Tag Archives: protest

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.

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

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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The Unlikely Peace of Human Rights Day

A woman seeks blessing from a Buddhist monk on the morning of Human Rights Day.

A woman seeks blessing from a Buddhist monk on the morning of Human Rights Day.

On the morning of Human Rights Day, the elevator doors in my apartment building opened on the ground floor and I took a few steps out into the open-air parking lot. The immense steel gates that separated the courtyard from the street were locked, and it took several awkward minutes of whisper-shouting to wake the night guard. By the time he finally located the key and let me out, I was dangerously close to missing my 5:30 rendezvous. Walking quickly, I passed the dark shapes of moto-taxi drivers stretching against their vehicles in the pre-dawn gloom, ignoring their offers of service.

As I rounded the corner of Street 360, I experienced a moment of panic when Thomas and Omar were not in front of the Kiwi mart as they were supposed to be. We were heading to a pagoda on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to follow a group of Buddhist monks on a human rights march, but since I didn’t know how to get there I was totally reliant on my friends’ local knowledge. If they had already left I would miss the conclusion to a story I had been covering for the last week. I was already imagining the shame of returning home empty handed while they captured Pulitzer-caliber images of a once-in-a-lifetime event, when my phone vibrated in my pocket. One of them had over slept. Relieved, I bought two cans of extra-strong ice coffee and dropped into an aluminum patio chair to wait.

Fifteen minutes later we were sitting in a tuk-tuk, cruising down Preah Sisowath Quay with the darkened banks of the Tonle Sap River to the east. The streets were clear of traffic so early in the morning, and the normally bustling riverside restaurants were shuttered. Further north we passed a temporary army camp set up on the lawn of an international hotel, and all of us wondered if the day would turn violent.

Once past the Japanese bridge, as Chroy Changvar is colloquially known, the road merges with national highway 5. Gradually the tourist traps of the city gave way to the machine shops and small manufacturing businesses that typify urban Cambodia. We began to see other journalists on the road, presumably making their way to the same place as we were. Driving motorcycles that were much nimbler than our own lumbering vehicle, they sped past us and shouted greetings that were mostly lost in the wind.

Not long later, the tuk-tuk’s screaming engine decelerated gratefully and we made a slow left turn across traffic into the long laneway leading to Wat Ottara Watey. Inside the pagoda grounds, monks and citizen activists were grouped together eating breakfast out of styrofoam takeout containers. Those who had already finished scrambled to make last minute preparations for the march, loading cases of water onto flatbed trucks and checking the condition of their Justice Brings Peace banners. Photographers moved between the groups, snapping pictures and talking with people they recognized from previous demonstrations. The mood was social and light, as if the protestors were marching towards an organized convention rather than a potentially dangerous clash with the police. The government had officially withheld permission for the event and no one knew what the consequences of defying them might be. In preparation for the worst, many of the foreign journalists had brought riot helmets. The marchers wore no such protection.

An hour later we were moving. The residents of Phnom Penh had come out of their homes in the thousands and lined both sides of the road as the procession walked towards the city. Mingled among them were the ubiquitous government informers using radios and cell phones to notify the authorities of our progress. As they took photos of the protesters with smartphones, several monks, perhaps feeling that their religious authority would protect them from retaliation, pointed cameras back at them. Strange standoffs ensued with neither party wanting to be the first to walk away. They stood in place and took photo after photo, slowly pushing their cameras closer and closer to each other’s faces. In one exchange I counted over forty shutter clicks.

Monks form up before beginning their protest march to the National Assembly building

Monks form up before beginning their protest march to the National Assembly building

Residents come out of their homes to watch the procession, offering support.

Residents come out of their homes to watch the procession, offering support.

A marcher waves to a truckload of protestors en route to a separate demonstration at Wat Phnom.

A marcher waves to a truckload of protestors en route to a separate demonstration at Wat Phnom.

Phnom Penh residents and shopkeepers come out of their homes to offer water and energy drinks to Human Rights Day marchers.

Phnom Penh residents and shopkeepers come out of their homes to offer water and energy drinks to Human Rights Day marchers.

As the marchers near Phnom Penh, no police appear to block their way.

As the marchers near Phnom Penh, no police appear to block their way.

