Cambodia Land Issues

The destruction caused by the wars in Cambodia was not only physical. The constant urgency to survive also challenged the very particular and intricate values which built Khmer society over the centuries. Cambodia is far from having recovered the tissue of solidarity which binds a society and which provides protection to the weaker members of its community. The expression of this absence of solidarity is flagrant when it comes to land issues. In 5 years the number of landless has doubled from about 10% to nearly 20%. There are laws regarding land and property, but what is their effectiveness if corruption is to be found at every level of society, and if the most respected laws are the unwritten laws of power?

Cambodia: Water Festival 2014

At the end of the rainy season the Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s fish reservoir, reverses its course, letting loose of the water it accumulated from the Mekong in the previous months. This unique phenomenom is celebrated by the Water Festival. Thousands flock to the capital to look at several hundred longboats race on the river during three days. After a hyatus of 3 years, following a stampede which killed nealy 347 people in 2010, attendance was still low, but the symbolic significance of the festival remains what it was for centuries.

Bokator

Surfing on a wave of nationalistic pride among a fraction of Cambodian youth and thanks to the perseverance shown by Grand Master San Kim Sean upon his return from refuge in the US in 2001, the Angkorian martial art is ready to gain popularity. The national championships took place last week for the 9th consecutive time at the Olympic stadium, with over 120 participants competing for the various medals. Bokator was not a sport. It was a combat technique used to eliminate the ennemy on the battlefield which at that time were hand-to-hand confrontations. This age of drones blasting away the ennemy commandeered hundreds of miles away, might of course render Bokator's pertinence a bit questionable. But being based on a very sophisticated knowledge of the vulnerable spots of the human body, on precision of execution, on a refined sense of balance, on the observation of animal behaviour (bokator means 'pounding a lion'), on endless training, all wrapped in moves ranging from brutal tension to gracefull fluidity, and using all parts of the body as well as crude tools coming straight from the forest like sticks in various length and bamboo, topped off with the added value of an Angkorian heritage, Bokator certainly is worth a place among the more interesting combat techniques.

Cambodia: Migrant Exodus

Over the past week, and following the military coup in Thailand, nearly 200,000 Cambodian migrant workers have come back to their home country. A series of crackdowns by the Thai immigration on illegal immigrants, combined with unfounded rumours of Cambodians having been killed by the Thai authorities, has triggered a feeling of insecurity among the Cambodian community in Thailand, sufficient to make them head back to their village. All of them… For many it is back to square one: having left because migrating to Thailand is the only solution to provide some revenue to the family, the returnees now find themselves facing the same issue of unemployment. The Cambodian authorities have spared no effort to alleviate the immediate pressure on the border town of Poipet by that many returnees going home in such a short period of time, providing medical assistance, army trucks to bring back the migrants to their home provinces, and distributing food upon their arrival. The crisis at the border was rather well managed. The government now will have to address the core of the problem: unemployment.

Cambodia: 2013 Elections

The 2013 Cambodian elections, marred by slander and insults during the campaigning, mark a turning point in Prime Minister Hun Sen's reign over the country since 1981. The surprise pardon granted to his opponent Sam Rainsy amplified a momentum in favour of the CNRP which ran away with 55 of the 123 seats against 69 for the CPP. Allegations of widespread frauds resulted in tense post-elections negotiations between the opposing parties.

Cambodia: 2013 Elections part 2

The 2013 Cambodian elections, marred by slander and insults during the campaigning, mark a turning point in Prime Minister Hun Sen's reign over the country since 1981. The surprise pardon granted to his opponent Sam Rainsy amplified a momentum in favour of the CNRP which ran away with 55 of the 123 seats against 69 for the CPP. Allegations of widespread frauds resulted in tense post-elections negotiations between the opposing parties.

Cambodia: Phnom Penh Street Vegetation

Phnom Penh is a crowded city. A real organic city: growing, evolving, adapting spontaneously with its inhabitants. Unlike many developed countries, and still for now, most Cambodians have their roots in a rural environment, subject to the laws of mother nature. The migrants coming to the capital adapt quickly to the concrete and disorder, leaving behind all nostalgia. It is the older city dwellers, living in the centre of town, who try to cling to some green. These are photographs of vegetation, desperately resisting in the bustling streets of central Phnom Penh.

