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Cambodia Kingdom

Friday, June 17, 2011

Land of ancient shrines, floating villages fascinates Edmonton couple

Peter and Cheryl Mahaffy pause in front of Angkor Wat in Cambodia’s Siem Reap province during an afternoon spent exploring a few of the historic temples by bike.

A touchdown in gritty Cambodia to visit a daughter interning with a local water project has lodged disparate snapshots in my brain.

I see ancient temples at once held up and torn down by massive trees. Hindu shrines turned Buddhist (or vice versa) with an axe, a chisel or a draped cloth.

Villages that not only float, but move with the seasons. A museum alive with notebook-toting youngsters learning about the genocide that killed so many of their kin.

Disparate though they may be, the scenes all reflect a certain resilience — an ability to flex, to incorporate whatever comes as a way of surviving.

In the Angkor region of northwest Cambodia, we encounter a striking example in 800-year-old Ta Prohm. A Buddhist monastery and university that once housed as many as 12,000 people and employed thousands more, Ta Prohm faded into the jungle for centuries following the fall of the surrounding Khmer empire in 1431.

Brought to light along with dozens of neighbouring temples in the early 1900s, Ta Prohm was left partly embedded in the massive trees that had draped themselves up, over and inside it.

The result is an amazing symbiosis of wood and stone. Each needs the other to remain standing even as it hastens the other’s demise. The effect is atmospheric, photogenic, awe-inspiring.

Perhaps it’s no wonder Ta Prohm appears in the film Tomb Raider, on the cover of Lonely Planet and (as we discover while wandering area shops) in much local art.

Ta Prohm is but one of the thousand or more temples that make up the sprawling Angkor UNESCO World Heritage Site. As we stand in awe at the sheer size of each stone, let alone the intricate carving still evident despite erosion, bombing, looting and (in the last dozen years) escalating tourism, others come to worship.

For here, as belief evolves, icons of faith are not only smashed and beheaded but also used in new ways. It’s not unusual to find a small chamber where people are burning incense and offering lotus flowers before a Hindu god turned Buddhist with an orange drape to cover the nakedness.

While we might cringe and call it desecration, flexing has kept the temples relevant — and not only as Cambodia’s top tourist attraction.

A visit to floating villages not far from the temples, at the edge of the aptly named Tonle Sap or Great Lake, reinforces the sense of Cambodian flex. Not only houses, but pig pens, chicken coops, shops, restaurants and an entire school bob on the water, held up by bunches of bamboo.

Chugging down “Main Street” in a modified fishing boat whose propeller periodically gums up with reeds, we pass villagers poling hither and yon in dugouts carrying everything from teapots to firewood. On the wooden front porches, women mend nets, elders lounge in hammocks and kids stop their play to gaze at the intruders.

Every monsoon season, these villages pull up anchor and move kilometres further into the lake. The reason is simple — and amazing. In dry season, the Tonle Sap drains into the Mekong River at Phnom Penh, 150 km away. As the rains come and as faraway glaciers melt, the flow reverses and the lake balloons in size, bringing a rich supply of fish for the catching.

When dry season returns, the lake shrinks, creating pockets of water amid rich marsh and mangrove, perfect breeding ground for fish. By taking advantage of this annual pulse, the villages have made the Tonle Sap one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world, providing 60 per cent of Cambodia’s protein intake.

Like the water of the Tonle Sap, we enter and exit Cambodia through its capital, Phnom Penh. Compelled to face the country’s bloodbath under Pol Pot, we spend an afternoon at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

“Tuol Sleng” can be translated “Hill of Poisonous Trees” or “Strychnine Hill,” and the name fits. From 1975 to 1979, this former high school became a place of torture and often death for supposed enemies of the Khmer Rouge.

Many of the instruments of torture remain starkly present: shackles, waterboards, electrocution units and an exercise bar turned gallows. Row upon row of photos of doomed prisoners in agony are coupled with paintings by a former inmate, who was kept alive to paint for the Pol Pot regime and now unleashes his memories on canvas. All testify to the horror of a place where even babies were bayonetted and dashed to the ground.

Much of a generation was snuffed out here and in killing fields outside the city, and almost the entire population was driven to out to subsist on a diet of enforced farming, hunger and fear. Phnom Penh left empty, with dark, achingly silent streets, is a place we cannot imagine.

More than three decades later, the aftermath continues. The kingpin of Tuol Sleng, often known as Duch, was sentenced for crimes against humanity just this year, and other trials carry on.

Our daughter’s colleagues, children of the dead, learn to parent without role models, their stories echoing those of residential school survivors in Canada.

Yet the fact that schoolchildren are tromping through the echoing corridors of Tuol Sleng, notebooks in hand, is itself a beacon of hope. As are the again-teeming streets, a feast for the eyes, nostrils and ears with their sidewalk barbers, massage clinics, fix-it shops, roasting pigs, tuk tuks and people on the move.

This country may be bent, I think, but it’s too flexible to break.
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Tribunal Judges Issue Warning to Media Over Leaks

Investigating judges at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal issued a sharp warning to media outlets on Friday, in an attempt to forbid them from printing information from confidential, leaked documents of the

The Christian Science Monitor and the Associated Press have provided detailed coverage of a controversial case at the court, naming two suspects judges have said should remain anonymous based on a leaked prosecution submission.

