Tag Archives: Phnom Penh

Farewell, Cambodia

Children play in the alleyways that lead into Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

Children play in the alleyways that lead into Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

When I got on the China Eastern airlines flight that would take me out of Cambodia after living and working in the Kingdom for nearly three years, my emotions were predictably volatile. Cambodia had fostered me when I had been lacking direction and adrift in the beginnings of a new career, and as time progressed and I started traveling more and more on assignments, had given me a safe harbour to return to between trips. Cambodia allowed me to call it home even though I had little to offer in exchange.

I met hundreds of people – both Khmers and foreigners alike – who had welcomed, taught, and inspired me at different times and in different ways. From a portfolio review on my third week in the country by the prolific Magnum photographer and long-time Cambodia hand John Vink to my last assignment photographing anti-logging activist Ouch Leng for The New York Times almost three years later, Cambodia helped me to develop as a photographer faster than I ever thought possible.

A street scene in Borei Keila in the evening as adults begin to return from work. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A street scene in Borei Keila in the evening as adults begin to return from work.

It was in Cambodia that I learned, through Ruom Collective, that working in a team can often result stronger work than any one individual, no matter how dedicated, could accomplish. It was also there that I met photographer Gareth Bright, who would become my chief partner in crime for nearly two years of exploring the Mekong river and who taught me more about the style and art of photography than any formal education could have. Without a doubt I left Cambodia in better form than when I’d arrived.

But what about the Cambodians themselves? Populated by some of the kindest and most peaceful people I’ve ever encountered after nearly a decade of international travel, had Cambodia become a better place for its own people to live?

Admittedly this is a much more complex question than I am temporally and intellectually capable of answering (for one of the best overviews of modern Cambodia, try Hun Sen’s Cambodia by Sebastian Strangio), but I can draw conclusions based on my time interacting with Cambodians across all sectors of society. And unfortunately, what I saw was not, for the most part, positive.

A group of women gamble to pass the time in Borei Keila. With few employment opportunities, many residents of the community have little to do during the day, leading to high instances of gambling. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A group of women gamble to pass the time in Borei Keila. With few employment opportunities, many residents of the community have little to do during the day, leading to high instances of gambling.

In his farewell address to Southeast Asia after a decade of reporting from the region, New York Times journalist Thomas Fuller said “I came to see Southeast Asia as a land of great people and bad governments, of remarkable graciousness but distressing levels of impunity.” This sentiment matches perfectly with my own experiences in Cambodia, and it makes me fear for the future of the country and its people.

Despite a protracted period of widespread protests and sporadic-yet-savage violence in 2014, the incumbent Cambodian People’s Party maintained its grip on power and steadily continued its attack on any organization or person who threatened its authority. The gap between rich and poor widened to ever more ludicrous distances and corruption spread deeper throughout the nation’s governmental and bureaucratic institutions. Public servants with tiny salaries bought $15 million houses in Phnom Penh while working class families, both in the cities and countryside, were evicted from their homes to make way for luxury condominiums and hydropower dams.

The community of Borei Keila is a microcosm of a trend that has been happening throughout Cambodia since before I arrived, and is likely to continue long after I have left. The images that appear throughout this article were all taken in Borei Keila over a period of several months, and were the last serious subject matter I documented for any length of time before leaving the country. The process of making these photographs, therefore, greatly influenced my final impressions of a country I called home for three years.

A couple watch over their three grandchildren. The children were left in their care when the children's mother developed a drug addiction and left Phnom Penh. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A couple watch over their three grandchildren. The children were left in their care when the children’s mother developed a drug addiction and left Phnom Penh.

In 2003, the property development conglomerate Phanimex was awarded development rights to the area and promptly evicted the hundreds of families who lived there. While some were provided with new housing, many hundreds more were offered no compensation and were forced to remain in the site, living in squalid slums without basic infrastructure, such as plumbing. Waste removal services were unreliable, and over time a two meter tall mound of festering garbage rose behind the squatter shacks, bringing thick swarms of flies.

More than 10 years later in January of 2016, the issue was supposedly resolved and a formal ceremony was held in Borei Keila, replete with representatives from City Hall. Yet the final “resolution” (either a new apartment, a small plot of land in the countryside, or a cash payment for remaining Borei Keila residents), beyond being offered more than a decade too late, still neglected to offer anything 35 families. What will happen to these people I have no idea. Based on the past, it seems unlikely that either the government or Phanimex does either.

One is left with the distinct impression that no one in a position of power cares what happens.

A man tends to his flock of chickens which he keeps inside an abandoned apartment unit in Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A man tends to his flock of chickens which he keeps inside an abandoned apartment unit in Borei Keila.

In the climate of mega-tycoons and oligarchs that has taken nearly complete control of the power mechanisms of Cambodia, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will be held accountable for the consequences of such neglect. These are the “distressing levels of impunity” that Fuller refers to, and they have come to define both the Kingdom as well as much of the wider region.

As I leave Cambodia for Latin America I am acutely aware of how much I benefitted from my time in the country, both personally and professionally, which in turn makes me conscious of how few of the same benefits are available to the average Cambodian.

There are, it should be said, noteworthy examples of an emerging young middle class who are thriving despite the challenges they face. My good friend and colleague Kimlong Meng, for example, who has built himself a thriving local media empire on the back of his own hard work and creativity. A team of five under-30 independent Khmer entrepreneurs founded Brown, a chain of modern cafes that have come to dominate Phnom Penh’s coffee culture. There are others.

A family lays on the floor of their home as they check their cell phones.The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A family lays on the floor of their home as they check their cell phones.

Yet as I sat on the tarmac waiting for my flight to take me out of Cambodia, I couldn’t shake the feeling that for most Cambodians things were going to get harder. It brings no pleasure to project negativity onto a people and culture that is so deserving of prosperity, and I sincerely wish the best for the country that treated me with such incredible kindness. But until some significant changes take place at the highest levels, I can’t help but fear that more Borei Keilas will be created by the decisions of those with impunity.

Until the majority of Cambodians can thrive in their own country as I was able to, it will be hard to remember my time in the Kingdom without a tinge of sadness.

Farewell for now Cambodia, and good luck.

For more images of Borei Keila, have a look at my personal edit of 20 pictures, or this even longer archival edit of nearly 30 pictures

Posted in Black and White, Blog, Cambodia, Poverty Also tagged , , , , , |

And Upon You Peace

Roughly 250 families inhabit the Cham village.

Roughly 250 families inhabit the Cham village at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 

Even after seven months of regular contact, it was hard to know how Yu Sos felt about us. A short, swarthy man with a wiry neck beard, he was not prone to outbursts of cheer; I could count the number of times I had seen him smile using my fingers alone, and I had never seen him laugh. When Gareth and I first met him we initially assumed he didn’t like us, but over the course of our relationship he had repeatedly demonstrated exceptional generosity and patience, furthering our confusion about the paradox between his actions and his outward mood. For more than half a year we had looked forward to our visits to his family’s house boat at the confluence of the Mekong and Cambodia’s Tonle Sap rivers in Phnom Penh, while simultaneously fearing that he secretly hated us. It wasn’t until A River’s Tail gave us a budget to employ a dedicated translator that we were able to finally penetrate his mask of stoicism and fully understand the precarious situation of the river-dwelling Cham community that he oversaw.

