparedness, recent escalating tensions in the region is cause for concern for the unexpected, she said.

“Myanmar is really kind of caught in between these big power players,” she said. “And it may be difficult for Myanmar to really be able to take leadership over how to handle these disputes within the framework of Asean meetings and the statements that they put out.”

The months leading into Burma’s chairmanship have seen increased tensions between China and Japan over a Chinese-declared air defense zone in the East China Sea.

Analysts are concerned those tensions will spread to the South China Sea, where tensions are already simmering between China and Asean members the Philippines and Vietnam.

During last week’s Japan-Asean anniversary summit in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged more loans to garner support from Southeast Asian leaders.

The effort followed a year of “blitz diplomacy” to all Asean countries that concluded with Abe’s trip to Cambodia and Laos, two countries seen as China’s closest allies in the region. The sea tensions also overshadowed US Vice President Joe Biden’s tour of Asia.

Scott Marciel, principal deputy assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told VOA Khmer recently that the US sees a “strong and unified Asean” as important for the region.

“We always like to see Asean working together, and we are very hopeful that under Myanmar’s chairmanship, that will happen,” he said.

The US will not impose its agendas on Asean and is generally satisfied with Burma’s recent reforms, he said.

That sentiment is echoed by Ko Ko Hlaing, who said Burma’s reforms have outpaced regional neighbors, raising hopes it can become one of the world’s “models of the democratic transition.”

Some analysts have indeed pointed to Burma’s unique circumstances as holding the promise of returning democratization to the top of Asean’s agenda.

However, human rights organizations say there are shortcomings in Burma’s transition, including ongoing rights abuses and violence against political dissidents, as well as Muslim and ethnic minorities.

Given how far the country has come, it deserves praise, Fink said. But Burma’s ambitions and the international community’s expectations should both be kept in check, she said, considering geopolitical realities and Burma’s own shortcomings.

“I don’t think that for their first chairmanship they need to aspire to really doing something transformative in Asean,” she said. “I think what is important for them is to keep things stable, keep things on track, bring people together in Asean. And if they can accomplish that they can be proud of that.”