Sounding Cambodia for June 6 2011

The end of the semester got away from me folks, which means that today’s Sounding Cambodia will consist of a lot of links, videos, and topics, with minimal commentary. Lots of important stuff in there, though.  Go read!

  • Sand mountains during Khmer New Year (Video)
  • Cash pledges from politicians – exactly what is going on?
  • Violence against Cambodian Labor by the government
  • Interviews with Rich Garella of Who Killed Chea Vichea?
  • Nuon Chea and Cases 002 and 003 in the Extraordinary Chambers/Khmer Rouge Tribunal
  • Would you like some Borax with your Cambodian food?  Formalin? You’re welcome.
  • Tiny Toones NGO – “Hey Babe” video.
  • Cambodian Rice Exports to the Philippines
  • Judy Ledgerwood’s awesome Summer ethnography school in Cambodia
  • Damned Dams and their impacts on damned-near everything; an article in Critical Asian Studies by Ian Baird
  • Book Review of Constance Wilson’s edited volume on the Middle Mekong River Basin
  • Thai Politics – an election primer from Duncan McCargo
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"Oh Snap!" Somebody Got Told, Vol. 1

This lovely flowchart may be of use to those who find it difficult to know the appropriate moments at which to say, ‘Snap!’, or its variant, “Oh, Snap!”

Sure, we all know that it’s something you say when a person nearby was just humiliated, proven desperately wrong, or smacked in the face. But is that enough?

I didn’t think so, so I’ve culled a few examples from recent news stories. You decide: “Snap!”, or “No Snap!”?

  1. Heard of Argus? Neither (so he claims) has Marc Bousquet, whose excellent How The University Works should be required reading for all new and aspirant faculty. He was just invited to be an informer on his colleagues and fellow workers, ratting them out for their politics and teaching. He wasn’t amused, but his post is deeply amusing. One short snippet:”Every time I catch someone who thinks we should all have health care, I get a prize, working all the way up to a flying broomstick!”

    Snap or No Snap?

  2. The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand has announced that the Cambodian ‘theft’ of Preah Vihear should be considered a serious violation of human rights. Andrew Walker has the smack-down:”The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand has taken leave of it senses….There are many important human rights issues to be addressed in Thailand. This is not one of them.”

    Snap or No Snap?

  3. Sam Rainsy objects that he lost the election in Cambodia. He was the only person surprised about this. I’m sure that there was intimidation and vote-buying (it was an election, after all), but to complain that the entire election was stolen? DetailsAreSketchy reports on the European Union’s smackdown. See also KJE’s post, “He Just Doesn’t Get It.” You want to see real electoral corruption? Just wait a few months and pay attention to the USA. Or watch this documentary.

    Snap or No Snap?

  4. After thousands in Milwaukee rioted over food vouchers, Raj Patel calls down the smackdown on those who were surprised about it, titling his post “Spank me and call me Cassandra!“:”Were we perhaps expecting the event to come to us pre-labelled?”

    Snap or No Snap?

  5. George Orwell’s diaries are going to be serialized on wordpress, thanks to the Orwell Trust, Political Quarterly, and the Media Standards Trust.No smackdown there – yet. Keep reading those diaries, though, and you’re certain to read a few.

Brian Bull of WPR and NAJA, asks a straightforward question of Obama, receives answer

via DemocracyNow.

BRIAN BULL: Senator, I am Brian Bull from Wisconsin Public Radio and the Native American Journalists Association. Last February, the Australian prime minister apologized for the past treatment of its indigenous people. Last month, the Canadian prime minister also issued an apology for its treatment of its indigenous population. Would your administration issue an apology to Native Americans for the atrocities they’ve endured for the past 500 years?

Here’s Obama’s answer:

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: You know, I personally would want to see our tragic history or the tragic elements of our history acknowledged. And I think that there’s no doubt that when it comes to our treatment of Native Americans, as well as other persons of color in this country, that we’ve got some very sad and difficult things to account for.

What an official apology would look like, how it would be shaped, that’s something that I would want to consult with Native Americans tribes and councils to talk about. And as a nation, they have a host of other issues to talk about, and—because, obviously, as sovereign nations, they also have a whole host of other issues that they’re concerned about and that they’ve prioritized. One of the things that I said to tribal leaders is, I want to set up an annual meeting with them and make sure that a whole range of these issues are addressed.

But I’ve consistently believed, when it comes—whether it’s Native American issues, whether it’s African American issues and reparations, that the most important thing for the US government to do is not just to offer words, but offer deeds. And when you look at the situation on tribal lands, the fact that by every socioeconomic indicator Native Americans are doing worse than any other population on health, on education, on substance abuse—their housing situations are deplorable, unemployment is skyrocketing—you know, I have to confess that I’m more concerned about delivering a better life and creating a better relationship with the Native American peoples than anything else. And that’s what I want to engage tribal leaders in making sure happens. (emphasis mine)

Note that I don’t characterize Obama’s response as ‘straightforward.’ By stressing that his main focus in on improving the lives of Native Americans (and then note the ways he intimates that will happen), it seems like Obama is rhetorically placing the future treatment of Native America as a group who will be positively affected by his policies, in general.

