Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Everyday stuff

The author and Pisey, one of the staff from Cafe Fresco on Street 51 & 306
The website and Blog saga continues to trundle along. I haven't been able to post any photos for a couple of days, so my stories are stacking up! At the same time, its all been a bit frantic and looks set to remain so for the rest of the month with at least two trips into the Cambodian wilderness on the cards. In the meantime, last night I went to enjoy yet another wedding, between two employees of another expanding franchise, the FCC group. Nice to see all my friends from Cafe Fresco there, the sandwich & coffee shop I use for my lunch most days. During the day yesterday, I went on my moto tour of a few pagodas west of Phnom Penh as my story below explains - photos to follow.

The happy couple - oh, so young
On Saturday evening, I watched the John Pilger documentary, Cambodia - the Betrayal at Meta House after turning on the tv for the first time in months to watch the Khmer kick-boxing championships. Both the Phouthang brothers were fighting foreign opponents though it was sad to see the eldest brother, Ei Phouthang, looking a bit out of shape and losing his bout. He's 36 now, has been a national hero for a long time but perhaps its time for him to retire to coaching after completing over 200 bouts. His younger brother, Outh Phouthang won his bout and collected $1,000 prize money donated by the Prime Minister.
I'm interviewing most days this week at work as we try and get some good quality staff into our ever-expanding tour company. I'm also assisting a documentary film-shoot this week, which I'll tell you more about as it happens. Tonight, don't forget it's the fifth of the public forums on the Legacy of the Khmer Rouge, beginning at 7pm at Pannasastra University on Street 370 in BKK1. Oh, and last Friday I spent all day at an eco-tourism workshop, under the CCBEN umbrella, which I'll also tell you more about in a post this week. It's a hectic schedule, but fun.
News-wise, for the view of the well-respected researcher Sara Colm, on the current Khmer Rouge Tribunal, click here. Colm is from the United States and currently works in Cambodia for Human Rights Watch. She graduated in psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1979. Her post-graduate work at Cornell University included Southeast Asian studies and the Khmer language. She also speaks Mandarin and French. In 1992, she moved to Cambodia and helped launch The Phnom Penh Post, the first English-language newspaper published in Cambodia in 20 years. She served as managing editor, wrote stories and oversaw all aspects of newspaper production. Subsequently she worked for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Cambodia as an information officer and human rights monitor during the 1993 electoral campaign.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Scot shot by Pol Pot

History is revisited with this report from Scotland's Sunday Herald newspaper.
Pol Pot murdered Scot in Cambodia : Report shows dictator ordered shooting of academic

More than 1.5 million people died in the killing fields of Cambodia, but one of the most puzzling footnotes in the slaughter and destruction of that country is the unsolved murder of the only British victim - the first Westerner caught up in the violence. Gunmen burst into Scottish academic Malcolm Caldwell's Phnom Penh government guesthouse and shot him repeatedly in the chest and leg, killing him instantly. He was found with his apparent assassin slumped by his body and also riddled with bullet holes. At the time, the BBC reported he was killed by Vietnamese agents to discredit Pol Pot, but 30 years after the murder documents newly obtained by the Sunday Herald under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the genocidal dictator himself ordered the assassination, early in the morning of December 23, 1978. Just hours earlier, the 47-year-old father of four had met the despot, demanded to see deposed leader Prince Sihanouk and had asked about missing Cambodians and ministers, most of whom, it transpires, were already dead.
According to the classified documents, journalist Wilfred Burchett had seen an official Cambodian report a year later which said: "Caldwell was murdered by members of the National Security Force personnel on the instructions of the Pol Pot government." An unnamed British civil servant adds: "Caldwell told Burchett he had every intention of asking some pointed questions and that he was absolutely determined to see Sihanouk. It is likely, therefore, that he upset his hosts, who were probably concerned that a prominent supporter/apologist of the Pol Pot regime might report in a critical vein on his return home. Matters probably came to a head after a private interview which Caldwell had with Pol Pot." The papers also reveal a chilling account of the murder from eyewitness Richard Dudman, made five days later at the British embassy in Washington. The journalist for the St Louis Dispatch told officials of the moment a young gunman shot at him and Caldwell in the Khmer Rouge VIP guesthouse at 12.55am.
Born in Stirling into a middle-class Tory-voting household, Caldwell went on to get a double first at Edinburgh University by the time he was 21. He became a Marxist academic at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies and a left-wing activist, serving as head of CND in 1968-70. A supporter of the Khmer Rouge, he was one of the first Westerners allowed into the country after 1975, and travelled to Cambodia with Dudman and fellow American journalist Elizabeth Becker just as the true horror of the genocide was becoming apparent.
Caldwell had spent three weeks touring the country surrounded by Khmer Rouge minders but had seen and surreptitiously photographed the impoverished peasants. Dudman reported that in Phnom Penh he knocked on Caldwell's door as a young uniformed man appeared in the corridor with a machine gun on his shoulder and a pistol in his hand and fired at the two men. Dudman ran into his room and two shots were fired into the door. Then he heard more shots. 90 minutes later, a Cambodian security officer told Dudman that Caldwell was OK and he had to stay in his room. But, Dudman then said, "An hour later a high ranking foreign office official told me Malcolm Caldwell was dead and asked me to witness the scene."
Dudman went to look and saw the open door of Caldwell's room and saw his dead body "supine, eyes wide open and body soaked in blood". He estimated Caldwell had been hit at least three times. The official told Dudman that the dead gunman had shot Caldwell and then shot himself.
Becker's account indicates that the murder scene could have been staged. The Washington Post journalist found herself face to face with the killer and ran back into her room and hid in her bath. After the shots, she then heard bodies being dragged up and down stairs on three different occasions. Dudman and Becker later noticed that there were bloodstains on the stairs and corridor. The Foreign Office officials speculate that because of the time lapse and Becker's account, it was very possible that Caldwell's murder scene had been stage-managed.