By 8.30 a.m. the long line of marchers was inside the city center. Riverside was no longer quiet, and early rising tourists stared at our group over the rims of their coffee mugs. Some pulled camera phones out of their pockets. Now that the protest was in the public eye, I was sure a police barricade would be waiting around every corner. Remembering the street riot that saw one bystander dead and many more injured following a garment worker strike last month, I fingered the helmet attached to my camera bag.

But nothing happened. Street by street, block by block, the column moved closer to their destination without a rubber baton or tazer in sight. Only when the National Assembly building was in view did it finally sink in that the police were not going to respond. If they were as surprised as I was, the group leaders didn’t show it. They simply walked over to the nearest patch of shady grass and sat down, perhaps finally able to release some of the tension and exhaustion from the ten-day march on Phnom Penh. They had made it, and a few quick phone calls were enough to confirm that the groups approaching from other sides of the city would make it too.

Where were the police? After attending several dozen protests over years of visiting Cambodia, this passivity was at odds with my past experiences.  Harsh government crackdowns on civil unrest were one of the few constants in the Kingdom, and though I was relieved that no one had been hurt, the absence of a reaction was somehow unsettling. I half expected trick; a trap door would open and disgorge thousands of heavily armed shock troops into the street, or secretly installed tear gas launchers would fire from the bushes, scattering the unwary mob. A Twitter post from the satirical social media persona Hun Sen’s Eye echoed my suspicions: “protestors are now entitled to a 15-second head start before we unleash the riot tigers.”

But as the crowd grew to over a thousand strong, such scenarios became increasingly unlikely. For most of an hour I circulated among the crowd, taking pictures and exchanging rumors with other journalists until the merciless sun sent me in search of shade and water. I followed the outer wall of the National Assembly building, searching for a drink vendor. When I stepped around the northeast corner, I saw them: several clusters of men in olive drab uniforms, looking in my direction from their positions in Hun Sen Park. They were sitting in the grass under a tree, drinking Coca-Cola out of plastic bags and chatting on their cell phones.

The protestors reach the National Assembly building and are joined by other groups. Their numbers grow to over a thousand yet there is no reaction from police forces.

The protestors reach the National Assembly building and are joined by other groups. Their numbers grow to over a thousand yet there is no reaction from police forces.

Guards stand behind the gates of the National Assembly building, but make no attempt to disrupt the protest. Government staff take photos and video of the event with smartphones from within the compound.

Guards stand behind the gates of the National Assembly building, but make no attempt to disrupt the protest. Behind, government staff take photos and video of the event with smartphones from within the compound.

Minimal police are present at the site of the protest.

Minimal police are present at the site of the protest.

One of the largest concentrations of officers at the protest, sitting in Hun Sen Park seeking shade.

One of the largest concentrations of officers at the protest, sitting in Hun Sen Park seeking shade.

While later on that night much larger concentrations of riot police gathered around Wat Phnom and engaged in minor clashes with small groups of especially zealous protestors, the 2013 Human Rights Day was essentially a peaceful affair. Other than the officers in the park and a few token guards around the National Assembly’s main entrance, the government refrained from its normal muscle flexing. The demonstration continued unopposed until noon, when the tired group of monks and activists returned to their homes voluntarily.

Maybe this is the new face of Cambodia, a redefined nation with a tolerant approach to political dissention. But somehow I doubt it.

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Monks March for Human Rights

Monks and citizen activists sleep in a pagoda after finishing a day of marching towards Phnom Penh. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks and citizen activists sleep in a pagoda after finishing a day of marching towards Phnom Penh. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

“Monks must not fuck,” he said, his round bespectacled face full of humour. We were getting a crash course on the fundaments of life as a Buddhist monk, the popping of Redbull cans echoed in the open space of the pagoda’s dining hall. The large room, divided into inadvertent sections by ornately decorated pillars, was full of people in various states of fatigue – the citizen activists finishing styrofoam containers of rice and dried fish, the monks downing 250ml energy drinks. The group, roughly 50 strong, had been walking for three days down Cambodia’s national highway 6 and they needed to replenish their strength. They are taking part in one of the largest Human Rights Day protests in Cambodia’s history, and on all of Cambodia’s major highways there were separate groups doing the same thing. Since Dharmic asceticism requires monks to abstain from many things, including having sex, harming living creatures, and eating solid foods after noon, they would have to make due with a liquid dinner. Buddha has no qualms with Redbull it would seem.