Chams, as the ethnic group who inhabit parts of Cambodia and southern Vietnam are known, represent the last vestiges of a defeated empire. A major power in what is now south and central Vietnam for more than a thousand years, the Kingdom of Champa was fully annexed by the Vietnamese in the 1800’s. At odds with the predominantly Buddhist states of Southeast Asia, Champa was heavily influenced by both Hinduism and Islam, and the modern day Chams remain divided between the two faiths to this day. The majority of Vietnamese Chams practice Hinduism, while those in Cambodia are overwhelmingly Muslim.

Cham men wash their hands and feet before entering their community mosque.

Cham men wash their hands and feet before entering their community mosque.

Cham men pray in their community's makeshift mosque.

Cham men pray in their community’s makeshift mosque.

A Cham man touches his head to the floor in prayer.

A Cham man touches his head to the floor in prayer.

As we entered the Cham community on the southern tip of Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar peninsula and made our way to Yu Sos’s home, we were greeted with assalamu alaikum rather than the normal sues-dei used by Khmers – reminding us that while the residents might look no different than the rest of Cambodians, we were entering into a distinctly different culture.

Though fact that the vast majority of the community lived on houseboats rather than on land, over the following days that we spent with the Chams we learned that their relationship to water was far from harmonious.

Formation By Conflict

When Phnom Penh fell to the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1975, Yu Sos decided to swim for freedom. Jumping into the Tonle Sap river at 3 a.m., he clutched a banana tree to stay afloat as he drifted with the current. “Some soldiers saw me and tried to shoot me,” Yu told us as we sat cross-legged in his floating home, miming the automatic firing of an AK-47 to illustrate his story, “but I dove under the water and [the bullets] missed.”

For nearly two days he floated towards Vietnam until nearly drowning when the banana tree got caught in the net of a fishing trawler. The ship’s crew hauled the exhausted Yu on board and turned him over to the Vietnamese military. After an intense interrogation session he as conscripted into the Vietnamese army and sent back to his home country to fight the regime he had been so intent on escaping.

A Cham man winds line around an empty aerosol can which is used as a floatation device for fishing nets.

A Cham man winds line around an empty aerosol can which is used as a floatation device for fishing nets.

A fish vendor places a Beoung Laos fish into a bag for a customer. Fillets of the fish can sell for up to 7$, but Cham fishermen report a dramatic drop in the numbers of fish they are catching in recent years.

A fish vendor places a Beoung Laos fish into a bag for a customer. Fillets of the fish can sell for up to 7$, but Cham fishermen report a dramatic drop in the numbers of fish they are catching in recent years.

A Cham woman carries firewood to their small shack in one of Phnom Penh's Muslim communities.

A Cham woman carries firewood to their small shack in one of Phnom Penh’s Muslim communities.

After four years of gritty guerrilla warfare the Khmer Rouge were defeated and Yu was reunited with the family he had left behind. “When I found my parents we cried together,” he remembered. In the aftermath of the 4 year conflict that left millions of Cambodians dead and a society in ruins, Yu and his family began the process of looking for a new home. The Khmer Rouge had stripped most Cambodians of their property titles as they redistributed land in their ruthless mission of creating their idealized vision of a communal agrarian society, and many, including Yu, did not know where they were and were not allowed to settle. After attempting to establish a life in the city of Prey Veng, their post-war poverty forced them to move on yet again. “We didn’t have any money to buy a house, so we got a boat and drove it to Phnom Penh,” Yu told us. “When we arrived we found other families [on boats] in the same situation as us, so we got permission to from the authorities to form a community together.”

Though Yu told us this story with a characteristic lack of emotion, both Gareth and I were stunned into silence for several minutes. The wooden fishing boat we had used for the 3 week trip into Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake that gave rise to the A River’s Tail project was docked in the Cham community and looked after by Yu’s oldest son, and we had visited nearly a dozen times in the last year. Yet despite our numerous interactions (Yu and his son had painstakingly taught us to drive our vessel, never losing their calm despite our ineptitude), we had never learned this aspect of the community’s formation because of the language barrier between us. Had A River’s Tail not given us the means to return to the community with a translator we likely would have remained ignorant of the traumatic history.

In an hour of conversation our perceptions of Yu and the Chams had been forever altered; suddenly his gruff demeanour didn’t seem so hard to understand.

Cham children use pieces of fabric as makeshift parachutes as they jump off a mud embankment in their Phnom Penh community.

Cham children use pieces of fabric as makeshift parachutes as they jump off a mud embankment in their Phnom Penh community.

The Realities of the Voiceless

“No one wants to live on these boats,” Yu said matter-of-factly, shattering the last of our illusions about Phnom Penh’s Chams. Upon entering the village, which sat under the shadow of the newly completed Sokha Hotel, it was clear that the residents were not wealthy. Those who lived on the shore did so in hodgepodge shacks made of wood, thatch, plastic, and bits of tin, while the boats of those living offshore were aged and in varying stages of disrepair. Yet despite the obvious poverty, we hadn’t fully let go of the thought that perhaps the Chams didn’t need money to be happy, or that somehow their floating community derived its self identity from the river and didn’t require the modern affectation of material possessions. Maybe, we thought, these people lived a quaint and simple life that the rest of the smart-phone obsessed world needed to learn from. Yu’s to-the-point synopsis quickly dispelled our naivety.

“I don’t really like the river much, but I have no choice.” Yu stated plainly. “When it storms we worry about our kids drowning, and they can’t go to school because we need them to help us fish. Many of us can’t afford to buy water, and so we drink it from the river, which makes us sick – I have problems with my kidneys because of it. We are trying to get a piece of land from the government so it is easier to manage these problems.”

A Cham girl stands on the shoreline, overlooking the floating community where she lives.

A Cham girl stands on the shoreline, overlooking the floating community where she lives.

A Cham man checks his fishing net for damage as his daughter swims in the river below in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A Cham man checks his fishing net for damage as his daughter swims in the river below.

A man steps over a creek of waste water in a Cham village. The Sokha hotel, which looms in the background, drains its untreated grey water directly into the Mekong through the village.

A man steps over a creek of waste water in a Cham village. The Sokha hotel, which looms in the background, drains its untreated grey water directly into the Mekong through the village.

Yu went on to tell us that, if given the option, he would gladly accept an even less pay than he earns as an artisanal fisherman (a meagre sum to begin with) for the chance to move his family off the river and onto land. His connection to the river is one of necessity, not choice: “I depend on fish from the river for my living just like a shopkeeper does his shop. But every year the amount of fish I can catch is going down.”

