Primitive Accumulation heats up in Cambodia

The process of primitive accumulation – the robbing and looting that precedes industrial development and the emergence of a large class of waged-laborers, according to Marxist development theory – is heating up in Cambodia. I’ve written about primitive accumulation in Cambodia previously, and have been working on applying the theory of primitive accumulation (especially through the influences of David Harvey and Silvia Federici) to the contemporary Cambodian situation for several years.

Extremely clear in the Cambodian situation (though the logic appears universal and non-particular) is that indigenous groups are often the first to experience the depredations of primitive accumulation. Look at the American example: first, Native peoples were forced off of the land deemed most valuable at the time – agricultural lands. They were forced onto lands agriculturally non-productive.  Those lands, tragically, were agriculturally nonproductive partly because they hold the world’s majority of valuable, industrial economy inputs – things like uranium, oil, and metals. So now, in the American Southwest, Native groups experience exposure to uranium mining and what some have called radioactive genocide.

In Cambodia, the relationship between upland indigenous groups and lowland peasants is significantly different. But much of the logic remains intact – it is in the agriculturally improductive lands of the highlands that much of today’s industrial wealth is created – mining, logging, and rubber plantations. As those lands are expropriated from indigenous groups by government-offered concessions, indigenous groups become profoundly ‘modern.’ My sense – I do not have the statistics (anyone?) – is that upland groups are now more proletarianized, proportionally (that is, they subsist primarily on wages from wage labor) than lowland Khmer. Continue reading

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.

Sounding Cambodia and Primitive Accumulation

Sometimes a number of stories come out all at once, and reminds you that no matter the supposed ‘distance’ from my topic, economics are often central to individual and social practice. All of these stories came in one day, in the Phnom Penh Post.

One of the themes I’ve been concentrating on in my new research is primitive accumulation in Cambodia. Primitive Accumulation, as used by Marx, is the process by which relatively ‘free’ peasants, who lived socially off the land via the management and sharing of the commons, were transformed into waged laborers, or those seeking wage labor, the so-called working class.  All of this of course has a great deal of contemporary resonance in watching Cambodia (or any number of other places) today.  I’m hardly the only person to have noticed this. Anthropologist Iain Baird of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been publishing on this topic.  I was fortunate enough to meet him in person last year, and he directed me to a number of his relevant articles, which I recommend.

Of course, in Cambodia, one of the great stories of primitive accumulation appear as land grabs.  Dey Krahom previously, and Boeung Kak now, become relatively famous because of their location in Phnom Penh, but land grabs have been a constant threat in more rural areas for quite a long time.  The Buddha sangha in Cambodia has been confronted with a scandal in the last few months, as activist monk Venerable Luon Savath has been progressively stripped of his ability to rely upon sangha requisites – especially shelter.  Banned from staying in capital temples previously, he has now been evicted from Watt Ounalom.  Some of his supporters – reportedly from Boeung Kak – helped him move his belongings.

More generally, Cambodia is waiting to hear the US government’s decision on import tariffs from Cambodia.  Cambodia’s export markets are not terribly diverse, and therefore highly dependent on state-to-state relations with its few customers.  The United States and the European Union occupy the biggest seats at the table.  As a result, decisions on tariffs in the US make enormous changes in Cambodia.  While the Cambodia garment industry has been adding jobs in the last quarter, the reduction or elimination of select tariffs would almost certainly result in the rapid addition of more jobs.  This is absolutely necessary if Cambodia is ever to experience significant secondary industrialization and the development of a more varied urban workforce.  Dependency on agricultural exports and garment work is a recipe for constant crisis.  But, challenges in the judicial sector (widespread perceptions of corruption, e.g.) and in retention of profits (expatriation of profits, e.g.) remain the largest challenge in this regard.

Finally, after a series of mass faintings at factories, in which employers and upstream brands have promised investigations, etc., the Arbitration Council has declared a strike over irregular pay and 8 other significant problems illegal, and ordered the workers back to their stations.  The union in question the Cambodian Coalition of Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) has accepted the decision, but this is significant in so far as it appears to be setting the stage for the new norm that the government and the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) are hoping becomes reality after the passage of the new Labor Law.

 

Sounding Cambodia on August 2, 2011

  • 8-year-old dies after explosion at cremation in Cambodia
  • Alison In Cambodia blogs summer fieldwork
  • Baphuon Reconstruction Completed!
  • Pansukula for Chea Vichea in France
  • Professor Sorpong Peou discovers his father is alive, ater 35 years.
more after the jump…

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.

Continue reading

“Independent Cambodian Unionism: Caught Between Representation and Apathy”

I will be presenting a paper at the Association of Asian Studies‘ 70th annual conference, here in beautiful Honolulu, Hawaii, tomorrow, Thursday March 31st.

The title is “Independent Cambodian Unionism: Caught Between Representation and Apathy,” and explores the dynamics of independent unions in Cambodia from the perspective of organizational form and institutional authority. I focus especially on the September 2010 strike, which brought an estimated 210,000 workers into the streets of Phnom Penh (out of an estimated, nation-wide total of 350,000 garment workers), and seemed about to win a massive victory, when it was suddenly called off.

The panel is organized by Samantha Christiansen of Northeastern University, and includes contributions from George Katsiaficas (also chairing), Na Kahn-chae, Shane Gunderson, and Helen Delfeld. It looks to be very good indeed.

SOUNDING on Cambodia for September 20, 2010

I’m sweating the beginning of the new semester, as I am teaching three classes (two large intro classes and a seminar), and trying to finish up three articles, among other things. Still, the enormous labor action that took place over the last week in Cambodia needs to be noted, though at this moment I have little to add in the way of analysis or interpretation. Please discuss in the comments.

Anne Elizabeth Moore’s article, “Garment Strike in Phnom Penh reaches Critical Mass: Will Adidas, Gap, and Puma Pay Workers a Living Wage?“, is one of the best summaries of the situation out there currently. Her other work in and on Cambodia is also excellent.

The labor actions have involved, and frequently ended, in violence with police, as the latter attempt to restrain the former.