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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



I sit in the bus to Battambang, thinking of this outbreak of violence and linking it to the dramatic change that seems to have happened in Ka since we last met. I read again what I wrote eleven months ago after talking to Ka and his sister.

Ka insisted on taking me to breakfast, instructing me to wait for him close to the Independence Monument. I waited by the kerbside. A car with dark windows drew up beside me, the back door behind the driver opened and Ka and Lum Aung invited me to climb in beside them. Brother and sister both seemed strangely subdued as we drove to a Chinese restaurant in a fashionable street. This was not what I had expected; it was a while since I had seen them.

Ka talked soberly about his life. He has worked for the Mekong River Commission, the United Nations Development Program, the Asia Development Bank, the World Bank, and various INGOs and government ministries. He has managed to try everything that an aspiring and capable Cambodian would want to do yet he was disgruntled. I struggled to adjust to his air of regret.

This was not the Ka I remembered: Ka who came to my door in the long ago days of Krom Akphiwat Phum battered and bruised from a motorbike accident and announcing through laughter, ‘I hit a hole and the bike stayed there. I flew like a bird and landed like a frog.’ There was no laughter in the Chinese restaurant that morning. He sat slumped. This was a different hole, more difficult to laugh off. Over the years I had not noticed the gradual transformation. Now I saw it clearly.

Ka’s hair no longer spiked around his head in a crew cut. It was tamed, parted and smoothed down in a traditional cut of short back and sides. He was neatly dressed in business clothes. Even his speech was formal.

Lum Aung finished ordering food then claimed my attention. She seemed to have planned what she needed to tell me. Much of it I knew already. ‘After the coup of 1997 I continued in parliament serving three full terms of five years each. Three mandates. I chaired multi-party commissions. At the second and third election fewer and fewer FUNCINPEC members were elected.’ At the fourth election she declined to stand.

I asked her then whether she had an opinion about the coming election. Her lips pressed together in her familiar gesture of determination. ‘You remember Mu Sochua? Yes? Did you know she is a leader in the new coalition the Cambodian National Rescue Party? Yes? Sochua has urged me to consider re-entering the campaign to represent Battambang once more.’

I could understand this; few Cambodian women have had her experience. ‘What did you say?’

‘I said that I no longer believe that working for a political party is a way to assist the poorest of the women in rural Cambodia.’

While we stirred our expensive noodles that morning Lum Aung and Ka talked together about what they had failed to do; they talked of the barriers of corruption and nepotism. They had hoped, each in their own way, to influence events as their father’s and their grandfather’s generation did. They had wanted to make life better for those who suffer most. They told me that they could see nothing for their efforts.

The bus is nearing Battambang; it is time to stop thinking of the Ka of last year and to meet the man who emailed me after the election. Passengers who live at the edge of town climb down stiffly from the bus, their luggage zipped into battered striped bags. At the central bus depot motor-dup drivers shout in unison and jostle for passengers. I don’t need a motor-dup. Ka will be here expecting me. I wonder what to expect of him.

He arrives on a motorbike in minutes, wearing faded tee-shirt and shapeless jeans gathered at his hips with a leather belt. He bristles with energy as he takes my bag and guides me to a small drinks kiosk; it is without customers until we come. Ka orders a Coke and I a café duc doco, the strong local coffee with sweetened condensed milk.

We are close to Street One, where we met so many years ago.

I lean on the tin table and listen. The Ka who took me to a good restaurant in the black car with a driver, seen last year, has disappeared. The old Ka is back.

‘What changed you?’ I ask, remembering his earlier hopes and recent depression.

He shakes his head. During the years he saw too much corruption. He saw degradation of the natural resources of the country. The brutal suppression of public protest was the final jolt, cutting through lethargy and forcing him to weigh the choices he had made. ‘It is the people who are poor who always suffer,’ he says.

Ka knows that I am writing. I have a draft of the manuscript and have marked the pages that mention his story, those that he would need to know about. He takes it eagerly; he will go straight back to Tean Tor, take a dipper shower and start reading.

