Rain returns to Siem Reap

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A ‘heavy downpour’ in Bakong.

After months of sustained drought conditions, rain has returned – at least at hopeful levels – for now. In fact Savong said the storm that brought the big downpour was strong enough to rip the roofing off at the SOC in Bakong.  Urgent repairs have been carried out this week.  Cambodian weather never goes anything by halves – unlike in my homeland of New Zealand where mad outbreaks of drizzle, or wild streaks of cloudiness break the usual sunshine.

Buildings in the countryside of Cambodia face a precarious architectural problem: being well ventilated for the heat versus being fully enclosed and typhoon proof.  In the city more and more homes and buildings are enclosed and – power outages aside – enjoy air conditioning via heat pumps.

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The fix. New iron, tougher nails.

But in the countryside the architecture is lighter and more susceptible to extreme weather.

I think, long-term, climate change is going to be the dominant concern for rural Cambodia. Economically and architecturally the people are going to be at extreme risk of ruin. Risk has always been a part of rural life – but that marks the difference between advantaged versus disadvantaged nations: the degree of resilience in the face of risks.  In this respect Cambodia has a long way to go.

By the way, my name is Duncan Stuart, and I’ve been involved with Cambodia since 2004. I’m slowly getting to know the country and have been eagerly watching the ups and downs of its development. My blogs are usually about Cambodia in general, though my perspective is through the lens of supporting Savongs School in rural Siem Reap. 

 

 

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Teen sex in Cambodia – a challenge to local standards

nightclub cambodia-7Nightclub – Phnom Penh.

Cambodia is a very conservative nation when it comes to teen-sex; and that is quite amazing when you consider the sheer youth of the nation. In the West a series of sexual revolutions took place when the post-war generation hit their teenage years around a time we conveniently refer to as Woodstock. Teen-sex, or extra-marital sex became normalised, and one usually explains that in terms of demographics, the boom in numbers of teenagers, the media and increasing media freedom – as well as a drift away from formal religion. Economic and transport freedom – teenage ownership of cars – further loosened the strict standards that may have been laid down by a previous generation.

In Cambodia the underlying recipe is the same, but on steroids. An exploding population of teenagers, a conspicuous rise in transport freedom and nightclub venues aimed at young singles, the rise of western-styled media – all must be straining the Buddhist standards that remained intact despite the experiment conducted by Pol Pot to shut down the influence of family and of religion.

I first considered this dynamic when I visited, strangely enough, a crematorium in Bakong, back in 2007.  The pillars of the main structure were painted by monks who had depicted in their mural the cycle of life: on one pillar, infancy. On the next, childhood and the school years. And so on, until the last pillar which depicted old age. It was a piquant elegy about life and death, as poetic as any scripture.

But what caught my eye was a piece of graffiti, written in English on the pillar depicting a young man and woman in love. “I miss you,” it said. “I miss you so much.”

Who had written this? Surely this was the message from a young person: who else would write in English, a private language in the traditional Bakong village neighbourhood? A boyfriend, perhaps, had died. Or a girlfriend. The ache of that graffiti message was palpable. A last farewell at a crematorium. A plea through the gates to eternity.

Is teenage love common I wondered.  Are there millions of Romeo & Juliet stories being played out in towns and villages throughout Cambodia?  Does society frown on teenage love?

Recently I saw some figures from the official, Government sanctioned Demographic & Health Survey which is an amazingly comprehensive public health document. In it are the figures for median age for first intercourse – for females and for males.

The median is the age by which 50% have had sex, and for women age 25-29 their median age of first intercourse was 21.4 years. It is almost 21 in the rural areas, and closer to 24 in the big cities.

This age is more or less steady compared to the median age reported by women 30-34 (20.9)  or 35-39 (20.3) or 40-44 (19.9) or 45-49 (20.6 years.)  It varies slightly with regard to educational attainment or wealth level.  Those with a low education for example, report having has first sex around 2.6 years earlier.

For men the figues are more or less the same though generally 6 months later than females. Age 22 is the median age for first sex.

Another measure: at age 19, some 83% of females have never had intercourse and at that age 93% of males have not had sex.