Cambodia: the Off-ASEAN

Cambodia, as a Chairman of ASEAN, hosted meetings in a highly secured Phnom Penh gathering local and world leaders, including newly elected U.S. President Barack Obama. It was the occasion for some NGO's and local communities to voice their concern about what they perceive as an erosion of Human Rights in the country. The meeting between Prime Minister Hun Sen and the American president who voiced these concerns was reported tense by U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.

Cambodia: King Norodom Sihanouk funeral

King Norodom Sihanouk, age 89, died in Beijing on October 15th 2012. He became King of Cambodia at 18 and obtained independence from the French in 1953. The flamboyant 'Papa', as he fancied calling himself, would be dragged, together with the country he loved so much, in the Indochinese turmoil of the '60s, and finally, despite successive and controversial alliances, one of them being with the Khmer Rouge who eventually 'spit him out', could not prevent Cambodia from sliding into the abyss of genocide. He came back from exile in '91 and abdicated in 2004 in favour of his son Sihamoni. About 350,000 Cambodian attended the funeral procession from Pochentong airport to the Royal Palace.

Cambodia: Mam Sonando Trial

In yet another blow to the freedom of expression in Cambodia, Mam Sonando, 70 years, Journalist and Director of Beehive Radio, a popular and independent radio station, was sentenced to 20 years. He was arrested on July 15th and accused of instigating a ‘secessionist’ movement after having met with people from the Kratie protest back in May from this year, when a 14-year old girl was fatally shot by the police about a land issue. On June 25th Beehive Radio had broadcast a report about a complaint brought to the International Criminal Court accusing the Cambodian Government of crimes against humanity. The next day Prime Minister Hun Sen said Mam Sonando should be arrested…

Cambodia: Year of the Dragon on Bokor Mountain

On April 13th 2012, Cambodia celebrated the 2556th birthday of Buddha, the new year Thevada being carried by the very auspicious dragon. That things are getting better for some Cambodians can be seen by the way an emerging middle class is spending money on leisure activities. During the New Year holidays thousands visit Bokor mountain, leaving behind mounds of garbage. The road to the former colonial casino, located on a 1000 meter high cliff, was recently rehabilitated through a multi million dollar investment, and a new casino was built nearby. For many the day trip to Bokor includes eating as much crab as possible in Kep, also a former colonial resort.

Cambodia: 2011 Floods

Cambodia was affected by the worst floods since at least 10 years, jeopardising the future of thousands of families. If on October 11th, the death toll stood at 206 dead, also over 100000 hectares of ricefields were inundated, threatening the livelihood of thousands as their rice harvest, due from November to January is compromised. For farmers who rely on their yearly harvest to make ends meet for the coming year, this means having either to borrow money to buy seeds or rice, or it means having to sell the land. The burden of additional costs of transport, caused by the destruction or lack of access to hundred of kilometers of country roads, of having to buy fodder for the cattle, further fragilises the existence of the farmers.

Cambodia: Khmeropédies III

In classical Khmer court dance, a Cambodian version of the Ramayana, one central character is Hanuman, a great white monkey accompanied by an army of small monkeys. Emmanuèle Phuon, a choreographer of French and Khmer descent and former dancer with the Baryshnikov company, has taken the very specific body movements of Hanuman in the classical Khmer dance, and pushed them further, introducing on one side elements of contemporary dance and on the other side, with the help of primatologist Eric J. Sargis, monkeys' body language, creating a contemporary dance piece which fits in the Khmeropédies trilogy, further linking Khmer classical dance with the contemporary repertoire.

Cambodia: Chinese New Year

Many Cambodians have Chinese ancestors and Chinese New Year celebration, although not an official holiday, is widely celebrated. The first written account about Angkor Wat is done by a Chinese emissary called Zhou Daguan and dates back to the late 13th century. Later, during the French colonisation, many Chinese immigrated to work in the pepper fields in Kampot.

