By Aye Mya Mya Myo
On the invitation of ASEAN Parliamentarians on Human Rights, with the permission from the speaker of Pyithu Hluttaw, I had the opportunity to have a study visit to Cambodia together with other parliamentarians from ASEAN countries.
When I heard that I would go to Cambodia, the first thing that came to my mind was Angkor Wat temple, which is very famous as the world biggest Buddhist temple. Angkor Wat in Cambodia and pagodas in Bagan in Myanmar are well known and prestigious religious sites with their ancient cultural architecture. But on the other hand, there was something else which always came to my mind – the genocide in Cambodia. During the period of the Khmer Rouge, two million Cambodians out of 8 million were killed. I was scared when that thought came to my mind while I was thinking about Angkor Wat.
My second trip abroad was full of interest, as it was the country where that massacre took place, and when I imagined the tons of skeletons and bones of dead bodies. My happiness and pride of Angkor Wat disappeared immediately when I thought about the worst massacre after WWII due to the misguided leadership of an extremist leader. I felt regret about the loss of the cultural site of the biggest temple in the world, as that horrible murder field is situated on that land and was thinking of the future of these people who committed that terrible crime.
The world no longer permits leaders to do these cruel things as they like in their countries. These people who committed that massacre were sentenced and are now suffering the punishment for their guilt according to the Cambodian and international Laws. There is lots of evidence and examples that society will not neglect these inhuman actions and behavior. I believe that the world will be more peaceful and tranquil if there were more countries, which respect human rights.
I started my tour to Cambodia arranged by APHR as a representative from Myanmar to meet with the parliamentarians from ASEAN countries and to discuss and observe the Cambodian people who suffered the negative impacts of dam building in Cambodia. I left for Cambodia in the morning of 29 May 2016. Before landing in Cambodia, I could see from my plane the unspoiled land, forests, and Mekong river flowing across the country. I was so proud thinking that Asian countries including Myanmar still have valuable and priceless natural resources and land although these countries are still at the developing stage and still struggling for democracy and human rights and so many things in material needs.
For some time, I have believed that we should look at and learn from our neighbors instead of looking to Western countries. It is also necessary to know about our own constituency and regional affairs to work properly. As a parliamentarian, I always warn myself that I should be watching the situation in countries around the region, and that I should learn about international circumstances. I have noted that political, economic, social, conceptual, environmental, human rights, and democracy issues can affect Myanmar politics in such negative ways. I am eager to learn not only from developed democratic countries but also from other ASEAN countries.
In the evening I arrived Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I had a welcome dinner meeting with a former parliamentarian from Thailand, two parliamentarians from Cambodia and some youth representatives from CSOs. We discussed in a friendly way about the democratic and human rights situation and challenges in Asia, talked frankly, asked each other questions openly, and shared information so that I did not even feel that I was abroad because of the similarities of food and culture and customs and their lovely smiles and warm hospitality.
The next morning before travelling from Phnom Penh to another province, I took a tour of the city. I looked at carefully the garbage trucks during my observation of the ways of life of the people there. I found that there were different colors of these trucks, the collection and removal of waste are being run by private companies. I saw that the staff used vehicles which are similar to tuk-tuks — a kind of motorized rickshaw, and collected the rubbish from the bins. There was not much difference in the road disciplines and obedience between Myanmar and Cambodia, but my guide explained me that the drivers understand each others and never shouted at each other.
After a plane landed carrying a Malaysian parliamentarian who joined our program, we proceeded to Stung Treng, a city which is located northeast of Cambodia along the Cambodia-Laos border, 481 km away from Phnom Penh. Although it is a long journey, it was not boring as it was so interesting to see the wide and huge fields, forests, unpopulated villages. These are Khmer traditional houses which have stairways in front of or beside the houses. I think the journey to Stung Treng was not boring for me, as I talked to the former Thai parliamentarian and a staff member from APHR headquarters traveling with us. Time flew by while we were talking about our countries and exchanging information. The former Thai parliamentarian was preparing to contest a seat in the next Thai elections.
The Indonesian APHR staff member, a young woman, explained us about her country, that there were so many beautiful places in Indonesia and various customs and traditions. She also mentioned that one could enjoy urban life in Jakarta as it has very modern buildings and so many places to feel the rural and natural scenery. She added that there were groups of islands, beach resorts and the open sea. She was very proud to tell us that her country was experiencing positive changes and improvement under the young leader, new president Jokowi.
It made me think, looking at the young lady of age 27 working for an INGO who was proud for her country, despite still having the problem of corruption. I felt it would be an important thing for self-satisfaction and confidence to feel proud of the country and the state leader because I myself did not feel satisfied with myself, my presence, and my citizenship since I did not feel pleased with the situation of my country and with the position of the leaders in my country although I have had a successful time in my life.
I had the opportunity to observe the negative impact and damage on environment due to the construction of the dams along the Mekong river and also got to know about the current situation and feelings of the local residents, the relocation of the villages and the direction changes of the river current due to dam construction.
