From Cambodia, with love

 Published in: The Daily Star on December 12, 2018
From Cambodia, with love

A Phnom Penh street scene. PHOTO: JONAS HANSEL/FLICKR

Education indeed. Getting to Phnom Penh took me to yet another learning curve. Not being able to fly out of Dhaka for almost close to 18 hours is a story to share, but getting de-planed and watching passengers reacting to the situation is another narrative altogether. Re-fuelling had failed as the pump wasn’t working and more than three flights were stuck and couldn’t take off and passengers had to be transported to hotels after midnight.

After midnight, this Dhaka that I breathe in, looked different. The driver of the microbus from a pre-dinosaur era was in a hurry to pick up the other batch from the airport. The transport had the smell of a burnt cigarette, with a real-life smoker up at the front huffing and puffing about having missed his flight. In no time, I decided not to give up on this adventure and stuck to the general plan instead of opting for my chauffeur. He drove at 160 miles an hour, braving export-laden trucks, and cheering every time he saved us from getting hit by any one of them.

Speed is what we needed, he said, and I hastily and unhesitatingly agreed. Meanwhile, a Dutchman, in all his glory, lashed out at the airport staff, immigration authorities and anyone who crossed his path. For him, what mattered was speed and efficiency. The rest could wait. For him, human errors past midnight were unpardonable, technical failures were unacceptable and the list could go on. Pretty amazingly, the rest of our own clan seemed content and a few like me enjoyed watching the flame and the fury of the disgruntled…

Finally, after landing in Phnom Penh the night before, I felt overwhelmed by the “look” and feel of development. The airport is managed by the French, where arrival felt super smooth, and I got into the car with my luggage in less than 15 minutes. The hint of western food chains loomed large and it was obvious that Cambodia was trying to mimic the West, enticing investments to a place which was still stung by conflicting values. It’s also an NGO land. Cambodia has close to 4,000 NGOs in place. The NGO boom here started in the early 1990s after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements, marking the start of an era of development and democracy after 50 years of political turmoil. There is at least one active NGO for every 10,000 Cambodians. After Rwanda, it has the second highest number of NGOs per capita in the world.

Like almost anywhere else, it is a land ridden by paradoxes. While the march for development is on, the graduation to a tolerant landscape is still a far cry. The first headline of the day was all about Phnom Penh banning a march on Human Rights Day from the old Freedom Park to its new site. The gathering was allowed but the march was banned on account of concerns about “security, safety and public order.” The other news was on the Khmer National Liberation Front receiving the “green light” from the “authorities.” I gathered from the papers that the members of their movement had “realised their mistakes” and thus, Prime Minister Hun Sen could seek pardon for them from King Norodom Sihamoni. As for the readymade garment exporters’ scene, quite interestingly, the cases of the six trade union leaders, who were protesting the wage scene in Veng Sreng Boulevard, way back in 2013, are still being heard. The defendants face charges of “international act of violence with aggravating circumstances” and jail term of five years, in spite of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia having withdrawn its complaint.

The last time I was here was in 2013 for mentoring a young Cambodian girl, a scavenger who was rescued from the dumps and was given shelter in an NGO founded and run by an ex-president of 20th Century Fox International, Scott Neeson. Neeson had discovered Phnom Penh as a shooting location, fell in love with it and then returned to Cambodia to settle. The top boss of Hollywood left behind a million-dollar salary, sold his cars, yacht, dumped his doubts and started helping children going through and burning piles of garbage, getting affected by methane. Now his meetings are typically at dump sites, where he encourages families to keep their children in school.

When I met Neeson, he sounded like a regular man trying to do his best for a community that needed him. For Scott, the definitions of power, profit and wealth were all different. Like they ought to be. Scott’s project, the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF), has 64 projects in six core programme areas: education, community outreach, leadership, career and life skills, healthcare and childcare. CCF touches the lives of more than 2,500 children and has targeted academic programmes through the Neeson Cripps Academy (NCA), providing impoverished Cambodian children with quality education opportunities through conducive learning spaces and digital technologies, with a special focus on STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). All this so that the children have a better understanding of the universe they live in.

For a man who dropped out of school at 17, education looks different than what it appears to be in a typical world.

While I am racing to the end of the column, I can hear the school bells and the children of Phnom Penh chanting their vows. Dressed in blue and white, they are no different than ours. They have the same look and the same potential. As for ourselves, for the world that we are leaving behind, are we teaching them to rise above intolerance and greed? With Asia taking off at its best speed, are we ringing our own periodic bells and reminding the millennial generation that instead of the race to the next best home, car or balance sheet, “empathy” still tops the list as the most critical asset and in place of greed or grudge, the world still needs to pass on to the next generation the knowledge of generosity of gesture?

Are we?