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DANCING WITH THE SHAN STATE ARMY

30 Mar

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(all images © samjamphoto)

In early February, thousands of people flocked to the isolated mountain headquarters of one of Burma’s largest armed ethnic groups to celebrate Shan National Day. Days were marked with military drills and parades. At night, the rebel army’s rock and roll band took to the stage for raucous booze-fuelled concerts. Stories on the event appeared in Vice, Al Jazeera, and the Southeast Asia Globe. You can catch a glimpse of the action here.

“PARTYING WITH ONE OF BURMA’S LARGEST REBEL ARMIES”
Vice
March 7, 2014
WEB

“MYANMAR’S LONG ROAD TO PEACE”
Al Jazeera
March 2, 2014
WEB

“PARTYING FOR PANGLONG”
Southeast Asia Globe
March 2014
WEB

NEXT CITY

30 Jan

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Since November, I’ve been writing for Next City — an American urban affairs magazine. I contribute fortnightly features to its “Resilient Cities” column. Highlights include an interview with legendary Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, a boat tour through the communities living atop Phnom Penh’s sewage lakes, and a look at how this developing capital established a world-class water supply system.

You can read all of my stories here. The “Resilient Cities” project can be found here.

THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATES

22 Dec

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“The [Communist Party of Kampuchea] liberated people from slavery,” Nuon Chea says from the stand. Hunched in his wheelchair, the 87-year-old revolutionary speaks with a quiet intensity that hushes the public gallery. For the past two years, he has listened to dozens of witnesses describe the horrors of the Khmer Rouge’s 1975 to 1979 reign – a period in which an estimated 1.7 million people (nearly a quarter of the population at the time) died from hunger, disease, and the executioner’s hand as the regime sought to violently restructure Cambodian society. To Nuon Chea, however, this was an era in which a group of visionaries and patriots attempted to transform their war-torn country into an agrarian utopia.

Nuon Chea was deputy secretary of the of Communist Party of Kampuchea and Pol Pot’s right-hand man. He is the highest-ranking member of the Khmer Rouge to be brought before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the tribunal was established in 2006 by the Cambodian government and the United Nations to try senior members of the long-toppled Khmer Rouge with war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. For years, the ECCC has been plagued by financial woes and accusations of government interference.

Citing poor health, Nuon Chea has opted to watch most of the proceedings from a holding cell in the court’s basement. When he does emerge, he usually wears faux tortoiseshell sunglasses and a puckered thin-lipped scowl that oozes contempt. But on this day – Oct. 31st, the last day of hearings in the first segment of the case against him – Nuon Chea dons reading glasses and look of earnestness as he delivers his final statement. It is the first time he has addressed the court in months… And it could be the last.

Nuon Chea declares his “innocence and integrity” and states that “the CPK did not design any plan or policy to kill people…  it had planned to increase population, and not to reduce it.” He goes on to explain how his noble revolution was undermined by Vietnamese agent provocateurs – the very people who control Cambodia’s government today. He tells the courtroom that he loves his people and is “morally responsible” for not being aware of, and not doing enough to contain the violence wayward cadre caused. One gets the sense that the old man believes what he says – and that he wishes he would have purged more when he still had the chance.

Draped in black robes, Nuon Chea’s lawyers, Cambodian Son Arun and Dutchman Victor Koppe, watch intently as their client finishes the carefully prepared statement.

“I can see that justice is circumstantial, but reality remains unchanged forever,” Nuon Chea concludes. “I respectfully submit to your honours to acquit me from all the charges and accordingly release me.”

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For more on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and the team that is defending Nuon Chea, see “The Devil’s Advocates” in The Diplomat. Son Arun’s fascinating life story is explored in “The Major and the Monster” in the December issue of the Southeast Asia Globe.

“THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATES”
The Diplomat
December 20, 2013
WEB

“THE MAJOR AND THE MONSTER”
Southeast Asia Globe
December 2013
WEB

BULLETS, BALLOTS & DEATH ON DAY ONE

17 Sep

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On September 15th, death capped the first of three days of demonstrations planned by the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to contest the country’s August election results. In the face of widespread accusations of fraud and irregularities, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) declared victory in the poll, albeit with a significantly reduced majority. The CPP has dominated Cambodian politics since being installed by an invading Vietnamese army in 1979. 61-year-old Prime Minister Hun Sen has led his country since 1985.

Barring an afternoon incident where authorities used smoke grenades and water cannons to disperse demonstrators attempting to dismantle a barricade in the city’s popular riverfront tourist district, the protests were peaceful, if not tense.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy concluded the day’s events with thousands of supporters in the capital’s Freedom Park shortly after nightfall. Two hours later, I received an urgent call from a friend across town: she could hear explosions and bursts of automatic rifle fire outside her window.

