Category Archives: Social

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

Phnom Penh Named 4th Least Livable City


The Economist Intelligence Unit — the city rankings specialists — has a new list claiming the best cities to live. And they have an interesting new livability metrics to judge the world’s cities.

Sprawl: using the “estimated relation between the metropolitan region’s surface and its total population, the overall coherence of the metropolitan form and an estimate of the extent of low density urban fabric.”

Green space: based on “the distribution of green spaces within the metropolitan region, the number of local green spaces and the number of metropolitan scale green spaces.”

Natural assets: using “Google Earth satellite imagery and information from Open Street Map to assign points to cities based on the natural features” and the number of protected areas around a city center.

Cultural assets: counting the number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the vicinity of the cities.

Connectivity: calculating how many cities can be reached by plane from a city and the average number of flights from that city.

Isolation: based on the number of large cities near a city.

Pollution: using World Health Organisation (WHO)’s Air Pollution in Cities database to calculate air quality with a concentration of particulate matter of over 10 micrometres.

Using these criteria here are the 10 best cities to live in:

  1. Hong Kong
  2. Amsterdam
  3. Osaka
  4. Paris
  5. Sydney
  6. Stockholm
  7. Berlin
  8. Toronto
  9. Munich
  10. Tokyo

And the 10 worst:

  1. Tehran
  2. Nairobi
  3. Lusaka
  4. Phnom Penh
  5. Karachi
  6. Dakar
  7. Abidjan
  8. Dhaka
  9. Lagos
  10. Harare

The top ranked city in the U.S. was Washington, D.C. (14), followed by Chicago (15), New York (16), Los Angeles (17), and San Francisco (18).

Of course, no rankings or measurements are perfect, and this one is no exception. Only 70 of the cities on the original EIU “Liveability Index” had their spatial characterists analyzed, for example.

Nonetheless, spatial characteristics are important — if sometimes overlooked — aspects of livability. And it’s not just about how many parks cities have. Where cities are located and how they grow can have major impacts on the economy, health and wellness of cities and their inhabitants.

UPDATE: Anthony Ilukwe from Buzzdata points out that this ranking was part of a contest in which EIU partnered with Buzzdata to crowdsource a metric for the best city ranking above. As Ilukwe explained in an email to me, “The best city was determined as a result of an experiment in which the EIU opened their city ranking and cost of living data to the world (public) and invited people to compile a new city index.” The winner of the contest was Filippo Lovato, from Italy, who came up with the Spatially Adjusted Livability Index.


Our City Festival Phnom Penh Open Call



ពួកយើងសូមប្រកាសការបើកពាក្យបន្ទាន់សំរាប់អ្នកបង្កើតថ្មី គទានុរក្ស ដៃគូផ្នែកវប្បធម៌ ប្រសិតយុវជន និង អ្នកស្ម័គ្រចិត្ដចូលរួមសំរាប់មហោស្រពទីក្រុងយើងឆ្នាំ២០១៤។

ពួកយើងសូមប្រកាសជាផ្លូវការនូវការដាក់ពាក្យចូលរួមក្នុងមហោស្រពទីក្រុងយើងអំពីសិល្បៈ ស្ថាបត្យកម្ម និង បណ្តុំគំនិតដែលនឹងប្រារព្ធនៅទីក្រុងភ្នំពេញ បាត់ដំបង និង សៀមរាប ចាប់ពីថ្ញៃទី ១៦ ដល់ ថ្ញៃទី២៣ ក្នុងឆ្នាំ២០១៤។

ផ្សព្វផ្សាយនូវពត៌មាននេះ បណ្ដុំគំនិតឆ្នៃប្រឌិតរបស់អ្នកអោយហូរ និង ចូលរូមជាផ្នែកមួយរបស់មហោស្រពដោយគំរោងដែលបង្កើតការឆ្នៃប្រឌិត ប្រារព្ធសាទរ ល្បងគំនិត និង បង្ករភាពស្រស់ប៉ប្រិមសំរាប់ទីក្រុងរបស់អ្នក។


ពត៌មានលម្អិតអាចរកឃើញនូវក្នុងគេហទំព័រ ហើយសំរាប់ពត៌មានថ្មីអាចរកឃើញនូវក្នុងទំព័រFacebook របស់យើង។

Creative multi-city festival is pleased to launch the Open Call:

Ideas For Our City
We are calling and encouraging all Creatives, Curators, Partners, Youth Ambassador’s and Volunteers to apply for OCF 2014.

We would like to officially announce and release the Open Call for the Our City Festival of art, architecture and ideas that will be held in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap from 16th – 23rd of January 2014.

Spread the word, get your creative juices flowing and be apart of the festival through projects that innovate, celebrate, challenge and enrich your city.

We look forward to seeing what you have in store for us!

All details can be found at our website and updates can be seen on our Facebook.