Cambodia: Better Factories

Partly financed by the AFD (Agence Française de Développement), the ILO (International Labour Organisation) set up ‘Better Factories Cambodia’, a unique program which strives to set internationally recognised standards in the Cambodian garment industry, which will benefit workers, employers, unions, Western countries and which will reduce poverty. The project was set up in 2005 to respond to the end of the garment quota allocation to Cambodia by the USA.

Cambodia: School Dropout Concerns

Save the Children Norway pieces together a program to lower school dropout rates in Koh Kong province which has many remote villages in its hinterland which the education system has difficulties reaching. Children never going through the secondary cycle is very common as the distances are a physical and economic obstacle. In the areas where large land concessions were granted to investors in the agro-business, the temptation to skip school and work as a daily labourer in the fields are great. Along the coast the fishing industry drains a large amount of 14 or 15-year olds on the ships. The kids often find themselves trafficked on Thai fishing boats.

Cambodia: Two Sides of the River

The annual Water Festival draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from the countryside to Phnom Penh. I photographed the 3-day long event several times before and this year wanted to use it to add material to my Close to the Edge project by taking photographs of those who are vulnerable to trafficking. The public on both sides of the Tonle Sap river is essentially different, Chroy Changva peninsula hosting the competitors to the dragon boat races and their supporters, the city side offering entertainment to a crowd of mostly young people. Little did I know that the festivities would be brought to a dramatic end by a stampede on a bridge on the very last day, causing the death of nearly 400 people and injuring over 500.

Cambodia: Pchum Ben

Pchum Ben is the most important religious festival in Cambodia. It is believed to have originated in the 9th century, at a time when Hinduism intertwined with animism still was the main religion. Lasting for about fifteen days and culminating on its last two days, it honours the spirits of the deceased ancestors, as the dead looking for their relatives are appeased by making offerings at the pagoda. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians return to their home village to pray, the traffic increasing three-fold on already narrow and busy roads. The death toll during the festival largely contributes to the average of 4 fatal traffic accidents per day: 25 dead (7 more than last year) and 239 injured in the final 3 days of this year’s festival.

Cambodia: Strike

The Cambodia Garment industry employs about 350000 workers and is a key source for foreign income, accounting for 70 to 90% of its export. A deal was brokered between the government and the unions to raise the minimum wage for factory workers from 50$ to 61$ a month. Some unions pressed on and, asking for a rise of up to 75$ and 93$, organized a 5-day long strike. Figures of who actually walked out range from 10000 to 210000 with 23 or 95 factories slowed down. After 4 days, the pressure from the authorities (threats to arrest leaders, intimidation) became such that an honorable compromise to halt the strike was accepted in the promise of holding talks about 'the workers well-being' on Sept. 27th 2010.

Cambodia: Donor Meeting

More than 600 representatives from the government, the private sector, embassies, and development agencies come together at the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) for the 14th plenary of the Government-Private Sector Forum. It is the annual meeting where donor countries pledge very important sums of money for the development of Cambodia, nearly half of the 1 billion $ budget.

Cambodia: Phnom Penh Youth

10 years after my book ‘Avoir 20Ans à Phnom Penh’ I was commissioned by Geo France to assess what it is like to be a teenager in Phnom Penh in 2009. While a vast majority is still struggling in difficult conditions and has to work in factories to make ends meet, a substantial amount of teenagers is enjoying the supposed benefits of their parents newly acquired wealth and frantically follows the latest local fashion trends (this year there is a distinct South Korean influence). The intenser confrontation with the outside world triggers positive and creative energies. It seems that Phnom Penh youth finally has managed to put the past of its parents behind it and is happily blending into the global youth culture.

Cambodia: Garment Girls

Chom Chao is an industtrial area South of Phnom Penh. Garment factories were built on rice fields (there were 11000 ha of rice fields in 1999 around the Cambodian capital, 7300 ha of rice fields in 2001, 4000 are remaining in 2007) and cheap accommodation was squeezed in between to accommodate the workers. About 70% of the 300000 employed in the garment industry is female. The global economic crisis is took its toll in Cambodia. In January, garment exports plunged 25 percent. Thousands of factory workers lost their job, returning empty handed to their village and their families for which the monthly wage often was the only stable income. Many of them ended up in the ‘entertainment’ industry.

