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 AJWS group visits Angkor Wat

by Edward Ordman   (Feb 27, 2005)

        My wife Eunice and I recently spent two weeks in Cambodia and Thailand with a group from American Jewish World
Service, a charitable group headquartered in New York.  We were amazed by the breadth of its activities;  this is one of
several reports on the trip.
        Including several New York and Southeast Asia staff  members of American Jewish World Service, the group had grown
to about two dozen people.  AJWS prides itself on not going into a local community with “here is what you should do”, but
seeking local organizations with their own ideas and providing modest amounts of support, money or volunteers, to
organizations that are often too small to be ready yet to compete for significant “foreign aid” organization grants.

      They feel that the Jewish mission of “tikkun olam”, repairing the world, applies wherever in the world there is extreme need.  This trip was, in part, a way of showing the travel group a sampler of some of those needs, and motivating us to tell others about them.

      Many members of the group arrived in Cambodia about February 11, for two days of sightseeing at Angkor Wat before
the group got down to work.  Angkor Archaeological Park , a  United Nations World Heritage Site, includes about 150 square
miles of forest  which include the magnificent remains of capital cities and temples of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th
to the 15th century.  The constructions have suffered from both ancient wars and very recent ones, having been used as
quarries and robbed for antiques by invaders from Thailand hundreds of years ago and damaged further by fighting in the
1970's through the 1990's.

     Foxholes are still visible, as are bullet holes in the stonework, and it is easy to pick up spent bullets on the ground.  It was hard for a group of Jews, hearing the war stories, and seeing the ruins and  the restoration work in process,  not to be reminded of Jewish history, Israel’s wars of recent decades,  and of  archaeological work in Israel.

       The wars of the last thirty years severely damaged Cambodia’s economic infrastructure. Many areas that used to have irrigation systems allowing two rice crops per year now depend on the natural rain cycle and get only one.  The systematic murdering of educated Cambodians during the Pol Pot regime of the late 1970s has made it very hard to rebuild.

       While the restoration of peace in recent years has allowed tourism to resume at Angkor Wat, this has produced less income for the locals than one might like.  Large luxury hotels now dot Siem Reap, the town of 350,000 people adjacent to Angkor, but eighty percent are foreign owned (many by Vietnamese and Japanese investors).

      Locals told us that admission fees to the park itself  go to a Vietnamese company, under a franchise granted by the government during the Vietnamese occupation in the 1980's. Local residents feel that not enough of the money goes into either park improvement or the local economy.  At the same time, in the large area included within the park limits, there are strict limits on increasing cultivated areas or on industrial development, which limit economic opportunities for those living there.

       We spent a day visiting projects of the Angkor Participatory Development Organization, a Cambodian nonprofit organization started in the mid 1990's devoted to helping 20,000 people living in the twenty or so small villages located within the Angkor park.  It operates on an annual budget of about  $75,000, of which about $27,000 comes from AJWS.

      Its activities include village leadership training courses and the provision of small community libraries; economic development through small grants (it also receives funding from Trickle Up) and micro-credit (small loan cooperatives) , and projects oriented toward income production. These include increasing crop production through better agricultural methods, mini irrigation programs,
acquiring tools for woodworking, training in handicraft production and traditional music.   

     Another day was spent visiting Banteay Srei, an organization devoted to helping women.   Banteay Srei has been active since 1989, and is better established;  AJWS now provides only about 12 percent of its budget.  It engages in educational projects devoted to reproductive health issues and to the prevention of domestic violence.  It trains volunteers from those living in rural villages, and we were able to meet and talk individually with some of these volunteers and see some of the villages in which they work.

     One project has been the production and broadcast of a thirty episode radio entertainment drama and a fifteen episode radio talk show addressing domestic violence and women’s issues.  In the poorest communities, this has meant issuing a radio to a local volunteer so that people could gather to listen to the program and discuss it.  The project has had to overcome a number of problems, including radio station owners who would not broadcast it if speakers on the program belonged to a political party not in power.

       After two days in Siem Reap, we moved on to Phnom Penh, which will be another report.

      This sort of travel is far more difficult, in many ways, than the usual tourist  program.  It has a demanding schedule, and as interesting as discussions may be when you eat with the local people, it is harder on the American digestion than eating in tourist hotels.  But it allows one to see how the locals live, to make friendships, and to learn things about the world, that are invisible from the usual air conditioned tourist bus. Being able to see how a major Jewish humanitarian organization actually interacts with the recipients, and letting the locals see what some of the people in America who care for them are actually like, makes it  worth the extra effort for
many of us.

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