Copyright © 2013 JavaArts, All rights reserved.
As a supporter of JavaArts we would like to keep you informed on the latest information about Our City Festival!

100 Resilient Cities


“BUILDING RESILIENCE is about making people, communities and systems better prepared  to withstand catastrophic events – both natural and manmade – and able to bounce back more quickly and emerge stronger from these shocks and stresses. There’s no doubt: natural and manmade shocks and stresses will continue to hit the world’s cities. The cost of urban disasters in 2011 alone was estimated at over $380 billion. IT’S TIME FOR CITIES TO ACT.”



Letter from Cambodia: The Human Cost of a Two-Dollar T-shirt

Source: Harpers

PDF Here




Full PDF


Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliamentary form of government. In the most recent national elections, held in 2008, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 90 of 123 National Assembly seats. Most observers assessed that the election process improved over previous elections but did not fully meet international standards. The CPP consolidated control of the three branches of government and other national institutions, with most power concentrated in the hands of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Security forces reported to civilian authorities.

A weak judiciary that sometimes failed to provide due process or a fair trial procedure continued to be a leading human rights problem. The courts lacked human and financial resources and were subject to corruption and political influence. Their ineffectiveness in adjudicating land disputes that arose from the government’s granting of economic land concessions, including to ruling party officials, fueled sometimes-violent disputes in every province. The continued criminalization of defamation and disinformation and a broad interpretation of criminal incitement constrained freedom of expression.

Members of the security forces reportedly committed arbitrary killings. Prison guards and police abused detainees, often to extract confessions, and prison conditions were harsh. Human rights monitors reported arbitrary arrests and prolonged pretrial detention. The government at times interfered with freedom of assembly. Corruption remained pervasive, governmental human rights bodies reportedly were ineffective, and discrimination and trafficking in men, women, and children persisted. Domestic violence and child abuse occurred, and education of children was inadequate.

The government prosecuted officials who committed abuses, but impunity for corruption and other abuses persisted.


Cambodia’s women activists are redefining the housewife


Cambodian ‘housewives’ have led a sustained campaign of nonviolent protest against forced evictions

Cambodian land rights activists

The mother of land rights activist Yorn Bopha cries in front of a line of riot police barricade on hearing her daughter was sentenced to three years in jail. Photograph: Erika Pineros/Demotix/Corbis

Designer Diane von Fürstenberg will today present the Vital Voices leadership in public life award to Tep Vanny, a self-branded housewife who has become a guiding light in Cambodia’s battle against forced evictions. Carried out in the name of progress, forced evictions now rank as one of the world’s most serious human rights abuses. Amnesty International defines them as “when people are forced out of their homes and off their land against their will, with little notice or none at all, often with the threat or use of violence”. And in Cambodia, a country devastated by the pursuit of profit, it is housewives who have come out fighting against them.


In 2007, the Chinese-backed private development company Shukaku Inc was granted a 99-year lease to build on and around Boeung Kak lake in central Phnom Penh. The company went on to fill the lake with sand, destroying approximately 10,000 residents’ homes and submerging their lives with it. Even more homes are under threat. One community member told me the government was “trying to eradicate poverty by displacing the poor from the city where they can hide our poverty. This is what they mean by poverty eradication. They don’t care how we will survive, if we live or die. They ruin our homes, our incomes, we are left with absolutely nothing.”


Western feminists should not lose sight of the fact that in many countries around the world, women’s role as wife and mother remains central to their family and societal status. When homes are threatened with destruction, it is women who are disproportionately affected. While women are commonly framed as defenceless “soft targets” in forced evictions, Vanny and her fellow housewives complicate this assumption. Harnessing softness as a strategy rather than a hindrance, these women have committed themselves to a sustained campaign of nonviolent protest. Worried that involving men would only encourage violence, “turning men into goldfish clashing with each other”, they are using their positions as wives and mothers to co-opt riot police through their songs of suffering and to morally shame them when they are publicly beaten.


In contrast to British stereotypes of the inward-looking housewife, these women are committed and forward-thinking political activists. Their influence extends far beyond the homes they care for. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “The Whole World is Watching”, one of the women explained that with guidance from NGOs, the group’s members have become experts at building a spectacle courted by the international media. Exposing their bare breasts outside the Cambodian parliament, they aimed to demonstrate the vulnerability of being left only with their bodies. And donning birds’ nests complete with chicks on their heads, they came out in defence of their role as mother hens.

Not content with these national displays of resistance, the housewives took a lead role in submitting a complaint to the World Bank, insisting that it had breached its operational policies. The World Bank admitted that its land titling project had contributed to the harms suffered, and suspended its loans to Cambodia. The housewives of Boeung Kak are playing a critical leadership role in publicly contesting large-scale losses of homes that are being felt in communities sadly too numerous to name. In taking on this extra burden, housewives in Cambodia have become domestic goddesses battling global problems.