Cambodia: Khmer Rouge Trial

On July 26th 2010, the first verdict in the Khmer Rouge Trials was pronounced against Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, in charge of the S21 interrogation center between 1975 and 1979. Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith, all top level Khmer Rouge leaders, are in line for the next trial and are charged with Crimes against Humanity by the ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia). The first public hearing of the ECCC took place on November 20th 2007. The Initial hearing to Duch trial was held on February 17th 2009. Nearly 30 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia will finally publicly face its brutal past and hopefully be allowed to put the souls of 1,7 million victims at rest.

Cambodia: Khmer Rouge Trial Background

Ahead of the July 26th 2010 verdict in the Khmer Rouge Trials pronounced against Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, in charge of the S21 interrogation center between 1975 and 1979. Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith, all top level Khmer Rouge leaders, are in line for the next trial and are charged with Crimes against Humanity by the ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia). The first public hearing of the ECCC took place on November 20th 2007. The Initial hearing to Duch trial was held on February 17th 2009. Nearly 30 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia will finally publicly face its brutal past and hopefully be allowed to put the souls of 1,7 million victims at rest.

Cambodia: UNICEF Activities

UNICEF Is established in Cambodia since 1972, but its activities were interrupted by he Khmer Rouge regime ripping apart the country from 1975-79. Today, with a staff of about 140 people and by supporting a number of NGO's, it has set up a widespread range of programmes with its usual focus on children to support the government in rebuilding the country.

Cambodia: Keeping pressure on HIV/AIDS

In its 20-year long struggle against the disease, Cambodia has managed to contain HIV prevalence to 0,5%, down from 1,2% in 2003. Antiretroviral treatment coverage for the 63,000 people living with HIV is probably the highest in the region. Profound and rapid social mutations, a high birth rate, the rise of IV injected drugs, keep the pressure on for the many NGO's assisting the National AIDS Authority. Here is a sample of HIV/AIDS photographs I took over the years.

Cambodia: Kep by the Sea

At about 150 Km South of Phnom Penh, Kep is a small town located along the coast at the foot of a small national park. It was used by the French and Cambodian elite as a resort town during the fifties and sixties. King Norodom Sihanouk had a house built on top of a hill, but it was never used. All the villas, built by the wealthy during the thriving times, stand derelict, a testimony to a bygone era and 30 years of turmoil. Today, beyond its fame as a place where the best crab of Cambodia can be bought, the town is slowly gaining back some of its former function because of its natural settings and its slow pace.

Cambodia: Khmeropédies

Rehearsals of Khmeropédies, a choreography by Emmanuèle Phuon, before a tour taking them to Hong Kong Singapore, Berkeley and New York. The choreography questions the limits of Khmer classical dance by integrating contemporary elements.

Cambodia: Handicap International

The Belgian branch of Handicap International was set up in 1986, 4 years after the French. The organization focuses on people with physical disabilities, helping them to regain their independence and rights, and Cambodia, heavily mined and bombed during its nearly thirty years of war remains an important operation. If the presence of Handicap International has been permanent in Cambodia since 1982, the scope of its mission these days is shifting slightly. Due to mapping and awareness campaigns about mines and because of intensive demining operations by several demining groups operating in Cambodia, the number of victims caused by landmines has been decreasing steadily. But the victims by UXO is increasing.

Cambodia: Preah Vihear Border Dispute

The listing of the 11th century Preah Vihear temple as a UNESCO World Heritage Site has triggered a military reaction by Thailand along the disputed border the temple is located on. Some 700 Thai troops penetrated what is regarded by a 1962 UN agreement as Cambodian territory and set up camp in what they claim is Thai territory. Some 1000 Cambodian soldiers, a large majority of them former Khmer Rouge fighters who integrated the RCAF were deployed as a face-off in response. After a few rounds of negotiations very little progress has been made. In 2010, the troops were still stationed on both sides of the border, digging trenches...

