Sounding on Cambodia, April 11, 2011

I’ve started a new practice here on Imagining the Real World.  I’ve always used the “Sounding” tag to indicate a group of links to other internet-materials that are associated with each other by a particular subject matter: Cambodia, Buddhism, The Academy, Religious Studies, etc., etc.

However, starting today, I’m going to assign specific days of the week to specific topics.  While some will come and go for the current period, Mondays will be my chance to Sound Off on links related to Cambodian Topics, Wednesday will look at Buddhism, and Friday will look at Religious Studies.

So, what’s on tap for the first thusly-organized Sounding on Cambodia?: Khmer Martial Arts (Bradal Serey), Expats and Global Apartheid, the online publication of sections of the Astrological Yearbook for the Khmer New Year (comin’ up, comin’ up!), a new website on Khmer Manuscripts (huzzah!), Border conflict with Thailand, Draft Laws on NGOs and Unions, and the implosion of the Sam Rainsy Party.

“Going for the Goolies”! – by Igor Prawn, on BANG!.  This is my favorite bit of internet writing on Cambodia this entire week.  Prawn (obviously a pseudonym) writes a beautiful, ethnographic, reflexive episode about attending a Bradal Serey (Khmer Freeboxing, the origins of the more famous Muay Thai style), which is just simply, lovely.  And it ends with this eternal truth: ” For behind every successful man there stands a woman – screaming, “Kick ‘im in the goolies!”

Are you an Expat or an Immigrant: “Global Apartheid” is a brief blog writeup of the excellent anthropological insights that emerge out of reading Sarah Steegar’s investigation of ‘Expatriates’ and the art of classification.  Immigrants are poor, often dark, politically impotent, and on the ‘bottom of the heap’; Expats, on the other hand, are wealth, often light, politically powerful, and near the heap’s ‘top.’ Given the enormous importance of the NGO and expat population in contemporary Cambodia, this is an important question.

Every year, right about the beginning of the Khmer New Year (right about now, people!), the government publishes the astrological yearbook for the year.: Mahasangkran. The blog eBudinst, associated with the Buddhist Institute of Cambodia, has posted some of the content of this year’s yearbook to the blog.

Thank goodness for the long-standing work of the École Française D’Extrême-Orient, whose latest Cambodian-oriented project is the online hosting and digitization of Khmer manuscripts, searchable right here.  This is a freaking godsend.  All hail!.

Big stories most people who watch Cambodia are following (got others? let me know about ’em in the comments) include the ongoing debacle over the Thai0-Cambodian Border, and the role of Prasat Preah Vihear in that conflict, the ongoing self-destruction of the Sam Rainsy Party, and the conclusion of the comment period and discussions over the new draft NGO and Labor Union laws.

I have very little to add to the sad story of the border conflict, which is largely driven by the conflictual, squabbling of Thai political opponents (of very diverse ideological allegiances) attempting to score points with Thai nationalists through brinksmanship with their relatively weak neighbor to the East. Cambodia could do a better job handling some of its diplomacy (there are a lot of things Cambodia could do better at), but the latest news is extremely distressing.  The Cluster Munition Coalition announced their determination that, in February 2011, Thailand used banned cluster munitions against Cambodian troops.  I first noted this story on Bangkok Pundit, which was reposting the news from the CMC, and very usefully gave a history of prior denials and progressive revelations within the Thai media.  It later showed up on the Phnom Penh Post website.

As for the ongoing implosion of the Sam Rainsy Party, the first herald of the latest set of problems for the eponymously-named opposition party was the desperate response of SRP leadership to criticism from within. Mao Monyvann, SRP lawmaker, went public with his criticism of what he characterized as excessive concentration of power and leadership decisions in the SRP in the hands of a few, especially Yim Sovann and Eng Chhay Eang.  He was almost immediately expelled. The SRP has been under assault and pressure since the day it was founded, and recent losses include the loss of parliamentary immunity for some lawmakers, intimidation and legal challenges, etc.  The CPP has effectively sidelined both FUNCINPEC and SRP quite effectively; rendered impotent and still under assault, it’s unsurprising that SRP leadership should react to internal criticism as if criticism was the same thing as treason.  Unsurprising, but unhelpful.  Such paranoia has rarely led Cambodia in positive directions.  Was this all just a behind-the scenes performance?  Perhaps: such public criticism could hardly have been anything other than a break.  Such public internal criticism almost never makes its way to the official press in Cambodia, regardless of the group under discussion. Furthermore, relatively new opposition party the Human Rights Party, led by Kem Sokha, is publicly raiding the SRP, attempting to consolidate its rising oppositional legitimacy at the expense of the SRP.  But it is also possible that Monyvann’s explanation is simply, true: that he has been making these internal criticisms for a long time, but they have been ignored; now, his last attempt to rectify the situation was to go public, and as a result, he has been ejected from the party.  Regardless, the continuing decline of the SRP will undoubtedly reverberate throughout both Cambodian political world, as well as the Khmer diaspora, often considered the most important supporters of the SRP.

The drafts of the new NGO and Labor laws deserve their own analysis, but here’s the briefest summary.  I think it’s clear that NGOs need a clearer set of expectations, reporting requirements, etc., especially given the considerable amount of money that flows through their coffers (often in service to government-associated projects) and the influence they hold.  This is less clear of labor unions, which have never in Cambodia had access to similar amounts of money or influence.  However, both of these new draft laws are disastrous for proponents of civil society: they consistently attempt to tie the hands of the NGO and unions, while referring questions of legitimacy on their most effective tactics to an unanswerable authority within the government.  It ain’t good.  Here’s the article that ran in the Guardian on this the other day; many of the criticisms also apply to the labor law, which is receiving much less international attention, and is, in my opinion, both more draconian and important.



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