Life and volunteering in Cambodia Part 2 … “do they know it’s Christmas time at all … and stories from the Pol Pot era.
This is now early January.
A couple of weeks ago, in my town of Kampong Chhang, I was beginning to hum “do they know it’s Christmas time at all” as there were no signs of Christmas, no Xmas trees, lights or santas about the place, which I was really glad about, as I really dislike the commercialisation which seems to begin in the UK earlier every year, and, given that this is not a Christian country, I didn’t expect there to be celebrations. Then I went to Phnom Penh for a weekend … cashiers in the supermarkets wearing santa hats, Xmas trees in lots of bars and restaurants, Xmas lights in the centralareas, blow up santas outside shops, and lots of little, children-sized santa outfits for sale (and they were still for sale on Christmas day – obviously, supply outstripped demand).
Some local colleagues told me it’s only in the last couple of years that Christmas has become popular, and popular mainly with young people in the capital … and it was definitely good business for some of the shops and bars!
I spent the Christmas weekend in Phnom Penh, having fruit juices in the morning at the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) whilst listening to “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” and similar songs … the FCC, I think featured in the film, the Killing Fields, as its where the press used to hang out up until the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh and Cambodia in 1975. Later in the day, a group of VSO volunteers and staff set out on a boat for a sunset cruise, on the Tonle Sap and Mekong … again, singing Christmas songs … it was very beautiful seeing the city from the rivers, all lit up, although rather strange being in the heat (even when dark) singing the sorts of songs, you always associate with cold, snow and ice.
“Count down day” or New Year’s Eve seemed to be more popular across all ages … although in Cambodia they celebrate the new year in April, and also celebrate Chinese New Year, which seems also to fall around a similar time … and I gather these are really big celebrations. My young translator, Ra Ner, went to Siem Reap, where her home is, to celebrate “count down” with her friends from university … they had all agreed to meet at this time, as, within the next few years, they all anticipate being elsewhere, studying in other countries, working in other parts of the country, or maybe married, and so it might be the only chance to be together. She is hoping to get a scholarship to Thailand, to continue studying about the fish sector, and has long term ambitions to set up her own business.
I went to Battambang for the New Year weekend. It’s about 3 hours north, travelling by VIP bus – this just means it’s not like the larger buses which tend to make lots of stops, and so take more like 5-6 hours to get to Battambang. And very comfortable compared to travelling by mini-bus taxis in Uganda … you have a seat to yourself, there is air conditioning, you are given water, and they stop at nice places for comfort breaks!
Battambang is a really nice city … a slower pace of life to Phnom Penh, but definitely more up market than Kampong Chhang! There’s lots of nice eating places … and after weeks of only eating rice or noodles … I just tend to head for the western food when I can get it … so I’m probably missing some of the great Khmer food in Battambang!
The city is along the river, with tree-lined pedestrian spaces to walk along the river … and one side, in the gardens it’s the height of activity late afternoons and early evening … Zumba classes out in the open, lots of people speed walking, and a sort of shuttlecock game, which people kick to each other. Battambang is also the “arts” centre of Cambodia, and there are lots of small galleries and other cultural activities – mainly run by Cambodians, and some ex-pats.
One of the highlights for me is the young people’s circus, Phare Ponleu Selpak. It’s an initiative which was started in the 1990s, using art, and, at the time, mainly drawing and painting to help young people deal with and heal from the traumas of the Khmer Rouge regime … so, although the regime was kicked out of the capital in 1979, it continued to operate in parts of the country, until the 1990s (and Battambang, and areas with the Thailand border were particularly affected). The circus is amazing … it’s in the style of Cirque de Soleil … and, in fact, when I first saw the circus, as part of a local arts festival in mid-November, one of the performers had a t-shirt with “Cirque de Cambodia … from the rice fields to the big times” … and another performer talked about having gone on to train with the Cirque de Soleil.
It’s the sheer enthusiasm of the young people who are in the shows, and they are obviously perceived as positive role models by other young people. The money from tickets goes to support the schooling and on-going education of young people … so, if you or friends are visiting Cambodia, it’s a “must do”!
Battambang was packed for New Years Eve … you could hardly move up the streets by the riverside, which were full of stalls selling everything from food to mattresses, wardrobes, clothes. it seemed like half of Cambodia was there buying. There were stages, and fireworks going off at different times of the night, paper lanterns with wishes being set off in the sky … and New Year’s Eve was brought in to the tune of “happy birthday to you”. And, whilst lots of people were sitting in bars or cafes drinking beer, there didn’t feel to be any sense of drunkenness or aggression … and it was probably the latest I’ve stayed up in all my time in Cambodia!
