Everyday experiences and more history
My last blog was posted the last day of February and now it is far into March already. My life continues to be full of experiences: instructive, fun, sad, and reflective.
Being for a while in a country is really different from being a tourist. Some views and experiences become normal: traffic, going to the market and paying different prices for the same things (banana's, mango's, limes, etc.)........Also, being treated as a tourist and charged way to much for tuktuk rides! I tell the drivers who want $3.00 for a close ride: "I live here, I am not a tourist, one dollar o.k.??" and most of the time they say "yes"! There was just an article in the paper about how prices of transportation got higher, and to be honest, gasoline prices have risen dramatically in the last couple of months. Tuk tuk drivers stand on the street corner a lot and wait and wait for customers. The one I use regularly tells me that sometimes he has no business the whole day. Then it is hard to just give him a dollar, although it is the going rate for very short distances! I feel somewhat guilty to go on my bike or walk a lot, that means that they do not make money!! ---That's what they tell me on my corner!! I have made friends with them and bring them the Khmer language section of the newspaper everyday! They seem to enjoy that! Mr Pak, one of my tuktuk driver friends, home, sometimes just asks whether he can take me home when I walk by. If I say yes ( when I have shopping bags or am really tired from the gym, or it is getting late!) then he does not want any money!! I tell him "no"! "You should ask me to pay. " No" he says, "I do for you, you are my customer!" That is Cambodia!! ( But I do give him some money!)
After a while it does sink in that this is a very "new' country", for better or for worse creating a modern state after literally about a century of French colonisation, and after independence from France in 1953, dealing with civil strife, civil war, incredible bombings from the US, an overthrown government, and the Khmer Rouge regime,(Democratic Kampuchea), during which an estimated 2 million people (mainly educated people) were killed or starved to death. After that the Vietnamese invaded, (with many fled Cambodians and defected Khmer Rouge adherents) or liberated the country in 1979. People have different opinions about this, but they ended the Khmer Rouge regime. After this a Vietnamese installed government led a country that had few surviving administrators, no market system, no currency, no education system, no financial institutions and no industries. The civil war continued, and in 1991, the United Nations became charged with creating a United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC), which was charged with mediating a cease fire and to organize the first elections in 1993 for the National Assembly. The new Assembly was to draft a new constitution. The elections were held, but UNTAC did not manage to end the civil war and to broker a peace accord. So the civil war continued as well as the political intriques, which only strengthened Hun Sen's (currenly prime minister and been in charge since the end of the Khmer Rouge period. He galvanized his power though coups and repression. Cambodia is now basically a one party ruled country and ranks #2 in Asia in terms of corruption. It suffers also from lack of all kinds of services. Yet, the government is seen as "the parent" and not (as western democracies see it) "the servants" of the people! I read somewhere that Cambodia has never experienced democratic rule since the days of the ancient Angkor, and that the threat of foreign aggression supported strong leadership at the expense of of people's involvement in governmental affairs. (This is only a simplified account of the past!! It all is of course more complex and involves a whole lot of players I did not even mention!!). Reading the newspaper everyday helps to see what is going on, and helps to understand who benefits and who suffers from the political constellation and power elites! It is often who you know that gets you somewhere! The patronage system is alive and well. Myriads of NGO's of different colors and stripes are in many way substitutes for what in other countries the Government offers as a 'safety net' and/or basic human services and other government tasks (environment, natural resources, healthcare etc). It will take a while before this country can be measured against modern standards of democracies, while capitalism can flourish!!
I went to the Documentation Center of Cambodia recently, which is in charge of documenting the crimes and atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era. They gave me some free dvd's (although they were $5.00 each): "Just for you!" they say, after I made acquaintance with a documentary producer!). Their goal is "memory and justice" and the center is staffed entirely by Cambodians. The executive director is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, and the center conducts research, training and documentation about the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979). This center did a national survey in 2002, (an idea according to the executive director) encouraged by the Dutch Ambassador to Cambodia at the time. They published the survey in their monthly magazine: "Searching for Truth" (700 respondents, a little over 10% response rate), asking Cambodians about their experiences and losses during the Khmer Rouge regime, and about justice and reconciliation, and how these concepts should be implemented in Cambodia. The results provided information in terms of creating the UN Tribunal (Extraordinary Court of Cambodia, ECC). The results show that Cambodians do not want revenge, but justice.