There are similarities between Myanmar and Cambodia in some areas and issues, for which the parliamentarians should take responsibility and deal with, such as proper reallocation of land to the villagers when the government takes the land and houses and implements the projects, and also other issues. I was motivated when I saw the natural resources in Cambodia, the forests and rivers from the plane before landing. But I spent the second day of my trip reviewing the conflict, which was caused by these natural resources.
On third day of my trip, it was planned to travel to some villages, which were going to be relocated due to dam building near the place called 3S Zone, where Sesan River, Srepok River and Sekong River meet.
We headed to Kbal Romeas village beside the Srepok River early in the morning of Day 3 of our trip. The village was so quiet and peaceful with forest around, and has about 200 households. Once it might have been so tranquil, but the day we arrived there was the deadline to move to the replacement housing, since that village would be in the area to be flooded due to Lower Sesan 2 Dam construction.
But villagers were still arguing whether to move or not: “No LS2” was written on the wall of some houses, and “LS2” was also seen. It is just to express their opinion — people who agreed with building Lower Sesan 2 Dam wrote “LS2”, and “No LS2” was written to show the house owners were against the construction. Arguments and concerns were found among the families in the village; for instance, the father supported the dam and his son opposed it.
Local villagers gathered and shared their worries with us. Although they accepted the need for electricity, most of them thought their lives cannot develop bearing the cost of being displaced. From generation to generation, they relied on the river beside their village to get fresh water, fishing and for transportation. There were paddy fields on the other side of the village, and there was forest not too far from the village and they relied on it to get food. For ages they had lived on this land, river, and mountains, so they were very worried to have to move to live so far away from these resources. I found that concerning the changes, moving reluctantly to a new place without any guarantee that they would have a regular income was the main cause of their worries.
When we continued our trip from Kbal Romeas near the Srepok River to Srekor village by the Sesan River, we observed that the locals have same opinion and concerns as the one we had just visited. They had no objection to getting electricity from the development, but were worried about the negative environmental impact, and having hard lives at the new places. The main thing was that they felt the responsible personnel had neglected their feelings. The worst aspect we were told about was that people who were being informed they would receive compensation did not get any in reality. It should be noted that there were people who took personal benefit from the honest villagers. Although I do not have any rights to interfere in solving such matters in another country, I did learn significant things for my country, including my constituency, as there are similar issues.
When we met with the locals in Prehrom Khal by the Mekong River at the Cambodia-Laos border, it was found that they were worried about illegal fishing, the prospect of no more dolphins due to water pollution, the possibility of floods which could overwhelm nearby villages, and the noise of the machinery because of the dam construction on the Laos side of the river. The people who lived on businesses selling goods and showing around tourists, who came to see the dolphins, worried they would lose their income if there were no more dolphins.
The main point of their concern was not knowing anyone who would protect the region, guarantee their livelihoods, and solve the problems and concerns that the dam construction on the other side of Mekong River will bring; they are aware that the northern part of the world is being affected by the melting of the ice from the southern part.
Eventually we met with the mayor and his team before we left Stung Treng. We had the opportunity to give recommendations and share the views and concerns of the villagers of these dam construction affected areas. The mayor also explained us his plans for resettlement, compensation, and job opportunities. He also gave us his promise that they were his people and he would never hurt them.
On the way back from Stung Treng, we saw the powerful and beautiful mighty waterfalls on the Mekong River. Gazing at these waterfalls, I wondered whether it was a good idea to have the electricity from those mighty waterfalls, and whether an effective way to have less negative impact could be found. We also visited the Lower Sesan 2 Dam project, which was nearly completed.
We had met with not only NGOs but also the Minister of Environment and his team in Phnom Penh before I returned to my motherland. Reviewing the whole trip, there are two different opinions: the government is at one side, and the NGOs, INGOs, and the locals who suffered from the dam construction on the other.
At the beginning, people did not object to the government project to meet the electricity needs and to promote development, but Lower Sesan 2 was already there when the public became aware and protested.
I would say lack of transparency is the cause of the complaints, although they have the same opinion to improve the country.
Although it is for the development of the country, it is the cause of the disagreement, and the concerns because the government held all the power and did not listen to the people, and people did not have any rights to participate in discussion on using the natural resources, which belong to all of the electorate.
There are upcoming elections soon in Cambodia, and public opinion, the essence and life of democracy, cannot be neglected or ignored in democratic South East Asian countries.
We can move towards inclusive development by listening to people’s voices, respecting people’s will, and having participation.
I was encouraged, looking at Mekong River and natural landscape from the plane before landing, and also took a look at Cambodia from my plane on the way back to my motherland. Our Asia is still rich in valuable water and land resources. We shall have to find a way to end the disagreement in society on the appropriate use of these resources. I dare say that better development is just a step away if we could change to value the sustainable human resources instead of arguing over natural resources, which can be consumed easily.