Election results: Victory (and defeat) for both sides

30 07 2013

On election day, Peace Corps Volunteers all over Cambodia posted on Facebook that their sites felt “quiet” or “still.” Here in Takeo, I used the same words to describe the calm that took over the city on Sunday. However, this silence did not mean that Cambodians had nothing to say. On the contrary, the polls were packed with voters, many of whom indicated they were ready for a change.

The preliminary election results show the ruling party, the CPP, losing 22 of their previous 90 seats in the National Assembly. This shift significantly reduces the gap between the CPP, now with 68 seats, and the largest opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), with 55. International news sources say that the “surprising” results show that the CNRP has “leveled the playing field” and “made a strong showing.” However, based the on the (limited) conversations I’ve had with people since the election, I think many CNRP supporters feel angry or unsatisfied. The gains in the National Assembly do not make up for the fact that Prime Minister Hun Sen is set to remain in power for another five years or for the alleged irregularities that took place at polling sites across the country. “The results are fake, and we’re mad,” I was told by a young man I know, who was visibly still upset by the CPP victory when I talked to him late Monday afternoon. “If that’s the number they’re admitting,” said one Twitter user, “imagine what the real result is.”

From The Cambodian Daily: A riot in Phnom Penh on election day

From The Cambodian Daily: A riot in Phnom Penh on election day

International organizations are not satisfied either, with Transparency International saying that it is “very difficult to proclaim this a free and fair election.” In addition to the complaints leading up to election day, which included highly censored media and difficult voter registration processes, there was a long list of voting day concerns, as well. In some cases, voters would show up to the polls, only to find that someone else had already cast a ballot using their name. Some people’s names were left off the list entirely, while a few of the names on the list supposedly belonged to people who had already died. The other issue that was widely covered was that the ink used to indicate that someone had voted was easily washed off, leaving an opportunity for individuals to vote more than one time.

It was these issues that led to a riot in Phnom Penh’s Mienchey district on Sunday, where two military vehicles were destroyed. There were also reports of violence against ethnically Vietnamese Cambodians at a few polling stations. Overall, though, the violence was contained to a handful of specific areas.

The violence has been limited, and I would guess that it will remain so. Despite the hard feelings, members from both parties can feel as though they achieved some sort of victory this election day. The ruling party continues to hold the Prime Minister position and maintains a majority in the Assembly, while the opposition party gained 26 new seats and clearly demonstrated the people’s desire to change the status quo. The CNRP is challenging the results, but all in all I believe this was the safest outcome for the country.



Change or No Change: Cambodia’s Fifth General Election

27 07 2013

Tomorrow, more than 9 million Cambodians will travel to nearby schools and community centers to cast their ballots in the country’s fifth democratic election. With campaigning banned today, it is the first day of silence in weeks. The roar of political rallies has become so familiar recently that today’s tranquility feels a little like the eerie silence before the storm.

I can’t say with any certainty if there will be a storm, or what it would even look like, but it’s hard not to wonder what the aftermath of the election will be. A Cambodian acquaintance recently told me, “If the CPP wins, the country will go to war. If the opposition party wins, the country will go to war.” Although I believe this to be an overstatement, the election is a significant event for people both locally and internationally.

This year, there are eight registered parties on the ballot, down from 11 in 2008 and 23 in 2003; however, two have been receiving the vast majority of media attention. The first is the Cambodian People’s Party, the CPP, which has won all four previous elections and is the current ruling party. CPP’s Hun Sen, the current Prime Minister, is the longest serving leader in all of Asia. On the other side is the largest opposition party, an alliance between the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, now called the Cambodian National Rescue Party.

This year’s election has received quite a bit of international attention, with many sources voicing concerns about corruption. Some allege that more than 10 percent of registered voters don’t exist. Others say that the ruling party controls all accessible media. Some have gone as far to say that this year’s elections will be rigged, or worse yet: the least fair in history. I’ve heard firsthand many people complain about how difficult it’s been to register to vote or to move their voting location, which indicates unwieldy bureaucracy if not worse.

However, a local friend of mine recently told me that this year the Cambodian people feel freer than they ever have. He believes technology is the reason. Now, young people have smart phones and computer access, which allow them to explore information they couldn’t reach before. People can share their ideas without consequence, he told me. When I asked if that was the case in the 2008 election, he quickly said it was not. Cambodians, he said, have never felt so free to express their opinions, on both sides of the spectrum. “Because of this, we all understand each other now, even if we don’t agree.” Supporting this sentiment is the fact that this is the least violent campaign season yet.

Another thing that has defined the climate of this election season is the return of Sam Rainsy, the head of the former political party named for him, after four years of self-imposed exile. Rainsy’s return has invigorated the opposition party, with hundreds of thousands of people flooding the streets of major cities as he campaigns across the country. When I asked Cambodian friends and acquaintances if Rainsy’s return would cause people to vote differently, they said no. However, I would guess that it’s given people more energy, maybe even more hope.