In the USA, by contrast; and here I lift directly from Wikipedia:

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the year 2007, 35% of US high school students were currently sexually active and 47.8% of US high school students reported having had sexual intercourse. This percentage has decreased slightly since 1991.

My country, New Zealand has an unenviable record for teen pregnancy which is regularly cited has the highest incidence in the world. The NZ online Encyclopaedia Te Ara reports figures from 2001 and seems quite pleased that ‘less than 20% of 13-year-olds’ have had sex.  That’s a figure that would make Cambodians shake their heads in dismay.

Since the late 1960s most New Zealanders have had their first sexual experience during their teens and outside marriage.

Perceptions that teenagers are having sex earlier and earlier, and that more of them are doing so, are unfounded. In 2001 less than 20% of 13-year-olds reported that they had had sex. The likelihood of sex rose with age, and about 50% of those aged 17 and over reported having sex.

Compared to Western figures, young Cambodians are relatively chaste. However there is concern that this picture is volatile, and with more blatant sexualised media, and more teen freedom (money and motorbikes) not to mention the changing social architecture thanks to mobile phones and social media: these are the seeds of a big change ahead.

These issues are of concern to directors of NGOs that educate and care for students. My friend Savong has recently published an updated ‘rules of behaviour’ for students under the care of his organization. Savong makes it quite clear that students need to refrain from forming girlfriend/boyfriend relationships that derail the students’ progress through to higher education.

If you find my articles interesting, please feel welcome to Follow this blog by pressing the blue button up near the top left.

For an article on child labour in Cambodia, click here

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seyha’s Security Guard story

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The guy in the photo is Seyha, that’s him with his mother, and he’s quite simply the best tuk-tuk driver in the whole of Cambodia. At least I think so.

The day after this photo was taken, last October, we were travelling out to Angkor Wat when the heavens opened and the rain was so heavy Seyha pulled off the road and we took shelter on the roadside, Seyha, Ray – a wonderful Australian – and me. The sun was going down and evening was settling in. We all shivered in the dark, waiting for the rain to stop. Seyha stayed busy, his t-shirt soaked through, making calls and sending txts from his smart phone which serves as his lifeline.

I saw Seyha each day because he sleeps over at Savong’s guest house in a kind of informal security guard role.

Most places in Cambodia seem to have security guards to keep an eye on things and deter those with ‘sticky fingers’ as Cambodians describe it.  Shops have guards at the door, schools have a guard or two to keep an eye on bicycles. They’re paid from a lowly $70 a month, working 6 days a week on 12 hour days, up to around $160 per month with bonuses at New Year and Pchum Ben. The price is worth it. Sticky fingers can strike anywhere.

Including the pillow of a sleeping night watchman.

Seyha woke up one morning to find that a thief had snuck-in and stolen his $200 smart-phone from where it rested as he slept: right near his head. I assumed he’d never see his phone again. Who could be so audacious as to commit a theft so brazen?

The answer came on CCTV footage. The reception area where Seyha slept was covered by a CCTV camera, and going through the captured footage was an exercise of patience and suspense.  Movement!  No, that was just a cat.

More movement. Seyha’s phone, set to silent, but glowing as somebody tries to phone. Time-stamp 12:30am.

And then…there he is! The thief appears. Striped shirt, furtive, he reaches out for the phone and makes a hasty retreat. To me he looks anonymous – he could be any Cambodian.  “No he’s not,” growls Seyha. “I know him – the little shit!”

I wasn’t there when Seyha confronted Mister Sticky-fingers Striped Shirt, but Seyha successfully recovered his phone and threatened to take the miscreant to the police. In all, it was a high-tech outcome to a low-tech crime. And a reminder to me why there are guards everywhere in Cambodia.

For more from our ‘dishonesty files’: a piece about exam cheats..

 By the way, if you like my blogs, I’d love you to “FOLLOW” me.

 

Two years prison – and a vision

You may have read a recent post of mine in which I recalled a recent visit to see a friend in one of the two prisons in Siem Reap. My friend was arrested as part of a police swoop on illegal gambling (common amongst taxi drivers) and for 5 months my friend has waited for a court hearing.  Savong arranged for a lawyer to represent our friend, and this week we heard the verdict: a 2 years sentence made longer than we hoped on account of  a police claim that my friend had been using drugs. Less 5 months served, my hapless friend has 17 more months to serve.