Piecing the story together in its aftermath, I learned that a throng of commuters had become engaged in a standoff with police near Monivong Bridge in southeastern Phnom Penh. The bridge, which crosses the Tonle Sap river to connect Phnom Penh with National Highway 1 (the city’s main eastbound artery), had been barricaded on account of the demonstrations. Frustrated that they were not being allowed to return home, the crowd began tearing down the fences and razor wire. Strictly speaking, these people were not CNRP supporters.

Riot police responded first with smoke grenades and tear gas, then by firing live ammunition into the air. To the crowd, I imagine, these security forces must have embodied all of the brutality and oppression of the long-reigning regime. The clashes quickly became politicized. Grievances were aired with insults, rocks, and hunks of concrete.

By the time I arrived (about 9pm), the bridge had been completely cordoned off. Battered and restrained demonstrators were being led into the neighbouring General Commissariat of National Police building while UN observers in sky blue vests vainly tried to intervene.

As I watched, radios started buzzing, and a group of soldiers, police, gendarmes, and special forces began assembling under an overpass. They must have numbered in the hundreds. Motorists attempting to approach were shouted at and beaten back.

Led by an armed unit clad in black body armour, authorities hurriedly crossed Monivong Bridge to pursue a group of demonstrators taking shelter near the ramshackle tin and board Chbar Ampov market. Cattle prods and electrified riot shields crackled in a cool drizzle. Authorities and demonstrators stood off.

From 50 metres behind police lines, I witnessed the thump and flash of smoke grenades followed by the clatter of automatic rifle fire. When the demonstrators dispersed, screaming under the barrage, they were pursued through the dark, narrow alleyways surrounding the market.

Authorities eventually pulled back, chased by a half-dozen young men brazenly shouting obscenities and hurling pieces of cement. The mass of security personnel ignored them. Some jovial, others solemn, the soldiers and police regrouped under the bridge.

I waited. Traffic trickled back into the streets. I wandered. Locals implored me to document the carnage around Chbar Ampov: spent pistol, shotgun, and assault rifle casings, piles of plastic gas canisters, pools of blood in the alleyways, chunks of cement scattered across the road. The wounded had already been rushed to hospitals. One bystander lifted his shirt to reveal bruises that he said were caused by rubber bullets. Another pointed out the blood-splattered ground where a friend had been shot.

“Some of the soldiers shot down, some shot up, and some shot right at us,” the man told me. This same witness claimed the soldiers were speaking Vietnamese.

At least eight people were shot that night. Who knows how many more were bludgeoned and tasered. Six are thought to have been detained.

Before I arrived, one man – 29-year-old Mao Sok Chan – had been killed. For hours, his body lay in the street, hands folded neatly over his chest, clutching a bundle of incense, bleeding rhythmically from his ears, a basket of donations resting next to him, a neat bullet wound oozing from his forehead.

I didn’t want to take a photograph. Gripping my arm, a young doctor urged me to document this act of violence “so the world will know.” But my international newspaper contacts weren’t interested in running a story about Chan: a construction worker by day, a newspaper stand guard at night, a father of four in a faded Bob Marley t-shirt. His wife would later claim that he never bothered himself with politics. A stray bullet. The wrong place at the wrong time.

An incensed mob refused to let authorities remove Chan’s body from the scene. Security forces fired more shots into the air. Around 12:45am, a UN vehicle was finally allowed to take him.

The Cambodian government quickly blamed the clashes on the CNRP. One politician stated that drug-addled youths in the opposition’s employ were responsible. Another hotly denied that live ammunition was used.

But: “They were shooting to kill,” a shaken young man told me. “It’s like we’re back in the time of Pol Pot.”

(An earlier version of this story appeared in the Southeast Asia Globe)

RAINSY’S RETURN

5 Aug

Elections are over and Phnom Penh is eerily quiet — for now. Cambodia’s longstanding ruling party declared a narrow win, but with widespread allegations of fraud and irregularities, Cambodia’s opposition says that victory belongs to them.

On election day, I spoke with voters whose names had been deleted from registration lists, people who arrived at polling stations only to find out that someone had voted for them, and individuals who were not allowed to vote despite having proper ID. Rumours were also circulating that Vietnamese migrants were casting ballots, ghost villages were created, and that ruling party supporters were allowed to vote multiple times.

The contending Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has rejected the preliminary results. Demonstrations may be imminent… and they could turn violent.

The following photographs are from opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s July 19th return to Cambodia, the July 28th election, a Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) rally, and a post-election press conference. You can read more about Cambodia’s 2013 election in the Toronto Star.

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Q&A > SON CHHAY
‘FREEDOM DOESN’T COME EASY — IT’S WORTH SUFFERING FOR’
Toronto Star
July 27, 2013
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