On Elections–What does it mean? What will it change?

As a resident of Phnom Penh, a researcher in religion and feminism, not a scholar of political science, and with just a basic understanding of Cambodia’s political history, I’d like to explain to others who know even less than the little that I know about last week’s election and its significance.

On July 28, the Cambodian people went to the polls to vote in the national election.  The current ruling party, Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), is a descendant of the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party which was the sole political party after the fall of the Khmer Rouge to the Vietnamese.  Since the first UN-monitored election in 1993, in which a coalition government with the royal party FUNCIPEC, the CPP appears to have pretty steadily increased its power.  But this year something dramatically different has happened.

The CPP Information Minister unofficially announced on his Facebook page on the night of the election that the CPP had retained only 68 seats and the opposition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) had 55 seats whereas previously the CPP had 90 out of the 123 seats.  This CPP-reported result differs from the results that the CNRP has reported, in which they say they won the elections by a count of 63 to 60.

The official election body, the National Election Committee (NEC) whose impartiality has been questioned, has not given even a preliminary result (scheduled to be released on August 10) and there are reports of voter irregularities (people turned up and their name  was not on the list or people came to vote and a vote has already been made in their name, for example).

But still, while we wait to see how various players respond and what the outcome is, one thing is for sure, something unexpected and dramatic has taken place.  Even if the CPP-reported result and even with reports of irregularities, we can see that support for the ruling party, or at least its performance, has weakened.

Different friends in Cambodia have different analyzes and explanations for what has happened.

Some say that the ruling party has gone too far in making economic concessions which leave people landless or displaced from their income-generating activities.  Or perhaps corruption has become too blatant and effects people’s lives so that they can’t get ID cards or passports because it’s just too expensive.  Lives are too negatively affected and people are looking for a change.

Others note that the biggest difference they observed in this election is that the people no longer appear to be afraid to stand up and oppose the ruling party.  During the campaign people paraded in the streets shouting Change! (the current regime) and were not violently suppressed.  On election day, at least in one location, instead of the CPP supporters hanging around and bringing people to vote, intimidating anyone who was not a party supporter, the opposite occurred.  People questioned outsiders–people who were not from the village but who had come to vote here, not wanting their votes to be undone by such unfair tactics.

We cannot know what will change due to this surprise result.  Most everyone I have spoken with about the election, Cambodian and foreigner alike, was not expecting anything like this.  Some say the prime minister will have to behave differently.  Others say that the CPP will break their unity of the opposition, incorporating some of the opposition lawmakers, thereby dismantling it.  In recent reports, the prime minister has allegedly given two possible scenarios both of which keep the CPP in control.  The CNRP has called for a full review and investigation that includes representatives from both parties and the UN.  If the government does not made a good faith effort to investigate irregularities, there may be demonstrations by those who were so brave in choosing not to support the ruling party.  We cannot know what the political result will be but we can see that in Cambodia something appears to be changing.  For this reason alone, these are exciting and unprecedented times.

If you’re interested in following this story as it unfolds, I’d recommend checking out the English-language version of the newspaper, The Cambodia Daily.

31 Days (of campaigning)

As I biked on one of the main roads to the office, I noticed a lot of small flags, Cambodian flags and political party flags fixed to every construction fence and to light posts, party banners stapled to trees and wooden poles.  At the first stop light, I was next to a man dressed in a buttoned down shirt riding a modto.  On the back of his helmet a political party logo sticker.  The campaign must have officially began. Officially, the campaign is only a month long, starting June 28 and ending on election day, July 28.

campaign time snapshot

To say the campaigning is noticeable, at least in Phnom Penh, is an understatement.  Various parties, primarily the ruling party and the “opposition,” decorate tuk tuks and cars and equip them with loudspeakers, which go down various city street usually blasting music, perhaps political songs, that can’t be missed.