The trip from Phnom Penh to Kampong Thom, though not much further than 120km, had taken us nearly 5 hours in a minivan, packed four people to a row and fighting constantly with fellow passengers for elbowroom. Despite having nearly 8 years of Cambodian experience between us, photographer Nicolas Axelrod and I had badly misjudged the travel time and arrived at the pagoda well after dark. Rather than marching with the monks as planned, all we could do was sling our hammocks around the building’s load bearing columns and settle in for the night. Peering through the hammock’s mesh walls I could see the monks doing the same thing, though how they planned to sleep after consuming half a liter of taurine was beyond me.

The following morning the pagoda burst abruptly to life with the rolling baseline of a Khmer pop song and the small speakers of the monks’ smartphones gave the music a tinny sound that got me to my feet before I was yet fully awake. The monks were slower to rise; motionless under the saffron blankets they had drawn their robes over their heads to ward off the morning light. When the pagoda came to life it was with sudden urgency, as if everyone had been lying awake hoping for an extra ten minutes of sleep but had been forced into action by the movement of their peers. From stillness to frenzied action, the room transformed in a matter of minutes; mosquito nets were rolled up and stowed in travel bags, lines formed for the two squat-toilets, and monks scrambled to locate their cell phones from admin the tangled mass of electronics crowded around two overtaxed power bars. A general migration of people to the central courtyard could only mean one thing: it was time to leave.

Early morning in the pagoda. The monks are exhausted and rise slowly. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Early morning in the pagoda. The monks are exhausted and rise slowly. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks conduct a meeting to discuss plans before beginning their march. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks conduct a meeting to discuss plans before beginning their march. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks raise banners with human rights messages on them before they begin their days march. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks raise banners with human rights messages on them before they begin their days march. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

As the protestors filed out of the pagoda and walked across the sandy courtyard, they paused beside the demonstration’s support truck to pick up flags and banners bearing human rights slogans. Though the scene was decidedly militaristic, like Russian soldiers in World War II movies receiving their rifles before being ordered to charge, any sense of hostility was belied by the monk’s tired-yet-cheerful expressions.  Once suitably armed, the group formed up in a loose line under an ornately carved wooden gate to wait for any stragglers and began to shoot pictures with smartphones for social media uploading. Facebook and Twitter have been key driving forces behind the recent surge in anti-government opposition, and the marchers had been filming the event with HD camcorders to present to their online followers.

Outside the pagoda villagers stepped out of their homes to line both sides of the highway. While some watched on impassively, either unconcerned or confused about what they were seeing. Many more stood patiently beside buckets of scented water, waiting to be blessed or to offer support in the form of food or cash. To avoid halting the column every few meters, teams of monks on motorcycles ranged up and down the road performing the water blessings and collecting the small bags of rice. The alms were substantial; a flatbed truck followed the procession in order to transport dozens of cases of donated water, and it took six people over an hour to count and sort the money each night. Considering that the average Cambodian makes roughly $80 per month, these acts of charity speak volumes about the national desire for change.

Within minutes the heat became uncomfortable and after a few hours the monks were dripping with sweat. Draping orange towels over their heads to shield themselves from the sun above, their plastic sandals stuck to the melting asphalt below. Ironically, among the most common sources of shade were the ubiquitous road signs featuring portraits of key figures from the hegemonic Cambodian People’s Party. Throughout the day the protestors huddled in their shadows while Hun Sen watched on imperially.

Monks eat breakfast before their morning march begins. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks stop to perform water blessings on the villagers they pass on the road to Phnom Penh.

A protestor's feet are covered in bandages after days of walking long distances. to perform water blessings for villagers along the highway.

A protestor’s feet are covered in bandages after days of walking long distances. to perform water blessings for villagers along the highway.

