The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Holiday in Cambodia

In a country where the main river flows backwards for the half the year and which has had two prime ministers at the same time, it shouldn’t surprising that a Christmas holiday that started at a respectable restaurant might end up at a bar surrounded by 26 men in only their tightie-whities.

My Christmas started with escargot and foie gras with stewed fig at a prince’s former house that has since been turned into a French restaurant. A friend from Hong Kong had invited me to a proper Christmas meal with turkey, red wine and good conversation.

From there, I went with my flatmate on a boat cruise on the Tonle Sap. We didn’t really know many people there, but with maybe 35 people on the boat, alcohol and a well-chosen playlist, it was no time before everybody was dancing and generally making merry.

After the boat cruise, a group of us headed out to a Cambodian club to watch and hang out with Cambodian break dancers. As the night progressed, we headed out to another bar, where we heard had a special Christmas show. It turned out to be a male beauty contest of sorts where instead of a swimsuit competition there was an underwear competition. With the contestants walking around in their underwear, I was hit on just enough to feel good about myself but not enough to feel uncomfortable. Gossiping about mutual friends and lamenting the state of the journalism business, my Hong Kong friend and I closed out the bar.

Christmas can be a tough time to be thousands of miles away from family, but this year’s holiday is one I’ll certainly remember and remember fondly.

Masked Men Mug Moving Moto

Coming back from a holiday party replete with home-made egg nog, Christmas cookies and latkas, a friend and I jumped on the back of a moto. It was shortly after midnight and even the dark sides roads were lit up by the full moon at its perigee.

We were almost home when four masked men on two motos drove up beside us. One them grabbed my friend’s purse and pulled us off the moving moto onto the asphalt. Laid out on the ground, three of the men approached—one staying back on lookout. I managed to put my body between my friend and the muggers. Standing over me, one man punched me in the nose, and another hit me in the jaw. They didn’t want me getting in the way of my friend’s purse.

I really wanted to fight back. With that adrenaline rush, I just got angry. They didn’t punch very hard, and they were small, skinny men. I could take them, I thought to myself.

Thankfully before I could make a stupid decision, my friend freed her purse from underneath her body and reached over me to hand it to the men. At which point, they picked up my cell phone which had fallen out of my pocket and leapt back on their scooters, disappearing into the not-so-dark night.

After they’d left, I remembered advice an old Cambodia hand gave me at a bar: There are no fist fights in Cambodia. A well-organized group of thieves like that would surely had knives.

We were a bit shaken but uninjured. My friend had a scrape from the fall, and I escaped without even a bruise to show off to people at the office.

Despite the masks the men wore, you could see their eyes and the wrinkles around them. These were not some young punks , but middle-aged men, and judging by their tactics, this is something they’d done before. For all their efforts, they netted thirty dollars, two borrowed paperbacks, and a cell phone.

The entire mugging took place right next to Toul Sleng, the Khmer Rouge torture facility, a grim reminder of what these men went through in the late 70s.

The term “post-conflict society” get bandied about here a lot, and for good reason. People focus on the KR era that ended in 79, but really fighting didn’t end till the 90s. Not surprisingly, the result of more than four decades of internal strife was a disintegration of public trust and a prevalence of a survivalist attitude where one looks out for one’s self first and foremost. Though this type of robbery could happen anywhere, roving moto bandits are a particularly serious problem in Phnom Penh. Last year, a French tourist was killed when she was pulled off her bike and then hit by an oncoming van.

My friend works for the UN, and they have a weekly security report that lists all the crimes that happened to UN workers. We made the list as an example of what you should in that situation. When I talked to the UN security officer who helped me file a police report, he basically said there was nothing we could’ve done.

These muggings just kind of happen in Cambodia, he explained.

Hell on the High Seas

NINE Cambodians were repatriated from Malaysia Thursday, with eight more arriving on Monday. Duped by unscrupulous human traffickers, they were beaten and forced to suffer months, sometimes years, of bonded labour on a Thai fishing vessel before a chance to jump ship presented itself. But the plight of trafficked men like these hardly ever gets a media mention. Why?

“Men don’t make as good TV,” said John McGeoghan of the International Organisation for Migration.
The repatriated men from nine provinces represent only a fraction of the Cambodians who have been lured onto Thai ships illegally, but their horrendous stories – out of sight from the general population – have not received the same limelight as Cambodia’s female flesh trade.

“They are the tip of the iceberg. People are not being told about trafficking onto Thai fishing fleets,” said Manfred Hornung, a monitoring consultant at Licadho.

