Last week I had the honor of visiting a site in Kratie province where a joint team of Americans and Cambodians is working to recover the remains of a U.S. soldier who went missing in 1971. It is believed that the soldier was lost in a helicopter that crash-landed on a riverbank. Due to considerable challenges at the recovery site, the work requires true dedication, tireless energy, and a deep expertise, and I am very grateful to all those contributing their time and talents to this operation.
Rich Wills, the recovery leader, is an experienced anthropologist specializing in the investigation of underwater wrecks. His training in archaeology guides the team, allowing them to continually assess their progress and adapt their approach. Sergeant First Class Tyler Dodd, the team leader at the site, is a master diver. He is supervising the diving operation necessary to locate any remains lost underwater. Mr. Wills and SFC Dodd have participated in recovery investigations all over the world, and their skills are demonstrated by the steady progress of the team and the careful way the work is organized at the Kratie site.
In a blog entry last October, I wrote about the indispensable cooperation of the Royal Government of Cambodia in assisting the work of the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Cambodia. The team in Kratie province, organized by JPAC, could not accomplish its mission without this invaluable partnership.
I would like to express my gratitude for the support and assistance of the Cambodian authorities – especially His Excellency Sieng Lapresse, Under Secretary of State with the Ministry of Interior, who accompanied me on the visit to Kratie. We both appreciated having the opportunity to meet the personnel at the site and learning about the highly skilled work that is being done there.
The JPAC motto is “Until they are home,” which demonstrates the U.S. resolve to bringing home every American POW/MIA no matter how long, no matter what it takes. The United States is privileged to have, and grateful for, the outstanding assistance we receive from the Cambodian government in this noble endeavor.
What are your thoughts about how the United States and Cambodia can continue to enhance their partnership?
I’ve always enjoyed listening to music from a variety of American genres – jazz, blues, rock and roll, you name it. Having lived in Cambodia for almost two years now, I’ve also come to enjoy some of the unique musical styles popular in Cambodia. Music is truly a universal language that can bring together people from diverse cultures, so I was delighted that the American country music band Blended 328 came to Cambodia last week as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Arts Envoy Program.
Blended 328 traveled out to the provinces to present a series of free public concerts. They also spent a significant amount of time interacting directly with young Cambodians, including conducting a master class for music students at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) and meeting with aspiring young musicians wherever they went. It was very gratifying to see these successful American artists encouraging young Cambodians to pursue their own musical dreams.
Connecting with young people was a particular focus of the band members during their stay in Cambodia, and the group was touched by the warm reception that all the students gave them. In particular they enjoyed teaching a country line dance to children from Vijeasataan Apiwat Polakor, who then joined the band on stage in Takeo to perform the number.
Over 6,000 people enjoyed the band’s performances in Takeo and Sihanoukville, and I am very happy that so many Cambodians attended these free concerts. For many of the concert goers, the highlight of the night was when the audience joined Blended 328 in singing the popular Cambodian folk song “Arab Piya.” There are few things that bring people together like the experience of belting out a lively song.
I want to express my deep appreciation to the members of Blended 328 – Gabe Jordan, Fran Hart, Kimberly Phillips, Thomas Spann, David Mescon, and Dallas Brown – for coming to Cambodia and using their outstanding musical talents to build bridges of friendship and understanding between our two countries. I hope we can get them to come back soon!
In what other ways do you think we could increase mutual understanding between the people of Cambodia and the United States?
As a diplomat who has served in many overseas assignments, I understand the benefits of learning foreign languages. Studying a new language allows us to gain a fuller appreciation of another culture, make deeper connections with more people, and broaden our minds by introducing us to different ways of thinking and expression. For young people here in Cambodia, learning one foreign language in particular –English– is not only a matter of personal enrichment, but increasingly a necessity to ensuring a successful future.
