Friday, August 31, 2007

Spean Praptos saved by World Bank

The World Bank have helped to protect one of Cambodia's cultural landmarks, Spean Praptos at Komping Kdei, the best surviving example of an Angkorean bridge in the country, as well as another collection of smaller laterite-built bridges between Siem Reap and Kompong Thom. Here's how they reported their success:

The Kampong Kdei Bypass on National Road No. 6
Following a route along an ancient Angkor highway dating from the 12th - 13th Century, National Road No. 6 (NR6) connects Siem Reap and Kompong Thom provinces. Recent rehabilitation activities drew special attention to the need for Cambodia to protect these unique cultural assets from increasing vehicle and heavy traffic. With a view to preserve the authenticity and historical value of the ancient bridges, the APSARA Authority for the Protection ad Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap permitted the Ministry of Public Works and Transport to build 10 bypasses with new bridges around minor ancient bridges and a 1.3 km Kampong Kdei bypass and new bridge to divert traffic off the ancient bridges and onto the new bypasses, in conformity with UNESCO’s ad hoc expert group recommendations of December 2004.
The Kampong Kdei Bridge, one of the dry-jointed laterite block construction engineering wonders along NR6, is located about 45 km southeast of Siem Reap and is the highest and longest of the 800 year old ancient bridges, spanning approximately 85m and 14 m high. Though it was originally agreed by competent authority that the ancient bridge was to be rehabilitated without any bypasses, cultural heritage considerations soon took precedence. Prior to the opening up of newly constructed bypass, this ancient bridge carried all traffic without signs of distress or fatigue. Under the Road Rehabilitation Project, the NR6 civil works contract constituted the rehabilitation of a total of 72 km of road. The contract included replacement of existing bridges and culverts. To comply with modern standards, the road alignment was designed such that appropriate speeds are maintained through each bypass. This required a significant amount of design and drafting of new structures. Outcomes of the NR6 road rehabilitation work resulted in a major upgrading that allows for improved travel between Phnom Penh and the main tourist attraction of the country, Angkor Wat. The road safety improvements - including proper pavement markings, speed breaking humps, rumble strips, guide posts, and signage - were a first for Cambodia, and have set the standard for good road safety practices in the country. Similar safety improvements have been incorporated since to other major road rehabilitation works. No less significant has been the capacity development for managing cultural heritage, resettlement activities, budgeting and implementation in several Government agencies. The 3-year contract started on 7 January, 2002, the construction of the 10 bypasses including the 3 by 20 meter span bridge for the new 1.3 km bypass began the second half of 2005, after settling the safeguards related issues and was officially completed on 31 March, 2006.
For more information about the World Bank program in Cambodia, click here.
One of the smaller laterite-built ancient bridges

Making a difference to one life

The gift of love that crosses the oceans - from This is Local London (UK)
In the land of Angkor Wat, a Wallington PA found spiritual enlightenment of a different kind.
Kevin Barnes talks to Ginette Patey about how she came to make her little contribution' to help Cambodia's abandoned kids.

Ginette Patey passed the sandstone spires of the ruined Angkor Wat temples and encountered a vision from another world.The PA from Wallington is hardly alone. Nearly a million tourists enter the suffocating Cambodian jungle each year in search of enlightenment. Her moment of inspiration diverged from the norm, though, in that it came several miles beyond the cicadas and carved stone giants that guard the city of gods. It was only when Ginette travelled south, leaving behind the idyllic ancient capital of the Khmer civilisation, that she knew her life would never be the same.

In the tumbledown rooms of Kampong Cham orphanage, the 65-year-old found more than iconography and spectacular architecture: she found the grandson she always longed for.They called him Rat Makura after the month he was found, abandoned and half-clothed at two months old.He was tiny, ragged and shoeless - dressed from head to toe in yellow. Ginette thought he looked like a "grubby little puppy in a basket".When she enquired who cared for Makura and his 70 fellow orphans, nurses told her they relied on sponsors. At this moment something inside Ginette clicked. Her own mother had died in her teens and although she had a son, James, 39, there were no signs of grandchildren. She says: "I knew right then I had to do something. If I walked away from this opportunity, I'd regret it for the rest of my life.For me, Makura embodied every little sad face you see in those adverts." I thought, well, I can't afford all the orphans, but I can afford one of them. It would be my little contribution, my way of giving him the chance to have better life."

For the rest of her air-conditioned, two-week cruise along the Mekong River she found it impossible to erase the image of Makura, his eyes brown and pleading, from her mind.Other tourists laughed at her. They told her to forget the orphanage, said there was no way her money would reach its target. But Ginette simply couldn't forget. The instant she returned home to Herald Gardens she began to send £16 each month for Makura's upkeep, and £63 to cover his education for a year. The money ensures the orphan attends a private school in the morning, where he is taught English, and a Cambodian school in the afternoon. Ginette also puts gifts in the post - most recently, a football, a toy car, a satchel and shorts. And, like all good grandmothers, she dutifully sends a card on his birthday and presents at Christmas. Barely a couple of months pass without her calling to speak to staff or to hear how Makura's English is developing."He knows who you are," the director of the orphanage told her excitedly one day." He tells everyone his mother has blonde hair and blue eyes and lives far away. "Moved by this knowledge, Ginette had little need to trawl through holiday brochures to select a holiday destination earlier this year.

In February, 18 months after their first meeting, she retraced her steps to Kampong Cham orphanage to see Makura, now aged six. When she stumbled on him, peering shyly around a corner, she nearly wept. Ginette always believed that giving the boy direct aid was a more efficient way of helping the destitute than donating money to impersonal fundraising campaigns. Her philosophy is: you can't save the world but if you can save one life it's better than none. As she strolled through the orphanage grounds with Makura, and he slipped his small hand into hers, Ginette knew her support had made a difference, knew she had been accepted. Still, she wanted to do more. Having received confirmation from the British Embassy that her sponsorship was above board, she set up a charitable account with Barclays. In an unexpected show of generosity, the bank then agreed to match her donations pound for pound. So far about 12 sponsors have pledged funds to the Cambodian Orphans' Appeal. Ginette instructs them to ask for photos, so they can see the orphans with any gifts they send. She plans to visit regularly but has all but forgotten the temples that brought her to the country. Tourist guides may fete the labyrinthine architecture in Cambodia but it has taken this "grandmother" from Wallington to build a future for the country's 3,000 orphans.
To donate money to Aspeca, the organisation that runs 14 orphanages in Cambodia, or sponsor a child, email ginette.patey.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

WWF in Mondulkiri

Communities benefit from sustainable honey collection by WebWire

Honey collection provides an important source of income for rural Cambodian communities, but the current system of harvesting damages bee hives and dramatically reduces production. The WWF Cambodia Country Programme’s Srepok Wilderness Area (SWA) project Community Extension Team (CET) has been teaching villages to harvest honey more sustainably - with encouraging results. “Now I can collect honey from the same nest, two to three times. I am really happy.” These were the words of Sean Tha, an indigenous Phnong/Bunong villager who lives in the Krong Teh commune of Mondulkiri Province. Tha had just completed a training course on sustainable honey collection, delivered by SWA’s CET and focusing on a collection technique that leaves the honey-producing portion of the hive intact. “Rather than just collecting one lot of honey from a single nest, with this new technique I can collect up to three times during a 25 day period. This is very important to me because it gives me more income to support my family,” Tha continued.

In the Mondulkiri Protected Forest where the CET works, honey collection and sale can contribute up to 30% of a family’s total income. This past harvest season (April-May 2007), Tha collected honey worth around 200,000 Riel (US$50). Unfortunately, the price of honey is not stable because it depends on brokers to set the price. The price for selling in the village is 10,000 to 12,000 Riel per litre, but if sold directly to tourists, the price can reach as high as 20,000 Riel per litre. CET leader Amy Maling said the next step is to set targets for honey production within the Krong Teh commune, to help maintain quality and find additional honey markets. “We hope that community members who attended this training course will be able to put into practice the new honey collection techniques they have just learned, but also to pass the information on to others in the community,” Ms Maling said. The honey harvesting training course is just one of the many initiatives the SWA/CET is using to build a relationship with community members and assist them to conserve their natural heritage through the process of sustainable natural resource use.
Link: Find out more about the Srepok Wilderness Area here.
And click here for a mountain bike trip around the Srepok Wilderness Area with the BBC’s Cambodia correspondent Guy De Launey.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Vann Nath & his artwork

Cambodian artist and genocide survivor Vann Nath stands by one of his paintings - photo by Tang Chhin Sothy (AFP).

To see more of the paintings from the Vann Nath exhibition currently showing at the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh, click here.

Vann Nath speaks

Thirty years ago this December, celebrated Cambodian artist Vann Nath was arrested, accused of being a CIA agent and interrogated at Kandal pagoda in Battambang before being transported to Phnom Penh where he spent exactly one year in the hell-hole that was Tuol Sleng, the nerve centre of the Khmer Rouge killing machine. He survived and his current exhibition of paintings at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center (at Street 200), which lasts until 12 October, tell the story of his arrest, transfer and the first few months of his imprisonment at Tuol Sleng.
Most of the paintings at the exhibition have been completed this year – though two are from 1996 and 1997 - and are a mixture of acrylic and oils, with each painting accompanied by pencil drawings of the scene. They include his arrest at Kandal, his transfer by truck to Phnom Penh, his arrival where all prisoners were photographed, the meagre rations prisoners were given and the decision by the prison commander to give Vann Nath the job of painting portraits of Pol Pot, that ultimately saved his life. Also included in the exhibition which is called ‘Transfer’ is a painting by the artist of a rural Cambodian countryside scene, as well as photos of his face portrait taken by the prison photographer on his arrival.

