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Buddhism at root of university’s success


Sam Rith and Sara Veal

When a determined group of classmates from the Pannasastra University of Cambodia set out to promote Buddhism through weekend get-togethers, they had no idea where their energy and enthusiasm would lead.

What started out as a small grassroots effort to provide courses in Buddhist morality has evolved into a full-fledged school where 600 students receive a free education.

The school, called Buddhist Morality Education Centre (BMEC), no longer focuses solely on religious studies. The curriculum includes courses in English conversation, grammar and translation, Japanese, Mandarin, human resources, general accounting, and, of course, Buddhist morality.

BMEC is staffed entirely by volunteers; eight of its teachers are college students and five are Buddhist monks.

The school is located in Tuol Tumpong sangkat but has branches in Kampong Speu and Kampong Cham. Students are mostly local high-school-aged youth who heard about the center by word of mouth.

“Friends told me they had a free program,” said Khem Sara, a 23-year-old who has been studying English at the Tuol Tumpong center for three months. “Now I understand a lot, but before I had never studied English. I hope to continue studying in the future.”

Some students are so inspired by the center that they hope to work there in the future.

“When I study at [BMEC] I feel happy. … I want to teach here,” said Leakena, 20, who has been studying English and Chinese for two months.

Currently, 600 students are enrolled, but Ieng Erya, chief of BMEC’s communications department, says the school has provided free education to more than 1,000 students in less than a year.

In June 2004, Sam Syann, the director of BMEC, started teaching Buddhist morality at Wat Botum Vadei with a group of classmates from Pannasastra University of Cambodia. Originally they called the group the Center of Buddhist Sunday because the founders were only able to offer classes on weekends.

After three months of teaching at the temple, they rented the Tuol Tumpong building in an effort to increase their accessibility and appeal. Synann paid the first month’s rent, and they borrowed supplies from Wat Botum Vadei for the first two months.

BMEC now has its own books, furniture and computers, thanks largely to donations from overseas Khmers and the local community. The Yuang-Kuang Institute for Buddhist Studies and Zhe Kuang temple, both located in Taiwan, have reportedly donated $280,000.

Some in the Buddhist community have expressed concern about Taiwan’s degree of involvement, fearing that they might have undue influence on school policies, but Synann is emphatic that this is not the case.

“It is not only Taiwan who supports the center, but others like America, South Korea and so on. … The government and most of the monks support what we are doing,” he said.

Thanks to the support, BMEC now has a savings account and plans to expand to Kandal province. The main building will cost an estimated $474,000, and the 3-hectare plot of land will cost up to $120,000. BMEC has $190,000 earmarked for the university project and is seeking additional sponsorship for the remaining funds.

The proposed university will provide free tuition and study materials, as well as subsidized housing. Synann said students will come from rural areas and if fund-raising efforts are successful, the university will also be able to provide them meals.

The focus of the university will be on Buddhist philosophy and literature, but there are plans to guide students in small-scale, income-generating enterprises as well.

The university will provide some raw materials which students can then use to make souvenirs. Any money they earn through this initiative can be kept or put into the school bank, and the earnings will be turned over to them when they graduate.

While it may seem odd for a religious school to assist students at making money, Synann explained that the idea was inspired by current students’ poverty upon completion of their studies.

“Our students [at BMEC] leave school with knowledge but no money,” said Synann. “This way, BMEC students can have money and knowledge.”


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Wristbands launched by Armstrong latest rage among hip


Sara Veal

Look for them and you’ll start seeing them everywhere: brightly colored rubber bracelets around the wrists of trend-setting Phnom Penhois.

The global bracelet fad has reached Cambodia, with increasing numbers of people sporting stretchy bands with slogans such as “LiveStrong,” “Challenge” and “Courage.”

The bracelets retail from between 1,000 riel and $1 at accessory outlets in popular shopping venues such as Sorya Shopping Center and the Olympic Market.

