Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Media access and The Cambodia Daily online in Khmer

I was recently exploring the back roads of Kampot province, rice paddies, more rice paddies and the occasional little hamlet, bumping down narrow dirt roads in my beat up old Camry. Great car for rural Cambodia, but she was suffering that day. The engine was getting ready to give up the ghost 20km out in the backcountry, overheating and burning off water. Trying to get back to the main road I had to stop every couple of kilometers to refill the radiator. Midday, temp gauge topping out again, I pulled off in a village at a thatch shack full of Khmer countryguys sipping tea and coffee and watching the community TV. A no-English situation. I asked for water for the car. One guy motioned to a cistern beside the shack and handed me a scooper. "Thank you very much." But the engine was too hot and needed a few minutes to cool. I pulled up a chair, ordered a black coffee and settled in.

The guys gave me a curious glance now and again, and finally one brave soul started asking me questions (in Khmer) - the usual - what's you name, how old are you, are you married, and finally, what are you doing here? I answered in Khmer, and they understood most of what I said, but when I tried explaining that I was out there writing a piece for a travel magazine, they just didn't seem to get it. Probably my fault. I was struggling with the word for 'magazine.' Frustration building and trying to simplify things, I switched to 'newspaper,' an easy and common word. "Ahhh, cassette, cassette, ko'ot traukah cassette" ('he works for a newspaper') one guy said, and everybody seemed satisfied and went back to watching TV.

Figuring the engine was now cool enough to take water, I fetched a scoop full from the cistern and went to remove the radiator cap, but it was too hot to touch. I rummaged in my car for a rag, found an old copy of the Phnom Penh Post and used it as hand protection to remove the radiator cap. Noticing what I was doing, one of the TV watchers announced "He works for the Phnom Penh Post!" This drew everybody's attention. I tried explaining that I don't work for the Post, but nobody was listening. To my surprise, one guy was exclaiming how great the Post was, talking excitedly, "Oooo, Borei Keila, Boeung Kak, I read it in the Phnom Penh Post. Post is very good, very good. Borei Keila not good, very bad. They steal! People's houses! Post very good!" and so on. Others grunted emphatic agreements.

I wasn't surprised that they thought that the Post was good, but that back here in the middle of rural nowheresville they knew it at all. And more, that they had learned about controversial land-grabbing issues from it. And even more, that they were greatly appreciative to have that information, presumably in contrast to the say-nothing local Cambodian press.

Most of the local Cambodian press, whether government controlled or cowered into self censorship, remains almost silent on controversial issues such as land-grabbing and the attendant protests. The English language press in Cambodia (The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post) regularly reports on these controversial topics and is largely tolerated by the government, presumably because (even in its Khmer language version) it is thought to have very little penetration into the Khmer market, especially in the countryside where most of the population resides.

For at least the last decade and a half the government has shown sensitivity to foreign news about Cambodia (especially news with a critical/anti-government lean) reaching into the countryside. As early as the 1998 election period, back when rural folk got much or most of their news from radio, I heard regular reports of village chiefs patrolling at night, listening under the thin floored stilted houses for people tuned into VOA (broadcast in Khmer), and then threatening them to turn it off. More recently, in the last commune elections (2012), for the first time ever the government ordered VOA and RFA off-the-air on election day.

Sitting back in the rural countryside 20km from the nearest paved road, and seeing the impact The Phnom Penh Post was making back there, I wondered how long the tolerance of the English language press and its unrestrained reporting could last in Cambodia. On a related note, with Internet penetration expanding exponentially and Facebook users now likely exceeding a half-million in Cambodia, I have also wondered whether the ruling party's recent paranoid-seeming tactics in the run-up to the national elections may be due in part to their fear of losing grip on the media and the flow of information in Cambodia.