Today is 7 January, and a public holiday, as this is the date in 1979 when Vietnamese troops pushed Pol Pot and his regime out of power. During the Khmer Rouge era, about 1.5 million of a population of 7-8 million died. I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum a few weeks earlier. It used to be a school, but was turned into a torture prison, S 21, by the Khmer Rouge, and over 17,000 people were held here. The overwhelming majority, after torture, were dumped in mass graves in one of the killing fields, just outside Phnom Penh. When Vietnamese troops liberated the city, only 7 prisoners were left alive. The Museum is pretty gruesome, you can see evidence of the types of torture used, and the Khmer Rouge also photographed all prisoners. So, you see some of the many individuals who were held and tortured here, which puts a human face and story to the statistics. It’s a chilling reminder of what horrors humankind can inflict on each other.
But, one of the astonishing things I heard at the museum was that the international community, through the UN, USA, and UK (amongst others), continued to officially recognise the Pol Pot regime, as the official government of Cambodia, until the early 1990s. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge continued to operate in exile, and, as I said earlier, continued to terrorise parts of the country until the early 1990s. However, they were given the Cambodian seat in the UN. As a result, there was an embargo on any UN aid going to Cambodia, despite the situation in the country at the time, whilst at the same time, evidence of the UK and others, supplying arms and land mines to the Khmer Rouge. There are still vast areas of the countryside, where you are advised to take care if walking and only go with local guides, as many areas are yet to be cleared. As a result of landmines, there is a really high proportion of the population missing limbs … many when they were young children playing in fields. And I think the UK still continues to be a main exporter of land mines to many countries, despite the long term impact on civilian population.
Local colleagues sometimes talk of the impact of the Khmer Rouge era on their families … with fathers or mothers having no siblings left alive by the end of the Khmer Rouge rule, or older brothers or sisters who died because of starvation, and one of the lasting impacts, another colleague said, is the breakdown of trust … as, during the Khmer Rouge era, you could not trust anyone, as people were encouraged to denounce others with the promise of a few more grains of rice.
It’s been a busy time in my placement. Some of this has been very much office based, supporting the Project Manager and other senior managers to develop a project plan and monitoring frameworks. It’s been hard work, partly because my translator is quite young and inexperienced (so it is difficult to sometimes convey my suggestions or receive comments back), and partly because it seems like the organisation has not really developed detailed project plans before, so it is a new experience for them – and they are on a steep learning curve, as any project which is EU-funded has tight deadlines and clear deliverables. So, I can see this is going to be a challenge as the project develops, but I will have a more experienced translator who will be working with me, as a Project Assistant, from now on.
You may, or may not, be aware but, with the reduction in UK Government funding to VSO, VSO has changed the way it operates. In the past, volunteers were placed with organisations or government bodies, and this was largely funded by the UK Government and through private fundraising. Now, VSO funds professional volunteer placements as a result of successful funding proposals, which might have been submitted to the EU, or other major donors. This places much stricter demands on deliverables (ie what needs to be achieved) from partner organisations, which I think is a good thing, but also throws up the challenges, where organisations have limited capacity, as the one I am placed with.
There has also been a lot of field work to collect baseline data, which will inform some of the project activities, and also provide data for measuring progress. This has also been a challenge, as it seems to be a new activity for the field staff, and so an area for future training. It has meant I have been out to the field a few times, visiting different fishing communities, which helps put what I am doing into context. For half the year, many of the communities are surrounded by water, and those who have animals, move them to a different site; roads no longer exist, and the only ways in and out are by boat; and then, for the other half of the year, as the waters subside, land emerges for growing rice and other crops, animals return, you can travel to other villages by bike or motorbike. But, as with other parts of the world, climate change means changes in the weather patterns, which disrupts traditional times for planting or fishing – and with no new pattern set, it can have serious impacts on livelihoods.
We are in the dry season now, but a week before Christmas there were really heavy rains. This meant that meetings in the communities had to be cancelled, and again tonight we have had heavy rains. All unusual for this time of the year. have yet to fully understand the impact, and implications for the work I am doing, but one aspect of the project is to build resilience against climate change, which might mean encouraging growing different crops or different types of rice, or at different times of the year.
I will finish now, as it’s dark. I’m sitting on my balcony as it’s the coolest place to be, but the mozzies are out enjoying the rain as well … so I need to get covered up.