Plus, people stick their favorite party’s logo everywhere.  Large political party logos on SUVs are not uncommon and I’ve seen several people even putting them on their modto helmets.

party logos everywhere

When I was down by the riverside one evening on the weekend, I saw a big commotion.  It was a parade, a CPP parade, with cars with banners, and trucks decked out, loud music blaring, with people dancing in the back, everyone sporting political party shirts and caps.  I knew this took place on the first day of the campaign but I was puzzled that it was going on again.  People shouted their support, delighted to celebrate the parading, and join in the celebratory spirit.  I asked someone if this was something that happened every day?  Yes.  Wow.  Then a little while later I saw a similar parade going the other direction, a CNRP parade.  I was at a different shop and again asked if this was an everyday occurrence.  Two parades everyday?  Yes, he said, every day for 31 days.

CPP Parade

Torrential rain? Quick, clean!

Not too long ago, while I was in the market doing some shopping, the rain started.  It got really loud.  Water started dribbling and at some places pouring down where various roofs came together or where the roof was a less tightly woven tarp and it leaked out.  I waited for a bit and then went over to the dessert lady and had a pumpkin custard slice and waited some more.  That’s what I’ve learned that you do (in Cambodia) when it rains.  You don’t try to fight it.  You wait until it’s done.

Rainy Day

Then it started pouring.  Pretty soon a guy (police?) with a uniform and a rifle slung across his back started hastily doing something with the water.  I thought it was probably flooding.  He was sort of holding the front of his gun with one hand (so as to keep from accidentally shooting us?) as he was squatting down and excitedly doing something with the at ground level.  When the woman who sold desserts got into it too, I saw what they were doing–sweeping the water.  Sweeping, sweeping.  Was it a flood?  One seller quickly covered the clothes with plastic and the sweets seller keep sweeping.

I decided to leave and mosey to a different direction to be out of this commotion.  As I left, I saw the seller pouring what looked like comet on the tiled floor.  The frantic action, the seeming panic, was all about cleaning??

Seller Sweeping

As I walked into the market further I found other sellers also frantically cleaning.  The were sweeping with the same small handled horizontal brushes, squatting and scrubbing the floor around their area, taking water that was going into the drains and throwing it around their stall to wet it and wash away the dirt.  It was pretty unbelievable.  I couldn’t really go anyplace because each corridor was filled with people scrubbing.  They were all frantic about it, very unlike the easy-going, take-your-time, take-a-nap khmer demeanor I’m used to.  You must take advantage of the sky opening up and this sudden supply of (relatively) fresh, (relatively) clean water (it had only touched the roof and gutters) wisely, don’t waste a second!  [Or maybe it was about flooding…]

More Sweeping

And as I went out to the area where I parked my bike to go to my next destination what did I see?  A man cleaning his motdo.  That settles it: good rainstorm = time to clean.  Noted.

The Market Manicure (or Pedicure) – $1

Want to get your nails done?  Come to Cambodia.  You’ve got lots of options here.  Yes, I’ve gone to the fancy spa and paid a whopping $15, went to a Christian NGO “business” (helping women by employing them to work painting nails), and even had a terrible mani-pedi at what seemed to me to be a front for some other sorts of activities (a brothel, perhaps?  maybe not).

But I finally had my first market manicure–or pedicure actually.  I’ve always wanted to try it but haven’t seen an opening for a foreigner to jump in there.  But, one day walking through the market with naked toenails, I noticed a glass cabinet with some high quality nail polish inside.  I stopped and peeked inside.  I scoped out the little stall with girls sitting on tiny stools and one well-to-do-looking Khmer woman getting her nails done.  The old women with painted on eyebrows and thinning hair that had been dyed and was a shade of brown started talking to me.  I hesitated, not immediately responding and they thought I didn’t speak Khmer.  The other customer said she doesn’t know (probably how to speak Khmer).  I said, I know how to.  I asked how much for feet.  She said 4000.  Basically, a dollar.  That sounded good to me.

