Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Garment workers on tour

Cambodian garment workers in UK to push for end to rights violations
A different type of tour takes place in the UK today, with the arrival of two Cambodian garment workers who are hoping to use their visit to draw attention to the appalling conditions faced by garment workers in the supply chains of British and multi-national brands and retailers. Athit Kong, vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU) and Pherak Ly, of Womyns Agenda for Change (WAC), will be in the UK from today until 5 June to push for improvements in working conditions in the Cambodian garment industry, with public events in York, London and Norwich. Ms Ly will be returning to London to support the launch of a report into working conditions in the supply chains for the Olympic games.

Garment exporting is one of the main sources of foreign exchange for Cambodia and it remains one of the cheapest countries to source from. Violations of workers rights are common, including poverty wages, excessive working hours, lack of social security, poor health and safety and suppression of trade unions. Workers face an insecure future as more are forced to work on piece rates and temporary contracts. Changes in trade rules have led to many factory owners and brands shifting production to China and elsewhere leaving workers without jobs or compensation. A number of British and European retailers including Asda George, Primark, H&M, Zara, Debenhams and Arcadia are known to source clothing from Cambodia.

Cambodian trade unionists face harassment, dismissal and even death whilst trying to demand better rights. Three Cambodian trade unionists have been murdered in the last few years, several others have suffered assualts and arrest. An international campaign has been launched to urge the Cambodian government to bring to justice the killer of trade union leader Hy Vuthy, shot in February 2007, and also to reopen the investigation into the murder of Chea Vichea in 2004 following the conviction of two men for the killing, who are widely-viewed as innocent.
Find out more here.

Rithy Panh in TouchStone

For many readers, getting hold of a copy of TouchStone, the quarterly magazine produced by Cambodian NGO HeritageWatch, is impossible. Which is a real pity as it contains a lot of very interesting articles including this focus on, and interview with, filmmaker Rithy Panh, which I've reproduced here.
Bridging Generations
Cambodia’s premier filmmaker Rithy Panh (pictured) talks with TouchStone about Cambodia’s future, film and the events that have influenced his craft.
Decades of wars, military coups and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime have profoundly affected the Cambodian people. Beyond the millions of deaths, the Khmer Rouge destroyed an entire identity and a culture. Today few archives remain from the Cambodian audiovisual heritage. In hope of giving Cambodians back their heritage, the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center patiently collects pieces of Cambodian memories and is committed to supporting development in the audiovisual sector by implementing an audiovisual training programs and production.
Why did you name the Center Bophana? The name emphasizes the intention to relay the message of resistance, courage and dignity, as left by a 25 year old woman detained in the Khmer Rouge’s infamous S21 prison named Bophana. The main project is to reconstruct the Cambodian audiovisual heritage. Creating access to memory is fundamental to transmit history and culture to future generations and to build a future together.
What are the Center’s objectives? Rich or poor, it is for everyone. We want to generate respect among Cambodians, to be proud and to learn to love their heritage and culture. Bophana was never designed to be a national archive but a space where everyone can go, watch and interact – access is the key. Some of the footage in our archives dates back to as early as the late 19th century, years before the first movie was released. When Cambodians watch the footage we have here you can literally see their faces light up, as though something new has stirred.
How will this help prospective Cambodian filmmakers? Images play a very central role in supporting education. We need to train a new generation of filmmakers focusing on history. Modern film making in Hollywood and Cambodia is fine, I have nothing against it as it ultimately imparts knowledge and skills for the whole process from technicians and directors to editing and even make-up. Ultimately I want to teach my students and the young generation of Cambodia to know about more than entertainment, I want them to know how to create cinema.
How did you end up in France? I was born in the 1960s in Tuol Kork in Phnom Penh. In 1975, like so many others, my family was forcefully relocated by the Khmer Rouge to a very harsh and cruel existence in Battambang province. I was one of the few members of my family who survived. When I wanted to leave Cambodia all I knew was that I wanted to get away for a while. I had to get away, anywhere. At the time Australia seemed like a good option – it’s an enormous country where I could hide out and not have to ever see or speak to anyone, ever. However, I had family in France already so that is where I ended up going.
How did you first get involved in film? By accident really. I knew of Yule Brenner and Charlie Chaplin but that was about it. I was suffering and the memories of what had happened during the Khmer Rouge regime to me, my family and others, every day I felt like I was drowning, I couldn’t breathe or find a way out of my anguish and sorrow. How is it possible to recapture your life and move on when you are haunted by why you didn’t save your parents or children? I needed to find a release. After dabbling in painting, music and writing, all of which I was particularly bad at, someone gave me a small cinema and it felt good. Someone then recommended I attend a famous film school in Paris. I was very interested but mainly because I was told I could get an ID card that would entitle me three years of free movies!
When did you come back to Cambodia? I came back to Cambodia in 1988 and filmed a documentary on the refugee camps at the Thai border. This was my first film here and the first documentary by a Cambodian director on refugee camps.
Does your experience during the Khmer Rouge affect your life today? Yes, of course, on so many levels, it is who I am ask anyone that has been through something like this, ask the Jewish people and the Rwandans. More than war, genocide affects you so deep inside, it is total destruction of your core being; it aims to destroy the humanity in you and the humanity around you in each and every person. It destroys your ability to speak, to laugh and to play. To come back you have to learn everything again. When you don’t have parents or a base, you end up without any roots so I tend to go wherever and whenever I feel the need to move on.
How did the Khmer Rouge regime affect Cambodia’s identity? When you rebuild a country you have to rebuild identity. Genocide destroys culture and identity. Sadly, the Khmer Rouge killed many intellectuals, which is why we need to rebuild the memory first – if you don’t link this then there will be impunity, and then you will always have problems.
Your film S21 is notorious for its graphic and emotional account of the torture prison of Tuol Sleng, why did you make this film? I wanted to give those that died here some dignity – for the world to understand what happened and how it happened. We found the perpetrators were eager to express their point of view and their pain. Over a ten year period, I had to train a completely Khmer crew to gain the trust of those we were filming and re-counting their stories, men and women, the victims and the perpetrators of the regime, still alive today in the villages of Cambodia. I don’t want people to watch this and go out partying after. It’s for the world to stop and to think. This happened in Cambodia, but it could have been anywhere and it’s still happening today, we keep making the same mistakes and allowing it to happen.
Do you believe it’s important the younger generation are educated in school about the KR regime? Yes, absolutely. Now it is only given a few pages of attention in their history classes. It needs more. A bridge is broken. As the older generations have died, are too ill or old, it’s up to my generation to play a role like a bridge between the younger ones of today – they have to know what happened to heal the country.
Can you name someone or something that is inspiring to you? I was once in India and went to the home of where Ghandi lived. There was a book with an inscription that read something along the lines of ‘real generosity is not about giving and indulging, it’s about never taking more than what you actually need’. That really affected me and still does today, especially with the way our society behaves. We need to think beyond today, everything is of consequence and we need to start taking responsibility for our actions.

Birmingham in colour

From Wednesday (6 June) artist and musician Colin Gabbidon will present an exhibition of twenty of his paintings at The Drum in Aston, Birmingham. In Birmingham & the People Of, Colin has captured the beauty of Birmingham city, the people and their rich cultures from the 1920s to the present day. Featuring oil paintings, pastels and water colours tracing Birmingham's historical landmarks through the decades. I've known Colin for a few years and he's already exhibited his art in Germany and in his home town of Birmingham at the Symphony Hall and Central Library. He's sketched and painted many famous musicians which he's sold to retail outlets and is available for private commissions. When he's not painting, he's the drummer with reggae group Gabbidon, who are playing at The Jam House in Birmingham tonight. You can find out more about Colin here.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Contact telephone number

I've just changed my contact telephone number. It's now:

+ 44 (0) 788 063 7727

The + sign signifies whatever code is needed locally in order to get an international dial tone, and 44 is the international dialing code for the UK. If telephoning from overseas, drop the zero in brackets. If you call me from the UK, it's 0788 063 7727.

My e-mail address remain unchanged:

TouchStone Magazine

The latest edition of TouchStone (April-June), the glossy quarterly magazine produced by the NGO HeritageWatch landed on my doormat today. Its designed to keep a high profile public focus on the richness of Cambodia's heritage, culture and arts and the necessity to preserve it. Its eighty pages are again brimming with informative articles on a variety of topics from interviews with award-winning filmmaker Rithy Panh and ace photographer John McDermott, feature stories on the temples of Banteay Chhmar (by yours truly) and Krol Romeas, a focus on organisations making a difference such as PEPY and Youth Star Cambodia, as well as arts and crafts, forthcoming events and businesses giving back. And it's free, just pick up a copy in key retail outlets, restaurants, cafes, bars and guesthouses. All proceeds from advertising is used to fund their Heritage Friendly Tourism Campaign to raise awareness about Cambodian heritage and the trade of illegal antiquities. Find out more about HeritageWatch at their website. Below: Page 1 of 4 pages of my article on the remote temple of Banteay Chhmar.

KR Tribunal snippets

Whilst the article is a couple of weeks old, this feature by Macleans magazine in Canada provides an overview on progress of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia. Click here, or go to the Comments section to read the article in full.

Meanwhile, The Center for Social Development (CSD) has announced its third public forum of 2007 on Justice & National Reconciliation will be held in Svay Rieng province on 8 June. Its a poignant location for CSD executive director Theary C Seng and ECCC press officer Reach Sambath, as its where they both suffered the loss of parents during the Khmer Rouge years. The forums are used as a platform to discuss the Khmer Rouge period to aid peace, healing and reconcilation, as well as manage expectations as to what the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) can provide in terms of justice. All of the forums are broadcast on local television and radio stations. Already this year, forums have been held in Siem Reap and Mondulkiri, with future forums scheduled for Kompong Thom, Kep and Battambang later this year. In 2006, forums were held in Pailin, Kampot and Kratie.

CSD is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation, established in Phnom Penh since 1995, and seeks to promote democratic values and improve the quality of life of the Cambodian people.The mission of CSD is to encourage broad participation (at both national and local levels) in public affairs, develop a respect for human rights and the rule of law, enhance transparency and accountability in the public sphere, and raise awareness of issues of national concern through all forms of media. Find out more about CSD at their website.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Bones That Float, A Story of Adopting Cambodia

Cambodia gatecrashes your psyche, it worms its way into every pore of your body and it captures your heart like nowhere else. That's how I feel about Cambodia and in her book, Bones That Float, A Story of Adopting Cambodia, Kari Grady Grossman exudes similar feelings for this magical faraway land. Not only did Kari and George Grady Grossman adopt a son, they also adopted a country and its culture. Bones That Float is a beautifully written book - it felt like a tutorial in love, as well as lessons in history, survival, cooking and hope for the future - that brought me to tears and happiness in equal measure. I loved it.
It's the journey to parenthood for Kari and George with the adoption of Grady and a search for his birthfamily, weaved amongst two other tales, of Amanda and her family's story of survival, and Sovann, bursting with typical Khmer ingenuity but forever dreaming of a life in America. The legacy of Grady's adoption is a lasting one. Kari and George founded a school in their son's honour in 2001 and 25% of the proceeds from this book will support the school as it makes a real difference to the lives of nearly 500 children in the remote village of Chrauk Tiek.
Bones That Float is available in major bookstores and online booksellers, however, the best way to ensure more money goes towards the school is by purchasing it directly from or by mail from Wild Heaven Press. Go to the book's website to find out more about Kari and her story, and I urge you to visit the school's website to read a lot more about this on-going success story.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

e-Visa update

The folks at Cambodia's Foreign Ministry are pushing hard the convenience of their new e-Visa online service for travellers. So far 10,000 applications have been processed and getting your visa beforehand avoids any delay on arrival at the five entry ports it currently supports - Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports, Koh Kong, Poipet and Moc Bai. Everyone arriving at Phnom Penh airport will have their own comic story of the fifteen-minute wait as a dozen or so officials handle your visa application and passport. The e-Visa costs an extra $5 to process (so $25 in total) but it'll be processed in just three days and arrive in your e-mail inbasket and the application form now supports 25 languages. The e-Visa website makes the process a straightforward one, uses paypal for the payment section and also contains a blog to keep you up to speed with further developments as well as a page for sharing your stories about your Cambodia experiences. The e-Visa won't suit everyone but credit to the Foreign Ministry for increasing our service options.

Digital here I come...

For far too long now I've been procrastinating on when to change from my point and shoot camera to digital...well, my mind is now made up and here's the nail in the coffin:
A complete reel of film, 36 pictures, all look like this, ie. one photo superimposed on top of another...and both films were ones which I'm gutted are ruined. The original film was taken in Cambodia and included shots from the Angkor Conservation Depot and Kim's leaving party, as she waved goodbye to her friends at the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse for her studies in Australia (that's who the crowd of people are on the photo above). The second film, superimposed on the first, included photos from a Yaz Alexander concert, some family snaps and the pictures I took at the recent FA Trophy Final at the new Wembley (that's a picture of myself and my brother Tim with the pitch in the background). I should've changed to digital a long time ago and this is the nudge I need to actually do it.

