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





The Cycle

21 05 2013

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with one of my hospitality students that needs to be retold. It seemed to be a perfect example of how poverty shows itself, and influences the lives of generations. I hope I can explain it accurately, as this instance impacted my own thinking in some pretty profound ways. Most importantly, this is just one story of dozens we’ve heard during our time here that shows the lasting effects of poverty and just how difficult it is to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

Mun lives in a house with thatch walls and a thatch roof. The family has a small patch of rice paddy just behind the house that only provides enough rice for the family for a few months. There is no toilet and no water source besides a couple of rain basins. His sister works in a factory in Thailand to help support the family. His father sleeps in a pagoda and drives his moto in Phnom Penh, hoping to earn some cash giving rides around the city. Mun’s mom works as a farm laborer when there is work planting, transplanting and cutting rice, but the rest of the year she remains jobless.

As a result of his family’s precarious financial situation, Mun dropped out of school in 7th grade and became a monk. This is a common life path for many poor Cambodian boys, when “free” public schooling becomes too expensive for families to afford. For Mun, becoming a monk and moving to the pagoda meant he could continue to study informally, and work on his English with older monks. This sparked an interest in English that continues today.

Two years ago, Mun was in an all too common moto accident in Phnom Penh and suffered a head injury. The doctor at the hospital offered to relieve the pressure on his brain for a few hundred dollars. Lacking the money, Mun’s family was forced to take him home without treatment, hoping his condition would improve on its own. After weeks in bed, Mun was slowly able to stand and then walk with support. He is not fully recovered even now, and often has trouble concentrating, standing for long periods, and walking evenly. Mun hasn’t seen a doctor since his initial hospital stay.

Mun and I meet at least twice a week to fine tune his English, work on life skills, vocational skills, and math skills to better prepare him for his dream job: being a receptionist in a hotel in Siem Reap where he can meet tourists from different cultures and continue to practice his English. During one of our many conversations, Mun talked of his injury once again, complaining that he was still weak and couldn’t yet work. He was hopeful however of a new medicine from Japan made from kelp that was being sold in Siem Reap. His aunt had purchased some for stomach problems and had been cured. Would it possible for me to help him pay $170 for three weeks of the medicine?

It was then that I felt the familiar pangs of cultural arrogance that had plagued me during previous conversations about traditional medicine in Cambodia. Although I had generally been patient throughout these discussions before, I found his request for money to buy something that almost certainly was a scam difficult to respond to calmly. Taking a deep breath, I slowly tried to break down the clear logical holes in his plan to finally improve his health. Why don’t doctors have this medicine? Why can’t you buy it in the health center in town? Why would a medicine that helped your aunt’s stomach cure your serious neurological injury? Even though there are commercials on the radio about the medicine, does that mean their claims are true? Why is the medicine so unbelievably expensive?

Mun answered question after question, but missed the greater picture. He insisted his aunt was better and that he would be better too if he only had this medicine. After a failed attempt to explain the placebo effect, the situation finally came into focus for me. Mun’s entire life determined how he approached the decision to buy this medicine or not. His lack of education and short time in an education system that doesn’t foster critical thinking left him vulnerable to scams. The lack of quality medical care in his country led to a distrust in modern medicine, which is inaccessible anyway since his family doesn’t have the money to pay doctors. The communal culture of Cambodia led him to trust his aunt’s experience more than his own lingering doubts about the product. Ultimately, the lack of money for education and health care was leading Mun to make poor decisions about his health out of desperation to get better. These poor decisions about his health would worsen his financial situation, which would worsen his health. The entire cycle of poverty was laid out in front of me. And, yes, it was soul-crushing.

In another world, Mun could have stayed in school to learn critical life skills, been able to afford a moto helmet to prevent head injuries, been able to receive adequate medical care after the accident, and had trust in local medical staff to treat him instead of snake oil salesmen. Instead, he’ll continue to consider “medicine” that costs a fifth of his family’s annual income while he still doesn’t get enough food to eat.

-Tim





Under Construction

18 01 2013

It’s been fascinating to watch our town “develop” over the past year and a half. Roads have been paved, power lines put up, water pipes laid. New restaurants have opened, new houses have been built, new ways to travel to Siem Reap are now available.

Currently, there are two building projects in particular that have been affecting our daily lives. The first project is a new house that they are building directly next to ours. Instead of being serenaded by the usual wedding music, we have been woken up by the sounds of generators and power tools for the past couple of months. And on top of the normal level of dust, we have a few extra layers that, after being stirred up next door, entered through our screen-less windows and settled on our wooden floors.

The new house next door

The new house next door

Unfortunately, I don’t get any reprieve from the dusty air or noise when I head to work since they are currently putting up a new building at the health center too. I wrote about the new building in October and how its construction confused me. Since then, I have been told that there are rumors that the  health center could be converted into a hospital again in two or three more years. No one seems to know for sure, and they insist that isn’t the reason the new building is going up though, so who knows.

They're making progress on the new building at the health center

They’re making progress on the new building at the health center

Anyway, our lives are filled with noise and dust, but also change. As I said, it’s been incredibly interesting to watch things change so quickly. It makes me wonder what this little town will look like in five or ten years.

Katie





A Tale of Two Cities…er, Villages

24 10 2012

After a full week of no rain, I woke up this morning and realized the streak was over. I got out of bed immediately to call the village health volunteer who works on the nutrition project with me. I knew from previous experience that when it rains, it’s best to cancel project activities. More often than not, paid government employees like teachers or health center staff won’t go to work if it’s raining, so it’s even less probable that community members will volunteer to come to projects when it’s wet outside.

I called the volunteer and asked if we should still have the planned feeding session, the second in a series of ten. Yes, she assured me. Yes, the mothers will come. Let’s still have the session. I was skeptical, but trusted this volunteer. She told me that the mothers would come so I believed her.

Volunteers mapping where the underweight children live

At least, that’s what I thought she had told me. But when I arrived in the village a half an hour later, I realized I had misunderstood. Since the Khmer language doesn’t have tenses, I hadn’t realized when we were talking that the volunteer had told me, “Yes, the mothers came” and not, “Yes, the mothers will come.”

So I showed up on my bike, a little wet, and was greeted by more than 30 smiling faces who were sitting underneath the stilted house eating their nutritious weaning porridge while a light rain fell around them. Everything about this situation was surprising to me. First, it was only seven in the morning, and they had already made and started to eat the porridge. In the other village where we did the project, it was a battle to get the porridge finished in time for my 11am class. Second, there were 30 people there, including every single child on the list of underweight kids. Again, this was nothing like in the other village, where we were happy to get half of the participants to show up. And, finally, the volunteers were enthusiastically teaching about nutrition to the mothers, using the education tools they had been trained on. In the other village, I had to do a large portion of the education because the volunteers refused to do it. And when they did teach, they certainly didn’t use as effective of methods. All of this, and it was raining to boot! I sat and watched the whole thing unfold, almost feeling unneeded. A bittersweet feeling, indeed.

Volunteers learning about behavior change communication

Consider this is another situation to file under “things that baffle me.” (Although, to be fair, it would be unusual if more than a couple of days went by without having something to add to that list.) Volunteers from both villages received the same training. The villages are a mere 500 meters from one another. As far as I can tell, they have approximately the same level of income and resources available. Yet, I’ve seen drastically different results in the two places. It’s been like night and day since the beginning of the project, but this morning was the perfect illustration of the competence – and confidence – found within the second village.

This morning, one of the project volunteers from the second village excitedly approached me saying, “I think the mothers trust us already. I think they have confidence in us and understand that our method will help their children. Mothers won’t change their behaviors unless they trust us – and trust this project – but they do! All of the mothers in the village want to come participate now. They all want to learn how to help their kids grow up to be healthy and strong.” And then, after a pause, “This many women didn’t want to participate in [village one], did they? In our village, the mothers want to learn, they want to be healthy. Today, every single mother brought money to contribute. All of the mothers made time for their children. They want to be lazy, but they are not because they know that health is important. I think our two villages are different.” Truer words were never spoken.

Letting the porridge thicken

This whole thing leads me to a perennial question for Peace Corps Volunteers: Who should we be working with? People or groups who, like the second village, have the desire and a foundation of skills to help themselves? It certainly seems as though that’s where we can be most effective. Connecting willing and able communities with resources and knowledge seems like a great role for PCVs. But then what about those other communities? Why are they more difficult to work with? Do they really not want to help themselves? Are they “lazy,” as the other villages will quickly label them? Or do they lack the capacity? Should we be focusing on building the abilities of these villages to self-organize and manage projects instead of putting resources into villages who already have these skills?

It’s a tough question. Maybe in the long-run, it is best to focus on villages like the first who can’t do it themselves yet, even if it is more difficult. However, when it comes down to it, when I plan my next project, it’s much more likely that I’ll continue to work with the volunteers in the second village. If nothing else, they show up when it rains.

Katie

 





File this under “Things that Baffle Me”

22 10 2012

The health center where I am based is large. While many Cambodian health centers are made of only one building, mine has four, including a building for consultations, one for ante-natal care and birthing, one for trainings, and one for TB testing and beds. If I were to estimate how much of this space the staff and patients actually use, it would be around 60 percent. Not much more than half.

They broke ground last week

And yet, for some reason unbeknownst to me, my health center decided they need a new building. So now a new wing is being constructed on the health center grounds. I’m told it will be for women to recover after they give birth. We have three beds for that currently, and I’ve never seen them all occupied at once. We also have two big rooms full of beds in the training building that I’ve never seen anyone use. This feels like one of those unfortunate instances where people simply equate development to building stuff. I’m hoping as the project continues I’ll learn more to justify the costly construction.

Katie





What does poverty look like?

4 09 2012

Since coming to Cambodia, I have chatted with many people who are just passing through. Whether they are friends of mine or strangers riding next to me on the bus, there’s one phrase that many of them have said, particularly the backpacking crowd: Cambodia doesn’t seem as poor as I imagined. Even though by now I’ve heard nearly a dozen variations of this phrase, I still have a visceral reaction when I hear it.

I’ve spent some time thinking about why I have such a strong, negative reaction when people say these things. It actually hits me just as hard as when people belittle Cambodians, glamorize poverty or comment on how “quaint” life is here. But why? Although I’m not particularly proud of this conclusion, I think that, in part, it offends me because it seems to delegitimize my work. If Cambodia is not poor then what is a Peace Corps Volunteer doing here? But, more than that, it offends me because of how simplistic it is. I have such a deep desire for people to understand the Cambodian reality, and such an off-the-cuff comment seems to ignore the challenges faced by average Cambodians each and every day. Poverty is certainly not the only piece of Cambodia’s story but – from my perspective, at least – it is an important one.

Phnom Penh

If you look at the Human Development Index, a measure created by the United Nations to capture overall wellbeing, you will see Cambodia is 139th on the list, below countries like Iraq, India and neighboring Laos. And with over half of the country living on less than two dollars a day, it’s difficult to deny how widespread poverty is. Furthermore, in raw numbers, substantially more Cambodian mothers die in childbirth each year than do American mothers, despite the fact that Cambodia’s population is only 14 million, less than five percent of that of the US. If that isn’t what you consider poor, then I don’t know what is.

To be fair though, these people aren’t saying Cambodia isn’t poor. They are only saying that it doesn’t seem as poor as they thought, which leads me to think that this observation might be the result of some sort of flawed image we have of poverty. Maybe, when we think of poverty we envision mud huts in the African savanna. Or maybe we know poverty looks different in Cambodia, but we are stuck with an image in our heads of the devastation that immediately followed the Khmer Rouge. Or maybe, in an age of growing technology, we can’t reconcile the commonness of cell phones and mp3 players with the concept of extreme need. Who knows?

I’m not entirely sure why so many people have told me that Cambodia doesn’t seem as poor as they thought. If I had to venture a guess though, I think one of the main reasons is probably because tourists are disproportionately exposed to urban centers, which are relatively better off and can hide the country’s poverty in many ways.

The cities of Cambodia are deceiving. First, because the few modern, sparkly buildings you might come across are probably owned by and benefitting the Chinese more than Cambodians. Many argue that the Chinese— and Korean and Vietnamese to a lesser extent— are pouring money into Cambodia in ways that are widening the inequality gap, destroying natural resources and violating human rights. So while the Chinese-backed buildings and infrastructure provide a façade of prosperity, moderate as it may be, most of the profits of the businesses are being sent out of the country or are being restricted from reaching average citizens.

