The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

A day in the life…

I’m trying to take photos of what remains of the HIV community in Borei Keila, courtesy of talented photographer Nicolas Axelrod.

Borei Keila families evicted to ‘Aids Colony’

THE long-awaited eviction of the HIV positive families from Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila community began Thursday, with twenty families being taken to Toul Sambo, some 20 kilometers outside the capital.

Despite municipal officials claiming residents left voluntarily and will be better off at the new site – which has been roundly condemned by local and international rights groups as being unsuitable for human habitation – residents said they were unhappy with the move. Read the rest of this entry »

Picture postcards and the true collector

Joel Montague is a collector, and I mean a true collector.

Sure he has between 1,600 and 1,700 picture postcards of Cambodia from the French colonial era as well as the world’s largest collection of hand-painted Cambodian shop-signs, but you really know he’s a collector when he talks about and holds one of his postcards.

“It’s a little window on the world that people have ignored,” Joel, 77, tells me. Through his postcards, he reimagines how the French imagined Cambodia and traces the evolution of these projections.

The German cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote of a true collector that as he holds his objects in his hands, “he seems to be seeing through them into their past as though inspired.” And Joel certainly sees into every postcard its distant past, imagining the sender, receiver, photographer and subject.

Joel is trying to renew interest into the French colonial era, telling me that too many historians have ignored the French influence in Cambodia. Benjamin writes that “to renew the old world—that is the collector’s deepest desire,” and though Joel is not nostalgic for colonialism, he is giving rebirth to these postcards, giving them another chance to tell a story.

Benjamin calls collectors the “physiognomists of the world of objects”—but a postcard collector is literally a physiognomist, interpreting the personalities and prejudices through the faces of others.

The Benjamin piece I’ve been quoting from is about his library and his enthusiasm for old books, and I can have those bibliophilic leanings as well. I suspect the first place where I’ll get to reunite my books from college, Portland and Asia will be the first place that will feel like Home and not some temporary dwelling. But I’m no “genuine collector”, in fact, I’d never met someone before Joel who was. For me, books are akin to souvenirs, but for Joel, I think, postcards are something more.

“Not that they [the objects] come alive in him; it is he who lives in them,” Benjamin wrote about collectors.

Read about Montague’s postcards here

Tooting my own horn

I won a Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) award for excellence in human rights reporting on Thursday for my piece on Cambodian men being trafficked onto Thai fishing vessels (Read it here).

The Phnom Penh Post also won the award for excellence in news photography for its coverage of the Boeung Kak Lake evictions.

In the category of local newspapers and small magazines published in English, only the South China Morning Post—Hong Kong’s daily newspaper—won more awards, and only the SCMP and PPP won multiple awards for excellence.

There are a lot of great local papers and magazines in Asia, and as the economic crisis sinks newspapers in the States, English-language journalism in Asia is getting better with terrific new papers like Mint and the Jakarta Globe.

It’s nice to get a reminder that the work we put into the Post everyday has made it among the best local newspapers in Asia, and the recognition is especially rewarding since the Post has been a daily paper for less than a year.

Remote control

All of a sudden, the cars and motos in front of me started swerving erratically, nearly resulting in a head-on collision. I was on Mao Tse Tung Blvd—one of Cambodia’s busiest thoroughfares on my way to an interview, and as we got closer, it became clear what was causing the havoc.

A young boy was driving his remote control car in the middle of the street.

The boy snickered as the cars zigged and zagged to avoid his toy, while standing next to him, a middle-aged man dressed in an all black Lenin suit guffawed.

Now, I don’t know for certain who lives in the compound where the pair were standing (it’s rumored to be Hun Sen’s nephew). Whoever owns it often leaves the gate open, and inside you can usually spot a Bentley, two luxury SUVs, a pair of identical Ducatis, and a metallic yacht.

Despite the developmental gains that Cambodia has made over the last decade, if you’re rich, you can do whatever you want. No one will stop you, and no one will dare drive over your toy car.

Phnom Penh takes a massive dump

Over the years, the Stung Meanchey dump has become a journalistic cliche. It has been written about, photographed and filmed, and as a result, the hundreds of dirt-poor families who work the forty hectares of steaming trash have become international icons of third-world poverty.

But next month the notorious dump will finally close, and the 1,000 tonnes of trash that arrive each day will be heading to a new dump located about 15 kilometers outside of the city, leaving tourists, expatriates and journalists in need of a new stand-in for the excesses of modernity (which the community, quite literally, lives off of).