As if these varied hardships weren’t enough, the community is in peril of losing what little they have – the narrow strip of land onto which they anchor their boats. Corporate developers, particularly the Sokimex Group which owns the $100 million Sokha Hotel that dominates the skyline above the Cham village, apply constant pressure in their mission to have the community removed from their property. “We had to move to this place after the hotel asked us to move from where we were before. They work with the authorities and the police came and told us they would sink our boats if we didn’t move,” Yu remembered. And while a tentative agreement was reached, allowing the Chams to stay in their current location, Yu fears that the agreement will be broken. “If that happens,” Yu said, “I don’t know where we can go.”

Cham children play on a stack of pallates in a Cham community in Phnom Penh.

Cham children play on a stack of pallates in a Cham community in Phnom Penh.

After several days in the Cham community, our schedule dictated that we had to continue up the Tonle Sap to the riverside city of Kampong Chhnang and its surrounding villages. As we shook hands and wished Yu luck in securing a future for his village, a rare smile twitched at the corners of his mouth: “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam,” he said in farewell.

And upon you peace.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

Water Festival Returns to Cambodia

Racing boat crews climb down the river embankment to their boats. Crews from all over Cambodia bring their own entourages to the festival, turning the river banks into makeshift villages. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Racing boat crews climb down the river embankment to their boats. Crews from all over Cambodia bring their own entourages to the festival, turning the river banks into makeshift villages. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River – an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture.

After a three year hiatus Bon Om Touk, or the Cambodian Water Festival, returned to the Kingdom last week. Meant to mark the the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap river – and the associated fishing and agricultural fertility that brings – the festival is one of the biggest holidays in Cambodia. Over three days of races, long boat crews from all over Cambodia converge on the capital, seeking to win honour (and hopefully a piece of the prize money) for their home towns.

Despite the historical and cultural importance of the festival, the tragic stampede incident in 2010, which saw roughly 250 dead and 750 injured led to the suspension of the event for three years – though strong arguments could be made that the government, fearing large gatherings of people during the past year of civil unrest, had ulterior motives for cancelling last year’s celebration.

Political agendas aside, it was clear from the lower-than-normal turnout that the memories of 2010 have had a stigmatic effect. In past years the estimated number of attendees was somewhere close to two million, whereas this year – despite having very little in the way of official census information – it was widely agreed that not even one million were present. Fear of a repeat disaster, it would seem, has tarnished the festival’s popularity.

Diminished crowds aside, the festival is still one of the most significant events in the Cambodian calendar year, and worth checking out if you’re in Phnom Penh at the right time.

A boat crew dances on the first morning of the water festival. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A boat crew dances in the early morning of the first day of the annual Cambodian water festival, 2014. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A racing boat moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Many event spectators have come from distant regions of Cambodia, and camp along the river banks for the duration of the festival. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A man watches the early morning practice sessions from his hammock. With such an influx of spectators, many of whom have come from the countryside to support their local racing team, parts of the east bank of the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh turned into an informal campground.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Racing boats moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A boat crew move aboard their racing boat in the early morning, warming up before the first of the day’s races. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A race crew receives last minute equipment from their supporters before beginning practice runs ahead of their race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A race crew receives last minute equipment from their supporters before beginning practice runs ahead of their race. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A racing boat coach encourages his teams before their race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A racing boat coach encourages his teams before their race.

A racing boat moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Racing boat crews are roughly 50 strong, and around 250 boats participated in this year’s festival. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Racing boats moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Racing boats move down the Tonle Sap river. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

 

A racing boat crew warms up on the Tonle Sap river before their race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A boat from Kampong Chhnang passes under the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh before going on to win its race.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Water Festival Returns To Cambodia For First Time Since 2010 Stampede Tragedy

Racing teams speed down the Tonle Sap river. With nearly 250 boats participating, the boats are often moving in very close proximity to each other.

Two boats pass under the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh during a race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Two boats pass under the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh during a race. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A racing boat moves along the Tonle Sap after having finished a race. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A racing boat moves past spectators after finishing their race.

Members of the palace guard escort Brahmin priests from the royal palace to the river where the day's races will be held. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Members of the palace guard escort Brahmin priests from the royal palace to the river where the day’s races will be held. VIPs, from the King to the Prime Minister, attended the races, often sponsoring teams of their own. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Children play in front of Phnom Penh's royal palace. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Children play in front of Phnom Penh’s royal palace. Though attendance numbers were much lower than in past years, the riverfront was still a buzz of activity.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Festival goers walk past a brightly lit portrait of King Norodom Sihamoni near Phnom Penh's royal palace.   Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Festival goers walk past a brightly lit portrait of King Norodom Sihamoni near Phnom Penh’s royal palace. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Fireworks explode over the Tonle Sap river.   because of the river’s role in previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Fireworks explode over the Tonle Sap river after the day’s races have finished.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Posted in Blog, Cambodia Also tagged , , , , , , , , , |

Reforesting Cambodia, Ten Trees at a Time

A nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. One of the most heavily deforested countries in the world, over 74% of Cambodian forests have succumbed to illegal logging and land development.

A nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. One of the most heavily deforested countries in the world, over 75% of Cambodian forests have succumbed to illegal logging and land development.

In the 1970’s, 70% of Cambodia was covered in primary (untouched) rainforest. Today, that number is closer to 3%, mostly due to the dual blights of large-scale land development and illegal logging.

The roots of Cambodia’s mass deforestation trace back to the Khmer Rouge era when various factions, locked in a deadly fight to wrest control of the country, financed their armies from the sale of timber to foreign governments and corporations. While  guerrilla groups, including the then-fledgling Khmer Rouge, sold most of their harvest to Thailand, the ruling government they were focused on ousting was exporting to Japan and Vietnam. With all sides engaged in a fight to the death, there was little consideration left over for possible future environmental impacts.

Valued for high-quality hardwoods, such as the luxurious rosewood, Cambodian forests continued to be heavily exploited throughout the civil war period and into the 21st Century. Today the national forests are a spectre of what they used to be, and despite a government supposedly committed to preventing illegal logging, the countryside of the southeast Asian nation is more often experienced as a dusty red desert than a lush tropical rainforest.

A few months ago I was introduced to Kalen Emsley, one of the founders of Ten Tree Apparel.  A company with a business model that revolves around a pledge to plant ten trees somewhere in the world for every item of clothing sold, Ten Tree is already approaching the one million mark in Africa. Having myself spent more than a year of combined days living in a tent as a seasonal tree planter in northern Canada, it seemed logical to combine my past experiences in reforestation with my more contemporary skills as a photojournalist. Kalen and I started working out a way to expand Ten Tree’s planting operations into Cambodia, and through a series of emails and Skype calls we eventually figured out how to make it happen.