Every few kilometers a government vehicle waits for the marchers; they are easily identified by their conspicuous lack of rust, and more obviously by the men in short-sleeved khaki shirts standing nearby, taking photos with tablet computers to be filed in some mysterious database of known troublemakers. Younger monks point them out excitedly, as if they are glimpsing exotic birds in the wild and need confirmation that their eyes are not deceiving them.As easy as they are to dismiss – they make no attempt to hinder or interfere with the demonstration – the vehicles are a reminder that the CPP is tracking us as we approach Phnom Penh. Text messages from journalists following different groups on other national highways report similar experiences across the country. In some cases the marchers arrive in villages to find the local pagodas locked by order of high-ranking Buddhist officials, who have labeled the protesting monks as dissidents.

As the various groups of demonstrators converge on the capital the question of how the government will react is at the forefront of people’s minds, and on the eve of International Human Rights Day it difficult to know how events will unfold. Will the police force stand impassively in front of a chanting mob, or will they react violently as they did during the garment factory worker strike that saw an innocent bystander gunned down by a pistol round? Will this be remembered as a catalytic moment in the modern history of Cambodia, or will the CPP simply send a few street sweepers to tidy up the mess once the protestors have gone home? Things are rarely predictable in the Kingdom of Wonder; powder keg moments, when it seems the whole country is on the verge of tearing itself to pieces, sometimes dissipate quietly just as things seem the most tense. Conversely, seemingly benign events have grown into major incidents of great consequence.

Regardless of tomorrow’s outcome, the 2013 Human Rights Day is hugely symbolic of the small Southeast Asian nation’s growing resentment of the current political situation. The unprecedented scale and complex organization of the protests should serve as a warning to the government. They are facing an increasingly more informed and connected society than the one they have been handily oppressing for the last three decades. And the prospect must terrify them.

A monk walks past a Cambodian police academy en route to Phnom Penh.

A monk walks past a Cambodian police academy en route to Phnom Penh.

Note: A version of this story appeared first on the Ruom Collective site.

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Monks Begin Protest Marches Ahead of Human Rights Day

The 2013 International Human Rights Day on December 10th will mark one of the largest and most coordinated anti-government protests in Cambodian history. The current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has been running a de facto one party state in the small Southeast Asian nation, and has an abysmal human rights record. But the tides of fortune seem to be turning on the region’s longest ruling strongman, with his Cambodian People’s Party losing 55 assembly seats in the 2013 national election – elections that were widely suspected of being rigged.

Multiple demonstrations will converge on Phnom Penh’s National Assembly building, including large groups of politically active Buddhist monks. Though monks participation in protests has been an emerging trend in Cambodia recently, the scale of the actions planned for December 10th will be the largest yet. Separate parties will travel down every major national highway, combining forces and joining similar protests from the main opposition party, and the garment workers union. The monks will be walking for roughly 10 days, spreading their social views to the villages they pass through.

Monks prepare to sleep for the night before waking early to begin their march.

Monks prepare to sleep for the night before waking early to begin their march.

Monks begin to wake at 5am in Wat Baray, their temporary home for the night.

Monks begin to wake at 5am in Wat Baray, their temporary home for the night.

Monks form up begin their day's march to Phnom Penh.

Monks form up begin their day’s march to Phnom Penh.

A woman asks for blessing outside Wat Baray, the starting point for the march to Phnom Penh.

A woman asks for blessing outside Wat Baray, the starting point for day’s leg of the march towards Phnom Penh.

The procession includes monks and citizen activist groups from communities affected by government policies.

The procession includes monks and citizen activist groups from communities affected by government policies.

Monks pass local traffic along national highway 6.

Monks pass local traffic along national highway 6, roughly 150km away from Phnom Penh.

Villagers wait in front of their homes along the highway, presenting alms of money, rice, and water to the marching monks. In return the monks offer water blessings recite the Dharma.

Villagers wait in front of their homes along the highway, presenting alms of money, rice, and water to the marching monks. In return the monks offer water blessings and recite the Dharma.

A villager kneels for a Buddhist water blessing along the highway to Phnom Penh.

A villager kneels for a Buddhist water blessing along national highway 6.

 

These images are from just one group of monks, along only one of the marching routes. When they finally merge in the capital next week, their numbers will have swollen into the hundreds. Though everyone is hoping that the government will not react harshly in light of it being Human Rights Day, foreign journalists are stocking up on anti-teargas supplies and riot protection gear in anticipation of violence.