Which brings me to The Cambodia Daily. The Daily, in my opinion, like most of the English language press, leans anti-government, and has been hitting hard in the last couple of months as the election approaches, (not that there is anything wrong with that in a country that supposedly enjoys freedom of the press.) Last week, the Daily launched an online version of its publication in Khmer language, free of charge, including all of its election coverage and stories critical of the ruling party and government. This is a timely and, in my opinion, gutsy move on their part, especially during this very tense pre-election period and on Internet where the government feels its media control slipping. This is also a fine example for other in-country media that self-censors for fear of reprisal. Granted, it is easier for the Daily than the Cambodian press because it is run mostly by foreigners and has far less penetration in the Khmer market, but as demonstrated by the impact of the Post deep in the country, this latter part is changing.

It will be interesting to see what happens. If the online Khmer Cambodia Daily catches on, if it begins to penetrate deeply into the Khmer market, will it face temporary suspensions during sensitive times like VOA/RFA, or worse, threats and intimidation like the Khmer press? Or will it perhaps help lead the way to a freer press in Cambodia?

The Cambodia Daily - Khmer version

Monday, June 24, 2013

LiDAR, Mahendraparvata and the Media

On June 14 and 15 the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reported the high tech mapping and “discovery” of previously unknown Angkorian era ruins and extent of the the city complex of Mahendraparvata in Siem Reap province Cambodia. The discovery was made through the use of LiDAR, a laser scanning device that can provide precise landscape mapping. The overly dramatic wording of the SMH article provoked some snickers and snide comments on social media, and as the story spread to other news outlets the wording became even more dramatic, even fanciful – Mahendraparvata evolved from a “Lost City,” to a “Lost World” and even “Atlantis-like.” With that the social media jabs shifted into high gear.

On June 17 The Cambodia Daily published an article on the discoveries which seemed to imply some controversy between the archaeologists about whether the city could accurately be said to have been “discovered,” since its existence had been known for more than a century. On June 18 I noted on Twitter that the media coverage of the discovery was becoming a story in itself. But admittedly I too took a poke in this blog at the Indiana Jones-like language of the SMH article. Unfortunately, in all this chatter over how the discovery was being reported, the significance of the new archaeological work at Mahendraparvata was becoming lost.

Enter ‘Alison in Cambodia,’ an archaeologist and blogger in Cambodia who correctly brought the discussion back down to Earth. She helped refocus the discussion back on the archaeology, putting the significance of the discoveries at Mahendraparvata and the ground breaking use of LiDAR back into perspective. And in something of a scoop, she also managed to secure an extensive response from Damian Evans, the archaeologist at the center of the new discoveries, on the work at Mahendraparvata and the media uproar.

The purpose of this post is to try to bring some extra attention to these excellent blog entries by Alison in Cambodia, as well as provide links to some of the other relevant articles on the subject. Great work Alison. Thank you for helping clear the air and put the spotlight back on the science.

Alison in Cambodia: LiDAR and Lost Cities

Alison in Cambodia: “Lost Cities” and the press

SMH: Revealed: a lost city and a holy temple

SMH: Lost horizons: mediaeval city uncovered

The Age: The lost city

Phnom Penh Post: Lasers reveal Angkor city four times bigger than previously believed

The Cambodia Daily: Archaeologist Says Existence of Siem Reap Lost City Long Known

Sophat Soeung’s Connecting the Dots: Angkor’s Founding City Revealed on Mount Kulen

CSM: In Cambodia's jungles, a lost world is found

FOX News: Atlantis-like lost city unearthed in Cambodia

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Silly Season

The last couple of months have produced some particularly stupid, self-contradictory, silly and even vile comments in and about Cambodia from politicians, journalists and the like. The upcoming election has had a lot to do with it, but it hasn’t been restricted to politicians alone. Amongst the many ill-considered remarks of the last couple of months, the following are but a choice few.

“Most Cambodian men are dignified—we never have sex with minors. Only foreigners do that.” - Phay Siphan
(Cambodian government spokesman reacting to the U.S. State Department downgrade of Cambodia's ranking in its annual human trafficking report. Leaving aside the many studies showing that Cambodian men make up the vast majority of sexual abusers of children and minors in Cambodia, this statement is so counter-factual as to almost defy reasonable retort.)

