Tuesday, July 31, 2007

KR Tribunal progress

Former Khmer Rouge prison chief appears at Cambodian genocide tribunal
by The Associated Press

A notorious Khmer Rouge prison chief was taken to the Cambodian genocide tribunal headquarters Tuesday to be questioned by judges investigating crimes committed during the regime's rule in late 1970s, an official said. Kaing Khek Iev, who headed the former Khmer Rouge prison S-21 in Phnom Penh, became the first suspect to be questioned by judges of the U.N.-backed tribunal, said tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath. The prison was a virtual slaughterhouse where suspected enemies of the ultra-communists were brutally tortured before being taken out to killing fields near the city. Reach Sambath said Kaing Khek Iev, also known as Duch, was driven in a car escorted by Cambodian government security forces and arrived at the tribunal headquarters shortly after 6:10 a.m. He was taken from a military prison, where he has been detained since 1999. Kaing Khek Iev, 62, is among five ex-Khmer Rouge leaders the tribunal's prosecutors have submitted to the co-investigating judges for further investigation, Reach Sambath said. "They (the judges) need to do an initial interview with him, but he has not been formally charged yet," Reach Sambath said. Kaing Khek Iev was being held in an air-conditioned room but not in the tribunal's detention facility, the spokesman said, adding that "it's up to the judges to decide" on further action against the suspect.Some 16,000 people were imprisoned at S-21, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Only about a dozen of them are thought to have survived when the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979. Chum Mey, a prison survivor, said Tuesday he was delighted to hear Kaing Khek Iev had been brought to the tribunal. "I want to confront him to ask who gave him the orders to kill the Cambodian people," Chum Mey, 77, said. "I want to hear how he will answer before the court, or if he will just blame everything on the ghosts of Pol Pot and Ta Mok," he said, referring to the movement's notorious leader, the late Pol Pot, and his former military chief.Pol Pot died in 1998 and Ta Mok died in 2006.Senior-level colleagues, Nuon Chea, the movement's chief ideologue; Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister; and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state, live freely in Cambodia but are in declining health. Since his arrest by the government on May 10, 1999, Kaing Khek Iev was detained on war crime charges. It is unclear what charges he will face before the tribunal, set up jointly by Cambodia and the United Nations to try to seek justice for crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 rule. Some 1.7 million people died from hunger, disease, overwork and execution as a result of the radical policies of the communists. On July 18, prosecutors submitted to the investigating judges the cases of five former Khmer Rouge leaders they recommend stand trial. The prosecutors did not reveal the identity of the five suspects, citing confidentiality rules.

Update: 1 August 2007
Justice at last for 'Comrade Duch'
After 1.7 million deaths and nearly 30 years, the first of Pol Pot's henchmen is charged with crimes against humanity - by Andrew Buncombe, Asia Correspondent, The Independent (UK)

He was a maths teacher turned torturer, a one-time college principal who oversaw the Khmer Rouge regime's interrogation and abuse of many thousands of innocent people. When the regime was ousted from power, having perpetrated one of the most brutal genocides in history, he converted to Christianity and returned to teaching. For decades it seemed Kaing Guek Eav would escape justice. But yesterday, in a historic move, the 64-year-old also known as "Comrade Duch" was charged with crimes against humanity by a UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia - the first of the "Killing Fields" regime's leaders to be brought before a court. The tribunal made up of international and Cambodian judges spent the day interviewing Duch, who headed the notorious Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, and then issued a statement that said: "The Co-investigating Judges of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia have charged Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, for crimes against humanity and have placed him in provisional detention."
The decision to finally charge Duch is a vital milestone in the efforts to bring the surviving Khmer Rouge leadership to justice. The reaction in Cambodia that Duch had alone been finally brought before the judges was telling. Chum Mey, one of just seven people from an estimated 20,000 known to have survived incarceration at the prison, said: "I want to confront him to ask who gave him the orders to kill the Cambodian people."Mr Mey, 77, said he was delighted the judicial process finally appeared to be working. But he said he also feared Duch may seek to shift responsibility to other senior Khmer Rouge leaders, now dead. "I want to hear how he will answer before the court, or if he will just blame everything on the ghosts of Pol Pot and Ta Mok," he added. The Khmer Rouge, headed by Pol Pot, who died almost a decade ago, swept to power in 1975. Almost immediately, the leaders of the movement, whose ideology mixed influences from Vietnam, China and France with a homespun nationalism, embarked upon a radical restructuring of the nation that, in effect, turned into genocide. Precisely how many people were killed or else died from starvation or disease is unknown. Estimates range from between one and three million, with most respected organisations opting for a figure of somewhere around 1.7 million. Given that Cambodia had a population of just seven million when the Khmer Rouge seized power, the genocide was proportionally one of the world's worst. At the heart the regime of horror lay an industrial-scale killing operation. Central to that was the concentration camp at Tuol Sleng, a former school in the centre of the capital, controlled by the Khmer Rouge's special branch known as the Santebal and overseen by Duch. At Tuol Sleng, known by the regime as S-21, Duch supervised the interrogations of thousands of people brought there. A list of rules for prisoners, still attached to the wall of the prison and poorly translated into English, warned them against committing a host of offences that would result in punishment. The 10th and final rule read: "If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either 10 lashes or five shocks of electric discharge." Under Duch's supervision scrupulous records were kept, and everyone brought in was photographed. Today, those black and white images stare from the walls of Tuol Sleng - now a museum - a genuinely haunting reminder of the brutality that took place.
In her book When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, Elizabeth Becker wrote: "Duch oversaw a precise department of death. His guards dutifully photographed the prisoners upon arrival and photographed them at or near death, whether their throats were slit, their bodies otherwise mutilated, or so thin from torture and near starvation that they were beyond recognition. The photographs were part of the files to prove the enemies of the state had been killed. Duch even set aside specific days for killing various types of prisoners: one day the wives of 'enemies', another day the children, a different day, factory workers." Like many members of the Khmer Rouge, Duch had an academic background. As a student, he had excelled at maths and, after becoming a teacher, he rose to the position of deputy head of a regional college. He was jailed for his left-leaning views and opposition to the corruption that existed in Cambodia in the 1960s. By 1970, he had fled to the jungles and joined the guerrilla movement, running one of its prison camps for suspected enemies been before it had seized power. When the regime was forced from power, driven into the jungles of north-western Cambodia by an invading army from Vietnam in January 1979, Duch disappeared from public view, like most of the other senior figures. Using various adopted names, he lived in a Khmer Rouge stronghold until 1999 when he was discovered by journalists. By that time he had ended his association with the regime, had been converted to Christianity by missionaries and was working as a volunteer for the charities World Vision and the American Refugee Committee. When he was interviewed that year by journalists, Duch initially admitted participating in the activities at Tuol Sleng, saying he was deeply sorry for the killings and was willing to face an international tribunal and provide evidence against others. He subsequently told a government interrogator: "I was under other people's command, and I would have died if I disobeyed it. I did it without any pleasure."
Duch is one of five former Khmer Rouge leaders the tribunal's prosecutors have submitted to the investigating judges for further investigation. The names of the other four have not been released though there is widespread belief in Cambodia they are Nuon Chea, one of the movement's chief ideologues, Ieng Sary, the regime's former foreign minister, Khieu Samphan, the former head of state and Meas Muth, a son-in-law of Pol Pot's military chief Ta Mok, who died last year. They live openly in Cambodia, though some are in declining health. The effort to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice has been slow and arduous and not helped by previous support for the regime from both the US and China. A number of former regime officials are still members of the current Cambodian government. Professor David Chandler, a Cambodia expert from Monash University, Australia, said last night that although Duch had been in custody since 1999 and people expected him to be charged, the decision to proceed against him was very important. "This is a significant development and he was an important figure. He headed that terrible prison," he said. For a various reasons, Cambodia has been slow to confront its recent history. It was not until this summer that a school textbook was produced covering the 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge.The $56m (£28m) tribunal was first recommended by the UN all the way back in 1999. It is expected that the judges will hear their first case next year.


* * * * *
Development Plans for Cambodia's Islands

Cambodia's government has given its permission for six local and foreign companies to develop tourist resorts worth up to US$627 million on islands off the country's coast. Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh, who is also vice chairman of the Cambodian Investment Board, signed agreements in principle with the companies last Friday, said Long Sakhan, president of one of the companies. She said her real estate firm, Vimean Seila Ltd., received permission to build a hotel and resort on a 420-hectare (1,037-acre) area of an island off Kampot province, 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of the capital Phnom Penh. She said another Cambodian company and four other foreign firms are planning to develop similar tourist resorts on four islands off the coast of Sihanoukville, a port 185 kilometers (115 miles) southwest of Phnom Penh. A Cambodian Investment Board official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, confirmed the signing of the agreements, under which the companies will be able to lease areas on the islands for up to 99 years. The government has recently been promoting the country's coastal region as a new tourist destination. Early this year, it reopened an airport in Sihanoukville in a bid to attract tourists, who have so far mostly flocked to the centuries-old Angkor temples in Siem Reap province in the northwest. Last year, it granted permission for a Russian-run company to develop Koh Pos, or Snake Island, near Sihanoukville into a tourist resort with an initial investment of up to US$300 million.
The islands to be developed are: Koh Thas, Takeav, Aun, Bang, Koh Dekkuol and Koh Sas.