Below is a moving quote from the director of the Institute:
" Each September, as Cambodians ancestor holiday draws near, I wonder whether former Khmer Rouge leaders......will visit a monastery... as they have in the past year. I wonder what they think about while they pray to the statues of the Buddha, in the presence of monks, both of which they sought to eliminate during the 1975-1979 Democratic Kampuchea regime. Would Buddha and the monks relieve them of responsibility for the heinous crimes they.... committed against the Cambodian people? Would Buddha forgive their sins?" (Youk Chang, 2002).
I also went to the celebration of the 99th International Women's day in the same hall with the same format as the graduation I wrote about earlier. Students were excused from classes, and the minister of Women's Affair gave a rather good speech. Cambodia has a long way to go in terms of gender equality, and the grinding poverty and layoffs in the garment industry does not help. The ultimate choice to make a living or have a child make money for the family is sex trafficking and prostitution of children as young as ten years old. There was a crack down on brothels a couple of years ago, but now the trade is 'hidden' in beer gardens, karaoke bars, entertainment centers and 'guest houses'. Every week there is a report of a foreigner accused of having sex with minors and rapes in the general population is a big problem as well. To the credit of the Ministry of Women's Affair, the issue of trafficking and sexual violence is a priority and the minister was very aware that poverty is at the root of all this. The rural and urban economic development agenda is not really aggressively focused on this issue, thus solutions are piecemeal and insufficient.
On a lighter note their were some entertainment highlights!
I went to a "Concert for a culture of peace" organized by Bridges to Peace, an initiative of nobel peace prize winners and carried out by the International Peace Foundation. It is a series of speakers and artist (I saw Oliver Stone before).
The concert was performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy and his two sons, Dimitri (clarinet) and Vovka (piano) in the Chaktomuk concert hall on the river. They played in pairs: Vladimir and Dimitri: Clarinet and Piano. Lovely, they played some Schubert pieces I know by heart! Then Vladimir and Vovka played double piano also very nice!. The Cambodian music page turners were somewhat problematic, but they managed not to let that influence them!
Just before Dimitri was going to introduce the encore, it started pouring rain on the roof!! Literally deafening and he needed a microphone! It created quite a hilarious stir. Then he told that his father and each of them had performed quite a bit together, never the three of them, because there is simply no music for two piano's and a clarinet. They found a Russian composer who composed a piece just for this occasion, and they were going to play the piece for the first time! So this Cambodian performance was a premiere! He told the meaning of the piece, a grandmother and a goat, (Vladimir came to interrupt 2x because Dimitri did not tell the story correctly! quite a comical interchange between father and son!!) the latter, who in the end was eaten by a wolf!! The piece was lovely. The audience quite happy!! I enjoyed the evening and it was free!!
I had to go home on my bike in the pouring rain!! Quite dangerous because streets were flooded, and my glasses fogged and completely covered with water! Hope that it does not happen a lot!! Nearly ran over a pedestrian who came running from nowhere!
One of the cultural highlights of this period was to visit a rehearsal of the Khmer Art traditional dance group, outside of town. (see pictures). The backdrop was beautiful and the performance was fascinating. The movements and hand movements of the dancers are gorgeous and the result of years of training. The choreography is traditional with some adjustments by the artistic director, a Cambodian dancer. She gave us a detailed explanation afterwards, which made it even more interesting, and it was all very beautiful.
In the meantime, Fred and Anneke and Vincent have arrived and we are having a good time in Siem Reap, visiting temples and floating villages.