Accompanying the exhibition is a hand-out that was written by Vann Nath himself: My name is Vann Nath. I was born in 1946. I was a political prisoner in Tuol Sleng (S21) between 1978 an 1979. This is an overview of my activities in S21 from January 7, 1978 to January 7, 1979.

I was arrested on December 30, 1977 in Cooperative Number Five, Commune Number Five, District Forty-one, Fourth Region, Battambang. I was accused of mobilizing a movement against the Revolutionary Policy and of being a CIA agent. But in the file made out on me in the prison, they put down “Painter in an enemy zone.” Afters even days of being tortured and interrogated at Kandal Pagoda in Battambang, I was transported to Phnom Penh with over thirty other prisoners in two trucks.

When we got to Phnom Penh on January 7, 1978 at midnight, I did not realize it was Security Office S21. I only knew one thing, that this detention center had been a school. When we got there, the first thing they did was subject us to several interrogations. We were then handcuffed and blindfolded before being led into the center. We were tied together with a heavy rope around our necks. We were then towed along to another place in the prison where we were photographed and our measurements were taken. Then they back on the black blindfolds that they had removed at the time the pictures were taken and we were pulled up to the second floor of Building D where we were confined by our legs to a set of iron stocks with all the other prisoners. That took place the same night, about 3 o’clock in the morning. At that point they removed our handcuffs.

I was confined with about 30 prisoners, friends arrested in Battambang. There were about 50 of us altogether in this room, including those who had come earlier. The iron stocks were such that twenty prisoners could be confined together. I lived in that common room for over a month. We were given food twice a day, about 8 in the morning and 8 at night. We would get five tablespoons of rice gruel for each meal.

Early in the morning we were awakened to do physical exercises. They kicked us in the head to wake us up and if anyone was slow to respond, he was kicked in the head with shoes made of car tires. For the exercises, two cases full of excrement were put between the ends of the bar of handcuffs and we had to jump back and forth over them. A noise rang out “Rong Raing… Rong Raing.” We had to keep jumping until they ordered us to stop. It was impossible for me to do that. We had no strength left and we were so weak that we could hardly hear anything, and we didn’t have the energy to do these exercises. But out of fear of being whipped by their ropes, we forced ourselves to do them.

Every night the guards frisked us several times. I couldn’t understand why they did this. They took everything they found, even a small stretch string to keep one’s pants up. Older prisoners started dying off one by one. That is when I lost all hope of living. I thought I would surely die here because the four or five spoonfuls of gruel that we were given was not enough to survive on. Some of my friends in the same room were called in for interrogation and went missing. But those who came back had wounds all over their bodies and were bandaged up. They were in pain and cried out when they were sleeping.

When someone died, the corpse was not taken right away, but left for one day and one night. In other words, we had to sleep and eat with it right beside us. All of us had white lice and suffered from skin outbreaks all over our bodies. In just one month we lost everything that identified as human beings. We no longer felt anything but hunger. I could see part of a coconut palm through the window and thought about what it would taste like. I thought if we could just get a branch of leaves of some young coconuts, I could eat all of it.

Once every four or five days we were sprayed with water through the windows with water pumped up mechanically from below. We were sprayed as if were a heap of vegetables. Those who were far from the hose only got their hands or fingers wet. There was no way of cleaning the area before going to sleep. So we just took our clothes off and used these. We all suffered from scabies. One day when we had had enough, a guard brought us some black oil that was swabbed all over our bodies except for the eyes, giving us the appearance of animals that had come out of hell.

Sometimes during the night, insects such as crickets or grasshoppers would fly into our room. We would catch them as soon as they landed and gobble them down before the guard could see us. If we were caught, we were given a beating with the car tyre shoes across the face or on the cheeks until the insect was spat out, the treatment resulting in black eyes and drawing blood.

I lived in this hell for over a month and was just about finished off. I was later taken to work downstairs. I was ordered by the prison chief to paint portraits of leading officials in the regime. From then on I gradually regained hope of coming out alive. This gave me a bit more freedom both physically and morally. When I was confined in the upper room, I only got a few spoonfuls of gruel to east but no water to drink. Here I was given two meals of decent food a day. It was sometimes leftovers from what the guards ate, but it was much better than the prisoner rations. My body started to change and I gradually regained the appearance of a human being. But I still felt that I was at death’s door. At every instant I was very careful about my physical and moral condition. Although I had to work hard every day, from 6 in the morning until midnight, although with time off for meals, I did so unhesitatingly because it was better than being tied up upstairs with only death as the outcome.

I lived in the S21 Detention Center for one year, from January 7, 1978 to January 7, 1979, the day when I was released. On February 5, 1979, I enrolled in First Division of the army to defend Phnom Penh. In May 1979, I was authorized by the commander-in-chief of the division to go back to my home town to look up my family. I found my wife, but my children had all died of malnutrition. I took my wife with me to live in Phnom Penh, where we still live today.
Links: S21 Paintings ; Bophana Center.

Stay another day in Cambodia

If you have been in Cambodia recently, you may've seen an orange-coloured booklet available at many outlets, such as bars, restaurants and shops. Its title is Stay another day in Cambodia and it lists community projects, NGOs or businesses with a strong social conscience that support poor communities, conserve traditional heritage or cultural assets, or preserve the natural environment for the future. Launched in January, the 84-page booklet features 40 such organizations and socially-conscious businesses.

Sponsored by the International Finance Corporation’s Mekong Private Sector Development Facility (IFC-MPDF) and German Technical Cooperation – GTZ, the tourism products and services featured in the Stay another Day Cambodia booklet include: eco-tours, local cuisine and cooking classes, traditional massage, visits to development projects, orphanages, rehabilitation centers, artisans and the concerts of master musicians, as well as many other interesting activities. Typically the enterprises featured were set up to directly or indirectly benefit disadvantaged people such as abused and abandoned women and children, children who have lost their parents, people with disabilities and communities with high rates of poverty. The goals of Stay another Day are to give tourists an opportunity to learn more about the Cambodia of today and help NGOs and socially responsible enterprises to sustain and expand their worthwhile work by drawing more tourists to them. Benefits are also expected for the locally-owned hotels, guesthouses, tour operators, souvenir sellers etc. who promote Stay another Day activities because tourists who stay longer, spend more.
Link: Partners in the website include: Lonely Planet, Climate Care, Sustainable Travel International and

Passion of the Amelios

I visited one of the Amelio schools in Siem Reap a while back, so I was interested to see this article on the newswires. As an aside, I also have a Lenovo lap-top!

CEO of Chinese-owned Lenovo computer company founds the Caring for Cambodia charity
- by Roland Lim, The Business Times (Singapore)

While Lenovo CEO Bill Amelio's passion for making the China computer manufacturer a household brand can be seen from the way he is driving his company's growth, another mission is perhaps not as public. 'One of the passions which my wife Jamie and I have is this charity that we founded called Caring for Cambodia,' Mr Amelio revealed. Caring for Cambodia is a non-profit charity organisation in Cambodia. One of its key focuses is providing education to the local children.

'We started with one school and now we've got four schools and a teacher training centre,' he said. 'We've also put in the first two kindergartens in Cambodia and it's proven to be a big hit.' According to the organisation's website, 2,952 students are currently attending its schools, while some 75 Cambodian teachers have been given professional training. 'Jamie and I both were born with modest means, so we try to do our part giving back to the world as best as we can,' explained Mr Amelio. But why Cambodia? 'What we liked about Cambodia was that it was a place where you could see tangible progress and you can really get involved at the grassroots.' Not surprisingly, the Amelios go to Cambodia quite frequently. 'I go over once a quarter, but my wife's there once or twice a month and she probably spends 40 to 60 hours a week there with the kids, so for her, this is almost a full-time job.' Mr Amelio also obviously likes children, revealing that he has six of his own, including two Cambodian girls who he says 'I'm really a guardian of'.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Turtle mania and the press

Here's a quick insight into how a story can grow and grow to give an organization like the World Wildlife Fund some much needed media coverage.

‘Turtle mania’ puts WWF Cambodia on the world media stage
- by Chris Greenwood, WWF Cambodia Communications Advisor

In May, the world’s media beat a path to WWF Cambodia’s door – to cover the story of a soft shelled turtle that spends 95% of its time under the sand and out of view. The story started with the discovery, by a WWF-led survey team, of a female Cantor’s giant soft shell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii), one of the world’s largest and least studied freshwater turtles, during a survey of the Mekong River in March 2007. The stretch of the Mekong River where the turtle lives is an area that was closed for many years to scientific exploration because it was one of the last strongholds of the former Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. The survey was the first detailed study of the area since security restrictions were relaxed in the late 1990s.

In a subsequent visit to the area, researchers also found a nesting ground for the species and brought eggs, an adult turtle, and additional hatchlings captured by fishermen back to Phnom Penh. The combination of a live specimen, eggs, hatchlings, and the mystery of a pristine area of the Mekong River ‘re-discovered’ seemed too good a media opportunity to miss. “All the ingredients were there for a good story, but getting it all together was going to be hard. We had a core team of media professionals from WWF International, WWF US, and Conservation International (CI) advising to coordinate and implement a media release out of WWF Cambodia’s office,” Chris Greenwood, WWF Cambodia’s Communication Advisor said. Seth Mydans, a journalist with the New York Times was invited to join WWF and CI staff at the turtle release site, which led to a prominent article in both the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. The overall result was one of the most successful media engagements in WWF Cambodia’s history. Both Cambodian and international press covered the story in print, and footage of the turtle’s release and interview material which detailed the significance of the turtle was used by BBC, CNN, and numerous other media outlets. At last count, around 200 websites featured the story and interest from magazines and related media groups continued for about a month after the media release date.

"WWF, the global conservation organization." Click here.

Bizot on Duch

The story of Francois Bizot's imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge in his book The Gate, is an excellent read. If you haven't read it, I strongly recommend you get a copy without further delay. In this recent interview with AFP, Bizot gives his view on the only person so far charged by the Khmer Rouge tribunal, his former captor, Comrade Duch.

Survivor Ready to Testify

French ethnologist Francois Bizot survived three months in a Khmer Rouge camp led by a man who is widely believed to be one of the regime's most notorious torturers. Thirty-six years later, Bizot says he is ready to testify at Cambodia's UN-backed genocide tribunal, which on July 31 detained his one-time captor Duch on charges of crimes against humanity. "It's possible that I will testify," Bizot told AFP in an interview in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, where he settled after fleeing Cambodia. Up to two million people, about one quarter of Cambodia's population, died under the ultra-Maoist regime that plunged the country into a reign of terror between 1975 and 1979, emptying the cities into the countryside where people were forced into labour and opponents were eliminated. Bizot was accused of spying, and was held for three months in 1971 in a Khmer Rouge camp headed by Kaing Geuk Eav, better known by his alias Duch. "I owe him my life, I'm sure of it," said Bizot, who believes that Duch engineered his release, which he described in his book The Gate.

Nonetheless, the 67-year-old author said he's ready to take the stand at the tribunal. "Whether I'm called by the defence or the prosecution, I will say the same thing: you cannot minimise the torturers' actions and the terrible suffering endured by the victims and their families. "It would not be the first time that Bizot comes face-to-face with Duch. They last met in February 2003, when Bizot saw Duch while he was being held in a Phnom Penh prison. Bizot said he was "fascinated by the juxtaposition of the man and the monster" that he has come to see in Duch. He said he fears that Cambodia's tribunal, like past war crimes trials, could end up demonising the accused and losing the human aspect to their cases. "The torturers dehumanise their victims in order to torture and crush them. We need to stop this way of thinking," said Bizot. "If the accused is judged as a torturer who has a right to have his humanity rehabilitated, that becomes less an accident of history. That is someone who begins to have a dimension that scares us, because we begin to understand the human drama that plays out inside of him. "If there is a hope, it's in this humanisation of the torturer."

A few years after detaining, interrogating and finally sparing Bizot, Duch went on to head the infamous Tuol Sleng torture centre. Some 16,000 people passed through its hellish chambers, where some of the Khmer Rouge's worst atrocities were carried out. Duch's lawyer has told the tribunal that he was merely following orders. Bizot believes that Duch had devoted his life to the Khmer Rouge's cause. "If the Khmer Rouge had won, he would hold an important rank today," he said. "There are forces that can make a man cowardly, destructive, heartless. When the rule of law disappears, these forces that exist even in normal times suddenly can make us killers, makes us aspire to positions that turn us into monsters, into people we never thought we'd become," he said. When the Khmer Rouge trial opens, Bizot said "the crimes should in no way be minimised, but the totality of the man should be shown." "Understanding does not mean forgiveness," he said. Duch, 65, is so far the only former Khmer Rouge cadre charged by the tribunal since it opened last year. Four other leaders could be charged soon, but new delays threaten to hold up the proceedings. Bizot said the delays are just "a question of big bucks" being sorted out between the Cambodians and the international community.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Doing something positive

A Mum to 14 just 21 - by Caroline Marcus of The Sydney Morning Herald

Tara Winkler had an enviable life. She grew up in Bondi, enjoyed the beach lifestyle and was establishing a career in the film industry. But after a holiday to Cambodia she gave it all up to devote herself to rescuing orphans from a life of abuse and neglect. During that visit two years ago Winkler was deeply moved by the suffering of children she encountered at an orphanage at Battambang, in the country's west. She established the Cambodian Children's Trust to support the orphanage, which she described as heartbreakingly run-down. As the months passed, rumours intensified of underhand dealings by the orphanage's former director. Early this year, Ms Winkler returned to Australia on a three-month fund-raising trip, and took measures to safeguard all donations to the orphanage. She went back to Cambodia this month after learning the orphanage's director and staff had been removed by the former director and replaced with his relatives. The former director allegedly has a history of embezzling donations from foreign sponsors, funnelling the money into his own property and livestock. "It got a bit nasty and all of the children were being abused really badly - physically and verbally," Ms Winkler told The Sun-Herald from Battambang. "They have lost several kilograms each and look like little stick figures and really unhealthy. "Seven of the children have hepatitis B and one girl is HIV positive.

In a desperate bid to save the children, the young Australian set up her own orphanage - in just two weeks. Battambang's Governor and government authorities gave her team full support to remove the children from the former orphanage and rehouse them, Ms Winkler said. She now houses all 14 orphans, aged between 5 and 17, and has employed a full-time nurse, local director, social worker and cook. "I wasn't prepared to be setting up my own centre so soon but I'm just relieved to have them out," she said. "They're all from horrible backgrounds, with many the victims of child trafficking and others orphaned by HIV/AIDS." In order to survive, the orphanage must raise $50,000 a year. Ms Winkler intends to transform the orphanage into a sustainable "eco-village". She plans to spend five years and $2million introducing development projects that will enable the orphanage to support itself. Her designs include buying a 40-hectare plot to establish a plantation as well as a fruit, vegetable and herb permaculture garden. A medical facility, animal clinic, education program and English school are in the works.
To find out more, click here.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Update on Dey Krahom

I've received the following message from Lee Robinson which sets out the existing status of the Dey Krahom community in Phnom Penh. I print it here in case you wish to find out more about this particular situation.
Dear friends and supporters of Dey Krahom community,
It has been a while since I’ve been able to update about DK community and part of the reason is because we have been discovering many amazing things about their struggle and situation. We are producing a comprehensive report but in the meantime, here is a brief synopsis. We’ve always looked at Dey Krahom as a village that housed the largest group of traditional Master musicians and that alone made it a fascinating community. They teach local children their traditions and struggle to conserve these dying art forms against all odds. As we took a closer look at their situation and deepened friendships with the Masters, we uncovered a fascinating unknown story of a village cheated out of their land, resisting authorities and evictions against all odds. Without the support of a fair and just legal system and with Cambodia’s recent history of forced evictions, it’s a miracle that they have resisted this far.
Families began arriving on this land to make their home after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. [1979] According to these families, the land was a swamp filled plot with many trees. They cleared the trees and as it could be afforded, they built up the land with the red soil that gives the community its name today. The Khmer Rouge had abolished all land titles and ownership laws during their four year rule and Cambodia has been struggling ever since to redistribute land to a nation of displaced people with few records on ownership. In 2001, Cambodia passed a law giving ownership rights to occupiers of land whose peaceful and uncontested possession exceeds five years. This included Dey Krahom residents and in 2002, the Municipality hand delivered land concession documents. The families were told that in five years they could apply for land deeds. While residents carried on with their lives, sneaky deals were taking place which resulted in a corrupt village chief trading the Dey Krahom land in exchange for housing on a relocation site far from the city. By the time residents discovered the illicit deal, the damage was done and all fat-cats involved were patting their bulging pockets.
In 2005, 344 families were allegedly forced to participate in a ‘lottery’ which determined their house number at the relocation site 20 km outside Phnom Penh. The remaining families ignored the constant intimidation and refused to acknowledge the illicit contract which did not represent their interests. Not knowing who they could trust after such manipulation, the residents took it upon themselves to democratically elect 30 village representatives who would fairly defend their rights.
Since then, these families have resisted violence, intimidation, threats, bogus criminal charges and hundreds of armed military police and plain clothes police. [armed with machine guns, axes and iron rods] Opposed to relocation, they have insisted they want to cooperate with a Government-designed plan to develop their land while building new housing for the families on-site. No one would listen so the village representatives pushed onward. Through cooperation with another organization, they created their own blue-prints of how this housing could work, complete with cost assessment for developer and agreed to by majority vote of the village. This is called ‘bottom up’ action, the most respected of movements. No leader, no guidance.....just sheer will and unity. They are asking for nothing more than for all shareholders to respect the Cambodian law and allow them to remain on land that is legally theirs. Dey Krahom is a fascinating story from a legal, journalistic, community, and humanitarian perspective. LICADHO Canada is currently compiling a comprehensive report on the history and legalities of Dey Krahom. We must stand in Solidarity with the villagers and help them get the tools and resources they need to further their successes. The time is NOW, as Cambodia’s recent history shows that police can get seriously violent when big companies ask for the removal of families. [see LICADHO website for other land cases]. We have located a few partners to join in Solidarity with us. [Bridges Across Borders, Cambodian Kids, LICADHO and Housing Rights Task Force]. We have highlighted the immediate needs which I have listed below. Please review and contact me if you have ideas or means to support and/or advocate for these initiatives:
Legal Representation: The village would like to challenge the legality of the illicit contract which signed away their land. They have gathered all legal documents and records of their efforts to engage the Municipality. Most NGO [Legal Aid] Lawyers are only permitted to defend criminal cases while Dey Krahom’s legal struggle is a civil case under Cambodia law. Legal Aid lawyers allowed to take civil cases have already long since exceeded their maximum case load. The only option left is to hire a private lawyer. It is estimated that we will need $8,000 - $10,000 US. Bridges Across Borders and LICADHO Canada need to raise the first $2,000 to get these proceeding going as soon as possible. BAB has already donated the first $500. We need people to raise money for this issue or strategize who we should be asking for this support. We also need assistance in drafting said letters. All relevant information will be provided to those who wish to be active in this.
Translation costs: LICADHO Canada has just paid $180 US on our visa for the translation of Dey Krahom’s legal documents needed for analysis and to accompany our report with will be shared with all relevant partners and lawyers. Our report is the first document to explain Dey Krahom – history to present. This was such a necessity that we could not wait for the application for funds so if someone can find a pocket of money somewhere to pay for this, it would be greatly appreciated during the foundation’s financially difficult times.
Piseth’s costs: Piseth not only translates between villagers and LICADHO Canada, he has the complete trust of DK village representatives and Musicians and is their contact person when police arrive in the village to intimidate them. Piseth is a major safety measure and we need to continue to pay his $200/month [US] salary. [Minimum four months, retroactive to Aug 16, 2007] He’s worth every penny.
Documentation: In a blue sky world, Dey Krahom story would have been filmed and documented from the beginning. Better late than never. LICADHO Canada already has a film maker committed to making the documentary and we have created a video demo to get financial support. The problem we are facing is no man power to distribute the demo or apply for these funds. If anyone knows producers or donors of documentaries or would like to send out demos, please contact me as soon as possible.
Please take a moment to assess these emergency needs. Contact me if you can support us in any capacity. This story has so much potential not only for a happy ending but to set a new trend in Cambodia that will halt these illegal displacements of so many people. Contact Lee here.

Its only a game...

More than a game for Cambodia, football plays the balm
by Mohammad Amin-Ul Islam from IndiaTimes Sports.

At times, football can be a healer. By the simple act of kicking a ball, the game can scoop out fun and excitement hidden inside individuals. Even nations. Watching the visiting Cambodian side in the ongoing ONGC Nehru Cup seems to give an impression about their inherent joy of being footballers particularly when you know that Cambodia’s past is replete with tragic memories. Ravaged by internal strife, Cambodians virtually forgot how to smile. There ruled a sense of deep insecurity. But football has been able to kick out every possible worry; it has given them a ray of hope and happiness.

Cambodia is playing football. And that seems to be the biggest news for a country which is slowly coming out of the debris following the political turmoil in the 1970s. In its capital Phnom Penh, still recovering from decades of warfare and civil unrest and plagued by terrible poverty, football events remain few and far between. But even a few of them seem to affirm that Cambodia is making progress. Battered by its opponents abroad and beset by scandal at home, the national team is currently ranked 171st in the world. "We don’t have facilities as other countries enjoy. Still, we are trying with our sincere effort to promote football," Cambodia’s Aussie coach Scott O’Donnell told TOI. Four years back in 2003, FIFA did its bit to bring about a change in Cambodia’s football set-up. The hopeful light of a new beginning emerged with the inauguration of a FIFA Goal project - new headquarters for the Cambodian Football Federation (CFF), a national training centre and a grass field were all unveiled as part of a major project. "True. We don’t have facilities like other Asian countries. We also have very few football grounds for practice, let alone hosting tournaments. Yet, the federation is trying every possible step to develop football," explained 21-year-old midfielder Keo Kosal.

Back home, Cambodia is currently hosting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Youth Football Championship. Interestingly, it is the first time that Cambodia is hosting a sport events after its tragic past ravaged the country. Though they have already lost two matches here, this young side will return home with loads of confidence. Besides, the event has taught them the most essential lesson of how to stay united against odds. In the process, they have put their faith in football’s basic principle, which can defuse the animosity back home. "Most of us in this team are students. We are not professional footballers. Hence, this tournament has been a tremendous learning experience for us," added Sam Minar, a crucial member of the team. Will they come to play in Indian clubs? Both Minar and Kosal smiled, and modestly added: "We play good football. If we are considered good, then why not play in the Indian league which, we have heard, offers good money."

A view on Khmer ruins from Thailand

I was sent this article by Ly Kenara as it provides some interesting details of the Khmer temples to be found in Thailand. Its taken from the Royal Orchid Holidays website so as you might expect has a distinctive Thai-bias in its reporting. But whatever happens, lets not start another bust-up between the two countries.

On the Trail of Khmer ruins in Thailand, There’s more than one Angkor Wat - by Harold Stephens,Travel Correspondent for Thai Airways International.

People are often surprised when I tell them they don’t have to travel to Angkor Wat in Cambodia to find Khmer ruins. Khmer ruins are everywhere in Southeast Asia, and especially in Thailand. Imagine, for nearly 500 years much of Southeast Asia, from the Mekong Delta in the east to borders of Myanmar in the west, lay under the control of the Khmer Empire. With Angkor as the hub, the empire radiated out in every direction, and to connect to the outlying reaches of the empire, the Khmers built a system of military highways. At various locations along these highways, religio-political strongholds were constructed, some no more than a stone shelter for guards, while others were the size of city blocks. But regardless of its size, each stood like a minor Angkor Wat, mighty in its own grandeur. Amazing as it may sound, Thailand has more than 2,000 of these Khmer strongholds, or ruins, within its domain. Where are they? No single text or guidebook has been written to include all of them, and if it were possible to write one, its pages would number in the thousands. But don’t despair. You can find them. The larger of these sites, of course, are well known. They are in guidebooks and appear in magazines and tourist publications, and their names in many cases have become household names— notably Phimai in northeastern Thailand. But there are others, actually a series of magnificent sites strung like beads on a necklace across Thailand's Tung Kula Rong Hai which include sites like Banteay Srei, Preah Vihear, Wat Phu, Phanom Rung and several others.

Without a guidebook, how do we find these lesser-known ruins? It’s a simple matter of exploration and discovery. All you need to do is to get behind the driver’s wheel of a car, arm yourself with a good road map—better yet two or three maps—and take off. Many road maps have sites marked, sometimes only dots on the map, but more often it’s by chance alone that you find a site. This is especially true when motoring the back roads in the northeast of Thailand. When you take any one of these roads, sure enough a small road sign will pop up pointing out the direction to a hidden Khmer site. And you don’t need a four-wheel drive vehicle to make these discoveries. Roads are all-weather, and very few go unpaved.And you don’t need a four-wheel drive vehicle to make these discoveries. Roads are all-weather, and very few go unpaved. Motorists usually stumble upon a ruin without expecting it. That happened to me recently when I was driving from Kanchanaburi to Three Pagodas pass, following along the old line of the Death Railway. Suddenly there was a sign— Prasat Muang Singh.

I wouldn’t have known what it was unless I stopped to enquire. It was a Khmer ruin, a western outpost of the Khmer Empire. Who would ever suspect a Khmer ruin this far in the west close to the Myanmar border, but there it was. I also learned from the curator at Muang Singh that there are several more minor ruins in the area, which I put off investigating until another day.
The question that comes to mind is how did all these ruins become forgotten? Angkor Wat in Cambodia, as the capital, thrived between the 10th and 14th centuries AD. But by the mid-19th century, when the frontiers of present-day Indochina were clearly defined by French imperialism, the Khmer Empire had long since disappeared and Cambodia was but a mere fraction of its former size. In time these outposts were forgotten and fell into ruin. Although Angkor Wat remains within Cambodia, the bulk of the Khmer past now lay outside Cambodia.
Thailand has always valued her historic treasures, and has long acknowledged their full potential as tourist attractions. The most important of these sites have been painstakingly and successfully restored by the Department of Fine Arts. As I mentioned, the most prominent of these is Phimai, the northeasternmost site and certainly the best known of them. Phimai can be found at the small town of Phimai, 59 kilometres northeast of Khorat, on a turning off from National Highway 2 to Khon Kaen. In distant times the site was directly linked by road to Angkor. There are clear indications that Phimai was the main religious and administrative centre of the Khmer northeast. The complex at Phimai dates originally from the reign of Surayavarman II, during the first part of the 12th century. The temple was constructed with white, finely grained sandstone, in the same style as Angkor Wat. Like Angkor, too, Phimai was first dedicated to the cult of Vishnu. The central sanctuary tower and much of the immediate surrounding that survive today date from this early period. Phimai may be the best-known and most easily accessible Khmer temple site in Northeast Thailand, but Buriram's Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung is perhaps better preserved. It is my favourite site. It is easy to reach, just 18 kilometres to the south of Route 24, the main highway between Khorat and Ubon Ratchathani. Phanom Rung is quite interesting, being a mixing of Thai and Khmer. It was constructed between the 10th and 13th centuries, but the greater part of the work was completed in the reign of King Suriyavarman II (1113 -1150 AD), during the period when the architecture of the Kingdom of Angkor reached its apogee. About 8 kilometres south of Phanom Rung, on the vast plain approaching the Cambodian frontier, stands the old Khmer sanctuary of Prasat Muang Tam. The ruin dates to the late 10th century AD. Surrounded by a high laterite wall, the complex includes magnificent stepped tanks which have been restored and filled with lotus flowers. The mellow sandstone of the sanctuary walls and beautifully carved lintels contrasts with the darker, coarser laterite of the surrounding sanctuary walls.