After noticing that the Cambodian National Rescue Party campaigners seemed to be more enthusiastic during their rallies, I was told by several people that these campaigners hit the streets shouting their slogan of “Change or no change?” because they are truly excited about their party. Sometimes, I was told, CPP campaigners are paid to attend rallies, and some will do so even if on election day they vote for the opposition. The fear of saying no, when paired with the extra income, is enough motivation for some to join these events, but maybe not enough to feign enthusiasm.

Genuine supporters of the CPP do exist in large number though, and they hold up economic growth and infrastructure development as the biggest successes of the party. These are thanks in part to Cambodia’s strong relationship with China, which has invested nearly $10 billion into the small country. Some argue that development has come at a high cost, with land grabs and deforestation being cited often.

In addition to touting development,  the CPP has historically also relied heavily on the message that they freed Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge. This message becomes less and less powerful with each passing year, as a greater number of voters have no memory – and little knowledge – of the atrocities that occurred during that time. In fact, the youth movement has been notable this election season, with one-third of voters between the ages of 18 and 30.

Tomorrow, the eyes of many will be on Cambodia. Some have already written it off, arguing that there’s no chance of a free and fair election; but for many more, tomorrow’s election will be a litmus test to see if the Cambodian people are ready for change.

Stay tuned for the results.


A very belated update

21 07 2013

I had grand plans to keep up the blog the past few weeks, but so far I’ve failed pretty miserably. This is my attempt to recap.

First, and perhaps most exciting, Tim and I finished our Peace Corps Service! We are officially Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. It’s been nearly a month since we left our site, and it’s just now starting to hit me that a very important stage of my life is over.

I already miss the familiar faces of Kampong Kdey

I already miss the familiar faces of Kampong Kdey

Immediately following our close of service (and immediately following the end of our instant and free access to a qualified American medical professional), Tim got an infection and wound up in the hospital. The night he was supposed to return to the good ol’ US of A, he was instead lying in a hospital bed, on the receiving end of an IV full of antibiotics. A few days later, he got cleared to leave the hospital and was able to change his flight date. He left Cambodia on Sunday of last week, and after 48 hours of travel, he arrived in Philadelphia. He’s spent the past few days visiting apartment after apartment, while getting to know our new city.

Saying goodbye to Tim

Saying goodbye to Tim

Meanwhile, I’ve relocated to Takeo province and have started my contract. Life is incredibly busy, but happy!

Awh Howee! All Finished!

30 06 2013

Last Tuesday, Tim and I loaded up a van with all of our belongings and said goodbye to Kampong Kdey for the last time. Leaving the place we’ve called home for the past two years was difficult, but I’m not sure it’s really settled in yet, even five days later.

Saying goodbye to VHV and NGO counterparts in Ponleu Preah Pos

Saying goodbye to VHV and NGO counterparts in Ponleu Preah Pos

The last night with our host family

The last night with our host family

For now, we are  house sitting in Phnom Penh while we finish up the last week of being Peace Corps Volunteers. I’ve been busy transitioning into my new short-term staff position, and Tim’s been taking advantage of the kitchen to cook every comfort food imaginable. Only ten short days before he’ll board a plane for the States. It’s all so surreal.


Saying Goodbye

20 06 2013

This week is our last one at site, meaning it has been filled with countless goodbyes. I’ve been on my bike every day, riding out to the villages to say farewell to my project volunteers, my students, and the friends I’ve made during this wonderful two-year journey. There have also been several special events that have helped us say goodbye to our community, moments that I’m sure will stick with us long after we step foot on US soil again.

Our farewell tour kicked off at the school. The local high school had a ceremony to celebrate Tim and all the hard work he’s put in as an English teacher and teacher trainer.

Tim and his coteacher

Tim and his co-teacher

Then, we rented a van and took a big group of friends to a nearby national park, where we spent the day hiking, picnicking, and swimming near an impressive 50-foot waterfall.

Me and Vary at the base of the waterfall

Next, the staff at the health center organized a party where I ate countless bowls of curry and grilled chicken.


This weekend, I’ll be saying goodbye to some friends in Siem Reap before heading back to site for a special dinner with our host family. Then, on Tuesday, we’ll pack up a taxi and say goodbye to Kampong Kdey.


Our plans after service

15 06 2013

With my last day of service looming just a few weeks away, I suppose it’s time to share my plans for afterward. As you may remember, Tim and I will be moving to Philadelphia, where he is starting a Master’s program in Social Work. He received a generous fellowship that will have him focusing on supporting veterans, including a 3-day per week field placement at Philly’s Veteran’s Affairs. He will be leaving for Philadelphia the second week of July; however, he will be heading back alone because I have accepted a short-term contract position with Peace Corps Cambodia and plan to remain in country until September.

On July 3, I will transition from a Peace Corps volunteer to a staff member. As the new technical trainer, I will be in charge of writing, sequencing, and delivering the technical training sessions for the incoming group of health volunteers. I’m excited for the position because I think the health program in Cambodia has so much potential, and I’m looking forward to shaping the expectations and goals of the new group. It’s a natural fit for me, having trained American community development volunteers in Argentina, as well.