Since English is the language most commonly used in international business, science, and higher education, learning English will unlock opportunities for young Cambodians in today’s globalized environment. Proficiency in English may determine whether a young Cambodian will be admitted to a prestigious academic program, or receive a life-changing job offer. That is why the U.S. Embassy dedicates significant resources to supporting English-language education in Cambodia.
One example that illustrates this commitment is our support for the annual CamTESOL Conference on English Teaching. The largest annual education conference hosted in Cambodia, this year’s CamTESOL Conference took place last week and brought together 1,600 English-teaching professionals from Cambodia and around the world who are devoted to improving the quality of English teaching. During the three-day conference, the participants exchanged best practices and learned about the latest research on effective English-language teaching methods. I am proud of the U.S. Embassy’s sponsorship that enabled 250 Cambodian teachers to attend the conference. The new skills that they gained will translate into higher English levels of their students.
English-language skills will also help put more Cambodian students in the world’s best universities, many of which are in the United States. To promote higher education opportunities in the United States for Cambodian students, our Embassy supported the U.S.-Cambodia Education Fair 2014 earlier this month. The fair provided a venue for more than 400 Cambodian students to meet face-to-face with representatives from more than 20 U.S. universities and colleges. Students were able to learn about the many options for studying in the United States, as well as the resources available to assist them.
I am pleased to see such strong interest in English-language learning and studying in the United States among Cambodian students, as evidenced by the success of the CamTESOL Conference and the turn-out at the U.S.-Cambodia Education Fair 2014. In addition to giving young Cambodians the skills they need to thrive, English-learning and education opportunities are also instrumental in developing a highly capable workforce in Cambodia, which will propel the country to becoming a vibrant economy in the future. The doors to success for young Cambodians are the doors to success for Cambodia. Let us commit to opening these doors much further.
What other skills do you think are essential for young Cambodians entering the job market?
Promoting economic opportunity as a means to create jobs and expand the middle class has been a priority of mine since I arrived in Cambodia almost two years ago. As Ambassador, I have traveled to Bangkok and Singapore with members of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) Cambodia to highlight economic and commercial opportunities, encouraged government reform to promote business, and led a trade mission to the United States to introduce Cambodian business representatives to their American counterparts. With the right leadership, the government can play a crucial role in creating an environment where businesses can thrive.
Recently, I had the honor of introducing this type of leader – the new Minister of Commerce, His Excellency Sun Chanthol – to the members of AmCham. Senior Minister Chanthol, who has studied at two prestigious American universities, understands that government reform can improve the business environment in Cambodia and pave the way for new investments from abroad. During his first few months as Minister of Commerce, he has shown an extraordinary ability to cut through red tape, eliminate unnecessary procedures, and encourage greater transparency.
For example, Senior Minister Chanthol was instrumental in expediting approval of an agreement enabling the U.S.-supported Better Factories Cambodia program to continue factory inspections to ensure that manufacturers adhere to international labor standards. He understands that labor conditions are a critical consideration for international firms looking to invest in Cambodia, especially for companies that demand worker safety, decent wages, and good working conditions as a condition for investment – exactly the kind of reputable companies that Cambodia needs to attract in order to continue building its middle class.
I want to thank the members of AmCham, and especially AmCham Chairman Brett Sciaroni, for hosting this important discussion with Senior Minister Chanthol. I am certain that through continued cooperation, the government and private sector can further improve the business environment in Cambodia, which will create more jobs and expand the middle class.
Please share with me your thoughts on how we can expand economic opportunities in Cambodia.
Cambodia is home to a diverse population of wildlife, including some of the planet’s rarest creatures. Sadly, as in other parts of the world, human activities are threatening the survival of these animals. When my Youth Council and I discussed environmental issues affecting Cambodia, we agreed that dwindling wildlife was among the worst consequences of environmental degradation in this country. To learn more about the situation of endangered animals in Cambodia and the efforts to protect them, my Youth Council and I visited the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center last week.
