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Friday, February 19, 2010

Cambodia's Fortunes Ebb And Flow Along The Mekong

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Asia. But it hasn't always been that way, and the Mekong River has been key to its periods of prosperity. Recovering from 20th century atrocities, the country now faces a new danger: Development is putting the river and its fish at risk.

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Asia. But it hasn't always been that way. The Khmer once ruled a vast kingdom that covered not just Cambodia but parts of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, too.

The empire had its capital at Angkor, near the present-day city of Siem Reap in northwest Cambodia. At its peak, nearly 1 million people lived in the city of Angkor — at a time when London was still a town of 20,000 or so.

The empire's crowning architectural achievement was the magnificent temple of Angkor Wat, one of several dozen temples built by the Angkorian kings, the ruins of which now draw tourists from all over the globe.

Water was key to the Khmer kingdom's prosperity: for irrigation, for drinking and for food from the fish that swam up the Mekong into the Tonle Sap River and the lake of the same name.

"No river, no life. No water, no life in Cambodia," says Pyyoak, my guide.

Invading armies also came up the Mekong in an effort to conquer the Khmer kingdom in the 12th century, a story told in the bas reliefs at Angkor's Bayon temple.

Pyyoak says the Champa, or Cham, came up the Mekong from the south, from what is now Vietnam, and occupied Angkor for four years, from 1177 until 1181.

The stone carvings depict the battle in vivid detail, right down to the uniforms worn by the competing armies.

Pyyoak points to another set of carvings on the wall that depict better times in the kingdom: floating villages, bountiful harvests and an abundance of fish in the river and the lake.

"From here, you can see the daily life of the people; they live on the Mekong River. You can see the floating village and some business people, they are selling on the Mekong River," he explains.
"And life was very good for the people of Angkor then — better than for Cambodians today?" I ask Pyyoak.

"Yes, I think that is right," he replies.

Floating Worlds Under Threat

The floating villages still exist today — the closest on the Tonle Sap Lake, just 20 minutes south of the Angkor ruins by car, then a half-hour more by boat. The Tonle Sap is the largest lake in Southeast Asia and, scientists say, the key to the biodiversity of the entire Mekong basin, thanks to the seasonal flooding of the Mekong and the lake.

Many of the floating villages are populated by ethnic Vietnamese, who just might be distant relatives of the Cham warriors who came up the Mekong to fight more than 800 years ago.

These villages are almost completely self-contained — with floating sawmills, metal shops and grocery boats — a water world where children are born, raised and sometimes die without ever having set foot on land. Batteries power their houseboats, complete with TVs, DVD players and karaoke machines. There are even floating bars to help slake the thirst of day-tripping tourists from nearby Angkor Wat.

But it's a hard life, says fisherman Do Van Thanh, 47, one made even more difficult by a dwindling catch — half what it used to be just a few years ago, he says.

His friend, Tran Van Loi, also 47, is no biologist, but he understands very well the relationship between the river, the lake and the fish, and he smells trouble.

There are more people fishing, he says, and that means fewer fish.

In the past, adult fish would lay their eggs in the Mekong. After hatching, the small fish would find their way to the Tonle Sap, grow up here, and then return to the Mekong, he says. But with so many people fishing, more fish are being caught younger, before they can lay their eggs, he says, and he knows that's not good.

Tran says if he could quit fishing now, he would — but there's no other way to make money.

Making enough money to survive is still a challenge for the majority in Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in Asia. It's a country that would probably be far better off had its recent history not included the four-year-long terror of the Maoist Khmer Rouge. From 1975 to 1979, the regime led by Pol Pot controlled the country, a time when an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians — a quarter of the country's population — died.

Dark Chapter

More than 30 years later, the country experienced a reckoning of sorts last November at the joint U.N. Cambodian Tribunal in the capital, Phnom Penh, where the Mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers converge. The man on trial was Kaing Guek Eav, known by the alias Comrade Duch, an aging Khmer Rouge commander who ran the infamous S-21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng.

The first senior Khmer Rouge leader to be tried, Duch was charged with crimes against humanity — which included savage beatings, extraction of fingernails and toenails with pliers, and electrocution. The torture ended for almost all of the prisoners at the killing field of Choeung Ek. An estimated 16,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng; fewer than a dozen are known to have survived.

