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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

35

RATANAKIRI

Nee squats in the dust as a cluster of the hill-tribe people of Ratanakiri, young and old, men and women, settle around him. He uses few words. He has been working with groups like this for a long time. The way he leads them is unobtrusive and relaxed.

What are they noticing?

Only two years ago this place where they meet was dense forest, now their land has been ‘grabbed’ and Vietnamese businessmen have been granted a ninety-nine-year lease. Their forest is cleared, the wild animals have disappeared, the giant logs have been carted away on trucks. Politicians and business-men have become very rich. It is now a rubber plantation.

What do they hear when they listen to the talk of other local people? The discussion divides into language groups; it is staccato, full of energy. Khmer is not their first language. These people speak ancient languages.

I look around. We are surrounded by rubber tree saplings at the edge of the plantation. The only other vegetation is on a tiny garden block close to a house beside the dirt road. A slight breeze, welcome in the heat, ruffles the leaves of a lone mango tree where hens scratch the denuded earth. A truck skids along the road, raising more dust, caking it in the cracks of our lips, spreading grit on our teeth. It settles into the folds of skin and clothes. We blink the sting from our eyes.

Women and men from the neighbourhood draw closer to join in conversation. They are united in their urgent desire to ‘do something’.

A father holds his bike still and offers his opinion. An old woman comes; there are gaps in her mouth where teeth once were. Her sarong is worn to holes, her krama is knotted around her head, covering her hair and shading her face. A middle-aged woman with glossy black hair knotted at the nape of her neck speaks with few words; her quiet authority is enough to still the crowd. A dark, thin, restless young activist is stirred by his own words.

In each lull Nee, in a gentler voice, poses one more question.

None of these people have been offered employment in the rubber plantation which replaces their forest. They have lived from their forest. What do they worry about most?

They grieve that their culture is lost.

While they speak in local languages Nee sits with me on the ground. ‘This may be the most dangerous time. More and more poor people have begun to claim their dignity. They are ready to protest, to die.’ They are powerless and ripe to be stirred to rage. ‘I can understand anger,’ he says. ‘Some activists deliberately use the anger. But it is better to go slowly. There has to be a way of acting that is well-planned and coordinated, that avoids bloodshed. There has been too much blood.’ He will give them whatever time it takes to plan, for leadership to be nurtured.

Nee knows that this is delicate. The military police are primed to fire randomly whenever there might be the slightest sign of antagonism. Only this week there have been more deaths. ‘Angry resistance would be like feeding a crocodile,’ he says. He is working so that those who have been dispossessed will be freed to think, not simply roused to react.

Back at his laptop in Ratanakiri town Nee networks to strengthen his international links. There is a glimmer of hope. Two of the global banks providing loans to the rubber companies are considering their codes of ethics.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy