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.


Happy Chinese New Year!

11 02 2013

This weekend marked Chinese New Year, which is celebrated by some in Cambodia, although it’s not an official holiday. Usually Cambodians with Chinese ancestry will throw a small party both to ring in the new year and to pray for their deceased relatives. In the process, they offer gifts for the ancestors through burning items such as fake money, fake gold pieces, cloth, and other symbols of necessary goods for the afterlife.


Burning money

We spent the day with my coteacher’s family for the second year in a row. Chanthou and his wife, Kunthea, are always so welcoming and Saturday was no different. We had a great time talking with Kunthea’s father who loves to tell us stories from the 1940s and 50s. They are always well thought out stories blending history with mysticism. For example, when the Khmer militia was fighting Thai forces in our area, he saw many forest people who were born without elbows and knees. It’s great to learn about a time other than the Khmer Rouge and it’s great Khmer language practice for us to listen intently to stories that seamlessly mesh Khmer history and politics with mermaids and dragons.

The great storyteller

The great storyteller

With Chinese New Year over, we only have one more New Year to celebrate before ending our Peace Corps service. Our sixth and final new year in Cambodia will be Khmer New Year in April. With three weeks off from school, parties at the wat, and a huge migration of people from the cities to their hometowns, Khmer New Year is the biggest and most important holiday in Cambodia.  (More on that later.)


Reflections on Cambodia: Year One

17 07 2012

 As we near the one year mark of service in Cambodia, I’ve spent a fair amount of time processing the experience. As the days and months pass, I simultaneously seem to understand more and less about the complexities of this country and its fragile future. Although I could never speak with any authority on what Cambodia truly is, I’ve put together the following list of things Cambodia has become to me. I hope it provides insight into this place and the twelve life-changing months I’ve spent here.


Cambodia is a friendly smile and a nervous laugh. A “hello,” shouted from the rice paddies. It’s the hushed murmur of “barang” as you pass by, and the demanding “Moak bee na?” from a stranger. Cambodia is a string of small children chasing your bike. And a moto driver who stops to stare.

Cambodia is the smell of urine. Of fermented fish and rotting meat. It’s vomit on a long bus ride or the oniony scent of the country’s most beloved fruit. It’s incense burning near a spirit house.

Cambodia is pork with rice. Soup with rice. Noodles with rice. Cambodia is rice with rice.

Cambodia is the sound of roosters in the mornings and dogs at night. The monks’ rhythmic chanting drifting from the wat. It’s the discordant sounds of a wedding or a funeral. Dishes clinking next door or a baby crying. Cambodia is Pitbull and K*Pop, Karaoke and Prom Manh. It’s that same female voice, shrill and submissive, blaring from the TV. Cambodia is the deafening sound of a monsoon falling on the roof. And it’s a silence, a devastating silence, when voices should be heard.

Cambodia is the one glass eye watching everything you do.

Cambodia is emerald fields and killing fields. Disappearing forests and lakes filled with dirt. It’s a flood that ruins the crops. Cambodia is border wars and broken promises. It’s a billion dollars of aid and discouraging results.

Cambodia is 3,000 NGOs. It’s expats in coffee shops and sexpats in brothels. It’s bodyguards in the most exclusive of night clubs. It’s flocks of tourists, “Tuk tuk, lady,” and markets filled with cheap souvenirs. Cambodia is children begging on the streets. Amputees and orphans. It’s mediocre Western food.

Cambodia is its history. Cambodia is Angkor Wat.

Cambodia is a delicate balance of optimism and fatalism. It’s stories of the Khmer Rouge told in a whisper. It’s cheap beer and men who can’t hold their liquor. Cambodia is rovul taking afternoon naps in hammocks and sipping iced coffee on red plastic stools.

Cambodia is whitening creams and painted nails. Bright colored shirts adorned with lace and beads. It’s flexible fingers stretching backward, feet shuffling as music plays. It’s orange robes or bare bellies. Sampots and collared shirts, or tight tops and miniskirts.

It’s traffic and trafficking. Five on a moto and a truck piled high. It’s tai chi as you cross the street. It’s hanging on for dear life.

Cambodia is bats and spiders, snakes and mice. So many damn mice. It’s monkeys and elephants, lizards and butterflies. It’s plankton that glow in the dark.

It’s protractors and white out. Perfectly straight lines and meticulously taken notes. A sea of blue and white as children parade to school. Cambodia is a head ducked with respect, a face that’s been saved. Cambodia is so many vowels that all sound the same.

It’s squat toilets and no toilet paper. Stilted houses and burning trash. It’s life in a garbage dump, in its most literal sense. Cambodia is open defecation. It’s polluted rivers and a toxic lake.

Cambodia is rice farmers. Factory workers. Small business owners. Cambodia is a yay with a checkered kroma tied on her hairless head. A grandfather speaking French under his breath. It’s a teacher trying to do the right thing. A mother standing up for her community. Cambodia is a seller in the market, giving a discount and a smile. It’s a tour guide, beaming with pride.

