Greetings from Cambodia!
Prof. George Chigas is in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to develop our study abroad program with Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). We currently have seven students planning to enroll for Fall 2012. He will be sending updates of his journey.
Monday, January 8, 2012 (4am), Phnom Penh Cambodia
Arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday night at 10:30 pm. The main purpose of this trip is to develop the relationship between UMass Lowell and Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). This relationship was initiated previously by Dr. Pierson and Vice-Chancellor Maloney and formalized during my last trip in January 2011 which resulted in a memorandum of understanding (MOU).
Currently, the main activity between UMass Lowell and PUC is a study abroad program through the Department of Cultural Studies. Our first student just completed the program during the Fall 2011 semester and seven students have applied for the Fall 2012 semester. During my three-week trip I will develop a hybrid (face-to-face & onine) 3-credit course designed to satisfy PUC's course requirements for "Critical Reading of Literature" (ENGL 413), a required undergraduate course in several undergraduate faculties (colleges). This course would also be designed to satisfy UMass Lowell's Cultural Studies course requirements for Comparative Arts. If successful, UMass Lowell students who study abroad at PUC during their summer term (August-November) would have the option to extend their stay through January to take the course and transfer the course credit.
Other important objectives of the trip will be to discuss a possible faculty exchange with PUC,
options for PUC students to study at UMass Lowell, service learning opportunities for UMass Lowell students in the area of Peace and Conflict, as well as gathering books and materials for a special collection and locating Cambodian music instruments for use by the UMass Lowell Music Department's World Music class that will offer Cambodian music this spring 2012.
In this travelogue I hope to record my thoughts and impressions about what I see and experience during these three weeks. This is my sixth trip to Cambodia; the first was in 1996, as I was beginning my graduate studies in Cambodian language and culture. Much has changed since then, and it would be impossible to provide any comprehensive assessment of the political and socio-economic transformations that are happening perhaps as fast now as at any time in the last thirty years.
It was thirty-three years ago on January 7 when Vietnamese forces removed the Khmer Rouge from power. Their four years of totalitarian rule resulted in the death of a quarter of the population (2 out of 8 million) and the total destruction of infrastructure, educational, financial, health systems, religion, the list goes on. Making a speech on national TV that I watched in my hotel room last night, Prime Minister Hun Sen described how in the 1980s people had three ways to get around: barefoot, using flip-flops, or if you were rich, on bicycle.
Today, Hun Sen said, you see people in new running shoes, motos (Honda & Vespa scooters) and Lexus SUVs. This is in fact what you see in downtown Phnom Penh today. Families and couples strolling along the beautifully landscaped garden walkways, gathering in the large Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship plaza to exercise in organized groups to music, hordes of young people on scooters cruising the Riverside broadway along the Tonle Sap.
And these sights are in stark contrast to my memories of the same places during my trip in 1996, about fifteen years ago, when the gardens were patches of dirt where barefoot children in rags tried to fly homemade kites made of discarded plastic bags and bits of plastic string.
Everywhere you look there is construction and new businesses. Of course, you will also see poverty and barefoot children, and if you leave the city to the countryside, you see very little development, lack of schools, health care, jobs, etc. And perhaps this is one of the difficulties in trying to assess a place like Cambodia.
Compared to where it was thirty years ago, the growth, development and stability (no armed conflict, no violent protests, although there are protests that I will talk about) that exist now are remarkable even extraordinary, and Hun Sen?s government (which has been in power continuously) deserves credit for the progress that has been made. Still, there are many serious problems, the lack of civil liberties (freedom of speech, especially), flagrant abuse of power by government officials, lack of rule of law or equality before the law, etc., that are very upsetting to witness and make you want to condemn the government and the leadership for tolerating, enabling and in many cases participating in these abuses.
As I left the Phnom Penh airport Thursday night in the PUC van that came to pick me up, as we pulled out of the airport road onto the main street, to our left a large SUV pulled out and struck a moto driver. We saw his body (it seemed like slow motion) topple over the hood of the SUV and fall onto the pavement. The driver looked unconscious, sprawled across the road. The SUV backed up a few feet, and someone got out of the back door and looked at the body then got back in the car as it drove away leaving the injured moto driver behind.
I turned to Narin, the PUC staff person whom I had met last year, in disbelief that the SUV could just drive away like that without having to help the driver or make a report to the police. Narin smiled ironically, ?In Cambodia, no one helps you. You have to help yourself, because there is no one (no governmental agency) that will help you."