At 5:30am, Phnom Penh hulks unlit beneath a dirty orange moon. My bike tires clatter over shards of porcelain tile filling the potholes on Street 480, then hiss over the wet pavement where a shopkeeper sprays the grit off 271.
I start teaching today; I’m thinking about the lesson I stayed up to perfect. My helmet is clipped around my handlebars so it doesn’t wreck my hair.
Ahead, just past a car-sized heap of ruptured trash bags, a silhouette gang stares at something on the road: a motorbike dead on its side, a man with his skull split open like a bag of trash, a headlight-catching gleam of brain, an oil slick of blood.
I park my bike in front of the school, walk upstairs to my classroom, and write “Good morning!” on the whiteboard.
My brother Steve and I weave through the river of men, women, Buddhist monks, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and trucks surging down Street 484. We’re carrying Coke and beer from the gas station across from my house; they’re dancing, clapping, waving the opposition CNRP’s flag, and chanting, “Hun Sen euy! Choh chenh tov!”
“What are they saying?” I ask my friend Soriya as we watch from the balcony.
“‘Hun Sen, get out,’” she says. “Remember the peaceful protests on Human Rights Day? These could be the real ones. A lot of people need change.”
Since July 2013’s contested elections, the CNRP — Cambodian National Rescue Party — has been gaining momentum in its fight against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s increasingly autocratic Cambodian People’s Party. Hun Sen has been in power since 1985, the CPP since the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Though not necessarily politically aligned, garment workers, land rights activists, teachers, and independent media activists are also rallying for reform, in solidarity becoming the largest anti-government movement to ever stand up against Hun Sen.
Steve and I are drinking Angkor draft on the Mekong River Restaurant’s patio. Sparse lights tremble on the Tonlé Sap as it flows from the great lake south to the sea. We watch motos sprint down Sisowath: children standing up on their mothers’ thighs, surfing, with their hands on their fathers’ shoulders; monks riding sidesaddle in saffron robes and blue surgical masks, their eyebrows and scalps shaved but shadowed with new growth.
A shoeless girl in a Santa costume loiters near us, her face the height of our table. Over her forearm, she displays a wire coat hanger strung with cheap bracelets.
“We play rock paper scissor,” she says, hitching the hanger onto her shoulder like a backpack strap.
“Why?” I ask. She slides my rings down my fingers to count and name each tattooed letter. I fight the impulse to snatch my fingers back; wariness is a bird in my chest, guilt is a rock. Who taught her to read?
“I win, you buy this time. You win, you buy next time,” she demands. She speaks better English than most of my students. Like the majority of Cambodian women, she will probably not get a chance to go to school, instead working to support her family.
Tonight, hundreds of Cambodians are pouring into the city with checked kramas wrapped around their heads and CNRP flags in their hands. They are crowded in open-air trucks like livestock.
Stone-faced men in black helmets and full body armour follow, two dozen to a truck. “GRK” is stenciled below the plexi-glass sights in their riot shields — Gendarmerie Royal Khmer, the elite military police.
I bike to school and unclip my helmet. From a distance, a siren shrieks — another accident? Then a GRK truck races past with a Doppler scream. Where are they going at 5:45am?
I’m not allowed to ask my students about politics. Instead, following the curriculum, I ask them to repeat after me: “The price of rice is nice in my province. I would like two kilos of mangoes please.”
Over the next few days, garment workers and Buddhist monks, protesting for a minimum wage raise from 85 to 160 USD a month, are arrested and severely beaten outside a South Korean/US-owned garment factory. Workers striking on Veng Sreng Boulevard, home to hundreds of foreign-owned factories that produce clothing for Western brands — H&M, Nike, Levi’s, the Gap — are also targeted. Cambodia’s US-supported counterterrorism unit, the GRK, municipal police, and highly trained paratroopers fire automatic AK-47 rounds into crowds of stone-throwing youth wearing flip flops. Plainclothes thugs in full-face motorcycle helmets and red arm bands storm Freedom Park, where pro-opposition supporters had been peacefully camped for weeks prior.
Five are killed. 23 workers, journalists, activists, union leaders, and NGO rights monitors disappear for almost a week, while being denied medical attention, before human rights organizations locate them in a remote maximum-security prison in Kampong Cham province. Four dozen more are seriously wounded, suffering gunshot wounds, brain damage, and battery, including bystanders, unarmed monks, a pregnant woman, a worker who was cooking rice inside her rented room nearby.
Hun Sen indefinitely revokes the constitutional right of freedom of assembly. Protests pause temporarily; protestors and garment workers stream back out to their home provinces for fear of more violence. I walk by Freedom Park after donating blood at Ang Duong Hospital. It is enforcedly deserted, an eerie calm amidst the city’s chaos.
Pheakdey, a student of mine, is also studying Management at university. Like her classmates, she is learning English to get a better job and support her family. Today, we discuss different types of clothing: shoes, pants, scarf.
An insane disparity looms between the classroom and the street. Some days, it threatens to swallow me whole; some days I want to beat my head against the fucking wall until it splits open, until I understand. I learn that another bystander was shot dead in November, another protestor shot dead in September. Three female garment workers were shot by a town governor in 2012. In the past few decades, countless activists seeking democracy, fairness, social reform have been imprisoned or killed. Government forces are notoriously and consistently immune to repercussions. Impunity reigns.
I’m drowning under reports of wrongful abductions and incarcerations, land seizures, extreme violations of human rights. But where does a history of violence and oppression begin? I try to follow it back to the source, but I cannot. I can’t figure out if corruption is the lake feeding the river that irrigates Cambodia, or if it flows upstream.
I cannot convince myself I’m helping Pheakdey by teaching her how to ask for rice in English. Even if she gets a decent job, how can she thrive in a country chained by the dual shackles of government oppression and societal deficiency? Insufficient infrastructure, poor education, substandard medical care. Poverty, illiteracy, child labour — everything seems preventable, inevitable.
I remind myself that this isn’t about me; that it doesn’t matter if I feel frustrated, impotent, a sidelined Messiah armed with a grammar book; that there are more pressing issues than my secondhand anger; that I’m not here to “figure it out” or “fix it.” I can’t even define “it”.
My goddamn Levi’s cost double a garment worker’s monthly pay.
In the Russian Market, between the rows of moto parts and Cambodian-made tourist t-shirts, two young kids prod an infant kitten. His eyes are crusted shut; his fur reeks of spoiled meat and axle grease. I wrap him in my krama and bring him home, needing to feel like I can save someone.
Garment workers return to their factories out of financial necessity, though their wages are docked for the days they did not come to work. The 23 arrested remain in prison. One boy, shot in the chest and disappeared by the military police, cannot be found. His family holds his funeral.
Twice a year, the Tonlé Sap reverses its flow. During the dry season, the river runs from the lake to the sea, and during the wet, from the sea to the lake. A foreigner might mistake this reversal for a sea change, but it’s only a temporary revolution.