Historic retreat and rise of the Red Army

More than 75 years ago, Mao Zedong led nearly 90,000 soldiers in China’s central Red Army on a grueling trek that has been mythologized as the Long March. For Mao, the journey began in 1934 as the ruling Nationalists and the underdog Communists waged a bitter fight for control of China. The Communists were fleeing from the larger and better-armed Nationalist force. History books say only one out of every five people who started out on the Long March was left at the end, but their survival, against all odds, has become one of the founding legends of Chinese Communism. Officially, the Long March covered 10,000 kilometers. The Red Army soldiers trekked on foot, over difficult routes and circuitous trails. They were often forced to retrace their steps many times, as in the famous four crossings of the Chishui River.

My VOA colleague Nan Zhang and I went along the path of the Long March. We tried to follow the original route as closely as we could, but to save time, we traveled along roads and new highways. In the end, we covered about 7,500 kilometers in three weeks.

The Long March was the focus of the trip, but since the route passed through some of China's poorest and most remote countryside, we also wanted to see how the country’s 800 million peasants cope in the 21st century. We talked to witnesses along the way who saw the Red Army pass through their towns 75 years ago. We found one Long March survivor whose legs were injured in the fighting. We talked to peasants who were stricken by a severe drought this year in the southwestern province of Guizhou. Everywhere we went, peasants told us their lives are better than their parents’ lives were, but they also were eager to discuss their concerns about corruption and growing social inequality. We talked to ethnic Tibetans, who would like to see their religious leader, the Dalai Lama, return from exile in India. We met children who demonstrated their martial arts skills and recited poetry written by the closest figure officially atheistic China has to a god, former leader Mao Zedong.

We traveled on some horrible roads. One day the car suffered three flat tires in the middle of nowhere. We also drove on some freshly paved roads and saw grand highways and road tunnels under construction. By the end of 2008, China had more than 60,000 kilometers of highway, second only to the United States, with ambitious plans to add even more in the next decade. China is a country on the move, and as more roads are built through remote rural areas, social changes will accelerate.

- Stephanie Ho

Hundreds Rally in Bangkok Over Cambodian Border Dispute

A supporter of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) gestures during a rally outside the Government House in Bangkok, 25 Jan 2011
Photo: Reuters

A supporter of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) gestures during a rally outside the Government House in Bangkok, 25 Jan 2011

Hundreds of Thai nationalists staged a rally in Bangkok Tuesday to demand the government take a stronger line in its border dispute with Cambodia.

About 2,000 to 3,000 members of the People's Alliance for Democracy, also known as the Yellow Shirts, took to the streets under the watchful eyes of nearly 4,000 security forces to demand that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva revoke an agreement on the handling of border issues with Cambodia. The protesters' ranks included two smaller nationalist groups.

Five men in possession of unauthorized firearms and explosives were arrested the night before the rally.

The PAD has been generally supportive of Mr. Abhisit's government, which is backed by the military and the monarchy. But they feel it responded too weakly to the arrest by Cambodian forces of seven Thai nationals in a contested border area last month.

Five of the seven were given suspended jail sentences and have returned to Thailand. But an organizer from the nationalist Thai Patriots Network and his secretary remain in Cambodia facing espionage charges.

PAD leaders want the prime minister to renounce a 2000 memorandum of understanding on the handling of border disputes with Cambodia, withdraw from the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO and pressure Cambodian nationals to move out of disputed border areas. UNESCO lies at the heart of a separate border dispute over land near the Preah Vihear temple, which has been declared a world heritage site.

PAD has pledged to continue protests indefinitely, but Mr. Abhisit has already rejected their demands as impractical.

The Yellow Shirts occupied Government House for three months in 2008, departing only when Mr. Abhisit's predecessor was ousted by a court ruling.

PAD is rivaled by the so-called "Red Shirts" who are loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, overthrown in 2006 in a bloodless coup. As many as 27,000 to 30,000 Red Shirts held a rally of their own on Sunday

Southeast Asia facing new 'health crisis'

A Philippine boy is innoculated against measles vaccine in a slum area in Manila. Southeast Asia's 600 million people are facing a raft of new health challenges as the disaster-prone region undergoes some of the world's fastest social change, medical papers published Tuesday said.
A Philippine boy is innoculated against measles vaccine in a slum area in Manila. Southeast Asia's 600 million people are facing a raft of new health challenges as the disaster-prone region undergoes some of the world's fastest social change, medical papers published Tuesday said.
People cover their mouths to try and prevent breathing in toxic fumes in a busy Hong Kong shopping district. Controlling diseases is difficult given the variety of economies and health systems across many Asian nations.
People cover their mouths to try and prevent breathing in toxic fumes in a busy Hong Kong shopping district. Controlling diseases is difficult given the variety of economies and health systems across many Asian nations.

AFP - Southeast Asia's 600 million people are facing a raft of new health challenges as the disaster-prone region undergoes some of the world's fastest social change, medical papers published Tuesday said.

"A health crisis is transpiring right before our eyes," warned a paper in the series, published by The Lancet journal, which said chronic diseases such as cancer now account for 60 percent of deaths in the region.

It was also dubbed a "hotspot" for emerging and difficult-to-control infectious diseases, with outbreaks in avian flu fuelling fears about the possibility of new pandemics spreading from Southeast Asia.

"The pace of demographic change in the region is one of the fastest worldwide, whether it is due to population ageing, fertility decline, or rural to urban migration," said the papers.

"As elsewhere, the disease burden continues to shift from infectious to chronic diseases, yet increased urban population density has created concerns about emerging infectious diseases."

The reports also point to Southeast Asia being one of the world's most disaster-prone regions, with the environment responsible for up to a quarter of all deaths in an area regularly hit by monsoons and typhoons.

Weather phenomena such as El Nino also "intensify the annual variation of the hot and wet climate, leading to droughts, floods and the occurrence of infectious diseases such as malaria and cholera," said one of the papers.

"Climate change could exacerbate the spread of emerging infectious diseases in the region, especially vector-borne diseases linked to rises in temperature and rainfall," such as dengue, it added.

Deforestation and other human encroachment on wildlife habitats were said to heighten the potential for germs to cross species barriers, as they increase interactions between wildlife, humans and livestock.

Controlling these diseases is difficult given the variety of economies and health systems across the nations analysed: Laos, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

City state Singapore, for example, has a gross domestic product per head of $37,500, while in largely rural Laos the equivalent figure is $890.

Political tensions within and between countries "have the potential to further hinder control" of emerging infections, said the papers, which called for improved surveillance of these health threats across the region.

They also called for urgent action to tackle Southeast Asia's "epidemic of non-communicable disease", including heart disease, stemming from environmental factors promoting tobacco use, unhealthy diet and inadequate physical activity.

"Unless nations recognise the problem and take appropriate action, premature death and disability will continue, hindering development where development is needed most."

Volunteer teaching in Cambodia

Volunteer in Cambodia.
Posted by TNT Today

Working as a volunteer teaching English to a group of Cambodian kids must be easy, right? TNT's Carol Driver discovered the reality...

There are 40 beaming faces staring up at me waiting for my next move. Their eyes sparkle and they giggle as I jump up and down on the spot in front of them, attempting to sing “with a moo-moo here and a moo-moo there” from Old MacDonald’s Farm.

I know I look ridiculous, but I’m far from caring. It’s 2pm in Cambodia and it’s a searing 40C. We are crammed into a tiny, non-air-conditioned make-shift classroom in Phnom Penh.

I’m trying desperately to keep their attention as they want to go and play.

Thankfully it works. By the time I add a pig, cat, cow, horse and dog to the story, they’ve got the right idea and start chanting the animal noises.

I manage to make it to the end of the lesson – sweat running down my back.

Destination guide - Cambodia

I’m in the country’s capital city for three weeks as part of a volunteer project, helping the charity Riverkids, which offers children at risk of being trafficked or sold into prostitution, a free education.

On my first day, I’m taken to the slums where many of the kids live. The scenes are heartbreaking. The tiny, wooden shacks balance around mud paths. There are dirty, naked toddlers wandering aimlessly. We see some women working, cooking meals, while most of the men are lying down, watching TV on dated, black-and-white screens. Many of them have drink and drug problems.

The children look helpless. It’s easy to see how celebrities such as Madonna and Angelina Jolie think they’re helping communities by adopting children. But it’s charities such as Riverkids that are really stopping the cycle of poverty.

Volunteer as an English teacher in Cambodia

I’m staying at a guesthouse with around 15 other volunteers who are all placed at various locations across the city.

My project is a 25-minute hair-raising tuk-tuk ride away, weaving in and out of the chaotic traffic on lawless roads. In the classroom, volunteers prepare their own lessons. It’s an early start
– my day kicks off at 7.30am with a group of nine to 15-year-olds.

