Author Archives: Shelby Doyle

Lawrence Osborne Reflects on Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Phnom Penh
A legacy of violence and the sweetness of life meet in Phnom Penh. Mark Henley / Panos
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Filed Under: World

Phnom Penh, one might say, is the last truly Indochinese city. Ten years ago it was filled with legless beggars mutilated by land mines who chased tourists around in strange green machines operated by their arms. The boys had guns, and the Khmer children of the rich sometimes had their bodyguards shoot up the most infamous of Southeast Asian bars, Heart of Darkness. It was a wild city. The long shadow of Pol Pot was still upon it, and the visitor did not wander through it lightly. There was sweetness, but it could kill.

The Khmer capital is still wild and languid at heart. True, the city is periodically “cleaned up” at the urging of the American ambassador, but, mercifully, to no effect. In the parks and street corners shadowed by tangled wires, the girls with cellphones still whisper all night to passing motorbikes. The Hotel de Paris and the Sakura, half-hidden brothels on out-of-the-way streets, still have their devotees. The French villas are still there in their slow-motion decay, their walls ocher and dark blue and sparkling with crenellations of glass. The douceur de vivre seems improbably intact, a relic of disappeared regimes.

The Tonle Sap flows through the city like a freshwater sea. Not far from this wide, sinister, and beautiful river stands the Hotel Le Royal. Opened in 1929, the Royal was built by the French architect and town planner Ernest Hébrard, the man most responsible for laying out and building modern Phnom Penh. The British war correspondent Jon Swain featured the hotel in his harrowing account of the Indochina war, River of Time: A Memoir of Vietnam. He portrayed it as it appeared when he stayed there in the mid-’70s, just prior to the apocalyptic arrival of the Khmer Rouge. It was, he wrote, the only place in the city where there was “something of the lazy charm of the prewar days.” Rooms at the top could be had for $5 a day, he wrote, but they were cheap only because they were exposed to daily rockets and artillery shells. Peril made the city sensual; genocide made it haunted.

I love it at dusk. I sit at the Café de Coral, a Viet place with outdoor tables opposite the Smile supermarket. This little area has perhaps the greatest concentration of dentists on earth, with molar-shaped signs with happy faces painted on them dangling above the mayhem. At 6, it will be the hour for bau (steamed buns) and “purple kelp roll” and “turquoise herbal pudding” downed with “salt lemon water.” Who has yet fully described the wonders of twist rolls and mini cage buns? After which comes an iced Vietnamese coffee with the filter resting on a glass cup and a bowl of condensed milk on the side while I smoke a cigar, always legal here, and watch the smoke in the windless air.

The lights come on, but just before they do there is a half hour of tropical semi-darkness in which the cement-and-plaster façades and the disintegrating shutters suddenly look intimately formal. I walk to Van, the restaurant in a colonial building opposite the Banque d’Indochine, and eat a steak Rossini with foie gras for about $14; afterward I find the blind masseurs wounded by the war, and then the bars on the far side of the Friendship Bridge that sit over the water and from where one can watch the longtail boats with their lanterns moving toward the Mekong.

The city is filled with ruins that elsewhere would have been torn down long ago. Great houses surrounded by gardens that are really fragments of forest; streets that do not feel like streets—more like paths cut through a landscape of plants. At night, then, you are alone, in places unlit, with the smell of giant mango trees. And even in the crowds and markets, in the fierce hedonism of Street 63 or 51, you feel beautifully self-contained and free. The past swamps the present, but not by design.

I ride a motodop through the rivers of motorbikes, and yet there is no friction. Everything is slow. Such cities—like opium dens—will no doubt soon be a thing of the past, and everywhere will be like Brussels or Vancouver. But until then Phnom Penh reminds me of what Indochina was once like: a place given to a curious, indefinable privacy and a merry tolerance, to horror and its forgiveness. You leave your door every night with a slight apprehension, and you return to it hours later with a satiation that is quite mysterious but does not conform to the knowing wink-wink of the outsider: it’s the alchemy of lotus eaters who have also tasted suffering, and of visitors who no longer quite want to go home.

Getting Stares on the Streets of Cambodia: Buses for the Masses


By  FEB. 19, 2014




Luc Forsyth for The New York Times

Phnom Penh’s First Buses

A Japanese-sponsored pilot project introduced a bus service to the chaotic streets of the capital of Cambodia.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — This city of nearly two million people has many of the amenities of a modern metropolis — broadband Internet, automated teller machines and fancy restaurants, to name a few. But until this month, the capital of Cambodia had no public transportation system. To get around, residents had to inure themselves to perilous rides on motorcycle taxis or dust-smothered commutes in open three-wheeled tuk-tuks.

