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.

Katie





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.

Katie





School Year Wrap up

22 06 2012

The school year has just about ended with semester tests finished for everyone but the 9th and 12th graders. You would assume that semester tests would mark the end of the school year, but the students and teachers are required to be at school for a few more weeks until the official end date. The end result: the students and teachers sit around looking at each other, but no class is held. Call me old fashioned, but if I don’t have to do my job, I’m not going to come to my place of work that day. In my mind, it seems like an awful version of workforce detention (reminds me of this), in which nothing is completed or produced or fixed or….how American of me.

The truth is, the teachers really seem to like hanging out, talking with each other, gambling, and being anywhere but home. One of my coteachers teaches three days a week but is at school at least five, because he’s bored at home. And, although it’s not true for him, for many students and teachers home means work. Home means farming, cleaning, cooking, childcare. Being at school is a reprieve from these activities and many students and teachers admit preferring six hour purgatory to a “free” day at home. The point is, school’s out (basically). One school year down and only one to go. Time is flying. So with a sudden lack of schedule on my hands, I think now is the time for some productive (there it is again!) reflection on the school year.

Surprises (also known as Wait…..What?)

I think most Peace Corps volunteers have these moments when we hear something, nod our head as we always do to appear agreeable, then suddenly our jaw muscles slacken and our heads turn to the side like an inquisitive puppy as the news finally hits us, culminating with a half-stuttered, “Wait…..what?” As we adjusted to the culture the first few months, there were a lot of these moments. Once, in the first few days, as I began to ask students questions, my coteacher would just shake his head, saying, “She’s from the village, she doesn’t know.” As he tried to redirect me toward the 4-5 advanced students in the class, it was clear that once students were left behind, they weren’t given much opportunity to get back on track. Those from the “villages” often were never taught English in 7-9th grade as they should have, but now had to compete with students with three years of English under their belts. Meanwhile, teachers would ignore them because they were “from the villages.”

The other few surprises came from what I thought I was prepared for: corruption. Finding out that all teachers have money deducted from their salary for political party dues was a bit staggering. All teachers are officially card carrying Cambodian People’s Party members. Without it, they can’t be teachers. I had assumed there would be some corruption, but assumed that the students would not be directly affected. However, as I mentioned on an earlier blog, students are not only charged to take exams, but they are overcharged by a factor of ten.

Improvements

There have undoubtedly been some positive changes from the past year. First, my coteachers have improved their speaking and listening ability in English significantly. They are great students, soaking up anything I teach them, and immediately use the word, phrase, or technique so they won’t forget it. They are enthusiastic about being able to practice  their English and seem to see the value in it.

My coteachers have been able to pick up teaching techniques that require very little to no preparation. These are my bread and butter, knowing my coteachers often don’t have the time to prepare much for class. Ideally, some lesson planning would be great, but let’s keep in mind that Cambodian teachers make in a month what American teachers make in a day. Motivation is in short supply when everyone needs second and third jobs. Perhaps more importantly, the coteachers are realizing that a student centered class is a lot more fun than speaking in front of the class for two hours.

One of the things that was really important to me was to be available to students for questions, support, and opportunities to practice English. My formal “office hours” did not work, but through lots of urging, I now have students that are not so afraid of the cultural power difference between us and come sit with me and my coteachers during breaks to ask questions.

Lastly, the coteachers are starting to admit that the curriculum could be stronger. There was a strong need for them to follow the book exactly and make sure we cover everything in each chapter, whether the material is good or not. They’re beginning to be really good at knowing what is important to teach, what is important to teach differently from the book, and what is useless in this context.

Not Going to Budge

Despite the improvements, as meager as they might seem, there are certainly things that just will not change. Issues like taking money from students, allowing cheating, and poor teacher attendance are just not going anywhere. These are the realities that  I can discuss with our coteachers, but I don’t really see changing much during my tenure here. Also, getting my coteachers to sing. It’s just not happening.

Inspirations

There are lots of really positive people around that I would dare say are inspirations. First and foremost, is my counterpart and friend, Vanna. As a first year teacher, he didn’t get paid for seven months of teaching. He borrowed money, lived thriftily, and never missed a class until I took him to a training in Phnom Penh in May (even then, he left exercises for his students to have done when he came back). He lesson plans for hours a day, comes to every class, and is just a great guy to be around. If this is the new wave of young Khmer teachers, Cambodian schools will be vastly different in ten years.