A volunteer discusses details about an order for 10 000 seedlings to be planted in the Cambodian countryside.

A volunteer discusses details about an order for 10 000 seedlings to be planted in the Cambodian countryside in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

A nursery worker transplants a flower from the coconut husk where it was germinated into a more permanent plastic pot.

A nursery worker transplants a flower from the coconut husk where it was germinated into a more permanent plastic pot.

Seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Especially during the soaring temperatures of the hot season, the trees must be kept under shade while they mature.

Seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Especially during the soaring temperatures of the hot season, the trees must be kept under shade while they mature.

Tree planting operations have become somewhat of a cliche, with businesses around the world sending teams of office workers with a few shovels to plant a few hundred trees in a field somewhere. In contrast, this project will see thousands of native trees planted in areas where they will be of direct benefit to local residents – near rural schools, for example. And unlike the industrial scale planting I used to do as a student summer job, these handmade forests will be comprised of mixed species – not just large swaths of monoculture.

Though it’s still far too hot in Cambodia to begin planting (ten thousand dead trees wouldn’t really help anybody), the trees have been ordered from a local nursery and our idea is on its way to becoming a reality.

Workers at a nursery outside Phnom Penh receive instructions from their manager.

Workers receive instructions from their manager at a nursery outside Phnom Penh.

 

A nursery manager inspects the health of tree seedlings. In Cambodia's often-intense heat, the young trees must be monitored constantly.

A nursery manager inspects the health of tree seedlings. In Cambodia’s often-intense heat, the young trees must be monitored constantly.

Newly sprouted tree seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Newly sprouted tree seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh

When the weather cools off (which is, sadly, not until the end of April at the earliest), teams of student volunteers and environmentally active Buddhist monks will travel out of the city to put some trees in the ground. I’ll be there to document it, but until then these images from my recent visit to the nursery will have to do.

 

Posted in Blog Also tagged , , , , , , , |

Gapminder: A Fact-Based World View Everyone Can Understand

A man stands inside his home, where he squats with his twin children. After his wife passed away, he was forced to move into a run down and half-ruined apartment with no running water.

A man stands inside his home, where he squats with his twin children. After his wife passed away, he was forced to move into a run-down and half-ruined apartment with no running water in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Taking a break from political coverage, I’ve spent the last two weeks working on a series of nine assignments for Gapminder – a non-profit organization based in Sweden. Gapminder is a unique organization in the sense that their approach to development is not focused on field operations, but rather on gathering detailed information on global inequalities in wealth  – and presenting it in visually interesting and educational ways to encourage a better understanding of poverty around the world.

When Gapminder first reached out to me about working together, I have to say I initially found their project specifications unusual. Unlike a typical development-oriented job, the focus of these assignments is not on people, but on the objects they own. In fact, other than a single family portrait of each of the nine families, there are no human elements in the images whatsoever (In the material I submitted that is. These photos are just a behind the scenes look at the locations visited, not the finished product). For someone like me, whose work is almost exclusively focused on people, the idea was surprising.

A translator works with a vegetable farmer on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to gather information about his family's income.

A translator works with a vegetable farmer on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to gather information about his family’s income.

A woman near her home in Borei Keila, a neighbourhood heavily affected by land grabbing and the extensive development underway in Cambodia.

A woman near her home in Borei Keila, a neighbourhood heavily affected by land grabbing and the extensive development underway in Cambodia.

 

I was given a list of nine different types of households to find – some rural, some urban, some suburban – and a detailed shot list of items to be documented. But apart from these loose guidelines, Gapminder gave me total freedom in terms of people and locations – a rare and welcome opportunity. As long as the households in question met a few basic criteria, I was free to focus on anyone I wanted, anywhere in the country.

If I am being honest I should say that after finishing the first of these projects in Phnom Penh, I didn’t really see the utility of these images. Photos of doors and brooms and plates of food aren’t things that I normally would think of as telling stories about people. But after doing several more (I’ve completed six of the nine), the beauty and simplicity of the idea has become obvious. By comparing these everyday items across a variety of socio-economic contexts, a much larger portrait of poverty emerges. Whereas a single photo of someone’s kitchen may not tell a strong story, viewing six side-by-side (or, even more impressively, the hundreds that Gapminder is collecting from countries around the world) is decidedly more powerful. From these comparisons, inanimate objects paint a vivid portrait of life and hardship in a country where nearly a quarter of the population lives below the global poverty line.

My experience with the Gapminder project has been more informative than I could ever have imagined. Even though I have worked extensively in developing regions and much of my work focuses on impoverished areas, these last few weeks have given me a more personal and intimate understanding of both Cambodia, and the effects poverty has on household life. I’m glad to be a part of Gapminder’s mission to “fight ignorance with a fact-based world view everyone can understand,” and I’m looking forward to the assignments to come.

A woman helps her husband with his mosquito net in their small shack in Phnom Penh. Though he normally works as a construction worker, recent illnesses have rendered him unemployed and the family does not have enough money to meet their daily needs.

A woman helps her husband with his mosquito net in their small shack in Phnom Penh. Though he normally works as a construction worker, recent illnesses have rendered him unemployed and the family does not have enough money to meet their daily needs.

A young boy eats lunch outside their home in Phnom Penh.

A young boy eats lunch outside his home in Phnom Penh.

 

Chicks being raised in an abandoned apartment in Phnom Penh. The owners do not have access to any agricultural land, so they must raise their animals indoors - creating potential sanitation and health issues for the family.

Chicks being raised in an abandoned apartment in Phnom Penh. The owners do not have access to any agricultural land, so they must raise their animals indoors – creating potential sanitation and health issues for the family.

*Note: These are not the photos for the official Gapminder project.

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, NGO Work Also tagged , , , , , , |

Cambodian Crossroads

After a long period of intense political protest, a disquieting calm has fallen over Cambodia following the violent crackdown on protestors in the early days of 2014. Culminating in the arrest of twenty-three people and the death of at least four, the aggressive police and military suppression of demonstrations in support of striking garment factory workers received widespread international media attention. Those now infamous days were not isolated incidents, however, but simply the most publicized of a series of events that have dominated the recent Cambodian political climate.

My colleagues at Ruom Collective and I were present at all of the major moments as this story developed, and these images along with the accompanying article I wrote, are part of our effort to tell the larger narrative. Rather than repost my photos alone, I’ve included images from all three of the Collective’s photographers. 

• CNRP MOBILIZES

Though the Cambodian National Rescue Party had been regularly protesting the contentious 2013 election results, on December 15th they dramatically increased their efforts to put pressure on the ruling Cambodian People’s Party by calling for daily demonstrations. As reported by Radio Free Asia, opposition party co-leader Sam Rainsy implored his supporters to engage in a “non-violent attempt to bring about change based on democratic principles.”