Technical training session with last year's trainees

Technical training session with last year’s trainees

I’m thrilled about the position and about the opportunity to contribute to such a great program. However, it will be a little strange to see Tim leave and begin the transition home without me. As he busies himself looking at Philly apartments, cell phone plans, and course schedules, I’m beginning to prepare for a whole lot of lesson planning.

I’m scheduled to arrive in the States on the afternoon of September 7th. I am certainly looking forward to that day, but am equally excited about all that I’ll be doing in the meantime.


Letting them GLOW

12 06 2013

Recently, another Peace Corps Volunteer wrote me asking if any of my project participants would be able to come to the Camp GLOW in Takeo to present about domestic violence. I immediately thought of a few of the secondary students I work with, who had not only been trained on the definition and impacts of domestic violence, but who had also led an awesome role play on the subject for hundreds of other students and teachers at the school. These young women had participated in the Siem Reap Camp GLOW too, and they had enthusiastically led community-based education sessions afterward to share with other women what they had learned. “Wouldn’t it be great,” I thought, “to have a couple of them travel to Takeo for peer education?” And, after pitching the idea to the other Peace Corps Volunteer, that’s exactly what happened.

Vany and Sokha at Camp GLOW Takeo

Vany and Sokha at Camp GLOW Takeo

Last week, two 11th grade students, Vany and Sokha, made the 9-hour journey with me to the province of Takeo. Although they were nervous to teach 85 students, they were much more nervous for the long trip. Neither of them had ever been so far from home, and it was clear this length of a trip was daunting. We rode a bus to Phnom Penh, the country’s capital, where we had to take a short tuk tuk ride through the city to the taxi station. The girls seemed to be equal parts memorized and terrified as they looked around at the sheer number of people, vehicles and buildings that surrounded them. I let them soak it all in, deciding I would wait to ask them about their impressions later. When we arrived to the taxi station, the three of us smashed in the front seat alongside the driver, and we immediately took off for the provincial town of Takeo. On the taxi ride down, Vany and Sokha commented on the differences they could see out their window: the already planted rice fields, the students in different uniforms, the hills in the distance.

After meeting with the Camp GLOW participants for dinner in Takeo that night, the girls came back to the guesthouse to review their lesson plans, talk to their families on the phone, and watch TV. As they went over the plan for the following day, they spent a lot of time laughing about how differently the students from Takeo spoke from them. Like in the States, the north and the south of the country are known for their unique accents, so the girls giggled as they tried to imitate the different sounds from the south.

The next day, Vany and Sokha sat in on the first session of the morning before switching roles and becoming presenters. They had a 2-hour block of time, during which they taught about the four different kinds of domestic violence (physical, emotional, sexual, economic), and explored commonly-held beliefs about abuse. As I watched, I was very proud of them, confident in themselves and in the information they provided. They did a great job of getting the other students involved and making sure everyone understood the material. Overall, it was a solid session, and I think it was neat that the Takeo students had the opportunity to learn from their peers.

"What is domestic violence?"

“What is domestic violence?”

When Vany and Sokha finished, we hopped in a taxi and made our way back to Phnom Penh, where we spent the afternoon seeing the sites. The three of us rented a tuk tuk and went to visit Independence Monument, the Royal Palace, the riverfront, and Wat Phnom. The girls were really excited to see these places that they had only read about it in their textbooks. They were much more relaxed than the previous day, and had a blast posing for dozens of pictures along the way. We ended the night with Khmer barbecue along the river.

While we ate, I asked the girls to tell me more about themselves and their families. Sokha wants to become a doctor, while Vany hopes to be a teacher. They both come from large families, and none of their siblings has completed high school. In fact, Vany is the fifth child of seven, and before her, the highest grade any of her siblings had reached was 7th grade. It was really encouraging to see these young women stand out as leaders in their school, despite their backgrounds. They are both set to finish 11th grade in a few weeks. When I asked if they hope to attend university, they both said that they want to, but are unsure whether they will have the money to do so. They told me that they’d like to study in Siem Reap because Phnom Penh was just too big for them.

Dinner in Phnom Penh

Dinner in Phnom Penh

This project made me reflect on my approach to my work here. In the first few months of service, there were a lot of informal discussions among Peace Corps Volunteers about our role and how we can best make a difference. As my service winds down, that answer has become increasingly complicated, although one thing has remained the same. I remember, more than a year ago, talking about the idea that a volunteer should be a connector, using our network, funding, and knowledge to connect the many capable Cambodians with opportunities to build their skills and share their perspectives. We don’t need to be in the spotlight, we don’t need to be creating much from scratch – we simply need to connect the already existing resources.

That’s what this project was. Initially, my role was to connect these students with amazing Cambodian women at Camp GLOW who taught them about domestic violence, healthy relationships, and how to be effective teachers. Then, I connected them with an opportunity to use this knowledge and pass it on to others. Based on this project and others, I truly believe that being a connector is our most important and most effective role as volunteers. I’m thrilled that I was able to serve as a connector for Vany and Sokha because I know that they learned and grew a lot through this experience.