Monday, January 26, 2009


Our journey through Cambodia is coming to a close. As I reflect on the places we have been, the people we have met, and the stories we have heard, I find myself uterly overwhelmed by the problems that exist is this beautiful country and for a courageous people, but also incredibly inspired by the work that so many are doing with Cambodians for their future.

Yesterday we went to an organization called Khmer Ahimsa, a peacebuilding organization focusing on the promotion of nonviolence. The organization is doing great work with communities. But I want to talk more about the director of the organization and some of my thoughts from her story. First, I must give you a little background. She survived bombing raids by the US, three years of "slavery" under the Khmer Rouge, and an abusive husband. As she told her story there are few things that really struck me and I would like to share those thoughts with you.

1. "We (Cambodians) are not insects. We just want to have food to eat."
While every one of us here understands this, it is the message that is lost in war. Foreign governments and authoritarian regimes step on the people and treat them as if they are in fact insects not to be concerned with. Perhaps it is because I am American and in light of even recent history this statement is applicable today not just in Cambodia but all over the world. I believe that until we place human beings at the center of our policy focus, that states and regimes will continue to forget this ever-important message.

2. "He (the boss) was powerful and I was powerless. I thought why does it have to be this way."
After going through so much war and conflict, that she was able to work for her power and to do what she dreamed. Not everyone would be able to continue to endure their situation, let alone change it as she did. I found this a profound statment in the midst of her story.

It is because of these stories and expereiences that we are learning about the Khmer people and how they are working to overcome the conflicts in their lives and it is these people that are truely an inspiration.


I hope you are all enjoying following our blog. I think the course is progressing well - we are experiencing a lot every single day and have so much to tell. It is hard to find the time to sit down and write as we are gone from morning to evening - although, some in the group are really good in putting down their reflections and giving you updates on our research. We make time everyday to reflect together on our experiences which I think is very important both in terms sharing insights but also to channel our emotions positively. The past few days has certainly been emotional. We have heard stories from those who survived the Khmer Rouge period and visited the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. Words cannot adequately describe the emotions that wash over you - sadness, horror, anger, repulsion.

However, the one emotion that a few students made a reference to when referring to the experiences of the past few days, was frustration. And it became the topic of conversation yesterday morning during our reflection session. Frustration about the difficulty of being able to explain to others the gravity and the horrors of Cambodia's past and the challenges in working on a 'peaceful' future for Cambodia. Frustration also about the inability to do something to change the situation as we see it today. Frustration about the mis-management of resources and frustration about reconciling the agendas of individual NGOs to the needs of the people.

As I told the group, frustration is not a bad thing, it could actually be a positive emotion if channeled in the proper way. If there was no frustration and everyone was just content, then not much effort was going to be made to bring change. If frustration leads to depression (emotion) or inaction, then frustration does become a negative emotion and leads one to point fingers at what one considers is the source of that frustration. Frustration, if directed positively, could result in actions that makes for effective change in the situation.

Besides, we have just scratched the surface of the conflict/s in Cambodia and the challenges that the society faces in building sustainable peace. We are not at the stage where we can be really frustrated, we just need to listen and take our questions and the issues that bother us the most to another level - more information gathering, more analysis and if possible, more involvement at the ground level.

It was an interesting discussion and we have been having many such discussions. I thought I would share this one with you to give you a flavour of all the thought and reflection that the group puts in on this trip.

It's close to 2 am but then that happens every night and we start early in the morning too - we have been working very hard but we have also been having a lot of fun. I am not excited about returning to Monterey and getting back into the routine and teaching in classroom! But, we will be back soon and maybe (hopefully) catch up on our sleep?