Now, in an experiment underwritten by the Japanese government, Phnom Penh is giving the relatively alien concept of public city buses a try. Ten buses are making their way up and down Monivong Boulevard, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, for a month to see if they catch on with Cambodians.

Egami Masahiko, representative of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, said that with Cambodia’s economy growing steadily and the streets of Phnom Penh choked with traffic, the timing was right. Mass transit, he said, is “fundamental infrastructure for a modern city.”

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A public bus stop in Phnom Penh last week. Luc Forsyth for The New York Times

Since the buses began running Feb. 5, curious residents have been climbing aboard just for a test ride.

“We don’t know where we are going,” said one rider, a 13-year-old high school student, staring out the window one recent morning. It was her first time on a bus, she said, adding, “It’s kind of a new experience.”

Cambodia has plenty of private buses that ferry people across the countryside and connect provincial cities with the capital. But developing mass transit within Phnom Penh has until now ranked low on the priority list in a country where one-third of the population does not have running water.

The genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, which ended in 1979, damaged the country’s social fabric so badly that Cambodians came to assume that in many facets of life, including transportation, they were mostly on their own.

Some riders on the new Japanese-sponsored buses in the capital said that the lack of a public transportation system was emblematic of a country where government assistance was rare and civic-mindedness in short supply.

“People here don’t have a long vision,” said Khem Vannary, an actress on Cambodian television and an enthusiastic adopter of the bus experiment. “They don’t understand how a bus can improve their lives.”

Ms. Vannary lamented the unruliness she said she saw in the streets, where traffic laws are rarely enforced. She described Phnom Penh’s traffic as a free-for-all, comparing it to “children refusing to obey their parents,” and wondered whether the bus service would prove effective. An earlier experiment, sponsored by Japan in 2001, ended after several weeks.

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Passengers on a group motorcycle taxi waiting to depart near Chbar Ampov Market. Luc Forsyth for The New York Times

The new experiment, relying on rented buses and temporary staff, appears to have rapidly won admirers. The buses are often packed at rush hour, and a supervisor of the line says that about 3,000 people are using them daily.

Ticket collectors wear shirts that say, “Take the bus for a better future of Phnom Penh.” And yet the immediate future of public transportation remains cloudy. The government has yet to set many of the specifics, including the starting date, for a permanent service that will follow if the one-month experiment is deemed a success.

Mr. Egami, the Japanese agency’s representative, emphasizes the importance of low fares to lure customers. He said he doubted that a public transportation system could be run at a profit, at least in the early stages. “It will require a subsidy,” he said.

That appeared to be at odds with the city government’s intentions. Long Dimanche, a spokesman for the Phnom Penh municipality, said that it had chosen a private company to run the buses and that “there will be no subsidy.” The contractor “has expertise,” Mr. Dimanche said, but he declined to identify the company.

“If everything works out,” he said, a permanent service will begin this year.

If it does, many city residents may need a quick primer on the ins and outs of bus riding.

Khay Sovanvisal, a supervisor on the experiment, said he was constantly fielding questions from curious people who wandered past his white canvas tent at one terminus of the route. He hands out about 500 brochures a day, listing the fare — 1,500 riels (less than 40 cents) — and declaring that it “is not too expensive.”

A woman hurried up to Mr. Sovanvisal, apologized for interrupting and asked what time her relative, who had boarded the bus on the other side of the city, would arrive at this end of the line.

“I can’t tell you that,” Mr. Sovanvisal said patiently. “The bus comes every 10 minutes. It depends which one she’s on.”

A version of this article appears in print on February 20, 2014, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Getting Stares on the Streets of Cambodia: Mass Transit. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe

Climate change could worsen Mekong Delta woes



Scientists say climate change will have grave impact on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, a region already battling pollution, salinity and flooding

(Photo: ImageMD)

A slew of controversial hydropower dams proposed for stretches of the Mekong River will heighten the risk of more saline intrusion in the delta. (Photo: ImageMD)

Vietnamese scientists say climate change will probably exacerbate existing ecological problems in the Mekong delta, such as water pollution, salinity intrusion, loss of aquatic biodiversity and rising susceptibility to flooding.

Their concerns echo a 2006 warning by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the Mekong River Delta and two others — the Ganga and the Nile — are particularly susceptible to rising sea levels.

The delta region – a low-lying area in southern Vietnam dotted with paddy fields and shrimp farms – is home to an estimated 17 million Vietnamese, yielding not only rice but also a third of the country’s GDP.

