Saturday, January 24, 2009

Extending a hand to Cambodia

Will Hine

  • January 24, 2009
Kylie Tattersall

Future Cambodia Fund director Kylie Tattersall in Andong, a settlement outside Phnom Penh. She holds a girl whose father was shot dead over a $US2.50 debt. Photo: H Shipp

On January 7, 1979, Vietnamese forces rolled into Phnom Penh, deposing Pol Pot and sending his genocidal Khmer Rouge regime fleeing westward. Thirty years later, Australians are helping to rebuild the nation.

TODAY is a relatively pleasant day in Andong, a settlement just outside Phnom Penh. The sun is peeking through wispy cloud, and nearby rice paddies are dotted with soaring palm trees. There are bubbling green pools of fetid filth under the small, stilted huts, malnourished children with bloated stomachs wander vacantly, and groups of possibly rabid dogs eye off visitors.

But, reflects sometime Melburnian Kylie Tattersall, it's sometimes much, much worse. "It pours down in the rainy season. Within two minutes you've got black raw sewage up round your knees and children running through that … I've been in it myself."

Tattersall is one of about 2500 Australians working in Cambodia, many of them in aid and development. Three decades after the overthrow of dictator

Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge forces, Cambodia is still recovering. Pol Pot's rule, synonymous with the deconstruction of Cambodian society and the atrocities of the Killing Fields, was followed by 18 years of civil strife — the legacy of which still lies buried across the country in the form of more than 4 million landmines.

An inescapable reminder of the chaos that has plagued the country, the hidden munitions have killed more than 19,400 people and injured countless more in the past 14 years, according to the Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System.

Above the surface, there are other problems. This remains a country in which only 16 per cent of rural dwellers have access to a toilet, more than 12,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases, and gross national income is just $US490 ($A750) per capita.

Tattersall describes how more than 5000 Cambodians were forcibly evicted from their Phnom Penh homes in June 2006, driven 22 kilometres out of the city and deposited on the barren, undeveloped patch of land where they now live. Like many Phnom Penh residents, most did not have legal land title; that system fell off the rails in 1975 after Pol Pot evacuated the city and sent its former residents to work — and die — in the countryside.

Shown the road by developers and their hired guns, Andong's poor are just some of the 30,000 Amnesty International says have been evicted in Phnom Penh since 2003.

Gradually, however, the country is finding its feet, assisted in part by the Australian Government and a willing body of everyday Australians such as Tattersall.

"Some people explain (Andong) like a refugee camp, but without all the assistance," says Tattersall. "It's effectively a dumping ground. There's no sanitation, there's nothing." Save for one small enclosure, 100 metres from the edge of the slum and just across the village's "shitting field", the place reeks of despair.

But even in Andong — amid chronic disease, malnutrition and violence — there is hope. This small, fenced enclosure is "Happy Garden", a sanctuary created by Australian charity Future Cambodia Fund (FCF) for Andong's young. In any other setting, the learning complex, playing field, playground, hard court, water wells and toilets would barely raise an eyebrow. Here, the tiny compound is everything the local children could want — an escape from reality.

The centre, now managed by Tattersall, was founded by another Australian, Leigh Mathews, also of Melbourne. Named Young Victorian of the Year late last year for her efforts in establishing FCF, Mathews is now a finalist in the Australian of the Year awards, to be announced in Canberra tomorrow.

Mathews formed FCF in 2004 after stopping in Cambodia on the way home from a working holiday in the UK. "I was deeply affected by Cambodia when I got to Siem Reap (in the country's north-west)," she says. "I hadn't been exposed to that type of poverty before."

The newly formed charity started by running a street clinic in Siem Reap and then began a program providing support for children with neurological problems. Then, in April 2007, Mathews visited Andong. "I was absolutely horrified … People were living under tarps with just pieces of cardboard and reeds. (Andong) had been there almost a year and it looked like it had been set up a week."

Future Cambodia Fund focused on alleviating the trauma of displacement. Happy Garden now caters for 100 to 180 children at a time, with staff engaging them in sports, learning, health and creative activities; on the day of this visit, the youngsters are putting on a musical performance. With a car battery powering the stereo, the young boys and girls — faces heavy with make-up — sing and dance for the audience.

One of the smaller Australian NGOs in Cambodia, FCF operates on a yearly budget of about $US50,000 ($A76,000). At the other end of the spectrum is development agency CARE Australia, running on about $US9 million a year. Funded by government aid programs and private initiatives, CARE has been working in Cambodia since 1990 in areas including agricultural development, mine removal, crisis management, health and education.

In Pailin, a remote district in the far west of the country, South Australian agriculture adviser Greg Secomb is the only Westerner living in the district. Secomb points to a 29-kilometre road built last year under CARE management and funded by AusAID to the tune of $US600,000. Unremarkable to any Western observer, the graded, red-earth road — signposted with a small Australian Government insignia — has changed lives, he says.

"There's a lot of pride in that road. You're out in the middle of Woop Woop and you see that (Australian) logo and you know the impact it's made for thousands of people."

Travel times to schools and hospitals have been cut from eight hours to three in some instances, and where farmers once had their prices beaten down by middlemen, they can now take their own produce to market and receive a fair price.

Elsewhere, at the village of Ou Chheukroam, Village Development Committee chief Chhim Chhon points out an area of 123,000 square metres. Cleared by CARE Australia under a previous program, the area was found to contain 428 anti-personnel mines, one anti-tank mine and 110 pieces of unexploded ordnance.

Farmed by starving, desperate villagers before it was cleared of mines, the minefield took five lives and maimed more than 20 others, Chhim says. Now, the land is covered with crops, and children and livestock can wander where they please. Bright blue plastic water pumps are scattered through the village and Chhim is halfway through building a frog farm with the assistance of CARE.

Working with 2654 families in just this region, CARE's activities include providing frog and fish farms, allocating land tenure, offering microfinance, setting up village councils, training in rice production and crop rotation, installing water pumps and building infrastructure.

The alternative — removing the mines and walking away — leaves villagers ill equipped to farm their land and vulnerable to land-grabbers.

Through AusAID, Australia contributed $60.7 million to development in Cambodia last year, making it the country's fourth-largest bilateral donor.

Professor David Chandler, a Cambodia scholar at Monash University, says Australia was one of the first nations to enter the state in 1989, following Vietnam's withdrawal. In the ensuing years, Hawke government foreign minister Gareth Evans was instrumental in setting up the Paris Peace Accords of 1991 in what was "a very much-Australian led" process, Chandler says. The accords paved the way for UN-sponsored democratic elections in May 1993, a key moment in the nation's history.

Today, well over 100 Australians are working in volunteer programs at any one time. Anna Olsen, 28, of Collingwood, has just finished an 18-month contract with Australian Volunteers International, which placed her with the Ministry of Women. "I loved it," she says. "I really like living in Phnom Penh and it sounds kind of twee, but I like the people."

As technical assistant to the minister, Olsen organised meetings, helped in policy formation and negotiated the tangled business practices that have led Transparency International to rank Cambodia the equal 12th-most corrupt nation in the world.

Australian Volunteers International country manager Mary Flood says the group has placed more than 270 volunteers in Cambodia since the dark days of the early 1980s. Fifteen to 20 highly qualified Australians represent it in roles across the country at any one time. "We have staggeringly good people wanting to come here," Flood says. There appears to be no shortage of Australians wanting to fill Olsen's boots.

Will Hine is a Fairfax journalist.

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