I TOOK my first trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2008. The country was fresh out of the listless and punishing reign of the Khmer Rouge.
Thirty one years of oppression -- an entire generation of intellects wiped off.
Being the antsy tourists that we (my friends from high school and I) were, we visited the many genocide museums and attempted to understand what happened in 1968 that turned a modern and progressive country into a devastated massive killing field.
Our eyes fixed at the photos of the dead at Toul Sleng and Choung Ek, between trips to the many bustling bars and markets. In retrospective, we had the ‘luxury’ of experiencing the tragedy from a safe distance. The 1.5 million people who perished, did not.
The trip also took us to the oh-so-magnificent temples in Siem Reap.
The temple complex, covering a vast area was first commissioned in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II and completed by King Jayavarman VII.
The solid grey sandstone walls lined the hot dusty plains, interspersed between green pools and lush jungles, carved with delicate images of Apsara dancers and legendary wars.
Some of these mythical figures were ‘beheaded’, some lost their limbs, plundered by the Khmer Rouge for among others, money to finance the civil war.
Trips to these ancient temples were interrupted by screaming and boisterous children, some wearing nothing but ragged t-shirts, selling knick-knacks, which I suspected were largely manufactured in China, to eager tourists.
A whole assortment of souvenir items -- nail clippers, fridge magnets, postcards -- all adorned with the kitschy images of the Angkor Wat, all to the tune of One Dollar, Sir! One Dollar, Sir!
Such is the reality of life in the less-developed ASEAN nations.
Of course nothing was sold for just ‘One Dollar’. Some tourists found it amusing, “One Dollar!” A measly amount for most Western tourists.
Our guide informed us the value of ‘One Dollar’. In some parts of Cambodia, workers earned a meagre ‘Three Dollars’ per day. According to the him, ‘One Dollar’ could buy the locals a hearty meal!
Our guide told us not to buy anything from the kids. He thought it was best not to encourage the children as they were supposed to go to school instead of peddling knick-knacks.
Our guide added that entertaining the cries for ‘One Dollar’ would only make them drop out of school. Less than 10 years, after the reign of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was still struggling to have a strong and sustainable economy.
I visited Cambodia at least four times again in the span of eight years and I must say that, I have witnessed less and less children peddling souvenirs for ‘One Dollar’. I was also told that parents were advised to send their children to school to secure a better future.
For this week’s episode of Rizal’s ASEAN, I spoke to Opehelie Grasset, a volunteer with the Tanma Federation.
Grasset spoke on behalf of the female refugees for security reasons. Tanma is an organisation set up to help female refugees from Myanmar to achieve economic independence.
These women fled Myanmar in search for better living conditions. In order to support their families, these women, originated from four ethnic minority groups in Myanmar, produced beautiful and well-crafted handbags, spa products and colourful traditional fabrics to be sold at the Tanma market.
In a nutshell, it is important to note: They don’t want charity. They dream of becoming a fashion brand ...
The difficult and tragic conditions in some districts in Myanmar will only lead to ASEAN witnessing another generation being exonerated.
Grasset was optimistic during the interview, believing that the trainings and education that these women have received will help them when they resettled in Australia or the US.
Note: Catch Rizal’s ASEAN every Saturday, 1.15 pm on Astro AWANI (Channel 501)