"If the Khmer Rouge killed a lot of people, they would not be stupid to keep it to show to everyone, they would destroy it to eliminate evidence. I believe that it was just staged." - Kem Sokha
(Opposition candidate apparently denying that the infamous S-21 Prison [Tuol Sleng] was real, seemingly claiming it was some sort of Vietnamese propaganda invention.)

"Atlantis-like lost city unearthed in Cambodia" - FOX news
(Headline of a story about the high-tech mapping of a Angkorian era city complex in Siem Reap, which was not lost, nor unearthed and certainly not 'Atlantis-like', whatever that is supposed to mean.)

“But not only did I not authorize his arrest, I also sent other agents to go to Micasa Hotel without notifying authorities. It was like signaling to him that the authorities knew, and he escaped...So you have to remember that I helped you (Kem Sokha) by breaking the law myself.” - Prime Minister Hun Sen
(While engaging in some political mud-slinging against the opposition candidate, apparently also publicly admitting to interfering with the police in order to facilitate the escape of an alleged sex criminal.)

"Any election result would be dismissed by the CNRP" - Sam Rainsy, paraphrase by Cambodia Daily.
(After saying that his opposition party CNRP would participate in the national elections, Sam Rainsy went on to say he would reject any election result, apparently including his own electoral victory.)

"Fairfax Media recorded the discovery of the first five temples after pushing through landmine-strewn jungle, swollen rivers and bogs with the expedition on a mountain called Phnom Kulen." - Sydney Morning Herald
(Article from SMH about the high-tech mapping of a Angkorian era city complex in Siem Reap, portraying itself as some kind of journalistic Indiana Jones, presumably with bullwhip and Fedora. They managed to work in a plug for the publisher as well.) 

"I hope people in Cambodia are discussing the unfolding tragedy: Stealing a generation: Cambodia’s unfolding tragedy." - Lindsey Murdoch
(Apparently, after almost a decade of the orphanage tourism problem here in Cambodia, dozens of discussions on travel boards over the last 8 years, several articles in the Cambodia Daily over the last two and a half years, several more articles in the international press including the very often cited Al-Jazeera piece last year and, of course, the well-publicized  Childsafe 'Children are not tourist attractions' campaign launched in 2011, it was his article 2 months ago in an Australian newspaper that may finally spark discussion of this "unfolding tragedy" here in Cambodia.)

Friday, June 14, 2013

Children as tourist attractions

Tuk-tuk on Phnom Penh riverfront. Orphanages and other tourist attractions.

I have been railing online against orphanage tourism in Cambodia for almost a decade, particularly back in the mid/late-2000s when the orphanage tourism game was taking off big-time. In 2010 I posted a compilation of some of my early arguments on this blog under the post 'The Pity Industry.'

In 2011 UNICEF released a report showing a radical increase in the number of orphanages in Cambodia over the last decade and that most of the so-called 'orphans' in fact still had at least one living parent - the implication being that Cambodian orphanages had become an exploitative moneymaking business driven by foreign tourism and 'charity.' This prompted the Cambodian government to begin investigating orphanages here. Shortly thereafter the NGO Friends-International/ChildSafe launched its brilliant 'Children are not tourist attractions' campaign, which I wholeheartedly endorse. In my casual observation the word is getting out and the orphanage tourism business does seem to be leveling off, if not suffering a bit for these efforts.

Yet some people still don't get it, including some who should know better.

Two weeks ago an article appeared in Forbes online: 'Cambodia's Booming New Industry: Orphanage Tourism.' Leaving aside that the industry is not new and probably not as booming as it was, this article completely misunderstands the problem of orphanage tourism.

It casts the problem of orphanage tourism as one of holiday planning for the tourist:

"The problem is finding (an orphanage) that isn’t a scam."

Wrong. Dead wrong. The problem is not "finding an orphanage that is not a scam." The problem is orphanage tourism.