It is also among Vietnam’s poorest areas, and environmental restoration projects in the region are often a low priority for officials busy trying to kickstart a slumping economy.

“They’ve made some progress, but because of the economic crisis, investment capital is a serious problem,” said Tran Minh Khoi, director of the Center for Water Quality and Environment, a government institute in Ho Chi Minh City that monitors water quality in the Mekong Delta.

Large-scale rice production causes soil pollution

The problems are rooted in the large-scale expansion of rice production in the Mekong Delta, which now produces roughly half of the country’s rice.

In the 1990s, the Vietnamese government began the widespread construction of sluice gates, high dikes and other irrigation measures that were designed to control the Mekong River’s natural flood pulses for the sake of boosting rice cultivation. While the measures have helped Vietnam become one of the world’s top three rice exporters, they have also altered the Mekong’s alluvial flood pulse and changed its ecological balance.

For example, rice farming in the upstream regions of the delta discharges effluents that cause eutrophication of freshwater systems and damages fish populations, according to a recent study by a team of scientists from Can Tho University. And because so many of the delta’s soils are naturally acidic, converting them to rice fields has increased the mobility of heavy metals like arsenic and cadmium.

Le Anh Tuan, a professor at the university’s college of environment and natural resources, said the overuse of fertilisers and pesticides by many Mekong Delta farmers only exacerbates those problems.

“Native fish species will be lost, and biodiversity will be degraded,” he said. “And the consequences may be worse with climate change.”

The construction of high dikes in the delta’s upper reaches has also correlated directly with an increased risk of flooding in Can Tho, one of the delta’s largest cities, according to research by Hideto Fujii, a researcher at the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences.

According to Fujii, upstream dikes store a large amount of water that can be dangerous when dikes break. That was evident in 2011 when heavy floods in the delta province of An Giang broke through dikes and caused damage in downstream areas, he said.

And when seasonal floods subside, fresh danger surfaces in the form of saline intrusion.

Because the Mekong is a tidal river, it has a flood pulse in which saline water from the South China Sea travels up its tributaries during the February-to-April dry season. But the construction of so much irrigation infrastructure, coupled with heavy water use in upstream provinces, has in many cases reduced seaward flows of freshwater — and allowed more saline water to travel in the other direction.

A slew of controversial hydropower dams proposed for stretches of the Mekong River in China, Laos and Cambodia would only heighten the risk of more saline intrusion in the delta, according to Dao Trong Tu, senior advisor to the Vietnam Rivers Network, a Vietnamese NGO.

“In the Mekong Delta we have very dense canal system, so if water intrudes it impacts agricultural production very much,” he said. “It’s a big impact.”

International funds pour in to tackle climate change

Several governments and international donors have recently identified climate change as a central priority in Vietnam, and there are several ongoing projects aimed at mapping the extent of the delta’s environmental problems and devise solutions.

The German and Australian governments, for instance, are promoting climate-adaptation measures in the Mekong Delta, and the Dutch government has partnered with local researchers to develop a 100-year plan for sustainable growth in the region. The first version of the plan, released in 2012, suggests closing off branches of the Mekong River in the dry season to prevent further saline intrusion.

On a recent trip to the Mekong region in December ,US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the US will give US$17 million for a new American-led project to help Vietnamese communities adapt to climate change and ”reverse” environmental problems. He said the project will be administered by the US Agency for International Development.

“Vietnam is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to climate change,” Kerry said. “And we will see very serious impacts if we don’t change course today.”

But there are considerable obstacles. Here’s one challenge — though demand for freshwater is increasing across the Mekong Delta, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has largely resisted calls from Vietnamese scientists to alter itsambitious agricultural production targets, which scientists say are ecologically unsustainable and sorely outdated.

According to Tung Phung Duc, director the Mekong Development Research Institutein Hanoi, a central problem is that state-owned enterprises (SOEs) exert significant control over Vietnam’s nearly US$4 billion rice-export industry and are resistant to reforms that would cut into their profits.

“We don’t have a problem with food security,” he said. “There are a lot of SOEs in the agriculture sector, and I think it’s better (for the government) to sell them.”

Shrimp industry causes fresh conflict

And in the southern reaches of the Mekong Delta, the creation in recent years of coastal shrimp farms has led to “severe losses” of mangrove forests, according to aJanuary study by a team of German and Vietnamese scientists. Shrimp exports from Vietnam are now worth US$2.8 billion per year, according to the state-controlled media, but scientists say the loss of mangroves is problematic because the trees have historically been a natural defense against storms along the delta’s 600 kilometre coastline

And as the shrimp industry grows, conflicts are deepening between shrimp and rice farmers, according to Tran Minh Khoi. He said shrimp farming uses a mix of fresh and brackish water, and the conflicts typically arise when the practice prevents rice farmers from getting the freshwater they require.

