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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Life is a lottery - the final chapter

Life is a lottery - the final chapter

In the final of a three-part series on the life of a Khmer family in Phnom Penh,
John C. Brown looks at several of the younger charactors in the story, their

pasts and futures.

"I DON'T want to stay here, but I don't know where to go. Will you adopt


Bopha minds a cigarette and drinks stand on a main street in Phnom Penh as she

has every evening for the past five years. She does not talk about the beatings she

receives, nor does she talk about her mother who died two months ago. She is 17-years-old

and she talks about escape from her present situation only if asked. But if asked,

the only escape she can imagine is becoming the koin jingjem (adopted child) of someone


Like countless other young women, Bopha was brought from the provinces by a relative

or friend - an uncle in her case - to work for a Phnom Penh family.

She works for Chenda - the violent sister-in-law of Samnang, the professional bet

backer - and helps her to run the cigarettes and drinks stall outside the house of

Samnang and his wife.

Chenda usually occupies the chair to the rear of the drinks stand. This large and

sometimes intimidating woman first loved Bopha like her own child, neighbors say,

and sent her to school. But when the girl dropped out of school at age 13, the beatings


If Bopha says she is a koin jingjem (adopted child) - perhaps out of optimism, perhaps

it is wishful thinking - what her "foster mother" calls her is koin jnuol.

That translates to "rented child" - a servant, or a slave, depending on

your interpretation.

Family members and neighbors who speak English sometimes use the word "slave"

to describe Bopha. It doesn't mean that she's a slave in the strongest sense of the

word, but implies that the English word "servant" does not quite capture

the content of the relationship as it is understood in the Khmer language and as

it is practiced in Khmer society.

Regardless, Bopha's life is not one of love and comfort, and she bears much of the

brunt of the anger of Chenda, known for her temper. The oldest of Samnang's five

sisters-in-laws, Chenda is the one who is most intent on forcing he and his wife

to sell their house and split the proceeds among the sisters.

Bopha comes from a village in Siem Riep next to the village where Samnang and his

nephew Piap originate. While Bopha - sent to Phnom Penh by her mother to earn money

- ended up working at the cigarette stall, Piap got work helping his uncle in their

nightly confrontations with Lady Luck in the bet-backing business.

But Piap, with the benefit of a school education, is also a student in the School

of Pharmacy at the University of Phnom Penh. Like Bopha, he left his family and village

at age 12; he to attend lower secondary school in his district town and she to attend

first grade in Phnom Penh and to work.

Three years later Piap went to live with his aunt in Siem Riep in order to attend

upper secondary school. In 1993 he entered preparatory medical school, where he met

his now good friend, Lim Huor. He was the number one student from Siem Reap, while

Lim Huor was among the top students from Battambang.

Both are among 29 exceptional students in the Faculty of Medicine who receive $30

a month from the Fujimoto Foundation in Japan. By the time they had arrived in Phnom

Penh, Bopha had already quit school. These days she gets no money for her work at

the cigarette and drinks stall; the wages she got in her past always went to her

now-dead mother in Siem Reap.

Lim Huor is the first member of her family to go to university. Piap is the second

in his family, and the first who is likely to finish. Piap's older sister studied

medicine in Hanoi for two years in order to become an Army doctor. It was just her

luck that the Paris Peace Agreements were signed at that point and Vietnam could

not let the army medical students finish (though nearly 100 civilian medical students

continue to study there).

Both Piap and Lim Hour are in the middle of their respective families, luckier perhaps

than their older siblings in that their obligation to help support their families

is, for now anyway, less. But both say that without the Fujimoto money they would

probably not be able to stay in school.

It would be a mistake to think that the flow of children is just from the provinces

to Phnom Penh. Two of Samnang's children from his first marriage now live in the

Siem Riep village with neighbors, and the oldest son of that marriage recently returned

there after dropping out of school in Phnom Penh, and showing a strong disinclination

for work.

It was Bopha's mother who first sent her to Phnom Penh, in return for receiving advance

wages for Bopha's work. It was money that she needed, after years of poverty. Abandoned

by her husband early in her pregnancy with Bopha, and without land, she was working

as a day laborer in Samnang and Piap's village, though troubled by her penchant for

drink and for gambling.

