New Cambodian Movie – In the Life of Music

song

I love film, and I love music so I’m excited by the prospect of an upcoming Cambodian movie that uses a famous Sinn Sisamouth song to tie-together three parallel stories set at pivotal times in Cambodia’s recent history. Sisamouth was the legendary pop vocalist who was adored by Cambodian fans in the 60s and 70s but was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Today his music is still revered – a vibrant reminder of the unquenchability of love and of culture.

The film IN THE LIFE OF MUSIC is the creative child of the up and coming female Khmer/American Director Caylee So who is clearly tracing the footsteps of her parents with this drama; her first feature film.

I looked up the movie’s website and here’s what it says about Caylee:

Caylee So was born in a refugee camp in Thailand on September 17th 1981, just after her parent’s escape from the reign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. When she was just three years old, her family immigrated to the United States. She grew up in Northern Virginia where she spent most of her youth.

In 2000, soon after her high school graduation, Caylee joined the US armed forces and served in the Virginia Army National Guard for the next eight years. There, she wrote for a little column called Caylee’s Corner, a newsletter that was sent out to friends and families of deployed soldiers.

In between tour of duty, Caylee attended Northern Virginia Community College where she discovered her love of writing fiction. She later transferred to George Mason University to pursue a degree in creative writing. Creative writing led to theatre, and theatre led to film; all mediums that had one thing in common: they all captured stories.

In 2011, Caylee was awarded the Zonta’s Women in Film grant for Most Promising Young Filmmaker. In 2012 Caylee received her MFA in Film Production at Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, having won the Best Picture and Best Director at her school’s Cecil Awards that year.  She is also the winner of the Director’s Guild of America’s 18th annual Best Female Student Director award.  She is the co-founder of the 1st Cambodia Town Film Festival in Long Beach, CA and the winner of the Linda Mabelot’s New Directors/New Visions Award.

3 Chapters; 3 Generations; 3 Worlds: Changed by a Song.

Directed By: Caylee So / Sok Visal
Written By: Caylee So / Dane Styler
Produced By: Caylee So / Neardey Trinh

In the Life of Music tells the story of how one song “Champa Battambang,” a song made famous by Sinn Sisamouth (the King of Khmer Music), plays a role in the lives of three different generations. It is a feature narrative told in 3 chapters during 3 different decades, depicting the lives of people whose world is inevitably transformed by war. It is a powerful intergenerational tale that weaves through 38 years of Cambodia’s ever-changing landscape.

Chapter One: The Song of Love (1968)
In the small village, a group of musicians ride into town to give a rare impromptu fundraising concert, igniting profound excitement and wonder from all the townspeople. Bearing the burdens and responsibilities of traditions, two strangers: CHY, 16, and PHALLY, 15, seeks to overcome their obstacles, and find a way to attend the concert, a concert in which music and love will be forever intertwined.

Chapter Two: The Song of Death (1976)
Mith, 40’s, a famous singer now living under the terror of the Khmer Rouge Regime, struggles with surviving his own legacy.

Chapter Three: The Song of Birth (2007)
Hope, 26, a singer, songwriter, journeys to Cambodia, the place her mother calls “home” where along the way, relationships will be tested, and one’s quest for identity will give voice to a generation who must reconcile the past with the present in order to shape the music of our future.

Garment workers in Cambodia cost a small fraction of what you pay for your t-shirt or shoes.

discrimination-workers-cambodia-retailersIn October 2015 Cambodia lifted the official minimum wage of a garment worker to $US140 per month. The big unions had initially demanded $177 per month in view of the high cost of living in Phnom Penh, home to most garment factories.

The decision followed a vote among representatives of the government, factories and unions, in which the majority supported a raise from the current $128 to $135, which the government then increased to $140.

Not that the Government has a history of being generous. In early 2014, at least four people were killed and more than 20 were injured when police outside Cambodia’s capital opened fire to break up a protest by striking garment workers.

The clothing and footwear industry, 90% of staff of whom are women, is Cambodia’s biggest export earner, employing about 700,000 people in more than 700 garment and shoe factories. In 2014, the Southeast Asian country shipped more than $6 billion worth of products to the United States and Europe.

The average workweek of a garment factory worker is almost 60 hours, and conditions are often very poor by western standards. Check out this link to a report (Work faster or get out!) prepared by Human Rights Watch.

Their report was well researched: and is based on interviews with more than 340 people, including 270 workers from 73 factories in Phnom Penh and nearby provinces, union leaders, government representatives, labor rights advocates, the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, and international apparel brand representatives.

Of some 200 apparel brands that source from Cambodia, Human Rights Watch was in contact with Adidas, Armani, Gap, H&M, Joe Fresh, and Marks and Spencer.

Some of these brands are getting their act together to prevent exploitation and abuses of the garment workers (do over time or get fired, sexual harassment, child labour etc)  but certainly not all.  Next time you buy Made in Cambodia (which should be a good thing) check the policies of the brands you’re supporting.  On a thirty dollar item, the labour component is probably no more than $1.50.

Cambodia – opinion poll captures cautious public mood.

I have long been a fan of public opinion polls because they bring an often ignored voice – that of the public – to the attention of those in power. A wise government need not necessarily be a slave to public opinion, the best decisions may be considered to be unpopular at the time, but it should always heed the sentiment of the public.

Having enjoyed a history of tight media controls, (the television broadcasters fundamentally ignore politics in favour of game shows and pop music,) Cambodia’s Hun Sen government is now operating in a much more openly informed environment. The press, namely the Phnom Penh Post, as well is Cambodia daily, have been active champions for journalistic freedom. Add to that, the Voice of America which, perhaps unlike the VOA the 1960s and 70s, which was very much a propaganda mechanism for the United States, is respected these days for bringing fair reportage to the Cambodian public.

As witnessed in the 2013 elections, the voice of the people themselves – using social media such as Facebook – has emerged as a potent voice in the political mix. The swell of support for the opposition clearly rocked the government. It is perhaps little wonder that this government is now actively gathering of intelligence from the Internet: identifying “troublemakers” in an effort to maintain some kind of control public opinion.

But here’s the thing: the public in any nation tends to have a good common sense understanding of whether the nation is heading in the right or wrong direction.

Right now, 59% of Cambodians feel their nation is heading in the wrong direction.

This is the finding of a significant survey, diligently conducted face-to-face, (I don’t envy the fieldwork design that must have gone into this study,) of 1000 citizens aged 18+.

The news is not all bad for the government, not at all. There is a general sentiment that the public considers the growth of the economy and the development of infrastructure to be good things for the nation. But they sound warning bells – highlighting corruption, deforestation and economic inequities as being causes for real concern.

From my perspective, as a researcher, and as an observer of Cambodia, the The Asia Foundation poll seems to be eminently fair. The Asia Foundation is a watchdog organisation, and for sure, they have an agenda –  “to assess attitudes and priorities of the voting public that may contribute to or constrain democratic reforms,’ but this hasn’t hindered the from asking balanced, non-leading questions, and enabling the public to voice their opinions in their own words.

This from Germany’s public news broadcaster DW.

Survey shows Cambodians increasingly concerned about country’s direction

Despite rapid economic growth, more Cambodians than at any time since 2004 feel their country is moving in the wrong direction, a new poll found. Corruption, deforestation, and economic issues top the list of concerns.

The nationwide survey, published by The Asia Foundation on Wednesday, December 10, shows that while 32 percent of respondents feel Cambodia is heading in a positive direction, a majority (59 percent) believes things in the Southeast Asian nation are going the wrong way.

Conducted between May 19 and June 9, and titled Democracy in Cambodia – 2014: A Survey of the Cambodian Electorate, the public opinion poll cites corruption (19 percent), deforestation, and economic issues (26 percent) as the main reasons for the increase in pessimism. The tangible results of infrastructure (27 percent) and economic growth (21 percent) are cited by those who believe the country is going in the right direction.

The representative survey is the organization’s third on democracy in Cambodia, a follow-up to polls conducted in 2000 and 2003 and is based on 1,000 face-to-face interviews with Cambodian citizens aged 18 and older in 23 provinces (excluding Kep) and the capital Phnom Penh.

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Lack of transparency, lack of trust, lack of justice – in Cambodia’s justice system

CAMBODIAN ELECTION

Journalist Kevin Doyle based in Phnom Penh has written a blistering piece for the BBC which was published today.

The story revolves around the murder of a young woman, a mother of  are 10-year-old,  who was shot in cold blood by her jealous boyfriend  a policeman.  Witnesses saw him. But he has not been brought to justice.

Earlier this year, karaoke parlour singer, Sam Yin, 29, was shot dead by a police officer.

He escaped – but then resurfaced in August as a free man. He had reached a deal, it was reported, with the court, which closed the case after he paid $1,500 (£960) to Sam Yin’s relatives.

“I heard about the compensation, but I can’t confirm it,” Takeo province’s deputy police chief Suon Phon said in September.

Officers could only be dispatched to apprehend the suspected killer when the court issued an arrest warrant, the deputy police chief said, adding this week that he has yet to receive one.

“I don’t know what happened because everything has been done at the provincial court.”

In Cambodia, a small cash payment is often the most people can hope for when the rich and powerful are involved – and cases such as Sam Yin are far from unique.

The story then springboards onto the wider question of the justice system in Cambodia, and how it is far from transparent. As Doyle notes:

Anti-corruption monitor Transparency International reported in 2013 that Cambodia’s judiciary “was perceived to be the most corrupt institution out of 12 public institutions reviewed”.