Cambodia is exhilarating, inspiring and exhausting.

And, for now, Cambodia is my home.



Vietnam Vacation: Learning about the American War

28 04 2012

As we planned for our vacation to Vietnam, I knew a significant part of the trip would be devoted to history of the Vietnam War. First, I am always interested in seeing a completely different perspective than I’m used to. Second, seeing where my Dad served and learning more about the Vietnam context in which he served was important to me. Lastly, I expected the war to be fully on display due both to its impact on the country and because of the communist/socialist tendency to focus on “the struggle.”

As we started in Saigon, we booked a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. Cu Chi is a town about an hour outside of Saigon and was a Vietcong staging area for much of the war. As such, it is home to one of the largest tunnel complexes in the country. Going with a tour group had its predictable annoyances, but the entire atmosphere of the tunnel complex was one of a theme park and not a historical site. As we walked along the footpaths, stopping occasionally to see a tunnel entrance, the sounds of rifle and machine gun fire reverberated off the hills. Halfway through the tour, attendees are given the opportunity to fire Vietnam-era weapons, presumably to encourage PTSD flashbacks for visiting veterans. Simply said, this wasn’t my favorite part of the trip.

At the Cu Chi Tunnels

That afternoon, we went to the War Remnants museum. Due to scheduling changes, this all happened to be on Katie’s birthday (thanks for putting up with me). She was a good sport about learning about death and destruction all day. The museum was incredibly well organized and told a much more balanced story than I expected. In terms of language, the war was called the “American War” and the phrase “the American aggressors” was prevalent. There was little to no mention of the South Vietnamese or Russian materiel support for the NVA. The war was very much framed as a united people repelling a foreign invader, with careful wordplay to avoid any impression that a civil war had ever occurred. There was a war crimes room, which made a less than compelling argument for charges against the US. Perhaps most poignant was the Agent Orange room. Even those with the most skeptical eye would have had a difficult time arguing with the pictures of decimated landscapes, blistered skin, and birth defects. Lastly, there was a display given by the commonwealth of Kentucky featuring American journalists’ work who were killed in the war. All of the displays were informative, factually accurate (as far as my knowledge goes) and no more slanted than any museum in the US. Most bias that could be drawn from the experience was from the information that was not presented rather than the information that was.

I still don't know how they get in the air.

As we worked our way up north, we stopped in Nha Trang and headed off for a day trip to Cam Ranh Bay where my Dad was stationed in 1969. We saw the deep water port where supplies were offloaded, the landing strip turned domestic airport, and the amazing cliffs that led to the blue-green water below. There wasn’t much left from the ‘60s, but it was still amazing to see such a historical and emotional, but beautiful place. It filled me with gratitude that I was able to be there because I wanted to be.

Sure was a beautiful place to fight a war.

We stopped not too far north of the DMZ in Dong Hoi as a base to go to Paradise Cave. Dong Hoi was heavily bombed during the war and had the demolished church to prove it. With only a steeple remaining, the sign reported that this was proof of the “American aggressors’ war crimes.” We kept walking.

After we arrived in Hanoi after Halong Bay, we headed off to the Hoa Lo Prison, more commonly known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Where Saigon’s War Remnants Museum featured a foundation of truth with creative storytelling, the Hanoi Hilton didn’t even try to be evenhanded or factual. Room after room showed evidence of Vietnamese political activists tortured by the French in subhuman conditions, until the 1960s, when apparently the accommodations were just lovely. Photos of American POWs attending church, cooking Thanksgiving dinner, and playing volleyball adorn the walls, desperately insisting that this was indeed a wonderful place to spend 6-8 years in captivity.

John McCain's flight suit.

From there, I went to the Vietnamese Military History Museum. This is when things really got weird. It featured lots of captured US aircraft, bombs, and tanks. It also featured a bolt action rifle that apparently shot down an American fighter jet. Also, it included the wreckage of American planes that were shot down during the war; a few of 33,068 American planes that were shot down. Once again, that’s 33,068. I had expected some inflation of the stats, but this was a little more than the 2,000 that the US military reports and still considerably more than the 3,100 that the other Vietnamese museums claimed! Another interesting part of the museum was the display about 1975 onward. A small part was devoted to the Vietnamese skirmishes along the Cambodian border in 1975, but not a word was written about the full scale invasion and 10 year occupation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese. Despite the fact that they toppled one of the most brutal regimes on the planet, the message that Vietnam would invade another country didn’t seem to fit the independence, self-determination narrative and was left out.

Despite some statistics and war stories being utterly ridiculous, this trip had it all: beautiful beaches, enormous caves, and a whole lot of interesting history lessons. Some lessons were taken with a grain of salt, but all of them gave a better look into the politics of information and into the Vietnamese psyche.