The article draws its version of the orphanage tourism problem from its formulation of the tourist's holiday dilemma:

"It’s the end of your three week vacation in Southeast Asia. You did good. You managed to hit all the locations on the backpacker’s circuit; lounging on the tropical Islands off the Thai Peninsula, experiencing the street food of Bangkok, exploring the temples of Siem Reap, and shopping on the floating markets of the Mekong River. Now, with just a few days left before your flight home, you’d like to do something selfless, something worthwhile. You decide to volunteer in one of Cambodia’s orphanages."

Herein lay the misunderstanding, (if it can be labeled a 'misunderstanding.) Cambodian orphanages and 'orphans,' i.e. children, are categorized in with street food, beaches and shopping. On this description, orphans - like gems shops and temple tours - are tourist attractions. Most travelers have heard of Thai gem scams and overpriced tuktuks and ways to avoid these scams. Similarly, for tourists the problem with orphanages becomes finding one that isn't a scam. And bizarrely, the article actually cites the 'Children are not tourist attractions' website as a guide to how to identify a ‘non-scam’ orphanage where the tourist can treat children as tourist attractions.

So let's try to be really really clear here for those who somehow missed the meaning of the name of the campaign and pretty much every bit of advice it gives. Perhaps large font, bold and all caps will help:


This is a categorical statement, not one of degree, nor is it qualified. If tourists treat children as attractions, the children are tourist attractions regardless of how well they are treated, or how nice the orphanage, or how good the tourist imagines her intentions to be. Orphanage tourism, by its nature, treats children as tourist attractions.

The reasons it is bad to treat children/orphans as tourist attractions are myriad. It drives an exploitative industry, it violates the rights and privacy of the children, it endangers the children, it teaches the children the wrong message, ect. This has all been very well covered in other articles. See The Pity Industry for my take on why voluntourists are not really helping at orphanages and fueling the exploitation of children. See ChildSafe Traveler Tips to understand why orphanage tourism is both dangerous to the children and a violation of their human rights. Also see Al-Jazeera's recent report for a general look at orphanage tourism in Cambodia. And for some alternative points of view on the subject see The Cambodia Daily's 'Tourism Sector a Boon to Orphanage ‘Business’'

So, you want to visit or volunteer at an orphanage? Don't do it. Full stop. Why? Because children are not tourist attractions.

(Yes, I know that medical professionals, child care specialists, construction engineers and such can be helpful in certain special circumstances, but I'm going to skip past that because it just encourages the wrong sort to misunderstand and do the wrong thing.)

It's stuff like the contorted logic in the Forbes article that makes me question the motivations of those who would volunteer at orphanages in Cambodia. Commentators more generous than myself argue that orphanage voluntourists are well intentioned but misguided/misinformed. I have my doubts about that. I think many, even most are motivated by fad and self interest - the desire to see themselves as saviors, as heroes, to feel fulfilled, as someone who 'gives back' - with little consideration given to whether they are actually helping.

Look at the penultimate sentence in the paragraph quoted above. After listing all the fun stuff you've been doing in Southeast Asia, "now, with just a few days left before your flight home, you’d like to do something selfless, something worthwhile." It is about doing what YOU would like to do, amongst all the other stuff you liked doing. It is about the western fantasy of putting on a cape and playing superhero for a day. It is, in part, about assuaging YOUR guilt over having fun amongst the poverty that surrounded you here. It is about buying Indulgences in the form of hugging brown children. It is about treating third-world children as a means to your end. It is about you, not them. And the seeming willful blindness that allows the unambiguous meaning of five simple words - children are not tourist attractions - to be contorted into a holiday planning problem leads me to conclude the intentions of orphanage voluntourists are not good and selfless, but culpably self-serving.

Sermon over.

I also suggest reading the 'Children are not tourist attractions' website and the articles at 'Good intentions are not enough.' They are far less harsh and judgmental than me, and perhaps more convincing.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

New elections, old joke

Sam Rainsy walks on water. The local Cambodian press reports nothing about it. The next day Hun Sen walks on water. The local English-language press reports: 'Hun Sen can't swim.'