* * * * *
Joint Guidebook in the offing
Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are to issue a 140 page guide book that will detail all the popular tourism destinations and activities that are available in the three countries. The book aims to drive tourists toward tourism attractions and activities that will benefit the local community, protect the natural and cultural heritage of the country, assist local and foreign visitors with a physical disability as well as provide a learning ground for visitors and local residents. Around 30 activities and destinations from each country that meet these principles will be detailed within the travel guide, along with their contact and booking information. This includes guides, tours, accommodations, restaurants, development projects and opportunities for volunteers.
The tourism guide comes as figures from the Pacific Asia Travel Association show growing visitor arrivals for all three countries. International tourism visitor arrivals to Cambodia grew at a rate of 22% for the year to date while Vietnam and Laos were at 14% and 20%.

Kambuja - clothes designed for you

Occasionally, I encounter a shop or outlet that deserves a heads-up to the public at large. Today's hot tip is....if you are visiting Phnom Penh, make sure you call into the unique collection of women's clothes at Kambuja - located at 165 Ang Duong Boulevard, a couple of blocks from Wat Phnom. Kulikar Sotho and her team of Dany and Dona, host a unique blend of western designs and eastern mystique with sublime silks, light linen and contemporary cotton with elegent embroidery, drawing inspiration from the delicate flower frangipani, known throughout the region as kambuja.

The shop is set in the ground floor of an elegant colonial-era building just off Norodom Boulevard. They also host a popular range of accessories such as handbags, hats and hand-embroidered belts and scarves. Everything is tailor-made and adjusted to the individual customer's needs. Its a gorgeous oasis from the heat and frantic pace of the city's streets as you soak up some of Kulikar's own designs and a stunning collection that will leave you wanting more.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Norrying in Battambang

Battambang's bamboo train world's most eco-friendly ride
by Liz Price of The Brunei Times

When I was asked if I wanted to ride on the bamboo train, I had no idea what was on offer. The picture that came to mind was of a cute toy train with carriages made out of bamboo, maybe similar to something you would find at a park or zoo to take tourists for a ride. But I knew there were no such parks in Cambodia.I was in Battambang province in northwest Cambodia. I had spent the day visiting the killing caves of the Pol Pot regime. From my hotel in Battambang, I had hired a motorbike and driver for the day. This cost a mere US$6 for a 7 hour trip. It was towards the end of the day when the driver asked if I wanted to ride on the bamboo train. We crossed a river on a narrow suspension bridge. I didn't realise until later that this was the upstream part of the Stung Sangker or Sangker River, which flows through the centre of Battambang. Soon after we came to a railway line.When I was told this was the bamboo railway, I could see no sign of any train, and there were definitely no cute bamboo carriages. I got off the bike and walked in the rain to the station. There were quite a few people bustling around and lots of goods waiting to be transported somewhere. I wondered how long we would have to wait for the train to arrive. I knew that the train service in Cambodia is fairly primitive and is incredibly slow. Train travel is exceedingly cheap, but patience is required. Trains travel at an average speed of 20kph and mechanical problems can mean unscheduled stops.

We were on the main railway line from Phnom Penh to Poipet which is the border town to Thailand. The French built this single-track metre-gauge line in the 1920's. They used it to carry coffee and bananas to the city. The first tiny steam engines were replaced by more powerful steam locomotives. But during the Khmer Rouge regime the trains were destroyed. The tracks were spared but were overgrown by the jungle. It was only after the civil war that the locals cleared the rails and the line was back in operation again. The 274km journey from Battambang to Phnom Penh takes around 15 hours if there are no problems. The train runs up one day and down the next day and I wondered if today was the up or down day. Whilst I was still contemplating the speed of the train, the penny suddenly dropped. I realised that all this while I had been looking at the bamboo train without recognising it. Instead of a train with carriages, the Battambang bamboo train is in fact a metal frame with bamboo slats that sits on two axles with wheels. It is used to transport people and goods up and down the railway. The bamboo slats form the base on which the passengers, goods and livestock sit. It can carry anything that will fit on it, even motorcycles. It is also used to transport the rice in the harvest season. The Cambodian name for the train is norry. It is an ingenious invention. After the days of the Khmer Rouge, the land mines were cleared from the tracks, and the local residents built dozens of these miniature trains.

It was interesting to watch the assembly of the contraption. Two young men appeared, carrying two ancient steel axles with cast-iron wheels at both ends. These were placed on the track - a perfect fit. Next, a metal frame with the bamboo slats is positioned atop the axles. The whole thing is about three feet wide and maybe eight feet long. The engine sits on top, linked to the wheels by a rubber drive wheel. The only braking system is to turn the engine off and coast to a stop. The older trains don't have the metal frame. Instead there is a long semi-rigid bamboo mat. The axles fit into two steel forks on the underside of the mat. The mat sits atop the wheels, unsecured except by the steel forks.Today the train is driven by a motorcycle or tractor engine. Gasoline is available at village crossings, sold in glass whiskey bottles. In the past men used poles to push it along, a bit like a dry land version of a punt on the River Thames! It runs about 10 km up and down the line, and costs 1000 riel ($0.40) between stations. As the regular train only goes up one day and down the next, there is no danger of collision. However if two bamboo trains meet, the lighter one is simply taken off the rails to allow the other to pass.I was lucky as one train was being loaded when we arrived. Not long after we had been there, my driver told me to watch as the train was leaving. Before I really grasped what was happening, people jumped aboard and a few men started pushing it whilst running along behind. I found it quite comical as the train disappeared into the distance and the men were still running along pushing it. Obviously the engine hadn't kicked in. I don't know if they were just saving on fuel costs or if there was some problem with the engine. It reminded me of something from a silent Charlie Chaplin movie.The old station building of French construction would have been quite elegant in its day. Nowadays it is used as a store for the train parts. The rain got heavier but I didn't mind as I had seen the Battambang bamboo train.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Rice Fields Restaurants

Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh has Prek Leap, where the city's residents love to go for food and entertainment, especially at weekends. Kompong Thom's answer to Prek Leap is a little more sedate but well worth a visit, to the newly-created Rice Fields Restaurants. Head out west for a couple of kilometres from the provincial capital - midway between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh - and you'll encounter a collection of up to fifty wooden huts, where a typical Cambodian restaurant will consist of mats and hammocks and serve up delicious food of your choosing. The menu can include anything from roast chicken to snails, and much more. And as the sun sets, the emerald-green rice fields, which surround the restaurants, come alive with a loud chorus of frogs. These new additions to Kompong Thom's dining experience are well-frequented at weekends and as few foreign visitors know about this hidden treasure, make sure you don't miss out. Contact Sokhom in Kompong Thom and he'll be happy to take you out to his sister-in-law's new restaurant for your rice fields restaurant experience.

Snippets of Cambodia news...

Cambodian Bokator on History Channel
Adventure writer Antonio (The Monk from Brooklyn ) Graceffo is working as a martial arts consultant for the History Channel’s new martial arts TV series, “Human Weapon.” The show features two American MMA fighters who travel around Asia , studying different martial arts. Each episode closes with the Americans fighting a local master or champion. Graceffo had this to say about being selected to work on the show. “When they called me and told me about the show, I laughed. I said, that just sounds like my real life.” Graceffo, a former investment banker, left the financial world after the September 11 terrorist attacks. For the last six years he has been traveling around Asia , studying martial arts, fighting, and writing books and magazine articles. “Basically, my role in the show, in addition to appearing on camera a bit, was to seek out, train with, and spar as many of the masters as I could to see which ones would be good for the show. It’s been grueling, but fun, rolling, wrestling, and kick boxing with some excellent martial artists.” In addition to “Human Weapon,” Graceffo will appear on another History Channel show, called “Digging for the Truth,” in an episode featuring Angkor Wat, which airs in September. “The connection between Cambodian Martial Art, Bokator, and Angkor Wat is a deep spiritual relationship which the Khmer people are very proud of. They asked me to come on the show and demonstrate Bokator and explain some of the history.” Checkout Antonio’s website here.
* * * * *
This month has seen the release of the third issue of TouchStone magazine, a quarterly publication (100,000 copies annually) from NGO, HeritageWatch that is distributed in Cambodia and abroad. This month's issue features stories on excavations in Cambodia, scientfic research, Cambodian NGOs and the photography of Ian Taylor who lived in Cambodia for many years. Touchstone is filled with interesting articles about Cambodia, as well as current information on the many archaeological, scientific, and cultural projects being undertaken in the Kingdom. Each issue also features a Heritage Friendly business, highlights a photographer working in the country, and provides guidelines for responsible tourism. In HeritageWatch's regular newsletter that was issued this week, they included the following:
Featured Destination: Banteay Chhmar
Fast Facts: Entrance Fee: $5. Location: Banteay Meanchey Province, Cambodia.Getting There: 2 hours by car from Sisophon. Overview:
As Andy Brouwer wrote recently in the last edition of TouchStone Magazine; Massive face-towers and intricate carvings shrouded in mist and jungle foliage conjures up all the romanticism of a lost Khmer city. One such place where this is a reality is Banteay Chhmar in the northwestern corner of Cambodia, close to the border with near neighbour Thailand. Never fully restored or analysed and inaccessible for decades due to Khmer Rouge activity in the area, Banteay Chhmar was constructed late in the 12th century. The Global Heritage Fund is currently working on an assessment of the temple with an eye to restoring it partially. The confusing jumble of ruins comprising the temple's central complex gives the visitor no obvious route or path to follow and in parts the only way to explore is by scrambling over gallery roofs and the large piles of collapsed stones. Large towers with massive faces follow your every move and close by, a building known as the 'Hall of Dancers' houses fine lintels showing human, bird and animal figures, Vishnu and Brahma in excellent condition. Few of the visitors to Banteay Chhmar are aware of the existence of an additional 8 smaller satellite temples all within 500 metres of the main complex. Four of these contain face towers though most are surrounded by dense vegetation and can be difficult to visit. However for the Indiana Jones’ amongst us, they can be a worthwhile challenge. Another large temple called Banteay Top (‘Army Citadel’) lies 14 kilometres southeast of its sister complex.
* * * * *
For news of the Angkor Photo Festival, to be held at the end of November, there's lots more details on their website here. They also have a Flickr page for photos here. The third Angkor Photography Festival will be held in Siem Reap, Cambodia, from November 18 to 28, 2007.
The festival brings together famous and passionate photographers of diverse nationalities and cultures in the spirit of creativity and sharing. It showcases print exhibitions and outdoor projections by renowned artists and photo-journalists, but differentiates itself from other photographic events with its strong educational goals. By offering free workshops for young Asian photographers and developing outreach projects for disenfranchised Cambodian youth, participants contribute their art and their time, demonstrating that photography can change lives.
* * * * *
On 15 June, I blogged a forthcoming performance by Cambodian Muslim American artist Anida Yoeu Ali/Esguerra. Here's a review of the performance by Mark DeFrancis.
Living Memory/Living Absence
Anida Yoeu Ali's movement and media collage entitled Living Memory/Living Absence is a bold and visceral work about the author's quest to reconnect with her fractured Cambodian roots while engaging the horrid legacy of the Khmer Rouge upon her people. Her explorations take the audience through a twisted series of emotions in search of the Apsara, or "heavenly nymphs," which exist as a force within all people.The piece is free in form and Ali's movements are well suited to each scene of the work. She evokes delicacy, grace, power, and even horror with ease. In the standout scene of this show, she creates a terrifying image of the suffering and anger of human atrocity by contorting her physique into twisted forms. Her talent aids in her storytelling as she can make concepts like loss, despair, and loneliness appear clearly with just her physicality. Her presence as a speaker is lacking though. The poetry she recites is entirely unnecessary at times and begs the question as to why she would distract from such engrossing movement work.She is however upstaged at many moments by some of the finest light and video design I have ever seen in any theatrical production. Video artist Masahiro Sugano and light designers Yasmeen Shorish and Giau Troung put together a series of images, which are guaranteed to never leave my mind. The video and animation act in concert with Ali's choices and often evoke strong kinesthetic reactions in the audience. A pumping heart made from barbed wire will remain my favorite image of this performance.This piece is unfortunately plagued by several false endings, which occur at the end of powerful scenes in the first half of the work. Somehow, at about 45 minutes, the show is simply too long and taxes the audience with its relentlessly slow pace. The best moments are in the early going and rob the work of any climax or cathartic finale. Still, there is so much power and passion in Anida Yoeu Ali's performance and production that some simple rearranging would make this show a must-see event.

Sir Bobby in Cambodia

Charlton steps out of comfort zone to help find safer ground
Landmines are part of the Khmer Rouge’s awful legacy in Cambodia. Now football is playing a leading role in the quest to save lives - Owen Slot, Chief Sports Reporter, Times Online (UK).

Tuesday....Ninety minutes after checking into his hotel in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, Sir Bobby Charlton’s welcome was complete when he was whisked down the road to S-21, a former security prison, to see where 16,000 Cambodians were tortured by the Khmer Rouge. The exact number of S-21 victims in the late Seventies is unknown, but what is certain, as he discovered, is that almost every one of them went straight from there to the Killing Fields to be executed. To save time and space, babies arriving at S-21 with their mothers would be held by their feet and swung and smashed against the trunk of a tree in the prison’s forecourt. Alternatively, they would be slung in the air like a clay pigeon and shot. Usually with the mother watching.This was the start of two harrowing days in Cambodia. The chief reason for Charlton’s visit was awaiting him on the exit from the prison gates. As you come out of S-21, two groups greet you. The quickest are the young men selling with unrestrained enthusiasm a lift in their motorbike taxi, and they are followed by three beggars, each of whom have lost part of a leg, only one of whom is lucky enough to have a prosthetic replacement. Every year in Cambodia, these three are joined by another 850, all victims of landmine blasts. Each tragedy here seems interconnected: the Khmer Rouge regime begat a long and bloody civil war, and that begat a murderous maze of landmines planted in the outer, rural reaches of the country. Another frightening statistic: nearly 40 per cent of landmine victims here are young boys. The figure is so disproportionate because some are under the misconception if they see a landmine that it might be fun – a big firework. They spend long hours tending their family’s cattle and have been known to play with landmines or poke them with a stick. In short, Charlton has come here to tell them not to.“I really would do absolutely anything I can,” Charlton said, “to help any young child who is unfortunate enough to lose a limb to a landmine.” This was just part of his address to a reception at the British Embassy. Just recently, to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, they had thrown a party complete with ice sculptures of a London bus and Tower Bridge: just one of many incongruous images here. Another is Charlton working here alongside Tony Hawk – the venerable World Cup-winner alongside the best skateboarder of the past decade. Another is that we have a Briton and an American pitting their disparate reaches of celebrity to give air to a landmine problem to which their own nations so heavily contributed. Cambodia in the 1970s was a mess precipitated by the United States and Vietnam. And it is written, though never acknowledged by a British government, that SAS servicemen in the mid-Eighties trained Khmer Rouge rebels in their Thai border camps in landmine-laying techniques. It just so happens that funding for antilandmine agencies, much of which comes through the UK and the US, is petering out. In a decade since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, landmines have ceased to be a sexy subject. The footballer and skateboarder may not quite add up to a princess, but their efforts must be applauded.

Wednesday....Vanntha Thoeun is a 14-year-old, one of the oldest boys at Roka Poeune school in the northwest territory, not far from the Thai border, a long-term Khmer Rouge stronghold. Thoeun has just had a football coaching session from Charlton, he has kicked balls with Hawk and been presented with a T-shirt with Wayne Rooney on it holding up a sign preaching landmine awareness. He has had a great time. He does not have a clue who Charlton is. He does not know Hawk either and had never seen a skateboard. Neither did he know whose picture was on his T-shirt. He had never even seen football on television. Five times, though, when out tending his family’s cow, he has seen landmines. He could not possibly guess at the number of times he has trodden near mines that he has not seen. Only three months ago, a cow’s hoof turned over and unearthed a mine 50 metres from the school.By the time Charlton and Hawk have packed up and gone, they hope that the younger kids at Roka Poeune will be as savvy as Thoeun. The reason why belongs to Scott Lee, a 41-year-old hyperactive Paul Gascoigne look-alike who is a qualified football coach. In the 1990s, Lee worked as a volunteer, driving trucks and taking food parcels in and out of Croatia and Bosnia. One day in 1995, he was near by when three boys playing football were killed by a landmine blast. He was staggered to discover that there was no landmine awareness education programme, so he put football and landmine education together and came up with Spirit of Soccer. After Bosnia and Kosovo, Cambodia is Spirit of Soccer’s third programme. In Bosnia, Lee trained 20 coaches, here so far he has a mobile unit of five, all Cambodians, two of them women, a nonstop road trip taking their expertise to 120 schools in the area and, in the past year, getting their message to 25,000 children. What they bring is the first sports coaching session the children have had. The football is followed by a lesson in mine awareness. The repeated message is simple: “Don’t play with landmines, play football.”“I want to give them the dream,” Lee said, “that if they listen, they could become the next David Beckham.” Whether they have heard of Beckham is questionable in itself. And the dream? This part of Cambodia is so hand-to-mouth agrarian that football barely features. There are no pitches; nearby Battambang, the country’s third-largest town (population 140,000), has just one. Organised football does not exist and the only competitive football below the national semi-pro league is a tournament organised between orphanages and homeless groups. When Scott O’Donell, an Australian, took over as national coach, his first match was away to Thailand. Finances forced them to go by coach and the 16-hour drive to Bangkok was delayed at the border when O’Donell had to write out visa forms for half of his team – they could not write themselves. What is clear, though, is that there would be more football if there were less mines. Fifteen minutes from Roka Poeune, where a mine-clearing agency is at work, this becomes obvious. Each clearer has a metal detector and, in a day, will cover just 60 square metres. In football terms, that is a month to reclaim a decent-sized pitch. “As far as you can see,” Hawk said, “the landscape is beautiful jungle. But it’s inaccessible and that’s hard to understand.”For Charlton, it was the blast that rammed it home. Two mines side by side were uncovered, one a Type 72 Alpha containing 51 grams of TNT, the other a 40-metre rifle grenade with 40 grams of high explosive. The power in the controlled explosion to destroy them left no doubt as to how each could take, at a minimum, a foot off a grown man.Yet, after school, most of the children at Roka Poeune go to work. And the demand for land to farm is such that some people cannot afford to wait for the landmine-clearing teams to come though and clear their area. Their hunger forces them to start farming areas clearly marked as landmine risks. The job of Lee and his five coaches is simply to lower the odds.Behind them, they leave reminders of the message: ten footballs per school and for each child, the T-shirt, a school book and a poster of more Manchester United players – whom they haven’t heard of – bearing the awareness message. For Charlton and Hawk, their power is in spreading the word to those who have heard of them. Outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Hawk pulled tricks on his skateboard in the hope that the pictures might help him to tell people that stats show falling casualty rates among young boys since Spirit of Soccer arrived.Charlton, meanwhile, is fixated with the painstaking pace in which Cambodia is reclaiming its mined territories and the fact that there is technology available that will help them to work 15 times more quickly but that the landmine-clearers cannot afford. At the end of two days, the expression on Charlton’s face conveys his point: “You just can’t make sense of this.” Why make funding worse when technology gets better? Why make this effort for a nation whose own Prime Minister, Hun Sen, was formerly with Khmer Rouge and has spoken, with some pride, of the days when he personally helped to lay landmines? But for the footballer and the skateboarder, this project is beyond politics. For them it is about celebrity, that intangible of which we are normally so negative, and flogging it for every positive they can find.
*Sir Bobby Charlton and Tony Hawk were in Cambodia as representatives of Laureus. Laureus’s “Sport for good” foundation is one of the main funders of Spirit of Soccer.

Grim statistics of life in Cambodia
3 Cambodia’s world ranking in the list of countries with the most landmines. Only Afghanistan and Colombia have more
21,552 Landmines and unexploded devices removed last year
3,000 Deminers working in Cambodia
35 Types of explosive devices they are looking for
850 Landmine casualties annually in Cambodia
8 Percentage of amputees and landmine victims on the staff of MAG, one of Cambodia’s three landmine-clearing agencies
28 Years since the Khmer Rouge was pushed from power
5 Khmer Rouge leaders whose names were submitted last week to judges for prosecution. Before this, not one Khmer Rouge leader had been brought to trial.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Cambodia's Ray Charles

'They planned to kill me - but I survived'
Cambodia's Ray Charles lookalike endured serious hardships. Jon Lusk on the man who escaped the Khmer Rouge - The Guardian (UK)

With his legs folded under him as he sits on the floor, Kong Nay seems a frail figure, dwarfed by the large banjo-like instrument he holds. There's a flash of gold fillings in his smile, and when he sings, the voice of a much stronger man jumps out, answering the call of his strings. This 61-year-old Cambodian is a master of the chapei dong veng, an ancient long-necked guitar with two strings thought to have arrived in Cambodia with the Buddhist faith nearly two millennia ago. Kong's penetrating, nasal wail closely follows or spars with the simple and often melancholic tunes he plunks out on the nylon strings of the instrument. The dark glasses that mask his heavily pock-marked face and sightless eyes have earned him the nickname of "the Ray Charles of Cambodia", but the two artists have rather different stories. "I'm so excited and honoured that they compare me to him. But at the same time I'm not very happy with myself because the American Ray Charles was so rich and I'm so poor," he chuckles.

I meet Kong on his first day in the UK, where he is touring with his 21-year-old protege Ouch Savy to promote their joint debut album, Mekong Delta Blues. Kong admits he doesn't really know what the blues are - not the musical kind, anyway. But the superficial resemblance of his music to the African-American form, and the tough life he's lived do more than justify the title. Born in the southern Cambodian province of Kampot, Kong was blinded by smallpox at the age of four, and as a boy fell in love with the sound of the chapei. "I felt it was something that I should learn, something that would give me a good life in the future," he recalls. His family was too poor to afford one, though, and for five years he sang and mimicked the chapei vocally, until his father finally bought him an old one. At 13, he began to take lessons from an uncle, mastering the basic repertoire within only two years. He then began playing professionally, improvising on traditional folk songs by spontaneously spinning stories like a hip-hopper, tailoring them to each audience. "At 18 I met my wife [Tat Chhan] and we started our life together, depending on chapei. We managed to earn a good living. Not too rich, not too poor, but just good enough to survive, like other people. But when the Khmer Rouge took over, that was a big turning point in my life," he says with characteristic understatement.

In 1975, like millions of other Cambodians, his entire family was deported to a forced labour camp by Pol Pot's genocidal regime. Despite the Khmer Rouge's dislike of artists in particular, they found a use for Kong. "I was forbidden from singing folk tales, or songs that touched on social issues. Instead they told me to sing something that served their propaganda. So during the lunch break, I would sing and play to entertain people. "While most prisoners were given three large spoons of rice per day, Kong and anyone else who was sick or disabled got only one, and starved more rapidly. After two years, they stopped Kong's music altogether and forced him to work. "They planned to kill me. I was on their list. But then the Vietnamese [army] invaded and so I survived." During the bombing that ended the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, Kong and his wife each lost a brother. Another of Kong's brothers had been executed, but all seven of their children - three born in the camp - miraculously survived. In 1979, the family returned to their village, where Kong resumed his life as a chapei artist, and they had three more children. In 1991, Kong won a national chapei singing contest in Phnom Penh, and the following year moved there at the invitation of the Cambodian ministry of culture. The salary was poor, but his family - and those of a few other artists who had survived the genocide - were allowed to build homes in the city's Tonle Bassac squatters' community. Then in 1998, Kong received a young visitor called Arn Chorn-Pond, a former refugee who now lived in the US. He was another survivor of the killing fields, who had been forced take part in atrocities from the age of nine and had returned to Cambodia periodically over the previous decade, trying to make peace with his past. Cambodia had lost around 90% of its artists in the genocide, and Chorn-Pond's family, which had run an opera company, had been particularly hard hit. "When I came back to Cambodia in 1989, I found nobody here, except one of my sisters," he explains from Phnom Penh, his voice still raw with anguish. "They were all starved to death or killed by the Khmer Rouge - my dad, my mum, my cousin, my nephew, my uncle ... 35 in my family had disappeared."

With Kong Nay and several others, Chorn-Pond founded the Cambodia Master Performers Programme, which soon became Cambodian Living Arts, a charity dedicated to reviving the country's performing arts by helping to lift surviving artists out of poverty and employing them to pass on their skills to the next generation. "It was for me an urgent thing to start this, because I knew that my culture was going down in the next 10, 20, 30 years, if no one did anything about it," he says.In 2003, Kong began teaching four young students, including Ouch Savy. That same year both he and Chorn-Pond appeared in the harrowing Emmy-nominated film The Flute Player, now being shown before each of his UK performances. When Peter Gabriel saw it, he was so moved that he began donating equipment and expertise to CLA, which led to the recording of Mekong Delta Blues. Chorn-Pond's vision is of a Cambodian artistic renaissance by 2020, but it won't be easy. The loss of so many artists created a cultural vacuum that has been filled by foreign music, leaving most Cambodian youth hooked on western rap and rock or Chinese pop, and scornful of their own traditions. Government arts funding has been very limited during Cambodia's slow economic recovery, but ironically, Kong and his neighbours are now under pressure to move 20km away as developers eye their inner-city land. He relates this in the song My Life - as close as he's prepared to get to singing about politics these days. Apart from wanting to stay put, what else does he wish for?"I hope that peace will prevail. There should be no more fighting, no more civil wars, no more conflicts. I am sick and tired of it."· Kong Nay is playing at the UK's Womad Festival, Charlton Park until Sunday, then continues his tour of Britain.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Reggae Review

Roots manoeuvre
Dave Simpson [of The Guardian, UK] on what happened when reggae and punk went head to head in the UK.

It's late autumn 1977, and the Stranglers are headlining a show in the Midlands. The support comes from the roots reggae band Steel Pulse. They know what to expect from a punk crowd: gobbing, cans being thrown. Steel Pulse are barely into their first number when a huge wad of phlegm shoots from the audience and lands on the hand of bassist Ron "Stepper" McQueen. The band's nickname for McQueen was "Psycho" and they fully expected him to live up to his name. "We all stared at Ronnie and we stopped playing," remembers Steel Pulse's singer, Mykaell Riley. "So there's this silence onstage, then eventually 4,000 punks went silent." McQueen didn't react, however. Instead, Stranglers bassist, Jean-Jacques Burnel, stepped out of the wings, waded into the crowd, identified the culprit, and knocked him out cold. Then he turned to face the crowd. "He just went, 'You fucking wankers. You love reggae,'" laughs Riley.

If 1977 was the year of the punk rock explosion, it also saw the rise of another musical movement, intimately entwined with punk - a massive eruption in British reggae, which became the black counterpart to the white heat of punk. The Clash played reggae covers and Joe Strummer recounted his experience of reggae all-nighters in White Man in Hammersmith Palais. Rastafarian DJ Don Letts played reggae discs between punk bands at the Roxy. Even Bob Marley - who was living in London at the time - recognised the developments with his 1977 song Punky Reggae Party. But while the Clash and Marley have come to symbolise the link between reggae and punk, the huge growth in homegrown reggae in the wake of punk has become one of the era's lost treasures.

White kids had listened to reggae since the original 1960s skinhead movement embraced the music, but 1977 saw a common bond spring up between the punks and the rastas. Dub producer Adrian Sherwood - a white kid from Slough who fell in love with the "crazy intros" of the records played by his black mate's sister - remembers going round to Johnny Rotten's house and hearing reggae, not Generation X. Sherwood also remembers that the path to reggae enlightenment wasn't necessarily weed: "My Mum, bless her, wasn't the best cook on earth. I'd go round my mates and have fried fish, beans and rice. It was unbelievable." More important, though, was the sense of shared purpose the fans had. Although punk was fast and guitar-based and reggae slow and bass-heavy, the punk look (spiky hair, leather jackets and combat trousers) wasn't much different to Rastafarian chic (dreadlocks, leather jackets and combat gear). Visually and otherwise, punk and reggae audiences were seen as outcasts. "The bond was very simple," explains Peter Harris, a British reggae guitarist who played on Punky Reggae Party. "Blacks were getting marginalised." British Irish kids - like Rotten - and black youths were forced together because of signs on pub doorways that read "No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs", which became the title of Rotten's autobiography. "The punks were the same," Harris argues. "They were seen as dregs of society. We were all anti-establishment, so there was a natural synergy between us."