As I walk into the classroom, the students stand and chant “Good morning teacher” in Khmer and then English, as they clasp their hands together in the traditional respectful greeting.

After English is computer studies – but, as Riverkids doesn’t have the resources to buy an electricity generator, and there’s a power cut every day, the lessons are always cut short.

With no electricity, there are also no fans, and the intense heat makes it increasingly difficult to concentrate.

During breaks, the children rush out into the dirt-floor playground, without a care in the world, and engage in boisterous games or sing and dance.

They chase each other, pulling one another to the floor. There are scrapes and hits as well as bruises and cuts as they get into the spirit of the game – but not once do any of them cry.

Commercially, Cambodia is growing as a traveller destination. However, due to political instability which ended only recently, it’s far behind neighbouring Thailand in terms of popularity. But tourists can help in terms of bringing money to the country.

In Phnom Penh, Friends and The Lazy Gecko cafe are two restaurants serving great local food which also help support charities. And there are great bars and restaurants around the Riverside and Lakeside areas.

To really immerse yourself in the country’s culture, you have to understand its turbulent past.

The only way to see firsthand the devastation the Cambodian people have endured is by visiting the haunting Tuol Sleng Museum and Killing Fields.

The museum is a former school used by ex-dictator Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime as a security prison where from 1975 to 1979, between one and two million people were held, starved and tortured, and then sent to their deaths in the Killing Fields.

The photos of the prisoners on the walls make for grim viewing and drives home just how recent the country’s turmoil was. For less emotive sightseeing, visit Wat Phnom temple or the National Museum, home to a fine collection of Khmer art.

Back at Riverkids for my afternoon class, I raid the charity’s limited storeroom for supplies for my last lesson.

It’s art and singing with children as young as three – some of whom speak no English, so communicating with them is difficult.

The classroom is a 15-minute walk and, although it’s a struggle carrying bags filled with paper and paints, it’s a great way to meet the locals, who are friendly – greeting me with curious smiles and acknowledgements of “hello teacher”.

Despite the fun element attached to these classes, I find them the most stressful lessons. Controlling 40 demanding children who are armed with paint, water and fingers – and who don’t understand English – isn’t easy.

I spend the next hour running around, clearing up spilt water, helping children who have difficulty drawing. At the end of the lesson, the children playfully smear colours down each other’s faces and in one another’s hair.

I shrug my shoulders and laugh as the kids line up at the small sink to wash their hands and faces.

Exhausted, I make the journey to meet with the other volunteers, who are also tired and stressed, and we talk about how difficult our days were and what went wrong during our lessons.

As I pull a text book from my bag, a note slips out. “I love you teacher from Srey Mai,” it reads, and it puts a smile on my face.

It’s then I realise why “voluntourism” is growing so much in popularity – more of us now want to do something useful during our holidays, to immerse ourselves in a culture and country rather than just the hotel swimming pool.

While it’s ultimately the students who I want to benefit from my time in Cambodia, I can’t help think that it’s the children – with their robust attitudes and camaraderie despite their deprived pasts and uncertain futures – who have taught me the greater lesson. And that’s what makes it so rewarding.

WHEN TO GO: Dry season runs from November to April.
GETTING THERE: Qantas (with partner Jetstar Asia) offers flights from London to Phom Penh via Singapore. Fares start from £862 (including taxes) for travel April 8 – June 15. See qantas.com.au.
GETTING AROUND: On the back of a motorbike, or there are tuk-tuks as well as taxis. Make sure you barter though.
VISAS: Required but available on arrival.
CURRENCY: Riel, although Cambodians prefer American dollars. 1 GBP = 1.6 USD = 6 RL
GOING OUT: A beer costs $2.
ACCOMMODATION: Shared accommodation is included in the i-to-i Meaninful Travel’s Teaching English in Cambodia course, which runs from four to six weeks, priced from £860.
GET MORE INFO: i-to-i.com

Hun Sen spooks critics

Photo by: Heng Chivoan
Prime Minister Hun Sen inaugurates the US$43.5 million Cambodia-China Prek Tamak Friendship Bridge in Kandal province during a ceremony yesterday.
Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday criticised his political opponents for not acknowledging the government’s accomplishments in improving the country’s infrastructure, warning them that ungrateful critics could be hit by a so-called “guardian spirit”.

Speaking at the inauguration of the Cambodia-China Prek Tamak Friendship Bridge in Kandal province, the premier said that certain people have not recognised the government’s achievements in building roads and bridges, even though they have benefited from the projects.