The judges, Siegfried Blunk and You Bunleng, threatened legal action against media outlets that publish or broadcast the names of the suspects. It remains unclear under what authority the court would pursue such action.

The judges said they had “credible information” the prosecution’s introductory submission had been leaked by “a disloyal staff member” of the court, and said, “warning is hereby given that anyone publishing information from this confidential document is liable to be subjected to proceedings for interference with the administration of justice” under court rules.

The investigating judges have come under increased criticism for their handling of Case 003, after they hastily concluded their investigation in April without conducting field investigations or interviewing the two chief suspects.

The court has kept the names of the suspects confidential. However, the Christian Science Monitor, citing court documents in reports on June 10 and June 15, identified them as Khmer Rouge naval commander Meas Muth and air force commander Sou Met.

The US-based paper said they were accused of “shared responsibility” for crimes including torture, murder and forced labor.

“In particular, Sou Met and Meas Mut[h] participated in a criminal plan to purge the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea of all undesirable elements, which resulted in at least thousands and quite probably tens of thousands of deaths,” the Monitor reported, citing court documents.

Tribunal spokesman Huy Vannak said that the judges had not considered any actions yet, but that “any documents that are not issued by the court are unofficial.”

Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said Friday the case was already publicly known, but the naming of suspects did “touch on the rights of the accused.”
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CAMBODIA: Mass faintings reported at another garment plant

Garment workers in Cambodia have fallen ill in a further report of mass fainting in the country.

Around 250 female workers at King Fashion factory in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh fainted this week, because of bad working conditions, according to Chea Mony, president of Free Trade Union.

Mony said about 150 workers fainted on Wednesday, and that the number could rise as some workers were transported to hospital by family and friends.

This was followed by another mass fainting of 100 people on Thursday morning, Born Sam Ath, a local police official, told the local media.

The workers suspected that chemical odours from cotton and bad quality water they drank in the factory were to blame.

King Fashion Garment Co, a Taiwanese-owned dress manufacturer, was unavailable to comment when contacted by just-style.

It is a different manufacturer to Heuy Chuen (Cambodia) Corp, which reported a mass fainting of 101 workers making footwear for sportswear firm Puma in April. A subsequent investigation by Puma diagnosed hypoglycaemia, a medical term for lower than normal levels of blood glucose.
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Thai Yellow Shirts Protest Against Leaders, UNESCO Temple Listing

Cambodia's famed Preah Vihear temple, which is enlisted as UNESCO's World Heritage site, in Preah Vihear province (file photo).

Thailand's royalist Yellow Shirts have protested outside the United Nations Cultural agency in Bangkok, urging it to withdraw world heritage status for a Cambodian temple near disputed territory. They also paraded through the Thai capital encouraging people not to vote in July 3 elections. The nationalist movement has stopped supporting the current government, saying it is too weak on the border dispute.

At least 2,000 yellow-dressed protesters demonstrated Friday outside of the Bangkok office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

They nationalists want UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, which meets Sunday in Paris, to de-list a temple in Cambodia near disputed territory.

The 900-year-old Khmer Hindu temple called Preah Vihear in Cambodia and Phra Viharn in Thailand was declared a world heritage site in 2008.

The listing sparked nationalist fervor on both sides and sporadic and deadly clashes between Thai and Cambodian soldiers.

Protester Vipida Thaisawat says Cambodia is using the world heritage status to encroach on Thai land. Like some other nationalists, she claims the temple is in Thai territory.

"Actually, [getting the] temple back [to Thailand] or not is not the point," Vipida noted. "But, the point right now is they [Cambodia] want the land around Phra Viharn to register as a world heritage [under Cambodia]. And, we can't let that happen."

Cambodia has proposed a joint management plan for the temple complex, which the World Heritage Committee is reviewing and may decide on next week.

Thailand has urged the plan be delayed until a decision is reached on the land surrounding the temple, which both sides claim.

Cambodia last month asked the International Court of Justice in The Hague to rule on the disputed 4.6-square-kilometer area around the temple.

The ICJ ruled in 1962 that the temple itself is in Cambodia, but made no decision on the surrounding land. The court's ruling is expected sometime early next year.

The Yellow Shirts paraded Friday from the UNESCO office through Bangkok, directing most of their anger at Thai politicians.

They urged Thai people not to vote in a July 3 election, saying none of the parties have Thailand's true interests at heart, including the ruling Democrats they once supported.

The Yellow Shirts say the government has been weak in the border dispute with Cambodia and are demanding it stop cooperating with UNESCO and Phnom Penh.

The Thai government has waffled on whether it wants the withdrawal of the temple's World Heritage status, but has also dismissed the Yellow Shirt demands.

Meanwhile, the border remains tense with both militaries on alert. Clashes between the two sides killed at least 10 people in February. Another 18 died in fighting in April near another ancient temple complex about 150 kilometers farther west.

Each side blamed the other for starting the fight.
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