As we set out for breakfast Ka says he has read for a long time in the night. I am on the back of the motorbike while he talks without waiting to reach the breakfast place he has chosen. The wind is in our faces; he is calling over his shoulder that there are two things that I need to adjust in my draft. In one place I had written Highway Ten; what I was writing about really happened on Highway Five. With regard to the incident of Sihanouk’s officers there is one thing I should add to make it clearer. After Lon Nol’s coup all of those officers had to belong to Lon Nol. He must have read much further than the pages I marked! ‘What about the parts about yourself Ka?’ I shout through the wind. He shouts back, ‘They are correct.’

We eat our Chinese noodle soup hastily; the main thing this morning is to talk. We are very close here to his old family home. We passed it dusty and deserted. ‘My God,’ he says. ‘My village was a calm and pretty place. It has become a beer garden.’ Because the dusty new road to Pailin cuts close to the poles of the grand old house and heavy traffic rocks it day and night, he will not live there. He sleeps on the floor of the Tean Thor office.

Regret has given way to a sense of purpose in his life. He begins to talk about his father, a professional forester who urged him to study hard, to learn French, to prepare for a forestry degree in French. The Khmer Rouge changed all that. ‘In the medical base during the fighting near the border I heard the terrible crying of the widows and of the ones with their limbs amputated. Poor people.’

From the Site 2 camp he had the chance to study in the Philippines. ‘Those months changed my life,’ he says. He has returned to his early vision, his energy for helping the poor in their struggle for justice. He says that his heart is full of pity for people who suffer so much. ‘I have often tried to not think like that.’ His eyes become red and wet. There is a tiny box of paper tissue in the middle of the table. Ka reaches with both hands and holds squares of tissue to each eye, blotting and ignoring as if those eyes did not belong to him he keeps talking without pause. ‘Your life changes, you can’t walk away.’

As we ride back to the office of Tean Thor I lean my helmeted head towards his to catch the words through the wind. ‘Our OSB plan was right,’ he says. ‘Go to the village. Look. Listen. There are respected people there. They can be leaders.’

We are sit on benches in the Tean Thor office now, our helmets on the table between us. ‘Local leadership ought not be appointed from the top, from levels of government,’ he says. He tells of a time when he was in a meeting of around five-hundred top people where ‘decentralisation’ was being announced as a policy. It was explained that the government would appoint leaders for committees in the communes and districts and villages. ‘This is what they called decentralisation!’ He shakes his head and says that Hun Sen’s party has not loosened its control of appointments down to the village level. In most places even the village leader is appointed through the CPP.

His hands make fists on the table. ‘In this big public meeting I said, “bullshit”.’ No need to blot his eyes with tissue now. ‘Bullshit! There is no place for national politics at the local level. This is bullshit. The people who live in a particular place know who really cares about them. At the local level let respected local people lead and let there be no domination by political parties.’

Tien Thor, which can be translated as ‘Acts of Compassion’, uses a small wooden house built on a cement floor for its office. There is one room large enough for a meeting of four or five people, a small room where one person could work alone and a bathroom with squat toilet and dipper shower. At night Ka sleeps in the meeting room. He has a laptop for setting up a forward plan for Tean Thor: his experience in international organisations has given him the skills to do this well.

I sit at the table in the cool inside space while Ka now stands in the doorway as he talks, the glare of the outside sun at his back.

‘Awaken, educate, organise, and the people will have power,’ he says. ‘Rural people may be uneducated but they are clever.’

I listen through the morning. Ka reaches for his laptop and shows me photos of retaliation from armed military police against an unarmed demonstration. ‘They are brave in facing the great dangers of standing for their rights but the repression against them is brutal.’ Ka is shaking his head. ‘When there is sacrifice of life who will care for the children of these families?’ He shows me pictures of bloodied bodies and those who are arrested lying face down in the dirt.

Someone from Krom Akphiwat Phum telephones. It is midday already. Time for me to meet with the Krom team.

Ka has a last word. ‘Society is falling apart again,’ he says. ‘You can do nothing without commitment.’

I remember the generations of the Ka family and the commitment they made as they lived in that house with sturdy poles set among trees. They knew how to make a difference for Battambang town and province. Things were clearer then.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy