Day four and five of the Second Field Trip to Rattanakiri

This is Saturday. In the morning we went to see the guy who is working as education advisor for CARE. He has been working in indigenous education all his life and is actually from Australia. We had a long and very open discussion. I enjoyed having a discussion in English without translation, which makes the event much more delightful for me. I learned a lot about the education project, the governments approach to indigenous rights in general and indigenous education and the local situation in comparative perspective in particular. Furthermore he liked ‘my’ theory of indigenous rights. After a good discussion we agreed to keep in touch and provide each other with documents and information.

Even out here in Rattanakiri there are Pagodas and monks who are traveling the streets in the morning to collect food from the people.

We had agreed with the government official who facilitated our work in the field the other day to meet for breakfast.

So we had breakfast together. There are not many restaurants in Banlung. This one is called American Restaurant. I did not particularly like the name. However, they serve good and cheap Khmer food here and whenever I come here I meet somebody of one of the organizations working with indigenous peoples, which makes for interesting discussions.

After an extensive breakfast we went with three people on the government guy’s moto to a waterfall, which is only few kilometer outside Banlung.

I asked the government guy many questions. Interestingly, the answer was not always the one I had become earlier to the same questions. In particular, I keep asking people about the extent of land encroachment and illegal logging in the area. And I keep getting the answer that this was a problem few years ago but is not a problem anymore. This answer is always the same and this striking similarity leads me to think this might be rather the party line than a valid representation of the reality. This is not just my paranoid habit but supported by countless articles in the press and frustrated discussions with people working locally for various organization. However, this time the government guy told us that there is substantial encroachment, particularly from the Vietnamese side of the border. This is targeted at areas that are located well some kilometer inside Cambodia. This apparently is a sensitive issue. The opposition is blaming prime minister Hun Sen constantly for being a puppet of the Vietnamese government. In fact Hun Sen served first in the Khmer Rouge and later defected to the Vietnamese army, which defeated the Khmer Rouge and occupied the country for quite some time. People here feel still occupied by Vietnam and this appears to be one of the major causes for strong anti-Vietnamese sentiments in the population. However, we learnt that there is massive logging going on which involves various national and international companies and powerful government officials. This is another subject and impossible to cover just in between two pictures. However, it is interesting to note that the organization Global Witness used to be the government’s official monitor regarding forest management. In April or so Global Witness was fired by the government for being an extremist organization trying to damage the government’s relationship with major donor agencies. I mentioned my visit in the department of forestry in the ministry of forestry earlier. In fact it is consistently this department which is blamed in countless news reports of not paying any attention to illegal logging for obvious reasons. Global Witness is still operating in Cambodia and documenting and publishing the results of their activity. However, the government guy told us this logging is going on and he has seen various vast areas previously covered with forest which are entirely cleared today.

From the waterfall we take the road to Yat Lom, which is the major tourist attraction in Banlung. I mentioned my visit some weeks earlier in an earlier report. This time the place was much more crowded with foreigners and locals who enjoyed swimming in the lake. This is weekend and of course we went for a swim, too. Unfortunately I did not take anymore pictures other than this one of Reaksa, our project translator.

Not surprisingly I meet a number of members of organizations working in this area. Most interesting for me was talking to some staff from International Cooperation Cambodia (ICC), which is active in education. Most interestingly, this organization has developed a script for indigenous languages. This is to say they used the Khmer script and the affair involves some interesting incidents. I asked several people on occasion whether there has ever been some consideration to introduce the Latin script. It might be ethnocentric but I have gotten the impression that this script is kind of dominant in the global civilization. On the other hand, some people keep telling me that the Khmer script better fits the linguistic system of indigenous languages, which has to do with the number of vowels and other things. Apparently it would be unthinkable for the Cambodian government to accept the Latin alphabet. Maybe not least because this is used in neighboring countries and some indigenous groups have affiliations beyond the border. The hole border affair is a sensitive issue in Cambodia and almost any opposition party was busy in the election campaign demanding territorial integrity and sovereignty which is not necessarily a given in Cambodia.

We have some food at a small shop at the lake and then head back to the hotel. Later I walk through the town on my own to get a newspaper and check my email in the only available internet place ($5 per hour for a slow dial up connection). Moreover, I found earlier a small local school which offers to use computers for typing for just 50 Cent per hour. During this stay I spend several evenings here typing the extensive notes I took during countless interviews in order to recall the details and preserve it until I can process the information in Phnom Penh.

This is Banlung’s market in the evening.

Those rather miserable places are close by. This area is busy in the morning and during day time. Well, busy relative to other, less central places in Banlung.

Still later I meet with Jeremy, a member of the international organization Non Timber Forest Product (NTFP) which has bin operating in this area for more than a decade. We met at what he referred to as ‘beer drinking place’ earlier. In fact I was here on Friday already and found almost all the expatriates sitting together. However, I learned that there is agreement that Friday night should not involve discussion about work. I accepted that although I did not like it too much. Since this was a gathering of about 20 people I could have meaningful discussion only with few of them. So I talked intensively to a guy who serves as advisor to the local CARE education project (Education for Highland Peoples). This was interesting and we agreed to meet on Saturday in the morning and discuss in more detail various issues involving indigenous rights and education in Cambodia. Furthermore I had one very long discussion with a UN Volunteer who is working here training indigenous people in doing research on subjects involving their livelihood. And he invited me for diner on Sunday, which I was happy to accept.

So today I had the chance to talk to Jeremy in person. I had heard a lot about Jeremy, who is from New Zealand and partly Maori. And I met another fellow who is working for the same organization and originally from the US. I came with the translator Reaksa and the government guy I mentioned earlier. Not surprisingly Jeremy made very clear that his understanding of this evening is that it is not an official affair. So we ended up having segregated evenings and discussion, here the foreigners and there the Khmer. Later two other guys showed up and I learned that they are from Germany. Although neither of them is older than 30 both of them came the first time to Cambodia many years ago and speak local languages including Khmer fluently. They volunteer in providing health service to indigenous people. We had some local drinks and an intensive discussion. I outlined what is my preliminary theory of indigenous rights in Cambodia and what I intend to suggest in my final report. Interestingly, Jeremy found this to be very appealing. In contrast, the German guys did not like it so much initially because it involves nation-building, which they rightly associate with nationalism. I had the same problem with those theories before and assume this reflects not least the German history of this phenomenon.

This is the lake were the ‘beer drinking place’ is located. It is already night and I took this picture with a stand and long expose time.

The next day was Sunday. I met several people that I got to know during my first trip to Rattanakiri. And I had a number of interesting discussions which helped me quite a bit to update my research design and put my questions into context. Accordingly, I did not get to see much of Rattanakiri outside Banlung and did not take any picture except for the following one. Furthermore I had to type many pages of collected information which took me some hours. And I had to figure out when and how we could continue our field work here and in the next province, Stung Treng.

I took this picture in the evening. Reaksa had used the Sunday to meet people he had studied with and who live in Rattanakiri today. In the evening we meet some of them. One of them used to be a student our project translator Reaksa. Those people are not older than 25 but run a local school and teach English. We had a long discussion, predominantly about religion. This was relaxing to me and I was glad to have a chance to discuss something different from indigenous peoples.

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