That is to say that his reply attempts to focus away from taking formal responsibility for the past, and solely on the ways in which the current situation can be made better. Without such formal acknowledgment, I doubt very much that real improvement will come. By refusing a public statement accepting responsibility for historic and continuing genocide, by refusing to acknowledge the horrors of the residential school system, and by refusing to even discuss the ongoing appropriation of Native America’s most valuable assets, Obama eludes promising to take responsibility for addressing, straightforwardly, the issues confronting Native America today.

Nota Bene: By population, Native Americans are the wealthiest population in the United States, when their mineral assets are taken into account – so why are Native Americans the most impoverished, most ill, and shortest-lived population by ethnicity in the USA?.

I don’t want to characterize Brian’s response to this answer – although he is one of my oldest friends (i knew him before he wrote the now infamous “Day of the Barney” trilogy), I haven’t spoken to him yet – perhaps he feels fully satisfied with the answer. After all, there were some good things in there: a promise to hold annual meetings with the nations he properly characterized as sovereign, and a decent understanding of the demographic challenges. His focus on the future seems appropriate, though as I intimate above, I happen to think that who escapes the past intends to repeat it with impunity in the future.

For video of this, click here. Brian shows up just after the 10 minute mark in the video/audio of the complete show.


Preah Vihear and the 'Former Khmer Rouge'

The conflict over the temple of Preah Vihear and its surrounding 1.6-1.8 sq. miles of land continues, like a constantly recurring nightmare. It’s Nietzschean in its aspect of banal and violent repetition, but not nearly as inspiring or enlightening.

The United Nations’ Security Council had agreed to hear Cambodia’s complaint against Thailand’s incursion into the territory, couched as the abrogation of national sovereignty. In countries as touchy about lost territory and national sovereignty as Thailand and Cambodia, bringing such a complaint to an international body is big stuff. But then, at Cambodia’s request, they canceled the meeting, and are currently, reportedly, involved in a second round of talks.

Whether this has something to do with yesterday’s CPP-claimed massive win in Cambodia’s national elections is anybody’s guess – and lots of people are doing just that, including comparisons to 2003’s election. Was Hun Sen merely waiting until after the elections? Will he now settle quickly, having used nationalist sentiment to buoy his party’s big win? Or is he as genuinely interested in this issue as the majority of Khmer people seem to be (I make no personal declarations of support or detraction here – just noting the preference).

Of course, Thailand’s national sovereignty is important to national pride for reasons different from Cambodia’s. Thailand builds much of its self-image on the idea that they were ‘not colonized,’ and in fact are exceptional in this regard among their neighbors. This gives them the sense that they are exceptional not merely as a matter of historical accident, but as a matter of national destiny, national character, and relative national worth.

Cambodia, on the other hand, finds itself deeply invested in its territory and national sovereignty precisely because of it’s self-image as a once-great former empire, ruling “all of mainland Southeast Asia,” whose territory, national self-respect, and former greatness has been slowly and repeatedly eroded through the immoral, and duplicitous actions of its neighbors and its european predators. This leads to the connection between the recovery of lost territory and lost national pride.

And this raises the specter – again – of the “Former Khmer Rouge.” I’ve been blogging about this topic for awhile now. In 2006 I noted that

The question of ‘former khmer rouge’ constantly recurrs, like acid after a bad meal. Many people were Khmer Rouge, and are therefore ‘former Khmer Rouge,’ but in an example of social common sense, it seems that the appelation “Former Khmer Rouge” is most often applied to those who use force in ways deemed oppressive and amoral, often regardless of whether or not the people in question are actually former cadre or not.

This has been noticed by others in the metonymic use of the word “Pol Pot” to signify simply “Khmer Rouge Soldiers,” though in both cases it needs to be carefully noted that these are post-experiential uses, since the Khmer Rouge never referred to themselves as Khmer Rouge (They were the minions of Democratic Kampuchea, or more universally, simply “Angkar,” the ‘organization’), and Pol Pot was not widely known inside of Cambodia until after 1979, and became famous largely through the anti-Khmer Rouge propaganda of the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea. But people are still referred to as ‘Pol Pots’ or as ‘Former Khmer Rouge,’ in a way that acts as political shorthand for a shared, constructed historical consciousness.

After a recent spate of articles referencing, again, the “Former Khmer Rouge,” this time their involvement with the Preah Vihear conflict, I feel obliged to revisit this idea, and also to reformulate it. When the international press refers to ‘former Khmer Rouge,’ they tend to signify only the aspect I pointed to in my earlier post – the idea that the Khmer Rouge use force in ways deemed oppressive and amoral. This is the major implication in current reportage on this – ‘isn’t it horrifying, or amusing, or ironic, or <whatever>,’ the articles seem to imply, ‘that these former Khmer Rouge fighters are now fighting on behalf of the current government?’

