Weaving in Preah Vihear (January 1998)

Johm Riap Sua/Greetings from Preah Vihear province I am on a working vacation with my employer, the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF). I’ll be back in Washington DC shortly, but wanted to send this postcard – it’s a bit longer than a postcard. This is not directly about the campaign it involves landmines. I have been traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia with VVAF President Bobby Muller and a delegation from VVAF. It involves some work – visiting our projects but also a lot of downtime that I need after the hectic events of the latter half of 1997. Distance does wonders for your perspective and being in Cambodia brings back the reality of what we have all been campaigning for over the past years. This is only my second visit to this country – the last was in June 1995 to participate in the immensely successful 3rd international NGO conference on landmines.

In Cambodia VVAF operates Veterans International/Cambodia, a prosthetics and orthotics center at Kien Khleang on the outskirts of Phnom Penh (operating since 1991), as well as a rehabilitation center in Prey Veng province (established in early 1995), and a rehabilitation and skills training center in Preah Vihear, the last of which I want tell you about. I stayed from 7 to 9 January in Tbeng Meanchey, with the director of our project in Preah Vihear, Mr. Bud Gibbons.

Preah Vihear province lies directly north of Phnom Penh and borders Thailand and Laos to the north, Siem Reap province to the west and Stung Treng province to the east. Its capital Tbeng Meanchey lies in the centre of the province, about 60 kilometers south of the Khmer Rouge rebel stronghold of Anlong Veng on the Thai border. The day before I arrived the Bangkok Post ran a front-page story and photograph of Pol Pot, the man who led Cambodia’s dark period of genocide and famine in the late 1970s during which up to two million people were killed. The Post showed Pol Pot at his home in Anlong Veng contradicting rumors that he had left for China.

Preah Vihear is one of Cambodia’s poorest provinces and with an estimated population of 109,030 (source: Health Unlimited), it is one of the more sparsely populated. In August 1994, the Khmer Rouge took control of most of the province but not Tbeng Meanchey. The rebels are now located along the northern border and national Army of co-Prime Minister Hun Sen control most of the province. No comprehensive survey has been undertaken of the province’s problem with landmines and there is currently no mine clearance underway by any NGO or by the national Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC). The worst mine-affected districts are in the west and north of the province although every district has some problems with uncleared mines.

Vietnam Veteran Bud Gibbons has working for VVAF in Cambodia for about four years. He first established the mobile outreach service to provide simple prosthetic services to isolated amputees in Stung Treng. Since July 1995 he has provided prosthetic and wheelchairs in Preah Vihear as well as creating an income generating skills training project that I’ll call here ‘Invest in Vests’ for the clothing that is weaved and made even through this range of products diversifies daily.

In February 1996, five female mine and polio survivors women that had received services from Bud’s outreach program trained as tailors in Battambang province, but none could gain employment on their return home to Tbeng Meanchey. VVAF provided sewing machines and women started sew garments starting with the vest. By the time of my visit there were more than 12 tailors and a teacher at the main house, more than 15 weavers at the silk farm, and 3 cooks and 6 laborers ensuring the project has clean water from the well and continuing the construction and maintenance of the project’s buildings.

Many reside at either the farm or the house, separated by sex. Other workers return home at night to their own families and at least four live in the nearby camps of the internally displaced persons (IDP) that are not serviced by the WFP or UNHCR. Basic health and education services are lacking in the IDP villages.

Until recently the province was only accessible by military aircraft but the Australia/New Zealand Missionary Aviation Fellowship flew me in from Phnom Penh on their six-seater plan. The army charges as much as $1,800 per flight, but MAF charges about $400. It heavily subsidizes its flights to provide essential services to the population and the few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working there including VVAF, Action Contra le Faim, Health Unlimited, and the Food for Work program of the World Food Program (WFP). Pilot Ian Stacy told me he has seen a lot of things in his career that has taken him to Papua New Guinea, Australia’s northern territories and now Cambodia but the landmines have affected him greatly: “I write more letters to politicians on this issue than anything else.”

Tbeng Meanchey’s red dirt strip “airport” is a ten minute drive from town. The dusty frontier township of 3,000 people has two main streets (neither is paved) and consists of a primary and secondary school, a technical college, a development centre for women, the old UNTAC headquarters, civilian and army hospitals and various buildings housing the local authorities. Communities of internally displaced persons (IDP) surround the town; over 1,000 families have moved here in recent years to escape the fighting and the landmines.

I spent my time between the main house where the tailors work and at the farm where the the fabric is made. Together with the translator Dara, I spent two days interviewing and photographing as many of the workers as I could.