Mines In Cambodia

7 12 2011

On Sunday, Katie kicked some serious Angkor Wat butt as she ran a half marathon around some of the most famous temples in the world. The race proceeds went to benefit several causes, but land mine victims in particular. According to UNICEF, Cambodia is the second most mined country in the world by area (second only to Bosnia and Herzegovina) with an estimated 143 mines per square mile.  The number of mines and other unexploded ordinance in Cambodia is a very rough estimate, but I have seen 4 million (Cambodian Mine Action Centre) to 10 million (UN). In contrast to mines in other countries, the mines remaining in the ground in Cambodia were never mapped as they were put in the ground. This obviously makes demining efforts very slow, very dangerous, and very costly.

So where did all the mines come from? Mines were laid by the North Vietnamese as early as 1967, and  by the US-backed Lon Nol regime against the incoming Khmer Rouge fighters from 1970-1975. A large amount was also used under the Khmer Rouge along every border, and surrounding farm cooperatives. Later, the Khmer Rouge insurgents laid mines during the civil war from 1979 to 1998. Of course, mines were also laid by the regimes following the Khmer Rouge against the insurgents and against any possible Thai invasion.

Besides mines, still other dangers remain from unexploded ordinance (UXO) dropped by the United States during the secret bombing campaign from 1965 to 1973 under Johnson and Nixon. 2,756,941 tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia by the US during this time (more than all of the bombs dropped by the Allies in World War II) and with a dud rate of about 10%, that leaves a lot of very dangerous material lying around.

US Bombing Concentrations

Strangely enough, I happened to be reading George Carlin’s When Will Jesus Bring the Porkchops? as I was thinking about writing this entry, and believe it or not, even he weighed in on the issue globally:

There are 340 different types of land mines made by a hundred different companies. Every day roughly six thousand fresh mines are placed in the ground. Right now, there are 110 million land mines in seventy-two countries; and every twenty-two minutes, one of them explodes. Seventy-five mines explode every day, and each month seven hundred people are maimed or killed. Don’t you find that interesting?

Mines cost only three dollars to make and put in the ground. But they cost a hundred dollars [$1,000+] to disarm and remove. If you tried to remove them all, it would cost $33 billion and it would take eleven hundred years. They cost three dollars apiece, and they last indefinitely. Wouldn’t it be nice if other products could make that claim?

Here’s another funny statistic: In Cambodia, one out of every 236 civilians is missing a limb or an eye from an exploded land mine. Cambodia now has thirty thousand people [40,000] with at least one missing limb. And they still have 4 [6-10] million mines in the ground.

Even as unreliable a resource as George Carlin may be, his statistics still underestimate the issue. I added the higher stats in brackets for your reading pleasure.

Mine and UXO Casualties

Besides creating a country where 40,000 people are living as amputees, land mines and UXO have contaminated an estimated 648 km2 of land that could otherwise be used for agriculture. While waiting for the land to be cleared, often Cambodians risk their lives in search of water, firewood, or just to find a place to go to the bathroom.

Although we are in a considerably more contaminated area in the northwest of Cambodia, our town doesn’t not immediately appear to have many landmine victims. Riding our bikes to the surrounding villages tells a different story, however. It is not uncommon to see several amputees during one thirty minute bike trip. There is obviously a geographic bias for victims, but as a result, there is also an economic bias for those affected by mines.

Mine Accidents by Province

Organizations such as the Cambodian Mine Action Center continue to work every day clearing mines and other UXO. The goal is to clear the entire country of mines and UXO by 2019. With the amount of money and time needed to clear these dangers, mine clearing teams undoubtedly have a lot of work ahead of them.


A note to the parents: Although the statistics may be shocking and worrisome, your beloved children are safe and sound. 

Donde esta Lopez?

23 06 2010

Katie worked hard to make two photo collections this week: one of her route to work and one of the graffiti in La Plata. Comparing these to the earlier posts, you may notice our distinct photographic styles (she actually has one). Enjoy:

Here: Katie’s walk to work.

A little context for the second album: A lot of social and political commentary comes from La Plata, as it is both the capital of the province of Buenos Aires and a university town. In fact, it was considered one of the most repressed cities during the Dirty War for these reasons. The universities housed some true revolutionaries (from both the Monteneros and the ERP), leftists, Marxists, and Peronists from both sides of the political spectrum. Many students, professors and administrators (and their family members) were “disappeared,” tortured, and/or killed during the military dictatorship from 1976-1983. In total, somewhere between 9,000 and 30,000 were killed during this time period. Women were raped, babies were forcibly adopted to sympathizers of the junta, and prisoners were thrown from C-130s into the South Atlantic. Although the junta is long gone, “disappearances” have occurred in La Plata as recently as 2006, presumably by former officials in the military regime. In particular, the case of Julio Lopez has galvanized the city and is regularly referenced in its graffiti.

This album showcases a VERY small sample of the graffiti found in La Plata. As you will see, much of it is socially- and politically-oriented, often referencing the Dirty War and the disappearances.

Some of it, however, is just plain cool.

“We are going to have to kill 50,000 people: 25,000 subversives, 20,000 sympathizers, and we will make 5,000 mistakes.” – General Luciano Benjamin Menendez