Category Archives: Article

Of Post Doctors and Glorious Geniuses



PHNOM PENH — Late last month, the prime minister of Cambodia awarded his long-serving finance minister the title “Kitti Setah Banditt,” which roughly translates to “Glorious Economist of Genius” and is the supposed equivalent of a doctoral degree. It was a variation on an obscure “Glorious Genius” honor that seemingly came out of nowhere in 2011, when it was given to two senior leaders of the governing Cambodian People’s Party as well as the prime minister’s wife.

A similar title — Glorious Preacher of Genius — was recently conferred on several high-ranking members of the Buddhist monastic order, which is closely aligned with C.P.P.

When the powers that be aren’t burnishing their credentials, they invent them out of whole cloth.

Khmer-language newspapers frequently carry advertisements congratulating officials on their latest academic degrees. Mong Reththy, a C.P.P. senator and businessman, has amassed at least three doctorates. Cheam Yeap, the head of Parliament’s finance committee, has two doctorates, as well as what he calls a “post Ph.D.” from Isles International University, an unaccredited institution and a diploma mill that once operated in Cambodia. In official communications, his name is prefaced by the title “His Excellency Post Doctor.”

In 2010 Nhiek Bun Chhay, leader of the C.P.P.-aligned Funcinpec Party, claimed to have earned, after studying online for seven years, a Ph.D. in dispute resolution from St. Clements University in Switzerland, apparently another degree mill. Chea Sim, the Senate president and C.P.P. leader, has at least three Ph.D.’s — including one in “high leadership in the Senate” — as well as two honorary doctorates, despite never having progressed beyond high school.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, for his part, says he received a doctorate in political science from the National Political Academy in Hanoi in 1991 and at least 10 honorary Ph.D.’s, many from obscure universities. On his Web site, he also boasts of being a member of the bar, a five-star general, a Royal Academician and an Honorable Professor of Diplomatic and International Relations with the Universidad Empresarial de Costa Rica.

One likely reason Cambodia’s leaders fetishize doctorates is insecurity: Many received little schooling because of interruptions to their studies caused by civil war and then the Khmer Rouge regime during the 1960s and 1970s. And while they do, Cambodia’s educational system remains abysmal. According to a 2011 World Bank report, Cambodia spends just 2.3 percent of G.D.P. on education — less than other low-income countries — and the share of the budget allocated for teachers’ wages has declined over the past few years, even as the budget for military wages has increased significantly.

Primary-school teachers are so badly paid they often collect bribes from students before class. Only around one-fifth of students progress to high school. At even the best universities in the country, the quality of education is poor by international standards and graduates learn few of the skills sought by the labor market. A few Cambodian universities offer doctoral programs, but with only about 7 percent of university-level teachers holding Ph.D.’s, any student with serious scholarly aspirations must go abroad.

Instead of accumulating phony doctorates, Cambodia’s leaders would do better to improve the quality of the country’s schools and universities so that one day they might produce their own — legitimate — Ph.D.’s.

Julia Wallace is managing editor of The Cambodia Daily.

The Fresh Princes of Phnom Penh


May 3, 2013, 8:18 am

PHNOM PENH — Ten years ago, the children of Cambodia’s ruling elite were busy cementing interfactional alliances with a dizzying blitz of marriages. Having accomplished that, they’re now working on taking over the country.

At least six sons of high-ranking members of the Cambodian People’s Party, which has had a stranglehold on the government for over a decade, have been announced as parliamentary candidates in July’s national elections, and their candidacies are being actively promoted by their famous fathers as pre-election barnstorming heats up.

Even if there are no more angels, there are still baby angels,” Prime Minister Hun Sen reportedly said in a recent campaign speech. In a reference to the angel scattering flowers that is the longstanding symbol of the C.P.P., he was anointing his and his associates’ progenies as Cambodia’s next generation of leaders.

Hun Many, the youngest of Hun Sen’s three sons, is his deputy cabinet chief; he also heads the C.P.P.’s Youth Association, a crucial conduit for recruiting young people into the party. Now, at 30, he is also running for a seat in the National Assembly. So is the son of Interior Minister Sar Kheng. At 33, Sar Sokha has already risen through the ranks of his father’s ministry to become a senior police official, and is married to the daughter of the former chief of the army.

Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, center, walked ahead of government officials during an inauguration ceremony for a road in Phnom Penh in June 2010.Tang Chhin Sothy/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesPrime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, center, walked ahead of government officials during an inauguration ceremony for a road in Phnom Penh in June 2010.

Other newly announced candidates include Cheam Chansophoan, son of Cheam Yeap, a prominent member of Parliament; Say Sam Al, son of the Senate’s president; Ty Dina, son of the Supreme Court president; and Dy Vichea, the son of the late, immensely powerful (and immensely feared) national police chief, Hok Lundy.

Dy Vichea, a senior police official, also happens to be married to Hun Sen’s daughter, Mana, a businesswoman with investments in nearly every sector. (This is a second marriage for both: His first wife was the daughter of Hun Sen’s brother, while her first husband was the son of the army’s procurement czar.) Mana’s brother Manith is married to Dy Vichea’s sister Chindavy.

Manith and Hun Sen’s other son, Manet, are also highly placed, with each holding multiple positions. Manith is a colonel in the army, deputy head of the Military Intelligence Unit and head of an ambitious new land-titling program staffed by student volunteers loyal to Hun Sen. Manet, a West Point graduate, is a major general, deputy chief of his father’s bodyguard unit and head of the army’s counterterrorism unit. He is widely perceived as his father’s favorite son and heir apparent.

In a nationally televised speech Thursday, Hun Sen told voters he believed Manet was the child of a neak ta, a powerful local spirit, who had been living in a tree nearby. “When he was born, there was a bright light flying around the cottage’s roof,” Hun Sen said, before turning to his son. “You should go visit that banyan tree, because you come from that tree.”

Even as it builds a dynasty of young politicians ever more closely linked through blood and business ties, the C.P.P. has denied any claims of nepotism. It argues instead that the children of the ruling elite are simply the most qualified candidates for the positions they hold or seek. This is not untrue, since these children of privilege attend the best international schools in Phnom Penh, and are often sent abroad for expensive degrees. But merit hardly seems to be the point.

The prime minister has been warning voters recently of what may happen if the C.P.P. loses power: New infrastructure projects will end; the schools and pagodas bearing Hun Sen’s name will be destroyed; civil war may break out. “Just tick the angel box and you are electing Hun Sen,” he has advised. He will probably be heard. The election’s outcome already seems inevitable, so why not tick that box and be on the side of the angels?

Dancing Well Is the Best Revenge


Published: April 4, 2013

IN the beginning warring gods and demons churned the cosmic ocean, and celestial dancers called apsaras emerged from the froth. That’s one story about Cambodian dance, its origin myth. This tale is preserved in bas-reliefs on the monumental temples of Angkor, created (like the dance) during the Khmer Empire (802-1431), left to become ruins during centuries of vassalage and rediscovered in the 19th and 20th centuries as emblems, first of royal pride and then of national identity.

Khvay Samnang

The Khmer Arts Ensemble in “A Bend in the River.”

Andres Jiras

The Royal Ballet of Cambodia’s “Legend of Apsara Mera.”

Courtesy of the archives of HRH Princess Norodom Buppha Devi

Princess Norodom Buppha Devi.

James Wasserman/SE Globe

A class in traditional dance at the Khmer Arts Academy in Takmao, Cambodia.

Courtesy of the archives of HRH Princess Norodom Buppha Devi

The Royal Ballet about 1906, in costumes that are brocaded and bejeweled. They seem to wear temples on their heads.

The Royal Ballet about 1906, in costumes that are brocaded and bejeweled. They seem to wear temples on their heads.
Another story begins in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge, radical Communists, took over Cambodia and restarted the calendar at Year Zero. In the four years before they were ousted by the Vietnamese as much as a quarter of the population perished through starvation, forced labor and murder. Dancers, as symbols of the decadent past, were among those most at risk. According to Toni Shapiro-Phim, a dance ethnologist at Bryn Mawr College who specializes in Southeast Asian dance, only an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the royal dancers survived — about two dozen people who reconstructed what they could of an oral tradition and taught it to new generations.

Neither of these stories is the central one advanced by Season of Cambodia, a festival of Cambodian culture taking place around New York in April and May. Initiated by the grass-roots organization Cambodian Living Arts, the festival combines dance performances, films, visual art exhibitions, concerts, classes and discussions. It seeks to shift attention from Angkor and the Killing Fields to contemporary Cambodian art.

But this telling of the present inevitably contains remnants of the past. “The Legend of Apsara Mera,” which the Royal Ballet of Cambodia is presenting at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (May 2 to 4), combines the Hindu tale of the apsaras rising from a sea of milk with a love story of an apsara and a foreign prince that is Cambodia’s foundation myth.

The Royal Ballet embodies Cambodian classical style: spiritual, serene, very much as if those temple bas-reliefs had come to slow life. Knees bend softly in gliding walks. Toes curl up and fingers bow back toward wrists with the elegance of flora in the wind. Costumes are resplendent, brocaded, bejeweled. The dancers seem to wear temples on their heads. Through stylized mime, the dances recount myths.

“The Legend of Apsara Mera” was choreographed by no less than a princess, Norodom Buppha Devi, 70, who was the Royal Ballet’s prima ballerina in the 1960s and lived in exile from 1970 to 1991. As the country’s culture minister from 1999 to 2004 she successfully lobbied to have Unesco place Cambodian classical dance on its register of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Still, the dance “is always evolving,” she said via e-mail in French. “Each generation of teachers transmits its own style and creations.” The Apsara Dance, a set piece that looks timeless, was created, Ms. Buppha Devi said, by her grandmother, Queen Sisowath Kossomak, in 1962. (Other dancers date the piece’s creation to the late 1950s. A 1965 film of it, which can be found on YouTube, stars the stunning princess.)

The last time that the Royal Ballet came to Brooklyn was for its United States debut in 1971. Then it was called the Classical Khmer Ballet; Cambodia had become a republic the year before. At the Joyce Theater in 1990, when Cambodia was still under Vietnamese control, it performed as the Classical Dance Company of Cambodia, and the story was about survival but also about the dancers who defected. (Dancers from the Royal University of Fine Arts performed at the Joyce in 2001 and 2005 as well.)

Now the name is Royal again, but the company and the art are, in the words of Princess Buppha Devi “still in a fragile state.” The Royal University of Fine Arts, where almost all the dancers train, lost its majestic building a few years ago in a government sell-off. The ballet has become more independent from the Culture Ministry, which means less supervision but also less support.

Independence from the state is the trend. The Khmer Arts Ensemble, which is bringing “A Bend in the River” to the Joyce (Tuesday to April 14), formed as a nongovernmental organization outside the capital, Phnom Penh, in 2007. Its artistic director, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, 46, was in the first class to train at the School of Fine Arts after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. She danced with the Royal Ballet and was part of its visit to the Joyce in 1990.

After she moved to Long Beach, Calif., in 1991, she began to apply Cambodian classical technique to contemporary work. Eventually she returned to Cambodia, experimenting with the state system before forming her own ensemble. Rather than renouncing or abandoning classicism, Ms. Shapiro’s choreography extends it. Rigorously maintaining classical postures and arm and hand positions, her dancers tilt a little further to express intimacy. They might even tangle or intertwine. In “A Bend in the River” classical bodies undulate to convey the motion of a crocodile.

The new dance innovates by incorporating materials from contemporary art. The cast moves under and on top of rattan crocodiles by the sculptor Sopheap Pich, whose work is also exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Swirling water is suggested by a set of IV tubing. The musician Him Sophy has composed a new score for a Pinpeat ensemble, usually reserved for ceremonies.

Ms. Shapiro’s troupe has won acclaim in Europe and America and has tackled “Othello” and “The Magic Flute.” “A Bend in the River” is about a female crocodile that takes revenge on a male crocodile that ate her family. It’s an old fable, but the resonances are more recent. Ms. Shapiro, who was 8 in 1975, lost her home, her father and her two brothers because of the Khmer Rouge. The female crocodile’s anger is her own.

And not just hers. In a Skype interview Ms. Shapiro recalled when her teacher, 82 at the time, watched Khmer Arts Ensemble dancers rehearse a classical piece. “She started to cry and yell out in anger, cursing the Khmer Rouge,” Ms. Shapiro recalled. “She said: ‘When I watch your students, I see my friends. They took all my friends.’ ”

“For me,” Ms. Shapiro said, “the Khmer Rouge tried to destroy classical dance and Cambodia, but they failed. We revived it. This is revenge.”

Chankethya Chey, who will dance her solo “My Mother and I” as part of the Amrita Performing Arts program at Abrons Arts Center (April 18 to 19), was born in 1985. From the age of 5 she studied classical dance. She trained at the Royal University. She performed with the Royal Ballet. But because of Amrita Performing Arts, a nongovernmental organization started in 2003 to promote contemporary work, she was also introduced to international choreographers and invited to perform abroad.

And then she became a choreographer herself. “My Mother and I” is based in classical vocabulary but adds talking, singing and electric guitar to express the struggles of Ms. Chey’s generation. Money is a problem, she said in a Skype interview, as is finding places to present her work. But the greatest challenge, she insisted, is to hold onto the past while moving into the future.

“It’s so easy to copy,” she said. “I don’t want to be a contemporary artist from Europe or America. I want to be Cambodian.”

For Phloeun Prim, the executive director of Cambodia Living Arts, the festival’s presenter, his organization has a purpose beyond changing world perception: to nurture artists Ms. Chey’s age and younger. Half of Cambodia’s population is under 25, Mr. Prim said, as are almost all the dancers participating in “Season of Cambodia.”

“Ten or 20 years from now will every story about Cambodian arts still start with the Killing Fields?” he asked.

Environmental Woes Could Reverse Global Development

Environmental Woes Could Reverse Global Development, By CHRISTOPHER F. SCHUETZE

Local men play paddleball on Grand Anse Beach in St. George's, Grenada.

Meridith Kohut for The New York TimesLocal men play paddleball on Grand Anse Beach in St. George’s, Grenada.

Climate change and other environmental disasters could put 3.1 billion people into extreme poverty by 2050, if no significant steps are taken, says an annual United Nations report on the state of global development.

“While environmental threats such as climate change, deforestation, air and water pollution, and natural disasters affect everyone, they hurt poor countries and poor communities most,” noted the report’s authors.

Though the world has become fairer overall, “environmental threats are among the most grave impediments to lifting human development, and their consequences for poverty are likely to be high,” according to the authors.

The 2013 Human Development Report, released last week by the United Nations Human Development Programme, gives both a global snapshot and extensive predictions of the world’s state of development. Since 1990 the report has featured the Human Development Index, a number roughly based on life expectancy, education and relative income, to compare different countries and regions. This method of comparison has led to the oft-cited top ten countries to live in.

This year’s report, The Rise of the South, looks at the countries that usually lag behind.

“The Industrial Revolution was a story of perhaps a hundred million people, but this is a story of about billions of people,” says Khalid Malik, the report’s lead author in a statement.

Besides the alarming humanitarian risks associated with environmental challenges, the report describes a world that is slowly becoming more equal.

Extreme income poverty has plummeted from 1990, when 43 percent of the globe’s population lived on the equivalent of less than $1.25 a day, to 2008 when 22 percent of the world’s population, or very roughly 1.5 billion people, live at that level of income poverty.

In China alone half a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty in that period.

For the first time since the industrial revolution, Brazil, China and India have a roughly equal output to the industrial nations of Europe and North America. By 2030, the authors predict that 80 percent of the world’s middle class will live in what is currently termed the developing world.

However, because of the risk of environmental disasters those gains could be slowed, halted or even reversed in places such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, according to the report.

The report highlights a paradox long described by experts: while those nations with the lowest development indexes are often not the polluters, they are bound to suffer more from a warming climate.

The report’s authors cite the impact natural disasters have on developing island states, such as Hurricane Ivan’s devastation of Granada, which led in 2004 to an estimated loss equal to twice its GDP.

The 2011 report, which focused on sustainability and equity, looked at the effects global warming could have on agricultural production, a major source of income for many.

Because of environmental challenges, development — not just income levels, but also education levels and life expectancy — would see a sharp decline, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

“Climate change is already exacerbating chronic environmental threats, and ecosystem losses are constraining livelihood opportunities, especially for poor people,” wrote the authors.

New study reveals catastrophic loss of Cambodia’s tropical flooded grasslands


March 17, 2013


Around half of Cambodia’s tropical flooded grasslands have been lost in just 10 years according to new research from the University of East Anglia. The seasonally flooded grasslands around the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, are of great importance for biodiversity and a refuge for 11 globally-threatened bird species, including the Bengal Florican. They are also a vital fishing, grazing, and traditional rice farming resource for around 1.1 million people. Credit: Dr. Charlotte Packman / University of East Anglia

The seasonally flooded grasslands around the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, are of great importance for biodiversity and a refuge for 11 globally-threatened bird species. They are also a vital fishing, grazing, and traditional rice farming resource for around 1.1 million people.

Research published today in the journal Conservation Biology quantifies for the first time the area’s catastrophic loss of tropical flooded grassland.

The grassland area spanned 3349 km² in 1995, but by 2005 it had been reduced to just 1817 km² – a loss of 46 per cent.

Despite conservation efforts in some areas, it has continued to shrink rapidly since, with a further 19 per cent lost in four years (2005-2009) from the key remaining grassland area in the southeast of the Tonle Sap floodplain. Factors include intensive commercial rice farming with construction of irrigation channels, which is often illegal.

Some areas have also been lost to scrubland where traditional, low-intensity agricultural activity has been abandoned. The research has been led by Dr Charlotte Packman from UEA’s school of Environmental Sciences, in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society Cambodia Program and BirdLife International. It was funded by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. Dr Packman said: “Tropical and flooded grasslands are among the most threatened ecosystems globally. The area around the Tonle Sap lake is the largest remaining tropical flooded grassland in Southeast Asia. It is hugely important to both biodiversity and the livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest communities. Our research shows that these grasslands are disappearing at an alarming rate.



The seasonally flooded grasslands around the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, are of great importance for biodiversity and a refuge for 11 globally-threatened bird species, including Sarus Cranes. Credit: Dr. Charlotte Packman / University of East Anglia “These unique grasslands are home to many threatened birds including by far the largest remaining population of the critically endangered Bengal florican – the world’s rarest bustard.


This bird has experienced a dramatic population decline of 44 per cent in seven years due to the destruction of its grassland habitat. Other birds under threat in this area include sarus cranes, storks, ibises and eagles. “Rural communities have been left vulnerable to land-grabbing and privatisation of -communal grasslands. Traditional, low-intensity use of the grasslands by these communities, such as burning and cattle-grazing, help to maintain the grasslands and prevent scrubland from invading.

“Intensive commercial rice production by private companies, involving the construction of huge channels and reservoirs for irrigation, is denying local communities access to the grasslands on which their livelihoods depend and destroying a very important habitat for threatened wildlife. “This high-speed conversion and land-grabbing has intensified pressure on already threatened species and on the marginalised rural communities that depend on the grassland ecosystem. “The loss of this entire ecosystem from Southeast Asia is imminent without immediate intervention. In 2009 only 173 km² of grassland were under some form of protection, but by 2011 even these protected areas were shrinking – with 28 per cent lost to intensive cultivation. “Flooded grasslands in Thailand and Vietnam have already been almost completely lost. Only a strong political commitment to protection and restoration can prevent the impending loss of the last major flooded grassland in Southeast Asia.”

Researchers compared aerial photographs taken in 2005 with land cover maps from 1995 and 1996. They found that the greatest losses had occurred in the north and west and in inner floodplain areas. The least affected area was in the southeast of the floodplain. They then collected habitat information from almost 1,000 points to establish the rate of habitat change between 2005 and 2009 in the largest remaining area of grassland. This showed that grassland in the key southeast area had declined from 923 km² to 751 km² in just four years.

Almost all of this loss was attributable to either intensive rice cultivation, which had risen by 666 per cent during that period, or associated newly constructed reservoirs. Dr Packman added: “Between 1995/1996 and 2005, the encroachment of scrubland was the major cause of grassland loss, due to a reduction in traditional, low intensity agricultural practices in the grasslands. Since 2005, intensive rice cultivation by private companies has rapidly become the most serious threat to these grasslands, destroying huge areas at a very alarming rate.”

More information: ‘Rapid Loss of Cambodia’s Grasslands’ by Dr Charlotte Packman, Dr Thomas Gray, Prof Andrew Lovett, and Dr Paul Dolman (all UEA), Prof Nigel Collar (Birdlife International and UEA), Dr Tom Evans, Robert Van Zalinge and Son Virak (all Wildlife Conservation Society Cambodia Program), is published by Conservation Biology on March 18, 2013. Journal reference: Conservation Biology Provided by University of East Anglia

Read more at:


City of Water Went to Germany


Sadly, without me – article in the exhibition book for Phnom Penh: Rescue Archaeology: Contemporary Art and Urban Change in Cambodia [Website]

In “Phnom Penh: Rescue Archaeology” the ifa gallery Berlin presents for the first time in Europe artists from Cambodia who engage in capturing and archiving the transforming city in their collages, photographs, sculptures, installations and performances.
Until today, the architectonic image of Phnom Penh is characterised by the designs of Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, a student of Le Corbusier in Paris. In the wake of the rapid urbanisation and modern development, his buildings are threatened with demolition. At the same time, many of the city’s inhabitants are evicted as lakes are being infilled in order to create new building sites.
The chequered history of the country, the transformations in the cityscape of Phnom Penh as well as the implied social changes are omnipresent and impact the artists and their production.

Picture 30

Picture 31

Invitation_Rescue Archaeology_German

IFA_Rescue Archaeology_Press Release_German

IFA_Rescue Archaeology_Press Release_En

Kickstarter – Forgotten Kingdoms: Cambodia’s New Khmer Architecture


After their independence in 1953, a generation of Cambodian architects began transforming the face of their country…

Welcome to our Kickstarter page! We hope you enjoyed our video and thanks for visiting.

The mere fact that you’re here means we’re accomplishing part of our film’s goal: taking New Khmer Architecture to the rest of the world.

Chaktomuk Conference Hall
Chaktomuk Conference Hall

New Khmer Architecture was an architectural movement in Cambodia during the 1950s and 1960s. The style blended elements of the Modern Movement (in particular, the work of Le Corbusier) with two distinctly Cambodian traditions: the grand tradition of Angkor, and the tradition of ordinary people’s wooden houses. Colonial architecture also had an influence, especially in the earlier years. The movement was founded in 1953 with Cambodia’s independence, reached its climax during the 1960s and came abruptly to an end in 1970 with the overthrow of Norodom Sihanouk.

We’re passionate about this film for many reasons. First and foremost, our team has been working so diligently to make this film happen because many of these buildings are in danger of being destroyed. Those who experienced the magnitude of Cambodia’s modern golden age (1953-1970) are in their twilight years and we want to tell their stories before it’s too late.

This film must be made now.

National Theater, Demolished 2004
National Theater, Demolished 2004

Some of these buildings will inevitably be destroyed and this film is their tribute. With your help, we will assist in saving the most important pieces of Cambodia’s modern architectural history.

We love this film because it’s an underdog story. Cambodia was granted independence from the French in 1953. What happened? The floodgates of creativity and development burst open during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime (1955-1970), when Prince Sihanouk enacted a development policy encompassing the whole kingdom with the construction of new towns, infrastructure and architecture. Almost immediately, the face of Cambodia outshone any nation in the region. Cambodia, for centuries fought over by its neighbors to the east and west, was coming up.

Library, Institute of Foreign Languages
Library, Institute of Foreign Languages

Virtually all architecture documentaries feature western architects and works. This film gives a voice to a generation of Cambodian architects, 86-year-old Vann Molyvann in particular. Mr. Vann’s holistic approach to development was truly ahead of its time. His designs were aesthetically, environmentally, and socially forward-thinking. He is the hero in our story.  He’s the voice of New Khmer Architecture, and the voice of the pre-Khmer Rouge era of hope and independent development.

Vimean Akareach (Indpendence Monument)
Vimean Akareach (Indpendence Monument)

Our passion for this project stems from one word: Khmer. What comes to mind when a person hears that word? Often, the association is with the Khmer Rouge. The atrocities of the Khmer Rouge notwithstanding, Khmer culture is so much deeper and more profound than a single, horrible, four year regime. The Khmer people, which account for 90% of Cambodia’s population, have a rich history, dating back thousands of years. The architecture of their history, from Ancient Angkor to New Khmer Architecture, deserves to be responsibly preserved. These structures are cultural markers, reminders of greatness, and will provide inspiration for generations to come.

Bayon, Angkor Thom
Bayon, Angkor Thom

Key things that this funding will provide:

  • Modest food and lodging
  • Professional translation in Cambodia
  • Safe and efficient transportation
  • Secure data storage
  • A head start on post-production


We’ve put together some reward packages that offer great value for your support. All contributors, starting at just $1, will receive a free download to our short documentary on the Kep houses.  Starting at just $15, you’ll have access to a digital download of our finished film, or we’ll send you a Khmer scarf from the iconic Phsar Thom Thmei (Central Market) in Phnom Penh.  For $25, you get both!  All contributions of $5 and up receive access to our live production blog.

Khmer scarf
Khmer scarf

Once again, thank you for visiting our Kickstarter page. Even if you choose not to give, please remember the story of New Khmer Architecture and Cambodia’s rich cultural history. If you do choose to give, our sincerest gratitude. This film is so much bigger than us and your support makes it happen.

Questions? Email:

For more information on New Khmer Architecture:

Current contacts in Cambodia and abroad:

  • Bill Greaves – Director, Vann Molyvann Project – Vann Molyvann Project
  • Helen Grant Ross – Co-Author, Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture
  • Darryl Collins – Co-Author, Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture
  • Serge Remy – Project Manager, Kep Expo – Kep Expo
  • Dr. Jean-Michel Filippi – New Khmer Architecture Expert, Royal University of Phnom Penh

RISKS AND CHALLENGESLearn about accountability on Kickstarter

The most significant danger is that these buildings, and those who designed them, will be lost forever. Almost 70% of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 30. Vann Molyvann is 86 years old. As a nation ages, so do its memories. We wish to help preserve the architecture of this remarkable era in Cambodian history, so the younger generations can learn from their elders for generations to come.

Cambodian scholar suggests pernicious effects of aid dependence


In Southeast Asia, Cambodia is probably one of the most aid dependent countries with 3,000 NGOs registered to the Ministry of Interior by 2011 according to The Phnom Penh Post, without counting on the billions of US dollars poured by donor countries in the different sectors of the country. In a 2002 report of the Council for the Development of Cambodia on NGOs at the time – in 2002 the number of local and international organizations did not reach 1,000 -, the reports stated: ‘NGOs continue to play a major role in supporting the provision of basic social services, often in remote areas and communities, and are present in every province in Cambodia. More importantly, NGOs bring alternative models and approaches to development, emphasizing participation, equity, gender sensitivity and environmental sustainability.’

Cambodian-American political economist Sophal Ear suggests aid dependency has pernicious effects in the Cambodian development. Photo courtesy by Oslo Freedom Forum 2012.

For political economist Sophal Ear, this view is more nuanced. In his book ‘Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermined Democracy‘, published by the Columbia University Press (2012), years of dependency are not showing positive results in the rehabilitation of Cambodia, its democracy and war on poverty.

The Cambodian scholar suggests that international intervention and foreign aid did not stop problems like maternal and child mortality rates and unprecedented corruption.

Sophal Ear, an assistant professor of national security affairs in Monterey, California, accepted an email interview for Asian Correspondent to elaborate his findings, emphasizing that these are his personal views and not those of the US government.

How we can determine that Cambodia is an aid dependent country? How we can prove this thesis?

There are many ways of measuring aid and aid dependence. Aid per capita; aid as percentage of GDP, and I use all these figures in my book, but the one indicator I point to repeatedly in my book is that between 2002 and 2010, for each dollar the Cambodian government spent, it received—on average—more than 94 cents on the dollar in net foreign aid. That’s like me saying to you that for every dollar you spend, I will give almost one dollar.

You link aid dependence with corruption and maternal and child mortality. How do you demonstrate it in the book?

Well, it’s not hard. You look at how much aid the country received over a period of time and how much corruption, maternal and child mortality there has been. You would think that after receiving more aid, maternal mortality for example would drop, but it didn’t. And it’s very disturbing. If you think about it, it’s like saying, I give you all this money for many years and all you give me is more death, worsening human development indicators.

And not just that but horrible corruption (it can’t be much worse, Cambodia is not too far from the bottom ever since it started being rated in the Corruption Perception Index in the mid-2000s) and increasing inequality to boot. And you do all this with really impressive GDP growth numbers (which confirms that GDP growth alone, as a measure of development, is really inadequate) for most of the decade… What are we to think about the role of foreign aid in this case?

There are some countries with a very low level of aid, for example Timor East or Sudan, at least this is the impression. They have also several problems. In their cases, what would be the explanation?

East Timor, where I worked as an Assistant Resident Representative for the United Nations Development Programme in 2002-2003 did not accept loans. They had a policy where they only took grants. I would argue the problems there were more along the lines of unity of nation following independence. Was East Timor already a traditional nation-state when the UN intervened? Was it ready? Up until 2006, the UN certainly thought “job well done”. Well, as we know, the job wasn’t done.

Sudan, well, that country has way more problems than just development, beginning with the Darfur genocide and ending with South Sudan oil revenue sharing and conflict. October 23, 2012 marks 21 years since the Paris Peace Accords on Cambodia; what have we achieved? It’s time to take stock.

Do you make a categorization of aid to Cambodia? I mean, can we talk about ‘good and necessary’ aid and a ‘negative’ aid?

I have an entire chapter about aid in response to Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza for example, and in it, my argument is that this ended-up being a pretty awful deal for Cambodia’s farmers (which is just about everybody outside of big cities). Basically, when someone died from the disease, the government went out and culled (killed) poultry. And oh, by the way, there was no compensation for the culled poultry.

Can you imagine what happened to people’s incentives to report? It was like, “why don’t I call you to come over and ruin me financially?” So people didn’t. But yet the whole idea was to get to the animals before you had any dead people, kind of like the canary in the coal mine (canary dead, people should leave the mine). But the opposite happened! People dead, find sick poultry. And what did the donors do? They just wanted to make sure that awful disease did not reach their borders. Farmers be damned. What did the authorities do? No reports of outbreaks in the year before the July 2008 election… how curious. The virus knows how to stay out of Cambodia before the elections so as to not disturb the politics of Cambodia?

What should replace aid? Is it possible to recover the Cambodian economy? What should change?

Here’s one alternative I argue makes sense: how about collecting enough domestic revenues (mostly taxes) to do your own development? As I mentioned earlier, using data from the World Bank, my book shows that from 2002-2010, for every dollar spent by the central government, more than 94 cents of net foreign aid was received. This is not a good formula for owning your own development. This is a prescription for extremely serious aid dependence. If you add both current domestic revenues and estimates of corruption, Cambodia could develop on its own. If anything, foreign aid disrupts the link between the people and their government. The people don’t pay enough taxes (but plenty is stolen from them via corruption), the government doesn’t listen to them (but ends-up ranking as one of the most corrupt countries in the world on the Corruption Perception Index), and what do you have? Pretend democracy.

Here’s another alternative: Exports. Yes, exports. What I mean here is how does a country develop? How did Korea do it? How did Taiwan do it? They exported. Park Chung-Hee, who ruled South Korea with an iron grip from 1962 to 1979, when he was assassinated, had a billboard on the road to the airport that said, roughly, Export or Die. Cambodia needs foreign exchange. It can’t just live by the credo of Aid or Die. I’m not, by the way, condoning Park Chung-Hee’s rule, I’m just saying that if you are going to have some sort of leader for life arrangement, you might as well have the kind of growth that got South Korea to where it is today.

How do you evaluate the situation of exports in Cambodia?

I do not think Cambodia can rely only on garments; it has to diversify. From garments, what about car seats? There is little hope if we cannot produce more and more value-added exports. Cambodia needs these things to grow. Tourism alone cannot carry the economy. We cannot all be busboys and concierges.

According to you, the lack of a tax system can be linked to corruption and aid?

What I mean is that if you were a normal country that collects enough domestic revenues (mostly taxes) you would collect about what Cambodia collects already plus the corruption existing in Cambodia. But because corruption can’t be used for the country to develop, aid is necessary. I’m against aid dependence.

Would you be motivated to work if for every dollar you spent, I gave you nearly a dollar? Would you want to earn your own income? I argue that you wouldn’t  And that’s what has happens in Cambodia. Why try hard to collect taxes and raise domestic revenues when you’ve got a Sugar Daddy in foreign donors?

Why is there no tax system or salary policy (only garment factories have a minimum wage and a very low one)?

There is a tax system, it’s just not designed to collect enough revenues. Why? Because there’s no incentive to do so in the presence of aid.

Do you know that in order for a garment factory to pay its taxes, it cannot bring the money to the tax department? If it did, its representative would spend all day waiting because the tax officials cannot be bothered to count the money. Instead, they have to use intermediaries who have bank accounts setup with the tax department. That costs money. Why should it cost money to pay your taxes? Why make paying taxes complicated? Only because there is no private benefit to paying taxes!

When you are referring to a “salary policy”, I assume you mean a minimum salary policy. Why do you think garment workers (which you say are paid a minimum wage and a very low one) are paid more than many government employees? Because it makes sense for patronage reasons. Not enough to live, but not so little that it becomes completely ridiculous. Garment workers often only eat one egg per day, because they just don’t make enough after sending home money to their families. Do you think government workers are also eating only one egg per day? It’s very simple, as the vice president of Cambodia’s top private university told me in 2008 when I asked whether graduates might become civil servants, “If you look at government salary, unless you plan to be corrupted, you have no future in that.”

What is the position of donor countries before this situation in Cambodia?

They know what is going on, but they turn a blind eye. The rationale is usually that if we don’t help, people will starve. But the truth is more complicated. Oftentimes, there are other reasons to continue working—emoluments to such employment are fantastic—private school education, housing, incredible salaries. If someone makes $10,000 to $15,000 per month and points his finger at a civil servant making $50 per month for corruption, while screaming “Why don’t you live within your means? I live within my means!” Does that make sense?