The conflicts, Khoi added, are likely to worsen as sea levels rise and demand for freshwater increases.

Building Trust International PP Workshops


Source: Via e-mail from Building Trust International

Please contact: Louise Cole with questions

Sustainable Live Build Workshops

We are excited to announce that Building Trust international are hosting a two week long sustainable build workshop in Phnom Penh during February. I am writing to ask as to whether you would be interested in taking part.

We are offering a hands on participatory workshop where you will gain experience in sustainable building techniques and understand more about humanitarian design while supporting a worthwhile community project that will have a huge benefit to the local community and positive effect on the local environment. You will gain an insight into a number of building techniques and architectural styles including some of those listed below.

What will you will learn?

  • Adobe bricks mixing and making
  • Breathable plastering
  • Palm thatch
  • Bamboo structural design concepts.
  • Bamboo anatomy and species familiarisation.
  • Bamboo treatment

This is a hands on course, working with others you will learn on-site skills like site management and material procurement. You will also see first-hand how we promote and work with local communities taking on traditional skills and a host of other sustainable build techniques.When: Mon 10th – Fri 21st  February 2014Please note the workshop will take place between 9am – 5pm on weekdays.Location: KOUK KHLEANG YOUTH CENTER
The youth center is operated by Cambodian organizations Cambodian Volunteers for Society (CVS) and Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights and Development Association (KKKHRDA) and was 
designed and built by Komitu Architects.

Donation:  We have daily and weekly rates for our educational workshop, please get in touch to find out more.
*Please note all funds raised through the workshop will go towards buying materials to make the projects happen. The running and organisational costs have been covered.We look forward to discussing further as to how you can use your skills to help communities very much in need in Cambodia. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or queries. 
Our volunteer workshops offer you the chance to meet some fantastic people, learn new skills, visit fascinating locations and contribute to the empowerment of local communities and worthwhile causes. We look forward to hearing from you!

Human Rights Leaders Arrested Leaving US Embassy, Later Released


Land rights activist Yorm Bopha shouts as she is pulled into a police vehicle by authorities near the US embassy in Phnom Penh

Land rights activist Yorm Bopha shouts as she is pulled into a police vehicle by authorities near the US embassy in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

Ban foes undeterred

Wed, 22 January 2014
Eleven rights activists delivering petitions to foreign embassies yesterday morning were pulled into waiting vans by district security forces and detained before being released after questioning in the early afternoon.

Dozens of men wielding batons and wearing navy blue uniforms and black motorcycle helmets arrived at the US embassy as a small number of activists gathered to deliver a petition signed by 181 NGOs calling for the release of 23 people jailed after a crackdown earlier this month.

Tep Vanny from the Boeung Kak lake community and Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, were arrested as they left US embassy property along with a staff member of the Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF) and Chheang Thida, director of the Cambodia Union Association at the Kin Tay garment factory in Chak Angre Krom commune.

Shortly after her arrest, Vanny told the Post that she had been unjustly detained.

“We were questioned related to gathering at the US embassy to file the petition. The authorities always arrest me and other people without arrest warrants,” she said.

Two US embassy security guards were seen negotiating with the security forces and protesters during the stand-off.

Sean McIntosh, spokesman for the embassy, condemned the arrests, adding that the embassy officials were requesting that the activists demonstrate on public property across the street.

“The US embassy condemns the arrests of the activists today who were attempting to exercise their constitutional rights to peaceful assembly and expression,” he said. “We continue to urge the Cambodian authorities to rescind their ban on demonstrations in Phnom Penh.

“In keeping with security procedures, the group of activists was asked to conduct its demonstration in the public space across the street from the embassy.”

Another seven activists, including prominent Boeung Kak representative Yorm Bopha, were arrested when security forces blocked the road as they attempted to reach the French embassy on Monivong Boulevard.

The remaining activists then delivered petitions to the British embassy, the headquarters of Unicef and to Amnesty International Asia researcher for Cambodia Rupert Abbott, who had arrived at the Unicef offices to observe.

“We’re going to try to raise international awareness about what’s happening and call on the government to stop this crackdown and really try to look for a way forward,” Abbott said. “In the short-term, [we will try] to help bring national reconciliation and everybody together, but also in the long-run for systematic human rights reforms.”

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the arrests were a legitimate enforcement of the ban on public gatherings in the capital.