Police officers fared no better. Bribery of officers was “widespread across the country,” Transparency reported, noting that 65% of respondents reported paying a police office a bribe in the previous 12 months.

In a 24 September statement to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, UN human rights envoy to Cambodia Surya Subedi said the list of impunity cases was “long and growing”.

“Little has been done to bring perpetrators to justice,” he said.

Kevin Doyle’s article is well worth a read.  Click here: BBC report on corruption.

Malnutrition still a problem in Cambodia

Rice production is rising in Cambodia - but as agriculture develops there is still a serious malnutrition problem.

Rice production is rising in Cambodia – but as agriculture develops there is still a serious malnutrition problem.

For anyone who visits Cambodia regularly  there is a palpable sense, upon each visit,  that this troubled little nation is making rapid strides economically.  In 2004 I remember my motorcycle driver in Phnom Penh  taking me to see the most dazzling symbol of the modern age: Cambodia’s first escalator. He had never actually set foot on it before, and it was a pleasure watching him take his first ride.  At the time as a Westerner, I felt very much like a visitor from another and very privilegedplanet.

Today the sky line-up Phnom Penh is sprouting high-rise buildings at a rapid rate, smart phone usage across the nation is soaring, roads are becoming congested with cars and at first glance it appears that the days of poverty are basically over. This poses a question for any supporters of NGOs in Cambodia: at what point do we say, the job is done –  mission accomplished?

Well, don’t pop the Champagne just yet. According to some recent figures published this year, and funded by the Independent European based organisation;  Global Governance for Hunger Reduction Program productivity by Cambodia’s agricultural sector has soared, at least in US dollar terms,  since 2007 –  basically doubling in that time from US$3.5 billion  to US$7.9 billion in 2011.  Now those figures include the tremendous price spike in commodity prices that occurred in 2008 –  but even so,  if we measure cereal yields (rice, maize etc)  we see yields growing  by 16%  in terms of tonnes per hectare over the same time. (The real revenue is being generated by rubber, palm oil and sugar,)

The government  has a medium to long-term strategy of increasing the value and quality of agricultural output so that the rice, for example, meets the stringent quality standards demanded by Western markets who in turn will pay premium prices. Cambodia will be sharing this story at the Milan Expo 2015.

But the same source of facts and figures has a few warning signals.  Right now Cambodian farmers,  who make up 65% of the total national workforce, are focused on low value add commodities – namely rice – whereas Cambodia’s main commodity imports,  measured in dollars,  a spearheaded by the importation of, get this: cigarettes.  Economists often  illustrate their science by giving examples of guns and butter,  but in this modern example Cambodia appears to be trading cheap rice for expensive cancer.

That’s my judgement anyway,  but the figures also highlight the degree of malnutrition that is occurring even today in booming Cambodia.

Since 2007  the poverty rate in Cambodia has halved,  but it still sits at 20% of the entire population below the line of  $30 per month. The poverty gap is widening. The wealth is trickling upwards quicker than downwards.

One measure of malnutrition is the incidence of underweight children under five years old. In 2007 when the poverty rate was closer to 40%, some 28.8% of children were reported as underweight. Two years later the figure was virtually unchanged.

According to the authors of the report the number of Cambodians undernourished in 2009  was 2.9 million. Today the figure is improving –  but the figure is still over 2 million people.

Finally, they report the improvement between 2007 and 2011  of the percentage of Cambodians who have access to clean water sources. Again, this is improving, but has a long way to go. In 2007 some 59% had access to clean water. Four years later  the figure had improved to 67%. Still, that leaves close to 5,000,000 Cambodians without access to improved water sources today.

The economy may be booming, but with 80% of Cambodians living in rural circumstances, there is a sense in the data that many are toiling  hard, but getting no further ahead.

Cambodian school system is still failing its students

Exam results! Who passed? Who missed out? In 2014 just under 40% of Grade 12 students passed their exams. How do we lift that?

Exam results! Who passed? Who missed out? In 2014 just under 40% of Grade 12 students passed their exams. How do we lift that?

Just prior to this month’s water Festival festivities which have made a welcome full-scale return to the Cambodian holiday scene, the Ministry of education, youth and sport released figures showing an extremely poor success rate for those high school students re-sitting their exams.

The Ministry has been making good progress over recent years to ensure that a greater percentage of Cambodian young people have full access to schools, and they have been working hard to lower the student to teacher ratio which is one of the highest in the world. The MOEYS website has impressed me for laying out the facts and figures of the successes, or challenges facing the education sector in Cambodia.

For one of the key performance indicators, the pass rate of students re-sitting their grade 12 exams –  those students who didn’t quite make the grade at the first attempt – is troubling. a lot of attention was being paid to this KPI because the pass rate for the grade 12 exams was down steeply compared to 2013 results. From the Phnom Penh Post:

Just 25.72 per cent of students passed the exam, the Ministry of Education officially announced yesterday, a result lower even than the dismal 30 per cent figure predicted by Prime Minister Hun Sen in the aftermath of the two-day test earlier this month.