Where Angels Dare To Tread

As I first entered this world of unfulfilled closure that has been clouded with images of bombings, genocide, killing fields, child killers and neighboring country invasions, I sincerely had no idea what this place would hold for me. I was unsure as to whether I would be overwhelmed by the empathy I felt for the broken spirits of the people or whether the sullen and pure eyes of villagers, squatters and city dwellers alike would be enough to leave an impression of both humility and inspiration. I have waited long and hard throughout this journey to find the appropriate topic, but more so, the appropriate language for which I felt both confident and compelled enough to join this network of bloggers from our place in the SouthEast. Now, that is not to suggest that I have been void of topical issues or inspirational words that combined would constitute elaborate sentences, but I have yet to find the natural and organic language that would best represent the country we have chosen to research. By now, my colleagues have filled these pages with images of Battambang, Siem Reap and Phenom Phen; of Tuk-Tuk drivers and majestic sunsets; of markets and bargains; Pagoda's and Monks; and perhaps even, descriptions of pure smiles and honest eyes. Yet for me, in spite all of these images that have no doubt left their indent on my thoughts and perspective, what I have found to be one of the most compelling aspects of our journey has been the the constant discourse our group has had with one another and with Cambodian citizens alike in regard to the Khmer Rouge Tribunals that will begin in February.

For some, these tribunals will be the culmination of years of frustration in which they were left with no one to hold accountable for the death, torture and slavery that they endured. Yet for others, these tribunals come years too late. For them, they are nothing more than an elaborate form of window dressing in which whatever "justice" decreed will be bittersweet for nothing could erase the images that haunt their dreams and saturate their daily existence. However, for others, the tribunals will be the ultimate form of symbolism and closure they crave that will finally empopwer them to forgive those who fronted a regime that destroyed the spirit of this country for 3 years, 8 months and 20 days. However, the twisted irony I have found has been the true disconnect of ideology the Cambodians possess in regards to the utility of these very Tribunals. For some, it is a fitting end to a dark imprint on this Country and culture's history. For others, it is nothing more than an elaborate and complex waste of resources that has left the rest of the Country wondering what will be left for them once this institutionalized form of justice plays out.

I, for one, have no answers to any of those questions. On the one hand, if it is understood that that the legal system in any country is both broken and efficient, then how are these trials any different from any other trial in our world? Granted, 5 separate trials is a small piece of a very bloodied and dark moment in Cambodian history that does not even scratch the surface of "punishing" and holding accountable the responsible parties who committed such crimes against humanity and who were the primary parties of the genocide that had infected this country. However, is the government suppose to refuse such Trials because there are not "enough defendants?" What if the prosecution of 5 primary parties is a true and symbolic gesture of accountability that the republic can give to its' people in which it decree's that the instigators of genocide will be held accountable for what they have done to their very own? What if the republic recognizes that there were no true demons during this time, but that the "soldiers of the Khmer Rouge" children and youth alike, alongside the tortured, killed and enslaved, were all victims of the same demon and that by holding these trials they are able to recognize the tremendous amount of grey in the discussion of "good versus evil" and "soldier versus victim."

But, as we have begun to understand some of the history of those times and the true ugliness that existed during those years, we have begun to understand the complexity of that time and the unsettling truths of survival and necessity that unquestionably plagued every soul who was caught in the web of despair that defined this country for so long. As I sit here on the cusp of this trip coming to an end, I find that I, like most, have my personal opinions on the matter, but truly have no answers nor a clear perspective of what these Tribunals sincerely mean and represent. I only know what I believe and can only process what I learn and hear, but have no avenue for which to truly address what can be proven, and ultimately I cannot even begin to phathom a way to answer the timeless question of "what is the purest definition of truth truth and the most sincere and thorough form of justice." These are questions that very well may linger, but at least we have been given the chance to process those thoughts, to ask the questions we find we need answered, and to debate those very issues with one another and the people alike. And, as I find myself about to depart a Country and a People that I have grown to adore, I realize that those questions, along with the images of the countryside filled with shanty upon shanty, and echoing with the laughter of the children and painted with the smiles each and every person alike, I realize the gift that this trip has been and have slowly begun to understand the great humility and inspiration it has brought me.

7 (Christine W.)

