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.


Tim’s Index Debut!

27 02 2013

Tim took a turn writing an article for my hometown paper, The Index. It was printed in this week’s edition, but you can also check it out below.

Education has no doubt been on the minds of many in Homer over the past couple months with the opening of the new Homer High School. The new environment, technology, and facilities are certainly exciting for students and teachers alike. With these changes in mind, it seems relevant to share our experience with schools here in Cambodia.

In Cambodia, the school system is still trying to bounce back from the devastating effects of the Khmer Rouge. After the systematic killing of educated Cambodians in the late 1970s, the reestablishment of public schools proved to be difficult. Villagers became teachers with no specialized training and often less than a high school diploma. With a storage closet full of weapons and ammunition, the teachers held classes in the mornings and defended the town from Khmer Rouge raids at night. This continued in our area until approximately 1995 when the remnants of the Khmer Rouge fled further west toward Thailand.



Eighteen years later, the Cambodian school system has improved at a breakneck pace. New high school teachers are required to have completed either a 2 year teaching program or a 4 year bachelor’s degree. Additional schools are being built regularly, school libraries are flourishing thanks to international NGO (non-governmental organization) support, and professional development for teachers is on the rise. It is truly remarkable how far the school system has come considering all the work and money needed to completely rebuild it nationwide.

This fact is often cited at the local high school where I teach 9th, 10th, and 11th grades as a Peace Corps volunteer. My job here is to teach collaboratively with the English language teachers, helping them improve their English and to better develop student-centered techniques. Cambodian culture holds authority figures such as teachers in very high regard so many classes consist of a teacher lecturing for two hours with little student input. In all classes, but especially in English, this isn’t an effective method.

Culturally, teaching in a Cambodian classroom looks very different from Homer High. Uniformed students stand up for teachers as the instructor enters the class, when they are asked questions, and when teachers leave the class. If students need to ask permission from a teacher or if they come to class late, they politely raise their hands to their chin in a praying position and ask for forgiveness. When students walk near teachers outside of class, they will lower their heads to show respect. Showing respect in these ways is hugely important and students never fail to follow these customs.



Overall, students are very motivated to learn. Many financially-able students attend private classes in addition to public school, making for a 12-13 hour school day. Students in our area also travel up to 25 miles to attend high school, since many areas still do not a school available. These students generally stay in a shared house near the school with 25 other people, all sleeping on the floor. Public school is technically free, but families must pay for uniforms, transportation, food, and monthly exams. For this reason, many students from poorer families drop out of school after 9th grade due to financial constraints. Adding that the consensus that public school is largely ineffective due to large class sizes (50:1) or absent teachers, the dropout rate is staggering. It is simply not expected for Khmer teenagers to study beyond the 9th grade in many villages.

The physical environment of the local high school can also prove challenging. There are six classroom buildings for the 1250 students between 7-12 grades. Although there are some newer classrooms with ceiling fans, and a quickly aging computer lab, there is no electricity to run these items. Each classroom is filled with wooden desks for 40-50 students and a large blackboard. The buildings themselves are relatively open in order to make studying tolerable in the Cambodian heat. The open windows and cement walls make noise a constant issue, especially with younger students. In the back of the school there is a small pond and a plot of land for the students to plant corn for their class in agriculture.

As any teacher knows, being in the classroom is both frustrating and inspirational. It has been rewarding over the past year and a half to see my co-teachers become better instructors despite the challenges facing them, and the students have been inspiring models of perseverance through their desire to learn and make a better life for themselves.


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.



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. 

Health Care Challenges in Cambodia

9 10 2011

In case you didn’t get the memo on Facebook, the end of training means more time for catching up on the blog. Tim and I will continue to post daily for a few more days.


As most of you have figured out by now, I am a Community Health Education volunteer here in Cambodia. Since Tim has already written a post about the challenges found in the secondary schools where he will work, I thought I should share a little about the health challenges here.

Like nearly all institutions, the public health system was effectively demolished during the Khmer Rouge’s rule in the 1970s. Practicing physicians were killed, equipment was destroyed, and anything resembling modern medicine was banned. Instead, untrained individuals—often children—were drafted to practice forms of traditional medicine, which were often harmful to those receiving treatment. By the end of the Khmer Rouge, historians estimate that only 25 medical doctors remained in the entire country, alongside only 36 pharmacists and 28 dentists.

Today, Cambodia’s health care system is still suffering. Health centers are chronically understaffed and lack qualified medical personnel. Many centers do not have a practicing doctor, only secondary nurses, to meet with patients. Health centers are also criticized for providing poor customer service and even, at times, housing corruption. Patients generally have to travel long distances to reach their nearest health center, as there is usually only one per district. And once they arrive, patients sometimes have to wait for hours. Seeking treatment at the health center can seem like a waste of time and money—two very precious resources, especially in Cambodia.

Health Education at our Nutrition Seminar in Traing


This means that many Cambodians seek treatment outside of the public health care system, with pharmacies and traditional healers being two of the most common alternatives. One of the advantages of both is often location. Since there are frequently several traditional healers and many pharmacies in the same village, community members can cut down on the time and expense of traveling to the single health center. There is also less waiting on average at a pharmacy or traditional healer, which is important for busy farmers, housewives and shopkeepers. Unfortunately, these service providers come with many risks.

The challenges surrounding traditional healers are complex due to the high level of importance traditional medicine plays in Cambodian culture. Some traditional medicines used in Cambodia, herbal teas for instance, are fine remedies for ailments such as a cold or the flu. These remedies can and should be preserved as an option whenever possible. However, there are other traditional practices that can be harmful. For example, after a woman gives birth, she is often roasted. This means that she lies down for days on a wooden table over a fire, fully clothed including a winter hat and gloves. Cambodian women do this because they think that when they give birth, all of the heat leaves their body so they need to replenish their heat postpartum. Roasting plays an important social role that shouldn’t be ignored, but it can also result in burns, severe dehydration and the delayed onset of breastfeeding. Roasting, as well as many other traditional practices in Cambodia, can be detrimental to the patient’s health; however, even if the treatment itself is not harmful, patients often defer proper medical treatment until after they realize that the traditional treatments did not heal them, which can lead to further complications.

An Elephant Delivering Traditional Medications


On the other hand, in Cambodian pharmacies, much of the difficulty comes with regulation. For example, the medication itself is not tightly monitored, resulting in high levels of counterfeit drugs. Imagine going to the pharmacy to pick up your antibiotics (or your birth control!) only to unknowingly purchase a placebo. Another issue is that the person handing you your medication might be pharmacist’s 15 year-old nephew because he was the only one at home when you arrived. This is to say that oftentimes the person dispensing the medication has not received any formal training. Even if the pharmacist is there, he or she generally does not provide any in-depth consultation.

There are a few more challenges that seem to exist across all three of these health service providers. Antibiotics and IVs are overprescribed, for example. This is particularly detrimental in the public health centers because Cambodian law dictates that health professionals can only dispense three days worth of medication at time, meaning that many patients never finish their full round of antibiotics (usually 5-14 days) and thus can fuel drug-resistant bacteria.

The final issue that is seen across the health systems is a lack of education. This is most obviously true when talking about preventative health education (hand washing, nutrition, etc); however, patients are rarely educated even on the medications that they are prescribed. Many patients will leave a health care provider not knowing the name of their medication, when they should take it or what quantity to take. This again leads to improper treatment which has a wide range of damaging effects on the health of the individual and the community.

This is where I come in as health volunteer. I certainly will not solve all of these problems, even on a community level. But my job is to help strengthen the health of those living in Kampong Kdey, primarily through building the capacity of the public health centers. This means that I will engage patients directly in formal and informal education, but will also work with the health center staff to hopefully improve their customer service skills, managerial capacity, education techniques and outreach initiatives.

It sounds a lot more glamorous than it will likely be on a daily basis though. Most of my days will be spent making small talk with the patients in the waiting room, weighing babies or distracting small children while they get vaccinated. Some days I will hopefully travel to the 16 villages located in my operational district to lead short educational activities or simply get to know the challenges that face the communities. On rare occasions, I will attend meetings with the health center staff or with the staff at the provincial or district level.

The government of Cambodia asked Peace Corps to send volunteers to help improve and promote the public health system, and I will most certainly do my best to work toward this goal at site. Working as a health volunteer is a daunting, but important, task. Luckily, I think there are a lot of little ways to make big impacts.

(Note: I borrowed these pictures from other volunteers– thanks ladies!)


Education Training So Far

18 08 2011

After a few weeks in Cambodia and nearly 2 weeks in language and technical training, Katie and I are both getting a better idea of the challenges of the work to come. For me, the daily technical sessions are a time to discuss the best methods of overcoming the challenges I’ll encounter working with youth both in and outside of the Cambodian educational system.

Some issues are glaring, some are less obvious, and probably the majority I have yet to uncover. Many of the issues in education stem from the destruction of the education system (and educators themselves, and doctors, and anyone that spoke French and anyone with glasses…) by the Khmer Rouge. For this reason and others, there is still a shortage of teachers today.

Probably the biggest compounding factor at play in Cambodia centers around the national budget and, subsequently, teacher pay. The average teacher earns $35 to $40 per month, which contributes to poor teacher attendance and spurs corruption within the school system. Due to the low salary, most teachers have to teach private lessons and/or work other jobs to support their families. This has led to a de facto dual education system in much of Cambodia. Students attend class from 7-11 am, may attend class from 1-5 pm if it is held (if the teacher shows up), and, if financially able, may attend private class during the late afternoon and summers. Since the public and private teachers are one and the same, this leads some teachers to hold back information during public classes in order to entice students to come to their private class (think something like a time-share presentation for high schoolers).

My job here then involves a few different tactics. First, it’s to supplement the overstretched teaching staff. As a volunteer, I will have the time to prepare lessons, teach free private lessons, and build relationships with students who really need extra attention. At least in the beginning, I’ll work with a co-teacher to better integrate the Cambodian and American styles of teaching. Much of the teaching here is rote memorization provided by the teacher with very little interaction or conversation. Subsequently, many students know tons of English vocabulary, but can’t form sentences, especially in speaking. As a native speaker, providing correct pronunciation and natural conversation will likely be a fist time experience for the students.

To start I’ll be teaching 16 hours a week at the high school level. This will be used as a connection to the community in order to better determine community needs to implement secondary projects. Ideas so far (subject to change based on site, needs, wind direction, etc): mental illness awareness, peer support groups, drug and alcohol education and intervention, prisoner reintegration, etc. In short, I’ll be working on needs that the community expresses and that I have experience with.