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Development at a high price

A Cambodian Spring
Regissør: Chris Kelly

The government of Cambodia is tightening its grip on power every day. The highly tense situation makes the documentary film A Cambodian Spring all the more gruesome.

It makes quite a sense to move around a city with the knowledge that the next time you pass by, that building or building is probably gone. Remaining might be a monument of emptiness and relic of the life lived in the lost building while waiting for construction machinery, building materials and investments in limbo; maybe a new building will already cover what was here before, or maybe a skeleton of concrete populated by working women and men with fabric wrapped around their faces to protect against sweat and dust will testify that people are biting day and day. day in just for others to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is one such city. A city full of dust and sweat and aircon and comfort, where history is something that is manipulated into the morning for which a few have decided.

So-called development. The documentary A Cambodian Spring is about what happens when the land poor people live on gets value for someone who already has more than enough. And about what happens when poor people refuse to accept that they must – over and over again – be forced out of the place where they try to make a living connected to all odds.

Director Chris Kelly has filmed the film over six years, in Phnom Penh and in a rural area of ​​Cambodia. The film follows the residents of Boeung Kak Lake and their struggle to preserve their homes and communities in the capital, where the ruling party has given a powerful developer permission to fill Boeung Kak Lake with sand so that expensive homes and malls can be erected.

Kelly opens the film with the announcement that 1993 was the year the United Nations organized the first democratic election in Cambodia after decades of civil war – and organized the country as a free market economy. Next, the announcement that 1993 also marked the beginning of current Prime Minister Hun Sen's power over the country and the beginning of a wave of so-called development that has characterized the country ever since. It is a wonderfully effective and precise opening that ties the most important threads together.

Tep Vanny is now in jail for allegations of violence against men who were hired to use violence against protesters.

Two main characters. The narrative is built around two people in particular. One is Toul Srey Pov, who lived at Boeung Kak Lake and participated in the first years of the protests against the forced displacement of the locals, but withdrew from the movement for reasons that are both made understandable in the film and at the same time remain impossible for a outsiders to understand all the nuances of.

Some of the explanation lies in how high a price one is willing to pay in the fight for justice. And some of the explanation lies in the pressure that comes on personal relationships when the basis of life – and life itself – is constantly threatened.

It is primarily through Toul Srey Pov's perspective that one of the protest movement's later best-known profiles, Tep Vanny, is portrayed. Tep Vanny continued in front of the movement and is currently jailed on charges of violence against some men hired to carry out violence against the Boeung Kak Lake protesters. Such paradoxes have become a special Cambodian legal specialty.

The second person to associate the narrative A Cambodian Spring together, the monk is Loun Sovath. At the same time as the Boeung Kak Lake conflict starts, Loun Sovath is trying to help a group of local villagers in Chi Kraeng in Siem Reap Province near the pagoda he serves. The villagers, who feed themselves as small farmers, have their land confiscated because a large business will make money on it. As they try to defend their land, they are shot at – and then imprisoned for disrupting public policy. The experience of how the authorities treat the peasants becomes Loun Sovath's political revival. He starts making video footage to document the injustices that are going on, and this video activism also brings him to Boeung Kak Lake.

Resistance to resistance. The drama in the film culminates on numerous occasions, including the events of 2013, when the opposition party got a landslide election – but just not enough support to win the majority. A disputed election result, leading to month-long demonstrations in which local protest movements, labor struggles and parliamentary opposition merged for a while and posed a real threat to Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party, which has in practice ruled uninterrupted since Pol Pot the fall of the regime.

The experience of how the authorities treat the peasants was the political revival of the monk Loun Sovath.

A Cambodian Spring portrays both the efforts of the poor people to resist and demand justice, and the sometimes at times merciless, sometimes wavering, attempts to keep the resistance down so that there is no grit in the so-called free market machinery.

The protests continue. "Development will always go beyond anyone," sounds the laconic argument that a local official is trying to appease Boeung Kak Lake residents as they want to stop the machines pumping sand into the lake so that their homes are flooded.

Another official comes with an equally golden quote as he tries to get the monk Loun Sovath to stop his activism; monks must not engage in social issues, the official explains – for "religion belongs to the government now".

Loun Sovath was thrown out of the monastic order by the religious head appointed by the ruling party and had to flee in exile to the United States. Toul Srey Pov withdrew from the front lines to focus on his family life, and Tep Vanny is not coming out of prison on this side of the Cambodia national election, which is due to take place in the summer of 2018. But the protests continue, and so does the ruling party's attempt to to hold them down – with increasing intensity from both sides. The current high-tension situation in a Cambodia that is preparing for yet another fate choice does A Cambodian Spring for an almost unbearably thrilling experience.

avatar photos
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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