“The question is one of public order. The temporary ban has been issued from the City Hall,” he said. “Those people, the leaders of the demonstration, we can’t let them disturb public order. They were arrested and brought back to the Municipal Police office.”

Shortly after 11am, activists gathered at Phnom Penh Municipal Police Station to demand the release of the 11 detained protesters. All were released at 1:30pm after signing a document stating they will not “induce or participate” in illegal demonstrations.


Land rights activists call for the release of 23 detained people yesterday in front of the US embassy in Phnom Penh.

Land rights activists call for the release of 23 detained people yesterday in front of the US embassy in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

Chhun of CITA said: “The government usually urges us to obey the law, but they are government forces and they did not obey the law. We just filed a petition to the embassies and we have not set up a protest or demonstration, but they arrested us. How can we believe in government to implement the law?”

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, condemned the use of unofficial private security guards to enforce the ban on gatherings.

“They must be learning from China and Vietnam. These are basically hired thugs; it’s a lot easier to hire thugs than pay police properly. The police have been pretty bad, because the salaries are pretty low,” he said. “How do we know these people are trained to handle arrests? To me it’s illegal, but it tells me a lot about the Cambodian security sector.”

Government spokesman Siphan said he thought the practice was justified.

“They are hired by City Hall. We call them ‘police agents’. They are working at private security [firms] and are hired by City Hall to enforce public order. I don’t see what’s wrong with that,” he said.

Contact authors: Daniel Pye and Khouth Sophak Chakrya

Workers of the World Faint!



Sarah Mazzetti
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Just over two years ago, at the Anful Garments Factory in Kompong Speu Province, a young worker named Chanthul and 250 of her colleagues collapsed in a collective spell of fainting. They had to be hospitalized; the production line shut down.

Two days later, the factory was back up, and the mass faintings struck again. A worker started barking commands in a language that sounded like Chinese and, claiming to speak in the name of an ancestral spirit, demanded offerings of raw chicken. None were forthcoming, and more workers fell down. Peace, and production, resumed only after factory owners staged an elaborate ceremony, offering up copious amounts of food, cigarettes and Coca-Cola to the spirit.

This episode, however bizarre, was not singular. In the past few years, Cambodia has experienced a slew of mass faintings among garment workers: One after the other, hundreds of women have fallen to the floor of their factories in a dizzy spell called duol sonlap in the Khmer language. The swooning has been attributed, variously, to heat, anemia, overwork, underventilation, chemical fumes and food poisoning. But according to one group of medical anthropologists and psychologists who have studied the phenomenon, two-thirds of these episodes are associated with accounts of possession by local guardian spirits, known as neak ta.

The mass faintings have paralyzed production, to the consternation of the government, factory owners and international clothing retailers. The United States opened its market to Cambodian exports in the 1990s, and the garment industry in Cambodia has since become a $5 billion-a-year business. According to the country’s Garment Manufacturers Association, there are now over 600 garment factories, most owned by Taiwanese, Korean, Chinese, Hong Kong and Singaporean companies. Many were hastily erected on the dusty outskirts of Phnom Penh and in a few other free-trade zones — on land where people believe neak ta have lived for generations.

Although Theravada Buddhism has been the official religion of Cambodia since the 13th century, it never supplanted the existing pantheon of ancestral spirits, local gods and Brahamanic deities. Perhaps the most important of these is the neak ta, a spirit strongly associated with a specific natural feature — a rock, a tree, a patch of soil. These spirits represent a village-based morality and are inseparable from the land. This connection is so strong that in past times even some kings were seen to be merely renting the land from neak ta.

Like those kings of old, Cambodia’s deeply superstitious prime minister, Hun Sen, in power for almost three decades, calls on land and water spirits to curse his enemies. Most Cambodians today, while Buddhist, ply spirits with tea and buns at small altars.

These days, when neak ta appear on the factory floor — inducing mass faintings among workers and shouting commands at managers — they are helping the cause of Cambodia’s largely young, female and rural factory workforce by registering a kind of bodily objection to the harsh daily regimen of industrial capitalism: few days off; a hard bed in a wooden barracks; meager meals of rice and a mystery curry, hastily scarfed down between shifts. These voices from beyond are speaking up for collective bargaining in the here and now, expressing grievances much like the workers’ own: a feeling that they are being exploited by forces beyond their control, that the terms of factory labor somehow violate an older, fairer moral economy.

Early last year, I met a 31-year-old woman called Sreyneang, a worker at Canadia Industrial Park, west of Phnom Penh. She had recently caused dozens of her co-workers to collapse after speaking in the voice of a neak ta. While entranced, she had also assaulted the president of the factory’s government-aligned union, pounding him with her fists and pelting him with insults.

We chatted on the dirt floor of the tiny wooden house where she lived; there was nowhere else to sit. She said she had been feeling ill on the day of the fainting, and that the factory nurse had refused to let her go home. She did not remember most of what had happened next, but a spirit healer later explained that a neak ta had entered her, infuriated that a banyan tree on the factory site which had been his home for centuries was chopped down, with neither ritual propitiation nor apology, during the construction of the building.

A few months after that event, something similar happened at a sporting-goods factory near the capital that was said to have been haunted ever since it opened in August 2012. Female workers asked their supervisor, a man named Ah Kung, if they could hold a ceremony and offer a chicken to a neak ta angered at being displaced from the site. He refused. Two days later, the spirit entered the body of a young female worker, Sreymom, and claiming, in her voice, to have been “looked down upon,” began shouting in a mixture of Khmer and short, quick syllables her colleagues took to be Chinese. Several dozen other workers lost consciousness and had to be treated at a local clinic.

“When she was possessed, she just pointed around everywhere,” one eyewitness explained afterward. “She said, ‘I want to meet Ah Kung.’ She said, ‘I want to meet him because I lived here a very long time and he never respected me and this is my land.”’ When Ah Kung arrived, the bystander said, “He came out and knelt down in front of her and offered whatever the neak ta asked.”

What the spirit was asking for was respect. He demanded that an altar be built and that ritual offerings be made to him there four times a month. He demanded that the owner roast a pig for him and throw a Khmer New Year party for the workers. The owner complied. The faintings stopped.

In other times and places, ethnographers have also noted seemingly magical manifestations when indigenous populations first confront industrial capitalism. As the manufacture of linen intensified in northern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, household spirits began to appear in textile workshops in a more malevolent form. There was the story about the demonic imp Rumpelstiltskin, for example, who helped a young woman spin grotesque amounts of thread, but only in exchange for her firstborn. Other fairy tales sublimated the distress caused by the environmental and social costs of intensified flax production. The anthropologist Michael Taussig has written about Colombian peasants who were newly incorporated into wage labor on sugar cane plantations in the 1970s and reportedly sold their souls to the devil to increase their productivity.

Aihwa Ong, another anthropologist, documented an outbreak of spirit possession in the 1970s among Malaysian women in Japanese-owned electronics factories. These workers often screamed hysterically and attacked their supervisors under the influence of a native spirit called a datuk. Ms. Ong interpreted these acts as a spiritual rebellion against the drudgery of factory life and the rupturing of the women’s longstanding social ties as they migrated from villages to newly established free-trade zones.

She also concluded that the spirit visitations did the women little good because they allowed the factory owners to cast the women’s valid complaints about working conditions as mass hysteria.

In Cambodia, the opposite seems to be true. Like Ms. Ong’s subjects, the vast majority of garment workers here are female and young. Many are the first generation in their families to work outside their native rice-farming communities. They often send a large portion of their wages back home, and feel both lucky to be able to do this and desperate. “The conditions are terrible — very, very bad,” Sreyneang told me as she described working six days a week to eke out $120 a month, without being allowed to take days off even when sick. “The factory has always been really strict.”

Despite efforts to diversify, the garment industry in Cambodia still makes up around 80 percent of the country’s total exports. Because the economy is so vulnerable to instability in the sector, the government has often reacted harshly, even violently, to garment workers’ efforts to unionize or take any collective action to ask for higher wages. During recent demonstrations, on Jan. 2 and 3, striking workers at Canadia Industrial Park and another factory near Phnom Penh were set upon by soldiers and military police; at least four were killed and dozens were injured.

Cambodian workers frequently complain that they are forced to work overtime and threatened when they try to join independent unions rather than one of the many government- or factory-backed unions that have sprung up over the past decade. (For an estimated garment workforce of at least 450,000, by the International Labor Organization’s tally, there are now over 400 unions, according to Solidarity Center, an international labor rights group.) Pro-government and pro-factory unions occupy most of the seats allotted to labor on the national committee that determines wage increases, and their dominance complicates collective bargaining.

In September 2010, when the national minimum wage was $61 per month, some 200,000 workers took to the streets to ask for a raise. It was the largest-ever strike in the garment sector, but after just three days it came to an anticlimactic halt due to police violence and threats against union leaders. Hundreds of the striking workers were illegally fired in retaliation. The minimum wage remained the same.