So what does this mean for British women? While forced evictions are rare in this country, the courage of the Boeung Kak women is not without precedent in the UK. We only need to think back to Greenham Common in the 1980s for an example of housewife activists who fought to protect their families against the feared instalment of nuclear weapons in southern England. Both sets of women, whether in Cambodia or Britain, show the power that housewives can wield, of illuminating injustices at the highest of political levels.

Vanny and the women of Boeung Kak may not have won the geopolitical battle against forced evictions in Cambodia, but they have shown that housewives should not be slated, but rewarded, for their inspirational dedication to domestic life.

Cambodian Future House Competition Winning Proposals


Building Trust International, a non-profit organization offering design assistance to communities and individuals in need, in collaboration with Habitat for Humanity and Karuna Cambodia announced the joint winners of the design competition that brings new life to housing design and delivery for low income families living in . The winning projects include: ‘Wet + Dry House’ by Mary Ann Jackson, Ralph Green, Muhammad Kamil and Nick Shearman from Australian firm Visionary Design Development Pty Ltd., ‘Courtyard House’ by Jess Lumley & Alexander Koller from the UK, and ‘Open Embrace’ by Keith Greenwald and Lisa Ekle from USA. The Winning Student Design was by Sanaz Amin Deldar, Nastaran Hadidi, Ehsan Naderi and Simak Khaksar from Iran. More images and information after the break.


Courtesy of Jess Lumley and Alexander Koller

The design competition asked for designs of a $2000 house that can withstand flooding and offer a safe and secure home for low income families in Cambodia. Habitat for Humanity Cambodia have supported the competition from the start and now plan to deliver these homes in the coming months giving the families that they support a chance to choose a design that relates to their specific lifestyle needs. Hoping to provide poor Cambodians with a better standard of living, the winning projects will be built later this year.

Courtesy of Keith Greenwald and Lisa Ekle

The jury picked three designs that reflected the desire to have a large flexible space to meet changing family needs, a space to rear chickens and a design that allowed for a shop front on the ground floor. A wide range of submissions made use of sustainable materials and highlighted the need for Cambodia to look at the nature of the booming construction industry and to think about more environmentally friendly ways of meeting the housing demand. The short listed designs show both traditional and new techniques in reducing the carbon footprint of delivering new homes. There will be an exhibition in Phnom Penh in May showcasing the best designs and the winning projects.

Cite:Furuto , Alison. “Cambodian Future House Competition Winning Proposals” 30 Mar 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 02 Apr 2013. <;


Cambodians fight for their homes


28 March 2013 

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More than 20 years after the end of Cambodia’s civil war, another battle is being waged on the country’s streets – over land.

Local human rights groups say the government has allocated around four million hectares to businesses for redevelopment, affecting 400,000 people – many of whom have been evicted.

In 2012, more than 200 people were arrested during protests over land.

The BBC’s Jonathan Head spoke to some of the people in the capital Phnom Penh fighting for their homes.

Mam Sonando to be freed


MG 9173

Beehive Radio station owner Mam Sonando during his hearing at the appeal court in Phnom Penh last week. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

EMBATTLED independent radio station owner Mam Sonando will be released Saturday – just eight months after his arrest on insurrection charges – after the Appeal Court substantially reduced a 20-year sentence widely labeled as politically motivated.

At the prosecutor’s request, judges dropped the strongest charge against Sonando and replaced it with a lesser forestry-related crime. His sentence was reduced to five years, then suspended to eight months, Judge Khun Leang said at a Thursday morning verdict announcement.

Two other men who were convicted alongside Sonando – Chan Sovann and Touch Rin – and sentenced to three and five years, respectively, also saw their sentences reduced and will be released Saturday.

In October, the trio were sentenced for stoking a so-called secessionist movement in Kratie province – a claim used by the government to justify a violent mass eviction last May that saw a 14-year-old girl shot dead by police. Rights groups and legal monitors have noted that no credible evidence had ever been presented suggesting such a movement existed, let alone that Sonando masterminded it. Among the critics of the conviction were US President Barack Obama, who raised the case, by name, with Prime Minister Hun Sen during his visit last year.

Outside the Appeal Court gates yesterday, hundreds of Sonando’s supporters amassed, cheering as news of the verdict trickled out the courtroom.

A smiling Sonando flashed the victory sign at reporters as he was escorted to a police van.

“I won’t speak now as I’m not yet free, but come see me in Kien Svay,” he said, referring to his home that doubles as the headquarters of Beehive radio station.

Amnesty International, which labeled Sonando a prisoner of conscience, called the release a positive step “with caveats.”

“There are of course concerns. Mam Sonando should never have been in prison in the first place, the original charges – and indeed the new charges – again seem completely baseless,” said Cambodia researcher Rupert Abbott. “Lets hope this represents a shifting of what we’ve seen in Cambodia, where we’ve seen this assault on freedom of expression; lets hope we see that halt.”