The Ruom Collective will be dispatching three photographers and three writers to cover various aspects of the events as they unfold, and we will be sharing them as the happen.

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

March of the Monks

In recent decades, Cambodia’s Buddhist monks have been largely absent from the political sphere. Their role had been mostly relegated to that of simple preachers who were most commonly seen collecting alms or studying in their pagodas.

But now, harnessing the power of social media, groups of monks are starting to rise up against what monk But Buntenh describes as “the huge social injustices that the government is [inflicting] on Cambodian people.” In Cambodia, monks have a powerful influence on the country’s predominantly Buddhist population. In contrast to their previous passivity, young progressive monks are now be seen at major political rallies – usually in opposition to Prime Minister Hun Sen and his long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Many monks are also strongly expressing their views with regards to environmental protection, and the regime’s indifference to the nation’s natural preservation.

Cambodia is essentially a country for sale, and foreign development corporations are taking advantage of the opportunity. Large areas of farmland are being converted into rubber and sugar plantations, and the Mekong River is being harnessed for electricity as far north as Laos and China.

This story follows a group of over 40 monks as they march 25km towards the remote village of Pra Lay to voice their anger over environmental destruction in their country.

The march is not an easy one. Starting hours behind schedule due to a mechanical problem with their chartered bus, the monks do not start walking until nearly 5p.m. When darkness falls a few hours later, the monks have not even reached the halfway point. But despite wearing only rubber or leather sandals, and the fact that they have not eaten since noon, the monks all manage to reach Pra Lay. While the fastest walkers arrive at around 1:30 am, some of the elderly monks are stranded in the jungle until past 4am.

Despite their late arrival, the monks rise with the sun and carry on with their protest for most of the following day before starting the long walk back out of the valley.

Politically active monks are an emerging trend in Cambodia, and this story will not be the last to feature them.

Monks begin their march towards Pra Lay, hours behind schedule.

Monks begin their march towards Pra Lay, hours behind schedule.

The group of monks cross a river during their night march. They have walked only 8 of the 25 km necessary.

The group of monks cross a river during their night march. They have walked only 8 of the 25 km necessary.

Monks pause to rest around the halfway point of their 25 km jungle march. Hours behind schedule, most of the walking is done at night.

Monks pause to rest around the halfway point of their 25 km jungle march. Hours behind schedule, most of the walking is done at night.

Monks examine their sandals for damage at around midnight.

Monks examine their sandals for damage at around midnight.

Monks and volunteers prepare a length of orange cloth which they will use to bless trees in the Arang valley. The blessings are part of an effort to raise environmental awareness and prevent deforestation. Monks are becoming increasingly involved in political and environmental issues in Cambodia.

Monks and volunteers prepare a length of orange cloth which they will use to bless trees in the Arang valley. The blessings are part of an effort to raise environmental awareness and prevent deforestation. Monks are becoming increasingly involved in political and environmental issues in Cambodia.

The monks gather for breakfast in the Pra Lay pagoda.

The monks gather for breakfast in the Pra Lay pagoda.

The monks eat a snack of green bananas on the morning after their march. Many of the monks were exhausted by the walk and are slow to wake up.

The monks eat a snack of green bananas on the morning after their march. Many of the monks were exhausted by the walk and are slow to wake up.

A section of the orange cloth the monks will use to bless trees in an attempt to raise awareness of environmental issues in the Arang Valley.

A section of the orange cloth the monks will use to bless trees in an attempt to raise awareness of environmental issues in the Arang Valley.

Monks march through the village of Pra Lay in the Arang Valley hoping to encourage the residents to think criticially about environmental protection.

Monks march through the village of Pra Lay in the Arang Valley hoping to encourage the residents to think criticially about environmental protection.

Monks wrap orange cloth around large trees in the Arang Valley. By blessing the trees they hope to discourage deforestation.

Monks wrap orange cloth around large trees in the Arang Valley. By blessing the trees they hope to discourage deforestation.

Monks bless a tree in the Arang Valley.

Monks bless a tree in the Arang Valley.

A monk rests after the blessing ceremonies are finished.

A monk rests after the blessing ceremonies are finished.

Exhausted from the previous night's march, the monks make their way to the Areng River to swim and relax.