Located about an hour’s drive from Phnom Penh, the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center is Cambodia’s largest zoo and wildlife sanctuary, where the American NGO Wildlife Alliance is assisting with the recovery and rehabilitation of approximately 1,200 rescued animals, including endangered species like elephants and tigers. Most of the animals were saved from poachers and traffickers by the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team – a Cambodian-government unit that receives technical and financial support from Wildlife Alliance.
After receiving an overview of the center’s operations, we arrived at a lake where we met “Lucky,” an Asian elephant that is the darling of the rescue center staff. We had the chance to feed Lucky and watch the rescue center team bathe her in the lake. Like she did with many visitors before us, Lucky quickly captured our hearts with her playful and gentle ways. It was truly delightful to be able to interact up-close with this magnificent animal.
We were next introduced to Chhouk, a young male Asian elephant with an incredible story of survival. Chhouk was less than a year old when he was found alone in the forest in critical conditions, with the bottom part of his right front leg missing, most likely caused by a poacher’s snare. Wildlife Alliance spent two weeks in the jungle treating Chhouk’s injury before he was stable enough to make the 26-hour journey to Phnom Tamao.
Under the dedicated care of the veterinary team at the rescue center, Chhouk recovered from the injury that would have most certainly taken his life if left untreated. To prevent his missing foot from causing pain and spinal and bone damage, the team at Phnom Tamao worked with the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics to build Chhouk a prosthetic leg. On the day of our visit, we had a chance to see the staff make a cast for Chhouk’s foot, which will be used to build a new prosthesis to match his growing size.
Chhouk is the best example of the kind of outstanding rehabilitation care that has been received by more than 50,000 animals saved by the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team since 2001. I was very happy to see firsthand the important efforts being made to protect wildlife in Cambodia. The Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team, Wildlife Alliance, and the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center have my deepest appreciation for their hard work and commitment. I know that the visit also inspired the members of my Youth Council, and I look forward to giving them my full support for the projects on wildlife protection that they are planning for this year.
What else can we do to protect Cambodia’s endangered species?
I believe a society thrives when its university system is strong, producing trained graduates with the drive to be independent and innovative. Decade after decade, the quality of higher education in the United States has proven to be an engine for both social progress and economic development. Sharing our academic resources is one way the United States promotes development around the world, while also building relationships that enhance intercultural understanding and cooperation.
You may be familiar with the Fulbright Foreign Student Program – the U.S. government’s oldest and most prestigious academic exchange program. It gets a lot of attention because so many outstanding Cambodian students travel on the program’s scholarships each year for advanced study in the United States. But you may not know that the U.S. Fulbright program also brings accomplished U.S. scholars to Cambodia to contribute to the productive exchange of ideas, information, and expertise between our two countries. I am very pleased that a number of talented U.S. scholars are working with Cambodian universities, professors, and students in 2014 to share their academic experiences and build bridges between Cambodian and American institutions.
This week, I had the opportunity to sit down with two U.S. Fulbright Scholars, Lex Rieffel and Patricia Supplee, to learn about the important work they are doing in Cambodia. At the National University of Management, Lex Rieffel is leading seminars about the challenges and opportunities of ASEAN integration. He is also assisting the university faculty in designing programs that will enhance the business and economics curricula. Patricia Supplee has spent the past six weeks teaching English-language skills and developing programs at the National Defense University. Through the collaborative efforts of both these U.S. scholars, Cambodia’s future leaders will be better prepared for the opportunities and challenges ahead.
U.S. Fulbright Scholars are using their expertise to improve the offerings of various academic fields and professions in Cambodia. One scholar, Robert Lieberman, has been working at both the Royal University of Fine Arts and the Royal University of Phnom Penh to develop and expand the schools’ cinema and communications programs. Our U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Kampot province, Karen Reed, is working with a Regional Training Center to improve the quality of nursing education. These projects demonstrate the U.S. commitment to supporting Cambodia’s economic development and assisting Cambodian educators in preparing the country’s youth for successful careers.
My heartfelt thanks go to all of the Cambodians and Americans who participate in the U.S. Fulbright program each year. I believe they are making a real difference.