The project’s farm lie about 500 meters down the road from the house and consists of a large plantation of mulberry bushes to feed the silk worms, two vegetable gardens, a well, a fish pond, a buildings housing the silk worms that hatched during my visit, a dormitory and the building used for weaving. Construction was underway to build a smaller structure to hang and dye the silk and cotton. The project has four large and two small looms for the fabric and spinning wheels to make the thread, all made of wood by the project.

I had a long conversation with Te Nguon, a 42-year-old blinded by a bounding antipersonnel landmine on 12 February 1987. A transport officer, he was hurt investigating a report of rebel activity on the road to Kompong Thum. He said, “I have not heard of the campaign to ban landmines, but I want to send a message to the world’s powerful countries to pressure the countries that make, sell and use mines to stop. We can fight war without mines.” When we talked it was his third day at work – he was carving wooden spools for the thread. “I am married with five grown children, but this is the first job I have had since I was hurt ten years ago. I cannot express how happy I am now; I have work and the people assist me to get around.”

The silk-making and weaving teacher is a woman called Bun Nareth, aged 34 years. From Prey Kabas district in Takeo province, this was only her third week at the silk farm. Her mother and grandmother taught her traditional Khmer weaving. She said she is enjoying her job and wants to stay. “The people in this province are very, very poor but gradually they can improve their lives,” she says. “Especially the lives of these disabled who are the poorest of the poor.”

I talked to the rest of the silk farm workers and recorded their stories. I’m struck that for all of them this is their first job. “I hurt in 1995 while working back from working in the fields,” says Taat Nam, 26 yrs, from Sra Lo village in Tala district, Stung Treng province. “I was the last in a line of nine people walking when I stepped on an antipersonnel landmine. It took three days to transport me to the provincial hospital, but I was able to buy medicine to stop the pain.” Taat Nam’s right leg was amputated below the knee. “There was nothing for me to do at home and my parents were very old and had to look after me. I am very happy to be working here,” she said.

Bud told me only women were employed at the start of the project because he found, “the men who were disabled by mines were more angry than women at being young and disfigured. Many were former soldiers and they were upset if their war pensions did not come through. None of the women injured by mines were soldiers – they are innocent victims. In Cambodia, becoming an amputee or disabled presents enormous problems – some of these women were abandoned and ostracized by their community. They were stigmatized for in this country much emphasis is placed on inner and outer wholeness – often, the victim who steps on the mine is seen as having brought this upon themselves for having bad karma.”

Men are now being employed. According to Bud, “they have seen the women learning skills and earning money. They see the benefits to the community as the women purchase goods at the local market. They now understand what we are trying to do here and want to work.” One woman, Tum Roeun, 24yrs, has traveled with Bud to international conferences in Tokyo and Oslo to talk about herself and the project in Preah Vihear. Others are sent to Phnom Penh to develop their business skills, learn English language and develop contacts within and outside the disabled community. The students have started a school at night when the generator powers electricity from 6pm to 9pm. “I checked in one night and they were taking a reading and writing class,” said Bud. “I didn’t organize any of it – they did it of their own accord.”

I ask the teacher who also works as a tailor how the school began. Chun So Peap, 28 yrs, has polio in both legs and one arm. “I got polio when I was 16 years old in my home village of Kdey, in Sangkum Thmey district, Preah Vihear. I was in school for eight years and wanted to be a teacher, but when I got polio I had to stay at home with my parents. Bud came to the village and gave me a wheelchair. Chun So Peap married and has a four-year old child. His wife left him a couple of years ago, but returned when she heard he was employed embroidering with the sewing project. She now weaves at the silk farm. “The students asked if I would teach them at night and I agreed – very few people in this province know how to read or write,” he told me.

I visited the civilian and army hospitals but there was not a lot to see. The tuberculosis ward was busy and despite it being the dry season, there were several patients, including children, ill with malaria. There were a few landmine disabled including a 16-year old who had fled from Anlong Veng two weeks earlier. There was more medicine available for sale at the local market than in the hospitals. VVAF’s project operates a mobile outreach team in cooperation with Health Unlimited, a British NGO with a focus on training in health. Access to and within the province is one of the biggest problems. The main roads are impassable during the wet season and dangerous all year round due to the presence of landmines. For a short time during the UNTAC peacekeeping operation, most roads were open, but now the province is isolated again. The VI/HU mobile teams train healthcare workers in immunization and vaccinations to service mobility impaired and more recently to teach mine awareness using materials and workers trained by the British demining agency Mines Advisory Group.

Disclaimer: This informal thumbnail sketch of my impressions at Tbeng Meanchey is not intended in any way to be representative of VVAF’s projects or even entirely accurate. There is no phone, fax or email available in Tbeng Meanchey to get in touch with Bud Gibbons so for more information please contact VVAF’s Washington DC office.