Harris's father Dennis ran reggae labels with Matumbi's Dennis Bovell, a massively influential Ladbroke Grove-based Barbadian who - after inventing Lover's Rock - gave punk musicians a new sound when he produced the Slits and the Pop Group, helping them experiment with dub. Harris Jr remembers growing up in the Grove, where the Clash's Mick Jones ate breakfast at Bites cafe alongside rastas. Further bonding took place at gigs and in blues clubs like Notting Hill's House of Dread. But the punk-reggae bond went national - and attracted the interest of the big labels - when John Peel started championing both musics on the radio, playing entire sides of albums by Misty in Roots and Adrian Sherwood's Creation Rebel. "He was great, John Peel," says Sherwood, whose reggae fandom led to him first importing Jamaican reggae records and then operating the mixing desk for innumerable reggae greats. He remembers sitting in a car in Ladbroke Grove with the Jamaican legend Prince Far-I when Peel played the first three tracks of Creation Rebel's record: "The next day I had all those wankers like [Rough Trade's] Geoff Travis ringing me going 'I love it, man.' I said 'I played it to you three weeks ago and you turned it down.'" But suddenly Rough Trade was far from the biggest label with an interest in reggae. The majors were signing reggae bands almost as fast as punk groups. Ladbroke Grove's Aswad and Birmingham's Steel Pulse signed to Island; Virgin put out the Short Circuit compilation, which saw Steel Pulse share vinyl grooves with Penetration and Buzzcocks. But for young black people, the music went deeper than fashion.

British reggae established its own identity, independent of Jamaican reggae, when the bands started singing about their own experiences. Tunes like Tabby Cat Kelly's sublimely mournful Don't Call Us Immigrants offered the feelings of the first British-born generation of black kids: "What's a joke to you is death to me ... I'll respect your colour if you respect mine." Misty in Roots' singer Poko - who dropped his given name, Walford Tyson - remembers a shared "struggle in the music" with punk but particularly remembers the impact of reggae music on young black audiences: "It was pure emotion." Like Steel Pulse, Misty were young and angry. Poko, who was born in St Kitts, says British acts "no longer wanted to sing about love and women. We wanted to do progressive protest music." There was a lot to protest about, and top of the list was police oppression. Punks were picked on but black youths had it much, much harder. Gaylene Martin, a New Zealander who worked with reggae acts on Virgin Records, remembers attending a Peter Tosh gig at the Rainbow theatre in London with Jamaican friends: their car was followed and only the black occupants were questioned. "I was threatened with arrest so many times it became a joke," says Peter Harris, who opened a shop in Portobello Road and was arrested entering his own premises because the police assumed he was a burglar. He ended up crashing through the showroom fighting with three policemen. "My wife said 'What are you doing with my husband? He owns the shop!'"

The excuse the police needed to target black youths was marijuana, and they used the Sus law to stop and search. The crackdown saw reggae clubs closed, and the key figures in the scene facing prosecution. Dennis Bovell was jailed for drugs offences after police raided a soundclash - where reggae sound systems would compete with exclusive mixes in front of fans, who followed sound systems like football teams. The sentence was quashed on appeal six months later. Harris - a non-toker - admits there were times when bands were lucky not to attract the law's attention: "I was in a car once and it was so full of smoke, the driver couldn't see through the windscreen." But increasingly, long-simmering and deep-rooted tensions erupted in violence.
Harris was in Notting Hill when the area erupted in the riots of 1976, which inspired the Clash to sing that they wanted "a riot of their own" in White Riot. He remembers "an amazing sunny day. I saw policemen holding dustbins. The police got a right kicking. There were thousands of angry people who were fed up being treated like dirt." Over the next few years rioting spread across the country (Steel Pulse sang of civil unrest in Handsworth Revolution in 1978, the riots following in 1981). "There was all this going on across the country and reggae was the soundtrack," Harris says.

Punk was, too. Southall punk band the Ruts wrote their reggae-based song Jah War, which told how Misty manager Clarence Baker was knocked to the ground by the police's Special Patrol Group during anti-National Front protests in 1979 that saw a schoolteacher, Blair Peach, die as a result of police brutality. Baker was luckier, but it was close. "They coshed him," remembers Poko. "Nearly killed him, man." Jah War documented a growing sense of outrage over such events - and also repaid mates Misty for issuing the Ruts' first single In a Rut on their People Unite label, another way in which punk and reggae united. It was a confused time and Mykaell Riley remembers black skinheads, white skinheads who weren't racist and others who would say: "We like your music, it's black people we don't like." But increasingly, people realised that music itself could fuel change.

Steel Pulse wrote a song called Ku Klux Klan about the racist movement. The radio shunned it because it was provocative but the black band had an enormous impact when they donned the KKK hoods onstage. Even though the KKK was an American phenomenon, British audiences recognised the power of the imagery and would often fall silent. "It was us saying 'We're in control now and we're not afraid of you'," remembers Riley. "In terms of our punk audience that was a powerful statement." When a group of musicians and activists started putting punk and reggae bands on together and called the gigs Rock Against Racism, "RAR" became a national movement. Bands as diverse as XTC, Aswad, Generation X, Tribesman, the Slits, Joy Division and Misty came together to oppose the rising National Front. The biggest gig, headlined by the Clash and Steel Pulse in east London's Victoria Park in 1978, was attended by 80,000 people. "The British public - certainly the youth - totally came out against the NF," says Riley. "They were turning up in massive numbers and telling them they could not make headway with this stance."

Almost three decades on, sitting in Southall's community centre - where Misty used to play before the council introduced noise restrictions - Poko laments the Southall of his youth, which resisted the NF. "We had such strength," he says. "We felt we could do anything." But he shouldn't be downhearted, because as a result of the anti-racist campaigners' efforts, the Front were finished as a mass political force and police racism was exposed. But did reggae change perceptions of black music? In the 80s, black acts were still told to water down their sound to get hit singles, but reggae crossed over into pop with the Police and Culture Club. A more direct legacy of punk and reggae's fusion came in multiracial acts such as UB40, and the chart dominance of bands such as Madness and the Specials in the early 80s - acts now regarded not as reggae or ska bands, but great British pop groups. Of the original pioneers, only Aswad - who scored a No 1 in 1988 with Don't Turn Around - became British household names, but Misty and Steel Pulse still tour and are renowned worldwide. However, their music resonates everywhere: the sound systems laid down the roots of remix culture and the rhythms gave birth to drum'n'bass. And 1970s British reggae still sounds great today. "The question was always: 'Is your reggae authentic?' says Mykaell Riley, who is now a lecturer at the University of Westminster. "But it was a cumulative experience of growing up in the UK in a different skin. That's what made what we did different."

Note; Steel Pulse will be playing some gigs in the UK in September but to-date the official website has not released the dates. I see the Birmingham Carling Academy on Thursday 6th September and the Shepherd's Bush Empire in London on Friday 7th are already advertising tickets. And of course, they are at WOMAD on July 29th.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Shadow of Angkor restaurant

If you visit Siem Reap, you must take time out from your temple exploration to visit the Shadow of Angkor restaurant, just a block away from the popular old market and looking out over the Siem Reap river. I love the restaurant and of course, the adjoining guesthouse and always stay there when I'm in Siem Reap, and I'm really pleased that I am getting such positive feedback from other travellers, so its not just me who is singing their praises. Dave and Karen Ashmore from London were effervescent in their admiration of chef Teth's culinary prowess; "Its the best food we've tasted in six months of travelling - absolutely superb". Equally impressed were Bill and Sheila Duke from Victoria, British Columbia who said; "we won't eat anywhere else, we just can't stay away."

Chef Teth has five helpers to ensure the kitchen runs as smooth as clockwork, while restaurant manager Nareth is ably assisted out front by Sokchea and Jean. Teth's specialities include fish and chicken amok, fried beef in lemongrass and pan-fried Tonle Snapper fish dishes, though the menu has an extensive range of starters, Khmer specials, salads, pasta and pizza as well as western favourites. Prices range from $2-$5 - so its quality food at easily affordable prices. Located in a renovated French colonial building, the owners, Seng Hour and Davy are proud of their restaurant and the 15-room guesthouse and have a great team working alongside them including their son Lee, tuk-tuk drivers-cum- guesthouse assistants, Wa, Sophal and Theary. Together they make a great team and a great place to dine and stay.
Link: Shadow of Angkor.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

S-21's lone female survivor

Continuing on the Tuol Sleng theme, brought to life by the paintings of Vann Nath, here's a story from today's newswires, that highlights the only known female survivor from the Phnom Penh prison. The numbers of S-21 survivors varies depending on the latest evidence that's uncovered. Some survivors like Vann Nath were there at the end, others had a spell at Tuol Sleng and like Chim Math were then transferred to other prisons.

Lone female survivor of Pol Pot's secret prison breaks silence [DPA]

Possibly the only woman to survive Pol Pot's infamous Toul Sleng S-21 torture centre, Chim Math broke her silence today after nearly 30 years, saying she wants to testify at an impending trial of Cambodia's former Khmer Rouge leaders. The 49-year-old becomes the first woman and among only eight known survivors entered the gates of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot's secret prison, where an estimated 14,000 people perished. Previously, only three men were believed to still be alive as the 56-million dollar joint UN-Cambodia trial of a handful of surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge's brutal Democratic Kampuchea regime looms. Former commandant of S-21, Kang Kech Ieu, alias Duch, is the only person currently in jail awaiting a decision by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on indictments. Documentation Center of Cambodia director Youk Chhang confirmed that records had been recovered from Toul Sleng proving Math had been held at the former school that became one of the epicentres of Khmer Rouge atrocities. Chhang said Math had previously denied she had been held at the prison, possibly out of fear. Math says she kept her story secret because it was too difficult to tell. 'I didn't tell anyone all these years. Not even my husband. It was too painful,' Math said as she stared at her picture taken by her captors, among more than one thousand images documenting the victims of the slaughter that took place in S-21 between 1975 and 1979. 'Now the trial is coming, my family has persuaded me to come forward so I can be an eyewitness and help my country.'

