Monday, July 6, 2009
Dr. Iyer's article, entitled "Cambodia: Defining Peace in Order to Build Peace," is the WIP's featured article this month and may be found at: http://thewip.net/
The release of the seven students' work will continue over the coming month, with the first two articles available now for viewing at: http://thewip.net/talk/
Please continue to follow our work throughout the month of July. Congratulations all!
Thursday, February 19, 2009
After meeting with the last NGOs of our trip, we made our way back to the hotel and had some time to get what we needed for the boat trip on the Mekong river and dinner. Ending the trip by taking a ferry to watch the sunset form the river was a wonderful idea and I really enjoyed that. All of us sat on the top deck of the boat and talked about what we were going to do after our debriefing tomorrow. Some of us were heading home, others were going back to Thailand, a few of us were going to go to Vietnam and others were staying in Cambodia until the 31st. Even as the sun went down, the air was still warm. The sun hit the growing skyline of Phnom Penh and reflected brightly off of the royal palace. Small fishing boats passed us and we exchanged waves and hellos. We passed a small village that looked like it was floating and we could see the kids running to the back of their houses to see ferry boats like ours pass by. After the sun set, we made our way back to the place where we had started from and made our way to the restaurant for dinner.
Dinner was also outside and there was Khmer music playing. Many of us decided to go out on our last night and say our finale goodbyes to Phnom Penh, and the Heart of Darkness. I was more than satisfied with the end of the night because I was able to jam out to Britney Spears, it was nice.
The next morning we all went across the street to the center for debriefing and finalize some details about weekend workshop we would have when we came back. Nam also came and talked with us and we were able to ask any lingering question that we may have had. The end of the debrief came quickly and everyone from the office came into the conference room so we could all say our goodbyes. We gave the center a gift for them to remember us visiting them and thanking them for working with Pushpa to make this trip possible. They presented us with Khmer scarfs to remember them by and next thing I knew, the trip was over.
Ashley, Stephanie, Christine, Adam and I were catching a bus at 1 pm and were going to cross the Cambodia/Vietnam border and then go to Ho Chi Minh City. When I woke up, we were crossing into Vietnam. I have a tendency to pass out on long trips and luckily I missed the Khmer Karaoke. The plus side of traveling by bus is that neither of us had to pay a departure tax. If you come across the border by bus, you have to go to a large area inside where the bus driver gives your passport to the boarder authority. It took a really long time because there is only one person checking and calling out names. Stephanie was the first one to be called and then I was called. They have you take your bags and out them through a scanner, I think that was their customs process. Christine, Adam and Ashley come over shortly after Stephanie and I had finished and put their bags through. However, Ashley was told to take several bowls that she had purchased in Cambodia out so they could inspect them. They were really interested in the jade-color bowl and asked her where she got them from. She told them she got them in Cambodia and paid only a few dollars for them. After what seemed like a half an hour, they let her take the bowl and we were on our way. That was actually a really nerve racking time, I was glad that was over.
The next several days were spent in Ho Chi Minh City and we all did similar or different things. I was really glad that Rachel had told me about the traffic situation in Cambodia. There were motor-bikes everywhere! There were cross-walks but no one stopped for them so you had to walk into the middle of the road and wait until there was a break in the traffic and then run to the other side. That was fun and usually kept me on my toes. The day before I left, Ashley and I were sitting outside a small restaurant having lunch. All of a sudden I see something fall from the trees onto Ashley but she made nothing of it. A few seconds later she is talking to me and her face went white. She goes to swipe something off of her back and a huge cockroach flies off. She jumped right out of her seat and screamed and I couldn’t help but laugh. Since then, she feels like bugs are crawling on her back. Also, on our quest to find the botanical gardens, we wandered through the zoo. The condition of the zoo wasn’t as horrible as lonely planet cautioned, but there were some noticeable differences. The alligators are behind a chain-link fence and that is it. I watched some kids try to grab it or poke at it and couldn’t believe it. In the US, there would be a fence, another fence and then a guard rail. We were not able to find the gardens so on our way out, we passed some Rhinos. They were really cool and they came over to us. It was awesome to get that close to a Rhino because that would also never happen at a zoo in the US.
There were many noticeable differences between Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. While I was there, I noticed that there is still a rift between Vietnamese and Americans left over from the Vietnam War. On the surface, Thailand and Vietnam appeared to have stronger infrastructure and were developing faster than Cambodia. For me, it looked as if the standard of living is higher in Vietnam and that there is a larger middle class than in Thailand or Cambodia. Also from my observations, It appeared to me that Vietnam had a stronger economy and government then Thailand and Cambodia.
I left early in the morning on the 30th and made my way to Beijing and then made my back to San Francisco. I remember stepping off the plane the other day and thinking how amazing the trip was. I never thought I would go to Asia and have it leave such a positive, lasting impression. I was only there for a limited time, and didn’t physically see most of the bad, but understand it exists there. I was amazed by the history of Cambodia and the beauty of Angkor Wat. I absolutely fell in love with the island, Rah Lei, that Stephanie, Ashley and I spent several days before meeting up with the group in Bangkok. The work in the field taught me that I still have so much to learn and understand about conflict resolution. However, the work in the field showed me things that I could never learn in a classroom. I can’t wait to do it for J-term again!
You remember that you were out looking for food. You hadn’t eaten in several days, but you knew that soldiers were looking for people trying to gather food. You went anyway and found food, but before you could eat you heard shouting, and by the time you turned around, you awoke in the darkness. The moving stops and the yelling begins. The door opens and the light is blinding, you can’t see. You realized that you don’t need to see to know where you are. You arrived at Tuol Sleng and you have heard enough stories to know your not going home ever again.
The high school turned torture compound imprisoned thousands of Khmer during 1975 and 1979. All of the people that had been imprisoned at Tuol Sleng were interrogated. They were routinely beaten and tortured in various ways. Some were shocked several times a day, while others were chained to bed frames and seared with hot metal. Every detail about the person was recorded, photographed and the prisoner would have to sign at the end of the confession. After, the prisoners were taken to Choeung Ek, (Killing Fields) and were executed and thrown into other mass graves with hundreds of thousands of people.
The chief of S-21 was Khang Khek lue, widely known as Comrade Dutch. Today we visited the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia where he and several other former Khmer Rouge leaders await trial.
Knowing what he did, could you imagine ever feeling remorse for him? How do you mentally digest a thought like that? How do you justify his actions for torture and killing of innocent people? How would you talk to someone about this? These were many questions that I had to ask myself. Towards the end of our trip, after our visit to the ECCC, I felt sincere remorse for Duch and actually admitted it to our group during a routine meeting.
Earlier in the trip we had learned about more about the leaders and what they did during the Khmer Rouge and what they did after it fell. It was interesting to learn that some leaders from the Khmer Rouge lived completely opposite lives after the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979. One leader in particular, Khang Khek lue caught my attention. He became a Director of Education and converted to Christianity. In 1996 he fled to Thailand with his family due to the fighting that broke out. In the refugee camp, Duch assumed the role as the Community Health Supervisor. Once the fighting stopped, he returned to Cambodia and worked closely with the international Christian relief and development organization, World Vision. He continued to promote human rights and assist in the development of rural Cambodia until he was tracked down in 1999. Soon after, he surrendered to the authorities and remains in prison.
Duch was the first suspect indicted in the tribunal. Duch will be the first to be tried at the tribunal because he admitted full guilt for what he did during the late 1970s. Should this change anything? Does it change anything? He still assisted in the torture and killing of Khmer people by receiving and giving the orders to do so. Most people will say no. However, I personally feel that he should not be tried the same as the other leaders awaiting trial. Many people in our group commented and hit it home that justice is imperfect. I know this, I understand this but that doesn’t mean that I have to agree with it. I can understand people not fully understanding how I can feel remorse for someone like Duch. I am not Khmer and never experienced what millions of people went through. However, I am a human being and I believe that feeling remorse is natural and can be felt or anything or anyone.