The Flute Player

An integral part of the forthcoming Cambodian Living Arts tour of the UK starring Kong Nay and Ouch Savy, two of Cambodia's master Chapei musicians, will be an hour-long documentary about the life and work of Arn Chorn-Pond, called The Flute Player. The tour kicks-off in Norwich on 19 July and a full list of dates can be found here. Arn Chorn-Pond was nine years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975 and separated him from his family. Now, after living in the United States for over twenty years, Arn returned to Cambodia to save its once outlawed traditional music from extinction by founding Cambodian Living Arts, formerly known as the Cambodian Master Performers Program. The documentary film, produced by Jocelyn Glatzer, was first premiered in July 2003 as a POV showcase on PBS television in the US. POV provides an excellent website to accompany the film, which also has its own website.

Other PBS stories on Cambodia include Pol Pot's Shadow in October 2002 for the Frontlineworld series and two Independent Lens' film-sites for the documentaries Sentenced Home and Refugee. PBS, headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, is a non–profit media enterprise owned and operated by the nation's 354 public television stations. A trusted community resource, PBS uses the power of non-commercial television, the internet and other media to enrich the lives of all Americans through quality programs and education services that inform, inspire and delight. Available to 99% of American homes with televisions and to an increasing number of digital multimedia households, PBS serves over 75 million people each week.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Book Ends

There's been a dearth of books on Cambodia so far in 2007, so I'm pleased to highlight half a dozen or so publications that have either just appeared, or will soon appear in bookstores. I'll start with a forthcoming book by Benny Widyono that will lay bare the inside story of the UNTAC period in early 90s Cambodia. Widyono was a career UN diplomat serving with UNTAC in '92 and '93 and as an envoy to the UN secretary-general in Cambodia from 1994 to 1997. Dancing In Shadows: Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge and the United Nations in Cambodia, will untangle the battles and agendas of all parties involved during that remarkable period in its 280 pages. In this article, Widyono looks at the UN's record in Cambodia and Iraq. Recently published in paperback is Bun T Lim's Surviving Cambodia, The Khmer Rouge Regime, the story of Bunthong's trials and tribulations under Pol Pot and his eventual escape to America; 196 pages and produced by Trafford Publishing. On The Road To Angkor is a 209-page exploration of Buddhism found along the ancient Royal Road of the old Khmer Empire by Margret Hargreaves-Allen, published by iUniverse in March.

Troubled Relations: The United States and Cambodia since 1870 by Kenton Clymer is a revised history of the American-Cambodian relationship, published by Nothern Illinois University Press (266 pages). Clymer's original book in 2004, The United States & Cambodia, won the Robert H Fennel Prize for distinquished scholarship. Anne Ruth Hansen's How To Behave: Buddhism and Modernity in Colonial Cambodia 1860-1930, by University of Hawaii Press, breaks new ground in understanding the history and development of religion in SEAsia. A children's fictional novel by Jill Max called Strangers In Black, is a graphic account of a child's struggle to survive in Pol Pot's Cambodia and was published by Royal Fireworks Press. An in-depth look at the genocide in Cambodia and East Timor is at the heart of Ben Kiernan's new book, Genocide and Resistance in Southeast Asia: Documentation, Denial and Justice. Finally, a new travelguide to add to the Lonely Planet stable will be Nick Ray's combo, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and the Greater Mekong, due out in September (524 pages).

Friday, May 25, 2007

Rieng's family snaps - Siem Reap

Above: Rieng, far right, with his family in Prey Chrouk.
Another of my great pals in Cambodia is Rieng, who lives in Siem Reap and is an Angkor guide, policeman and all-round great guy. In January, we stopped off at his parents' home in the village of Prey Chrouk along Highway 6 and met a whole host of family members, including his mum and dad, grandad, two younger brothers and two sisters. Back in Siem Reap, Rieng and his wife Sovann, who live with her parents, Heng and Savoeung, always invite me round for a gorgeous feast and we were joined by Sovann's sisters and Narin, Rieng's brother. Find out more about Rieng here. Below LtoR: Narin, Kadka, Phyrun, author, Sovann.

Sokhom's family snaps - Kompong Thom

Above LtoR: Sroy, Sokhom and Kunthea alongwith three of Sroy's sisters and their children.
If you've read my Cambodia Tales, you'll now that Sokhom and his family, who live in Kompong Thom, are some of my very best friends in Cambodia. I've known Sokhom for eight years and we hook up for some adventurous trips into the countryside on his trusty Daelim moto every year. In January I met some of his extended family members when we visited his wife Sroy's father's house. Thai has been a commune chief in Kompong Thom for many years and he told me that his party, Sam Rainsy, is very popular in the city. We had a long chat about politics before everyone lined up for some family photos. As I experience throughout my travels, Thai and his wife Sun and their family gave me a wonderfully friendly welcome. Find out more about Sokhom here. Below LtoR: Sun, Thai, Kunthea and their next door neighbour.

Eradicating trafficking & illiteracy

The eradication of trafficking and illiteracy amongst girls in Cambodia is something that I feel very strongly about. Two programs that are doing just that are the Girls be Ambitious program run in conjunction with the JRfC/AAFC's Cambodian School Project, and the Cambodian Arts & Scholarship Foundation. The objective of the Japan Relief for Cambodia/American Assistance for Cambodia's (JRfC/AAfC) Girls be Ambitious program is to prevent the trafficking of Cambodian girls and women for sexual and labour exploitation through an incentive program for girls from poverty-stricken homes to stay in school and receive additional vocational training aimed at providing alternative employment and increased income. You can read more about the program that piggybacks the Bernie Krishner-inspired drive to build more schools in rural Cambodia, here. Meanwhile, the Cambodian Arts & Scholarship Foundation (CASF) is a charity that I've raised funds for in the past and who do a fantastic job in improving the lives of girls, often denied equal access to schooling. CASF collaborates with local communities to identify potential students, provides financial, emotional and medical support to these students and their families, and sustains this support for as long as the child wants to learn. CASF has recently launched its new website here. The task of eradicating illiteracy and child trafficking won't be solved by these two organizations alone but both are making a real difference to real lives, every day.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Children's Book

July will see the publication in paperback, by Random House, of Home Is East, a children's book by author Many Ly. Originally published in 2005, it's the compelling story, set in America, of a young Cambodian girl and her struggle to come to terms with her mother's disappearance and its effect on her father, as they move home to start a new life. The author herself came to America as a 3 year old refugee in 1981 after leaving Cambodia. She was a teacher before moving to Pittsburgh, where she now works for an organization that helps adult learners. She's currently finalizing her second fictional novel, Roots and Wings, about the loss of a young Khmer girl's grandmother.

If anyone has details of a 2oo4 book release, From Genocide to Freedom, by Pan So and Savan Prum, please let me know.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Silent Sentinels, Coward's War (1995)

Silent Sentinels, Coward's War, produced in 1995, is the fifth of half a dozen David A Feingold documentaries I've been sent by DER Films, to celebrate their release on dvd for the public market. Directed by Feingold and co-produced with Deborah La Gorce Kramer, this film looks at the threat of landmines to lives and livelihoods in Cambodia, long after the fighting has stopped. The film begins with images of a Bayon face and classical dance students before we see a unit of Khmer Rouge soldiers near the Thai-Cambodian border receiving instruction on mine-laying techniques. We delve deeper behind the problem facing Cambodia through interviews with mine victims and deminers such as Halo's Richard Boulter, Tim Porter and Robin Biddulph as well as MAG's Norman Stewart, Martyn Jordan and Chris Horwood. Both of these British demining organisations are at the forefront of the long and arduous job of making Cambodia safe again.

The film focuses on anti-personnel mines, specifically designed to maim and kill people, usually innocent civilians in the rural countryside, and various mines are highlighted, including the T72 Alpha, T72 Bravo and Pomz. The cost of a mine, $3 for a PMN2 mine, is far outweighed by the cost of locating and destroying it, which can be $500-plus. Already Cambodia has a ratio of 1:235 people who are amputees, the highest ratio in the world. The film visits the Vietnam Veterans Foundation, one of five organisations fitting prosthetic limbs to mine victims, and talks to Bobby Muller, as well as highlighting the work of CMAC in investigating and mapping Cambodia's landmine problem. It's a problem that will take many years to resolve, despite the peace that now envelopes the country. You can see a clip from the 55 minute dvd, and purchase it at the DER website here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

More on Bun Heang Ung

The following article on the outstanding animator, cartoonist and friend of this blog/website, Bun Heang Ung appeared in the Phnom Penh Post newspaper (Issue 16/10) recently.

Cambodia: Critical Cartoonists Deterred by Defamation Suits, Imprisonment Threat
From to Pol Pot to Winnie the Pooh, this pencil-wielding polemicist has made cartooning his life's' work-his political satires incite laughter and controversy.

Few dare caricature Hun Sen, but Ung Bun Heang does. Cambodia's press is marked by a smattering of biting political cartoons, but the ruling elite, royalty and the Prime Minister in particular are adverse to satirical critique. The threat of defamation suits and imprisonment is a powerful deterrent to cartoonists with a critical bent. But from the comfortable distance of Sydney, dissident cartoonist Bun Heang, 55, is providing a restive counterpoint to constraints on the press, with searing critiques of Cambodia's political scene on his blog Sacrava Toons.
After surviving the Khmer Rouge regime, Bun Heang used his artistic skills to forge travel documents and left Cambodia as a refugee in 1979. He now focuses from afar on the political life of his homeland. And no one is safe from his caricature - not Hok Lundy, not Hun Sen, not even King Father Norodom Sihanouk. In Australia, Bun Heang has worked as a children's book illustrator, as well as an animator for film studios, including Walt Disney, winning a daytime Emmy as part of the production team for "The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh." But politics is his real passion. "My father warned me to not get involved with politics because it would lead to jail, assassination, or political asylum," Bun Heang told the Post by email. "But I believe it's been my destiny to have been involved with Khmer politics - not as a politician but as an observer with a pencil."

Bun Heang has published a graphic history of life under the Khmer Rouge and was an editorial cartoonist for the Far Eastern Economic Review from 1997 to 1999. Although many Cambodians are only now beginning to discover his work, he has been dissecting the Kingdom's politics with his pencil since the Lon Nol coup in 1970. As a student of painting at Phnom Penh's Fine Arts School from 1965 to 1975, Bun Heang sought an outlet for his real passion. "I loved to draw cartoons but we didn't have any course or animation studio in Phnom Penh so I went to some newspapers to show them my work," he said. Soth Polin, novelist and editor of the independent newspaper Nokor Thom, gave the 18-year-old a job as an editorial cartoonist. Working alongside journalists, economists, and university professors, Bun Heang remembers his four years in the newsroom as a period of intellectual ferment. "I was a good listener and from those years, I became addicted to this political opium. It's all inside my body, my mind, and even my dream," he said. "But I'm glad I'm hooked to it." Each Thursday night he worked until dawn to produce a cartoon for the front page of the paper. He continued to work for Nokor Thom until its last issue in 1974, when Polin fled the country. Sam Sarath, the senior cartoonist and illustrator for the Center for Social Development, remembers clearly Bun Heang's Nokor Thom cartoons, which he adopted as a model for his own work. "I admired his work a lot more than any other cartoonist," he said. "His cartoons were political, meaningful and easy to understand."

When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh and forcibly evacuated the city, Bun Heang put down his pencil and headed for his home village in Prey Veng province. Hiding his background as a "bourgeois intellectual," he worked the paddy fields and built dams. He witnessed executions, purges of Khmer Rouge cadre, and the massacre of more than 30 relatives. He also married and with his wife survived until the arrival of the Vietnamese in 1979. They returned to Phnom Penh and Bun Heang found work with the Vietnamese-backed regime in the Ministry of Information. His job was to draw cartoons for animated propaganda films that lauded Vietnam's liberation of Cambodia. "My job was to show smiling Vietnamese soldiers helping Kampuchean peasants," he recalled. When his superiors took offense to his habit of caricaturing the Vietnamese with bucked-teeth, he was hauled before a committee, who accused him of being in sympathy with the Khmer Rouge and of stirring up nationalist sentiment against Vietnam. Bun Heang apologized profusely and narrowly avoided internment in a re-education camp.
Soon after, he forged travel documents for himself, his wife and five-month old daughter, as well as his mother and two sisters. In December 1979 they headed to the Thai border and after a perilous ten-day journey arrived at the Khao I Dang refugee camp. After six months they were resettled in Australia. "When the plane took off from the runway, my heart told me that I would be a free man again," Bun Heang recalled. During his first two years in Australia, Bun Heang drew 90 intricate drawings of his experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime."I put so much detail on each drawing because I wanted to them tell their own story. Each took 12 to 14 hours to finish," he said. Working with Martin Stuart-Fox, a former Vietnam war correspondent, he published the drawings with the story of his experience under the Khmer Rouge in the book Murderous Revolution: Life and Death in Pol Pot's Kampuchea. "While working on the book I spoke to Martin using broken French and English plus my body language. It was a fun and unforgettable experience," he said. In 1995, Bun Heang began posting political cartoons online called Khmer Sweet. As his audience grew, he launched Sacrava Toons in 2004. As more Cambodians log on, his cartoons are becoming increasingly well known, particularly among youth. His work now appears both on his blog and on the popular KI Media website.

