Sounding on Cambodia, January 25 2012

Happy New Year, everyone!  The Chinese Year of the Dragon is here, and many of us in Southeast Asia will catch up in April!

Just a few days ago, Cambodian unionists held a small ceremony at Watt Langka in Phnom Penh near the Independence Monument, to remember Free Trade Union Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia president Chea Vichea, who was murdered just outside the temple’s walls on January 22, 2004. A wonderful film has been made about his murder and the aftermath, which drew some international attention to Cambodia’s apparently hopeless judiciary. FTUWKC seems to have eliminated their old website, and replaced it with a new, more frequently updated site, here. Twitter. Facebook.

We’re still experiencing mass faintings at factories in Cambodia. Noise has been made about fixing the situation, but it’s unclear to me what concrete steps are being taken.

One of my favorite Cambodia-related blog posts of the last year has to be Alison in Cambodia’s excellent post on the “Navel of the Village,” focused on Lovea. Lots of excellent photos, and a wonderful opening to the topic. Go look!

The Center for Khmer Studies has announced a new conference, June 9-10, 2012, on the topic “Religious studies in Cambodia: understanding the old and tracing the new.”

Northern Illinois University will be hosting the International Cambodia Studies Conference in September (14-16), 2012, in Rockford, Illinois, on the theme: “Imagining Cambodia.” Deadline for abstracts: March 15.

A new issue of the journal of Contemporary Aesthetics is devoted to “Art and Aesthetics in Southeast Asia.” All content is free, peer-reviewed, and online. Go check it out.

Archaeologists excavate sculpture workshop in Angkor,” says the headline over at the Southeast Asian Archaeology newsblog. Maybe this will help keep the criticisms of contemporary art workshops in tourist centers in contemporary Cambodia down? Nah, probably not. Very cool find, however.

The International Federation for Human Rights has released its regular summary of the Human Rights situation in Cambodia (2010-2011). Here’s the summary:

In 2010-2011, the space for civil society continued to shrink, with increased limitations on the freedoms of opinion, expression and peaceful assembly, in particular through unfair and illegitimate judicial proceedings. Human rights defenders, operating in an increasingly restrictive legal environment, found it extremely difficult and risky to denounce human rights abusers and bad practices, while peaceful demonstrations were prevented or violently dispersed. Also, acts of intimidation continued. In addition to NGO members, many trade union leaders, land rights activists, community leaders and journalists faced fierce retaliation for documenting and denouncing abuses.

Some folks know me as someone with a rather obsessive interest in peasantry and farming. There’s an absolutely excellent, short essay from Henry Saragih, the secretary general of the Indonesian Peasant Union and the general coordinator of the International peasant’s movement Via Campesina, on CNN, about Indonesian Farmers. Most of the general trends apply directly to Cambodia, or indeed peasants everywhere. Since over 80% of contemporary Cambodians have primary work experience in peasant rice production to this day, it’s worth considering. Speaking of farming, is contract farming good for farmers? Could be: according to a new study, noted on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog.

“Terrible Karma” Cambodian Female Garment Worker Song, with translation

From a story by Uon Chin, Radio Free Asia, accessed on August 9, of a union rally in Phnom Penh, from July 25, of an estimate 5-7 thousand unionists.  A very sad song by female garment workers, titled “Terrible Karma.”  I typed out the song lyrics, and have included a first attempt at a translation (I am a bit intimidated by poetic translation, and found some of the lines difficult; suggestions for correction would be lovely, in the comments), below, after the break….

[update August 27, 2010: conversations with Chanroeun Pa, of  Cambodian Translation Link and Trent Walker of the Ho Center of Buddhist Studies at Stanford University have helped me amend some of the lines; thanks, Chanroeun and Trent!  The good things below are owed to the composers of the song, the bad things that remain are my fault.]

បទ «កម្ម​កំណាច​ឫស្សា» Continue reading

Sweatshop Workers Speak Out! National Tour Kicks Off at Macalester College, Twin Cities IWW Offices

National Sweatshop Workers Tour Kicks Off at Macalester College, IWW Headquarters

April 21, 2010


Kalpona Akter, of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), paying her respects at the site of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which 146 workers, overwhelmingly women, died because their factory was locked from the outside.  In February 2010, 21 workers died in a similar fire in a Bangladeshi Factory Fire.