Ashley and I grappled with this thought for a long time. I remembering when we were getting ready for bed I looked at her and told that what I was about to say may sound crazy and I that make no sense, but I feel bad for Duch. I tried to read her face and was ready to respond and defend my statement. She looked at me and told me she felt the same way. We really couldn’t explain what we felt for him. What he did was wrong and anyone else who did/does that is/was wrong. We discussed that topic for a while and we both came to a similar conclusion. It’s human nature to feel remorse and anyone can feel remorse about anyone, or anything.
I don’t believe or think what he did was right. I do not feel the same way about any of the other former leaders awaiting trial. I just know that feeling something this deep and believing in it is going with my gut feeling, and I can live with that.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Our trip to Thailand and Cambodia was almost over just when I had finally adjusted to the time difference. I woke up earlier then usual and used the extra time to reflect on what I had seen, witnessed and participated in over the past few weeks. Yesterday had been difficult and emotionally draining. The morning had started early for me, and came too soon for others.
It was about 2:30am when I woke up and at first I thought it was time to get ready. However, the sky was still dark and realized that I had woken up because of the loud voice outside of our hotel. I could hear muffled screams or yelling in the background, but the voice over the loud speaker was making it difficult to make out what the other voices were. I turned around to see if Ashley had been awoken by the noise outside. Ashley had tossed around earlier so I leaned over and woke her up. “Yeah”, she said in a groggy voice and I asked her if she could hear the noise, which felt like it was right outside of our window. She sat up, listened briefly, and said she could hear something but turned back into the sheets and fell back asleep. By that time it was about 3:30 in the morning and I was jealous that Ashley could sleep through all of the noise outside.
I looked out my window and tried my best to see if I could see anything in the dark. It wasn’t very successful because I had taken out my contacts and I can’t see anything far away. Yet, I did notice that there were no headlights on the street next to our hotel and I thought I could see people walking down the road. I didn’t know what to make of it. Were they celebrating the Chinese New Year? Do Khmer people stay out late on the week days and not the weekend, I didn’t get it. The voice was still speaking in Khmer over the loud speaker and I still couldn’t make out the muffled voices in the distance. All of a sudden it seemed as if the voice was getting louder and the music came on and the voice stopped. The Khmer music played over the loud speaker until the sun came up, and then it stopped.
I wasn’t able to fall asleep so I just laid there waiting for the alarm to go off, the music and voice to stop and for Ashley to wake up so I could complain a little. As soon as she woke up, I told her about what I had heard and had seen and was amazed that she had slept through all of that. We made our way downstairs for breakfast and noticed that our hotel was busier then usual. In my mind I thought something was taking place for the Chinese New Year so I didn’t stop and take my time to look at the people who had wandered into our hotel. Ashley and I walked outside to a rather chaotic scene. One of the main roads had been barricaded and closed out to the public and only police and military personal were allowed to enter and leave. What was all of this? People had gathered up and down the streets and were pressing up against the barracade to try and get a closer look at what was happening down the road.
In the crowd of people, I saw journalists, people wearing different color vests and each person wore a distinct look of disgust on their face. I turned to Sarah and Brandon and asked if they knew what was going on and Sarah just looked at me and said, “It’s a humanitarian disaster”. What did she mean by that? I looked at Brandon and he said that they were evacuating the “slum” on this street and that was all that he knew. I ran up stairs and grabbed the flip camera and made my way into the crowd with Ashley and started to talk to anyone and everyone we could to try and understand what was going on.
From the short time that we had outside until we got on our bus and made our way to S 21 (the genocide museum) and then the killing fields, we had gathered several short interviews and a great deal of facts on the situation. The situation had come to the end. The people in that area had been negotiating and fighting with the government for rights to the land, compensation if they moved, and where they would be moved to. Basically the government ordered the families there to pack up their belongings on a truck and then they would be taken to another area where they could rebuild their homes and such. However, some of the human rights observers mentioned that the military and police had been using mild violence to move the families and that many families would not see any form of compensation. I realize situations like this happen all over the world and that some of the biggest cities in the United States were built this way. However, it’s always shocking to see something like what these people were going through.
We gathered everyone in our group and got onto the bus to meet Emma at the genocide museum. We took a detour since the road we had used yesterday was blocked off and made our way around the crooked streets and torn roads. We arrived at S21 and immediately I felt a chill come over my body. As we made our way into the museum, Emma described the history, set-up and purpose of the torture center. Even though I was in front while Emma was speaking, I couldn’t pay attention to what she was saying. I didn’t want to listen anymore about the torture and cruelty that took place here. It had only been about 10 or 15 minutes and already I had a knot in my stomach and a strange feeling about the museum. She lead us to an area where there were a dozen or so white stones and she told us that only 14 deaths occurred at Tuol Sleng. When the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia and pushed the Khmer Rouge further north in Cambodia, the cadre left the prisoners in the rooms. By the time the Vietnamese army arrived, they 14 prisoners had been tortured so badly that they died before they could be liberated. A photographer had been traveling with the Vietnamese army to record the first entry into Phnom Penh since the Khmer Rouge had evacuated everyone out.
He took the photographs of the tortured prisoners and those photos are placed in each room displaying how the bodies were found. Personally, I don’t have the stomach or the words to describe to you what those pictures looked liked. I only saw a few before I was overcome with emotion and just needed to step outside for some air. We continued to make our way around the museum, but had been delayed several times because of the French group that was in front of us. Emma showed us the rooms with all of the pictures of the victims and the cadre and the youth soldiers. She showed us the rooms where the prisoners were kept and what they had been strapped to the floor with. One of the most disturbing things about that part of the museum is there is still blood on the floors and walls from the prisoners who were held there. We took a quick look upstairs and looked out onto the grounds of the former high school through the holes in the barbwire fence. We made our way downstairs, discussed briefly what we had seen or felt (briefly discussed because not many people in the group wanted to talk about what they had seen) and went across the street to a restaurant operated by street children.
Lunch was a relief for me because it gave me an hour or so to put Tuol Sleng in the back of my mind and try to comprehend what I had just seen. By the time I could even start processing what I had seen, it was time to go to the killing fields. The drive to the killing fields was short and we were given time to walk around and reflect about the time we had spent at the museum. As I made my way through the paths surrounding the holes were hundreds upon thousands of bodies had once be tossed away like trash, I noticed something coming out of the ground near a tree. Was I really looking at human bones coming out of the ground? I had not been prepared to see something like that while I was here. I turned around and made my way back to the bus, trying to erase an image that would be burned into my memory for a very long time.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
A Moment in Time or Future Foothold? Time will Be The Greatest Determinant Of That Fork In The Road.
It's rather difficult to assess what defines a particular trip or a particular moment in time. For some it's a compilation of all the stories heard, all the people interchanged and all the roads paved, within a particular time that begins to define the life spent in one particular locale. Yet for others, the definition lies within the symbolism they find in the nature of the land, the spirit of the people, the work, both unrealized and successful of board members and grassroots players alike, and the empathy within oneself, as they slowly find a way to dissect everything that a populous has lived through and all they are able to learn about themselves in that time. Even for others, it is not enough to journey to unfamiliar territory and attempt to embed oneself in the life and culture of the place around them, but more so, there must be a time to reflect, ponder and assess all the little things that slowly filtered into one another that laid a foundation for a truly defining excursion to land unfamiliar and a people foreign and new. However, whatever the journey means to one person most likely than not, like most things in this life, it simply does not mean the same to another.
