Thursday, November 19, 2009

Resilent Cambodia battles history

Cambodia is a land of both brutality and promise.

It embodies some of the world's major social problems: inequality and unbridled growth with scant regard for human, social or environmental consequences.
It bears the scars of war, fanaticism, cruelty and what happens when the rest of the world turns a blind eye.
But it also shows remarkable resilience.

As the historian John Tully noted, it is a misfortune for a country to be known primarily for a brutal history. So it is for Cambodia, which is working to shake its tag as the home of Pol Pot, the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng.

I arrived in Phnom Penh on a two month exchange where I would be working for the Phnom Penh Post - one of two English language papers in the predominantly Khmer-speaking country.

In contrast to the expanse of Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, where I had travelled from, the Cambodian capital's airport was about the size of a Four Square.

After a customs official decided he was going to charge me a few extra dollars for the sake of it, I knew I was in for an interesting stay. That wasn't helped by being soundly ripped off by the first couple of tuk tuk drivers before I wised up and realised that whatever they tried to charge, about a third of that was acceptable.

Caked in sweat, slightly disoriented and batting off drug dealers, it took a while to take in where I was.

Being my first time overseas my mind was reeling - the heat, the beggars, the unregulated traffic and the food, of which I had no idea what was safe to eat.

I was fortunate that working over there allowed me to take in some sights I might not otherwise have seen and I got to work on some stories which showed me the less well-known sides of the Kingdom.

One was tracking down three villagers in a hospital in Siem Reap after they had been shot by police following a land dispute.

The hospital was what I'd heard hospitals were like in developing countries, but I was still shocked by what I saw. Two of the injured men were on mats on the ground surrounded by some very sick looking patients, crammed into corridors in the stinking heat. Doctors were hard to find.

Sitting on the floor with the men, surrounded by curious locals, I had a translator who could barely speak English which made the interview even more difficult.

Another work highlight was being sent to a village about 20 minutes from Siem Reap where a "robber family" had reportedly killed 100 people and buried them in their backyard. I hired a tuk tuk driver to act as a translator and he took me to the house, down a long dirt road far off the main road. The house was a tin building in a large barren compound, surrounded by a high wire fence. Blood was still visible on the ground and the wall from where the alleged murder had taken place. Locals who had also heard the talk were making the same journey en mass.

It turned out to be a rumour though - only one person had been killed there.

I was sent to Preah Vihear on the Cambodia-Thailand border following two days of shooting where three Thai soldiers were killed. I was to spend time with Cambodian troops.

The two countries, Thailand and Cambodia both claim a small section of land near the Preah Vihear temple - a 900 year-old monument built at the height of the Khmer empire awarded to Cambodia in 1962 and made a World Heritage Site in 2008.

In the preceding days' fighting a marketplace was completely destroyed by shelling, leaving many vendors desolate, and Preah Vihear temple was damaged by Thai bullets.

The journey on pot-holed roads took the better part of two days, first travelling from Phnom Penh north to Siem Reap then on to Anlong Veng, near the grave of Pol Pot, where we stayed the night, and then on to Preah Vihear the next day.

The site of the standoff was something pretty foreign to me as a New Zealander.

Machine gun nests, AK47s and sand bagged trenches littered the plateau, rocket launchers leaned against walls unattended while armed soldiers who spoke no English lounged around in hammocks. The Thai camp was a stone's throw away across a gully littered with landmines - a scourge in Cambodia.

It was interesting to see the clash between the old and the new here. The soldiers on the Cambodian side were camped around Preah Vihear temple. Atop a vast plateau with views stretching for miles back into Cambodia and over into Thailand, it was reportedly perched there so that visitors to the ruler were overawed by the occasion.

Following peace talks, we crossed to the Thai side and it was here I got a bit lost.

As I followed a group of armed troops it wasn't until about 200m down a track, getting further and further away from Cambodia that I realised I was on my own and following a group of Thai soldiers, without my passport.

I fast tracked it back to Cambodia and sanctuary, through the Thai front line and across the de-mined path. I still haven't told my mum.

On the same trip I travelled further along the border to near the Cambodia-Thailand-Laos tri-border as part of a field trip with representatives of a shared conservation project.

As I waited in a small village at the intersection of the two roads, I became aware I was the star attraction. I was like a circus freak - a foot taller than everyone else and pale(ish) skinned. The Khmers are also not shy about staring and are known for making foreigners the butt of their jokes. There isn't much you can do but smile back and keep walking.

Not being able to speak with anyone made it difficult to order any food or drink. Having run out of clean clothes as I could only carry with me what I could fit in my back pack, trying to buy a clean shirt proved fruitless also. They're generally smaller over there.

It showed me the strange relationships that can develop between neighbouring countries. In one area, Thais and Cambodians were shooting at each other while 17 miles away they were working together to preserve the environment.

This turned out to not be quite the case however, as the trip ultimately revealed the Cambodian armed forces were building a military base and two major roads through the protected forest. This apparently did not jeopardise the project.

Working some days on the business desk it was interesting to note the issues a developing economy faces.

There is much to dislike about Cambodia.

Corruption and impunity are endemic. Brutal crimes are rife and the street is littered with beggars with missing limbs and deformities, the result of landmines and battlefields and poor maternal health.

Yet there is also much to love and admire. The people, while out to make a quick buck, are relentlessly positive, quick to laugh (albeit often at your expense), loyal to their families and attempting to get on with their lives.

Their tenacity and resolve is admirable when only three decades ago was one of the world's worst atrocities.

While I was there the Khmer Rouge trials were on and I was privileged to speak with Cambodians about their experiences and their opinions. It is one thing to know about what happened from 1975 to 1979 but it is another thing to hear people talk about it happening to them.

The country has its faults but as a burgeoning destination and a country on the mend it is a must-see for those touring South East Asia.

Michael Fox was in Cambodia courtesy of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

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