The wristbands began arriving from Thailand several months ago and are copies of merchandise used in a fund-raising campaign that began in the United States.

Lance Armstrong, seven-time winner of the Tour de France and cancer survivor, pioneered the trend with the release of the original Lance Armstrong Foundation/Nike wristband in May 2004, which had the word “LiveStrong” on them.

Boosted by support from talk show host Oprah Winfrey earlier this year, sales of the yellow LiveStrong bands have raised more than $50 million for cancer research.

The popular bracelets were inspired by “baller bands”, thick rubber bands that US basketball players stretched before pickup games to get warmed up.

Numerous copycats have sprung up around the world, in all shades and for causes as diverse as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (light blue) and Make Poverty History (white).

Other knockoffs are purely fashion items.

This seems to be the case of the Thailand-imported versions available in Cambodia. Though they are sometimes referred to as “tsunami bracelets,” there appear to be no philanthropic benefits.

“I think they should give money to charities, because they do in other countries,” said Bob McNaughton, 13, who owns more than 40 of the plastic bands.

Kim Chanvirak, 16, has been wearing his blue “Nike” bracelet for two months but is unaware of any charity connection.

“I bought this one because I saw other people wearing it. I don’t know anything about their meaning – I like them because they’re attractive.”

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Kyoto could make rice milling waste cherished


Sara Veal

A leading Cambodian rice exporter is planning a $3.5 million renewable energy project that will earn credits under the global carbon-dioxide reduction scheme of the Kyoto Protocol.

Pending approval by the Phnom Penh municipal government, Angkor Rice will begin construction of the Angkor BioCogen (ABC) power plant in early 2006, with operations expected to begin by mid-2007,

The plant will produce clean energy by using rice husks to fuel a biomass generator. As a waste product of its milling operations, Angkor Rice is left with about 26,000 metric tons of rice husk each year. Energy produced by the plant would be used by the company and surrounding villages in Kandal province.

Adisom Chieu, the managing director of Angkor Rice’s ABC venture, said he hopes the company will be the first in Cambodia to benefit from the financial incentives of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

CDM is part of an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by allowing developed nations to achieve part of their carbon-dioxide reduction obligations set out by the Kyoto Protocol through projects in developing countries.

“CDM is making this project possible,” Chieu said. “Although the money we will earn from selling carbon credits to other countries only equals 3 to 5 percent of the projected revenue, it makes the venture economically viable.”

Under the Kyoto Protocol, signatory countries must limit carbon-dioxide emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Because Cambodia already has low carbon-dioxide levels, it can afford to sell off carbon credits to developing countries, while still adhering to Kyoto Protocol standards.

A country earns carbon credits by reducing emissions into the atmosphere. One credit is equivalent to the reduction of one metric ton of carbon, which translates to between $5 and $10 depending on the company buying the credit.

Arul Joe Mathias, a biomass and CDM advisor for the EC-ASEAN COGEN Programme and also for the ABC project, is enthusiastic about the new power plant.

Mathias estimates that Angkor Rice will produce approximately 40,000 carbon credits per year, which the company can sell, potentially earning between $200,000 and $400,000 annually.

He has already been contacted by several multinational organizations that want to finance the environmentally friendly power plant and expects more interest as the project develops.

“People always say that Cambodia is not a good country to do business, but I think it is one of the best countries to do business [in energy],” said Mathias, who was worked with more than 100 CDM projects in the region. “The cost of energy in Cambodia is three times higher than in Thailand. That makes your investment three times more profitable.”

The Climate Change office within the Ministry of Environment has been working for two years to set up guidelines for CDM investment in Cambodia.

“CDM and carbon credits are a great way to get investment in developing countries for projects that reduce greenhouse emission,” said Bridget McIntosh, the CDM advisor at the Climate Change office.

McIntosh said the key to Cambodia benefiting from CDM is implementing projects that can improve long-term, sustainable development in Cambodia.