In court, Duch admitted his guilt and begged for forgiveness.

"I still and forever wish to most respectfully and humbly apologize to the dead souls," he said through an interpreter. "To the survivors, I stand by my acknowledgment of all crimes inflicted on you at S-21. I acknowledge them in both the moral and legal context."

It was an extraordinary moment for many who have waited more than 30 years for some sort of justice and closure. Duch has yet to be sentenced. He claimed, just a few days after this dramatic testimony, that he was a "cog in the machine" who was "just following orders."

Living In And For The Present

But many Cambodians haven't paid much attention to the tribunal, the majority of the population having been born after that dark period in the country's history.

And Phnom Penh — the city the Khmer Rouge leaders once emptied of people in their bid to create an agrarian, utopian state — now has more people than ever.

The capital is attracting more foreign investment and more rural Cambodians looking for work, most of it in construction. The streets of the city are now choked with motorcycles and the Lexuses and Cadillac Escalades of the nouveau riche. The vehicles jockey for position as they pass the construction site of the Gold Tower 42, soon to be the city's newest and tallest skyscraper.

On the riverfront, giant vacuums suck sand from the bottom of the Mekong, which will be used to fill the city's famous Boeung Kak Lake, the site of a new high-end business and residential complex.

It is a controversial project, and a sensitive one, too, which explains why hard men with guns object to my visit to the site. Land grabs such as this one are the scourge of Southeast Asia, not just Cambodia: ordinary citizens displaced by rapacious developers and corrupt government officials.

Too Many People, Too Few Fish

Heading downriver from Phnom Penh, the scenery changes quickly. The new skyscrapers and casinos of the capital quickly give way to banana trees, rice and corn. The vast majority of Cambodia's 15 million people live in the countryside, where there is not much choice when it comes to earning a living: farming or fishing.

On this stretch of the Mekong, about 20 miles south of the capital, those who fish have the same complaints as the fishermen on the Tonle Sap.

Nguyen Quynh Thi and her husband haul in their second set of nets for the day, and it's the same as the first: nothing. It's nearly noon, but they will stay out a bit longer, they say, though Nguyen isn't quite sure why.

"Last year was better. The big fish would come down from the Tonle Sap and we could catch enough, and sell enough, to pay for fuel with a little left over for food. But every year it seems to get a little worse," she says.

Too many people chasing too few fish. Farther downstream, just short of where the Mekong flows into neighboring Vietnam, I stop to talk to one last fisherman.

Kong Hout, 48, says he and his family eat fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He catches it himself and says there is still enough to go around — for now, if you know where to look.

But what would happen, I ask, if there are no more fish. He doesn't hesitate.

"It would be an age of darkness," he says, with no trace of irony. Then, he thinks about it some more and comes up with something that, for him, is an even more horrible thought:

"Maybe, we'll have to start eating fish from cans."

Next, the journey down the Mekong ends in Vietnam.

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Minerva Fellows spotlight: Ned in Cambodia

Hello Union,
I am in the very interesting and mildly absurd kingdom of Cambodia, which isn't really a kingdom as far as I can tell, although there is a King and Crown Prince, so you never know. Politics might be a mess in the U.S. but they reach another level here. Recently the Prime Minister (I think that's his title) Hun Sen told a bunch of his military buddies that they should stop illegally foresting wood and using soldiers to maintain and improve their homes. His explanation as to why they should stop was they already had big houses and nice cars, so what was the point? This was sort of odd, because he seemed to be suggesting that doing morally ambiguous/wrong things wasn't bad, as long as you stopped once you have a material standard of living far above the average Cambodian, but lower than his.

Also, the police force seems to function as a suggestion of law rather than its physical manifestation. Let me tell you how I know - I've evaded them several times on my dirt bike. I got pulled over once for no reason and paid them a cash "fine". I wasn't really angry at the police, as they have horrifically bad salaries, but I have declined to donate to their cause since then. Hence, traffic laws are quite difficult to enforce, and people just do what they want. It sounds nuts, and can be kind of terrifying, but if I could bring one thing back to the US from Cambodia, It would probably be the flexible traffic laws.