Known as Khem Math at the time of her October 10, 1978 arrest, she says she was held in S-21 for two weeks before being transferred to nearby Prey Sar prison, which she escaped from to run to the mountains of Kampong Speu province when Vietnamese-backed troops overthrew the Khmer Rouge on January 7, 1979. Math thinks she may have been spared because she was from Stoeung district in Kampong Thom, prison chief Duch's place of birth. She held a copy of a Khmer Rouge document showing she joined the movement in 1974 as a 16-year-old. Above her picture is a stamp from S-21 in Khmer script. At the bottom corner of the page, a blank space remains next to the column grimly titled 'date of death'. 'This is a real breakthrough,' David Chandler, a historian and author of 'Voices From S-21,' replied in an email Tuesday. Up to 2 million Cambodians are believed to have died during the four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge as the ultra-Maoists attempted to turn the country into an agrarian utopia, bereft of markets, money and social classes. Math says two photos she kept with her of her father dressed in a Lon Nol-era police uniform had led to her arrest during a period when the south-western zone, led by former military commander Ta Mok, began conducting internal purges. 'I can't describe what I saw there. I could look out of my cell through cracks in the wall and see the torture and the bodies being thrown away like rubbish. For two weeks, that was my television. The smell of pig excrement mixed with blood which was S-21 will never leave me.' Court officials say they hope hearings will get underway by early next year. Pol Pot died at his home in 1998 without facing trial. Ta Mok died in hospital of age-related complications last year. Researchers say Math's testimony will shed invaluable light on the conditions inside S-21 for female prisoners, about which little was previously known.

Vann Nath exhibition in Phnom Penh

A series of extraordinary paintings by artist Vann Nath are currently on display at the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh. You must visit the exhibition if you are in the city and the painter himself is often around to show you his artwork. Not only is he an extremely talented artist, he is a humble and gracious man and has time for everyone. Most of the paintings are brand new, painted this year to accompany a couple of older ones, all of which display in vivid detail his time as a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge at their Phnom Penh torture centre, Tuol Sleng. Here is a press report from AFP about the exhibition, which is open until October.

Genocide survivor's paintings offer a dark journey into Cambodia's past - by Seth Meixner

From his arrest in late 1977 to a rescue, of sorts, from certain death, Cambodian artist Vann Nath has meticulously recorded his year spent in the Khmer Rouge's most notorious prison in a series of paintings exhibited for the first time earlier this month. "Transfer - Story of Artist Vann Nath" traces his terrifying descent into the Tuol Sleng security facility, one of the worst hells created by the communist regime which devastated Cambodia in the late 1970s, killing up to two million people. The former high school was converted by the Khmer Rouge into a torture centre through which passed some 16,000 men, women and children who were brutalised for months before being taken to the outskirts of the capital and executed. Only 14 people are known to have survived Tuol Sleng. Like Vann Nath, they had a skill - mechanical or artistic - deemed valuable enough by their jailers to justify keeping them alive. Vann Nath painted portraits of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. Using thick brushstrokes to lay down harsh swathes of blues, greens and grays, Vann Nath's 14 new panels, all painted this year, take on a primitive, almost abstract quality, mirroring the surreal world he was thrown into after being arrested by the regime. He is first seen tied to a chair, his elbows wrenched painfully together behind his back and electrical cables snaking along a blood-spotted floor to his metal manacles. Two Khmer Rouge cadres sit at a desk across the room. "I was accused of mobilising a movement against the Revolutionary Policy," he says. "After seven days of being tortured and interrogated I was transported to Phnom Penh with over 30 other prisoners in two trucks." Much of this journey took place at night - sharp shafts of yellow light from the torches of guards minding the bound prisoners cut through the surrounding gloom, painted in heavy swirls of deep blue and black that descends as heavily on the viewer as it does on the doomed men in the trucks. Blindfolded and tied together with ropes around their necks, the prisoners stumble dazed through Tuol Sleng's gate, as Vann Nath takes the viewer through the dehumanising process of being photographed, stripped and shackled together in long rows.

The exhibition stands as a stark reminder that nearly 30 years on, no Khmer Rouge leader has been brought to justice for one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, leaving Cambodians who suffered under the regime to grapple alone with their demons. Mental trauma plagues many; substance abuse and domestic violence are an ugly by-product of decades on unresolved anger and fear. Dredging up this painful subject took its toll on Vann Nath, he says. "It was truly painful because I had to recall these incidents -- I faced difficulties in painting but I had to overcome them," he tells AFP. "If we don't make these paintings, no one will know (what happened). People cannot understand with only words, so we show them pictures also and they can understand some," he adds. Vann Nath says he hopes his paintings will preserve something of the past for a younger generation of Cambodians who know almost nothing of the apocalypse that engulfed the country under the Khmer Rouge. "Nowadays children do not know or understand. They just hear from their parents that to live under the Pol Pot regime was so miserable," he says.

A month after arriving at Tuol Sleng, Vann Nath says he was "just about finished off". Starved and plagued by lice and skin lesions, he and the dozens of others he was shackled to were surviving on a few teaspoons of rice gruel each day."If someone died close to where we were confined, we had to sleep and eat with the body right there," he says. "At the time it seemed as if we didn't have any sense of disgust or revulsion. We just thought the same thing would happen to us later on." But then Vann Nath was abruptly ordered by prison officials to paint portraits of top regime leaders. The final few panels in his series depict this resurrection. Vann Nath has shed his rags and cut his hair. He stands before a large portrait of Pol Pot in an open, airy room. "This gave me a bit more freedom both physically and morally," he says. Vann Nath was still dogged, though, by the fear that he was only alive as long as he was useful to his unpredictable teenage guards. "They were keeping me alive temporarily. Of course, in the future I would also not survive," he says of his thought process at the time. But he did manage to escape in the chaos of Phnom Penh's fall to invading Vietnamese troops, somehow being spared Tuol Sleng's final bloodletting as guards murdered the few remaining prisoners before fleeing the advancing army.

After the Khmer Rouge were pushed from power in 1979, Vann Nath was made famous by his savage depictions of life in Tuol Sleng; a mother being ripped from her screaming child, guards pulling out prisoners' fingernails or shoving them head first into vats of putrid water. A self portrait of Vann Nath shows a gaunt, nearly naked man slumped in a tiny brick cell, his ankle chained to the wall. Vann Nath's work is "a powerful testimony about the crimes of the Khmer Rouge," said Sara Colm, who this month presented the artist with the Human Rights Watch's Hellman/Hammett award for his work. "Through his art Vann Nath has become a very outspoken advocate for victims of the Khmer Rouge." An international court to try former Khmer Rouge leaders has been under way for more than a year, with prosecutors expecting to submit their first cases to investigating judges in the coming weeks. But Pol Pot died in 1998, and concerns are growing that other elderly senior regime leaders who are living freely in Cambodia could die before being put on trial. Vann Nath said his hopes for justice are fading."If we're talking about hope now, I don't hope because it has been nearly 30 years and no one has shown their face to take responsibility for killing Cambodians," he said.
Link: Vann Nath.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Blogging absence

Sorry for my absence over the last few days. Lots of things going on in my life at the moment though to be frank, there's not been much to tell you in recent days. I see that tourist arrivals in Cambodia are up 20% on last year with 975,349 visitors, of which 598,929 visited Siem Reap, up 52% on the same period in 2006. I may be conspicuous by my absence for another week or so as I get things sorted and then normal service will be resumed.

However, I did find the following article which caught my eye:
Curtain call for an icon of Cambodia's artistic recuperation
Phnom Penh's Bassac Theatre has been drummer Nop Sambona's home since the Khmer Rouge were pushed from power 28 years ago, leaving behind a ruined country, its singers, dancers and musicians among the 1.7 million people murdered by the regime.

Those who survived the apocalypse unleashed by the Khmer Rouge, which was particularly brutal in pursuing of Cambodia's artists, trickled back into the city and began trying to rebuild their lives. The theatre became the soul of this battered community, a bright spot in an otherwise dead world that evoked a cultural richness which would never be fully revived. Nearly three decades on that bright spot is dimming as the site on which Cambodia's national theatre sits has been leased to a private developer and the building doomed to be razed. Its artists, who have soldiered on against darkness, wet and neglect since a fire gutted the auditorium and stage area in 1994, were offered 300 dollars each and told last month to leave. "This place has produced hundreds of artists. The theatre produced the nation's great culture," says Nop Sambona, taking a break from what will be one of the last rehearsals to resonate through the Bassac's now derelict performance hall. "Its a landmark. We're so sorry that we've lost it," he says, gesturing over his shoulder at the Bassac's flame-blackened foyer.

Constructed in 1966, the 1,200-seat Bassac was designed by Vann Molyvann, Cambodia's most famous modern architect, as a monument to Cambodia's thriving performing arts scene. It is not hard to imagine the capital's elite, dressed in elegant evening wear, gliding through the Bassac's imposing triangular foyer and up the cantilevered staircases suspended over shallow pools of water, about to view a performance of the Royal Ballet. The Bassac was one of dozens of gems built by Vann Molyvann, whose wide boulevards and stunning public buildings transformed Phnom Penh from a tiny backwater into a graceful capital during Cambodia's short period of prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s.The era, known as the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, or Cambodia's "golden age," also spurred on a strong revival in performing arts, with the Bassac at its heart. "During the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, the government considered the theatre a part of our national heritage," an angry Vann Molyvann says. "Heritage cannot be sold, changed or denied -- now they are destroying it. Now they've sold our national heritage to a famed businessman."