Heeding Rainsy’s call, tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators marched in the streets of Phnom Penh throughout the remaining days of December, in what the New York Times called “one of the biggest acts of defiance against the nearly three decades of rule by Cambodia’s authoritarian Prime Minister.” The largest of these marches stretched for miles down Monivong Boulevard, brining traffic on one of the capital’s main arteries to a standstill.

22 December, 2013 - Phnom Penh. Thousands of CNRP supporters take to the streets in Phnom Penh to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

22 December, 2013 – Phnom Penh. Thousands of CNRP supporters take to the streets in Phnom Penh to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

• THE GARMENT WORKER CONNECTION

During what would ultimately turn out to be the last week of these mass demonstrations, the Garment Workers Union of Cambodia encouraged their members to strike. A cornerstone of the national economy, the garment workers had been engaged in a long-term struggle for a doubling of their $80 monthly wage, which they asserted was not enough to cover their basic living expenses. Though not all workers engaged in the strike, thousands of those who did converged on the Ministry of Labour to await the government response.

After three days of waiting, the resolution was ultimately rejected, with the government stating that a $15 increase was the best that could be expected. The angry – though perhaps unsurprised – demonstrators then marched towards the Council of Ministers, but were stopped short by roadblocks. Police and protestors faced off across barbed wire barricades for several hours, but violence was averted as the protestors left peacefully with the daylight.

On the morning of January 2nd, garment workers took their strike to the factories themselves – defying a government order to cease demonstrations.

December 30, 2013 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Garment workers protest near the Council of Ministers. Workers are calling for a raise in the minimum wage to 160USD © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

December 30, 2013 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Garment workers protest near the Council of Ministers. Workers are calling for a raise in the minimum wage to 160USD © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

• THE CRACKDOWN

The Wall Street Journal noted that 2013 was the most strike-intensive year on record for Cambodia, yet no one seemed to expect that the morning’s protests in front of the Yak Jin and Canadia industrial complexes would be the catalyst moments for the most violent incidents in the country’s recent history.

Outside the Yak Jin factory complex, the garment workers and their supporters were met not by regular police forces, but by soldiers from the Indonesian-trained 911 Airborne Commando unit. Though the standoff initially seemed static, a water bottle thrown by an unidentified civilian triggered a swift and brutal reaction from the paramilitary force. With a combination of slingshot projectiles and viciously aimed baton strikes, the soldiers wounded around twenty of the protestors and arrested ten. Among the detained were human rights workers, union leaders, and Buddhist monks.

 

January 02 , 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Special Forces soldiers from the 911 Airborne unit beat an observer from a non-profit organization after a stand off between the military and striking garment workers erupted into violence. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

January 02 , 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Special Forces soldiers from the 911 Airborne unit beat an observer from a non-profit organization after a stand off between the military and striking garment workers erupted into violence. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

Across town, military police similarly dispersed strikers outside the Canadia garment factory. As soon as the authorities had left the scene, hundreds of garment worker supporters – mostly young men – occupied the area. As night fell, they fortified their position, starting a series of fires and erecting barricades against the inevitable police return.

It wasn’t until near midnight that hundreds of police stormed the area, only to find the streets eerily deserted. Behind a screen of acrid smoke from the street fires, the protestors had withdrawn to a nearby apartment building where they consolidated their strength. In a siege situation that lasted into the early hours of January 3rd, police bombarded the building with tear gas and repeatedly tried to assault the structure under the cover of their riot shields. The defenders hurled bottles and cinder blocks from the rooftop, injuring several officers. Seemingly admitting defeat, the police called off their attack at around 3 a.m., and returned to their staging area beside the Phnom Penh train station.

As the sun rose, the protestors returned to the barricades, tensely awaiting the government response. At around 9:30 a.m. the police and military arrived on the scene, but rather than their customary baton charge, they opened fire with pistols and assault rifles. The humanitarian organization Licadho would later be quoted by The Guardian, describing the events as “horrific”; their independent survey of local hospitals found that four had been killed and twenty-one had been wounded in the most violent incident in Cambodia since 1998.

03 January, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Protesters set barricades on fire during a demonstration calling for a raise in the minimum wage and calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom 2014

03 January, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Protesters set barricades on fire during a demonstration calling for a raise in the minimum wage and calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom 2014

03 January, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Wounded protesters lie unconscious on the floor after having been beaten by police during a demonstration calling for a raise in the minimum wage and calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

03 January, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Wounded protesters lie unconscious on the floor after having been beaten by police during a demonstration calling for a raise in the minimum wage and calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 04 , 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Vacant homes in a factory workers housing complex after a crack down on protesting workers on January 03, 2014. Workers went home after several factories closed in the area, and military patrolled the streets. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 04 , 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Vacant homes in a factory workers housing complex after a crack down on protesting workers on January 03, 2014. Workers went home after several factories closed in the area, and military patrolled the streets. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 19, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A garment worker injured during clashes with government forces on January 03, 2014 is taken to have his wounds seen by a doctor. © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

January 19, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A garment worker injured during clashes with government forces on January 03, 2014 is taken to have his wounds seen by a doctor. © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

• THE CLOSING OF FREEDOM PARK

The next day, seemingly intent on decisively stamping out future opposition, plain clothed CPP thugs armed with clubs, hatchets, and pieces of rebar rushed into Freedom Park. With the tacit approval of the police, who surrounded the park but did not actively participate, the un-uniformed government supporters destroyed the temporary facilities and stage that had been host to opposition rallies since October of 2013. The government issued a statement, banning all further protests indefinitely – an act in clear violation of the national constitution.

January 04, 2014 - Phnom Penh Cambodia. A group of hired workers dismantle structures at the camp set up by Cambodia National Rescue Party leaders at Freedom Park. The CNRP having been leading demonstrations in Phnom Penh since early December using Freedom Park as their base. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 04, 2014 – Phnom Penh Cambodia. A group of hired workers dismantle structures at the camp set up by Cambodia National Rescue Party leaders at Freedom Park. The CNRP having been leading demonstrations in Phnom Penh since early December using Freedom Park as their base. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 05, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Sam Rainsy, President and Kem Sokha, Vice President of the CNRP hold a prayer at their offices for the victims of the government crack down on protesters two days earlier. © Nicolas Axelrod /  Ruom

January 05, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Sam Rainsy, President and Kem Sokha, Vice President of the CNRP hold a prayer at their offices for the victims of the government crack down on protesters two days earlier. © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

• BOEUNG KAK ARRESTS

In defiance of the new declaration, land-rights activists from the community of Boeung Kak Lake attempted to deliver a petition to the French embassy on January 6th. Hoping to elicit international pressure for the release of the twenty-three detainees from the previous days, the group of women approached the embassy on foot, but was stopped by municipality security forces. After a brief altercation, an unmarked white van arrived; several of the high-profile activists were forced inside. The van pulled away as riot police looked on. The women were released the same day, though under strict orders to cease all future demonstrations.  Under the new laws restricting the right to assembly, Cambodia had become a de facto police state.