I have committed to help him where I can – topping up his meagre prison rations mostly with some money each month. But my friend passed on another message: that when he gets out he wants a motorbike to help get him started once more.

That’s Cambodia in a nutshell. Your life is turning bad but it doesn’t matter: you have golden hopes for the future. That’s the eternal optimism of my friend, and it was the eternal optimism of his older Cambodian forebears who strove to survive the ugly Pol Pot years. It is raw human hope.

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On the inside of the gate it bids farewell with the words: “have a good life.” For me it was a happy/sad visit.

280 Jailed Kids – Cambodia

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The story about my visit to a friend in prison hit a nerve I think, because several people told me their stories of Cambodians who have ended up in prison, serving long sentences either for minor offenses (like my friend) or for totally trumped-up charges.

One organisation that works in this arena is LICADHO – the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. They have their work cut out for them. They monitor 18 prisons and their reports show that, inside prison walls, life is dominated by corruption.

As they say: “There is a price tag attached to every amenity imaginable, from sleeping space to recreation time. Those who can’t afford to pay are forced to endure the most squalid conditions.”

For the past 20 years, on International Human Rights Day, LICADHO has provided small packages of extra food to the prison population and entertainment such as games, traditional dancing and shows performed by the prisoners themselves as well as speeches on the importance and universality of fundamental human rights.

What we do

LICADHO believes that regular visits by prison researchers deter abuses in prison and make it easier for LICADHO to intervene when they do occur. LICADHO’s prison activities include:

  • Interview incoming pretrial detainees to ensure that they have legal representation and can communicate with their families
  • Check for violations of pretrial detainees’ rights, such as illegal arrests and excessive pretrial detention/li>
  • Monitor the actions of court and prison officials to ensure that the legal process is conducted properly/li>
  • Assist families in visiting their relatives in prison and provide assistance in avoiding corruption/li>
  • Provide legal assistance, advice and support to prisoners who have suffered human rights abuses in prison or in police custody/li>
  • Work with prison and court authorities to ensure the timely release of convicted prisoners who complete their sentences/li>
  • Distribute food and materials to prisoners/li>
  • Provide medical treatment for prisoners and prison staff (provided by LICADHO’s Medical Office)/li>

LICADHO’s prison researchers also monitor living conditions in the prisons, looking at issues such as the quality of food, water, sanitation, the size and cleanliness of living areas, and exercise for prisoners outside of their cells. Information about prison conditions and any violations of prisoners’ rights are compiled for LICADHO reports and used for other advocacy purposes.

LICADHO is currently the only NGO in Cambodia with access to prisons that regularly shares its findings with the public.

They have a particular focus on basic human rights, (food, education, health,) as well as a determination to improve the lot of children who are either in prison on charges (sometimes streets are ‘swept’ of beggars) or are children of adults who have been incarcerated.

At the end of April 2014 there were a total of 280 juvenile prisoners incarcerated in the 18 prisons monitored by LICADHO, a more than 50 percent drop in the juvenile prison population since 2011. In addition there were 13 pregnant women and 40 children living with their incarcerated mothers.

Their research into prisons does not make easy reading when you know somebody who is stuck inside a Cambodian jail.  One guy who contacted me talked about a conversation he’d had with a prison guard who admitted, more or less, to beating-up prisoners. His rationale: “we want prison life to be less attractive than life in poverty outside of prison.”

For more on LICADHO’s Prison Project read PRISON PROJECT.

Also Caritas Cambodia and education-based NGO This Life Cambodia run positive programs assisting prisoners and their families. These are well worth checking out and supporting.

If you find my blogs at all interesting please feel welcome to press the FOLLOW button at the top left. I write as a supporter of Savong’s School in Bakong, but my topics of interest spread right out to education in general as well as to the arts and life in Cambodia in general. I try to write well-researched pieces and provide links where I can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A visit to prison in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Last time I was in Siem Reap, during Pchum Ben (which is the local thanksgiving festival,) I had arranged to meet an old friend that I’d first met in 2004. We’ve stayed in touch mainly through Facebook as well as through my sporadic visits. My friend is a tuktuk driver.