Suitable projects would use indigenous fuel sources and reduce local pollution.

For Angkor Rice, the project will not only earn them carbon credits and extra cash, but will also reduce the amount of waste material they produce and help the local community.

If the rice husks left over after milling were allowed to decay naturally, they would release methane – an environmentally destructive greenhouse gas – after four to five years.

By burning the rice husks, Angkor Rice will produce 1.5 megawatts (MW) of energy per day, which will power their rice mill and still leave 0.5 MW to supply to 19 local villages.

The existing supplier has already agreed to distribute the extra electricity, and the price will be reduced from the current 1,800 riel per kilowatt to 900 riel.

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Art auction raises $3,440 to help local arts community


Sara Veal

An art auction in Phnom Penh raised $3,440 that will be used to fund an exhibition organized by Visual Arts Open (VOA) in December.

Paintings, sketches, collages and photographs – all 55 items contributed free by Khmer and foreign artists to the fundraiser – all went under the auctioneer’s gavel at a packed Java Express on July 24.

“It was more than we expected,” said Sopheap Pich, co-curator of VAO. “We were wondering where we’d store what we couldn’t sell, and there’s nothing left!”

The highest successful bids were for Vann Nath’s “Landscape”, which went for $300, Linda Saphan and Pich’s “Lightness” ($230) and a series of collages by Douglas Baulos, Matt Posey and Chris Lawson, which attracted between $150 and 160.

A few lucky bidders managed to bag bargains for as little as $10.

Over the course of three hours, the auction met and exceeded the $3,400 that organizers hoped to raise for the December exhibition.

All proceeds went directly to VAO, with no commissions for the contributors or organisers.

VAO is part of Saklapel, an initiative aimed at building a community among Cambodian artists, as well as provide them with support and information.

Saphan and Pich, both professional artists who are Khmer-Canadian and Khmer-American, respectively, founded Saklapel three years ago.

VAO currently works with 20 artists, all expected to contribute new pieces to the December exhibition. Besides Saphan and Pich, the other 18 artists are Khmers living in Cambodia, but there are future plans to expand and include Khmers living abroad and non-Khmers living in Cambodia.

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Researchers tracking endangered scavengers


Sara Veal

Wildlife researchers have fitted satellite tracking devices to three critically endangered vultures in northeast Cambodia, giving boffins new insight into the habits of the large scavengers.

Birdlife International and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) trapped seven vultures in Chhep district of Preah Vihear province.

Of those seven, two slender-billed vultures and one white-rumped vulture were fitted with satellite transmitter units provided by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (Birdlife in the UK). Two threatened red-headed vultures were also caught.

Samples were taken from all seven birds before they were wing-tagged, leg-banded and released.

“By fixing satellite transmitters and monitoring vulture movements, we develop a greater understanding of their range size, habitat preferences, and seasonal movements. This increased understanding of ecological parameters allows us to develop more effective, targeted conservation actions and management guidelines,” said Dr Sean Austin, manager of Birdlife International’s Cambodia Programme, in a statement released July 1.

Maps of the tagged vultures from May 2005 show that all three birds left the trapping area soon after capture and settled quite close to each other, approximately 80km to east.

Vultures are examples of what conservationists call “dispersed species”. They range at low population densities over large areas in search of food. The hunting of Cambodia’s wild ungulates has greatly reduced the availability of food for the vultures, forcing them to forage over wider areas, which in turn increases their vulnerability.

In addition to the slender-billed and white-rumped vultures, the Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus) is presently considered critically endangered.

In India the population has decreased by more than 97% since 1993, and Pakistan is losing 30 to 40 percent of its vultures annually.

Research has revealed that these dramatic declines are caused by veterinary use of the drug diclofenac, widely used when treating livestock. If South Asian populations of these species diminish completely, only two small, wild populations of white-rumped and slender-billed vultures will remain, one in north Cambodia and southern Laos, and the other in Myanmar.


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