Bun Heang last visited Cambodia in 1994, but was warned against staying. "One of my old teachers told me: 'Go back to Australia. There's no room here for people like you. You'll be killed at any time'," he said. He now remains in touch with the Kingdom via the internet. "I contact Khmers in Cambodia every hour and receive news from inside CPP, the Royal Palace, and rural Cambodia," he said. "There is a Khmer patriot network and thanks to the mighty IT tunnel, we can be in touch in less than five minutes." Bun Heang's work focuses on what he considers the major issues affecting the country, including corruption, "fake democracy," deforestation, lawlessness, impunity, land grabbing and what he perceives to be an overreaching influence of Vietnam. His cartoons are highly critical of the ruling Cambodian People's Party. "Hun Sen always reminds Khmers to thank CPP but forgets that it's his government's duty to protect Cambodia's interests," Bun Heang said. "They all get paid to do a job and they ought to thank the Khmer people who provide them with the best living-style, while millions of Khmers live in poverty. What I can see is that everyday they're not serving Khmers, but oppressing them." Despite his critique of the ruling party, Bun Heang said he was not aligned with any opposition party. Describing himself as "a diehard Khmer republican," he said his brother, Ung Bun Ang, a former Sam Rainsy Party senator, once tried to persuade him to join SRP but he refused. "I said no because no one controls my head - only Cambodia and its people," he said. "I'm an observer. I like to poke fun at anyone or any government who doesn't do the right thing for Cambodia, even Rainsy." Bun Heang's work is often anti-Vietnamese and includes blatently racist caricatures and epithets, but he's adamant his attacks are not racially motivated but political. "I admit that my cartoons are always anti-Vietnam but I'm not against the Vietnamese people," he said. "I'm against the policy of Hanoi towards Cambodia. It's nothing to do with the Vietnamese people, who love peace just as Khmers do."

Ou Virak, head of the Alliance for Freedom of Expression, a coalition of 28 NGOs, said that while Bun Heang's work was often controversial, he was making an important contribution. "You don't always have to agree with what he says - and I don't always - but the act itself is what's important," he said. "Freedom of expression should be welcomed regardless of whether you like it or not." Virak said it was unlikely Bun Heang's work could be published in Cambodia, as the government was not ready for such searing satire. "They're critical political cartoons, which we don't see in Cambodia. They're conveying a message and are probably doing it better than any of us here can," he said. "It would be a plus for Cambodia if they could [be published]. It's a tremendous way to convey political opinion to illiterate people." Sarath said it was a "great thing" that Bun Heang's work was now becoming known in Cambodia. "Not many people know his work from the Lon Nol period because most of those people have died," he said. "I would like to be able to draw critical cartoons like his new work but in order for my security I need to avoid it." Bun Heang has now moved away from his finely detailed drawings and instead produces multimedia cartoons. "With new technology, like Photoshop, I can draw cartoons within an hour, which is fun for an old dinosaur like me," he said. Bun Heang now places his hopes for Cambodia's future on the youth. "Everyday I'm so pleased to receive comments from yoBun Heang Khmer. It's my message to Khmer kids to learn our past, present and prepare for the future," he said. Despite his outspoken critique, Bun Heang said he had never felt in danger in Australia, and vowed to continue Sacrava Toons "until the last minute of my life." "Everyday I'm surrounded by my beautiful family and that makes me think of Khmer families in Cambodia who have no chance to enjoy prosperity like mine," he said. "Their suffering is what inspires me to draw for free everyday." [courtesy of Phnom Penh Post]

UK tour dates announced for Kong Nay

Originally booked to appear at the Womad Festival in Wiltshire on 27-29 July, Dickie Chappell has done a great job in expanding Kong Nay's visit to the UK into another dozen tour dates across the country. In addition to the master musician, famed for his likeness to Ray Charles and his expertise on the Chapei, a traditional form of improvised song-making that is often compared to American Delta Blues, the tour will include his protege, Ouch Savy and an hour-long documentary film about the life and work of Arn Chord-Pond, titled The Flute Player. For all of the dates, that include appearances at The Barbican in London, as well as Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow and Oxford, in addition to The British Museum, click here. The tour starts in Norwich on 19 July and must not be missed. It's great to see that Kong Nay will also make an appearance on Khmer rapper praCh's forthcoming album, as traditional style meets the new generation. To read more about the revival of traditional Khmer performing arts, click here.

Im Srey Peouv

One of the guest singers on the forthcoming praCh album, Dalama...memoirs of the invisible war, will be the gorgeous Im Srey Peouv, already a singing sensation in the Khmer-American community and who just happens to be praCh's cousin. She's written many of the tunes on her three albums to-date, MTV Volumes 1, 2 and 3 and is currently working on her fourth release as a feature artist for Kolab Angkor Productions. Originally born in Battambang, she now lives in Washington State and has a large following amongst the Khmer community in the US. She hails from a musical family, her father is a teacher of classical Khmer music, her brother is a musician and her sister, Im Sitha, is a singer and lyricist. The youngest of five children, she arrived in the States at the age of six, some twenty-two years ago and recently made her first return visit to her homeland. Listen to Im Srey Peouv here.
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The hour-long look at Khmer rap by Geoff Ryman - aired on London radio station Resonance FM earlier this evening - was an interesting meander through Khmer hip-hop and rap courtesy of the main exponents of this musical genre, such as praCh, who started and ended the program with three of his tracks, kicking off with Power, Territory & Rice, and ending with Clear & Present Danger, and Peace. Ryman's interviews with leading rappers like DJ Cream, A Ping, Tony Real and Silong, were all recorded in April 2006. Silong, as part of the Mujestic collective, provides the beats for praCh's lyrics though he's an artist in his own right, and along with his group 2nd Language, posted the best track of the whole program in A New Day Tomorrow. My thanks to Geoff for highlighting this musical explosion both inside and outside of Cambodia and one which confirms an Angelina Jolie interview comment sampled in a Silong track that declares; "the most inspiring people I've ever met."

Monday, May 21, 2007

Ryman Rap

Geoff Ryman is known across the globe for his science fiction novels and of course his 2006 novel about the life and legacy of Cambodia's King Jayavarman VII in The King's Last Song. Another string to his bow is his appetite and appreciation for current Khmer musical styles. And you can listen to the award-winning author on the London radio station Reasonance 104.4fm this evening at 7pm (in the UK), as he takes us on an hour-long journey through Khmer hip hop, a heady mix of South East Asian and Afro-American culture brought to Cambodia by returning refugees and featuring the music of and interviews with praCh Ly, Sok Visal, A Ping, DJ Boomer, Tony Real, and Silong. The show is called Geoff Ryman - I Let My Pen Bleed: Rap in Cambodia, and you can listen on the internet here. If you are in Cambodia, you can catch the show at 1am on Tuesday 22 May!

Following on from my recent exclusive interview with Khmer rap star praCh, you can find a lot more information about his soon-to-be-released (probably October) album, Dalama...memoirs of the invisible war, here. praCh has gathered together a collection of outstanding individuals to accompany him on this new album including Kong Nay, U Sam Oeur, Im Srey Peouv and Silong. And I'm really pleased to hear that animator and artist Bun Heang Ung will be helping out on the album sleeve design and an animated video. This is how Geoff Ryman sees it: "praCh Ly is the most authoritative voice in Khmai and Khmai-American rap. [Dalama..."memoirs of the invisible war."] not only shows his music taking on new beats and new sounds from traditional and other sources. The lyrics have a new focus on all of the Cambodian tragedy from 1970 to the present. Aware, furious, respectful, precise - this is political writing at its finest. Like Nelson Mandela had rapped when he was young."

Note: My blog was very quiet over the weekend as I was staying with friends in Birmingham. A big thank you to my hosts Nancy and Faz for taking such good care of me and feeding me til I was ready to burst.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Sam Lorn leads the way

Sam Lorn, 40, is a pioneer of Cambodian-American cinema. He’s an accomplished independent filmmaker with thirteen years experience in the film industry as an actor, screenwriter, producer and director. He’s produced three feature-length films including Young Survivor (1999) and Lovesick (2005) that bring modern Cambodian-American experiences to the big screen, he’s written ten screenplays and had parts in several films and on television. He’s currently in Cambodia filming District Lights, a drama based in Phnom Penh and has another drama, Moira, in production.
Born in Cambodia, Lorn lost two brothers and a sister to the Khmer Rouge regime and with his parents and six siblings emigrated to America in 1978 and settled in Long Beach, California. In 1984, during his senior year in high school, Lorn was shot by a local street gang and was sent to live with his older brother in Houston. However, street life tempted him into meandering through ten cities in seven states until the death of a close friend in 1991 motivated him to turn his life around. He headed to New York and gradually worked his way into films, studying and learning his trade at such places as the New York Film Academy and HB Studios. In 1997 he founded Refugee Productions, a filmmaking entity, as well as Forlorn Films, an independent distribution arm.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Dary in charge

Any visitor to Cambodia will know that motos and cyclos - usually hired for short trips around town - are a male-only domain, unless you take a trip to Kratie and Prey Veng. Bernjul reported on Lonely Planet's Thorntree messageboard that Miss Dary Saing (pictured right) is the only female motodop in Kratie, speaks very good English and will arrange tours around her local area. Meanwhile, in Prey Veng, there are around 150 working cyclos - cyclos are rarely seen beyond the outskirts of Phnom Penh - and there's at least one woman cyclo driver. If you know of more, please leave a comment. If you're looking for a reliable male motodop, click here.

Gigs & CamboFest

For UK reggae fans, here's some reggae gigs to be aware of - and which I'll be attending - in the next few weeks.
GABBIDON will be playing at The JamHouse in Birmingham on Wednesday 30 May, starting at 9pm, and taking you through a history of reggae music will be Basil Gabbidon, Leonie Smith, Indigo and the band.
JEAN McLEAN returns to the Ipanema Bar, Broad Street, Birmingham on Sunday 3 June to bring you her own tunes from her album I'm A Reggebaby and some songs from her favourite songwriters. Memphis will provide the backing sound. 7.30pm start, cost £3.
YAZ ALEXANDER is scheduled for a support performance at The Sanctuary in Birmingham on Friday 15 June, with Freddie McGregor top-billing, and Ras Negus, Natural Black and The Rasites also on the bill.
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The first annual indie CamboFest: Film and Video Festival of Cambodia will take place in Phnom Penh on 16 and 17 June. Hosted by Camerado, a media production and consultation entity, their aim is to contribute to the rebirth of film, video, and media production in Cambodia by showcasing work by both international and regional filmmakers. They are just about to announce the line up of films to be shown at two locations in the capital, at Meta House (for feature films and shorts) and the Sala Art Space (for social issue doumentaries). They also hope to take the festival to Siem Reap in late October. To find out more, click here. CamboFest is a supporter of several local organizations which assist disadvantaged children, including The Cambodian Light Children's Association and SCD Cambodia.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Typically Topical - flashback to 1989

Whilst editor of the Kidderminster Harriers match-day programme, called The Harrier, in May 1989, I penned this article which is worth posting before it disappears into the mists of time…

The best move I ever made! I wonder how many players have said that – well, it can apply to the backroom staff too. After fifteen years, my allegiance to Cheltenham Town was on the wane when the call came from Graham Allner to take on the programme editors’ job at Aggborough. I didn’t need to be asked twice by Graham, whom I first met when he was Allan Grundy’s assistant at Cheltenham. Already working for the Harriers was my younger brother Tim, who was helping out Nick Savage on the commercial and lottery side of things and after watching quite a few of the Harriers games in 1985/86, my mind was already made up.

Of course, I couldn’t have hoped for a better first season with the FA Trophy Final at Wembley and the never-to-be-forgotten Hawthorns replay, perhaps the only disappointment was our league form., Last season, the Challenge Shield win at Scarborough and the Welsh Cup victory at Hereford particularly stand out, while the FA Cup defeat at Maidstone provided the most frustrating moment. This season, leading the table for so long prompted a few lofty thoughts but perhaps next season, while our successes over Cardiff and Hereford and the Maidstone game (I still can’t believe we lost 6-3!) are particularly memorable.

On a personal note, my football watching began when my family moved close to Cheltenham Town’s Whaddon Road ground. My first game, aged 11, was in the old Division One North of the Southern League in August 1971, the start of a love affair that was to last the next fifteen years. In that time, I didn’t miss a home game (honest!), took on the programme editors’ job in 1978 as well as reporting for both the Western Daily Press and Severn Sound Radio, while also helping out on the club’s public address. Actually, the move to Aggborough felt more like a holiday!
Although compiling the programme will take hours but reading it can take minutes, it’s a job I love and take great pride in. However, its not a one-man show and I’d like to thank everyone that’s helped me out this season (particularly my long-suffering girlfriend Carolyn). If there’s any item that you want to see in next seasons’ programme, drop me a line and we’ll do our best.
In my time at Cheltenham, and here at Aggborough, I’ve been privileged to watch some great teams and outstanding individuals and I’ve listed below my all-time favourite line-up (although some of the names may be unfamiliar) :

In goal, ex-Blues keeper Dave Latchford was superb before work commitments ended his spell at Cheltenham. Mark Buckland stands out at right-back, while the other full-back berth goes to ex-England Amateur international Julian Lailey, who was also my economics teacher. At the centre of defence, Malcolm Kavanagh and Clive Boxall had great spells at Whaddon Road but did even better once they’d left!
Graham Mackenzie, who made a lasting impression on his Robins’ debut in 1978, is my skipper and playmaker and is flanked in midfield by the precocious talent of Alan Ollis and Cheltenham’s current England semi-pro cap Steve Brooks. Ollis oozed with natural ability, while Brooks never stopped running or shooting. Up front, Kim Casey is joined by two of Cheltenham’s mercurial strikers of the early 80s, Charlie Green and Jimmy Gough. Yorkshire-born Green was a centre-forward in the old-fashioned mode, while Gough knew every trick in the book and used most of them. On the bench, I’ve picked Paul Tester, who stood out at Cheltenham before spells at Shrewsbury and Hereford. Have a great summer and see you next season.