Khim Sarith, secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture, says the site had been leased to Cambodian tycoon Kith Meng, who plans to develop a "cultural building". In an earlier deal struck in 2005, Cambodia's culture ministry ceded land around the Bassac on the condition that the theatre be renovated, retaining its original name and architecture. Kith Meng was to get an undisclosed amount of property around the theatre in exchange for building a conference centre and office blocks. But Khim Sarith explains that the government is unable to afford the "millions of dollars" it would cost to restore the Bassac. "The theatre will be knocked down because it is burned and is old," he says. "There is nothing there," he says, adding the new theatre that Kith Meng has agreed to build elsewhere in exchange for the property "will be better than the old one". Buth Choeun, chief of administration at the culture ministry's performing art department, says the theatre's state of decay has made it increasingly dangerous to work in. "If we stay here it will be difficult for us - we fear the old walls will fall on us," he says.Vann Molyvann is not satisfied by the deal. "They do not care about heritage," he says. "I am very worried. I have no hope that Cambodian artists can spread our culture anymore -- Cambodian culture will die." The land prices at that site have reached more than 1,000 dollars per square metre (yard). So it's no longer about national heritage." Ieng Sithul, director of the Khmer Actress Association, says the proposed site for the new theatre is "not suitable," suggesting instead that the Bassac be restored. "If the old site has a beautiful theatre, it will help add value to our culture," he says. But like all of those facing eviction, he is heartbroken about the end of the Bassac."We have nothing but regret. We have only sympathy for the theatre and can only say goodbye to our poor home." In the background Nop Sambona has begun rehearsing again, his drumming heard from behind a glass window on which someone in a desperate effort to stave off the inevitable has scrawled" "Please help to preserve, don't destroy."

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Art of Torture

From the July newsletter of FCC Cambodia, The Wires, comes the following story:
The Art of Torture
In his first exhibit since 2005, Vann Nath will unveil new works this month at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, opening on 12 July, at #64 Street 200. The decades-long collaboration between two famous artists - filmmaker Rithy Panh and painter Vann Nath - continues with an exhibition of Nath's work on July 12 at Panh's Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh. The three-month exhibit will feature the vivid and shocking artwork of Nath, one of only seven survivors of the infamous Khmer Rouge prison and torture center S-21. His incarceration and close contact with the former prison commander Duch was immortalized in Panh's 2003 film "S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine." But their friendship started years earlier. "We're great friends. It's an honor for me to have a friend like Vann Nath. I met him in 1991 when I started to make my first film here, 'Cambodia: Between War and Peace'," says Panh. "With Vann Nath you have a person who has been through something very dark. He's a symbol of humanity and resistance."
The pivotal moment in S-21 is the meeting of Nath and his former captor Hoy. Calmly Nath confronts the former prison official in an unforgettable, heart-wrenching scene that may be one of the most moving in Cambodian cinematic history. Many of Nath's most affecting paintings capture the cruelty of the regime's treatment of political prisoners. Nath escaped a similar fate only when it became known that he had skill as a painter.
Today, his paintings and 1998 memoir, A Cambodia Prison Portrait: One Year in Khmer Rouge's S-21 Prison, are some of the most powerful records of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime. In February, Nath received the prestigious Hellman/Hammett Award, an honor bestowed by Human Rights Watch for writers who display courage in the face of political persecution.
"Vann Nath uses his strength to fight against genocide," says Youk Chang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. "His energy and voice represent many voices of the Khmer Rouge victims." The as-yet-untitled show at BARC will highlight Nath's career and his ordeal at Toul Sleng. As such it will be a good fit with the permanent exhibits at BARC, which are designed to "create a space for production and reflection on images and their messages."
The BARC was opened in December 2006 with funding from the Paris-based National Audiovisual Institute, UNESCO and technology giant Microsoft, among others. The BARC archive includes films, audio recordings and photographs. Prized items include historic films of Cambodia by the Lumiere brothers in 1899, King Monivong's coronation in 1928, and an invaluable stockpile of Khmer Rouge propaganda films and broadcasts. Panh received the 2007 Prix France-Culture career achievement award at the Cannes Film Festival "for the intensity of his work and his commitment to cinemagraphic history."
The show, Nath's first official showing since participating in the Visual Arts Open in 2005, comes as the artists faces grave health risks. The 63-year-old Nath suffers from kidney problems and requires twice-weekly dialysis treatment in Phnom Penh and frequent trips to Bangkok. The cost for the treatments is more than $1,000 per month and the price of a new kidney is an estimated $80,000. Nath, who's family runs a Phnom Penh eatery, relies entirely on donations -- mostly from foreigners -- to stay alive. He says that the government has never helped him financially, and most of his recent artwork has been sold to pay for medical costs.
Still, his legacy is not lost on Cambodia's new generation of artists.
"I would say he is the father of contemporary art in Cambodia. The man just oozes artistry," says prominent contemporary artist Pich Sopheap. "When he walks into a room at an opening you feel the air stop flowing and everybody looks. He is, for me, such an important symbol: of a survivor and also as an artist. There is no mistake when you listen to him talk that he is anything but an artist." Pich, director of the contemporary art studio SalaArts, believes Nath is the most important modern Cambodian painter. Pich believes that Nath's importance as an artist, rather than a potential witness or a famous victim, should be recognized by the government. "With all those paintings at the Toul Sleng museum , you'd think he deserves some assistance. They will be there forever," Pich says. "Aesthetically speaking you have to respect his art for its honesty. Honesty comes out in everything that he does. In contemporary art honesty is hard to find these days. That's his most important lesson."
The BARC is located in a newly renovated 1960s-era building at #64 Street 200 in Phnom Penh. Entrance for foreigners is $3, Cambodians are admitted for free. Link: FCC; Vann Nath.

American actor makes his peace

The Los Angeles Times reports: Michael Richards finds inner solace in Cambodia - 'I'm taking time off to feel myself out,' says the actor, who came under fire for a racist outburst last year in a story by Charles McDermid.

Actor Michael Richards, whose career nosedived after he shouted racial slurs at hecklers in a West Hollywood comedy club, has been seeking some spiritual healing here with his fiancée. Richards, best known for his portrayal of the eccentric Cosmo Kramer on the popular television series "Seinfeld," said he has quit stand-up comedy. "That night, when I was insulted and disrupted, I lost my heart; I lost my sense of humor. I've retired from that. I'm taking time off to feel myself out, get to know myself and appreciate other people," Richards said in an interview here.
Richards, 57, and actress Beth Skipp traveled to remote temples before visiting Angkor Wat on a tour sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Nithyananda Foundation. The sect adheres to the teachings of 29-year-old Hindu monk Nithyananda — an avowed "enlightened Master and modern mystic" who's referred to by his followers as "Swami G." Nithyananda members here say Richards began attending foundation events in March, about three months after launching into a racist tirade from the stage of the Laugh Factory. He later apologized for the outburst. In the interview here, Richards said he was just a tourist and not a full-fledged devotee of the Nithyananda group. "I don't wear club jackets or belong to organizations of this nature. I do my own personal work. We came to see this amazing country," said Richards, who left Cambodia for neighboring Thailand on July 7. "I listened in, but often my fiancée and I went on our own, to feel the temples in our own way. They're magnificent structures. It's great to just be in them and watch time go by. We'll probably be back."
The tour, officially a fundraiser for an Internet university, featured daily spiritual seminars by Nithyananda at the hotel, followed by visits to the nearby Angkor Archaeological Park, where the leader discussed depictions of Hindu cosmology. Swami G is described in the group's literature as "on a mission to re-establish the science of inner bliss on planet Earth." Richards, born in Culver City, spoke candidly about the Nov. 17 racist rant, which ended up on the Internet after an audience member recorded video on a cellphone. He said his Cambodia trip was not any kind of "karmic rehab." "No, I've been doing other personal work since [the incident]," he said. "I'm trying to learn to enjoy myself."
Richards and Skipp, who appeared in the 2006 L.A. production of "Me, My Guitar & Don Henley," checked into a $380 per-night deluxe spa suite at Siem Reap's Hotel De La Paix on June 29. They joined the Nithyananda tour after several days of sightseeing independently at ancient sites including Preah Vihear, a famously difficult-to-reach mountaintop temple overlooking the Thai border. "We went way out into the country. Preah Vihear was unbelievable. And the way we got there: We went up this crazy road in a funky pickup and when we got to the top there's this magnificent temple," Richards said. "We did it all old-school." Richards said the couple planned to proceed to Chaing Mai, Thailand, and eventually the ancient city of Luang Prabang. "At first, I was a little bit struck by the poverty, but when I leaned in I could see how open-hearted the Cambodian people are, and I was touched by it," Richards said. "I'd always wanted to take a trip to the Far East. It's a place I'd never been. I knew of Angkor Wat and I'd seen pictures, so we decided, 'Let's go for this.' It's amazing: You can walk around and it's all hands-on in the temples, it's not roped off. Seeing spirituality in stone is inspiring."