Scavengers scour the dump for recyclables at the Stung Meanchey dump.

Despite the years of press attention, donations and NGO-run schools and training programs, life for Stung Meanchey’s residents remains grim.

Last week, Phorn Sreymean, 14, sprinted towards an incoming garbage truck, hoping to fish out plastic bottles and cans before the dozen or so other people clustered around the back of the truck get to them first.

When the truck lifted its tray, garbage rained down and the bravest of Phnom Penh’s scavengers – including Phorn Sreymean – stood right below hoping to scoop out the most lucrative recyclables.

Scavenging can be a high-risk occupation, especially for young people. In February, a cart on top of a dump truck fell onto a teenager, and she fell headfirst onto her metal pick, killing her.

The garbage fires at the Stung Meanchey dump are a long-term hazard, releasing large amounts of dioxins into the air, a known cancer-causing agent. Phymean Noun told me that her students often have skin, hair and lung problem, even though most no longer work at the dumpsite.

Yet news that the dump, which opened in 1965, will be closed has instilled fear, rather than relief, to the 1,000 families people that depend on it.

“I am worried that when this dump site moves I won’t be allowed to work anymore,” Phorn Sreymean said, adding that losing her current daily income of about 5,000 riel ($1.25) would spell disaster for her and her family.

Though it’s easy for journalists in Cambodia to role their eyes whenever an international reporter helicopters in and tries to capture the Dickensian aspects of third-world modernity, international attention has helped bring in funds to the NGOs that train members of the dump community.

Though Phorn Sreymean fears what will happen to her family when the dumpsite closes, she does not want to scavenge forever. She has another dream, one where the NGOs can help:

“Sometimes I am really disappointed with myself that I was born into a very poor family and have to work at the dump since I was young,” Phorn Sreymean said, “I want to be a beauty specialist.”

Co-reported with Mom Kunthear

A version of this was published in the Phnom Penh Post on June 3


I haven’t been out of Cambodia since September. I’m not exactly roughing it out here;  thanks to a large NGO community, Phnom Penh is a comfortable city with all the important Western amenities: coffee shops, English-language bookstores and anti-perspirant.

But between missing my sister’s graduation, friends visiting the Northwest for the first time, and a slew of articles about Portland in the the New York Times and Wall Street Journal (here, here, here, and here), I’ve been a homesick for the first time in Cambodia.

I’ve been living vicariously my friends’ P-town restaurant choices and trail selections. I’m not in a hurry to move back to the States permanently, and I don’t imagine there are many American newspapers or magazines hiring at the moment anyways. But recently, I’ve found myself dreaming of dinners at Beast, evenings at Powell’s, and weekends hiking underneath waterfalls.

It’s been a while since I’ve spent real time in Portland—I haven’t lived through Portland’s 8-month drizzly season for six years—so my view of Portland would be a bit nostalgic regardless. But the media’s focus on the city’s mass transit,  restaurant-scene, and population of over-educated and underemployed white people with bicycles has reinforced certain memories of the city as a place where bikelanes lead to restaurants that list their local producers (and oh, isn’t that the lead singer from Spoon at bar?).

My fellowship in Phnom Penh is coming to an end soon, leaving me with difficult decisions about what to do next. Hopefully though, I’ll be able to sneak in a couple weeks in Portland for me to get my fix of Northwest food, forests and family before heading back out for more adventures. Right, I’m ready for a brief, boring American experience again.

Another looming eviction, another chance to get it right

A feral dog ran through the the Group 34 community with a used sanitary napkin hanging from his mouth while being chased by three naked, uncircumsized children.

After a suspicious fire, a poor but stable Phnom Penh community has become a squalid ghetto where fresh trash and the scorched remains of their belongings sit in heaps behind their temporary shelters.

But, the residents worry, their lives could become even worse once they are evicted.

The Group 34 community watched their community burn to the ground a month ago in a blaze that killed a child. Now, the government is not allowing them to rebuild their homes, a sure sign, they say, they will be forcibly evicted soon. Currently, they live in ramshackle shelters made from donated tarpaulins and the charred remains of their old homes. Even the land has transformed. The fire turned the community’s muddy, brown paths jet black.

The police version of fire that places the blame on an irate drug addict doesn’t quite add up, and no one I talked to believes he acted alone. When I asked one community member why they were being forcibly evicted, he told me, “We’re surrounded by rich people,” and refused to elaborate further.