My life changed dramatically the day my daughter was born. That was the day I was given responsibility for nurturing and guiding a precious baby girl through the journey of childhood, with all its bumps and turns, to becoming an empowered, resilient, and productive adult. I also knew that along the way I would need to work hard to ensure that she had the same chances for happiness and success as any of my sons. Now that I am serving in Cambodia and see similar struggles for this country’s young women, I am also concerned that these girls need to have the same access to education and opportunity, the same chances to succeed, and the same respect as their male peers. That’s why I was so pleased to visit the Don Bosco Vocational Training Center for Girls in Phnom Penh last week.
During my visit, I was particularly struck by the enthusiasm of the students as they prepare for the world beyond the classroom and by the optimism of the nuns who run the center. The young women are receiving training in important skills – such as typing, computer usage, and office management – that will make them more competitive in the market for good jobs. They are also learning general skills that will help them be successful with any undertaking in life, skills such as critical thinking, communication, and creativity. These dynamic young women are learning how to be lifelong learners, to think independently, and to be leaders. Providing opportunities to young women like these is a long-term investment in the future of Cambodia.
The Don Bosco organization operates several training centers in Cambodia, and there are many other charitable and non-governmental organizations that offer vital services to the Cambodian people. I am gratified that many of these organizations have received funding through USAID and other U.S. government agencies. Last week’s visit to the Vocational Training Center for Girls was a clear reminder that young Cambodians are working hard to become educated and successful in life and that there are many generous people dedicated to helping them achieve their goals. The visit was also a shining example of the invaluable contributions that Cambodia’s girls and young women can make – and are making – to their country.
How else can we help young women and girls maximize their access to education and other life-changing opportunities in Cambodia? I’d love to hear your ideas, so please leave a comment below.
When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the region two months ago, he highlighted the growing environmental threats to the Mekong River, its tributaries, and the 60 million people who rely on these rivers for their livelihoods. Returning to the Mekong River Delta, where he served as a patrol boat commander in the U.S. Navy more than 30 years ago, Secretary Kerry specifically mentioned his concerns about the impact of hydropower dams. As part of the ongoing U.S. effort to support sustainable development in Cambodia and its neighbors, Secretary Kerry dispatched Ambassador Scot Marciel, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, this week to learn more about the current state of hydropower development along the Mekong River and to discuss ways to make such projects more environmentally sustainable.
During his visit, Ambassador Marciel met with several ministers from the Royal Government to explore development strategies that could balance economic growth with the potential negative impact on the environment. Ambassador Marciel emphasized that while infrastructure development, including hydropower dams, can play a significant role in supporting economic growth in Cambodia, it is critically important to minimize the social and environmental impact of these projects. Ambassador Marciel also met with representatives from environmental NGOs to listen to their concerns, particularly the impact of dam projects on the livelihoods of the Cambodian people, and their ideas for mitigating such problems.
In an effort to facilitate regional coordination in addressing cross-border environmental issues, Ambassador Marciel also traveled to neighboring countries to convey the message that sustainable and environmentally sound development for countries along the Mekong is only possible through serious and close regional cooperation. That is why the United States is a strong supporter of the Lower Mekong Initiative as a regional mechanism to improve planning and decision-making on hydropower development on the Mekong River. Through dialogue and cooperation, the Lower Mekong countries can share the water of their treasured river system and protect its resources for the benefit of all. By working together, I believe we can find the right balance between economic growth and environmental protection.
To learn more about the Mekong River, the potential impacts of hydropower dams, and the work being done by environmental NGOs on this issue, I invite you to read my previous blog posts:
Please share with me your thoughts on the ways to balance Cambodia’s economic development with the need to protect the environment.
What is the most important investment we can make for the future? If you are a parent, I think you will agree with me that it is the education of our children. Benjamin Franklin once said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Research studies have shown that money spent on education yields significant returns in the form of higher income for the individual and greater economic productivity for society. That is why the U.S. government strongly supports efforts to enhance the quality of education and expand education opportunities in Cambodia. As part of this effort, I am particularly proud of our Life Skills Curriculum, which is helping Cambodian students gain the skills they need to succeed and thrive.
Through USAID’s Improved Basic Education in Cambodia (IBEC) project, World Education and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport worked jointly to develop the Life Skills Curriculum as a guide for teaching Cambodian secondary students key skills for the workplace and daily life. Lesson plans cover such topics as business skills, information technology, drug abuse prevention, and important social issues. To promote equal opportunity for girls and boys, World Education also worked closely with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to incorporate messages on gender awareness and equality into the curriculum and to provide support for teacher training on gender issues.
The Life Skills Curriculum is printed in an easy-to-use manual, with clear instructions that teachers can follow to create lesson plans, classroom activities, and exercises. Each manual comes with useful materials such as handouts for students, laminated learning slides, and re-usable posters. The manual also includes evaluation materials that will help monitor the effectiveness of both the teaching and learning of life skills. Prior to its official release, the Life Skills Curriculum was tested in more than 100 secondary schools in Cambodia, and the evaluations and feedback from school officials, teachers, students, and parents were very positive.
Life skills training also gives young Cambodians practical skills that can help smooth the transition from school to work. A well-trained, skilled workforce will make Cambodia a more attractive place to do business for both foreign investors and local entrepreneurs. Human talent is a valuable resource in today’s global economy. With over half of Cambodia’s population under the age of 24, wise investments today in educating and training Cambodia’s young population will pay tremendous dividends for the country in the future.
Beyond the tangible economic benefits, education also cultivates the minds and character of our youth, giving them the tools they need to overcome challenges and find fulfillment in life. Education and training will help young Cambodians become responsible, productive citizens, no matter what profession they choose. I never cease to be impressed by the energy of young Cambodians and their enthusiasm for the future. I continue to be a champion for their success, and I am proud that the IBEC project is helping to expand opportunities for young Cambodians.
How can we continue to enhance the education environment in Cambodia? I’d be curious to hear your ideas.
I was honored recently to present an award to a detachment of “Seabees” from the U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion who have been working in Cambodia for the past six months. As with other similar detachments that have been deployed to Cambodia over the years, the focus of this group of Seabees has been to use their engineering skills to improve sanitation and access to clean water and electricity for Cambodians in rural areas. Toward this effort, they have built new restroom facilities at primary schools in Sihanoukville and Siem Reap and at a health center in Phnom Penh. They also repaired and refurbished a water well at a health center in Takeo province. At a school in Sihanoukville, they repaired and installed electrical wiring and light fixtures to brighten the classrooms.
In speaking with these outstanding young women and men, I was so impressed to learn how strongly committed they have been to making a difference in Cambodia. When heavy rainfall left the ground too wet to accommodate vehicles transporting materials to a school renovation project in Siem Reap, the Seabees all pitched in and hand carried the needed equipment and materials to the work site. Also during their service here in Cambodia, they regularly worked six and seven days a week to overcome unexpected challenges and ensure construction projects were completed on time. This resolve really impressed me, but I am not surprised given the Seabees’ sterling reputation for dedication and hard work – after all, their unofficial motto is “Can do!”
Despite their short time in this country, the current Seabees team has had a tremendous impact, completing projects that have improved the lives of more than 50,000 Cambodians. And their close work with the local communities, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, and ministries in four provinces has helped to further strengthen the bonds of friendship and cooperation between our two countries.
The Seabees of U.S. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 3 continue to uphold a strong tradition of community service and highlight the remarkable professionalism and commitment of our U.S. military personnel. My heartfelt thanks go to these fine sailors for their important contributions to Cambodia.
Have you ever seen the work of the Seabees in your community? If so, please share your thoughts about their projects. To learn more about the Seabees, including the origin of their unique name, please read U.S. Navy Seabees Do Important Work in Cambodia.