River Books' new releases

Two new books from the Thai-based River Books publishing stable are hitting the shelves and are a must if you are an Angkor officianado. Bayon New perspectives is edited by Joyce Clark and includes contributions by some of the biggest names in Angkorean research such as Ang Choulean, Olivier Cunin, Claude Jacques, Vittorio Roveda, Peter D Sharrock, Michael Vickery and Hiram Woodward. The book is 416 pages,and contains 242 photographs, 87 diagrams and 3 maps. It is more than 30 years since the story was last told of the Bayon, the enigmatic state temple of Jayavarman VII, the greatest king of ancient Angkor. Recently, researchers from several disciplines have again been probing the mysteries of this extraordinary monument and its giant face towers. Under an eminent editorial team, Bayon: New perspectives brings together for the first time leading scholars whose findings and insights challenge, not always in consensus, many of the earlier interpretations of the Bayon’s art, architecture and inscriptions. Claude Jacques distils decades of research in a close-up of Jayavarman’s life, family and immediate successors. T.S. Maxwell conducts the first in-depth study of the Bayon ‘short inscriptions’ and through them the unique Buddhist-Hindu-ancestral religion imposed by Jayavarman. Olivier Cunin draws on new technology and sophisticated techniques for precisely tracking the temple’s bewildering architectural design changes. Peter Sharrock uncovers clear signs of the Tantric Buddhism of the ancient Khmers and proposes we see the Tantric supreme Buddha Vajrasattva in the renowned face towers. Anne-Valérie Schweyer discovers how the inscriptions of the neighbouring Chams, among whom Jayavarman spent his early adult life, throw new light on the king’s psychology and life – which Vittorio Roveda carefully tracks in the detailed political reliefs of the Bayon’s outer gallery. Ang Choulean then paints the living Bayon in its vivid local folklore – the great monument as it is seen by the people who live in the villages around it today. These intense engagements to unravel the meaning of the temple draw a masterly new preface from Hiram Woodward, who pioneered the current wave of reinterpretations of the Bayon a quarter of a century ago. Michael Vickery’s rigorous scholarly imprint, alongside the sustained energy and commitment of editor Joyce Clark permeate every page of this volume, as it yields a more contoured and credible story of the king’s remarkable career. The religion and mythology of the new Khmer Buddhist state are rendered with a more subtle brush and a new vision emerges of the historical and political significance of the Bayon.

The second book is The Khmer Empire by Claude Jacques and Philippe Lafond; 400 pages, over 430 colour illustrations plus maps and plans. The beauty and awe-inspiring grandeur of the Khmer civilisation is captured in this breathtaking volume. The renowned author, Claude Jacques, explores the achievements and developments of the Khmer people from the 5th to the 13th century. Journeying behind the well-known temples of Angkor Wat, The Khmer Empire reveals the marvels of many sites hitherto inaccessible to visitors. Superbly photographed by Philippe Lafond, the book includes site plans, aerial shots of the cities as well as detailed photographs showing the reliefs and other magnificent carvings. Never before has the richness and diversity of the Khmer Empire been shown in one volume.

Forthcoming titles by River Books will include Denise Heywood's Cambodian Dance: Celebration of the Gods and Gill Green's Pictorial Cambodian Textiles. Link: River Books.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Socheata is Echoing Green Fellow

Filmmaker Socheata Poeuv has been awarded a 2007 Echoing Green Fellowship - the $90,000 award over three years will support her work to document 10,000 Khmer Rouge survivor stories as interviewed by their children. 20 fellows were selected out of more than 900 international applicants. Socheata is still touring the globe with her outstanding documentary, New Year Baby. The Echoing Green website explains it as follows:

Echoing Green Fellow
Socheata Poeuv - Khmer Legacies
The Bold Idea: Uncovering and documenting the Khmer Rouge genocide through survivor testimony as the first initiative to bridge the communication divide in Cambodian-American families.

Decades after the brutal genocide, the Khmer Rouge atrocities continue to have a strong and debilitating impact on Cambodian-Americans. For example, over 60 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and 50 percent are affected by major depression. Yet, there has not been any large-scale effort to provide closure for this community. A significant generational divide has resulted from the silence of these first generation survivors, as well as the lack of knowledge about the genocide imparted to their children. Khmer Legacies will empower young Cambodians to interview their own parents about their survival and disseminate these stories to educate the public about the genocide. They will work to normalize and remove the stigma from issues that survivors have been keeping silent for a generation. Through this process, they hope to transform the culture of denial and avoidance in Cambodian communities to one of acknowledgment and honor. In 2004, Socheata Poeuv started interviewing her family on videotape about their story of survival. What has evolved from her own personal journey is the creation of New Year Baby, a documentary film that helped her family heal. New Year Baby has won several awards, including Amnesty International’s “Movies That Matter” Award. A graduate from Smith College, Socheata worked in network news for four years while co-founding Broken English Productions to direct the creation of her film.

Moment of Obligation: What experiences led to the desire to start your own organization?
In 2006, I visited Long Beach, CA, home to the largest population of Cambodian Americans. I was there to introduce my documentary film, New Year Baby, and host an open forum about the legacy of the Khmer Rouge genocide. At the event, I heard over and over again from young people that their parents rarely talked about their experience of surviving. I understand first hand what it's like to have parents who are reluctant to share their story. When I made my documentary film about my family, I began to understand at a profound level their sacrifice and love for me. This is the gift I want to give to the Cambodian families.

Gall to Think Big: What has given you the ability to dream big and take on deeply entrenched problems in the world?
Most people in life are stuck on the small problems like sitting in traffic or having a leaky roof. I love to take small problems and extrapolate them into big ones. Like transforming the problem “my parents and I don’t understand each other” into the problem “Cambodian families lack bonding and connection.” Small problems can leave you inert; big problems call you forward to create a solution.

New and Untested: What’s innovative about your new idea for social change?
No other organization exists with a mandate of videotaping stories of the Cambodian genocide by having their children interview their parents. Khmer Legacies is neither therapy nor self-help development, but is based the belief that storytelling can take a culture of denial and avoidance in Cambodian communities and transform into one of acknowledgement and honor.

Echoing Green - how they make a difference: • Identify Visionaries: Through a highly competitive selection process, Echoing Green identifies talented yet unproven social entrepreneurs who are dedicated to addressing the root causes of social problems. • Invest in Innovation: Each year, we invest at least $1 million to help Echoing Green Fellows transform innovative ideas into action. By applying entrepreneurial principles to social sector investment, we help launch cutting-edge organizations that transform communities.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Tiny Toones gives hope

A Second Chance in Cambodia - by Mark Fenn (Asia Sentinel)

Deported to a Cambodia he never knew, a former gang member uses breakdancing to offer hope to others. On the top floor of a city center shopping mall, youngsters in baggy jeans breakdance to loud hip-hop music while an energetic emcee raps over the top. It could be a scene from any North American or European city, but this is Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh. And the dancers on stage are among the most underprivileged children and youths in the poverty-stricken country, which is still scarred by years of war and oppression. Their teachers are discards from American society, which kicked them out because of the accident of their birth. They are members of the Tiny Toones breakdancing club, which aims to give children from Phnom Penh's poorest slum communities a constructive way to channel their energies and build confidence. Some are orphans, many are HIV-positive, and others are former drug users – children who are all too often discarded and left on the margins of society. Now, says Tiny Toones' Khmer-American founder, Tuy Sopil, they are "the most popular dancers in Cambodia" and an inspiration to others.

With his tattoo-covered arms, baggy jeans and baseball cap, 29-year-old Tuy – also known as KK looks every inch the California gang member he once was. But since he was deported from the US to Cambodia, a country he hardly knew, he has devoted himself to helping his young charges avoid the life of gangs, drugs and crime that he fell into. Tuy was just a baby when his family fled Cambodia and the murderous misrule of the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime. They settled in Arizona, and then Long Beach, California – home to a thriving community of Cambodian refugees. Although he became an accomplished breakdancer, Tuy got involved with gangs and was taking crack cocaine in his early teens. At around 18 he was sent to jail for the first time, for robbery. He received two more sentences for the same crime, and says he spent a total of about nine-and-a-half years in jail or the custody of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. Then, in 2002, he got trouble of another kind that he never expected. The Bush administration pushed the Cambodia government into signing a repatriation agreement that made possible the deportation of about 1,600 Cambodian Americans, most of whom had dim memories if any at all of Cambodia. Tuy was one of them. He left his family – including a young son – behind. There are around 140 Khmer-American deportees like him in Cambodia. Hundreds more are waiting to be sent back when they finish their sentences.
On his return to Phnom Penh, Tuy turned his life around. "When I got here I started all over again, and now everyone loves me," he said. "It feels like I fit into the community. In the States, it didn't feel like that." Tuy also works for an NGO set up by a group of deportees that works with drug users. But he seems most enthusiastic when talking about Tiny Toones, which he started around two years ago with just nine members. Now it has many times that number, aged from three to 24, and they practice at five different locations in Phnom Penh. The dancers get paid to perform at shows and promotional events, so they can make a little money for their parents through their hobby. "I want to help them because I used to be a kid on drugs," he said. "I spent most of my life in gangs, trying to be cool. These kids need a role model and they don't have that, so I'm trying to be that."

Tuy teaches breakdancing and hires three other teachers to give lessons in Khmer, English and HIV-Aids prevention. He regularly checks the youngsters' school reports and suspends them from dancing if they get low grades. Similarly, membership in Tiny Toones is used as a carrot to persuade youngsters to give up substance abuse such as sniffing glue or taking yama, which means “crazy medicine,” and is the local name for highly-addictive crystal methamphetamine.
"If they don't quit drugs, they can't join us," Tuy said. "If they are on drugs, I don't want them. I want them to quit before they join." Cambodia has a high prevalence of HIV/Aids, and a lot of the dancers are HIV-positive. "I want them to know that it's not the end of the world," said Tuy.
He talks affectionately about one of his dancers, a 10-year-old boy who is HIV-positive: "He's the best breakdancing guy in my crew. He's very smart in English and Khmer. He's very talented." Tuy clearly inspires respect among the young dancers, and this is reciprocated. He has even "adopted" five children and taken them into his home. He is proud of the youngsters, but says but the group needs more financial help. His ambition is to create a park in Phnom Penh, "where kids can be free to play". Recently, 20 dancers announced that they wanted to form a gang. Tuy told them they must leave the group if they did. They chose to stay. He said: "They just want to be cool, and I say 'You guys are cool. You are popular in Cambodia. "Everybody wants to be like you guys, and you want to be gang members? That's not cool'."

Copyright courtesy of http://www.asiasentinel.com/.
Newer›  ‹Older