A Cambodian Spring

Trekking through jungles and forests laden with landmines, my family and I fled the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime that claimed the lives of nearly two million people. In 1998, nearly twenty years later, I journeyed to Cambodia to uncover the strength and resilience of my people and to discover the beauty of the rich land, forests, rivers and golden rice fields of my parents' dreams. What I did not expect was how rapidly the country would change within the next decade and a half.

Large tracts of forests, once home to indigenous tribes in Cambodia, are granted to influential logging companies. The dirt roads, once unsurpassable are now smooth, shimmering asphalt, easing the transport of freshly cut timber from the virgin forests of the Northeast to Vietnam. At the heart of Cambodia, on the Tonle Sap lake, fishermen who once boasted catching more fish than they could ever eat or sell, now suffer from ever dwindling catch. Vast swathes of farmland once owned by subsistence farmers are bulldozed and transformed into sugar, rubber, cassava, and soy plantations, the products of which are shipped abroad; not consumed within the country. Young village women are forced to migrate from the countryside to the factories of Phnom Penh to help their families pay off mounting debt and make ends meet.

In the last few years, Cambodia has witnessed a rise of massive protests throughout the country, demanding a stop to the cutting of forests, the forced removal of farmers and indigenous people off their land, dam construction along the Mekong River, and better working conditions and higher wages for factory workers. Months before Cambodia's fifth national elections this summer, protests escalated. Days before the election, thousands of young factory workers, mototaxi and tuk-tuk drivers, and street vendors took to the streets, waving flags, calling for "Doh! Doh! Doh!" "Change! Change! Change!"

a river changes course

A scene from A RIVER CHANGES COURSE, a feature documentary
film by Kalyanee Mam. Khieu Mok harvesting rice. © 2012 Migrant Film

I followed Khieu Mok, a garment factory worker, and one of the main subjects in the documentary film A River Changes Course, back to her village and as she placed her vote in the ballot box. I asked Khieu what she wanted most from the election -- for herself, her family and her country. She said simply, "All I want is a livable wage." As the cost of food and fuel skyrocket in Cambodia, Khieu joins 300,000 other garment factory workers in Cambodia who cannot survive on a base wage of 61 USD a month. She also joins millions of Cambodians today that not only demand a livable wage, but access to their forests, farmland, and rivers.

Election results were announced and after 28 years of being in power, the ruling party still maintains control. But this time, the people are demanding change. They are fighting for their lives in the face of batons, water cannons, tear gas, and rifles. It is a Cambodian Spring.

The threat to lives and livelihood brought about by development and globalization is not unique to Cambodia but is felt all over the world, including here in the United States. Many of us today are struggling to gain access to healthcare and education for our children, to pay off our mortgages, our car loans and student debt. Working all the time and over time, we even struggle to spend time with our family, friends, and loved ones.

Seated in the ricefields, I asked Khieu the fateful question: What would make you most happy? "I want the factory to come to my village," she said. With a factory in her village, there would be roads, electricity and markets. Most importantly, she would be able to stay in her village and live with her family.

The question we must ask ourselves is not whether development is bad, but whether the process is one that values human life.

'A River Changes Course,' winner of the Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary and the San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary Feature, opens in New York at IFC October 4-10 and in Los Angeles at Laemmle, Beverly Hills from October 11-17.