Surin province is a gem for Khmer ruins. Motorists should follow Route 24 from Ban Ta Ko and proceed east to Amphur Prasat and the junction for Surin, some 25 kilometres to the north. This province is closely linked with neighbouring Cambodia. Fine examples of the areas Khmer past may be found at Prasat Ban Pluang, near the road junction at Prasat, as well as at Prasat Sikhoraphum, 32 kilometres beyond Surin on Route 2077 to Sisaket. Both sites have been beautifully restored. Ban Pluang, which dates from the second half of the 11th century and was once an important stop on the road between Angkor and Phimai, is a square sandstone tower built on a laterite platform. The surrounding moats and ponds have been turned into an attractive garden to very pleasing effect. By contrast Sikhoraphum, which has also been carefully restored, consists of five brick prangs on a square laterite platform surrounded by lily-filled ponds. The lintel and pillars of the central prang are beautifully carved with heavenly dancing girls, or aspires, and other scenes from Hindu mythology. Finally, further along Route 2077 we come to the heavy laterite sanctuary of Prasat Kamphaeng Yai. And beyond that is magnificent Preah Vihear (known to the Thais as Khao Phra Viharn) just across the Cambodian border from Ubon Ratchathani. Until recently it was not advisable to travel to the site but that has changed in the last few years. Thailand and Cambodia have reached some sort of peace agreement following the death of Pol Pot and the banishment of the Khmer Rouge from its nearby Anglong Veng Base. Preah Vihear is now open for visitors with authorized entrance from Thailand. What’s amazing is that the ruin is almost inaccessible from Cambodia, unless, of course, one has the funds to charter a helicopter.

Thailand has done a marvelous job in developing the area. A tarmac paved road leads right up to the border, and here one can park. From here visitors must hike along a dusty trail to the ruin. One may tour only the immediate surroundings of the complex, as there are still plenty of land mines and live ordnance in the fields and forests nearby. One can’t forget the site was the scene of heaving fighting as recently as May 1998 and the Khmer Rouge in defending this strategic location against government forces used numerous land mines. The site is truly impressive. It actually sits atop a 600-metre cliff, an escarpment, and commands a dramatic view of the Cambodian plains to the east, and both Laos and Thailand in the other direction. The hill itself was sacred to Khmer Hindus for at least 500 years before the completion of the temple complex that has been only semi-restored. A Khmer ruin that I really enjoy is Wat Phu near Pakse in neighboring Laos. Motorists can leave their vehicles at the Lao/Thai border and travel by bus to the ruin. But that trip is another story for another time.
Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited. website.

Death of an Angel

This article by Kent Davis appears in the current edition of TouchStone magazine, the excellent quarterly product of the NGO, HeritageWatch. Kent is a good friend and allowed me to reproduce it here.

Death of an Angel
How antiquities theft destroys Cambodia’s past…and future. By Kent Davis

Her exquisite features expressed her Khmer heritage so perfectly she was chosen to become immortal. No one had spoken her name for nearly 900 years but certainly thousands had admired her beauty; her almond eyes, the gentle cleft in her chin, her benevolent gaze, her full lips and deep smile conveyed warmth that set her apart from other women. Once adorned with a golden crown, jewelry and accoutrements this flower of the Khmers became divine. She answered her king’s highest calling in the temple of Beng Melea.

The Khmer race created some of history’s most fantastic and innovative art. Their civilization emerged at the crossroads of Southeast Asia, clearly influenced by ancient Indian culture, yet the Khmer vision of religion, kingship, sculpture, architecture and beauty set them apart from any other ethnic group. Khmer temples, their holiest of places, were actual models of heaven on Earth, ensuring balance, prosperity and fertility for their land. In the first half of the 12th century, King Suryavarman II built Cambodia’s most famous monument, Angkor Wat, still featured as the central image of the country’s flag.

To the southeast another magnificent structure rose from the jungle, Beng Melea temple, incorporating many of Angkor Wat’s elements on a smaller scale. Experts date it to the same period, yet its builder, architect and precise purpose remain unknown. In the style of Angkor Wat, Beng Melea’s designers and sponsors prominently included female deities, now referred to as devatas (when standing) or apsaras (when dancing). Balancing masculine and feminine forces in the universe was a key component of Khmer religion. Ancient accounts confirm that women held important positions in Khmer society so it isn’t surprising to see women represented in temples as well. What is surprising is the unique style of these portrayals at the peak of the Khmer culture in the 12th-13th centuries. Rather than generic images of impersonal goddesses, many devatas appear to be portrait carvings of actual women in divine context. These stone images show facial features, poses and personalities that imply individual women were the source of their inspiration.

The angel of Beng Melea was one such woman.
I found her on a sweltering hot day in March 2006 while working on my quantitative analysis of Angkor Wat’s devatas. When I heard of Beng Melea’s similar style I took a daytrip there to investigate. Despite the collapse of most of its structures, Beng Melea is majestic in its jungle setting and well worth exploring. Sadly, most of its devatas were weathered beyond recognition, but when I climbed the pile of stones previously forming the northwest corner tower I had a surprising encounter. She was hidden by vines beneath a stone overhang. Decades or even centuries ago, the tower’s collapse formed a protective alcove around her. While all her sisters suffered erosion from exposure to the elements she alone remained preserved, still fulfilling the divine duties she was charged with so long ago.

My inexpensive camera didn’t focus well in her compact hiding place so I already planned to return to see her again. Back in Siem Reap I saw my friend Jaro Poncar, a professor from the University of Cologne who has been photographing Khmer structures for more than ten years. Jaro was surprised that he himself had never seen this devata before, making her discovery even more special to me. It took me nearly a year to mount my next research trip. In February 2007 I returned to Cambodia with my wife Sophaphan and a new camera. After three days of shooting at Angkor Wat we headed to Beng Melea and I anticipated introducing my wife to my hidden friend.

We arrived at the northwest tower and I sent Sophaphan up to look first, awaiting her shout of delight. Instead, she said, “What am I supposed to see?” “The devata! The only one here that’s well preserved,” I said. “Look, down in the alcove!” “She’s not there,” came her reply. I clambered up the rocks to find a faceless section of white rock. Clearly, someone had recently attempted to steal her head but the stone’s stress cracks caused her to break unevenly. She, who had survived the collapse of her temple, the weather and the wars of nearly a thousand years, had been destroyed in a moment by a thief’s chisel. For a few dollars, the Khmer race lost a piece of its soul. Cambodia lost an irreplaceable part of its heritage. And Beng Melea became a bit less attractive, and less financially viable, to the Cambodian economy as a tourist destination.
I don’t write these words to fault anyone. The company administrating Beng Melea built the road that enables visitors to easily access this remote site. Apsara Authority is charged with protecting a vast area and countless treasures on a limited budget. And whoever destroyed this angel did so out of ignorance and possibly out of economic necessity.

The only solution is education. With the help of Heritage Watch and other organizations Cambodian leaders can teach Khmer people that their heritage is their most priceless possession. With care and preservation the Khmer legacy will support this land and its people far into the future. But now this angel will not be there to see it. Her time has passed forever.
Reproduced courtesy of TouchStone Magazine – July-September 2007

Friday, August 24, 2007

PPP reports on The Bassac Theatre

The latest online edition of the Phnom Penh Post (Volume 16 Issue 17, Aug 24 - Sep 6) carries a story about the end of the Bassac Theater in Phnom Penh. Click here to read the full story and other free articles or click on Comments to see the full article.

Last act for Bassac Theater - by Dan Poynton and Cheang Sokha

The death knell has sounded for the crumbling Bassac Theater - an architectural gem of Cambodia's Golden Era of the '60s and the favorite creation of its revered architect, Vann Molyvann. The 315 musicians, dancers and singers, who use the shell of the Preah Suramarit National Theatre to rehearse and who live in the Dey Krahorm squatters community nearby, were told by Ministry of Culture officials to leave by the end of the month. They will be relocated to a building on Mao Tse Tung Blvd, but the performers say the new site is too far away and inadequate for their dramatic artistic performances. [continued]...

* * * * *
In the wake of President George W. Bush's comments this week about the “killing fields” of Cambodia that followed the 1975 U.S. pullout from Vietnam and the region, there have been a flurry of articles worthy of a look, including the following:
Flashback: 'The Unnewsworthy Holocaust: TV News and Terror in Cambodia'
- by Brent Baker on the website. Click here.
Pol Pot And Kissinger - by Edward S. Herman on the website. Click here.
If only we had stayed the course in Cambodia by buermann on Click here.
Returning to CambodiaKilling fields of media fallacies - by Peter W. Rodman. Click here.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

I blogged a story by Greg Mellen on photographer Botumroath Keo Lebun on Monday and didn't direct you to her own website, which is worth visiting. Its here. I was interested to see some of the jobs she had whilst living in Cambodia. They included working with the United Nations, Silaka NGO, the Cambodia Daily as an editor and photographer, the Ministry of Information as a tv newsreader, Pannasastra University and DC-Cam. Wow, not a bad resume. I wish her much success.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Putting Cambodian cuisine on the map

A look at the food available in Cambodia is the focus of a story in the Asia Sentinel today. Click here for the whole story. However, contributor Phil Lees advises visitors not to hold overly high expectations. “Cambodia isn't the lost food utopia of Asia,” he says. “It might be when it gets much richer, but for the moment a large proportion of Cambodians eat for survival rather than purely for pleasure.” Lees is the man behind the blog Phnomenon, and says he enjoys eating and writing about Cambodian food “partly because Khmer cuisine is delicious, and partly for the sense of discovery that I feel when I come across foods that are new to me.” Carry on writing Phil. I recommend you visit his blog, its well worth the effort.