Then the neak ta appeared. Mass faintings in garment factories increased exponentially in early 2011, just a few months after the mass strike fizzled. Production lines shut down after the workers’ bodies shut down, and spirits bargained with management on the factory floor.

Public sentiment started to shift. During the 2010 strikes, few seemed preoccupied with workers’ rights. Even the foreign media and the Asian Development Bank’s chief economist wondered aloud whether the workers’ demands would hurt the industry. But when the mass faintings began, concern for the workers grew: Were they earning enough to feed themselves? Were they being exposed to dangerous chemicals?

Since then, basic pay for garment workers has risen from $61 to $80 per month, and is set to rise again to $100 in February. Numerous conferences on occupational health and safety have been convened. Individual factories, the consortium of garment producers and mass retailers like H&M have commissioned studies of working conditions in Cambodian factories. Garment workers have started to receive monthly bonuses for health and transportation.

Not all improvements can be attributed to spirit visitations: The country’s six independent unions have been fighting hard for wage increases. And working conditions still leave a great deal to be desired; labor rights advocates say that $160 a month is the minimum workers need to adequately feed and house themselves. But insofar as conditions have gotten better, it is partly because the factory-floor faintings have reframed the debate. The government’s brutal repression of this month’s strike has shown that it will still not tolerate large-scale collective bargaining. But mass swooning is a rare form of group action that can hardly be suppressed.

And now neak ta have been showing up to defend other victims of development. The spirits have appeared at demonstrations and sit-ins organized by the political opposition, which has been contesting the results of elections held in July, which kept Hun Sen’s governing party in power. At protests against urban dispossession in Phnom Penh, traditional animist curses are often levied at state institutions. Salt and chilies are hurled at courthouses, chickens are offered to spirits, mediums summon local gods to mete out justice in land disputes.

Last year, in a slum in Phnom Penh, a demonstration by residents who were being evicted by a wealthy landlord was interrupted when a neak ta possessed an indigent woman who lived under a staircase with her mentally ill husband, both suffering from H.I.V. The woman assaulted a local official who was trying to shut down the protest, forcing him to stand down. Previously, the landlord had cut down an old banyan tree believed to be the neak ta’s home.

“I have been protecting this area for a long time,” the woman shouted, “and I am very angry because the company demolished my house. I am very, very angry.”

Julia Wallace is executive editor of The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on January 19, 2014, on page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: Workers of the World, Faint!. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe

Is Cambodia at a Tipping Point?


January 11, 2014 — Updated 0434 GMT (1234 HKT)
A man armed with a wooden stick rallies during a protest in front of a garment factory in Phnom Penh on January 3.
A man armed with a wooden stick rallies during a protest in front of a garment factory in Phnom Penh on January 3.
Story Highlights
  • Anti-government protests in Cambodia have recently taken a violent turn
  • Protests underscore ongoing tension between Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition party
  • Ban on demonstration is criticized by human rights groups

Phnom Penh, Cambodia (CNN) — Earlier this week, Cambodia marked 35 years of freedom from the Khmer Rouge regime, whose revolutionary blueprint for an agrarian paradise caused the deaths of nearly two million in the 1970s.

But instead of uniting Cambodians, the date perennially divides them.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party casts the anniversary in the light of victory and liberation. Opposition figures shrug off the festivities as propaganda, a reminder that after the Khmer Rouge leaders retreated in 1979, the Vietnamese who defeated them stayed for 10 years.

The diverging perspectives underscore what’s happening now. In the name of public order and security, the government commemorating the fall of a regime is leading one of the most aggressive campaigns against dissenting foes in recent memory, according to analysts.

“Cambodia is now at a tipping point,” said Carl Thayer, a longtime observer of the country’s politics and a professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

In the past nine days, pro-government security forces have arrested human rights defenders, gunned down five striking garment workers and violently evicted protesters from a designated free speech zone called “Freedom Park.”

At least 3 dead after security forces open fire

Last weekend, the Ministry of Interior temporarily banned demonstrations and the courts have summoned opposition leaders Sam Rainsy, president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, and his deputy, Kem Sokha.

“Cambodian authorities appear to have given up any semblance of democracy, rule of law or justice,” said Tola Moeun, head of the local advocacy group the Community Legal Education Center, in a statement earlier this week, after activists were briefly detained Monday in an apparent enforcement of the ban on demonstrations.

“The big questions are what is next and who will be next? This madness must end now.”

The United Nations’ human rights arm has urged an investigation into the violence, and major clothing manufacturers that conduct business in Cambodia — including H&M, the Gap and Inditex, the parent company of Zara — asked in a letter for a peaceful resolution.