Postscript: In a subsequent interview in the same programme, in November 2001, I was asked what was the high point of my time as a Harriers fan. My answer was: ‘Making my debut as a substitute for the Harriers on their Summer [1988] trip to Eire against EMFA Kilkenny. I got an elbow in my ribcage after a minute and struggled to get my breath back for the rest of the game! Tim also got on, as a replacement for an England international, namely Paul ‘Ocker’ Davies.’

An exclusive interview with Sichan Siv

Sichan Siv is the Cambodian-born former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, whose inspiring story will be published in his memoir, due out in March 2008. Read my exclusive interview with him below:
Q. After 30 years in the US, do you think of yourself as Khmer or American? And how do you reconcile one alongside the other?
I am both. I am an ABC: American By Choice or American Born Cambodian! I feel privileged to be an American of Cambodian ancestry, enjoying the blessings of freedom and opportunities, and being able to maintain an ancient cultural heritage.
Q. What was the catalyst for your career at the White House and then at the UN? I became interested in the US political process while watching TV coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions in the summer of 1976. From my involvement in refugee resettlement and the plight of Cambodia in the 70s and 80s, I became more familiar with how Washington works. In 1988, I volunteered for the Bush campaign to better understand presidential elections. The thought never crossed my mind that I would end up working for two Presidents of the United States.
Q. What has been the rationale and motives behind your successful career?
Adapt and be adopted! I had two dollars in my pocket when I arrived in America in 1976. I worked hard to adapt myself to America, so that America would adopt me. My mother told me when I was a child to “never give up hope, no matter what happens.” Hope kept me alive and helped me move forward in some of the most difficult circumstances.
Q. To be employed by 2 US Presidents is a rare achievement, but what would you consider as your proudest moment...and your greatest achievement?
At the White House, I was proudest when I said “On behalf of the President.” At the United Nations, when I walked in, my colleagues from 190 countries looked at me. Through me, they saw America. They saw its promise. They saw its opportunity. They wanted to hear what I had to say. When I uttered: “On behalf of the President and Government of the United States and the American people,” that was my proudest moment. My greatest achievement has been the ability to implement the President’s policies that help hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Q. Were you able to achieve anything working for the Administration that aided and supported Cambodia and the Khmer people?
My two presidential appointments, at the White House under President George Bush (41) and as an ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush (43), had national and global scope. They were not to work on Cambodia. Yet, at the White House I was able to participate in the peace process that led to the 1991 Paris Accord and organize numerous briefings on Cambodia to maintain awareness and keep the issue front and center. At the UN, the United States has been the leader in all UN development, economic, and humanitarian programs. I am happy that the Khmer people have benefited from them.
Q. Briefly, what did your Ambassadorial role involve over the last 5 years?
The focus was from “cradle to coffin.” My responsibilities ranged from children, to health, HIV/AIDS, economic issues, food crises, humanitarian disasters, human rights, refugees, women, all the way to aging. The United States is the largest donor to all these programs and my office at the US Mission to the UN oversaw some 70% of the U.N. budget.
Q. Have you returned to Cambodia since leaving in the 70s?
I returned to Cambodia the first time in March 1992 while I was still at the White House. It was 16 years after my escape from the Khmer Rouge forced labor camps. It was quite an emotional trip. In 1994 I took my wife to visit. Since then, we have been to Cambodia on a regular basis. Each time, we enjoy staying longer and longer. I am also pleased to support Cambodian communities around the world.
Q. Can you encapsulate the flavour of your memoir to be published early next year?
GOLDEN BONES is a human story. It recounts my journey from humble beginnings in a sleepy village in Cambodia to the corridors of power in Washington, DC. It is about an extraordinary escape from hell in Cambodia; an American journey from apple orchards to the White House; a timeless and universal tale of love, dreams, hope, and freedom. This is the unique history of two lands: opposite sides of the earth; two cultures: ancient and modern; two nations: weak and strong; two societies: poor and rich. It is the true story of one mother’s love and sacrifice, of her son’s hope and struggle for survival, and his life between these different worlds.
Q. Finally, what does the future hold for Sichan Siv?
It is hard to predict the future. I will continue to connect, to share, and to inspire. Hopefully, “the best is yet to come!”
In the turbulent 70s, the hope for many Cambodians was to exchange the fear and fighting of their own country for a new life elsewhere, and for the majority their target country was America. For Sichan Siv this dream became a reality and his inspiring story, to be called Golden Bones, will be published in early next year by Harper Collins. Siv not only achieved his dream, he took it to a remarkable level by becoming a White House appointee and for five years he served as a United States' Ambassador to the United Nations before stepping down last year.
As the only one of sixteen family members to survive the evacuation of Phnom Penh, Siv escaped the clutches of the Khmer Rouge and crossed the border, only to be jailed by the Thai authorities. His former employers at CARE petitioned successfully for him to be relocated to America and he arrived in Connecticut in June 1976. Later he moved to Manhattan where he drove a cab and counseled refugees. Holder of an undergraduate degree from the University of Phnom Penh, he entered Columbia University's international affairs program, earning a master's degree in 1981, and became a US citizen the following year. From 1989 to 1993, he served President George Bush at the White House as deputy assistant for public liaison and at the State Department as deputy assistant secretary for South Asian Affairs. After a successful period in private business, in 2001 the current US President, George W Bush appointed him as US Ambassador to the United Nations. Read more here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Illustrating The Past

The excellent illustration above is taken from the HeritageWatch comic book, Wrath of the Phantom Army, part of their awareness campaign using radio and television commercials alongwith educational comics and storybooks, and aimed at Khmers and tourists alike, informing them of the looting and plundering that is affecting Cambodia's heritage.
The comic panel, and book, are the work of artist and professor Y Lida. In the mid-80s, he studied traditional Khmer art and cloth painting at the University of Fine Arts. In 1999 he began teaching at the same university, while his commercial work has focused mainly on painting and illustrations with much of it for nonprofit organisations like SIPAR, PSI, Room to Read and HeritageWatch.
What I'd like to see is a comic book of Y Lida's superb illustrations showing a series of Angkorean temples in their glorious heyday, juxtaposed with how they look today, either trampled underfoot by hordes of tourists or consumed by vegetation and jungle. Or how about a series of illustrations to accompany Geoff Ryman's novel, The King's Last Song, about life in the time of Jayavarman VII. Just a thought...

Marathon man Jonathan Deddis

Jonathan Deddis is a well-respected London-based chef who has an unusual personal history. Jonathan (pictured above) is Cambodian – his Khmer name was Sutheephelk – and he was adopted by his Northern Ireland parents in the early 70s, thanks to the personal intervention of Ian Paisley, and it’s this colourful background that has acted as the springboard for his involvement in a range of fund-raising activities. His latest is to run the Edinburgh Marathon on 27 May, where he’s set himself a target of raising £2,000 to be split between two charities, Save The Children Fund and SAO Cambodia. Now 38 and married with two children of his own, Jonathan embarked on his career in catering by studying at Portsmouth College before moving to London. He has a burning desire to return to the country of his birth but for the time being, he’s playing his part in helping the children of Cambodia. I asked Jonathan for an insight into his background.

Q. what do you know of your childhood, and adoption?
I only remember waking up and hearing people shouting and loud explosions all the time, also it was very hot. I used to have these memories when I was living in Northern Ireland. About the adoption, I remember only of being on a plane and going into the cockpit and meeting the pilots and seeing all the different switches and controls. Then arriving at Heathrow and all four of us children being taken away by different parents. Arriving at Belfast airport and getting in a car and seeing my new brother and sister, and waking up in the morning and seeing this monkey teddy bear hanging on the bedroom door. My first word was jam, must’ve been spreading it on toast in the morning.
Q. how did you adapt to your new home, family and environment?
It was very easy to adapt to my new life, I was about 3 or 4 years old and didn’t feel left out ever. The school used to help raise money for Cambodia, so my part was to let people pick me up and guess my weight - I was very thin and had suffered from malnutrition. I still have the clothes I wore and pictures of me when I first arrived. The only records they have of me was my name, Sutheephelk and born in Phnom Penh. My date of birth given to me was my Irish grandmother’s date of birth, whom I never met, as she died in 1968. I was the only ethnic child in primary right up to college level. So I got a bit of stick now and again from other children but nothing too bad, I never told my parents about it, just dealt with it myself. I used to compete in Olympic freestyle wrestling, I was Irish champion and second in the British Championship, and also got picked for the Commonwealth Games but dislocated my thumb 3 months before the games so I didn’t go. I got a lot of newspaper and school publicity from that, so everyone at school was nice to me and respected me after that.
Q. how did your desire to be a chef develop?
My mum was a great cook so I helped her a lot and I used to cook Sunday lunch and make cakes and biscuits most days when I was home. I decided to go to catering college and passed as top student and then worked in London and Switzerland learning pastry and desserts. Eventually I came back to London and now I’m a private chef for a Hong Kong-Chinese family. I travel with them sometimes and cook for them in St Tropez or America, where they have homes.
Q. how has your Cambodian identity been a factor in your life?
I noticed more and wanted to find out about my identity when I came to London and met more Asian people here, and the cuisine was a major factor. When I tried palm sugar and mangoes for the first time it brought back memories of a taste I had eaten before! Because of my own stupidity, I went through a phase of my life when I didn’t speak to my family for two years, I felt they weren’t my real family and that I was Cambodian not Irish. I am glad I grew out of this and I am happy about my identity now. Through SAO Cambodia and Ivor Greer, who helps run the charity and is from Northern Ireland, I want to go to Cambodia and help the people and try and trace, if I can, my family history. I am running the Edinburgh Marathon on the 27th May for Save the Children Fund and SAO Cambodia. I really feel blessed to be alive and realise I was saved so I can do my bit to help the children in my birth country. Sooner or later I will go back which I know will be very emotional for me but will hopefully trigger something for me to remember other events in my past.

If you want to support Jonathan in his forthcoming marathon run, click here. Find out more about his chosen charities at SAO Cambodia and Save The Children.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Choices in life

On my recent visit to Cambodia, I visited the offices of Our Books, the only non-profit organisation focused on the development of comic art in the country and picked up a copy of Life’s Choices. Its a glossy 48 page A5 full colour comic that has been widely distributed in Khmer and English across Cambodia through NGOs, schools and universities. The book focuses on the lives of students and is intended to raise awareness about corruption in everyday life and how to respond to it. The comic can also be found online, in both languages, here.
Our Books is developing comic art by publishing quality comics for both entertainment and education, as well as archiving historical comics, and have already scanned and archived over 200 classic Khmer comics. You can find out more about them on their website.

Preserving a musical tradition

Kong Nay is the most celebrated of the Cambodian musical masters to have survived the Pol Pot regime and who can be found passing on his skill and knowledge onto the younger generation. He's the blind musician whose appearance is dominated by thick dark sunglasses and a toothy, face-splitting grin. This article by Matt Ozug appeared on the newswires today.
In Cambodia, Preserving a Musical Tradition
by Matt Ozug - National Public Radio, Morning Edition, USA
Officials in Cambodia's capital city of Phnom Penh are preparing for the long-awaited trial of the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge, the regime that carried out the genocide of nearly 2 million Cambodians in the late 1970s. In addition to destroying lives, the Khmer Rouge nearly obliterated Cambodian arts and culture. But at least one man is helping to keep those traditions alive. Kong Nai is one of only two or three living masters of the Cambodian guitar, known as the chapei dong veng, to have survived the Khmer Rouge. A childhood illness left Kong blind at the age of 4, around the time he began asking his mother to take him to hear the chapei. He learned to play the chapei from his uncle. "Well, it'll be difficult for me to teach you because you're blind," his uncle told him. But Kong persisted. Whenever one of the old chapei masters was playing, Kong would beg his mother to take him to listen. And when Kong went home, he would practice humming the melodies over and over.
Chapei music is an oral tradition. The melodies are passed down from one generation to the next, while the lyrics are often composed or improvised on the spot. When the Khmer Rouge took over his country in 1975, Kong was spared hard labor and was even allowed to keep his instrument. But he was forced to play only Khmer Rouge anthems, extolling the greatness of the regime. Without warning, Kong's instrument was taken away. He was separated from his family and sent to work making palm rope. "[I've] never been fit enough," he says. "They beat us up and we had to eat the potato leaves, and we had to eat the cassava leaves in order to survive. This is so painful, but we had to live through the regime. "Then one day, Kong was taken to the woods, and left there overnight. He still doesn't know why he wasn't killed. But the next day, when the Vietnamese army overtook the camp, Kong was freed. He was reunited with his wife, his children and his music. "I didn't really expect I'd have this day," he says. "Because before the liberation day I thought everything turned black. I can tell you after the liberation day I feel totally changed that I had freedom to play the chapei again …"
When asked if he had a favorite song, or one he is proudest of, Kong plays one about liberation from the Khmer Rouge. "Liberation Song" says in part:
For 3 years we suffered unforgettable hardship; everything was destroyed.
Blood was spilled and children orphaned.
Cambodia became a place of killing.
They forced the people to dig and plow the fields.
Exhausted they fell down to the ground;bodies swollen, tired, hopeless.
Husbands and Wives, brothers and sisters, were separated.
We were forced to forget each other.
Until January 7th, when the Cambodian people were freed of the sorrow.
Kong still performs regularly and also teaches chapei to a new generation. He hopes that one of his sons who plays the instrument can "take over from me." Kong says, "I am the oldest one now and when I pass away I hope that the music will carry on to the young generation."
Postscript: Kong Nay is scheduled to visit the UK in July. There are plans afoot for a series of concerts featuring him and Ouch Savy, his protege, alongside a screening of the film, The Flute Player. It is expected that appearances will take place in Norwich on 19 July then Reading, Bristol, WOMAD festival, Cardiff, London, Glasgow and Oxford. The film, The Flute Player, is a documentary from 2003 that highlights the efforts of Arn Chorn-Pond to keep alive traditional Cambodian arts through the Cambodian Living Arts project, and involving master performers like Kong Nay.

Gunn meets Sage Insights

The following article by photographer-cum-cyclist Rick Gunn appeared in yesterday's Nevada Appeal newspaper. Rick is on a two-year, 20,000-mile bicycle trip around the world and he stopped off in Cambodia to join the children of the SAGE Insights school at Prey Chrouk. Its a school I visited myself in January and the kids are great. SAGE are doing some superb work in providing an opportunity for the children of the village to receive proper schooling, and Rick tried his hand at helping out. Here's his story:

Cambodian lessons
13 May 2007 - Rick Gunn for the Nevada Appeal, USA.

By the time I'd entered Cambodia, I'd passed through a doorway. Not of the physical type, nor the gateway to another country. But a doorway of perception, where just beyond its threshold lay a new way of seeing. I'd moved quickly across the landscape - 50 miles in three hours, nonstop. A gathering of clouds whispered above the palms, and a light rain began to fall. As it did, I tilted my head back, and welcomed each cooling drop like silvery liquid trinkets from the sky. That's when they'd made themselves known. "Sok sa bai! Sok sa bai! (Hello! Hello!)," came the initial shouts from Cambodia's children. It was the first of a flood of many tiny greetings. As I cycled through a succession of villages, they fled to the road by the hundreds. All of them seemingly waiting to greet the random cyclist. All of them running from simple huts, to the edge of the roadway, if just to hold out their hands or shout out welcoming calls of glee. It was a scene I'd witnessed a thousand times throughout Southeast Asia. A scene, I might add, that I never tired of.
These tiny voices brought a kind of settling to my mind, and I welcomed them into my heart, as I did the falling rain. Despite the rain, it was Cambodia's dry season, a time when the harvested rice fields gave way to a tannish-brown stubble. Near their edges stood simple stilted huts that were surrounded by a patchwork of small garden plots. I'd cycled 105 miles that first day. And did so with a certain ease. This is how I spent my time. Pedaling through the hours, then days, until the days had turned into months. This for nearly two years. I no longer questioned it. It was simply what I did.
By midday next, I'd cycled upon the traffic-choked fringes of Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. Before I would navigate a tangle of intersections in the heart of the city, I would cross the Mekong one last time. This before it flowed east, and branched like a watery sea fan through the delta lands of Vietnam. I stopped for a moment on a small bridge to gaze out over its tea-colored waters. When I did, my vision was hijacked by a riverside slum: a gathering of tin dwellings, and impossibly ill-constructed shacks. Catching a speck of movement from the corner of the scene, my eyes landed upon a young boy crouching above a small dirt drainage. He was evacuating his bowels into an open ditch. When he'd finished, he descended the garbage-filled slopes into the astoundingly polluted waters. There, he took his morning bath. What I was observing was "extreme poverty," a termed coined by Jeffrey Sachs, (economic advisor to the secretary general of the United Nations). During a recent interview about Cambodia on PBS, Sachs stated that this "extreme poverty" was "not the poverty of inconvenience, not the poverty of jealousy, not the poverty of wanting to catch up with one's neighbor. But the kind of poverty that threatens to take life. And not just threatens ... takes millions of lives (around the globe) from those too impoverished for an adequate diet, that are too impoverished to see a doctor, that are too impoverished to gain access to clean water that they need for survival."
In short, he was talking about much the of poverty I'd observed for the last seven months. Only this time I was done observing. This time, I'd come up with a plan. Obviously I couldn't do everything for everyone, but I could do something, for someone. For me, that something meant spending a week volunteering to teach English to a group of impoverished rural children near Siem Reap.
Shortly thereafter, I stashed my bike, hopped on a bus, and made for the north-central city of Siem Reap, a city made famous by its proximity to the temples at Angkor Wat. The volunteer program I would take part in was the brain child of Andy Booth. Booth, a successful businessman who'd retired at age 37, was the founder of SAGE Insights, a full-service travel company whose proceeds are dedicated entirely to growing sustainable business in the region, and helping Cambodia's neediest children through educational and social projects. Andy believes that "a lasting solution to poverty lies in providing the tools and knowledge to a population to help themselves." I couldn't have agreed with him more. A day later, I arrived at the Prey Chrouck School, 40 kilometers outside of Siem Reap. The school consisted of 637 pupils, four toilets, no running water and no electricity. Most of the students were the impoverished children of subsistence farmers.
As I ducked beneath the 6-foot door frame into the classroom, all eyes widened. "Goot monning teechaah!" they shouted in unison, after they'd jumped to their feet. "Sok sa bai!" I bowed, greeting them with palms pressed together. This released a cascade of giggles. Their eyes began to race, setting off mumbles and murmurs around the room. My intuition told me that this was speculation. Speculation of whether the new teacher's-assistant was born of a giraffe, or more likely, about which of them was going to have to cut a hole in the ceiling to accommodate him. With little time to waste, I went straight to it, driving home the hard work of spelling words like, "cat" and "pig." These were funkified foreign words to the native Khmer child, and they wobbled off their tongues like a row of stumbling ducks. No sooner had we mastered those words, then we began busting out with a rendition of "Ol' MacDonald Had a Farm." Although I'm sure they all wondered what an "Ol' MacDonald" was, when it came to the "meow, meow" here, and an "oink, oink" there part, there was instant recognition. And with this, the crowd went wild.
I finished out my short time at the school, assisting students, or performing simple tasks that included sharpening pencils, passing out papers or pinning the letters of the alphabet to the wall. As dull as it sounds, I took pride in each tiny task. All of it culminating into a small collection of memories of immeasurable pleasure. When the students finally gathered to say goodbye, I reached out my hand. Reluctant at first, they began reaching back. Before long, a small stampede moved in and began grasping, as if only to claim that they'd touched the freakishly tall stranger before he left.

You can read more from Rick's world tour at his own website.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mak Remissa finds his niche

Mak Remissa is regarded as one of the most successful Khmer photographers of his generation - alongside Associated Press’ Heng Sinith - and credits his first and third places in the National Photojournalism competition in 1997 held by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and chaired by Phillip Jones Griffiths, as a major catalyst in his career. Currently working as a photojournalist for the European Press photo Agency, his work is often seen on the international news wires. He’s also utilised Phnom Penh galleries like Popil and Java and the Angkor Photography Festival to showcase his 2005 fine art photography exhibition, titled after a traditional Khmer proverb: “When the water rises, the fish eats the ant; when the water recedes, the ant east the fish.” You can see some of the exhibition work here.
Born in 1970, Remissa and his family were evacuated from Phnom Penh five years later by the Khmer Rouge and relocated in Takeo province. He graduated in Fine Art and Photography at the Royal Fine Arts School in Phnom Penh in 1995 and his work soon appeared in numerous publications such as Cambodge Soir, Phnom Penh Post and for Reuters and other organisations. Remissa has exhibited his fine art photography in Cambodia, France, Canada and the US, and after spending a few years in Canada, he’s now returned to live and record events in the country of his birth.

What a day - but the wrong result!

Yesterday was undoubtedly a memorable occasion for most people - the first cup final at the brand new Wembley stadium, and involving my team, Kidderminster Harriers, too - but I'm a bad loser so the 3-2 defeat has left me in a very sombre mood today. And it looked set for being a great result when James Constable's two goals in the first-half left Stevenage almost dead and buried. But the Harriers didn't repeat their initial dominance after the break and to rub salt in the wounds, Stevenage scored their winner just two minutes from time. I'm absolutely gutted! Okay, it was a great occasion, the record crowd of 53,000-plus saw a great game but the result is everything and I'm going off to lie in a dark corner of the house and lick my wounds....

Friday, May 11, 2007

Spotlight on Hor Nambora

His Excellency Hor Nambora, who will be 50 in July, is the Cambodian Ambassador to Great Britain, moving to his post in London in October 2004, whilst expressing his pride at being the first Ambassador since the embassy was closed in 1975. At the time of the Khmer Rouge takeover of his country that year, Nambora was studying in Paris and on his return, was sent to a labour camp. His family lost up to thirty members during that period and his first job in the aftermath was as a researcher and archivist at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum for five years from 1980. Of the recent efforts to bring the KR leaders to book for their crimes, Nambora says, “It’s very important for the Cambodian people that the tribunal takes place…we need this tribunal to clear the past, to clear history and to move on.”

A career as a diplomat seemed inevitable for Nambora. He’s one of five children, and his father is Hor Nam Hong, Cambodia’s current Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister and one of their country’s key political figures. Prior to his posting to London, Nambora spent five successful years as the Ambassador to Australia and New Zealand, which followed a brief period as a political appointee as an Under Secretary of State. Following his Tuol Sleng job, he was director of Humanitarian Relief in the port of Sihanoukville, before joining the Foreign Ministry and subsequent postings in Bangkok and Geneva. Married with three children, his current Ambassadorial portfolio also includes Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway. Below: HE Hor Nambora presents his credentials to Queen Elizabeth II.

* * * * *

Tomorrow (Saturday) is a BIG day. The first final to be played at the brand new Wembley Stadium will be the FA Trophy Final and involves my team, Kidderminster Harriers, against Stevenage, kick-off at 2.15pm. I'll be there, with my brother Tim, exercising my lungs to their fullest capacity. We have £25 seats near the Royal Box (there are rumours the crowd may reach 80,000!) and we'll make a day of it with a cooked English breakfast in a greasy spoon cafe early tomorrow morning and drive up to the outskirts of London, to meet up with our Harriers' pals for a pre-match beverage. On our day, the Harriers can beat anyone, lets hope tomorrow is THAT day.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

More books on Cambodia

Dutch photographer and artist Eric de Vries loves Asia and you can see that love in his photographic books, one of which, Images of Cambodia was published by Cleartrails last year. The 200-page book has de Vries' black & white and colour photos taken between 2000-2005 and includes the complete series from his 2005 exhibitions in Phnom Penh and the Netherlands. He's also published two other books, this year, A Blues For Buddha and Hanoi Black and White. You can order his books via his website.

Bun Yom is currently completing his second book covering his life in America after fleeing the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide. His first book, Bun's Story - Tomorrow I'm Dead, tells the story of the Khmer Rouge takeover and how it affected the fifteen year old Bun from Pailin, who later became a freedom fighter before his flight to the States via the Philippines. Today he lives in Washington State and runs his own restaurant. Bun's website has more details of his first book.

Cambodian Pagodas

Up until now the only book I'd seen on Cambodian Pagodas was Ray Zepp's Field Guide, published in 1997 by Bert's Books. Ray was a trail-blazer with his series of Cambodia guidebooks and his field guide helped me understand some of the wall paintings I saw on my visits to numerous wats around the country. If you see a copy, buy it. A brand new book on the same subject is Wat Painting in Cambodia, published by the Reyum Institute and is the result of six years of research by graduates like San Phalla. Out of 20,000 photos from over 600 wats, Reyum have put together a book and an exhibition (that opens on 18 May at the Reyum Gallery in Phnom Penh) to document this important part of the social fabric of the country and its Buddhist beliefs. Find out more about the Reyum Institute here. Below: This typical wall painting is of Buddha and his 60 disciples called the Sangkha. Its from Wat Ponlea Chey in a small village near Stoung on Highway 6.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Film Fever

I don't really need an excuse to post a photo of the lovely Chhom Nimol, the lead singer with the Los Angeles band Dengue Fever, but a new, feature-length documentary, Sleepwalking Through The Mekong, showing the group's first live shows in Cambodia was debuted at the Silver Lake film festival at the weekend. Director John Pirozzi, who's also responsible for the forthcoming film Don't Think I've Forgotten, followed the band to Cambodia in 2005, where they found inspiration at every turn and gained a deeper appreciation of the music that brought them there. Nimol also discovered new things about her native land and found a reconnection with her culture. Dengue Fever are hot to trot at the moment, playing their unique 'Khmer Rock' sound and are planning a third album release this year, having toured almost constantly, both home and abroad, in 2006. Find out more about the band here and watch a clip from the documentary.

Staying on the film scene, the DVD of the bio-pic of singer Ros Sereysothea, The Golden Voice, is now available to buy direct from the film's website.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Youk Chhang in Time's 100

Youk Chhang hit the world stage this week when Time Magazine announced him in their top 100 Most Influential People in The World, sandwiched between Tyra Banks and George Clooney in the Heroes & Pioneers category. Read more about him in an earlier blog post from last June. It's a suitable tribute to a man who has dedicated the last decade as executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, to bringing awareness of the Khmer Rouge crimes to our attention, and providing evidence to the forthcoming KR Tribunal. No doubt, he will deflect the praise onto his DC-Cam team and others, but make no mistake, this man deserves all the credit and kudos he receives. It's a second Time award for Chhang in a matter of months as Time Asia Magazine, at the end of last year, named him as an inspirational Asian Hero.

Delving into the past - Flashback to 1982

Some might say, rather sadly, I used to spend a lot of time at the reference library in my teens and early twenties. When I wasn’t reading the odd book to be found on Cambodia, I was researching a book I wanted to compile on Cheltenham Town football club. Here’s an article that was published in The Gloucestershire Echo on 20 March 1982.
Andy Brouwer delves into the Robins’ past

Not many people would be content to spend much of their lives collecting information for a book which will probably never be written and which, if it was, would likely find few readers anyway, writes Derek Goddard. Andy Brouwer is more than happy to do just that. For the past seven years, he has spent hours browsing in libraries and interviewing old players researching the history of Cheltenham Town AFC. So far, the result of his many hours’ of loving labour is a mass of notebooks full of jottings and one day, one day, he will begin to try to sort it all out.

Brouwer (22), and a clerk at the Cheltenham and Gloucester Building Society, finds fascination in the kind of detail that throws up men like Jack Wheeler, once Cheltenham’s goalkeeper. Wheeler is now sponge-man at Notts County: “he holds the record for the most sponge-man appearances – he made more than 1,000 on the trot,” reveals Mr Brouwer. And Cecil Green, another ex-Robin who is now a director at Swindon Town, once wrote his a nine-page letter…. Jerry Woodrow, club secretary and a player before the war and now 82 and registered blind, wrote, with the help of his wife, a series of letters.

Brouwer’s involvement with the club began in August 1971, when he was 11. He had just moved to live near GCHQ at Oakley and discovered, through new-found friends, that Cheltenham had a football club. The first match he saw was a 1-1 draw Ilkeston, and he has not missed a home game since. For the last five years, he has not missed an away match either. His involvement became more active when he went to work at the building society on leaving Cheltenham Grammar School at 16, and met Richard Jones, the chairman of the Robins’ Supporters Association and programme editor. At the start of the 1978-79 season, Jones asked Brouwer to take over the programme, and he has been spending all day Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings, doing the work ever since.

He gets nothing but satisfaction from doing it: “I just have this consuming interest in non-league football, and I have various contacts who keep me informed what is going on. One in Oswestry tells me things that are happening in the north, and so on.” It would be his delight if his programme was adjudged the best of any in non-league soccer. He did quite well when he was awarded second place in the Southern League section of the Wirral national programme survey last season. “The club that beat me was Kidderminster Harriers – and they were second overall out of more than 500 entries,” he says, proudly.

The idea for a book began while he was still at school. He heard that they had played Blackpool in the third round of the FA Cup, wanted to find out more about it, and spent the first of limitless hours in the reference library. “It is such a time consuming thing. When I was at school, I used to spend all my holidays in the library reading old newspapers and writing down all the facts and figures. The 1920s and 1930s are pretty well covered, but before that, the information is in dribs and drabs. Nobody knows exactly when the club was formed. They say it was 1892, but I think it was before that.”

Like all supporters, he has particular memories from matches he has watched: at Altrincham, when Dave Lewis played in goal and Dennis Brown scored two early gaols to carry them through: Lewis again, hurling himself through the mud for a magnificent headed goal against Banbury United… This season’s two-match pulverising of Bath City stands high; a 4-3 win at Bath in the FA Trophy in 1974 with Lewis’ late hat-trick; Alan Jefferies’ own goal against his goalkeeping brother Malcolm in the FA Cup at Hereford in 1971-72, the season of Hereford’s big cup run…all are wedged in his memory. His biggest disappointment was when they failed to qualify for the Alliance Premier League, and a constant frustration is their failure to do themselves justice when extra interest is generated in a match.

Away from work and the football club, he plays Sunday League soccer for EG Bagpuize, who have just finished second in Division One and was with Mosquitos and Whaddon and College as an under-16. At the end of the 1978-79 season he was nominated Cheltenham’s supporter of the season and with Martyn Herbert, who has just watched his 400th consecutive game, is vying for the supporter-of-the-century accolade.

Postscript: Cheltenham Town were my hometown team for 15 years, I never missed a home game at Whaddon Road (it was like a drug) and for the final ten years, apart from a fateful day at Chelmsford City, I didn't miss an away match either. Throughout that time, I progressed from standing behind the goal with my pals to programme editor (a labour of love that I did for eight years), as well as public address announcer, local radio reporter (with Severn Sound for five years) and part-time reporter for a few newspapers. There were some great times, a few not so great times and a bagful of memories before I became disillusioned and accepted an offer - a free transfer in football parlance - to join Kidderminster Harriers, as their programme editor for the next four years. In my first season, we reached the FA Trophy final at Wembley and won the replay at West Brom, which was probably the greatest single night of football I've experienced as a fan. In 1990 I decided to hang up my pen after twelve years as programme editor with Cheltenham Town and Kidderminster and began playing local Saturday football in Cheltenham, at the tender age of 31.

Inside The Khmer Rouge (1990)

Inside The Khmer Rouge, produced in 1990, is the 4th of half a dozen David A Feingold documentaries I've been sent by DER Films, to celebrate their release on dvd for public consumption. The fruits of a two-year research project on the Khmer Rouge (KR) by producer Feingold and director Shari Robertson, including unprecedented access 'behind the lines,' the film explores the movement's development in a historical perspective, drawing on interviews with Khieu Samphan, the smiling diplomatic face of the KR, General Son Sen, the feared leader of the KR army, his forest-dwelling guerrillas and Cambodians living in refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. A western viewpoint came from Francois Gruenwald.

The film highlights the real cause for concern throughout Cambodia at the time, that the KR had rebuilt themselves militarily, politically and diplomatically and were poised to take charge once again, either through the polls or by force. Against them, the State of Cambodia (SOC) army appeared poorly armed and ill-organized - a fragile shield against the battle-hardened KR units like the 450th special forces unit which the documentary team followed on patrol. Anti-Vietnamese rhetoric was the key focus of the KR message with Son Sen's softly-spoken 'butter wouldn't melt' routine fooling no-one. With the SOC suffering food shortages and a withdrawal of military and logistic support, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong issued a stark warning about the return of the KR to power by any means.
The 45 minute documentary was co-produced with BBC's Assignment series, FR3 in France and WDR in Germany. You can see a clip from the dvd, and purchase it at the DER website here.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Andy shuns sun for Cambodia - flashback to 1997

For the next newspaper cutting I found recently whilst packing some boxes, we jump forward three years from my first foray to Cambodia, to July 1997. The Gloucester Citizen newspaper were scraping the bottom of the local news barrel and sent along a reporter and photographer to interview this apparently intrepid adventurer - it turned out to be me!

Andy shuns sun for Cambodia
Spain’s a pain for adventurer – by David Wilkes (The Gloucester Citizen - July 1997)

Holidays in Cambodia are Andy Brouwer’s idea of heaven. But his wife Sue is not so keen on visiting the bandit-ridden country, which has been described as a danger zone by some travel experts. She prefers sunning herself in peaceful Mediterranean resorts to touring Cambodia, the scene of evil dictator Pol Pot’s killing fields. But Andy can’t get enough of the place and is currently planning his fourth trip there since 1994. His fascination with the country means the Quedgeley couple have not been on an overseas holiday together since their honeymoon a year ago.

Andy (37) said: “Ordinary holidays are alright if you like sitting about in the sun, but I like to do something different. My wife’s a bit sick of me going to Cambodia, and doesn’t come with me. She prefers to go to places like Tenerife. At least it means we never argue when we’re abroad!” Andy, an assistant manager in the mortgage department of the Cheltenham and Gloucester, has been interested in Cambodia since the late 1970s, when the genocide committed there first came to light. “I didn’t go there until 1994 because it wouldn’t have been safe. The first time I was there, I saw a TV announcement saying they didn’t recommend foreigners come to the country as three had just been kidnapped,” he said. “But it didn’t put me off and I’ve been back twice since and I am planning to go again next March. I know there are dangerous parts so I don’t venture off the beaten track. It’s an unusual country with some fantastic ancient monuments, and despite the troubles the people are very welcoming.”

Sue said: “You could say he is obsessed with Cambodia, It looks very nice in his photos, but I’m afraid our tastes in holidays do differ, and the children are too young to take there at the moment. But one day I will probably go there.” Andy has been glued to American cable television recently watching the first footage of Pol Pot to emerge for years. The dictator was jailed for life by his old Khmer Rouge comrades earlier this week. Andy is keen on setting up an informal discussion group of people interested in Cambodia. Anyone interested should contact him.

Postscript: Unfortunately the photo on the clipping I have won't reproduce. For info, my wife never did make it out to Cambodia and one of the people to call me after reading the article, was the accountant on the movie Lord Jim, which was filmed in Cambodia in the early 60s and he had some fascinating tales to tell. I also met a guy who used to work for the Michelin rubber company and who lived in Kompong Cham. He kindly showed me his own cine footage taken in Phnom Penh on the day of King Monivong's funeral procession in 1941.

Mellen on Oni Vitandham

Greg Mellen, staff writer for the Press Telegram newspaper of Long Beach, California has just written a follow-up article on author & genocide survivor Oni Vitnadham and the current status of the charity organization she created, Progressive United Action Association Inc. You can read his update here and in the comments section. Mellen's original article on Oni Vitandham (left) and her inspiring story was published last June and can also be found in comments. Vitandham is the author of the book, On The Wings Of A White Horse, published last year - you can read my review below. Mellen has recently returned from a trip to Cambodia and has published a number of articles which are worth reading.
Surviving two worlds
On The Wings Of A White Horse - by Oni Vitandham
Wow, what an incredible story of survival Oni Vitandham has revealed in this absorbing biography. Told in a clear and easy to read style, Oni describes her miraculous journey through a childhood that would've consumed and defeated most of us, let alone a young girl who'd lost both parents and a succession of guardians. The recollections of her early life are graphic, powerful and vividly portrayed. She witnessed death and cruelty as a daily occurrence under the Khmer Rouge regime, travelling the length and breadth of Cambodia as well as wretched sorties into Laos and Vietnam before ending up in a Thai refugee camp. Beginning a new life in America didn't bring much respite from hardship as she struggled to adapt, ran away from foster homes, lived on the streets and suffered serious abuse. With help, she has turned her life around, become a proud mother and a strong advocate for change. The extent of her suffering - foretold in a prophecy - has set Oni on a mission to help her fellow countrymen, as the founder of an organisation that provides education for Cambodian children. Her courage and determination in the face of overwhelming odds are to be admired. I am sure her story will be an inspiration to many. Oni's website.

Designer fashion success

One Cambodian who is making big waves in his chosen profession is New York fashion designer Phillip Lim. His clothes are sold in hundreds of stores in 26 countries worldwide and his catwalk successes make his dresses a target for major fashion magazines such as Vogue and Elle and are worn by Scarlett Johansson, Lucy Liu and Kate Hudson amongst the rich and famous. He arrived in San Diego after he, five siblings and his parents escaped from Cambodia in 1975 by boat and fled to a Thai refugee camp. Lim, 33, graduated in fashion in 1997 and has enjoyed great success with his two companies, Development and now 3.1, earning rave reviews as New York's newest fashion star and a turnover of $30 million, with his first store opening this July. However, his choice of profession didn't go down well in all quarters, particularly with his mother, as he explains: "She was a seamstress so she was very disappointed and said, 'I can't believe we're sending you to school so you can learn how to sew.' " It didn't turn out too badly Mom! To read more of the Phillip Lim story, click on comments.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Hen Sophal and his art

The unsettling picture of a grinning Pol Pot sat on a pile of his victims on the cover of the book Getting Away With Genocide by authors Tom Fawthrop and Helen Jarvis, is from an original painting by Cambodian artist Hen Sophal and is called 'The Evil Smile of Pol Pot'. Its known as Sophal's signature piece and the artist is widely regarded as one of Cambodia's best contemporary artists, with his work featuring in numerous exhibitions. His flattering portraits of Phnom Penh's smart set were his stock-in-trade until he was encouraged to explore corruption and the darker side of the capital's nightlife. He was initially reluctant to delve into controversial areas, though his melancholic paintings of nighttime Phnom Penh depict a side of life not normally seen in the art for sale in the majority of the capital's shops.
Exhibitions such as Visions of the Future in 2003, where Sophal depicted a well-dressed government official, drinking alcohol and smoking, with a calendar photo of a nude woman on the wall to signify the corruption endemic in his country, or the Visual Arts Open exhibition in 2005 have given his work a welcome injection of recognition and publicity, both inside and outside Cambodia. Born in Phnom Penh, Sophal, 48, studied at the School of Fine Arts in the early 1980s. He now combines his portraiture work with paintings of his country’s social and economic ills in his work. Right, he paints King Norodom Sihamoni in oils.