January 06, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Land-rights activist Tep Vanny is restrained inside a police van after activists from Boeung Kak lake tried to deliver a petition to the French embassy to ask the liberation of the 23 detainees arrested a few days earlier during a government crackdown on protesters. The five women were released that afternoon. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

January 06, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Land-rights activist Tep Vanny is restrained inside a police van after activists from Boeung Kak lake tried to deliver a petition to the French embassy to ask the liberation of the 23 detainees arrested a few days earlier during a government crackdown on protesters. The five women were released that afternoon. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

• VICTORY DAY

On January 7th, against the backdrop of the recent violent and political uncertainty, Hun Sen and the CPP held a large ceremony for Victory Day – the commemoration of the Vietnamese liberation of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge.

In a speech delivered by honorary party president Heng Samrin, the CPP expressed that “Cambodia has been making progress in all fields,” while only vaguely alluding to the violent turmoil that occurred only days earlier.  With regards to the wide-spread opposition sweeping the nation, Samrin said: “They continue to consider themselves enemies of the January 7 victory, to make slanderous propaganda, to deceive the pubic, to disrespect the Constitution and existing laws while colluding to seek all means to deny the achievements scored by the Cambodia People’s Party for the country to cause political and socio-economic instability.”

With over 20 000 people in attendance, many having been bussed in from the countryside, the CPP was ironically in violation of its own anti-assembly laws.

January 07, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Cambodia People's Party law makers wait for the arrival of Prime Minister Hun Sen during the Victory day celebrations on Koh Pich Island. © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

January 07, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Cambodia People’s Party law makers wait for the arrival of Prime Minister Hun Sen during the Victory day celebrations on Koh Pich Island. © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

• BACK TO THE STREETS

For their part, CNRP supporters also chose to ignore the ban on public gatherings. On January 15th, an estimated 2 000 people gathered in front of the municipal courthouse in Phnom Penh as opposition party leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha were brought in for questioning  – ostensibly to determine their involvement in the deaths of the protestors earlier in the month. Upon emerging from the building, The Cambodia Daily quoted Rainsy as saying “We went to the court because we want the world to know about the reality. We did nothing wrong. We just protected the people’s will through nonviolence.”

January 16, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Protesters deliver a petition to Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi at UN OHCHR offices to call on the release of 23 detainees arrested during protests in early January. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 16, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Protesters deliver a petition to Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi at UN OHCHR offices to call on the release of 23 detainees arrested during protests in early January. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 14, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Kem Sokha, Vice President of the CNRP waves to supporters from the steps of the Municipal Court as he arrives for questioning over the opposition party's involvement in instigating unrest that lead to the January 03, 2014 crack down on protesters that left up to four deaths and 23 detainees.  © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 14, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Kem Sokha, Vice President of the CNRP waves to supporters from the steps of the Municipal Court as he arrives for questioning over the opposition party’s involvement in instigating unrest that lead to the January 03, 2014 crack down on protesters that left up to four deaths and 23 detainees. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

• A SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR

The government crackdowns garnered international media attention, and prompted UN special envoy Surya Subedi to launch a human rights investigation – in which he condemned the violence.But there was also room for optimism in his words. In a private interview with Ruom Collective, the Special Rapporteur was eager to highlight the progress and positive changes in the realm of civil and political liberties. He pointed to the relatively free and peaceful elections, and to the overall tolerance of mass protests by the authorities as a testament to the “maturing of democracy in Cambodia.” After meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen on January 15th to discuss Subedi’s recommendations, the envoy felt assured that the country was on a path to change.

January 16, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi is filmed during a press conference at the UN OHCHR offices. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 16, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi is filmed during a press conference at the UN OHCHR offices. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

• INTERNATIONAL INDIGNATION

Two days later, the parliament of the European Union weighed in as well – calling on Hun Sen’s government to hold an internationally supervised enquiry to examine both the deaths of the protestors, and the contested 2013 election results. The United States also made its concerns known, with Barack Obama signing off on a bill cutting a portion of U.S. aid to Cambodia. Politicians were not the only ones putting pressure on the Prime Minister. Major international corporations such as Nike, Wal-Mart, and H&M – whose goods are produced at the factories in question – sent a joint letter to Hun Sen, demanding an investigation.

Facing such mounting international scrutiny, Hun Sen decided to voice his own opinions at the opening of an orphanage in Kratie province. Stating that anyone who challenged his government would not be spared, he called on his supporters to be prepared to defend the country against a possible coup.

On January 19th, Sok Chhun Oeung, the acting vice president of the organization IDEA, became the latest victim in Cambodia’s political struggles. After organizing a small demonstration near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Oeung was pulled into a police truck and taken to the headquarters of the municipal police. Oeung only became the acting vice president of IDEA after the original vice president, Vorn Pao, was beaten and arrested during the January 2nd altercation in front of the Yak Jin factory complex. Oeung has since been released, but Long Dimanche, a spokesman for Phnom Penh city hall told Agence France Presse that this incident was a “yellow card for those who do not respect the law.”

January 19, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Vice-President of IDEA (Independent Democracy of informal Economy Association) Chhun Oeung arrested by riot police in front of the Royal Palace during a peaceful gathering. People were asking for the release of 23 detainees arrested during a government crack down on protesters calling for a raise in the minimum wage in early January © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

January 19, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Vice-President of IDEA (Independent Democracy of informal Economy Association) Chhun Oeung arrested by riot police in front of the Royal Palace during a peaceful gathering. People were asking for the release of 23 detainees arrested during a government crack down on protesters calling for a raise in the minimum wage in early January © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

With more small-scale protests scheduled for the upcoming weeks, and a supposed “second phase” of opposition party activity tentatively planned for early March, it remains to be seen how the endgame will play out in Cambodia’s long battle for democracy.

Additional reporting by Marta Kasztelan

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Writing Also tagged , , , , , |

Cambodian Garment Factory Crackdown

Police attempt to storm a building occupied by protestors following a violent crackdown on striking garment workers, who were demanding a wage increase.

Police attempt to storm a building occupied by protestors following a violent crackdown on striking garment workers, who were demanding a wage increase.

The crackdowns on people protesting in support of garment factory workers made international news for a few days running, something that isn’t always typical of events in Cambodia.  Along with my colleagues in the Ruom Collective, our images from the clashes were published in nearly every news source of note, and amid the ensuing tidal wave of work it has been difficult to put the events into perspective. As a result, I’ve been finding it hard to put the recent violence out of my mind and so I’ve been hesitant to post anything from those days. Succeeding professionally on the back of a tragedy creates conflicting emotions in most people (myself included), so I wanted to make sure I had a chance to reflect clearly about what really happened – and what it means for the country.

I’m going to hold off publishing a full set of pictures until I have a little more time to think, but for now here are a few that give a basic sense of what happened.