Again, Phnom Penh

The cityscapes are also deceiving because they are sparsely populated, with only 1.5 million Cambodians calling Phnom Penh, the largest city and capital, their home. This leaves urban areas feeling much less congested and overwhelming than I imagine places like Mexico City or Dhaka must feel. It also means that, generally speaking, you don’t see the sprawling shantytowns like the favelas in Rio or the slums of Mumbai. Since these are the images of international poverty that we’re often confronted with, I wonder if the low number of urban residents helps to subconsciously convince us that Cambodia is better off than the statistics would suggest.

Even if tourists are exposed to the rural areas where poverty is more widespread, which is not often since the tourist trail tends not to wander far from the two or three major urban centers in Cambodia, there’s also the fact that rural poverty is easier to miss. Even when taking a road trip through the US, I think it’s the urban poverty which strikes us most heavily, as we take note of the vacant buildings, homeless families or crumbling houses. When we drive through the countryside, I’d guess that few of us remark on how rural populations are often isolated from basic services. The poverty in small towns or farming areas is often less visual in nature and, therefore, harder to spot. Not to mention that as tourists we often don’t have the right cultural lens to judge more subtle differences in wellbeing, even if we are exposed to them.

Although I’m starting to glean some understanding of where the comment might come from, by mentioning that Cambodia doesn’t look as poor as we thought, we diminish the struggle that many Cambodians face. I say this not to reduce Cambodia to its poverty—not at all. I say it to do the opposite: to highlight the complexity of life here. Just because Cambodian life doesn’t mirror the images of poverty you’ve seen on television or on the Internet, or even in your own imagination, it doesn’t make it any easier for all the families here fighting for a better life.

Katie





Recent Development(s)

1 09 2012

In the short week of being away from site to help with K6 training, we came back to find a lot of changes in town. First, as I rode my bike in search of “chocolate” cookies, I saw that the old English school was now a Cambo-posh restaurant, complete with a menu. A menu! A menu on the wall and a menu on each table. This is exciting, as it will cut out the inevitable, “What do you have?” conversation, which invariably leaves me reluctantly settling for the fried rice. In addition to the menus, the restaurant even has a refrigerator for beverages. With some of the highest electricity prices in the country, this is a huge status symbol.

Besides these amazing amenities, the new place seems to have overheard my constant pleading that someone take advantage of the tourist traffic near the Angkorian bridge and open a business to serve the hoards of Vietnamese tourists that stop for 15-20 minutes. The sign in front of the restaurant has a picture of Vietnamese coffee and a few menu items in Vietnamese. This is just brilliant.

Lastly, and perhaps most amazingly for us, in the corner of the wall board menu sat a familiar black and white symbol:

“No way!” Katie exclaimed. As we debated the remote possibility that this place actually had WiFi, I spotted the telltale wireless router in the corner. It was true! WiFi has come to the countryside, where only 42% of families even have electricity. (Fun fact: while 42% have electricity, 57% of families have TVs. Think about that for a second.)

With all the excitement going on in town, we almost missed the small things: The new cement slab where the mud pit used to be at our favorite soda stop. The several new houses being built. The new guesthouse going up next door to the nicest guesthouse in town. The health center director’s new four story house towering over town. The new shops opening around the market. The gas station being constructed at breakneck speed (please be a Tela, please be a Tela, please be a Tela).

If we had been oblivious to the rapid changes happening around town so far, we couldn’t help but notice the new blue PVC pipes strewn in front of our house this week. After days without water, I heard a strange sound coming from the bathroom and saw water spraying the bathroom with fire hose-like intensity. We had water, and it was clear, crisp and regular. No more hoping to flip the valve during the golden 30 minutes of the day when the pump was running. No more debating if we’re cleaner after showering than before. This is going to completely change our bucket showering experience. No more rationing ourselves to a couple of buckets.

But, of course, with development comes struggle. With regular water, I no longer have an excuse not to do laundry.

-Tim