These uses miss the fact that while this image of the Khmer Rouge is very strong within Cambodia as well, there is another, equally potent image of the Khmer Rouge fighter within Cambodia, one that is not shared without Cambodia’s borders: the Khmer Rouge as powerful nationalist – those who will defend the country at any cost. This image was constructed primarily after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were forced to the Thai border. The Thai took in a few refugees, whom they housed in horrific camps, and also began re-arming the ‘former Khmer Rouge,’ this time to fight against the Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge would almost certainly have disappeared as a plausible fighting force without this rearming.

One of the upshots of this was the continuation – for nearly 20 full years – of the civil war in Cambodia. During the forced conscription of the K5 program in Cambodia, young people were drafted to go plant landmines and cut down trees on the Northwest Frontier, and where they died in proportions similar to the period of 1975-1979, under Democratic Kampuchea. During this period, the Khmer Rouge progressively shed their communist ideology and practices. Never practitioners of anything resembling a ‘mature’ communism, it was perhaps particularly easy to shed. What remained was the rabid nationalism of the groups –  a nationalism which predated 1979, but which was now their sole rationale.

With this in mind, let’s read again some of the recent quotes in which “Former Khmer Rouge” fighters talk about Preah Vihear. For instance, when they say, “I am read to fight the Thais.” What are they saying? And how? Here’s a lengthy quote from a recent article on the issue from Bronwyn Sloan:

Former fighters say they would be at war already if Prime Minister Hun Sen had just said the word, but instead he and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), expected to be handsomely returned to office after the elections, have urged restraint. Some are frustrated.

“I only have one leg, and I am old, but my former troops are still in Preah Vihear, and I am willing to give military advice or any other assistance I can to protect Cambodian sovereignty,” said former Khmer Rouge fighter Try Nin, 56.

“We are former Khmer Rouge. We are not scared of foreign aggressors. We respect the government’s decision to meet the Thais with diplomacy, but if that fails, everyone here is ready to fight.”

Former photographer at the Khmer Rouge’s infamous Toul Sleng torture centre turned CPP commune leader, Nhem En, 47, who claims Anlong Veng’s several thousand voters are 99 percent CPP, agreed.

“I am ready to fight the Thais. All we wait for is an order from Prime Minister Hun Sen,” he said. “We don’t want war – we want peace and development. But we need tourists, and while the Thais do this, the tourists do not come.

“Thais already have their own problems in their south,” he said, referring to Muslim insurgency. “Why do they want an extra problem?”

Note the repeated assertions of loyalty to Hun Sen (though, given the source – a CPP commune leader – the reality might be somewhat different). But note also the tone of impatience and readiness to fight: There is no stated preference for diplomatic solutions, merely a willingness to abide by the Cambodian government’s decision to meet the Thais. Nope – the stated preference is for fighting, dying, and protecting the nation.

It will be interesting to see how these fighters feel about the government if it quickly settles with the Thai after the election win.


Cambodian Poorhouse Prisons and Fast Food

How did I miss this story? Thanks to Jinja for blogging up this horrible set of juxtapositions in Cambodia, on his normally extremely non-confrontational (wonderful) blog.

KFC Cambodia

(Above: KFC on Monivong Boulevard)

It came as a small surprise when I read in the paper that fast food restaurants existed on  Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Somehow the idea of interrogators stepping out of a prison waterboarding session for a latte seemed… incongruous. (The idea of them rewarding prisoners with ‘Happy Meals’ even more so.)

Many bases have features like this, making them small pockets of American culture in unlikely locations.  And the controversial detention center is a recent addition to a much older institution.

Now, like ‘Gitmo’,  Cambodia has its own Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, which was unveiled with much fanfare.  More than simply providing fatty food, it showed that Cambodia was being wired into the global system of international commerce – so much so that chain stores now feel secure enough to open up shop and boot out their cloned counterparts.

KFC Cambodia

With Cambodia’s entry to the World Trade Organization, and the Stock Exchange opening up in 2009, it seems the sky’s the limit. Now, if only we could just get rid of those pesky homeless people and beggars who get in the way of all this new prosperity!

(Above: Licadho)
Well, Cambodia got its own island prison camp too: Koh Kor. After some starving inmates escaped, and the news media got wind, it was quickly shut down and the inmates were dumped back on the streets. Most of them.

Still running on the outskirts of Phnom Penh is Prey Speu detention center.  With an election officially in progress, it’s surprising that no party has taken this up as an issue.  Maybe they’re happy to have clean streets for their election caravans.

Fast food and arbitrary detention. Cambodia is joining the world of global ‘convenience’.  For those who can afford it.

Would you like fries with that?