“You are also walking on the streets, so be careful: The guardian spirit will hit you, the guardian spirit’s [magic] is strong now,” Hun Sen said.

Hun Sen added that newly constructed bridges and roads were not intended only for the use of the supporters of the Cambodian People’s Party.

“It is quite difficult to blow a flute to the cow; they cannot listen,” he said of his critics, pointing to the country’s progress since the downfall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.

“Compare things with 1979, what we had at that time and what we have at this time.”

Speaking at the inauguration of the bridge, Pan Guangxue, China’s ambassador to Cambodia, said the US$43.5
million Cambodia-China Prek Tamak Friendship Bridge, was the third Chinese-funded bridge to open in Cambodia, after the Cambodia-China Sekong Friendship Bridge in Stung Treng province and Cambodian-China Prek Kdam Bridge, also in Kandal.

Phnom Penh and Beijing have inked agreements to build two more bridges, the Cambodia-China Chroy Changvar Bridge in Phnom Penh and another project in Takhmao.

Hun Sen said several other highway projects have also been signed or are under negotiation, and that China has already funded the construction of more than 1,500 kilometres of roads in Cambodia.

Opposition Sam Rainsy Party officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Last month, during Hun Sen’s five-day visit to China, he and Chinese leaders signed 12 project agreements related to infrastructure and agriculture projects.

In November, during the visit of China’s top legislator Wu Bangguo, Beijing and Phnom Penh signed an additional 16 economic agreements, with China pledging to provide $1.6 billion by 2015 for infrastructure projects.

Analysis: Succession in focus but Cambodia strongman staying put

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen waves to the media as he arrives for the ASEAN - China summit, happening on the sides of the 17th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi October 29, 2010. The 17th ASEAN summit runs from October 28 to 30. REUTERS/Kham

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen waves to the media as he arrives for the ASEAN - China summit, happening on the sides of the 17th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi October 29, 2010. The 17th ASEAN summit runs from October 28 to 30.

Credit: Reuters/Kham

PHNOM PENH | Sun Jan 23, 2011 11:23pm EST

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - When a young soldier was made a two-star general and infantry commander this month at the age of only 33, some in Cambodia saw a political dynasty taking shape.

The rapid rise of Major-General Hun Manet has drawn attention to a topic rarely discussed in Cambodia: who will succeed his father, long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Comparisons have been made between the rise of Hun Manet and that of Kim Jong-un, the son of ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, promoted from obscurity in September to be a general and politburo member in what was seen as the unveiling of a successor.

But analysts say the prospect of Hun Sen stepping aside is inconceivable right now and it's too soon to make that link. Rather they see Hun Manet's promotion as a sign of both the deep-rooted nepotism in Cambodia and the unrelenting efforts of Hun Sen to consolidate power for many years to come.

"I'd say Hun Sen's plan is to hold on in office for as long as he can and give his son a chance to amass as much power in the military as possible," said Tony Kevin, an Australian academic and former ambassador to Cambodia in the 1990s.

"He's pushing 60, and for a leader in Asia, that's pretty young, really. With his son as a senior military general, he has an insurance policy and it's understandable he'd want that. But if this is part of a dynastic plan -- it's too soon to tell now."

Some political analysts in Cambodia believe Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla, is privately concerned that a challenge to his 26-year rule could one day emerge, not from his political opponents but from within his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) or among a powerful and growing crop of local tycoons.


Hun Sen's firm hand and pro-business policies are credited with attracting foreign investment that has put Cambodia on a steady course of growth and stability after decades of brutal civil war turned the former French colony into a failed state.

His successful blend of populism, nationalism and cronyism has earned him the overwhelming support of the electorate and kept business elites onside, but analysts say any shift in that dynamic could one day lead to his undoing.

Enter Hun Manet, the eldest and most privileged of Hun Sen's six children, whose promotion to a plum military post now makes a coup d'etat against his father seem far less likely.

Hun Manet has kept a low profile since graduating from West Point military academy in the United States and then getting an economics doctorate from Britain's Bristol University -- a far cry from his father's rudimentary education at a rural monastery.

Hun Sen has defended his son's promotion as in accordance with the rules. "He has been military age for 16 years already," he said. "The military is obliged to promote in accordance with its internal framework."

But many in Cambodia think Hun Manet is being groomed to one day take over the reins of power.

"There's an old saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," said Son Soubert, a prominent political commentator and adviser to Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni.


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