Kalpona has been working in sweatshops since she was twelve. Coming from already-desperate poverty, she spent a few years thinking of her exploitation in relatively benign terms: “I thought I had a good job! I worked for them, and they paid me money!” Even though, as she described moments later, she was working non-stop, for 23 days at a stretch, and living on the factory floors. At the age of twelve, she live with her family about 5 days a month between ‘shifts.’ It wasn’t until Kalpona heard about Bangladesh’s formal – and rarely enforced – labor laws that she realized her job was actually a horrendous violation of what other people thought her rights should, and could, be. Today, Kalpona is a union activist working at Bangladesh Center for Worker Soldarity (BCWS).

Along with Zehra Bano from the Home Based Women Workers union in Pakistan, Akter kicked off a national speaking tour on Friday at Macalester College. The “Sweat Shop Workers Speak Out!” tour is organized nationally by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) and Sweat Free Communities (SFC), and was organized locally by the Twin Cities Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, ‘the wobblies’) and Macalester College Religious Studies.  At many of the stops, other associated events will also be held. In the Twin Cities, an evening benefit concert was held for the workers by the Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union with its local headquarters in Minneapolis’ historic Grain Belt Brewery Bottling Building in Northeast Minneapolis.  Local bands Cloves and Big Strong Men performed, along with performances from the Hype Dance Troupe, and DJ sets from DJ Colin of Spinner’s Suite.

Zehra Bano, of the Pakistani Home Based Women Workers’ Union, represents women who sew soccer balls in their homes,
according to piece-work rates.

Kalpona’s experience – moving from a situation of such desperate exploitation and poverty that she herself didn’t even realize it – is emblematic of the situation of workers in Sweatshops and Export Processing Zones (EPZ) around the world:  it was not until Kalpona discovered that laws existed protecting her as a worker that she felt emboldened to question the conditions of her labor, and to struggle to have those conditions improved.  The tour she and Zehra are now on addresses precisely the disconnect between nice words and good laws, and their lack of associated action and enforcement. Continue reading

Sounding on Cambodia, March 19, 2010

Funded by the US State Department and the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, Undercover UXO is designed to run on the “One Laptop Per Child XO laptop.” The game will provide a consequence-free learning environment that teaches kids how to identify UXOs and report them to inspectors.

  • A lay nun burned herself inside the confines of Watt Ounalom in Phnom Penh.  If you click through, beware that the photo is pretty horrific. The reasons for this tragic action remain unclear, though there is a lot of speculation; the woman, whose current status has not been reported to my knowledge, was taken to Calmette Hospital.
  • Anne Elizabeth Moore has another excellent article on Cambodian Garment Workers. Moore has a relatively privileged perspective here, having lived as a dorm supervisor for a few months in Cambodia for the Harpswell Foundation.  The article, a followup to the last one written by Moore at Truthout, focuses on the Messenger Band, a band composed of current and former garment workers.  There’s audio on the site as well – go check it out! I cried at my computer when I read this part:

Members of the Messenger Band

Members of the Messenger Band

As garment factories close, more and more women enter the sex industry by working at the karaoke bars. You have a song about this.

Vun Em: When the factories close down, some girls will go to become entertainment workers, and HIV will spread out around. But why don’t [the NGOs] care about their living life? Why they don’t care about their family? Why they don’t care about the security of those people? Why they care only about HIV? [She starts to cry.] I don’t know, I don’t understand.

We also care about HIV, but you have to think about the lives of the people, not only HIV. If the people don’t have enough food to eat, if they don’t have enough education, if they don’t have good health, how can they prevent themselves from the HIV? They don’t have time to think about HIV, they only have time to think, I need food, I need food. All the time.

  • Land grabs continue – possibly the most important issue for Cambodians living in Cambodia – especially those whose ability to directly feed themselves is dependent upon their land.  In Kompong Speu (Starfruit Province), approximately 1,000 farmers rallied to protest the grabs.  Some farmers burned the fields that were being taken, and a video (embedded below – cautious, it’s difficult to watch) has begun making the rounds of the police violently – not to say brutally – destroying tables, buildings, and attacking people.  This needs to stop.
    Continue reading

Sounding on Cambodia for March 10, 2010

Raymond Robertson on Better Factories Cambodia

Macalester Economics department Professor Raymond Robertson speaks on the Macalester Talks podcast series, about his work with the International Labor Organization (ILO) project in Cambodia, called Better Factories Cambodia. Long-time readers (yes, I’m talking to both of you) realize that I have a long-standing interest in Cambodian economy and labor.

Most Recent Podcast Episode

Professor Raymond Robertson, economics, talks about his work with Better Factories Cambodia. Many factories in developing worlds have poor working standards. The program has enlisted many large scale retailers in their efforts.

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Macalester College.

Southeast Asia Sounding: 1/18/2010