Similar to most defining instances, although two people cannot truly occupy the same space, two people can experience the precise and exact same moment in time and the same second of action or inaction, yet come out the other end with two completely polar perspectives, reactions and definitions of truth, justice, reconciliation, and reality. Therein, we are left to dissect this journey to Thailand and Cambodia (even Vietnam & Korea) and find a way to define not only what it has meant to each of us individually, but also, what is has meant to us collectively. Even far greater, we are left to dissect what it has meant for us as both human beings occupying space in this world and what it will mean to us professionally in our quest to secure our foothold in this vortex we call life.
As I reflect on the journey and what I am able to take from the trip to the Southeast, I am still at a loss for what this will mean for my future: will it be a defining mark on my professional journey or simply a reflection on time spent in a Southeast Land during my academic career? One the hand, there is the very real possibility that this trip with all its’ frustration and education alike will simply be a small spec on my personal journey that will be a token of reflection in regards to a trip I took during my last few months of school. Yet, on the other, there is heartily the potential for this to be a stepping-stone of professional recognition and direction, in whatever capacity and avenue that may be, that I needed in order to channel my energy in the direction where I find myself to be the most useful. The hope, of course, is for the former to become realized.
In retrospect then, I have come to realize that this trip was much more than shopping, tuk-tuk’s, monks, palace, slum evacuations, tribunals, government officials and NGO meetings. It was more than a testament to personal will and preservation in calculating how long a person is able to go without screeching out in frustration over recycled clothes, tangled and oily hair, lack of personal space and sleep deprivation. If anything, and in the purest of terms, this trip was. Even in it’s simplest terms, it was under the veil of an educational case study designed to present us a coversheet perspective of both the successes and failures of peace-building from the bottom-up and vice-versa and the preserved and broken relationships embedded within that umbrella. It was a trip defined by the caveat of “let nothing surprise you, but hope that some things still shock you.” And ultimately, it was trip that will forever be left to us to constantly redefine and reassess.
As we all begin to reintegrate ourselves into a semester of reading assignments, presentations and midterms, we will come to a sense of perspective about what we choose to take from such an endeavor. Whether we see it as an educational experience for which it was intended, i.e. an opportunity to grasp the challenges of peace-building, or whether we see it as small foothold in the greater picture of what professional direction we choose to follow, inevitably it will mean something to us all. And, only we can answer those questions. As for me, I have yet to devise a game plan for what parts of the trip I will use and what simply are. In my mind, I must truly understand, comprehend and evaluate the trip as a whole in order to understand what role it will play in my broader scope of professional existence. But, as I reflect and attempt to assess and evaluate such a daunting ideological stance, I am simply left with the idea that perhaps neither today nor next year will I truly comprehend the place this trip has for me.
Ultimately, whether that message is vocalized or not, I have faith that in the most convenient of definitions and in the simplest and most influential manner possible, that the true vision I need and blueprint I hope to devise, will avail itself in either in collaboration or in competition with this trip. In the end, I hope to somehow and someway have a secure foothold, either with a pen or shovel in hand, or possibly alternating between the two, as a result of the days spent learning and listening to the voices and the echo’s of the Khmer people, evaluating and questioning those who choose to find a way to impact these lives, of walking away from the stale aroma of dried blood in S-21 and the killing fields, and for better or worse, day in and day out, of being reminded of how the other half of the world lives and in what capacity they are still able to find their smile and the personal fortitude to rebuild their lives.
Monday, February 2, 2009
Not realizing my own sense of ignorance, I walked in with my own notions of what peacebuilding should look like and was taken back once I heard Emma talk about how the Cambodians were slowly but surely finding creative methods to reconcile their past. I tried to take this perspective with me when we went to visit the tribunals. The tribunals as a concept, however, proved to be a point of contention, not only among the Khmer people, but among our group as well. The last question to the Court Officer (who was delivering the presentation about the tribunals) asked whether, in his personal opinion, the tribunal would bring justice? He replied by saying that the tribunals would bring fair justice, but not perfect justice.
Statements like these, so simple yet powerful, remain etched in my memory promising to make a permanent home. They begin to define and break down what continues to be a largely complicated conflict into fragments - each with its own truth, justice and story to tell....