Now, tuktuk drivers have a life that would be recognised by taxi drivers everywhere. Times of busyness punctuated by long periods waiting for a job: for the next flight to arrive, or for the tourist season to pick-up.

As I found in Bangkok, being a western tourist – one becomes an easy mark for tuktuk drivers to do a little side business. In Bangkok the patter goes: “Hey mister, you want ride?”  I shake my head. “You want girl?” No thanks I say.  “Perhaps you like boy?” he tries. I wave him away.

In Siem Reap there seem to be just two levels to the hustle. “You want ride?” And if you say ‘no thanks’ then one is frequently asked: “you want drugs?”  Which I’m told is usually the offer of marijuana. Western backpackers probably generate a lot of business in this respect. Me? I’ve never used dope, though I did unsuccessfully try inhaling on a soggy spliff back when I was a student.

Now back to my friend. We had agreed to meet but he never showed up.

That was unusual, so Savong helped me locate my friend. We asked dozens of tuktuk drivers if they knew where he was. We showed photos. We tried bars where he was known to hang out. Nothing. He had disappeared.

Then word came through from one of the drivers. The police had – in an anti-gambling sting – raided a house and arrested several drivers who were gambling: betting on cards which is illegal in Cambodia. You can bet on kick-boxing, and you can put money on volleyball games, but you can’t gamble with cards. My friend was one of 12 arrested.

Savong phoned a policeman friend and we found out where our friend had been taken: to a prison on the south-eastern edge of town. The  Armed Forces Prison.

Now this is the good prison. There’s another prison in town which is older and with conditions that are, I’m told, far worse.

We went out to visit the next day. The photo above shows me standing on the driveway. Far from being a cold bastion of incarceration, the front entrance looked, well, festive. Silk banners were flying in the hot October breeze. Families, big and small, rich and poor, were turning up to visit. It felt like picnic day.

We registered our names, and handed in our cellphones, then waited in a small shaded waiting room, watching prisoners in their orange clothing which was more reminiscent in this country of Buddhist monks really, than of the standard prison garb we see on TV.  Some prisoners were carrying out light duties – escorting visitors to the meeting room, and running messages for the guards. One young guy, who clearly loved his role, had the task of announcing to visitors when their inside friend was ready to meet.

He proudly exhorted the two of us: “Mister Savong and Mister Duncan! – your friend is ready to see you!”  His enthusiasm was genuinely infectious.

So we went to the meeting room – a long room with half-height walls to let the breeze through, but divided down the centre by a long bench and chicken wire. Visitors on this side. Prisoners, at least 30 of them, on that side. One of them was my friend.

He lit up! After two weeks he’d had no visitors. The police had taken his phone and he has no family – he’s an orphan – so he had no way of knowing if anybody cared.  His face shone like a beacon.  Well, he had a black-eye also, but it was his smile that I most recall.

In Cambodia the law works upside down. If you are arrested you basically go straight to jail and if you have resources, then you can get a hearing to either plead innocence or plead for a lighter sentence. If you have no resources then basically you have to take what you’re given – in this case 3 – 5 years imprisonment. For a card game.

So no wonder he felt some relief. He had not been forgotten. Touching fingers through the chicken-wire we talked and laughed for a few minutes, then we talked about next steps. I’m helping Savong get a lawyer and we’ll do what we can do get our friend out. I suspect a judge will want to see reparation of some sort: money no-doubt.

The visit was unexpected and on one level incredibly interesting and actually enjoyable. Seeing my friend was really valuable and it honoured a promise I made 11 years ago, that I would never forget my friend. These promises are important to keep.

We were given a scant 15 minutes to talk and right near the end I asked him how he got his black eye.

“There is always a fight over food,” he told me. “Every dinner time, there is not enough food. People fight in our cell.”

“How many people in your cell?” I asked him.

“Twenty one brother. And me.”

And that’s the good prison. I hope upon hope that we can get him out soon.

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