Fawthrop's view on the KR Tribunal

Tom Fawthrop (right) is a British journalist who has covered Southeast Asia for major international newspapers and journals since 1979. His book, Getting Away With Genocide - Elusive Justice and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, written with Helen Jarvis and published in 2004 by Pluto Press was an insider's account of the twenty-five year struggle to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice. In the following article for Guardian Unlimited, Fawthrop brings us up to date on how the Tribunal is progressing:

The long, long wait for justice
It has taken decades to set up an international tribunal investigating Khmer Rouge war crimes and the process remains fraught.

The Khmer Rouge nightmare that terrorised Cambodia during the 1970s ended nearly 30 years ago. In Rwanda and Sierra Leone, the wheels of justice turned quickly, with tribunals investigating events that kicked off within a few years of the mass killing. For Cambodians, it has been an agonisingly long wait for justice. Since the Khmer Rouge tribunal was finally established in Phnom Penh in 2006, they have been kept waiting again, with legal squabbles over rules of evidence delaying the indictment stage, when some senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge would be formally charged under international law with crimes against humanity and genocide. This hybrid tribunal, with international and Cambodian judges sitting together as co-prosecutors, was also adopted by the Sierra Leone tribunal. A special UN mission is in charge of legal assistance to the tribunal.

The final hurdle - the legal fees to be paid by foreign lawyers defending the accused (senior Khmer Rouge leaders) to the Cambodian bar council, has just been sorted out. The original demand, that foreign defence lawyers should pay around $4,900 a year for the privilege of addressing a "Cambodian court", has been knocked down to a reasonable $500 fee. The international judges threatened a boycott against "extortionate" fees that might have undermined the right of the accused to choose foreign counsel (the prosecution is led by a Canadian lawyer with a Cambodian co-prosecutor). French lawyer Jacques Verges, who has made his mark with his energetic defence of notorious clients including Klaus Barbie and Carlos the Jackal (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez), has promised to appear at the tribunal on behalf of Khieu Samphan, president of the Khmer Rouge regime and, as it happens, a former student classmate of Mr Vergès in Paris.

Why such monumental procrastination over Cambodia? In the aftermath of the Pol Pot bloodbath, international lawyers were largely silent, when, in 1979 and the early 80s, Cambodian survivors publicly called for an international tribunal. The US and some western governments preferred to support the bloody credentials of the Khmer Rouge - keeping them in the Cambodia seat at the UN - rather than the cause of international justice. Many observers in the 1980s and even the 90s predicted that a Cambodia tribunal would never happen. It was only in 1997 that the UN belatedly recognised that these terrible crimes should be addressed. Even then, UN-Cambodia negotiations dragged on for six years until a final agreement in 2003. Certainly no other tribunal has endured so many obstacles and so many governments vehemently opposed to the cause of justice. Finally, a tribunal was announced (officially known as ECCC - the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia*) and set up last year. But even this glimmer of justice is under threat from many quarters.

The purveyors of doom and gloom have cast a pall of pessimism over proceedings. Rumours abound of international judges about to walk out, the tribunal on the verge of collapse, or speculation that Prime Minister Hun Sen's government is hell-bent on sabotaging the whole thing. But the Phnom Penh reality is far more complicated and nuanced. The decades of cynical neglect during which time several Khmer Rouge leaders have died, including Pol Pot, and the tortured history of negotiations has made this a uniquely complicated tribunal from the outset. No one is more deeply committed to a tribunal than Khmer Rouge victim Chhang Youk, who today heads the internationally respected Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) the genocide research centre set up in 1994 after US Congress passed the Cambodian Genocide Justice Act. Mr Chhang told the Guardian: "I am very satisfied with the prosecution with both Cambodian and international lawyers. They are working just fine together there is no conflict here. They are a model of cooperation for the rest of the tribunal." DC-Cam has released more than 58,000 documents to the prosecution, including vital telegrams and communications sent by top leaders.

Unfortunately, arguments over legal fees and rules of evidence have obscured the impressive progress made by the joint prosecution team led by Canadian Robert Petit. Mr Petit, an international prosecutor who served in war crimes tribunals in Rwanda, Kosovo, East Timor and Sierra Leone, is among the most positive. "We've made a lot of progress, more than other tribunals [at this stage]. We have a pretty good record, especially considering the limited resources we have." The prosecution team is ready to proceed with indictments. The tribunal has not run aground, but it continues to sail through turbulent waters. As one insider who is trying hard to make the tribunal work describes it: "Some international judges seemed to have a hard time understanding anything about Cambodia, [and] more than a few Cambodian judges do not understand much beyond the borders of Cambodia." This is a recipe for acute misunderstanding.

It has been suggested that keeping this tribunal on the rails and on time to deliver justice requires a special UN envoy. The existing UN body is headed by Michelle Lee, a UN coordinator who runs the administration of the international component. In most UN missions, New York appoints a credible diplomat to head the mission and mediate any conflict with the host government. The history of UN-Cambodia negotiations over the tribunal has often been acrimonious. In 2002, the UN legal affairs team staged a unilateral walkout over the negotiations, which delayed the formation of the tribunal by at least a year. The tribunal has also faced hostility from China, who, it seems, never wanted it to happen in the first place. Flip-flops from Prime Minister Sen and his tribunal task force are partly explained by intense pressure from Beijing to save face from damning facts that will come out in the trial concerning their complicity and support for the Pol Pot regime.

The struggle to ensure this tribunal abides by international standards and solves conflicts quickly is crying out for dynamic mediator. The UN needs to appoint an outstanding diplomat or former statesman to help both sides avoid further deadlock. This tribunal will continue to be plagued with bottlenecks and problems until the UN finds a respected mediator, acceptable to both sides, to expedite the process. Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007.

Moore's Cambodia

Christopher G Moore is a highly-regarded writer, a Canadian who lives in Thailand, and who has written 18 novels and a collection of interlocked short stories. He's best known by his cult classics, Land of Smiles Trilogy, his behind-the-smiles study of his adopted country, Thailand, and his highly popular Vincent Calvino Private Eye series. His third book in the Calvino series was Cut Out (also published as Zero Hour in Phnom Penh) and was set in the Cambodia of the early '90s, with the UNTAC peacekeepers providing the backdrop to his story. In 2002, he was asked to return to Cambodia and to share his impressions of what he found. Here they are (courtesy of

Genocide to Latte
Digesting mass murder has no clear time frame. In the case of Cambodia, between April 1975 until August 1979 when the Vietnamese arrived, the Khmer Rouge managed to kill about one-third of the population. A bullet, a shovel or hoe were killing tools. Starvation and disease added significantly to the piles of bodies accumulated during Khmer Rouge rule. By any standards, there had been a lot of murder. Tensions between those who supported the Khmer Rouge and those at the receiving end of their wrath were still strongly felt when UNTAC forces were sent to Cambodia with the mission to bring democracy, free elections, and a fresh start where both sides could reconcile themselves with the past and each other. In March 1993 I was in Phnom Penh as a journalist covering the UN venture into Cambodia. Drawing upon this experience, I wrote Zero Hour in Phnom Penh - the only novel that has emerged from this period. Almost ten years later, I returned to Cambodia to explore the changes that had intervened in a half a generation. “Time walks fast,” said the young Khmer woman DJ with a breezy California accent. She might have been in a shopping center in Los Angeles. But she had never been outside of Cambodia. And she was young; broadcasting in English to the generation of Cambodians born after the Khmer Rouge had been defeated. “Time walks fast,” she said again. “It seems like Monday but already it is Thursday. I like the fastness. But I don’t want to grow old. Do you want to grow old? Of course you don’t. Like me, you want to stay young forever. And I have been thinking about how much I like Santana. He wrote a song called Black Magic Woman. I wish I knew his nationality. I mean, he’s not American and he’s not black or Asian. I don’t know where he’s from. But I really think he’s cool.”
On the 7-dollar ride from the airport, the driver had tuned to an English language station in Phnom Penh. He understood English. The whole country was studying the English language. The bookshops stocked Madonna, an intimate Biography and John Grisham’s Summons. Study and How to do tapes for Chinese, French, and Japanese were displayed on the shelf. A little more than a generation before the Khmer Rouge had been killing anyone who spoke a foreign language or read foreign books. Now the streets were filled with students in their white shirts and black trousers carrying books and dreaming of riches.
The Monorom Hotel had been famous in 1993. Journalists on fat expense accounts stayed there, as they had done since the 1970s, preferably in one of the balcony rooms. It had been renamed the Holiday Villa, and had the look of an aging hooker with too much makeup. The old Royal had buckets in the main lobby catching water from the ceiling in 1993. A room could be had for $18 and the swimming pool was packed with weeds and mud. Today, the Singaporeans had transformed the hotel into a world class five star Raffles hotel with $300 rooms and offered a Champagne dinner for New Years at $70 per head.
At the old Russian market, in 1993 Khmer soldiers with amputated limbs hobbled after UNTAC soldiers who roamed the market which sold AK-47s for $75 and marijuana cigarettes in packs for 40 at $2. A decade later, the UNTAC soldiers had been replaced with tourists in their twenties looking through pirated DVD titles such as Die Another Day, 8 Mile, and Spiderman. The AK-47s and marijuana had vanished. The instruments of war and the drugs to fight pain and terror had given way to the new age of consumption. The images were not of the recent past but of the cartoon worlds churned out by moguls in Hollywood who couldn’t find Cambodia on a map.
That night was a full moon. The reflection shone over the Tonlesap as I walked along the quay. I had witnessed a part of a procession, which between one and two million Khmers had participated in. On the forty-five kilometer journey, Khmers lined the street. In spots they were stood ten deep. They had come out wearing their finest clothes. I stood along the quay, a military vehicle with red light flashing and siren blaring slowly led a procession of a half dozen floats. Monks sat in rows on several of the floats. On one float was a large glass case and inside were Buddha relics - hair, teeth and bone - and the procession was taking the relics to a new stupa built in the old capital of Odong. The new temple had been built on a mountain in Ponhea Leu district in Kandal Province.The King and Prime Minister and princes and officials were at Odong waiting. What we witnessed had historic meaning. It had been over three decades since the relics had been moved. Thirty years was a lifetime in Cambodia.
Later in my room, I watched the procession on TV. The truck with the cameraman outside of Phnom Penh captured people stepping forward, handing lotus flowers, incense sticks and Cambodian flags to the monks. Some of the trucks overflowed with such offerings. Looking at the vastness of the crowd ­- one to two million - one couldn’t help think they nearly equaled the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide. All people and all factions had, however, come together in a bond of faith and belief. Had they put their differences aside for this procession or was this evidence of healing taking place?
That same Thursday evening a one-star general killed a nineteen-year-old who had allegedly beaten up his son. The new threat to the social order were the children of the ruling class who had formed gangs and roamed Phnom Penh, claiming turf, fighting each other, and other wise raising hell as untouchables. In this case, the general had been arrested. A day later another general, a former aging Khmer Rouge commander, was sentenced in a Phnom Penh court to life imprisonment for ordering the murder of three young tourists in 1994. The Australian, British, and French Embassies applauded the sentence. Like the movement of the relics, a general’s arrest for murder and another general carted off to prison on a murder conviction appeared as once in a life time incidents. The local papers covered the UN Secretary-General’s call for the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders in accordance with internationally recognized standards of justice. It was one thing to imprison one general who ordered the murder of foreign tourists, but what about his accountability for and participation in genocide, Cambodian killing Cambodian? No one raised the issue. There was only silence. Will true justice ever be brought to Cambodia? Will those responsible for the genocide be brought before such a tribunal? Or is it still the reality, that justice and truth are too threatening and divisive? A decade later after UNTAC, no one can answer these questions.
The Foreign Correspondent’s Club had just opened in the spring of 1993. As a journalist covering events on the ground, I found it a place to meet colleagues. A decade later, if there were any foreign correspondents in Phnom Penh, they had found a new watering hole. The FCC was overrun with tourists and NGOs with their toddlers and teenagers running around with the arrogance of a Khmer general’s son, racing among the tables with their pool cues and eating hamburgers. The FCC as a day-care-center, a tourist trap, a place to write postcards showed the distance between the days when UNTAC land cruisers roamed the streets, and the threat of war remained real, the possibility of genuine elections uncertain.
The new generation of tourists sat in internet cafes intermingled with restaurants where they had a communication connection with the outside world that we never dreamt of in 1993. While they were more connected in one way, in another they were more isolated, in their small booths, never giving them a chance to find that being cut off, being isolated brings advantages and insights into your location and also into oneself. Being connected gives a sense of certainty and safety. The tourists had never left home, family, friends, or colleagues. Physically they were in Phnom Penh but inside their minds they had gone nowhere. It is unlikely they would have heard of the Briton, Australian and Frenchman -all in their 20s - who in 1994 had been dragged off an upcountry train, held for two months, then killed.
In 1993, when Calvino arrived in Phnom Penh, he explored the back streets; he sought out the places where there might be a story - or a body. Sipping a latte at the Pink Elephant Restaurant with a half-dozen fellow travelers was not his way of understanding Cambodia. The old Lido was a place where the UNTAC soldiers rolled up in their white land cruisers, and with their $168 daily allowance, were a welcome sight for the mainly Vietnamese hookers who waived from the balcony. The Lido is no more. Recently, the government cracked down on prostitution in Phnom Penh in advance of hosting several regional conferences. But have the working girls disappeared from the scene or have they only faded away waiting until the guests leave? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, in Phnom Penh women in green frocks work under a hot mid-day sun sweeping the main streets. The vast complex of slums in the heart of town has been knocked down and replaced with a sprawling shopping center and office complex. Next door to his complex is a park named after the Prime Minister Hun Sen.
At the end of the day, Zero Hour in Phnom Penh is a unique crime novel as the private eye Vincent Calvino finds himself seeking to solve a private crime in the midst of a society that has suffer the trauma of mass murder. He comes to realize that any individual crime pales when compared to what happened to more than one million people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. If Calvino were to return to Phnom Penh today, he would find many things unchanged - such as the fear of using justice and truth to resolve the past - and many things on the surface much changed - internet cafes, hordes of tourists, five-star hotels, and a new airport where the menu includes melted tuna au gratin, cheese cake, and latte. In Cambodia, the human conditions continues to stretch the void - from the horror of genocide to the vulgar ostentatious travelers who, in their own way, seek to have their cake and eat it, creating the illusions they have never really left home.
To read a lot more about Christopher G Moore, visit his website.