A positive HIV story

I liked this postive slant on HIV-infected women across Asia.
Being positive: HIV-affected women turn entrepreneurs by the Hindustan Times (India)

Srim Phan had little to do with her time before she set up and a garment manufacturing unit in Cambodia. Called Modern Dress Sewing Factory, the unit today hires 30 people, 27 of whom are HIV positive. Phan is the general manager of the organisation. Like Phan, P. Kousalya set up a conceptual design and printing business in Chennai employing four persons who have tested HIV positive or have AIDS. Yet, the six-month-old enterprise has already recorded profits. In addition, Kousalya has an enviable list of clients: she has designed logos for UN agencies, apart from pamphlets for NGOs, menus for local restaurants and catalogues for promoters. Both enterprises are part of a UNDP-funded Women and Wealth Development programme to help HIV-positive women set up small, independent businesses to enable them to be financially independent. "I now get a salary every month and can pay for my daughters' education without having to worry about where the money will come from," said Phan.

Women account for almost 40 per cent of HIV infection cases - the figure is 44 per cent for India. A majority of this are monogamous, married women who get infected by their husband. Once the husband dies of AIDS, many, like Kousalya, get thrown out of their homes when they also test HIV positive. "My husband was a trucker and when he died in December, 2001, I was already very sick. I was not trained for anything and had no place to go. I soon found out that there were many other women in a similar situation," said Kousalya. Refusing to get cowed down, Kousalya came up with the idea to form a support group for HIV-positive women. She set up the Positive Women's Network, which she now heads. A UNDP study in South Asia shows 40 per cent women are thrown out of their in-laws' home after the death of their husbands, and 80 per cent are denied property rights.

Across Asia, the pattern the HIV infection takes has shown a general trend, progressing from injecting drug users to sex workers; then clients of sex workers, who transmit the virus to their wives. And these women, to their children. "In this chain, monogamous married women, who would normally be under little threat of infection, are the silent sufferers. Often uneducated and untrained, they have no means of earning a living. This projects helps them become economically independent and cope with the devastating effect of HIV on their lives and those of their children. This is achieved through vocations like designing and printing in India or making beeswax candles in China," said Caitlin Wiesen, programme coordinator, UNDP Regional HIV and Development Programme.

Nic Dunlop's view

Nic Dunlop is a photographer and author of The Lost Executioner, the excellent book exposing the story of Comrade Duch, the sole person to be charged so far by the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia. In 1999, he received an award for Excellence in International Journalism from Johns Hopkins for exposing the head of the Khmer Rouge's secret police. Dunlop is currently residing in Thailand. Here's his latest view on the Tribunal.

Cambodia's trial by fire
A former Khmer Rouge figure's indictment could be a turning point for the country - by Nic Dunlop, Los Angeles Times, USA.

Last month, nearly 30 years after the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, the first indictment was issued by a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Cambodia. From 1975 to 1979, more than 1.7 million people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. Now, after years of prolonged negotiations and conniving by the international community, the tribunal finally looks set to begin its work. The man awaiting trial is Kang Kek Ieu - alias Comrade Duch, and referred to as Kaing Geuk Eav in tribunal filings - Pol Pot's chief executioner and butcher. As the commandant of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, he is allegedly responsible for the deaths of thousands of men, women and children. Duch has been charged with crimes against humanity.

Growing up in Ireland and England, I was shocked by revelations about what happened under the Khmer Rouge. As an adult, I based myself in Bangkok, working as a photographer. After making frequent trips to Cambodia, it occurred to me that if the world was serious about preventing such crimes in the future, it was crucial to understand the perpetrators. And I felt that if there was one man who could provide us with answers on the Khmer Rouge, it was Duch. He was the missing link between the killings and the leaders. For about a year, I took to carrying a photo of him. I showed it to Cambodians I met to see if anyone recognized him. None did. Then, in 1999, while on assignment in the west of the country, I came face to face with him. Duch had become a born-again Christian. After several meetings, he began to talk candidly about his role during the reign of terror. It was the first time that a senior cadre had ever confirmed mass murder as policy. "I have done very bad things before in my life," he said. "The killings must be understood. The truth should be known." He began to name names and establish a chain of command for the killings. As a result of my finding him, and his extraordinary confession, he was arrested. Today, he remains the only Khmer Rouge in custody.

Why has so little been done to bring to trial the perpetrators of the Cambodian holocaust? After the regime was overthrown in 1979, the quest for justice was sidelined during the Cold War because of the competing interests of the U.S., China and the Soviet Union. Cambodia had become a pawn. After the Khmer Rouge was ousted, and despite its barbarous record, Pol Pot's men continued to be recognized as Cambodia's legal representatives at the United Nations, and the U.S. supported a guerrilla coalition they dominated. When the Cold War ended, the Khmer Rouge continued its fight to regain power. In the mid-'90s, as part of a strategy to defeat the guerrillas, the Cambodian government granted amnesty to Khmer Rouge members if they defected to the government side. Justice was exchanged for peace. Eventually the movement imploded.Some former Khmer Rouge members now hold positions within the army and government. Many are old and frail men in their 70s. Nuon Chea, Pol Pot's right-hand man, and Khieu Samphan, the regime's former head of state, live freely in Cambodia - although they are likely among those whom the tribunal will seek to indict. Some leaders, like Pol Pot, have escaped justice and taken their secrets to the grave. In all, only five to 12 Khmer Rouge leaders may be brought to trial.

Because he was Pol Pot's chief executioner, Duch's trial will be one of the most important. If he speaks as he did in 1999, Duch can explain the decision-making for the regime's atrocities and the chain of command and responsibility. But after so many years, and with so few infirm and elderly cadres likely to be indicted, some people have questioned the purpose of a tribunal and a trial.And yet Cambodia remains a society plagued by violence. A trial could help establish an understanding of the importance of due process of law to replace the current cycle of impunity and revenge. It is also important for people to see that leaders are not immune from prosecution. Many believe that this lack of accountability is one of the most enduring legacies of Khmer Rouge rule. To counter the violence, the details of the process must be made accessible to a wide audience. With the tribunal, a completely alien and complex system of justice is being introduced to a largely uneducated population. What will people think when only a few old men whom some may never have heard of go on trial in Phnom Penh, but the man who killed their relatives, living in the same village, literally gets away with murder? As the head of Duch's defense team told me, "There will be many people who will be disappointed." The biggest challenge for this tribunal is to demonstrate not only justice being done but, more crucially, justice understood. The key is not whether to find a group of old men guilty, but to explain how they are guilty. The tribunal also would be public acknowledgment of the suffering of those who survived and a means for the U.N. to show that when nearly 2 million people are killed, it matters.

You can read my review of Dunlop's excellent book here.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Last Seen At Angkor update

I have posted this message from Michael R Morris, the director of the film, Last Seen At Angkor, in case any of you want to find out more about his film.
"I remember and appreciate your support on our little film: "Last Seen at Angkor," shot on DV while backpacking through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Well, it's finally been released worldwide on DVD through Lifesize Entertainment in NY. It's available on,,, and many more retail sites. Pass the word on to any of your readership who might be interested. Thanks for your support of indie guerrilla filmmaking and for your enthusiasm for such a beautiful country."

You can read my interview with one of its stars, Singaporean actor Wee Hong Thomas Lim, in my blog of 12 August 2006.

Looking further afield

Invasion of Angkor Wat
Cambodia's jewel has survived a lot, but popularity may be its biggest challenge, Kerry van der Jagt writes in The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia.

Angelina Jolie has a lot to answer for. Ta Prohm, with its ancient stonework and massive tree roots, is now sadly known as the Tomb Raider temple. And the tour groups love it. I watch on as entire groups re-enact Lara Croft running out from the temple. One at a time they sprint, leap and hurl themselves towards their tour guide - and his video camera. More like a stampede of clearance-sale shoppers than responsible travellers. Angkor Wat and the surrounding Angkor temple complex in Cambodia are without doubt one of the seven man-made wonders of the world. Stretching over 400 square kilometres, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer empire, from the 9th to the 15thcentury. In December 1992, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation declared Angkor a World Heritage Site. In 1993, 7600 intrepid travellers visited Angkor, but by 2006 the number had skyrocketed to 1.6million. By 2010, 3 million people are expected to visit Cambodia.

Dr Dougald O'Reilly, one of South-East Asia's foremost archaeologists and lecturer at the University of Sydney, founded the non-governmental organisation Heritage Watch in 2003. The group has implemented a number of projects to help protect Cambodia's heritage by raising awareness of looting and its consequences. With full support from the Ministry of Tourism and the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap, Heritage Watch declared 2007 "heritage friendly". Its aim is to bring together locally-based private, public and non-governmental sectors in a nationwide collaboration to promote responsible tourism, while encouraging businesses to promote the arts, culture, heritage and development projects in Cambodia. An additional component of the Heritage Watch project, the Heritage Friendly Tourism Campaign, was launched in January. "The idea behind the campaign is to raise awareness of the fragility of heritage and the need for travellers to be responsible when they visit archaeological ruins," O'Reilly says. "We also hope to discourage people from purchasing antiquities and to broaden their travel experience outside of just Angkor." O'Reilly would like to see visitors venturing further afield. "Cambodia is an amazing and diverse country with much to offer, yet too few people leave Siem Reap where the temples of Angkor are located," he says. "Rural communities are in desperate need of tourist dollars and encouraging people to lengthen their stays and visit other places is one of the goals of the campaign."

