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Last Updated: Friday, 3 August 2007, 11:20 GMT 12:20 UK
Worries remain as Cambodia recovers
By Juliana Liu
Asia Business Report, BBC World, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia street
The chance meeting started a shared future
They met on the dusty streets of Phnom Penh, where he was sweeping the roads for a living and she zipped by on a motorbike with her older sister.

"You know him?" Chim Kong, now 31, asked her sister.

The chance meeting blossomed into a relationship, then marriage and a daughter. And now, a thriving business in downtown Phnom Penh selling silk handicrafts mainly to tourists.

For Sam Oeurn Ouk, also now 31, peace means a chance to build a life and a business with his wife.

Both are survivors of Cambodia's brutal past. He lost his father to the Khmer Rouge, she a leg to landmines.

But they are determined to succeed in the new Cambodia, where peace has reigned since 1999.

"When I was younger, working as a street sweeper and construction worker, I did not dream I would have all this," Sam says, gesturing to his wife and their boutique, Ta Prohm Silk, located near the National Museum.

"My country is now peaceful, no more war. If we compare now to five, 10 years ago, well that was bad. Now tourists are coming back."

Possible oil reserves

The pair sell handbags and furnishings made from strong, shimmering Cambodian silk. Everything is produced by hand by two dozen workers, most of whom live with the couple in their home. Some are - like Chim Kong - victims of landmines.

Education has to play a role, to provide people with jobs that will move up the ladder of value added export
Sam Oeurn Ouk,
Cambodian entrepreneur

Tourism and garment making are the top foreign exchange earners for the country, which according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has a tiny economic output of just $7.3bn (3.65bn).

The economy grew more than 10% in 2006 and is expected to grow more than 9% this year, according to the Fund.

Growth has been concentrated in the garments and tourism sectors, which employs relatively few people. Agriculture has lagged behind and Cambodia is still one of the world's poorest countries. A third of the people live on the equivalent of less than 25 pence per day.]

Yet foreign investors, scouring the world to make returns on their money, are starting to discover Cambodia.

Here, they are faced with a weak legal system, deep-seated corruption, a lack of basic infrastructure and a poorly educated work force.

Nevertheless, they are coming, especially the Chinese and South Koreans. And the influx has picked up after the global energy giant Chevron recently said it had found deposits off Cambodia's coast.

Tragic history

This week, the heads of the IMF and the World Bank came to Cambodia, both for the first time, to see for themselves what it is like.

Sam Oeurn Ouk
We never know the political situation. The country could collapse, so we are still scared
Sam Oeurn Ouk

Impressed with the country's rapid growth, outgoing IMF chief Rodrigo de Rato also believes that the government must invest much more on education.

The literacy rate in Cambodia is just 74% - which means one in four Cambodians cannot read - compared with more than 90% in neighbouring Vietnam.

"We see the need for higher employment," Mr de Rato tells BBC News in Phnom Penh. "To do that, education has to play a role, to provide people with jobs that will move up the ladder of value added exports.

Relatively low literacy rates are a consequence of Cambodia's history. Nearly two million people, a quarter of the population, died from mass killings under the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. Decades of war followed.

"Cambodia has a very tragic history, a recent one," Mr de Rato observes. "That makes it more acute."

Uncertain future

For Mr Sam and Mrs Kong in Phnom Penh, the future looks bright but uncertain.

Cows outside a home i Cambodia
Cambodia remains one of the world's poorest countries

They want to have another child, but plan to wait until elections next year to make sure the country is stable.

With no access to bank loans, it is difficult to expand their business.

"We have the idea to make money, but the money comes slowly," Mr Sam says.

"We never know the political situation. The country could collapse, so we are still scared."

First Khmer Rouge leader charged
31 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: Cambodia
17 Jul 07 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Cambodia
17 Jul 07 |  Country profiles

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