Battambang Day 2

Battambang is much more impoverished that Siem Reap, and has nowhere near as many tourists. Our hotel, which was very nice and had a pool, looked out of place in the middle of the city, most of which looked pretty poor to me. While Siem Reap seemed underdeveloped, there is a slum-like quality to the poverty of Battambang. If you are not in the city in Battambang, you are in one of its villages, which is where we spent our second day, visiting two NGO’s working on rebuilding Khmer society through youth education programs.

Tean Thor
Tean Thor, which is Khmer for “Acts of Compassion,” is a small HIV/AIDS hospice and rehabilitation center that provides education to orphans of parents who died of AIDS and hospice care to HIV/AIDS patients living in the Battambang community. Staff members of Tean Thor find HIV-positive members in the community, many of whom are looked down upon, and offer them a safe haven for rehabilitation and HIV/AIDS education. At the center, the members can choose to take either antiretroviral medication to fight HIV or traditional medicine provided by a medicine man. One of the aims of the organization is to improve and prolong the life of HIV positive parents so that their children do not become young orphans.

We were all impressed with the amount of warmth and hope that emanates from Tean Thor. We met several of the HIV positive patients who all seemed content to be there despite their discomfort and afflictions. Jenny, one of the peaceful staff members from Switzerland who “receives her funding from the universe,” talked about her search to find an organization to work for before deciding on Tean Thor. She said she visited 15 different organizations before she settled on this center, and she was frustrated at the fact that all of the previous organizations had problems with corruption and egos.

We were given a full tour of the facilities, including the room where the traditional medicine is kept (stinky), and we dropped in to visit the young students during their class time. We brought fake tattoos to share with them, which sent them over the moon. Though they were shy and hesitant at first, after we applied a few tattoos, it was a madhouse. By the end of the day we had them all looking like PG-rated sailors. Before we left, the children sang us two of their favorite songs: Celine Dionne’s My Heart Will Go On, which I will never hear in the same way again, and The Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye,” which was equally precious. Nobody wanted to leave.

The next organization we visited was FEDA (Friends Economic Development), a secondary school for the children in the village of Ksach Poy. This is a much larger organization, with more funding and beautiful grounds. FEDA places a strong emphasis on hygiene and English, and the teachers are all young and motivated, many of which are FEDA alumni. The teachers have a large task before them because the Cambodian educational system is reeling from the eradication of entire generation of scholars during the genocide.

The grounds of FEDA are lush and tranquil, scattered with coconut and banana trees. The main classrooms are upstairs in a beautiful new building made of dark wood. Some of us, myself included, were asked to teach an impromptu English class. It’s quite a humbling experience to teach English to a group of children whose language skills you underestimate. I co-taught with Brandon, and we decided to play games upon the teachers’ suggestion. We started with hangman, but changed the hanging man to a frowny face because we didn’t know how appropriate it would be to explain that the dead man hanging in a noose means you’ve lost the game. The students were much better at this than we had anticipated, perfectly capable of spelling words like “cat and rabbit,” and only when we snuck in “California” did they get tripped up. We then had them create new words out of the letters they could find in the phrase “United States of America.” Upon reflection I wish we hadn’t been so nationalistic with our word choices, but you don’t think of these things when you’re in front of 30 pairs of blinking eyes. To our surprise they came up with words like “dictation,” and my personal favorite, “tsar.” So much for C-A-T.

After we returned, we discussed some of the differences we saw between Tean Thor and FEDA. For starters, there are a total of 800 students that attend FEDA, far more than the amount of students at Tean Thor. Additionally, FEDA has more funding than Tean Thor, more foreign visitors, and since it places an emphasis on hygiene and English, the children that we met at FEDA seemed privileged compared to the children we met at Tean Thor. We then launched into a discussion about the importance of avoiding generalizations about the face of poverty; since the children that attend these organizations come from equally destitute communities and families, it is dangerous to consider one organization more deserving of funding than the other. If there is one thing I’m truly learning in Cambodia, it is that still waters run deep and appearances are not the sum total of reality. We also discussed the importance of personality and style when it comes to grant writing and asking for money, which also plays a major role in the amount of funding organization receives.