A major component of the Heritage Friendly Tourism Campaign has been to involve the business and corporate community in promoting arts, culture and heritage in Cambodia. More than 100 businesses have been certified as heritage friendly. Heritage friendly businesses are promoted through banners, street signs and stickers to help travellers identify and support those companies that give something back to Cambodia. Heritage Watch offers some simple and undemanding guidelines for visitors: do not purchase ancient artefacts; respect the temples as they are religious monuments; refrain from touching bas-reliefs as the lanolin on hands imparts oil into the stone; use environmentally friendly transport such as bicycles in the park (vibrations from buses affect the monuments); conserve water in Siem Reap - the water table is dropping, which may cause the monuments to subside; purchase Cambodian-made products; dispose of rubbish appropriately; support businesses certified as heritage friendly. Dr Tim Winter, of the University of Sydney, has worked in Cambodia for many years on the challenges that emerge around heritage and tourism. Winter acknowledges that though there has been significant damage to some of the temples, including erosion to steps, entrance ways and fragile carvings, this is only part of the problem. Winter says there are other important things to consider when visiting the area: the local economy and major inequalities arising in Cambodia because of tourism and Siem Reap as an island of hyper-growth, surrounded by some of the poorest communities in the whole of Asia.

Associate professor Roland Fletcher of the University of Sydney, who is also the director of the Greater Angkor Project and the Living with Heritage Project, encourages visitors to prolong their stay in the area. "Basically, the key thing that tourists need to do is to stay longer than the average two-day stay," he says. It sounds so simple, but makes good sense. By increasing your stay to four days, you will significantly contribute to the local economy. Even the pollution problem caused by washing your sheets and towels will be reduced. Yes, parts of Angkor can feel like a circus. But if you venture further a field to the quieter temples of Preah Khan, Ta Som, Banteay Srei or Beng Mealea or spend a few extra days away from the madding crowds, you will be rewarded with the moments that every traveller craves. Perhaps it will come while you're sitting under a centuries-old silk-cotton tree that is slowly devouring a temple, or when you talk with a saffron-robbed monk. Or maybe when a shy local child plays peek-a-boo with you from behind a temple or during that spine-tingling moment when the sun first climbs through the sky over Angkor Wat.

The endurance of Cambodian pop culture

Here's a review of an evening of film, held last week in Los Angeles.
"To Destroy You is No Loss" - The endurance of Cambodian pop culture by Brian Doherty of

Over 30 years ago, a murderous army of communist fanatics in Cambodia known as the Khmer Rouge took command of a nation, and tried to destroy a world. In the attempt, they murdered around 1.5 million people—maybe a million more, or maybe a few hundred thousand less. The value of any one human life may be incalculable. But in the chaos of the state-sponsored killing fields, it's hard to get an accurate count of just how many died. People were marked for starvation or elimination for being educated or wealthy, for being religious, working in a skilled profession, or representing anything other than the bare equality in agricultural sufficiency that the Cambodian communists thought should exemplify the “new people” they wanted to create.
The Khmer Rouge did bloodily carve their name, and that of their leader Pol Pot, into a lead position in the 20th century’s roll call of ideologically motivated villainy. Still, they ultimately failed in their attempt to destroy utterly the culture of pre-“Year Zero” bourgeois Cambodia.

Two movies shown together last week at a “Cambodian Rock Night” — across the Pacific Ocean from Cambodia in Los Angeles — each herald the Khmer Rouge’s failures. Everyone gathered at the Hollywood Blvd. nightclub the Knitting Factory — about a third of them of Cambodian ancestry, now living in Southern California — would assuredly have ended their days in sickness and starvation in a Khmer Rouge work camp had they gotten their hands on us, for general bourgeois decadence, if nothing else.The first was a documentary, Sleepwalking through the Mekong. It chronicled a recent trip through Cam bodia by the Los Angeles rock band archly named Dengue Fever, after a tropical disease once endemic in Southeast Asia. The band plays their own versions of old Cambodian pop rock songs. Only one, their female lead singer Chhom Nimol, is ethnically Cambodian. She was already something of a singing sensation in Cambodia — the band found her in the hotbed of Cambodian refugees and their descendants in Long Beach, California. Cambodian rock of the ‘60s and ‘70s was a frantic and vivid music that arose to some degree from native reaction to the surf and pop music they began to hear on radio broadcast from U.S. military bases in Southeast Asia in the 1960s.This Cambodian rock has manic, frantic drive with alternating flashes of light and darkness, reminiscent of mutant exoticized surf music and/or a fantasized ‘60s spy movie soundtrack abo t Cambodian spies adventuring in the West—an instant concentrate of the sort of sexy grooviness that the Austin Powers movies tried to capture, but not half as well as these songs. (When Dengue Fever plays them, at least in the movie, a layer of archival dust occasionally settles over this crazily bright music.) The sound, whether on vinyl or in person in nightclubs, exemplified individualism, cultural pluralism, markets, urbanity, the quest for fun, romance—trappings of educated bourgeois life that the Khmer Rouge despised and wanted to see eradicated from the earth.

Sleepwalking was shot by John Pirozzi, who is wrapping up a fuller documentary history of the Cambodian rock n’ roll that Dengue Fever pay tribute to, to be called Don't Think I've Forgotten. You see and hear Dengue Fever playing dark nightclubs and bright temples, traveling through cities with wide boulevards and cheery colors filled with small motorbikes, often weighed down with produce. They visit schools dedicated to keeping alive the art of playing certain exotic Cambodian instruments for which only handfuls of masters survived the Khmer Rouge killing fields; they write new songs with Cambodian lyrics, helped by a tuktuk driver. Being American intellectuals, the band members themselves wonder about their right to play this music, to appropriate Khmer culture as rank outsiders. They ultimately seem to decide—rightly—that those distinctions are meaningless when it comes to music and culture. Pirozzi captures a young Cambodian who, after seeing these emissaries from across the ocean bring his nation’s culture, marked for death, back to life in front of him, says that it was “psychologically healing.” And a teacher from a music school notes that though she knew they were foreigners in front of her playing Khmer songs, she detected no class difference—they were all equal. Not in the Pol Pot sense of forcing everyone into a mold of grim enforced equality of misery and deprivation, with all who might rise above in education or wealth whittled down violently, but rather, equality in a spiritual and intellectual community of affection for humans’ loving creations, across nations and time.

A short biopic of the queen of Cambodian pop-rock, Ros Sereysothea, was also shown. Originally a singer of traditional Khmer music, she later adopted the tough garage-psych sound that characterizes the best-remembered Cambodian rock of the time. Her popularity reached from peasants to the royal family, whose King Norodom Sihanouk dubbed her “The Golden Voice of the Royal Capital”—thus the film’s title, The Golden Voice. The movie, written and directed by American Greg Cahill, is artless in some respects. The almost fable-like stark simplicity of its scene-setting and storytelling do have their own peculiar strengths. Its visual and verbal shorthand are more redolent of the graphic novel than what’s typically expected from film drama. The film tries to summon a life and a cultural tragedy in miniature; Cahill hopes he will eventually tell Sereysothea’s story in a full-length biopic. It begins with Sereysothea, played by Sophea Pel, entertaining in a lavish nightclub when she is carted off by soldiers; the ballroom elegance is instantly contrasted with the desiccated grimness of a dirty, sparse field in which people creep listlessly through agricultural drudgery; voices hector them through loudspeakers. The film’s version of Khmer Rouge evil is almost Randian; shown as arising from a stunted, petty, bitter resentment of anyone who has achieved anything grander than picking at vegetation or threatening people with a gun; anyone who ever ate a meal better than they had eaten, enjoyed a moment more elegant and lovely than they had enjoyed. The narrative ends with Sereysothea bullied by the Communists into singing colorless cadre songs for the delectation of slaves in a field; whether she’ll give in is left unresolved. “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss” was adopted as an official slogan of sorts by the Cambodian communists to refer to the urbanites and moderns they wanted annihilated. Both these films show that ghoulish phrase for the hideous lie it is. Both films ended with title cards about how, though the Khmer Rouge managed to kill many specific people, the victims' spirit and accomplishments live on. That can seem like the sort of banality people mutter to quiet inner voices of outrage and pain. But the truth in it is the basis of all human civilization: we can send signals from our brains and hearts across generations and across nations. Whether murdered by fanatical advocates of evil ideologies or not, we will all end up dead. But not all of us will have people singing our songs, and our praises, decades after we’re gone. That Ros Sereysothea, who disappeared mysteriously under Khmer Rouge control, achieved that is proof enough that the Khmer Rouge failed.

Reason Magazine Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Some Cambodia jottings

I've just been sent the August copy of the glossy magazine, Cambodia Life, with articles on Vann Nath's exhibition of paintings at the Bophana Center (which I blogged a few weeks ago), Pradal Serey (Khmer boxing), the singer Him Sivorn (see my 15 April blog on one of Cambodia's favourite female singers), the art of Cambodian kite-flying and the Ka Chanh falls in Ratanakiri province. This is the magazine's third issue and you can see their first two issues at their website here. I hope I can get my hands on a copy of the first two editions as it carries some interesting articles.

I've also seen that a couple of my own photos have appeared in two recent Cambodia-produced publications. My 1997 photo of Angkor Wat found its way into the Cambodia Trading Post, an advertising newspaper that sells for $1 throughout the country. The photo accompanied a description of the various styles of architecture. And then I was informed that a photo of my pal Sokhom and myself, standing at the entranceway to Preah Vihear temple from a couple of years ago, appeared in a story about Preah Vihear in the popular Cambodian magazine, Khemara's August edition. The tagline was something like "foreigners also visit Preah Vihear." Indeed they do, though in the last few weeks its been nigh impossible to do, with some serious flooding in Preah Vihear, Kompong Thom and most of the northern provinces.