The community in Tomnup Toek, Phnom Penh doesn’t mind moving. None of the villagers I talked to were particularly nostalgic about the place, especially now that 150 of their homes have been destroyed. They just don’t want to live 50 kilometers out of town, which is where the government says they will be moving them.

They told me they were “a community of market vendors and construction workers”. They needed to be in the city for their livelihoods.

“We eat what we work,” one person told me, meaning every dollar they get is immediately spent on food. They have no savings to support their families while they learn to cultivate rice, the main occupation at their relocation site.

So they did something as far as I know no Phnom Penh community has done before: They found an alternative site for the community’s 258 families. The owner is willing to sell the land to the city at a cheap rate.

The Group 34 community representatives wrote letters to the authorities with the proposal, and the government’s response has been a predictable silence.

This, they told me, is a chance for the government to finally get some good press when it comes to forced relocations.

Maybe, just maybe, if people and organizations make enough of a fuss, the government will spend that little extra to buy them an urban plot.

If not, some residents have vowed to fight back when the police come to evict them. People—who feel they have nothing left to lose—going up against armed police could lead to disaster.

Why I’m calling them Freedom Fries

Dressed in all black and sitting against the doorframe, Sok Chenda was crying. She had separated herself from the rest the group and plopped herself down in the darkest part of her neighbor’s apartment.

Her community had invited members of the French community to hear the stories of how they had been forced from their homes at the urging of French government.

Sok Chenda had been living in the building since 1979, but thanks to a 2001 agreement between the French and Cambodian governments, her family and at least 36 others have agreed to leave, but only after an organized regime of intimidation and misinformation.

In 2001, France paid Cambodia one million Francs for, among other things, the Cambodian government to relocate the families away from the Lycee Francais Rene Descartes, Cambodia’s oldest international school. France wanted the school to expand to fill the whole building just like it did before the Khmer Rouge.

The families, who had been ordered to live there by authorities in 1979, 1980 and 1981, were offered compensation by the Cambodian government, but the residents and civil society groups complained that the amount was woefully inadequate and so the community tried to hold out for better terms and a bit more time. After police threats and requests for French help were ignored, every family felt they had no choice and signed away their homes.

Most of the families are now being moved to plots on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where they have not even had time to finish the construction of their homes.

Forced evictions are nothing special in Phnom Penh. One recent estimate says that since a 2001 land law, one in 10 families in Phnom Penh has been relocated by the government.

But the Lycee Francais Rene Descartes is different. The French government has a moral—if not legal—obligation to help.

According to the 2001 agreement, if there are problems with the eviction process—and I’d say there were some problems—the French government is supposed to be notified. To me, this implies that the French government acknowledges some complicity in the forced evictions. Yet, the French government has done nothing, at least not publicly, to help the community.

Sok Chenda came back to the room overflowing with students, parents, journalists and other residents. She sat in the corner with four other women residents, and as they heard their stories translated into French, they sat silently and cried.

Gone fishin’

We took a translator, Toro, to Koh Kang with us. He’d been a government soldier in the province in the 80s and befriended a local fisherman. Whenever one of them went hungry, the other would give him food. They ate, cooked, and kept each other company in a violent and unsure time. But, as can happen with all old friendships, they lost track of each other and hadn’t seen each other in more than 15 years.

We had a half day free, and we decided to go with Toro to his old friend’s fishing village for lunch. In the years apart, Toro’s friend had gotten married and had the nicest, cutest kid. Even though it’d been a long time, the two of them didn’t seem to miss a beat. When it was just the two of them talking, I couldn’t understand what they were saying exactly—but Toro was laughing his way through the conversation.

Now, you should always accept an invitation to dine with a fisherman. We had fresh shrimp, prawns and fish raw, barbecued and steamed—as much as we could eat. Toro’s friend engaged in bottom trawling, an incredibly destructive mode of fishing, and he complained how he’s been catching less and less these days. Like the Cambodian soldier accepting bribes, it’s hard to blame him for his fishing practices. He’s catching fish the way that he knows will support his family.

Marine Conservation Cambodia hopes to create what are basically sustainable fish farms by planting bamboo sticks woven with leaves in the water, creating a safe space for fish to breed that cannot be trawled. The result would hopefully allow for sustainable fishing and restock the oceans.

If things keep going the way they have, Toro’s friend—who, 20 years ago, could feed Toro when he was starving—will need all the help he can get just putting food on his own table. Here’s hoping Marine Conservation Cambodia’s plans work. Conservation isn’t just about the fish in water, it’s about making sure we still have fish on the table.