More from Ampe Phnom

The sandbanks of the Prek Thnoat river, popular amongst the bathers at Ampe Phnom

One of two Neak Ta at the resort - this one looks very sporty
This is the last batch of photos from my visit to the Ampe Phnom resort a few kilometres outside Kompong Speu on Sunday. There were a few Khmer families enjoying the food and the fortune-tellers but it was pretty quiet, the noise intermittently broken by squealing monkeys as they fought over scraps. The water level of the Prek Thnoat river was low so not many people were bathing but splashing around in the water and eating snacks in small bamboo huts is a Khmer tradition, especially popular at festival time. The pagoda that crowns the island isn't much to look at, though a wat has occupied the site since 1632 and a large stupa in one corner was built in 1914. I counted no less than ten fortune-tellers dotted around the pagoda and though the Khmers I met didn't necessarily believe what they were told, they paid their money to receive the news anyway. To close, the sign at the front of the resort read Ompe Phnom, so I'm not really sure which spelling is correct - does it really matter? In future posts I will give the low-down on my prasat hunting in Kompong Speu province - not overly successful, but they are there if you look for them.

A family stupa built in 1914 next to the Wat Ampe Phnom

Ampy, the $2.50 a ride elephant that lives at the resort

The 500 riel per person suspension bridge over the river, looking out from the island

The Red Sense revealed

Tim Pek's directorial debut, The Red Sense, will get it's world premiere at a gala event in Australia at The Drum Theatre, Dandenong, Victoria, Melbourne on Saturday 8 March. Shot in Australia, the story centres around a young woman who discovers that the Khmer Rouge soldier who killed her father, is alive and well and living closeby. She is torn between wanting to take revenge or if in forgiving her father’s executioner, she could bring healing to herself and her people. The film features a Khmer cast, all of whom have their own connection to the Khmer Rouge genocide. Following the film's premiere in Melbourne, Tim Pek (right) will bring the film to Cambodia - very timely of course with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal currently occupying everyone's attention in Phnom Penh.