_______________________________________

 The first days of 2014 were some of the most dramatic in recent Cambodian history. Not since 1998 had the country seen such violence. Wide-spread and large-scale protests, combined with strong anti-government sentiments, created a powder keg environments – and the police crackdown on garment factory workers, and others protesting on their behalf, was the spark that set it all off.

On January 2nd, a standoff between striking factory workers and members of the Cambodian army’s 911 Airborne Unit erupted into a sudden and unexpected street battle, which ended with the arrest of 10 protestors – including monks and union leaders. Several hours later, police forces aggressively dispersed a similar demonstration across town at the Canadia garment factory, reportedly beating several of the female protestors.

In response, residents of the area surrounding the factory blockaded the roads leading into the neighbourhood and started street fires – refusing to leave until hundreds of police stormed the area. Though the street was cleared without heavy resistance, the more militant protestors occupied a large apartment building nearby.

A siege situation developed and lasted late into the night. During repeated attempts to storm the structure, several police officers were injured. Ultimately the police were unable to clear the protestors from their stronghold and returned to their base, but the stage had been set for what was to come.

Special Forces soldiers from the 911 Airborne unit beat an observer from a non-profit organization after a stand off between the military and striking garment workers erupted into violence.

Special Forces soldiers from the 911 Airborne unit beat an observer from a non-profit organization after a stand off between the military and striking garment workers erupted into violence.

Protestors burn a wooden cart near the Canadia garment factory. People in support of striking garment workers attempted to fortify their neighbourhood in anticipation of the police or military response.

Protestors burn a wooden cart near the Canadia garment factory. People in support of striking garment workers attempted to fortify their neighbourhood in anticipation of the police or military response.

Police charge a protestor-held street after a standoff lasting several hours.

Police charge a protestor-held street after a standoff lasting several hours.

Early on the morning of January 3rd, the protestors returned to man their barricades. Police arrived to retake the area, this time firing live rounds rather than wielding rubber batons. At least four people were killed. Though the main body of resistance was broken, smaller groups faced off against police and Special Forces units throughout the morning.

A wounded man is carried out of the battlefield after being shot by police.

A wounded man is carried out of the battlefield after being shot by police.

Soldiers sit outside a medical clinic after retaking the area from protestors.

Soldiers sit outside a medical clinic after retaking the area from protestors.

On January 4th, seemingly intent on preventing any further protest, police surrounded Freedom Park, the major rallying point for the Cambodian National Rescue Party – the main opposition party. Uniformed officers and plain clothed citizens, armed with wooden rods and pieces of rebar, forced CNRP supporters – largely comprised of rural seniors – out of the park. For the next hour they destroyed the tents and stage that had been host to daily rallies since October.

Police and plainclothes CPP supporters charge into Freedom Park, the main rallying point for opposition party events.

Police and plainclothes CPP supporters charge into Freedom Park, the main rallying point for opposition party events.

CPP supporters tear down the tents and other temporary facilities which have been standing in Freedom Park since December.

CPP supporters tear down the tents and other temporary facilities which have been standing in Freedom Park since December.

The long-ruling CPP has decided to decisively stamp out its opposition and the future of Cambodian democracy is uncertain.

 

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Protest Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

Cambodian Crackdown

The first days of 2014 were some of the most dramatic in recent Cambodian history. Not since 1998 had the country seen such violence. Wide-spread and large-scale protests, combined with strong anti-government sentiments, created a powder keg environments – and the police crackdown on garment factory workers, and others protesting on their behalf, was the spark that set it all off.

On January 2nd, a standoff between striking factory workers and members of the Cambodian army’s 911 Airborne Unit erupted into a sudden and unexpected street battle, which ended with the arrest of 10 protestors – including monks and union leaders. Several hours later, police forces aggressively dispersed a similar demonstration across town at the Canadia garment factory, reportedly beating several of the female protestors.

In response, residents of the area surrounding the factory blockaded the roads leading into the neighbourhood and started street fires – refusing to leave until hundreds of police stormed the area. Though the street was cleared without heavy resistance, the more militant protestors occupied a large apartment building nearby.

A siege situation developed and lasted late into the night. During repeated attempts to storm the structure, several police officers were injured. Ultimately the police were unable to clear the protestors from their stronghold and returned to their base, but the stage had been set for what was to come.

Early on the morning of January 3rd, the protestors returned to man their barricades. Police arrived to retake the area, this time firing live rounds rather than wielding rubber batons. At least four people were killed – with some estimates as high as six. Though the main body of resistance was broken, smaller groups faced off against police and Special Forces units throughout the morning.

On January 4th, seemingly intent on preventing any further protest, police surrounded Freedom Park, the major rallying point for the Cambodian National Rescue Party – the main opposition party. Uniformed officers and plain clothed citizens, armed with wooden rods and pieces of rebar, forced CNRP supporters – largely comprised of rural seniors – out of the park. For the next hour they destroyed the tents and stage that had been host to daily rallies since October.

The long-ruling CPP has decided to decisively stamp out its opposition and the future of Cambodian democracy is uncertain.

Striking garment factory workers and the Cambodian army's 911 Airborne unit face off. Garment workers across Cambodia have been engaged in a long-running campaign for wage increases, which has been rejected by the government.

Striking garment factory workers and the Cambodian army’s 911 Airborne unit face off. Garment workers across Cambodia have been engaged in a long-running campaign for wage increases, which has been rejected by the government.

Special Forces soldiers from the 911 Airborne unit beat an observer from a non-profit organization after a stand off between the military and striking garment workers errupted into violence.

Special Forces soldiers from the 911 Airborne unit beat an observer from a non-profit organization after a stand off between the military and striking garment workers errupted into violence.

A truck driver is stuck in traffic as demonstrators in support of striking garment workers block National Highway 4.

A truck driver is stuck in traffic as demonstrators in support of striking garment workers block National Highway 4.

Protestors pile debris to create barricades against police following a violent crackdown on garment factory workers requesting a wage increase.

Protestors pile debris to create barricades against police following a violent crackdown on garment factory workers requesting a wage increase.

Protestors burn a wooden cart near the Canadia garment factory. People in support of striking garment workers attempted to fortify their neighbourhood in anticipation of the police or military response.

Protestors burn a wooden cart near the Canadia garment factory. People in support of striking garment workers attempted to fortify their neighbourhood in anticipation of the police or military response.

Police charge a protestor-held street after a standoff lasting several hours.

Police charge a protestor-held street after a standoff lasting several hours.

Police attempt to storm a building occupied by protestors following a violent crackdown on striking garment workers, who were demanding a wage increase.

Police attempt to storm a building occupied by protestors following a violent crackdown on striking garment workers, who were demanding a wage increase.

Police fire tear gas at a building occupied by protestors.

Police fire tear gas at a building occupied by protestors.

A protestor waves the Cambodian flag while police attempt to clear the area.

A protestor waves the Cambodian flag while police attempt to clear the area.

