Monday, January 13, 2014

The Times They Are A-Changin'...

In the 1960's, many social change movements erupted in the USA, including the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the women’s movement. Each, to varying degrees, changed government policy and, perhaps more importantly, changed how almost every American lives today. 

Young people especially played an important role in the movements for social change. These post WWII 'baby boomers' whose numbers alone gave them a strong voice, not only questioned the moral and spiritual health of the nation, they protested against what they deemed unfair or unjust, and demanded change. 

During that time, many political protest songs emerged. One of the great songs which I think epitomizes the mood and happenings of that era is Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'".  Take a few minutes to watch this video, listen to the song and get a feel for the events surrounding the civil rights movement (Click on the word 'video').

Fast forward fifty years, and half way around the world to Cambodia, 2014. 

Cambodia is an under-developed country with a very young population. The median age is 23.7 years old. In recent years, with the growing trend to complete higher levels of education, and through the magic of television and internet, these young people are now getting a taste for how the rest of the world lives, and they want a part of it for themselves. In their dissatisfaction, they are beginning to rise up against situations they feel are unjust.

On December 8, 2013, we could hear voices blaring through loudspeakers in the street below our guesthouse room, and went to the balcony to take a look. We watched in surprise and confusion as hundreds of passenger-less tuk-tuks slowly drove by in procession. It was obvious that these tuk-tuk drivers were rallying together, but we didn't know why. Anybody needing a tuk-tuk at that moment was probably disappointed. I was glad we didn't have to go anywhere in a hurry. 

Procession of tuk-tuks

They continued to stream by for at least 15 minutes

Some had signs like this one that says
'We Need A Real Democracy Development In Cambodia'

A few days ago, I asked a tuk-tuk driver if he could tell me why this 'march' had happened. He said they were protesting the decision of the Apsara Authority to replace tuk-tuks with electric passenger vehicles. The tuk-tuk drivers fear they will lose their livelihood. The Apsara Authority cites that pollution is threatening Angkor Wat. Read a bit more about it here, or you can also google "Apsara Authority electric cars" and a lot of hits will come up. 

In November, about a month before we came to Cambodia, one woman was killed in Phnom Penh during a strike of garment workers who are demanding higher wages (they are demanding $160/month). (Click on the highlighted words to read the news account.) We decided to carry on with our trip anyways since the incident had occurred in Phnom Penh, 300 km from where we would be, and it appeared to be isolated. However, the strike has continued and tempers have flared. You may have seen on North American news that a little over a week ago, four Cambodian garment workers were killed in Phnom Penh, when things got heated up. You can read about it here

If you haven't already looked at the video above ('The Times They Are A Changin'), you might want to go back and take a look (If you have, you might want to take another look), because at 00:57 seconds into that video, there is a photo of the 'Garment Center Labor Rally'. Eerie coincidence? Or history repeating itself?

On July 28, 2013, Cambodia held a general election. In this wikipedia article  (click on the words) you can read about the results and aftermath of the election. The incumbent, Hun Sen of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), won the majority with 68 seats.  Sam Rainsy, leader of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), won 55 seats. Wikipedia states: "The E.U. and U.S. expressed concern for the concern about possible irregularities, with the latter's State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki saying that "we call for a transparent and full investigation of all credible reports of irregularities. We urge all parties and their supporters to continue to act in an orderly and peaceful manner in the post-election period."

Since the election, many Cambodians who are supporters of Sam Rainsy, are calling for a new election.  Rallies and peaceful demonstrations have been taking place in the provincial capitals, with some here in Siem Reap, but mostly in Phnom Penh, the country's capital.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013 was a national holiday in Cambodia (Human Rights Day). That day, we were returning from a walk when we noticed policemen had barricaded the road, blocking vehicles in one direction, to allow traffic from another route to flow past.  It was a parade! What we didn't know was that a rally had been scheduled to coincide with Human Rights Day. We found a spot on a street corner and watched in awe as the crowds streamed past, not really understanding what was happening, but amazed by the number of participants. We later learned it had been a political rally in support of Sam Rainsy and the CNRP.

They marched carrying flags, and wearing orange headbands.
The blue flag bears the CNRP logo,
the other flag is the Cambodian flag.

At first the crowd was fairly thin in spots..

...then the numbers began to increase..

They marched carrying CNRP flags and Cambodian flags,
and wearing orange headbands.

The crowds marched on....

...and they kept coming...
wearing CNRP T-shirts, carrying flags..

They rode motos.. and shouted slogans..

...and still the crowds kept coming....

...and coming....

...and coming.....

We estimated at least 10,000 people..
men, women, and monks too...

We stood on the corner in total amazement....

...and they just kept coming....

...and coming....

The monks have been big supporters of the CNRP.
Here a monk carries the Cambodian flag...

Two monks share a tuk-tuk with a fellow CNRP supporter

They rode in cars, hanging out of the windows
and poking through the sunroofs 

After a long while, the crowd began to thin out....

..until there were only the usual travelers,
happy to finally be on their way again...

While we're here, we don't read the local newspaper, mainly because it's not readily available, and most publications are in Khmer. So we are often startled to learn about things that are happening here. Generally the news doesn't come from the locals; it's from expats or western volunteers.  Recently we've heard of monks being beaten because they openly support the opposition party (CNRP). And we've learned that teachers are striking for higher wages.  And yet, it all seems so calm and peaceful where we are, and life goes on as usual.

There are reports that more protests are likely, and one of the latest articles suggests things may escalate. Click on the word 'here' to read recent news about the situation.

One thing we have made very clear to everyone is we do not become involved in their politics, nor do we hold any opinions or take sides. We are guests in Cambodia, and are grateful to be volunteering in a project which we hope will help improve the lives and future of a few of Cambodia's underprivileged children.

In light of the growing unrest, we recently received an email from the Canadian government to steer clear of the capital city of Phnom Penh, especially any government buildings where protests are most likely to occur.  We were also advised to avoid demonstrations and rallies which are occurring in the provincial capitals (Siem Reap, where we are, is one of them). 

There is no need for anyone to worry about us. At the moment, here in Siem Reap, everything appears to be peaceful and calm, and life carries on as usual. We feel safe, and we know our work is appreciated. For now, we monitor the news daily. If the situation should change or worsen, or we felt we were in danger, rest assured, we'd be among the first to leave. 

At this point it's hard to tell whether the storm that is brewing will become a huge tempest or just blow over. For now, the song seems rather appropriate 
......The Times They Are A-Changin'.


  1. I feel that my head has been buried in the sand 'cause I had no idea all this is going on in Cambodia. Thanks to your blog, I'll be sure to keep a closer watch.

    1. We're here on the ground, and we don't hear about much either. But then, how much did the world know of the genocide that took place here in the 1970's when 2 million died at the hands of Pol Pot & the Khmer Rouge? It seems the world is much more interested in Justin Bieber (or whoever the 'star of the week' happens to be), than the reality of a poor country struggling to find common ground with the free world.

  2. So well written. You better take up a weekly column when you get back. It seems all you need is one word & you can write a 500 word essay.

    1. Thank you, Victoria. I do enjoy the writing! These stories mill about in my head for a long time, and are very often written and rewritten and edited and re-edited before I publish time. Lots more to come.. stay posted!