Sunday, February 14, 2010

Burning money in clay pots

Chinese New Year and Valentines Day are at the same time this year. The streets of Phnom Penh are full of lolly coloured soft toys, stuffed plush hearts and ribbon wrapped bouquets of flowers and the gutters are stopped with pots of fake burning money.

Although not officially a Cambodian holiday many shops and businesses close for the best part of a week during Chinese New Year as anyone who can afford to goes home to the provinces. Like the Chinese and the Vietnamese the Khmer burn red, gold or green printed paper 'money' in various sizes and often in fantastically large denominations, in clay or tin pots on the footpath or in the gutter outside their homes. It is considered a good omen if the wind blows the smoke inside the house.

Valentine's Day isn't a statutory holiday either but that doesn't stop Cambodians from buying flowers and cheesy gifts- for all their loved ones. This year Valentine's Day has got the government a bit worried. The Ministry of Women's Affairs has broadcast ads on Khmer television warning teenagers against engaging in promiscuity. As is common when western traditions are adopted by non western developing societies, based on their superficial presentation rather than any real understanding as to history or purpose, the meaning and even intention of Valentines day has been misinterpreted. It seems many believe Valentine's day to be the day they must offer up their virginity to their partners- if they haven't already- 'without thinking about their furture and the honor of their family and culture.'

A local NGO is more concerned with the spread of AIDS although if the official statistics are correct Cambodia is a kind of poster child for stemming the spread of AIDS in the region. According to the government's statistics, the prevalence of infection rate has declined from 4% in 1997 to 2% in 2006 then 0.9% in 2008 for adults aged 15 and 49, and it is expected the rate will fall even further by 2010. UNAIDS attributes the drop to a political commitment that has seen the prime minister's wife, Bun Rany, personally champion the cause and the Ministry of Health, over the years, implement a wide range of activities and campaigns including a '100% condom use program' which means many of J's staff can attest to having sold or given away condoms during their working lives. AIDS and the affects of AIDS are still major issues in the kingdom with the government coming under frequent fire for their treatment and discriminition of suffers and their families. Late last year Bun Rany was awarded special recognition by the UN for her role which, truth be told, revolves mainly around orphans and the less dirty tasks of supporting access to retrovirals and positive (hands off) PR to help reduce stigma and community prejudice. At the same time her husbands government has evicted and forcibly relocated AIDS suffers to squats outside of town often with no water or toilet facilities making it nigh on impossible for them to get to clinics for daily drugs or markets for food.

This year is the year of the tiger on the Chinese calendar. Sadly Cambodia's wild tiger population is all but gone due to logging activities and the illegal and completely unnecessary poaching of these beautiful majestic big cats for their meat, bones, skin and other organs. WWF has launched the 'Year of the Tiger Campaign- Double or Nothing' aimed at doubling the wild population by 2022. I really hope they can get the active support they need from countries like Cambodia which forms part of the habitat of the Indochinese tiger.

But as George Bernard Shaw once said:

'When a man wants to murder a tiger, he calls it sport; when the tiger wants to murder him, he calls it ferocity. The distinction between crime and justice is no greater.'

He was a wise man, George...

1 comment:

Natalie said...

I never heard that interpretation of Valentine's Day before! And here I thought it was a day to bust the chops of less romantic husbands. (well, that's how everybody I know celebrates.) Happy year of the Tiger to you too, loving your beautiful photography.