If you bicycle south along the river that cuts through the centre of Siem Reap, it winds its way slowly down to the Tonle Sap lake, about 14km away. You know when you’re approaching the lake because the foliage fades away to expose flat, wide rice paddies and a single hill rising above the countryside – the temple hill of Phnom Krom. This time of year, the lake has receded far from its usual shores and is much smaller than it is during the heights of rainy season. Instead of rice, there are pink lotus flowers dotting the flat landscape, and the houses rise on stilts to perch high above the ground, ready for the inevitable flood of rainy season when the lake expands – this could begin any time between about April and June. At the bottoms of some of the stilt houses and schools and restaurants lie crooked buildings, built on hollow barrels and sealed piping – designed to float on the lake during rainy season. In fact, if you take a boat out to the centre of the lake you will come across these floating villages, nestled between drowning trees.
I took a bike ride Sunday morning down to the shore in an effort to escape the heat and dust of the town, but these things are impossible to leave behind. I made it there and back before noon, but was drenched in sweat by the time I returned, and had gone through a litre of water that started a frozen lump in my bag and ended an opposite-of-refreshing lukewarm. But, it was nice to get out of the urban congestion of town, especially after I spent much of the week in Phnom Penh, which was even dustier and hotter.
I was invited to Phnom Penh by Sister Denise who brought me to the National Conference on Mine Action, which the government organized in advance of International Day for Mine Awareness. Phnom Penh is a 5-6 hour drive (about 300 km) southeast of Siem Reap, following the very Tonle Sap Lake I visited on my bicycle. The National Conference took place in the Peace Palace, which also houses the Prime Minister’s office, and is a huge, new building overlooking the dustbowl that was once Boeung Kak lake in the northern part of the city. As you look out the windows of the air-conditioned, chandeliered palace, you can see the dilapidated shacks and homes around the edge of the dry lake. It’s a stark contrast to the reality of poverty in Cambodia.
The conference itself was an interesting event, highlighting Cambodia’s work in mine action and victim assistance, and I learned better how the different government ministries work, as well as meeting a number of representatives from various NGOs working in the sector, including Handicap International, and Norwegian People’s Aid, who I wanted to track down anyway because I really want to have a look at their mine-detecting dogs (they told me to give them a call later and I could come by sometime for a visit). At the end of the conference, Sister Denise stood up and urged Cambodia to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which had been barely referred to throughout the entirety of the day. However later, in the Prime Minister’s speech, there was a hint of why this had been left out: he mentioned the weapons trial of BM-21s the day before. It was odd, and perhaps poor timing for a military practice, right before a national conference on the damage done by ERWs – especially as the weapons being tested can be used to fire cluster munitions. I could feel some disbelief in the room at the casualness of this remark, but the PM maintained that he, like the commander of any army, has every right to engage in weapons practice. And so he does.
The biggest issue facing mine action in Cambodia is lack of funding, which a number of organizations and ministries requested change. The reliance upon NGOs in the country is huge, especially in survivor assistance, and slowly these NGOs plan on withdrawing their services – HI Federation, the ICRC, Veterans International, and the Cambodia Trust run the majority of the 11 rehabilitation centres in the country that specifically provide services to survivors and generally people with disabilities. As they are slowly, over the next few years, planning to withdraw their operations in an effort to have the government take more responsibility, there is serious concern that the quality of these services drastically decrease.
Everyone’s reasoning for the lack of funding and the lack of continued programming is a decrease in the number of landmine accidents every year in Cambodia. This is true – accidents are fewer and fewer every year. However, few seem to remember that this doesn’t affect the number of people who have already had an accident with an ERW in the past, and are now living with the consequences. Just because there are fewer accidents, that does not magically make the people living with disability disappear. They’re the one who require the long-term, sustainable programming and services. But then, it’s always frustrating when governments and NGOs fail to have long-term plans, and that is the nature of how they work. We have to just keep pulling through, and raising awareness, and be more creative in our approaches to sustainable development, where sustainability and rights-based approaches are key. Which brings me to the end of this post, with a reflection about International Day for Mine Awareness on April 4. It was the day that I returned to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh, and the whole team from JRS headed down to Pub Street in town to give out flyers about mine awareness. They’re such wonderful people, and many of them are living proof that survivors don’t disappear – they continue their lives and fight for their rights and are hilarious and clever and kind and don’t give up, in the face of everything else. They inspire me every day that I’m here.