Cambodia: Discovering Diabetes

The first ever report on diabetes prevalence in Cambodia was done in 2005. The findings were both predictable (the presence of the illness) and surprising (the size of the problem). It is estimated that 255000 people in Cambodia are diabetic, 0,5 to 1,0 percent of those, mostly less than 20 yrs old, being of type 1. Until 2004 there was nothing to take care of this major public health issue: no specifically trained medical staff, no insuline, nothing. Obviously the consequences of untreated diabetes are enormous, both human and economic. Blindness, amputations (as if there were not enough of those in Cambodia), premature death put a heavy burden on a population where the slightest health problem can have disastrous consequences, pushing people from living on the edge to extreme poverty.

Cambodia: Featherweight

In Khmer it is called 'brodal serei'. In Thailand it is 'muay thai'. Both Thailand and Cambodia claim the origin of this type of kickboxing. It seems to have been invented in the peninsula at the beginning of the 9th century, at a time when Thai province Chanthaburi was a Cambodian province. Bouts were taking place at Angkor Wat on a ‘vial meru’ (royal funeral area), and were often fights to the finish. The fighters fixed pointed shells between their fingers. The Khmer Rouge period interrupted all sport activity. Today the promise of fast glory and (most of the time just a little) money makes 'brodal serei' very popular again. There are about 100 clubs in the country, many of them too poor to afford buying regular boxing gloves. A book with these pictures, called 'Poids Mouche', was published in Oct. 2006.

Cambodia: Coronation of Norodom Sihamoni

Coronation ceremonise when King Norodom Sihanouk abdicates in favour of his son Sihamoni.

Cambodia: Being 20 in Phnom Penh book

Book published by Editions Alternatives in Paris (ISBN: 2-86227-262-0) in the year 2000. They are twenty years old and for the first time in their life there is no more war in their country. Theirs is the legacy of war: corruption, social unstability and violence, injustice, poor educational possibilities, a faltering economy. They were born in a traumatised country, just after the Pol Pot regime had inflicted a genocide to its own people. The minds of the survivors, their parents, torturers and tortured alike, have to live together, haunted by the spirits of the 1,7 million dead.

Cambodia: Rithy Panh S21

Rithy Panh, documentary filmmaker, shooting a movie about S21, a former Khmer Rouge interrogation centre run by Kaing Geak Eav, alias ‘Duch’. S21 or Tuol Sleng was a school turned into a prison where about 15000 people were interrogated, tortured and finally killed. He confronts Vann Nath, painter, one of the 7 survivors of the prison, with former Khmer Rouge administrators, guards and torturers.

Cambodia: Restoring Vichnu

The workshop of the National Museum of Phnom Penh, assisted y Bertrand Porte from the EFEO, restores the VIIth century triptych found in the 1930’s at the Phnom Da temple in Cambodia’s Takeo province. This pre-Angkorian sculpture consists of three figures: Rama on the left, Vichnu in the middle and Balarama on the right. The 2,8m high central figure of Vichnu was found in the ruins of the temple, broken into 17 pieces. Archaeologists reassembled the sculptures, but because the several tons of weight of the stone statue are too much for the soil underneath the museum, it was decided to dismantle the sculpture so it could be moved and to restore it with more up-to-date techniques, while stronger foundations could be built.

Cambodia: Eco Warriors

Wild Aid, an American environment NGO, is training Bokor Natural Park Rangers in patrolling and law enforcement techniques with former Australian military as instructors. They also train and give assistance to Mobile Intervention Units from the Cambodian police in raiding restaurants and dealers selling protected species such as snakes, turtles, monkeys etc...

Cambodia: 1991

My second trip to Cambodia. The return from exile of Norodom Sihanouk, welcomed by Hun Sen and Chea Sim. But also the return of the Khmer Rouge leader Son Sen. A few months later the UN troops would move in...

Cambodia 1989

My first trip to Cambodia... The Vietnamese troops who invaded Cambodia in 1979 had put an end to the Khmer Rouge regime. Ten years later, as the Soviet Union was gradually losing its grip on the countries on its side of the Iron Curtain, the geopolitical situation changed drastically and Vietnam, a Soviet ally, did not have the means anymore to fund an occupation army. These pictures offer a fairly rare glimpse of Cambodia a few months before the Vietnamese troops started their retreat and opened the way for the Paris 1991 Peace talks.