I woke up early on the day I left Cambodia. It was the monthly cleaning in the dorm and I had offered to help. I found myself scrubbing the kitchen tiles at 6am – back and forth, back and forth. My students were wide awake, and playing music while they worked. And while I scrubbed I could not help thinking back over what I had observed while living in Cambodia and pondering what lay in store for these young women who hoped to become doctors and lawyers and businesswomen.
The weekend before I left Cambodia I traveled south to visit the home of one of my students. She lives in Kampot, one of the southern provinces near the Vietnam border. It is a province that was once famous across Europe for its pepper, but whose plantations were decimated during the Khmer Rouge. My student is studying to become a midwife, but toying with switching to international relations. Her parents are bakers; they bake a thousand baguettes a day.
We spent Chinese New Year with her family: kneeling and lighting incense and sending up prayers in the perfumed smoke and sharing a feast of stews and noodle dishes -- eat more, eat more -- prepared by her mother.
The New York Times reported that in the northern forests of Rattanakiri and Mondolkiri Chinese Companies are illegally logging teakwood and rosewood from protected forests. Last April a leading Khmer environmental activist was shot dead following an encounter with local police. America’s National Public Radio recently reported how early this September a local journalist who had exposed a connection between local military officials and the foreign companies was found chopped to pieces in the trunk of his car.
In my final week I make a round of my favorite markets and sought out the older women who had conversed with me as I practiced my rudimentary Khmer.
There was the grandmother with the broad smile who sat on used styrofoam boxes and sold me mangoes and pomelos. There was the mother who sold dried fish, who had promised to find me a Khmer husband and had given me a curl of brilliant red dried snake and who, on learning I was leaving, packed up some of her best sausages from Siem Reap and refused to accept a single 1,000 riel note. There was the grandmother who sold jewelry and who always sat me down to converse and who made me practice the Khmer words for earring and necklace and bracelet. For her I printed out a picture I had taken of both of us months back. I have been told by a friend that the picture now hangs on the wall of her shop.
The BBC reported that Khmer journalist and radio host Mam Sonando has now been imprisoned for the third time. A longtime critic of the ruling party Sonando’s radio program is widely considered as one of the few strong voices for democracy. In this most recent arrest, Sonando was charged with inciting a separatist plot in a provincial community that protested last spring against a rubber plant company accused of illegal land grabs. The protest led to soldiers firing into a crowd and the death of a teenage girl. Late this fall Sonando was tried and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
One night during my last week I went out for soup and BBQ with one of my students. For the past month-and-a-half I have been working with her on the art of public speaking. In the middle of January she competed in the final round of a British sponsored public speaking competition in front of an audience of two hundred. In the upstairs kitchen of the dorm we had practiced possible questions: How could you address the issue of prostitution? How could you increase tourism in Cambodia? Should women become leaders? Between questions, we fell into discussions about the future. She is a law student with aspirations to work in the public sector. Next year she will study in America, having won a scholarship. Afterwards, she plans to return home. There is much she wants to change.
With national elections on the horizon in July, a series of laws are being brought before parliament. The Cambodia Daily – one of two English language newspapers – has been covering the developments: One law would prevent parties from “insulting” each other – effectively curbing criticism of the ruling party. Another law would prevent lawyers from talking to the press without the approval of the Bar Association.
On the Wednesday before I left, the women at the dorm threw me a farewell party. There was a boom-box and a table heavy with sodas and curry and platters of peppered meat and sliced green tomatoes.
These girls -- who are usually so studious; who wake up at 5:30 to clean and to buy groceries and to cook; who then study, attend class and come back and continue studying -- tore up the courtyard with their dance moves. We danced and we danced and we danced: Gangnam style, Bollywood, Call Me Maybe, Traditional Khmer, Korean Pop.
Over the Chinese New Year, early this February, The Cambodia Daily reported, two hundred military and police personnel from Phnom Penh flocked to the mansion of a prominent Senator’s wife, who lavished the armed forces with traditional red envelopes filled with cash “gifts.” “We are military forces and we are also assistants to her,” said one waiting officer. “We always help with whatever she needs help with.”