Why is there no conscience over the resulting situation from a country like US or the European Community?

I am sure there is “conscience” as you put it, but there is also a tragedy of the commons. Who will be the first to say enough is enough. We cannot do it like this anymore?

Cambodian-Americans confronting deportation


The number of “Khmericans” being sent back to their homeland is on the rise. Meet one young man yearning for the old days in Lowell, Massachusetts, but committed to starting over. By Olesia Plokhii and Tom Mashberg |  GLOBE CORRESPONDENTS  JANUARY 27, 2013


SOKHA CHHIM rarely heads to work without a black Red Sox cap propped on his head. He makes sure his Nikes stay flashy and white, that the legs of his baggy jeans drape at just the right angle. Sometimes he’ll don a royal blue jersey featuring Tom Brady’s No. 12. But in a concession to his new homeland, Chhim hangs a black and gray scarf called a krama around his neck instead of the gangster chain he wore on the streets of Lowell.

Chhim is an outcast, one of 30 or so Cambodian-Americans lawbreakers from Massachusetts sent back to Cambodia in the last 10 years. He was deported to Phnom Penh in May 2011 after violating probation in the shooting of a rival drug dealer, arriving penniless and unwanted. He speaks broken Khmer, has no family to lean on, and needs a map to navigate this zigzagging city of nearly 2 million. Yet he is putting down roots in native soil he never knew. And unlike most exiled “Khmericans,” who seethe over their loss of American residency, he is finding his own redemption.

“When I first arrived, I was stunned,” the 31-year-old Chhim says of life in Cambodia’s capital, an enchanting but fractured city that teems with amputees, beggars, and mutts, yet features glorious French Colonial architecture, fine European restaurants, and fleets of Lexus SUVs. “America is all I knew. Everything about me was American.”

But “Cambodia opened my eyes,” he says. “I’ve found a reason to live.”

As federal officials broaden efforts nationwide to seize and deport immigrants with criminal records, the streets of Phnom Penh will inevitably see more Massachusetts exiles like Chhim. Some 600 Cambodian-Americans, virtually all of them male and a majority convicted criminals, have been shipped to Asia’s most traumatized nation since 2002, when Cambodia signed a repatriation agreement with the United States. Federal data show that deportations averaged 41 per year from 2001 through 2010, only to leap to 97 in 2011 and 93 last year. “People are getting picked up left and right,” says June Beack, a lawyer at Neighborhood Legal Services in Lynn who has defended Cambodian-Americans facing deportation.

Cambodians have long posed a deportation dilemma for the United States. Brought here as victims of the Vietnam War and the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, most were dropped into ghettos in Lowell, Lynn, and Long Beach, California, and left to overcome cultural and language barriers with little support from the government that took them in. While illiterate adults fell into low-pay work, their children stumbled through crowded public schools or took to the streets in violent gangs. Many of those eventually deported had become hardened felons, but others were exiled for first-time misdemeanors like shoplifting or check fraud. A major reason for their expulsion is that they never obtained citizenship, an option open to them as war refugees. Chhim was in that category, and the result of his blunder was a one-way trip to an unknown land.

“All of them want to become citizens,” says Rasy Ross An, director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Lowell, a nonprofit group. “But it’s not easy to learn English, and it’s expensive when you are struggling to survive.”

Lowell’s 13,300 Cambodians form the second-largest concentration in the nation, after Long Beach, with 50,000. (Lynn has 3,500.) They account for 13 percent of Lowell’s population, according to city data. Since settling there in the 1980s, they have taken notable strides, owning dozens of small businesses and seating the City Council’s second Cambodian-American member, Vesna Nuon, last year. But there are well-documented problems. For two decades, Southeast Asian gangs lured Khmerican teens living in Lowell by the hundreds, offering them a sense of belonging they could not find elsewhere. Jean Sherlock, a high school teacher in Chicopee who studied Lowell’s Cambodian gangs in graduate school, was a mentor to Chhim. She recalls him as an “upbeat, gregarious” teenager. “I remember there is one photo of a birthday party at our house and there he is, at the back of the photo, holding up a peace sign,” she says. Some of the fault for his fate, she says, belongs with the state’s education and justice systems, which do too little to steer young people like Chhim and his peers away from gang life. “The system isn’t set up to give these kids what they need. It’s set up to lock them up.”


CHHIM STARTED LIFE as a lucky survivor of the murderous revolutionaries known as the Khmer Rouge. He was born in 1981 in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, where he contracted a bacterial infection. Chhim’s mother, who remained in Cambodia, asked his aunt and uncle to take the ailing baby to Western Massachusetts, where they were being sponsored by a local couple. “I guess I was a cute baby, but I was sickly,” he says. As he came of age in Amherst, Chhim built up a resentment toward the endless list of responsibilities that came with being the sole English speaker in his home. “I felt like the whole world was on my back,” he recalls. “I got tired of always waiting for the cable guy.” He began skipping school, getting into fights, and smoking marijuana. His first run-in with the law was at age 14, when he spent a night in jail for driving a stolen vehicle. He soon quit school and moved to Lowell on his own to find work. “Lowell was just worse,” he says. “Everybody around you was drug dealers, gangbangers.” Chhim joined up, eager to make money for that “new pair of Jordans,” he says.

After tapping into a drug network, he moved back to Amherst to take over a profitable piece of turf near the state university. Conflicts with other dealers flared, and in 1998 Chhim decided to make a statement by robbing a rival at gunpoint. During a standoff, he fired, striking his victim in the neck. “If I could take it all back, I would,” Chhim says. “I have to live with that crime my whole life.”