My other love, football - flashback to 1994

I recalled my first foray to Cambodia in November 1994 in a blog post a couple of days ago. Well, at the exact same time, the following article appeared in The Pink Un, the local sports newspaper. Again, I think proper sports stories were sadly lacking that week! I'm currently moving home and have found a few articles which I'll post here for posterity sake over the next few weeks. Football and music are my two loves, besides Cambodia.

Nothing to shout about says Brouwer

Eighty-seven goals in 53 matches is some record, whatever the level of football but Hatherley Rangers’ Andy Brouwer is not shouting about his incredible tally. A former programme editor at Cheltenham Town and Kidderminster Harriers, Brouwer’s record has played a major part in Hatherley’s rise to the top of Endsleigh Cheltenham League Division Five in only their second season since their foundation. But he is honest enough to admit that the standard of football has a lot to do with his strike rate. “You have to remember that we are in Division Five,” he said. “But that is one of the reasons I do play, because I enjoy scoring so much and at this level you are almost guaranteed a goal.”

That is not far from the truth, either, as Brouwer’s record this season – 31 goals from 17 games - indicates. He was no so successful when he played for Division One Woodmancote – ‘I was in midfield’ – but has since repaid Hatherley secretary Pete Newcombe’s faith in him. “The Old Pats side I played for was disbanding and I wanted to found a new Saturday team,” he said. “I asked Andy to come and play for us and he has proved highly prolific and his goals helped us win the treble of Division Six, the County Cup and the Charities Cup. It is at a low level but no matter what the level, it is still a good record.” Brouwer (35) has not had it all his own way this season, however, and he has had a good partner in Paul Lawrence, who at 21 is almost the exception in a side with more than half its players over 30. Lawrence and Brouwer have hit 10 goals each in their last five league games.

A year earlier in 1993, I joined Hatherley Rangers, in the bottom division of the Cheltenham League and began a run of eight successful seasons in which we won two divisional titles, four other promotions, two cups and had a lot of fun. On a personal level, I bagged 237 goals in 220 games with Hatherley so I was happy with my contribution before retiring from active football service in April 2001. I can't believe its been six years since I hung up my boots.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Sam Sotha's memoir

How did I miss the launch of Sam Sotha's book in March? Nevertheless I did, so here's the low-down on Sam Sotha's In The Shade of A Quiet Killing Place.
Like a million or so others, Sam Sotha and his wife Sony were forced out of Phnom Penh in April 1975. This highly moving personal story - in the form of a diary and drawings - describes Sam's and Sony's ordeal over the next four years and how during the course of their struggle, they found strength in their Christian faith. As they crossed Cambodia from one prison camp to another, the spiritual bond strengthened between husband and wife. That bond guided the couple through the darkest moments, when it seemed only a miracle could save them from certain death. The memoir, written in a refugee camp along the Thai-Cambodian border in 1980, is more than a survivor’s tale of endurance, it is the story of dedication of a man and woman who witnessed mass murder but never doubted their faith would come to their rescue. The hand drawn illustrations are an excellent addition to the publication.
After 15 years of resettlement in the United States - where he became a leading advocate for refugees and an active local political leader, whose contributions have been recognized with numerous awards - Sam Sotha returned to Cambodia in 1995. Ever since, he has devoted his life to help reconciling his country to the past. As the Secretary General of the Cambodian Mine Action Authority, Sam Sotha’s mission is to clear Cambodia of landmines. He also serves as an advisor to the prime minister, Hun Sen. The book is published by Thailand's Heaven Lake Press.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Cambodian cuisine in print

A book on Cambodian cuisine is scheduled for publication in December, titled The Food and Cooking of Cambodia by author Ghillie Basan. I spoke to Ghillie and she tells me that the contents (over 60 recipes and 250 photographs) are taken from a book she produced at the beginning of 2006, called The Food and Cooking of Vietnam & Cambodia. "The publishers have compiled it from the joint Vietnam & Cambodia book which I wrote several years ago. The former was compiled from research and travel, as I have had an interest in Vientam for a long time, having been friends with a number of American and Vietnamese survivors from the Vietnam war. The research involved travelling briefly and talking to many people in markets, restaurants, etc as well as friends who work in both countries. Now that things have opened up a lot, I would love to visit Cambodia with my children, but my main area of expertise is the Middle East and North Africa so I have to keep travelling there!" Ghillie was brought up in Kenya and Scotland. Following a degree in Social Anthropology at Edinburgh University, she taught English in Italy and Turkey, and has worked as a cordon bleu cook, a ski instructress, journalist, restaurant reviewer, and publisher. She is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books on Middle Eastern food.

Home from 'killing fields' - flashback to 1994

Let me take you all the way back to November 1994 and my first foray into Cambodia. To say it was a five-day white-knuckle ride of an adventure is perhaps understating exactly how thrilled I was, but also how apprehensive I felt at the same time. Here’s how my local newspaper, The Gloucestershire Echo, reported my visit the week after I returned home. Back in 1994 a visitor to Cambodia was big news here in the UK - they even sent a photographer out to my house - I can only imagine it must've been a slow week for news items!

Home from ‘killing fields’
Girlfriend’s joy as Andy comes back safe

Traveller Andy Brouwer has returned home safe and sound from war-ravaged Cambodia – to the relief of his worried girlfriend. Three western hostages, including a British tourist, were beaten to death by Khmer Rouge guerrillas during his stay in the country. Mr Brouwer, 35, of London Road, Cheltenham, was unaware of the concern over the hostages until his frantic girlfriend Sue Oliver managed to telephone him five days into his trip. “I was unaware of what was going on, because I had no access to television or radio news. As far as I was concerned, the threat was miniscule,” Mr Brouwer said. “The three guys who were captured had not done the right things, like keeping to the most obvious tourist routes. They had gone on a local train and they were captured after it was derailed. I was not going to put myself in that position.”
He was aware of the Foreign Office’s warning against visits because of the continued danger of Khmer Rouge guerrilla attacks in the country, which was the subject of the hit film The Killing Fields. “I had read a lot about Cambodia and knew a lot about it, but I wanted to get first-hand experience,” Mr Brouwer said. “My visit was not a back-packing holiday. I organised flights, hotels and tours before I went out, so I was not going into the unknown.”
Mr Brouwer visited the capital, Phnom Penh, and the Temples of Angkor – the biggest religious temple site in the world. Miss Oliver, 35, said: "I was very concerned to make sure he was all right, and it was only at the fourth attempt, because the lines were so bad, that I managed to get through to the hotel to speak to him.”

I recall that telephone call as I was sitting in my room in the Hawaii Hotel in Phnom Penh. My girlfriend was frantic with worry but I was completely oblivious to the events unfolding around me. Even King Sihanouk was interviewed on the TV news suggesting that tourists should stay away from the country! Sadly, the Hawaii hotel is no longer in business, whilst the chalets of the Diamond hotel in Siem Reap have been renamed. But my memories from my first adventure into Cambodia remain engraved on my consciousness and I’ve been lucky enough to return each year to add to my library of memories. Here's a picture of me from that first trip, sitting on the steep steps leading to the top of Angkor Wat.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Sre Ambel turtle conservation

The Batagur baska or mangrove terrapin is a species of riverine turtle, and it's one of the most critically-endangered turtle species according to recent assessments by the relevant authorities. Batagur baska is also called the Royal Turtle in Cambodia because its eggs were a royal delicacy and is found only in the area of Sre Ambel, in the southwest coastal region. Everyone loves turtles, but its wildlife conservationists like Heng Sovannara who are doing their utmost to educate the local people of the need to protect their wildlife neighbours. Sovannara heads the Wildlife Conservation Society Batagur baska Conservation Project and they're doing a fantastic job in making sure the future of the royal turtle is assured.

One of the major problems in saving this species is that, although long lived, they do not reach breeding age until they are 25 years old. And from the information gathered over the past few years, it appears that there may be as few as a handful of breeding females remaining at present. The royal turtle can grow to more than 30 kilogrammes and reach almost one metre in length. They spend most of their lives in mangrove-lined tidal estuaries, but have been known to be caught by local fishermen many kilometres out to sea. During the breeding season both sexes change colour from grey to black. Adult males are considerably smaller than the females, easily distinguishable by their vivid yellow eyes. Egg-bearing females travel many kilometres upriver to find the ideal sandbank on which to lay their eggs. There they dig a pit of between one and one-and-a-half metres in depth, and over a six week period they can lay two or even three clutches of up to 20 eggs. As is the case with many reptiles, the older the female, the more eggs are produced. Cambodia is home to at least 12 tortoises and freshwater turtle species.
Now you know the facts, please visit the Sre Ambel Batagur baska website to find out more and how you can help. And here's a story about the royal turtles by one of my favourite writers, Karen Coates. Click here.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Seda makes her mark

One of the finalists for the Australian of the Year Award this year, Leviseda Douglas, better known as Seda, has endured starvation, torture, forced labour, and the anguish of losing her father and seven siblings at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Only her mother and one brother made it to the Thai refugee camp, Khao-I-Dang, where they spent four years waiting for a country to take them in. It was Australia who eventually welcomed them. Seda learnt from her work in the camp hospital the importance of education. She began studying from the time of her arrival in May 1983 and has diplomas and certificates in Asian and Ethnic Studies, translation, management, training, and legal interpreting as well as a Masters degree in International Development Studies. Seda is executive producer with Radio Australia's Cambodia service and founder of the Save the Cambodian Children Fund, which serves as the fundraising arm of Cambodia's Health Care Centre for Children, a member of the Centre of South East Asian Studies at Monash University and author of Sex Trafficking in Cambodia, a working paper highlighting crimes against women, published in 2003 by Monash Univ Press. Seda is committed to the rebuilding of the homeland she left nearly twenty-five years ago. Click here to read her story (or click on comments).

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Can you help? I'm on the hunt for a couple of Khmer Rouge survivor memoirs which I heard about recently. If anyone has any information about either book, please let me know. They are Bun's Story - Tomorrow I'm Dead by Bun Yom, and Climbing Back Up - The killing fields of Cambodia and Phnom Dangrek, The Untold Story of Kim Chou Oeng, and ghost-written by Long Beach journalist Marchelle Hammack. I would love to get hold of a copy of both publications.

Kite Flying in Cambodia

If you are in Cambodia during late November look into the bright blue skies above you and you'll no doubt encounter the Khmer obsession with kite flying, as that month signifies the start of the kite season, which lasts until March. Its a much revered past-time, has its roots in ancient Cambodian history, was always supported by the Royal Family and has its own festival (usually in November and a month after the water-festival). The Kite Museum in the capital houses many examples of Khmer kites at its headquarters opposite the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh. The major figure in the return of kiting as not only a sport but also an important symbol of Cambodian cultural identity is Sim Sarak, a director general of the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Arts. Sim was an enthusiastic flier as a boy and never forgot this early fascination. He's also written a book, alongwith his wife, on Khmer Kites which you can read on-line here.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

After the Heavy Rain

After the Heavy Rain is the second memoir from Sokreaksa Himm and was published by Monarch Books at the beginning of last month. Thirteen of Reaksa's immediate family, including both his parents, were executed by the Khmer Rouge during their murderous regime, in 1977. The young killers marched them from the remote northern village to which they had been exiled from Siem Reap, out into the jungle. One by one the machetes fell. Severely wounded, Reaksa was covered by the bodies of his family. His remarkable story of survival is told in his first memoir, The Tears of My Soul, which was published in 2003.
In this second book, he describes how he tracked down his family's killers, one by one, embraced them, gave them a scarf of friendship and presented each with a Bible. A tale of forgiveness. Reaksa had left Cambodia for the border camps of Thailand and was later accepted to live in Canada. However, he found himself drawn back to the country of his birth and in recent years he's taught at the Phnom Penh Bible School to pastors and church leaders, volunteered at a psychiatric hospital, funded and built a clinic, school and five churches in the area.