In our weekly news discussions my students talked about the case of the red envelopes. It was 9pm and the mosquitoes were out in full force. The girls were in pajamas, but there was no yawning. Everyone had their books open, their pens out and were busily scratching notes. Two of the girls presented a researched history of the senator’s wife. They highlighted her connection to a major company in charge of land seizures taking place across the country. As the clock hands closed on 10pm, they debated. No solutions were devised before the girls dispersed to last-minute exam studying that stretched late into the night.
According to the Cambodia Daily, late one Sunday night in January a truck driver was transporting chilies on the north side of Phnom Penh. He was stopped by two veteran policemen at an unofficial roadblock who demanded a 2,000 Riel bribe (the equivalent of 50 cents). The truck driver refused. When he attempted to drive away, the police threw rocks at his mirror. When the truck driver got out to inspect the damage, the policemen shot him in the chest before fleeing the scene. The truck-driver’s wife and sister rushed him to a local hospital, where he survived to tell the story to reporters.
On Valentine’s Day the girls and I drove to a park in the center of the city where a crowd was gathering. For weeks now we had been practicing the moves to the One Billion Rising flash mob dance – a dance performed all across the world on the 14th to raise awareness about violence against women. The song had been on constant repeat in the dorm as the women danced. We were wearing identical black shirts with our logo in red and white, on the back: a heart composed of handprints around the Khmer word “Stop Violence.”
The Cambodia Daily reported that last spring a 60-year-old woman was set alight by her husband in Kampot province. Fifty percent of the woman’s body suffered burns that day. Months later some of the wounds are still oozing and infected. Her husband, a long time soldier was never charged. The police said that no complaint had been filed against the man and noted that he was ill: his hands had been burned in the process of burning his wife.
The Phnom Penh Post published a story about the most recent attack on a tourist, which happened over Chinese New Year: the naked body of a twenty-five-year-old French woman washed up on the shores of the main river in Kampot. Lacerations were found on her head and body; rape has not yet been ruled out. The police have no suspects or leads. I was staying barely two miles away, in the sleepy center of town, when the murder must have taken place, but I did not learn of it until I read the newspaper the following morning, safe in Phnom Penh.
The night before I left, my students and I went on a boat cruise down the muddy Tonle Sap River. We bought spiced lotus seeds and sweetened iced teas. The sun was setting, tinting the water orange and yellow and red and gilding the swooped roof of the Royal Palace. We spread out along the rail, chatting, laughing, taking silly pictures. My students are so busy studying that rarely do they relax enough to have an adventure: only half of them had ever been on the river before. As the sky darkened there were more pictures and a little dancing on the top deck.
For the 40th year in a row, the US-based Freedom House, which assesses the state of political rights and civil liberties in countries around the world, ranked Cambodia as “not free.” 2012 has not been an encouraging year for the country. The New York-based Human Rights Watch and the international Reporters Without Borders both highlighted a decline in both political freedom and human rights.
I left Cambodia on a Sunday. Normally I would have said my goodbyes at the dorm and caught a tuktuk alone, riding out through the bustle and the dust to the airport. But my students would have none of that. A dozen women insisted on accompanying me to the airport, my own personal escort. None have ridden an airplane and only a few had even been to the airport before – to greet a returning aunt or uncle.
At the airport they arranged themselves on the benches. There was an hour before the check-in counter opened and despite my assurance that they need not wait, they stayed with me. We talked and laughed and reminisced about the Shakespeare we had performed and the puppet show we had attended. We took pictures: group shots and funny poses.
Then it was time for me to pass through security. There was a last round of hugs, final goodbyes. I waved as they walked back towards their motos -- to drive back into the city, back to the dorm, to studying, to classes and to constructing their futures. I waved until I could not see them anymore, then I hoisted my backpack onto my shoulders and turned toward my flight.