Last but not least, if you see an elephant wandering the streets of Phnom Penh (he also appeared in one of my photos a few years ago), its most likely to be Sambo, a 47 year old elephant who originated from Aural mountain in Kompong Speu province and who now struts his stuff at Wat Phnom every day. His usual route to and from work is along the riverside at Sisowath Quay and his owner is Sin Son, who also owns one of the elephants you can see at the Angkor temple complex every day.

The Nation visits Tonle Sap

The Nation, Bangkok's Independent newspaper has been on its travels to the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia and here's a report from Phoowadon Duangmee on what they found.

Civilisation on stilts
Though the waters of life receded from Angkor centuries ago, they're still rising and falling beneath the Cambodian villages on nearby Tonle Sap Lake.

Twenty kilometres out of Siem Reap we're barrelling south along the road that stretches from the bustling old bazaar in the town. The driver turns left just before a sign that reads "Welcome to Floating Market", and negotiates the potholes on the dirt road. On each side runs a ribbon of small shacks pieced together from odd bits of lumber and scruffy plastic sheeting. Every now and then, raggedy kids poke their heads out onto a veranda - as if in mute hope that Angelina Jolie is passing through again. "Why Kompong Khleang village - are you going to Angkor Wat?" asks the 20-something driver, who can't contain his suspicions any longer as we head further and further in the opposite direction to the crowds. In other words, you have Angkor Wat - what's the big deal about a small village not even your hotel manager has heard of? "Angkor Wat has lost its charm since it was voted off the Wonders of the World list," I tease, forgetting that Cambodian folk can be sensitive about this sort of thing. It's not long since the loose lips of a certain Thai celebrity had the Thai ambassador in Phnom Penh running for his life. Actually, the old temples of Angkor never lose their charm. The fact is, I've visited Angkor four times, forking out more than US$200 (Bt6,300) in entry fees to the Cambodian government. I thought it was about time I turned my back on the famous ruins and explored other parts of Siem Reap province.

Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake, is the next best destination after Angkor Wat, and Kompong Khleang and Kompong Phluk - small fishing villages on the far side of Tonle Sap - have caught my imagination. Our small craft, which once served as fishing boat, starts to pick up speed as we near the mouth of the small canal that runs through Chong Khneas - a famous but touristy floating village - and into Tonle Sap. My driver, who introduced himself by bouncing into the boat with his lunch box, asking if I wanted a discount guide, tells me that the floating village has been here for more than a century. Both sides of the canal bustle with exotic scenes of this riverside community. Here, where dry land is at a premium, the locals take to the water, floating everything from crocodile farms to the Christian Church. Our slow boat follows the tourist ferry into the lake, rustic life rolling by as if the everyday scenes carved into the walls of Angkor Thom have sprung to life. A mother is cooking for a family. A pig squeals for its morning feed. A man rows a boat loaded with a huge pile of firewood. Soon Chong Khneas becomes just another speck on the shore, the long trail of our wake submerged beneath the waves. Tonle Sap is simply massive, especially during the monsoon season when a torrent from the mighty Mekong backs up into the lake, which overflows into nearby fields and forests. Sometime in the 12th century the Cham sailed up the Mekong, crossed Tonle Sap and invaded Angkor Wat. Now, together with the boat driver and my car driver-turned-tour guide, I'm trying to picture the violence and drama of a naval battle out on the water. But it's not easy as we chug our solitary way alongside the north-eastern shoreline. Once in a long while the silhouette of a fishing boat and its conical-hatted occupants crosses our bow in the distance.

Around noon we approach a floating market. But rather than a buzzing commercial hub, it's probably the most desolate I've ever come across. The merchants bob together forlornly in boats laden with instant noodles, fruit, tonic drinks, local whiskey and other everyday items. The odd local rows in for a chat with the vendors and a little shopping spree. Our boat turns left and into the mouth of the small river that flows out of Kompong Khleang village. Scattered along both banks are numerous "floating houses", medium-sized boats adapted through the addition of small thatched huts. TV aerials and satellite dishes sit on the roofs while the stern is usually taken up by a makeshift kitchen. Peering closely I glimpse the odd motorcycle on board. Where, I wonder, can they go for a spin - there's no dry land for miles around. Nearing the village, we pass several small boats with huge fish traps. Tonle Sap is one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world. More than three million Cambodians live on the fish pulled from the lake. Water is everywhere," my guide tells me. "You can't grow rice, or anything else - there's only fishing." We glide towards Kompong Khleang village's hundred or so thatched houses on the riverbank, which soon tower above us. Amazingly, the houses soar several metres atop a forest of skinny posts. Cruising slowly through, we have to crank our necks to return the waves of children high above us on the decks. "The villagers need these houses on stilts," says the guide as we stroll around the village. "Come October, when the Mekong pushes into Tonle Sap, the lakeside rises nine or 10 metres. The path we're walking on will vanish, so will the low-rise market and the bridges." We visit the village temple, chat with the friendly locals and scare a group of little kids with the camera, before returning to the boat and heading back downstream to Tonle Sap.

On the return leg of the journey to Siem Reap, we branch off up another tributary. Just beyond a mangrove forest a few kilometres inland the stilted village of Kompong Phluk hoves into view. Young Cambodian lads on a house boat passing time playing cards give us a wave with their fanned-out hands. They yell something I don't catch. Probably: "Greetings, Japanese. You're on the wrong road for Angkor Wat." "When the water levels drop, the fishermen move back to the lakeside and build thatched houses, farming fish and even crocodiles," says my guide. "Then, once the water levels start climbing, they tear down the huts and move to higher ground - it's a yearly cycle." Late in the day, racing back to port we're hit by a monsoon squall. The small boat pitches and rolls and we all get a soaking. The bas-relief of the "Churning of the Sea of Milk" at Angkor Wat pops into my head - maybe the celestial powers are getting some practice in. Around 5pm we approach the starting point of our expedition, the canal in Chong Khneas. Behind me is a churning sea of muddy milk. Tonle Sap doesn't have the picture-postcard appeal of other great bodies of water - Kashmir's Dal Lake, for example. But with the help of a slow boat you can discover the charms that lie along its edge - the people of Siem Reap province.
Perhaps you've strolled around Angkor Wat and assumed that this ancient civilisation is rooted in brick and stone. Once you're out on Tonle Sap in a boat, you realise that it's actually the lake that has been the lifeblood for Khmer people down the centuries.
(c) 2007 Thailand

Len's on Cambodia beauty

photo by Scott Smeltzer / Press-Telegram
Greg Mellen of the Long Beach Press Telegram in the United States brings us another of his regular updates from the Cambodian Long Beach community.
Photos of a changing land aim at a fresh view
Botumroath Keo Lebun wants to change the way the world sees Cambodia. And she's taking a rather literal approach toward her goal. While much of the world attention on Cambodia is focused on tourism at the suddenly crazily popular Angkor Wat temple complex and the resuscitated Khmer Rouge tribunals, Lebun wants to show a different picture of Cambodia.
So beginning today, a month-long photography exhibition of LeBun's images entitled "Rivers of Life" opens in Long beah. "I wasn't interested in the typical things," Lebun says. "I was more interested in documenting the beauty of the country. I wanted to show a beautiful place."
Lebun is a native Cambodian, but was born just before the Khmer Rouge rise to power. And while she has no real memories of the murderous reign of the regime, which left about 1.7 million dead in its wake, she was profoundly affected. Her father was killed when she was three months old. Lebun and her family were forced from their home in Kampot Province and shipped to Battambang Province near the Thai border. When the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Lebun and her family moved to a refugee camp and in 1981 to the Bronx inNew York City. "Another war zone," she says ruefully. Lebun refers to herself as a 1.5-generation Cambodian, influenced by the culture and traditions of her mother, but highly Americanized.
She graduated from Buffalo University with a degree in political science. It was on a trip to Cambodia in 1998 that she met noted Vietnam War photographer Philip Jones Griffiths and discovered a new interest. Since then, Lebun has honed her artistic skills, returned to Cambodia to work for a nongovernmental organization or NGO, received a master's degree from the Columbia School of Journalism and attended the School of International and Public Affairs.
During the trips to Cambodia, Lebun said she began to make connections through her images.
"They say food and learning are the way to understand your culture," Lebun says. "For me it was through (photography)." As a political scientist and journalist, Lebun understood one side of Cambodia: the geopolitics of the area, the evolving society and the influences that are changing the country. But through photography, she discovered something more elemental, something pure that is disappearing from the landscape. That's what she's trying to present in her exhibit - a lifestyle and a culture defined by the Tonle Sap and Mekong River. These are people and a culture that aren't seen in burgeoning Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor Wat, or Phnom Penh, but are being subsumed by the changing culture. "With all the land grabbing going on, there is a beauty that will be gone," Lebun says. "I give it like 10 years." As a self-proclaimed 1.5-generation member, Lebun feels a responsibility to the Cambodian-American community.
Tonight, Lebun plans to auction some of her pieces with a portion of the proceeds going to the Cambodia Town Inc., helping to promote the newly designated stretch of Anaheim Avenue.
When not working at her full-time job as a program coordinator at USC, she is active as a volunteer in the Cambodia Culture and Arts Association, where she has been doing grant writing. She hopes later this year to begin a photojournalism book about the Cambodian Community in Long Beach. For the moment, however, Lebun's focus is on tonight's festivities, beginning at 6:30. She plans to have a Cambodian band, Cambodian finger food and, she hopes, a Cambodian celebrity or two. "It's going to be a hot night," Lebun says.