Second, there is an old man who teaches Khmer. He knows English and French, and is overall a brilliant guy. More than any other factor that is inspiring is his consistancy. I think the Cambodian education system could be vastly improved with some very simple consistancy. This teacher comes to every class, arrives on time, teaches the full time, then goes home. I’ve never spotted him around the teachers’ card table, and he avoids the overly social teachers’ lounge. He doesn’t take money from students and always goes to class. For this, he is both revered and ostracized by other teachers. While some teachers invoke the group mentality as a reason not to stop earning money from tests, he shows that one person can change things.

Lastly, there is a particularly strong student in my English club whose family lives 45km from the school. Twice a month, she bikes the 45km to see her family for a day and a half, then bikes back. During the week she stays in a shared house with 26 other girls that are receiving scholarship money to finish high school. She studies hard, and talks often of university, knowing she won’t be able to go without a scholarship.

Focus for next year

What are my next steps? Mostly, I’m going to focus on cementing these improvements into the school. There is no clear indication that the improvements so far will continue after I leave, so next year will look a bit different. I will turn to more of an advising role to the teachers, making sure that they are implementing the changes that I’ve shown them. I taught a lot this year, and want to see my coteachers take the lead next year.

-Tim





One Semester Down

29 01 2012

It’s hard to believe that we’ve already been at site for almost four months. So it was a rude awakening when my coteachers told me that semester exams were coming up already. These months have been both busy and slow, productive and not, and, naturally, rewarding and frustrating.

I think my time here is significantly different from Katie’s, since I have much more structured time at the school than she has at the health center. Peace Corps requires education volunteers to be in their school for at least 16 hours a week (slave drivers, right?). It is somehow surprisingly difficult to teach much more than 22 hours at my school based on English teachers schedules. So between my English Club and public school classes, I’m at the school for about 20 hours a week in an ideal week. Once you take away holidays, community service days, coteachers not wanting to teach days, and whatever else comes up, it seems rare for me to put in a full week’s work at the public school.

When I am at school, I’ve been having a blast most days. My coteachers and I have really started to work well together, trust each other more, and have a good time while we teach. As a result, the famously stoic Khmer students are more relaxed, have more fun, and (hopefully) learn more. As I’ve slowly introduced new teaching techniques, my hesitant coteachers have seen the response from students and began to teach in the same way. This mimicry has been one very big positive sign here for me that the capacity building that we were sent here to do is happening – even on a very small level.

So this week the students have semester tests so I’m not teaching. In fact, I’m not allowed to be at the school to even observe the very tests that I wrote. Tests are always a contentious issue at my school (and probably most schools around Cambodia) due to several corruption issues. First, most public school teachers teach private classes immediately before or after school, and may choose to have a “review” session before the exam just for their private class for 4 or 5 times the regular price.

Second, at my school all the students are required to pay the teacher for each test, which is illegal in Cambodia. Early on, I recognized that making copies for all the students can be expensive so I decided not to tackle the issue since it would probably make me more enemies than friends. Recently, however, I found out that the teachers charge ten times the amount that it costs them to make copies. All told, this little test scam contributes about 20% of my coteachers’ monthly income. Not surprisingly, this makes the kids’ relationships with teachers more like customers than students. I found this out after I told my coteacher that I gave three ‘zeros’ on tests after rampant cheating in a class I was observing. He said, “The students paid for the test, so maybe we can’t give them zeros.” In spite of all the rigidity, formality, and militaristic emphasis within the Cambodian education system, it only cost twelve and a half cents for those students to completely flip the relationship of student and teacher.

But this wasn’t meant to be about corruption. A running joke in our private advanced class is how many minutes will go by before someone mentions corruption. Whether we talk about education, the environment, development, gender issues, or sports, corruption seems to come up.

Speaking of private classes, they have been going well too. I really enjoy being able to teach exactly what I want to my private students without the constraints of a book. I still have private classes four days a week. The advanced class continues to be the highlight of my week as we are able to talk in-depth about Cambodia in a structured way. I think I tend to learn more from the class than they do, but mostly they seem to be happy to be able to practice English in a relaxed setting.

With the first semester over, the thought of summer is starting to loom larger and larger over my head. I’ll need to find some work independent of the school for 3 months. There are a couple of NGOs in town that I may be able to work with; otherwise I’m going to have to get creative.

So since I have the week off, I’m taking advantage by cooking a ton, thinking about secondary projects, and spending some much needed time with my rabies-free wife.

-Tim