I spoke to the film's director Tim Pek by email today for an update:
Q. We spoke in Dec 2006 about your debut film The Red Sense, what's been happening to it, and you, since that time? A. Hi Andy, Nice to hear from you again. That was a long time since we spoke, yeah I did recall that since that Christmas time we’ve been really busy in post production, from editing, music composing, scene swapping and ADR (Audio Dialogue Replacement) which we weren't so happy about, and of course, heaps of fine tuning.
Q. What have you learnt about the film-making process in that time? A. It was the most eye-opening experience I ever had, its a mixture of fun and headaches. It was slow and very time consuming, if you really love your work and want to get it right. My principle in this nature is that the audience will give you one shot only when you are making your debut film, so you must follow the guidelines as close as possible. These are the experiences and knowledge I have adopted with my film and I will learn from them.
Q. Do you think the Khmer Rouge Tribunal taking place in Cambodia, will give the film a real currency for the audience? A. It’s hard to say, but I am sure for the western audiences this will be their cup of tea as well as Khmers living abroad.
Q. When's your target date for a Cambodian Premiere for the film? As 80% of the film's dialogue is in Khmer, do you believe this will encourage high audience interest in your homeland? A. I have lodged the paperwork for the film with the Cambodian Culture department for more than a month now, and am awaiting their approval. Once I have their approval then it shouldn't be too long and a month’s promotion will be enough. The dialogue in the film is still that figure, there will be English and Khmer subtitles, so everyone can understand it easily. As this film is classified as an Arthouse film, I hope this will prove popular.
Q. I see you have also produced two more films, Bokator & Annoyed, what are your future film plans? A. Well they are not yet released - Bokator is still in post production, while Annoyed will be out later this year. Talking about my future film plans, I have heaps in mind and already have a few film productions that have given me scripts though I haven't made any decisions yet, but I can assure you that Khmer history and heroes, legendary artists and singers are top of my priority list. Let’s see how The Red Sense goes first, and we take it from there.

Exciting opportunities

Today's Cambodia Daily, the popular English-language newspaper, carries this advert for new staff at Hanuman. We are finding it very difficult to recruit suitable people possessing the necessary qualities to flourish in a go-ahead company like ours. There's a wealth of people leaving the universities armed with degrees for this and that but few are able to convert those degrees and the knowledge they've amassed into convincing me at interview that they have what it takes. Working in our environment, written and spoken English is absolutely paramount but the absence of practicing their English with native English speakers leaves many of the applicants struggling at the interview and testing stage.

Remembering the victims

An all too common a sight in Cambodia at one of 70+ memorials across the country
The genocide memorial at Wat Ampe Phnom, next to the river
Wat Ampe Phnom is a holiday resort for Cambodians, usually resounding to the squeals of laughter, the patter of the fortune-tellers and the smell of cooked food, but it also has a dark history, as a killing zone of the Khmer Rouge. Between 1975-79, the KR used Wat Ampe Phnom as a prison and the area surrounding the pagoda as a mass gravesite, containing an estimated 4,000 victims. A lovely old nun, Reung, told me that many of the pits containing the bodies were dug up as desperate locals searched for gold in the aftermath of the Vietnamese invasion before the local authorities began exhuming the bodies properly in the early 80s. She said that a large number of pits remain untouched. The genocide memorial stands close to the riverbank and has skulls on the top level, with leg and arm bones, and clothing, on the lower level. Another witness was Un Hak, who showed me a tree where women were tied or nailed to the trunk and their stomachs slit open and their bodies buried at the base of the tree. Scratch the surface anywhere in Cambodia and these stories are common place. That's why a trial, even after all these years, is important for Cambodians to feel as though all that pain and suffering has not been forgotten, and those who gave the orders, are brought to justice.
Leg and arm bones, and clothing, on the lower level
The skulls are kept on the upper level of the memorial
The frail but lively nun named Reung

Let's talk Tribunal

Tonight's panel: LtoR: Tom Fawthrop, Peou Dara Vanthan, Ray Leos, Benny Widyono
Tom Fawthrop gives his usual incisive views
Tonight at Pannasastra University, the 4th in a series of half a dozen forums on the Khmer Rouge Legacy, hosted by Meta House and Konrad-Adenauer Foundation, covered the period after UNTAC's presence in Cambodia and the changing situation that eventually resulted in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal that we see taking place at the moment. On the panel were two men who saw it all happening, namely veteran journalist Tom Fawthrop, and a man at the centre of much of what took place with a UN badge on it in the 90s, Benny Widyono. Dr Benny gave us a history lesson in UN power-politics, having been a key UNTACist and then returned as the UN's envoy in Phnom Penh, whilst Tom gave his usual forthright views on events as he saw them. Joining them were the DC-Cam's deputy director Peou Dara Vanthan and moderator Ray Leos. As you might expect there were a few plugs for Benny's new book, Dancing in Shadows, available at Monument Books and which I'm currently half-way through in which he gives the inside story of what took place during much of that decade. I also grabbed the opportunity for a photo with the joint authors of the excellent Getting Away with Genocide?, the struggle to bring the KR to justice by Tom and the Tribunal's public affairs chief Helen Jarvis, who is a regular at these forums.
Benny Widyono spent much of the 1990s in Cambodia
Tom Fawthrop and Helen Jarvis, co-authors of Getting Away with Genocide?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Ampe Phnom resort