market manicurists

I chose my polish, a deep red, and had a seat.  They prepared a small metal bowl of water (cold water) and had me soak both feet first.  There were four girls–maybe in their early twenties who were the employees.  The other woman was getting her fingernails done.  They were painting some designs in white using a tiny brush and acrylic paint straight from the tube.  It was very pretty.  I commented on how pretty it was.  She was a middle-aged woman, a bit chubby which meant she wasn’t having a hard time getting plenty of food (a sign of affluence) with make-up and hairsprayed hair, her hair in front pulled back but fluffed in front like my friends and I used to wear ours in the 90s.  There was a fan and the old woman was boiling water (I guess) which caused some waves of heat from time to time.  I was trying to figure out who owned the place and how this was working.  A man came and “cleaned out” the money from the cabinet–at least that’s what it looked like.  I’m not sure if he was related or an owner or if he was just collecting rent for the stall in the market.  The old woman set up a hammock and sat on that, hovering just inches off the ground.

After the woman next to me had her nails sealed with a clear coat, they turned the fan off.  I asked if the wind was all gone.  They asked if I was hot?  Yes. (Absolutely!)  They turned it back on which was great.  I still felt the sweat dripping down my back and running below my waist line but my front was pretty cool and comfortable, considering.

A foreigner woman walked by and the old woman said, “your friend.”  “Don’t know her,” I replied.  They were tickled that I responded in Khmer.  Another thin young Khmer woman came over to get her nails done.  She also seemed to fit comfortably within middle class by the looks of it.  The girls at this shop knew her, perhaps a regular.

market stall

The pedicure itself was pretty standard and good quality.  Cuticle cutters did wonders to make my feet look like they were not in sandals every day.  Filing.  Buffing. Base coat.  Two colors coats and a top coat.  Then my newly painted toes got the fan.  I sat there for a bit, waiting for them to dry some and looking at the makeshift space.  The “ceiling” was plastic something and the cords for the lights and other things were taped on with clear packing tape.  The market “salon” really is part of a different world.  After a few minutes me and my new fancy nails continued our market shopping.

toes

How do you buy a car in Cambodia? Part II

The search continued…

After the viewing and mulling over the Tico, I was a little down but a (seemingly) serendipitous meeting was coming.

One day a week I go to another office, connected to my research of women pastors.  I was sitting in the cubicle I had sat in on previous visits.  A man came in and over to me.  “Am I sitting at your desk?” I asked.  Yes, I was.  I moved my stuff to a nearby space with his help.  I introduced myself and asked him his name and what he works on.  He told me he was a teacher in a ministry that trains young men to be auto mechanics.  Really?  Can you help me buy a car?  I immediately asked.  He asked me how much my budget was.  I’d increased it, deciding that it was better to spend a little more to buy some piece of mind.  $2000-$3000.  He recommended that I get an Atoz, the car that was made by Hyundai, the next model after the Tico.  It was a better car with a 4-cylinder engine so it didn’t have as much trouble running the air conditioning.  It was a cheap but good car.

He said he’d call around and see if he could find one that someone was selling.

A few days later I got a call.  I learned that his brother had a friend who was selling a gold Atoz, a 1997.

When I went to see it, the car looked well cared-for.  It was clean outside and the seats were in remarkably good shape.

atos frontI needed a vehicle to really start a lot of my fieldwork and I trusted this teacher of mechanics so I decided to go ahead and buy it.   The man selling the car wanted $3000 which seemed like a bit much for it.  I said that I’d pay $2500.  In the end he wouldn’t go lower than $2800 which my new friend advised was a normal price for this car.  I agreed to it.

I didn’t have the money with me and the bank limits the amount of money I can take out per visit to the ATM.  Hence, I’d need several days to get the money together.  We wrote out a contract and signed it and added our thumbprints.  Then after paying a down payment, I took the car home.  This seemed like a good solution.  I wanted to take it on a substantial trip before paying the rest of the money.

When I went to back it out of the parking area, the engine started missing and the gas would not work.  My friend called the guy who sold the car who got his mechanic to come take a look.  After many hours of work on the spark plugs and cables, finally, it started to sound normal.  I drove home.

A few days later, I nervously drove it to Oudong with my research assistant as my co-pilot.  We made it there.  We made it back.  The shifting seemed to be off but I felt a bit better.

Then the day I paid the former owner the rest of the money, as we had agreed, his mechanic fixed the oil leak and the driver’s side power window which wasn’t working.  This took almost the entire day.  That night I stopped at a coffee shop on the way home.  When I tried to move it from one parking space to another, the accelerator stopped responding.  I thought it had run out of gas because the tank was low and the mechanic was running the car all day.  I paid a guy to get me some gas.  He did.  I tried it again and it still didn’t work.  I called my friend to come help.  He came.  The sparkplugs again, he thought.  He went to get his tools and came back with some guy who was apparently a mechanic.  My friend had seen this man while he was on his way home and decided to have him come take a look.  This man had his hands all over the engine plugging and unplugging the cables while it was running.  He wanted to replace a cable to the spark plug but the store was closed so he wrapped some of them with electrical tape so the car started again.  Then he wanted to clean the spark plugs.  I went with him to his shop.  My friend came, too, not wanting to leave me alone.  We sat at the mechanic’s shop while he worked near a puddle of putrid water at the entrance of the garage.  Darkness had fallen and mosquitoes were feasting on my feet and legs.  The space and this mechanic’s tools were makeshift versions.  He syphoned gasoline from his moto to use to clean the spark plugs.  Finally he finished and I was released.

atos back

Before my next trip I did some preemptive work on the car–replaced all the spark plugs and the cables and some other maintenance.

Now I have a car.  Sometimes when I honk the radio turns on.  Actually, the radio turns on often without warning.  It’s been on some trips–to Kampong Speu, to Kampong Chnang, and more recently on trips to and from the airport, filled with suitcases and tall adults.

It’s served its function and I will drive it to the provinces for my work, but not without a little bit of trepidation.  And so, I still don’t really know.  How do you buy a car in Cambodia?

Weeks after this ordeal I found a “helpful” article on Khmer 440–So You Want to Buy a Budget Car in Cambodia?

Seriously?  Now you tell me?

Before Sunrise (mun bale bombrieng) [មុនពេលបំព្រាង]

Today is ថ្ងៃសីល tngai sel, Precept Day, when Buddhist followers go to the wat to receive and reaffirm the five precepts.  Hence as part of my participant-observation, I was up at 4:00 am and at 4:30 biked over to the វត្ត wat.  I walked downstairs and the guard was still sleeping, everything securely locked.  I woke him to let me out and he asked if I was going to exercise?  No, I’m going to the wat, I explained.  It was still dark.  As I walked out of the garage, I looked around.  The street was the quietest I have ever seen it, not a soul out.

Most streets, including my own, were well lit with street lights.  As I rode my bike toward the wat, I came across a person or two walking–doing their morning exercise.  Some stray dogs were up, too.  I avoided a pack of dogs down one street, opting to go a different way.

As I biked north, I saw more and more people.  There was a group of about 5 people doing their walking and many more doing their exercise on their own.

I passed by the Toul Sleng Museum on the left, which was eerie to pass in the darkness.

I rode by a tuk tuk parked on the right side of a the rode, the tarp-like shades/walls drawn, and the driver likely still sleeping inside.  Here and there I would see a woman walking in a white shirt and  សំពតsombot (long wrap around skirt) with her container of prepared food and rice to offer to the monks at the wat.  One family had a fire burning, ready to start cooking rice, probably as a part of a street food shop.

I also passed a fancy Chinese restaurant with covered tables and wooden chairs, lights on inside, where people had already eaten and were leaving.  In this area there were more and more places where food was already being served.

I finally arrived at the wat following others on ម៉ូតូឌុប modto​dops, motocycle (or scooter) taxis.  I saw what many people were doing before sunrise–getting ready to take the precepts and give offerings to the សង្ឃ sangha.  As you can see, 90% were women.  There were ដូនជី donji, or Buddhist “nuns” and old “grandmothers” and middle aged women.  There were some–very few–men and kids there, too.

sala chan

The សាលាឆានsala chan, the large eating hall, was filled with well over 100 people.  The room featured a large Buddha at the front and the walls, round columns, and ceiling were brightly painted.  On each bay was one scene from the Buddha’s life.  Outside the room was a patio with candles that people had offered and incense that they were offering.  People filled this outside area as well.  At about 5:05 the monks processed in and everyone rose and with their hands together, showing respect.

The monks sat down near the center of the room (away from the Buddha) and the monks and ពុទ្ធបរិស័ទ buta barisat, Buddhist followers, chanted.  Then one monk introduced the monk who would be preaching.  The sermon began, and focused on ស្ងប់ which means quiet, calm, silent, motionless, tranquil.  Before the sermon was finished and the precepts were recited, at about 5:30 I could see the daylight through the open door.  The sun was up.

How do you buy a car in Cambodia? Part I

Truth be told, I’ve never sought and bought a car in any country.  I have a hand-me-down 1991 Acura in the U.S.  But in order to get my work done in Cambodia, to be able to visit the communities of the women leaders I’m learning about, I needed to figure out: how do you buy a car in Cambodia?  Here in Cambodia my first thought is to ask for help.  (Surely this already says something about the culture in which I’m more or less engulfed or something about me or both…)

I decided to ask the driver of the organization that graciously hosts me for advice and help.  I told him I was looking for something cheap, maybe $2000, to use to drive to the provinces during my 10-month stay.

He said I probably would want to get a very little car, like a Tico.  I did some internet “research” and learned that this was a Korean car that has been very popular in various Latin American countries and  other places where cheap cars are in high demand.  It’s a tiny car with a 3-cylinder engine and was made from 1991 to 2001.

After a week or so, he told me that he found one. It belonged to the mechanic who worked at the shop that the company car was serviced.  The mechanic bought it for his wife and wanted to sell it because she was pregnant and they would need the money for hospital cost.

The driver from the office took me on a very long motdo ride out to the area where the car lived.  It apparently had a new engine, a Japanese engine which was supposed to be better than the original Korean one.  I drove it a few hundred feet on the tiny road in the outskirts of the city.

Tico

The mechanic said that when I was in traffic, I would have to turn the air conditioner off but when I was driving normally it would be fine.  It looked a bit worn out (with a crack in the windshield and no gear markings) but it was probably fine, reconditioned to sell.

The driver from the office thought this 1996 or 1997 was a good choice for $1800 (or a little less).  I should get it checked before making long trips to the provinces but this was normal.  I didn’t know whether to buy it or not.

I liked it fine–it was a car and that was my sole requirement–but I was also nervous.  I had only test driven it a few hundred feet.  What if it couldn’t do a normal trip?  I asked at a mechanic shop near my house if they would check it for me.  They asked about the car and said it shouldn’t be more than $1500.  Finally, I made up my mind.  I would ask to drive it into the shop by my house to see how it did on an actual test drive and get it checked and I’d ask him to drop the price to $1500.

When I told the driver who was helping me to find a car, he talked to the mechanic selling the car.  The mechanic said he didn’t trust me to go without him and he couldn’t leave because his wife was very pregnant.  He also was not interested in reducing the price.  That made me mind up for me.  Finally!

I was a little down, feeling guilty because the driver had done so much work for me and also worried because I didn’t expect he’d do any more which made me wonder, How do you buy a car in Cambodia?