Anyway, I've gotten away from myself here. Let me attempt to explain what I have been doing for the past seven-ish months, and what it's been like. I may try and delve into what I've learned, but that's a whole other barrel of apples, and isn't totally clear yet either.

So let's see. I'll try and break it up by notable occurrences. Arriving was pretty terrifying. As I was approaching the airport and getting closer and closer to Cambodia, like close enough to see rice paddies with cows and stuff, I was giddy with a mix of anxiety and excitement. The first three days or so it was an achievement to go buy food and water and walk in a two or three block radius of my hotel. As I got over that and moved into a friend of a friend's apartment for two weeks, things were briefly exciting. I was meeting cool people and learning a lot about what I was going to do.

After the hotel and friend's apartment I moved into my own place, and started going to a motorbike repair school that only taught in Khmer. I got to tear apart engines and put them back together which was cool, but they are super simple one cylinder deals, so it got old fairly quickly. I was at school for two months, during which time I also bought a dirt bike (something I have wanted since approximately age 5), and got to know the city and Khmer culture a bit better. The dirt bike was a massive pain though, and I got tired of school, since it was all in Khmer. I also knew people but didn't have their phone numbers and/or felt really awkward about hanging out with them which made being in the city pretty lonely. Being alone in a very strange place is odd, when you are so used to the social dynamic of college and boarding school. So…..

Then I moved to Sala Lekh Prahm, a town in Kampong Chnang province, affectionately known as "the boonies". I have a cool translator, an 18 year old dude named Sai Ha, who is quite helpful and has a similar sense of humor to me, which helps make living up there easier. Although he recently has started asking me how he can get to the U.S. and what jobs he could have if he came. I don't know how to tell him that I'm uncomfortable with the idea of being responsible for his welfare if he came to the States, as I would probably end up being.

Back to life in SLP though: It can be difficult because it's fairly isolating, and the whole starting a shop thing is easily the most difficult thing I have ever attempted/done in my life. Being responsible for people and the success of a business is very hard. Sometimes you just want a shower, a non squat toilet, and a sink to wash your damn hands in. But instead you take a dipper bath and carry on your merry way.

So I've been in SLP for roughly 4-5 months, and have had the world's biggest party trying to start a business to employ a bunch of dudes from Tramoung Chrum, which is a very small village about an hour outside of SLP. It's all Cham people, who are a religious/ethnic minority. After moving out to SLP, I sent two guys from Tramoung Chrum to the moto-repair school I had attended in PP, began preparing the space and buying equipment with my translator, and briefly tried to teach a group of young men from Tramoung Chrum how to repair motos before the guys who went to school were finished. When the guys going to vocational school finished, we transferred to having a running shop, which is essentially where I am at now, trying to figure out how to keep the business running after I leave. If I was being polite and reserved, I would say it was tricky.

I'm not really in the mood to be strictly polite though, and feel quite comfortable revealing what an astonishingly difficult time this has been for me. I have been really confused about life while being here. I'm trying to figure out what motivates me, what I'm interested in, how I define my 'self', blah existential angst, blah blah. Trying to start this shop while dealing with all this emotional/psychological brou-ha-ha has been a challenge, to say the least. Hopefully in the long run it will be for the best though.

I guess I won't labor the issue, although I would encourage everyone to give more thought to their lives, what they are looking for, what makes them happy, etc. Really, that's mostly what I wanted to write about for this piece. I would implore you to really consider yourself and your life. Why do you drink, what is it about the release of getting wasted that college students deem so necessary to enjoy themselves? Why do you want a job? If you are in a job you hate, are you going to have the strength to get out? Is security more important to you than following some ideal path? Is the concept that people have ideal paths a bunch of nonsense?

I don't know. I don't have any answers, and I'm struggling pretty hard to figure out this stuff out for myself. But I encourage you to get extremely far out of your comfort zone, see what happens, and go from there. In the long run….. well maybe it won't help, but if you don't try then what's the point?
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East Asia’s economy could suffer if seas are not protected, says UN report

19 February 2010 – East Asia’s economically viable coastal habitats and ecosystems are under threat from pollution, alien invasive species and other factors which could impact the region’s poverty levels unless urgent action is taken, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said in a new report.

“With nearly three quarters of the region’s population depending directly or indirectly on coastal areas, and with 80 per cent of the region’s GDP linked to the coastal natural resources, the time must be right for factoring the marine environment into the centre of economic planning,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

The East Asian Seas State of the Marine Environment report said economically important coastal habitats and ecosystems are under pressure as 40 per cent of coral reefs and half of all mangroves have already been lost. Coral reefs generate an estimated $112.5 billion and mangroves $5.1 billion annually.

The East Asian Seas – which includes the region between China, the Republic of Korea and Australia – have some of the world’s highest concentrations of shipping and fishing vessel activity. They account for 50 per cent of global fisheries production and 80 per cent of global aquaculture production.

“These ocean ecosystems are a critical lifeline for the region’s economies and people. You can say that the health of these oceans and their ecosystems is very much tied to the economic health of these countries and well-being of their citizens,” said Chou Loke Ming, author of the report produced by UNEP’s Coordinating Body of the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA).

Mr. Ming noted that the East Asian Seas account for 30 per cent of the world’s seas under national jurisdiction and called on the governments in the region – which also include Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam – to have a major role in maintaining effective stewardship of the marine environment.

The report recommended a more systematic and integrated approach to managing coastal and oceanic issues, including improved data collection and management, and economic incentives to encourage private sector involvement in environmental protection efforts.

“Such actions can support better decision-making, national assessments of coastal and ocean resources and conditions, [and] enhanced public private partnerships” the report stated.
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Khmer Krom: Police finish documentation for Khmer Krom deportees

22 Khmer Krom who were deported from Thailand have finished application for Cambodian citizenship.

DOCUMENTATION necessary for members of a group of Khmer Krom seeking Cambodian citizenship has been completed, a police official said Wednesday, amid fears that the 22 men, women and children who were deported from Thailand last year will lose the financial support of the NGO sheltering them at the end of the month.

Information for the individuals that was originally collected in January was sent to district authorities Wednesday, said commune Police Chief Tep Bora.

“The documents are complete now,” he said. “Before, it was difficult because the documents lacked information.”

The group was deported from Thailand as illegal immigrants after fleeing Vietnam, where they said they endured constant religious repression.

The asylum seekers have been waiting for formal identification from authorities since arriving in the Kingdom.

The identification cards are crucial for the group to visit hospitals, gain employment, enrol in schools and rent houses.

Five of the original group of 24 have returned to Thailand since December, fed up with government inaction regarding the issuing of the cards.

But a further three have since been deported by Thai authorities and have joined the group at Meanchey district’s Boeung Tumpun commune, where they have been assisted by the rights group Licadho.

Khmer Krom representative Thach Soong, 49, said Tuesday the group is still concerned about the lack of information it has received regarding the processing of the ID cards.

“We have completed the documents to send to the commune office and district office, but we have not heard any information,” he said. “We are still waiting to get legal [recognition] in Cambodia because we want to find jobs to support ourselves.”

He said that time is running out for the deportees, as Licadho can support them only until the end of February, and that their rent will run out at the end of March. “We are concerned about living. We have no jobs,” he said.

Vietnamese crackdown

In the meantime, Vietnamese authorities have banned Khmer Krom in Vietnam from watching television or listening to radio broadcasts from Cambodia, activists said, just a day after Cambodia’s Ministry of Information granted permission to the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Association (KKA) to produce programme ideas for state radio stations.

Thach Setha, director of KKA, said he had received word from Khmer Krom living in Vietnam that they had been warned against listening to or watching Cambodian broadcasts.

“Vietnamese authorities have released a written prohibition ... banning all Khmer Krom from watching TV and listening to radio from Cambodia,” he said, adding that Vietnamese authorities were patrolling around Khmer Krom houses and some pagodas. Violators “can face a savage fine of up to 10 million dong (US$535)”.

Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Ho Vann criticised the prohibition as “racial discrimination”.

“I request that Vietnamese reconsider the stopping of the freedom to access media,” he said. “The Cambodian government ... allows the Vietnamese government and its people the right to set up broadcasting through Cambodia.”

A spokesman from the Vietnamese embassy in Cambodia could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

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