Protestors near the Canadia garment factory during a police incursion into the area.

Protestors near the Canadia garment factory during a police incursion into the area.

Protestors carry objects out of a nearby medical clinic to be used as fuel for street fires.

Protestors carry objects out of a nearby medical clinic to be used as fuel for street fires.

A wounded man is carried out of the battlefield after being shot by police.

A wounded man is carried out of the battlefield after being shot by police.

Soldiers sit outside a medical clinic after retaking the area from protestors.

Soldiers sit outside a medical clinic after retaking the area from protestors.

Ashes coat the road in front of the Canadia garment factory the morning after police and military forces recaptured the area from protestors.

Ashes coat the road in front of the Canadia garment factory the morning after police and military forces recaptured the area from protestors.

The mostly empty houses inside the Canadia garment factory. An estimated 80% of workers fled the area in fear of further persecution.

The mostly empty houses inside the Canadia garment factory. An estimated 80% of workers fled the area in fear of further persecution.

Police and plainclothes CPP supporters charge into Freedom Park, the main rallying point for opposition party events.

Police and plainclothes CPP supporters charge into Freedom Park, the main rallying point for opposition party events.

People flee Freedom Park. A mixture of police and plainclothes CPP supporters charged the area, weilding batons, clubs, and pieces of rebar, declaring the area closed for all demstrations for a period of three days.

People flee Freedom Park. A mixture of police and plainclothes CPP supporters charged the area, weilding batons, clubs, and pieces of rebar, declaring the area closed for all demstrations for a period of three days.

CPP supporters tear down the tents and other temporary facilities which have been standing in Freedom Park since December.

CPP supporters tear down the tents and other temporary facilities which have been standing in Freedom Park since December.

A CPP supporter prepares to strike an image of Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, the leaders of the Cambodian National Rescue Party - the main opposition to the government.

A CPP supporter prepares to strike an image of Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, the leaders of the Cambodian National Rescue Party – the main opposition to the government.

 

 

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Garment Workers March on Council of Ministers

Garment workers took to the streets today after their demands for a wage increase were rejected again by the government of Cambodia. The protest began outside the Ministry of Labour building, but after hearing the disappointing result thousands of demonstrators moved towards the Council of Ministers. The government was apparently well prepared for the action; hundreds of riot police waited for the group as they walked east on the Russian Boulevard.

Though the protest was essentially peaceful, the police stretched immense barbed wire barricades across the road and multiple officers were armed with tear gas launchers – tools not typically seen at minor demonstrations.

The event lasted all day so I didn’t have time to put together a lengthy written article – but I wanted to get something out before New Year’s Eve. The protestors left the area as the sun set, announcing they would be back tomorrow, so there will definitely be more to come. As we move into 2014, let’s hope this widespread government protesting can stay peaceful.

Crowds of garment workers and supporters gather outside the Ministry of Labour building, waiting to see if the government has agreed to their demands.

Crowds of garment workers and supporters gather outside the Ministry of Labour building, waiting to see if the government has agreed to their demands.

A representative of the garment worker's union leaves the Ministry of Labour building as protestors wait outside the walls to hear if the government has agreed to their demands.

A representative of the garment worker’s union leaves the Ministry of Labour building as protestors wait outside the walls to hear if the government has agreed to their demands.

Garment workers load into large trucks for transportation to the Council of Ministers building after their demands were rejected by the government.

Garment workers load into large trucks for transportation to the Council of Ministers building after their demands were rejected by the government.

Reinforcement units move towards the barricade lines.

Reinforcement units move towards the barricade lines.

The garment workers are demanding a pay increase to $160 per month, claiming their current wages are not enough to live on.

The garment workers are demanding a pay increase to $160 per month, claiming their current wages are not enough to live on.

Police and protestors face off accross the barbed wire barricade as the size of the demonstration grows.

Police and protestors face off accross the barbed wire barricade as the size of the demonstration grows.

Police push through a barrier set up by protestors, moving the group away from the Council of Ministers building.

Police push through a barrier set up by protestors, moving the group away from the Council of Ministers building.

Protestors stay at the barricades until late in the afternoon.

Protestors stay at the barricades until late in the afternoon.

A boy collects waterbottles that protestors have thrown over the barricades.

A boy collects waterbottles that protestors have thrown over the barricades.

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Street Protests Grow Ahead of Christmas

Protestors continue to take to the streets in the thousands, a week after Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s surprise announcement that the CNRP would begin daily public demonstrations in Phnom Penh. Earlier in the month CNRP representatives had indicated that they would be avoiding physical confrontations with the current government, and instead seek a negotiated settlement to the disputed 2013 election results. Perhaps under pressure from their supporters, the opposition party has done a 180 – holding large-scale public marches through the heart of the capital. They walk through the streets every day chanting derisive slogans against the unpopular incumbent Prime Minister, Hun Sen, and in years of visiting this country, I’ve never seen so many people united under one banner.

I’ve been out of town on an assignment for Handicap International (more on that after the holidays), and haven’t really been covering the breaking news side of Cambodia. Yesterday I was able to get back out and reacquaint myself with the political pulse of the country, and was completely caught off guard by the sheer energy and numbers of the demonstrators. Truth be told, I had expected the protests to die down substantially after a few days, when economic necessity demanded that people go back to their jobs; instead the crowd seems to be growing. I’ve got more things on the go than I can handle right now, so I doubt I’ll be a source of total news coverage on the events as they unfold, but I wanted to give a short update on the political climate as we move into the holidays. Merry Christmas!

CNRP supporters form a wall to hold the front elements of the protest from moving too far ahead of the main body of the demonstration.

CNRP supporters form a wall to hold the front elements of the protest from moving too far ahead of the main body of the demonstration.

CNRP leaders rally their supporters.

CNRP leaders rally their supporters.

A bus is stuck in as the line of marchers floods South along Monivong Boulevard.

A bus is stuck in traffic as the line of marchers floods South along Monivong Boulevard.

A Japanese photographer seizes the opportunity to get some unique angles from a CNRP vehicle. Though the protests are highly publicized in foreign media, the Khmer newspapers make no reference to the demonstrations at all. Instead they run front page stories about the recent troubles in neighbouring Thailand.

A Japanese photographer seizes the opportunity to get some unique angles from a CNRP vehicle. Though the protests are highly publicized in foreign media, the Khmer newspapers make no reference to the demonstrations at all. Instead they run front page stories about the recent troubles in neighbouring Thailand.

Protestors move the paradise hotel, shutting down the large intersection.

Protestors move the paradise hotel, shutting down the large intersection.

A CNRP supporter shouts anti-government, pro-change messages through a tuk-tuk mounted sound system.

A CNRP supporter shouts anti-government, pro-change messages through a tuk-tuk mounted sound system.

The demonstration stretches through downtown Phnom Penh.

The demonstration stretches through downtown Phnom Penh.

 

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