Chhorn Khaov, 29, a former victim of male trafficking, has a story similar to the men who returned Thursday.
“My family was very poor. A broker told me I could earn a lot of money to support my family [working in Thailand],” he said.
McGeoghan said stories like these are common, and often Cambodian men are able to send money home. But he warned: “Without a contract, the employer has the power, so there is always a risk element.”

Once on the fishing boat, Chhorn Khaov was only given one or two hours of rest a day. The crew drugged him and the rest of the trafficked men to keep them awake and dependent of the boat’s drug supply.

“They forced us to use drugs so we would have the power to work,” he said.

But like the men who returned this week, Chhorn Khaov jumped ship in Malaysia, escaping the harsh conditions on the boat.
The common pattern, according to Hornung, is that men cross over the Thai border on foot at night with the help of a local broker. Once across, a Cambodian on the Thai side picks up the men and drives them to Pak Nam in Samat Prakarn province.

In Pak Nam, they are “locked up in guesthouses – from one day to one week – until they are handed over to a boat captain. Most people, once they’re locked up, they know they’re in trouble,” Hornung said.

Typically, the Thai fishing vessels trawl the South China Sea, according to Hornung, and the boats appear to avoid docking as much as possible.

“We’ve heard that the vessels are approached by bigger ships that take the catch and bring it to port. We’ve had cases of people who never saw land for almost three years,” Hornung said.

But few ships can remain at sea indefinitely. The 17 returning men escaped when their boats docked in Sarawak, Malaysia, at different times from different Thai boats, but all of them – afraid to contact local authorities – ended up on plantations, being exploited as illegal migrants.

A few of the men were able to contact their families in Cambodia, who then contacted Licadho. Working together with the Malaysian NGO Tenaganita, the International Organisation for Migration, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cambodian embassy in Malaysia, they were able to secure their return to Cambodia.

The complex repatriation process took months, but Hornung was pleased with the process and cooperation between the Cambodian and Malaysian governments.

Bith Kimhong, director of the Anti-human Trafficking Department at the Ministry of Interior, said: “Whenever we hear news of trafficking, we always help as quickly as we can. The two countries are cooperating in terms of anti-human trafficking.”

Though reliable statistics on the trafficking of men onto Thai fishing vessels do not exist, anecdotal evidence suggests the problem is serious and growing.

Vichuta Ly, at the Legal Support for Children and Women, said her organisation interviewed 193 migrant returnees from Thailand from 2007 to 2008, and of these people, nearly 40 percent had been trafficked onto Thai fishing vessels.

The National Project Coordinator at the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP), Lim Tith, said he believes the global financial crisis could make Cambodian men more vulnerable to trafficking, as more may be forced to seek employment in Thailand as economic conditions worsen at home.

Terri Ly, executive director at the Healthcare Centre for Children (HCC), which runs one of the few male transit shelters in Cambodia, said the HCC had seven male clients from Thai fishing vessels in the last 10 months of 2007, but in the first 11 months of 2008, that number had jumped to 22 clients.

“Information from the Cambodian border police to HCC is that … the numbers of male Cambodians working in the Thai fishing industry is increasing,” Ly said.

There is no panacea for this situation, according to Hornung, but more information and attention will help.
“Migration is about seeking opportunities. It’s about information. Cambodians need to know about Pak Nam and the Thai fishing fleet. You’re less vulnerable the more information you have,” he said.

Published in the Phnom Penh Post

Conserving Cambodia’s Oceans

What was once a colorful sea floor teeming with ocean life had been completely wiped out.

“There was nothing left – just bare sand.” Paul Ferber, a co-founder of Marine Conservation Cambodia, said.

Every time Ferber, a diving instructor at the time, had gone diving at the site about two hours off the coast of Sihanoukville, he would see between 30 and 50 rare seahorses, but on this dive, Ferber counted just two.

“And they were the saddest seahorses I’d ever seen,” Ferber, who has a tattoo of a seahorse on his chest, said. “I just kept touching the sand. I didn’t know what to do.”

A fishing trawler had dragged a weighted net along the bottom of the seafloor, scraping the oceans bare and taking all the marine life with it. Bottom trawling – the marine equivalent to clear-cutting – catches everything in its path, rips out coral reefs and stirs up sediments that can suffocate life on the ocean floor.

Upwards of 90 percent of what ends up in the net is by-catch, unwanted marine sea life that is useless to fishermen but integral to the ocean ecology, according to Greenpeace.
“It can take many years for an ecosystem to recover from something like that,” Ferber said.

Bart Kluskens, a researcher at Marine Conservation Cambodia, called weighted trawling “a waste of nature.”

It was that dive nine months ago that inspired Ferber to take his conservation efforts to the next level and devote himself to saving Cambodia’s marine life. Paul Ferber along with Bora Raan and Bart Kluskens founded Marine Conservation Cambodia, the Kingdom’s only NGO dedicated to conserving Cambodia’s oceans.

And bottom trawling is not the only threat to Cambodia’s sea life. Other types of illegal, damaging fishing techniques that involve cyanide or dynamite are common further off the coast. Kluskens has come across a sunken boat with cyanide containers, and Ferber said he occasionally hears explosions underwater.

As the islands off of Sihanoukville become more popular tourist destinations, a development boom promises to release sediment into the water, potentially suffocating the coral reefs, Kluskens said.

Increased scuba diving also poses a danger. Currently, there are no mooring buoys at the most popular dive spots, meaning boats will often accidentally drop their anchors on the reefs taking a chunk out of the coral.

But despite these threats, Cambodia still has abundant marine life. Gianluca Lamberti, a trainer for Reefcheck, the largest coral reef monitoring program, who is working with Marine Conservation Cambodia, said, “On any dive, you’ll see 10 to 20 seahorses. This is incredible. There’s not a place in the world where a person can see that.”

Seahorses are an important indicator species, because they are particularly sensitive to pollution, Lamberti said. The Cambodian government has recently classified seahorses as endangered, making them illegal to fish, according to Ferber.

In order to combat the problems of illegal bottom trawling, Marine Conservation Cambodia dropped concrete blocks around an area of diverse sea life with the help of the Fishery Administration. If a trawler tries to drag a weighted net in the area, it will get caught in the blocks.

“A ship won’t have to lose many nets to learn not to fish there anymore,” Ferber said.

Marine conservation in Cambodia is in its infancy; no one even really knows what is in oceans yet. No comprehensive survey of Cambodian ocean life has been done, but Marine Conservation Cambodia and Reefcheck hope to change that.

Kluskens agreed, saying “Without research, you don’t know what to conserve.”

With the help of the Samleom community, the organisation is constructing an island office, replete with bathroom, restaurant and bungalows, where it hopes to house scuba divers interested in learning ocean conservation techniques. During the divers’ conservation training, they will be monitoring the coral reefs by counting indicator species, Lamberti said – finally tracking the status of Cambodia’s reefs in a more scientific manner.

The biggest focus of Marine Conservation Cambodia, however, is on land. The group has targeted a community on Koh Rong Samleom, an island right next to ecologically diverse sea grass areas and coral reefs, to educate about marine conservation and to train to protect the area’s oceans.

Again with the help of the Fishery Administration, the Koh Rong Samleom community declared 8,000 hectares of water a community fishing area in September, which means that people outside of the community are not allowed to fish within that designated area without permission. Village members patrol the ocean and regularly expel illegal fishing boats. They already intercepted a boat that had caught about 140 endangered seahorses.

Lay Thai, the chief of Koh Rong Samleom village, said, “When the community fishing area started, we were really happy. Before, we were not allowed to send boats away. With more fish, we’ll have more happy tourists.”

Starting next week, Marine Conservation Cambodia hopes to train community members to be scuba divers so they can see for themselves what is bringing tourists to their island and what they are trying to conserve.

The village chief has been hoping to go diving for months and will finally get the opportunity next week when equipment arrives from Thailand. “I want to go diving and see the coral,” Lay Thai told Bora Raan for the umpteenth time.

Caroline St-Denis, who heads an education project at Marine Conservation Cambodia, said, “The best way to explain why marine conservation is important is to say come down with us. They can see things they had no idea was there … They will understand that learning to protect the coral will keep people coming,”

Beyond showing government officials what is under the sea, Marine Conservation Cambodia sees children’s education as a key part of their mission.

“The children do most of the fishing. If we teach them now to fish, they’ll pass it on to the next generation,” Ferber said.

Bora Raan, who is the only Khmer diving instruction, said “I learned and got my [diving] certifications, and I want them to do the same. I want them to maybe have a career in the future … I really want all the kids to know how to take care of the ocean.”

Through its involvement in the community, the group has also helped build a path to school so the children do not have to wade through a swamp, taught classes and donated books.

“It’s not so much marine conservation. It’s just needed … Even though our name is Marine Conservation Cambodia, it’s about the village. If they’re not struggling, they’ll be able help,” Ferber said.

To help the village, Marine Conservation Cambodia and the island community will stick long bamboo poles with leaves coming out of them into the seafloor, effectively creating a fish farm that allows fish to lay their eggs and take refuge in the leaves. It’s another technique that prevents bottom trawling, but Ferber and the Lay Thai hope it will also allow for sustainable fishing.

“If we can make it work the fish farm work here, then we can take it to other places in Cambodia,” Ferber said.