Seeds of conflict

Seeds of turmoil were sown in July, when Hun Sen’s long-ruling CPP lost a chunk of parliamentary seats in the national elections, and Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP, almost doubled its own. But Rainsy and his supporters claimed they were robbed of crucial votes that would have put them in front, ending nearly 30 years of Hun Sen’s rule.

They demanded an international investigation into the election — which didn’t happen — and for Hun Sen to step down. Thousands of people took to the streets in protest.

While the opposition had floundered at times — revising its demands to include a new election — it appeared stronger than ever as 2013 came to a close.

The largely peaceful journey of civil disobedience began to veer off course on December 24, when unions, many of which line up politically with the opposition party, called for a nationwide garment worker strike, demanding an immediate monthly wage bump to $160 — nearly double the $95 that the government first offered, and well above the $100 that was eventually proposed as a final offer.

Soon, new groups joined. Tuk-tuk drivers demanded lower gasoline prices. Buddhist monks called for the authorities to find a stolen golden urn believed to contain ashes of the Buddha. All of the anger pointed in one direction.

Crackdown country

On the evening of January 2, the crackdown began.

In a protest outside a garment factory, authorities arrested 10 people, including garment workers and at least three human rights advocates, according to the Cambodian rights group Licadho. The arrested men face up to five years imprisonment.

The next day, anger erupted outside the Canadia Industrial Park in southwest Phnom Penh. Hundreds of garment workers threw rocks at security forces and created burning roadblocks. Some carried Molotov cocktails. Military police responded by firing automatic weapons. Five workers were killed in the bloody clash, the U.N. said this week. Almost 40 were injured, and 13 people arrested, according to Licadho.

On the hectic day of the confrontation, young men engaged in a standoff with a phalanx of riot police. One protester, In Chanthan, 26, who works at the park, was undeterred, cupping bullet casings in his hand as evidence. “Very cruel,” he said.

Authorities secured the area. The sun rose on empty factories, smashed shops looted by demonstrators, mourning families and fearful residents.

“I think Hun Sen believes he’s losing control of the situation,” said Brad Adams, executive director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. The prime minister has never really accepted the right to protest, he added.

The government defended its actions, saying it had allowed the opposition to protest for months. But members of the public complained, said Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, a collection of top cabinet posts.

“The third party wants to use the street fairly. An ill person who wants medical attention gets blocked,” he said. “It’s too much.”

The forceful response on January 2 had to occur because a national road was being occupied by demonstrators, he said. At Canadia Industrial Park the following day, protesters had become aggressive, damaging factories and throwing rocks and using slingshots to project “iron balls” at authorities.

“It’s not a protest anymore, it became a riot,” he said, adding that the government feels sorry for those killed.

“We so regret that this happened, but they didn’t obey peacefully, to cease all activity.” he said.

Rallying point targeted

On the morning of January 4, pro-government security guards and plainclothed thugs wearing red armbands stampeded through the opposition’s main protest camp, Freedom Park, in the heart of the city, as tourists ate breakfast only blocks away. Police at the scene did nothing to stop them.

“The military force kicked the protesters,” said Soeng Piseth, 31, a microfinance worker who managed to escape.

City Hall issued a statement justifying the clearing of the park, saying it was an attempt to maintain order and security. The crowd “protested in an attempt to topple the government, and burned down garment factories,” said Mok Chito, head of the department of central justice in Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior.

Siphan justified the subsequent ban on demonstrations — which critics say is a crackdown on free speech and freedom of assembly — saying “there has to be a cool-down period. The divisions are so deep right now.”

In tandem with the eviction, summonses were dispatched to CNRP leaders Rainsy and Sokha, asking them to appear in court on January 14 to explain the turmoil. Sokha’s political activities had landed him in jail before, and Rainsy’s brushes with the government caused him to flee to France in 2009, returning last year on the coattails of a royal pardon.

By Sunday, January 5, security forces were stationed at various points in the capital.

A common refrain in recent weeks has been that the rallies represented the most serious threat to Hun Sen’s government in years. But after heavy-handed pressure in the first week of January, garment strikers have largely returned to work and opposition leaders are regrouping. Freedom Park is eerily empty.

On Thursday morning, when an opposition-affiliated youth group tried to sing a song inside the park, military police and security guards stopped them from getting into the main area, sending a clear message that the government will enforce its ban on demonstrations.

The opposition’s staying power and resilience are finally being put to test.

“We have to wait until the environment is a little bit calm,” said Yim Sovann, a CNRP spokesman, this week. He added that protests in the city would resume, though he didn’t say when.


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