The exam – usually rife with corruption and cheating – had been hailed as the cleanest in many years, thanks to a determined crackdown by the ministry, which deployed thousands of monitors from the anti-corruption unit to enforce strict regulations.

By way of comparison, 87 per cent of students passed in 2013.

The crackdown on cheating is a good thing, and so was the opportunity the government gave 90,000 Cambodian students to resit their exams if they missed first time.

Some 30,000 of these did not bother re-sitting however, but presumably the other 60,000 felt they had some chance. Here’s the report from the Phnom Penh Post.

Just 18 per cent of more than 60,000 hopeful students who re-sat the grade 12 national exams earlier this month have passed, according to official results released yesterday.

No students scored A or B grades, while one student scored a C grade. A total of 55 students received a D grade while the vast majority – 10,815 students – passed with the lowest E grade.

The 17.94 per cent pass rate was lower than the first tests in August, when a government blitz on cheating and corruption brought a dramatic drop from an 87 percent pass rate in 2013. Some 25 per cent passed the first round this year.

Prime Minister Hun Sen personally intervened to announce a re-sit for those who had failed the all-important exams, which are essential to pass for most university degree courses.

Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, who is spearheading reforms, said yesterday that despite the lowly scores, the re-test was “worthwhile”.

“Even though we made a big effort to help students, just a few more students passed,” he said yesterday.

“[But] in terms of extra spending and the extra effort, it was still worthwhile because we helped more than 10,000 pass.”

Naron also said the dismal results for the second exam were “logical”, as the country’s top students had already passed during the first round.

“If [the percentage of students who passed] was higher than last time, we’d be very suspicious,” he said.

At Preah Sisowath High School in central Phnom Penh hundreds of students morosely listened to the announcement of results broadcast by loudspeaker yesterday afternoon.

“It’s not an easy year for me,” said an 18-year-old female student that declined to be named after learning she had failed.

“I knew that this would happen because I’m not a good student. Even though I tried to study hard this past month, I still couldn’t do any better than before.”

The crying teenager said she would have to repeat grade 12 again.

But for the few who succeeded, celebrations were ecstatic.

Lok Chanvisal, 18, who passed with an E grade, cheered and jumped around with his friends before quickly calling his father to pass on the good news.

“I was trying so hard in the last month and I never went out with my friends like I used to do,” he said, adding that he was ready to re-ignite his social life, starting last night. “It’s time for Halloween [partying], which coincides with our success.”

Education watchdogs, however, were critical that the government shelled out $2.5 million to organise the re-test, given that hardly any students passed.

“Allowing all the students who failed [to re-sit] was a waste of government budget. There should have been criteria so students who scored too low the first time [just] failed and did not get a retry,” San Chey, country coordinator for social accountability group ANSA-EAP, said.

“The scores indicate we should have great concern for the quality of education in Cambodia.”

CNRP whip Son Chhay, who also serves as deputy head of the parliamentary commission on finance and banking, said the government’s move was “very positive”.

Chhay added that he believed $250 could be reached well before 2018 if reforms were expedited. Getting civil servants back on side was “a question of survival” for the CPP, he said.

But unions representing public workers yesterday had no praise for the government.

“Why do they have to wait until 2018?” said Rong Chhun of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association.

Cambodian Independent Civil Servant Association head Kao Poeun said: “Despite the recent raises, their salaries are still low, so they won’t provide citizens with good public services. They will still try to make money through corruption.”

The results of students have clearly become a political battleground, for example between the teachers lobby and the Ministry – a battle over salaries and standards of teacher training.

By my calculations the eventual pass rate works out to be almost 40% – (26% on the first attempt, plus another 13% of the total on the second go.)  In other words 60% of those who enter grade 12 are for some reason not making the distance.

I can think of at least three root causes for this, and they include:

  1. Poor standards of teacher training. It is one thing to supply enough teachers, but as my figures show elsewhere on this blog, around half the teachers in Cambodia have themselves progressed no further than grade 12.
  2.  lack of teaching of study skills, and lack of textbooks or resources for students. It is one thing to attend classes in Cambodia, but many students don’t have the skills or resources to support what they learn in the classroom.
  3. Poverty. The current pass figures, low as they are, would be even lower if poor students – those from poor families – were even to make it through to grade 12. Many of those who do still need to work full time on the family farm or business simply to make ends meet with their family. Grade 12 students in many cases are forced by circumstances to treat school as their side activity; not their main one.

For more up to date figures from the Cambodian education sector – teacher student ratios and a teacher shortage in Siem Reap. Plus: How Qualified are the Teachers of Cambodia?