The suspension bridge across the Prek Thnoat River
It costs 500 riel to cross to the island of Wat Ampe Phnom
The Ampe Phnom resort near Kompong Speu is a locals-only resort in the main, as its about 50kms from Phnom Penh and very few foreigners bother to spend any time in the city or its nearby attractions. That was my impression after spending a couple of hours at Ampe Phnom yesterday. For Cambodians it holds the usual fascination of a myriad number of bamboo huts and food-stalls, a river to bathe in, a swinging suspension bridge, elephant rides, feeding bananas to monkeys and more fortune-tellers than tourists! It gets incredibly busy at the new year holiday time so I was told, when traditional games and dances are held, though the music blaring out of the massive speakers was loud enough for me to avoid that corner altogether. The island housing the pagoda of Wat Ampe Phnom, where the fortune-readers do a roaring trade, is reached by the suspension bridge across the Prek Thnoat river which has a toll of 500 riels per person and has a few planks missing, so watch your step. There is a troop of monkeys present - isn't there always - and an elephant that will give you a tour of the island for $2.5 per person. There's also a quiet spot amongst the trees where a genocide memorial contains the remains of victims of the Pol Pot regime. Here's a few photos with more to follow.
This is what will happen if you commit a deadly sin of adultery, lying, etc
This monkey was guarding the bridge against toll dodgers!

Yes...even more Neak Ta

Neak Ta Ang Chey at Wat Salong
Ma, pa and sonny Neak Ta at Wat Kambol
Another trip, this time to Kompong Speu, means more photos of the Neak Ta - spirit images - that I found on my travels. Even though Neak Ta are essentially part of the animist beliefs of Cambodians, they are often found in Buddhist pagodas or located elsewhere in a village where the locals believe their powers and energy force will do most good. The shrines or huts of Neak Ta literally contain anything, natural or man-made. The objects represent the land, water and spirit elements and often house small figures, as seen in these photos. In many instances, I have seen sculpted items taken from ancient temples and statues and worshipped as Neak Ta. If you see a shrine on your travels, take a moment to look in and see what treasures you can find - but please, never ever disturb the contents or you might face the wrath of the all-powerful Neak Ta spirits.
The top Neak Ta can be seen at Wat Salong, in Samrong Tong town, where he's highly-regarded and is called Neak Ta Ang Chey. The two monks I spoke to at this pagoda said their Neak Ta was very popular amongst the local people. The second photo is from Wat Kambol, on the main highway between Phnom Penh and Kompong Speu, and I nicknamed it 'ma, pa and sonny' Neak Ta. It was in an overgrown corner of the pagoda, which is undergoing extensive renovation.
The well-tended Neak Ta at Wat Trapeang Kong
A hermit-like Neak Ta at Wat Ampe Phnom
The series of Neak Ta at Wat Mrom
The lower 3 photos were taken at: a well-attended Neak Ta at Wat Trapeang Kong, which has a wooden interior, having been built in the early 60s; this hermit-looking figure was one of two Neak Ta at the pagoda, Wat Ampe Phnom, at the resort of the same name, a few kilometres from Kompong Speu town itself; the final series of figures are to be found at Wat Mrom in Kompong Speu town.

Direct action

On my way to Kompong Speu, I called into a few pagodas that are highlighted on the new Ministry of Culture/EFEO archaeological maps that I bought recently and at one such stop, at Wat Salong in the town of Samrong Tong, I met these two old monks, Preak Meah (on the left) and Vysuan. We chatted about the history of the pagoda and surrounding sites - more on that in future posts - but it also gave me the opportunity to hand them some copies of a book that I have begun distributing on my travels. It's called Buddhist Ethics in Daily Life and it's written by Ven Dr Dhammapiya. I was given a supply of the books by a monk at Wat Langka in Phnom Penh and in my small effort to try and keep Buddhism at the forefront of people's thoughts and in their daily lives, I have asked the older monks at some pagodas to read the book themselves and if they feel its suitable, to pass it onto the younger monks and others living at the pagoda. I've also handed out the book to other individuals I've met along the way. The book is written in the Khmer language and has been donated by a Buddhist society in Malaysia. You may've read my anti-Christian missionaries posts a while ago and this is my 'direct action' to counteract their influence. It's a drop in the ocean I know but it's better than simply moaning on my blog.