Exhausted from the previous night’s march, the monks make their way to the Areng River to swim and relax.

The monks spend several hours at the Areng River, near the place where China Guodian's propsed hydroelectric damn will be built.

The monks spend several hours at the Areng River, near the place where China Guodian’s propsed hydroelectric damn will be built.

With the protest completed, the monks must re-walk the 25km path out of the Valley before returning to Phnom Penh.

With the protest completed, the monks must re-walk the 25km path out of the Valley before returning to Phnom Penh.

 

 

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March of the Monks: Black and White

I used to love black and white photography. The stark images from people like Don McCullin and James Nachtwey, were some of the reasons I was drawn to photojournalism in the first place. When I first started taking pictures more seriously, the first step in my post-production workflow was to immediately convert them to black and white. But when I tried to switch to colour photography during those years, I found that all my images looked washed out and bland.

So a few years ago I needed to remedy the situation and started shooting exclusively in colour. In the last year and a half the number of black and white’s I’ve made is in the single digits, which is a shame since it was the format that I originally fell in love with.

In an effort to try and recapture what I used to love about black and white, I decided to make a second edit of my Marching Monks story. It might be an odd choice for a return to monochrome, since the saffron-clad monks are so iconically colourful, but it really changes up the feeling of the story.

I’ve held off on showing the full story, in colour, because my written account of the protesting monks has been picked up by a large media organization (which will remain unnamed until I’m completely sure they will publish it!).

I’d be very interested to hear what people think about the strengths and weaknesses of black and white vs colour, so if you think that one is better than the other, I’d love to know why. Post a comment at the end of this post, on Twitter or Facebook, or email me directly to get a dialogue going about which one works best.

Monks stand in from of a roadside restaurant

Monks stand in from of a roadside restaurant

Monks drive past rows of rubber trees on their way to the Areng Valley. Foreign owned rubber plantations are a commonm cause of deforestation in Cambodia.

Monks drive past rows of rubber trees on their way to the Areng Valley. Foreign owned rubber plantations are a commonm cause of deforestation in Cambodia.

A colum of monks begin their walk towards Pra Lay, a small village in the Cordomom Mountains. The monks are hours behind schedule and their destination is 25km away.

A colum of monks begin their walk towards Pra Lay, a small village in the Cordomom Mountains. The monks are hours behind schedule and their destination is 25km away.

Darkness falls on the marching monks early in their walk.

Darkness falls on the marching monks early in their walk.

The monks are of varying ages and fitness levels, and many must stop to rest periodically.

The monks are of varying ages and fitness levels, and many must stop to rest periodically.

Sun rise in Pra Lay village. Despite their late arrival, most monks rise with the sun.

Sun rise in Pra Lay village. Despite their late arrival, most monks rise with the sun.

The monks eat a breakfast of rice and curried vegetables. Buddhist monks do not eat anything past noon each day and so a large breakfast is essential.

The monks eat a breakfast of rice and curried vegetables. Buddhist monks do not eat anything past noon each day and so a large breakfast is essential.

Monks unfurl an 80-metre length of saffron cloth which they will use to bless trees during their protest.

Monks unfurl an 80-metre length of saffron cloth which they will use to bless trees during their protest.

The monks walk through the rainforest the morning after the march, searching for large trees to bless as holy.

The monks walk through the rainforest the morning after the march, searching for large trees to bless as holy.

The monks bless the large trees in the hopes that being seen as holy will protect them from being cut down. Many hardwood trees in Cambodia are extremely valuable, and therefore desirable for independent (and illegal) loggers.

The monks bless the large trees in the hopes that being seen as holy will protect them from being cut down. Many hardwood trees in Cambodia are extremely valuable, and therefore desirable for independent (and illegal) loggers.

The monks swim in the Areng River after their tree blessing ceremony. Many of the monks are still exhausted from the previous night's march and welcome an afternoon of relaxation.

The monks swim in the Areng River after their tree blessing ceremony. Many of the monks are still exhausted from the previous night’s march and welcome an afternoon of relaxation.

A monk enjoys a moment of reflection before starting the 25km walk out of the Areng Valley.

A monk enjoys a moment of reflection before starting the 25km walk out of the Areng Valley.

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