The rival dealer survived to testify, and Chhim received a 10-year sentence. In prison, remorse at disappointing his aunt ate at him. His worst day came in 2002, he says, when he learned she had died of a heart attack. (Chhim’s uncle has suffered poor health since 2000.) Despite poverty, diabetes, and dialysis, his aunt had routinely visited him behind bars, Chhim says; she would travel for hours by bus and then weep softly as he rubbed her tired feet and work-worn hands. “I would usually cry after her visits,” he recalls, tearing up. “That’s when I really started to experience love.”

At programs like the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell, (participant Johnny Chheng is shown here), organizers hope to turn around the lives of young Cambodian Americans and others.

JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF At programs like the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell, (participant Johnny Chheng is shown here), organizers hope to turn around the lives of young Cambodian Americans and others.

It was also when he decided he could turn his life around. He obtained his GED in prison and took anger management and resume-writing courses. Prison “taught me how to grow up,” he says. Still, after serving nine years and four months, Chhim failed to transition to the clean life he imagined and began violating probation. Fearing the inevitable deportation, he began a year underground. “It was just keep running and trying to survive,” he says.

Chhim knew only horror stories of his homeland: a quarter of the population diseased, starved, or put to death by the Khmer Rouge; a life of tilling fields from dusk till dawn; a sweltering climate and authoritarian system in which the privileged crush and exploit the impoverished. And worse. “Everybody heard stories about Cambodian jails,” he says.

Lowell police caught up with Chhim in 2010. He spent 15 months in jail and detention centers and in May 2011 was flown to Phnom Penh. There, he could have tumbled into a life of crime, substance abuse, and resentment, the fate of many returnees. But the affable, broad-shouldered Chhim does not believe in “thinking backwards.” Sipping a Coke on a 99-degree day in Phnom Penh, he says: “A lot of deportees are bitter. We have to break that cycle.”

Chhim works six days a week as a projectionist at a movie theater, husbanding his $300 or so in monthly income by sleeping in a cheap room provided by the theater owner. “I’ve never worked this hard in my life,” he says. “I’m really proud of myself and wish my [aunt] could see my potential.”


THAT POTENTIAL IS SOMETHING the Rev. Bill Herod has been trying to unlock for years. An Indiana minister who has lived in Cambodia since 1994, he started the Returnee Integration Support Center in Phnom Penh in 2002 to help deportees like Chhim obtain documents, housing, jobs, and drug treatment. He knows of 12 returnees who have died, several from suicide or drug overdoses. Another 17 are in prison. Some arrive without the medical paperwork required under the US-Cambodia repatriation agreement, which Herod believes is crucial for their physical and emotional well-being. All are left to fend for themselves.

“Most do not transition easily into Cambodian life,” says Herod. He lost an eye when drain cleaner splashed into his face as he tried to tear the poison from the hands of a suicidal returnee. “Most have strong resistance to the country, the people, the food, the society, the traditions, the language,” he says. Those who succeed must choose not to give up.

United Teen Equality Center employees Sakieth “Sako” Long, left, and Siborak “Eric” Ponn take a break.

JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF United Teen Equality Center employees Sakieth “Sako” Long, left, and Siborak “Eric” Ponn take a break.

“Virtually all of these individuals lived in the US during their formative years,” says Herod, “and whatever trouble they got into was the result of their time in the United States, not Cambodia. It is unfair to penalize these people, and the people of Cambodia, for the failures of the US refugee resettlement program.”

In Lowell, the effects of poor integration, lack of education, and bad decisions continue to plague the new generation of Cambodian-Americans. Gregg Croteau, executive director of the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell, which offers work and study opportunities for at-risk youths, has seen it firsthand. Many come from broken homes, have criminal records, and do drugs. His newly refurbished center is trying to battle this epidemic, Croteau says, by helping these kids “trade violence and poverty for social and economic success.”

Opened in 1999 and serving 1,000 teens a year, a third of them Cambodian, the center is a haven from gang violence and life on the fringes. Located in an old Methodist church, it offers training in the building trades, culinary classes, counseling, and GED preparation. Cambodian youths stop by after work or school to learn carpentry, play foosball, shoot baskets, and hone their music skills in a new recording studio, part of a recent 8,000-square-foot addition inaugurated by Governor Deval Patrick in mid-November.

The center is a place of redemption for men like Sakieth “Sako” Long. A mentor and program leader at the center, the 33-year-old Long arrived in Lowell from Cambodia as a child and grew up with street gangsters for role models. He got into trouble with the law in the late 1990s, but a few years later connected with the center and got a job there. He has since focused on saving young Cambodian-Americans from crime, gangs, and a life of regret. “You can leave the gang life and be successful the hard blood-and-sweat way instead of hustling,’’ he says.

But without people like Long to put them on the right path, many Cambodian-Americans lacking US citizenship end up back in a homeland they never knew. Nationwide, nearly 1,900 have final orders of removal, according to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, meaning they can be expelled at any time, while 669 are in deportation proceedings.

The ones facing exile can look to Chhim, whose odyssey from Massachusetts to the Mekong has led to a paycheck and a budding hip-hop career. He hopes to try out for Cambodia’s national baseball team, and he released a mix tape titled “Take Over” in September. “It feels good to be appreciated for doing the right thing, and it took Cambodia to do that,” Chhim says. Under his musical moniker, Dolla, he pens melancholy lyrics like these: Can’t go back, go back, to a place that I call home. Exiled American is who I am, a one-way flight wasn’t part of the plan.

It is a far from ideal fate, and Chhim rues the fact that he will never experience another live Patriots game or night of clubbing and fast food in Boston. Still, he has no choice but to call this troubled nation home. “I failed the test,” Chhim says of his squandered American experience. “They didn’t believe in me anymore, and now I get a chance to show them that I am somebody.”

Olesia Plokhii is an Ottawa-based journalist, and Tom Mashberg writes from Newton; they reported last year from Cambodia. Send comments to