In her five years in Phnom Penh, Bopha saw her mother only once. After the first

year she returned home, not intending to return. She stayed for one month with her

mother, before being "hired" away again by Chenda. She has been in Phnom

Penh ever since.

Lim Huor originally wanted to study law, but her step-mother insisted that she study

medicine instead. Lim Hour says that it took a week of discussions to persuade her,

but ultimately she had no choice. "She is the person who controls the money

in the house, if she is unhappy with me, it will be impossible to support myself

in Phnom Penh," she says of her step-mother. Like Bopha, Lim Huor has not been

able to go home very often, sometimes once every two years. It costs about a 100,000

riel for the round trip, and even with the Fujimoto generosity, that is beyond her


But with a qualification, Lim Huor's future, like that of Piap, will not be a bad

one. At worst, after they graduate, they could rent their diploma certificates to

hang in a pharmacy shop. Such shops are required by law to be run by trained pharmacists

but some just rent someone's certificate for a few hundred dollars a month. Piap

and Lim Huor don't want to do that - but they could.

Both still have worries. They know that their diplomas have no international standing,

they wonder if training abroad will ever be possible, they are troubled by teachers

who skip classes in favor of private practice, and worry over the impact of competition

between the major parties for the loyalty of the student association at the Faculty

of Medicine.

But they still have prospects. As for Bopha, what future does she face? She has no

family now. She says an uncle came six months ago to claim her, but it turned out

to be a scam to force Chenda to give him some money. She has not seen him since and

doesn't know where he is. Since she dropped out of school she has fallen into complete

illiteracy. She has no marketable skills. It is not clear how or whether she can

marry. The only hope she can now see is to find herself in a family-like situation,

to be someone else's koin jingjem, instead of being Chenda's koin jnuol.

But it is much more likely that she will continue under Chenda's power. In this,

even the neighbors dare not intervene. One says: "Sometimes you see her being

beaten and it hurts you, but you can do nothing, you must walk away. If you ask Chenda

why she is doing this, she will answer: 'Gom jeh-dung reung rebah knom' - 'Don't

interfere in my business'."

Like the gang of young toughs in the alleyway beneath Samnang's nearby office, like

the poor young Vietnamese girl beaten to death by a group of them one hot afternoon

a year ago, Bopha has come to learn that harsh words and fists are the law.

Postscript: This

three-part series on a family in Phnom Penh has attempted to focus both on change

and continuity in the life of a Cambodian family. It has attempted to illuminate

some of the constraints that shape that family's life and the adaptations that they

have made to them, and in doing so, illuminate the lives of other Phnom Penh families.

I have always thought of the stories as sharing the same title: "Life is a Lottery,"

Part I, II, and III - even though in published form each story has had a different

name. The series was not just the story of Samnang and his bet-backing business,

but about the role that chance plays in the life of this family and of their neighbors.

It is certainly chance whether Samnang makes money on any given day, though he tries

to influence the outcome by placing the carefully tabulated bets on the floor in

front of a Buddhist statue and its three burning sticks of incense. It was also chance

that the young Vietnamese woman walked down the alleyway on the day she died. It

was chance that the young prostitute who lived on the floor above Samnang's office

(and Piap's bedroom) rode to her death in a car borrowed from Samdech Hun Sen's nephew

(as neighbors say, and according to one of the dead young men's classmates at the

Faculty of Medicine); it was chance that one of the gang members around the corner

from Samnang's house recently had a motor-cycle accident (though given the way he

drove, the odds of a safe journey were not in his favor), and it was certainly chance

that he lived and the boy he hit died. But it is not chance that none of the families

of those who died in these incidents will be compensated.

It was also a matter of accident that the most compelling aspects of the tale have

been what women do, what they do to each other, and what happens to them - though

here we might argue that today's social realities in Cambodia are biased in favor

of exactly that outcome. Samnang's oldest sister-in-law, Chenda, spear-headed the

effort to force her sister and Samnang to sell their house and divide the proceeds

in order to feed her appetite for gambling and to pay off her debts. Her relationship

with Bopha is a very sad one, and will likely remain so. The tale also has women

who become the second wives of men as they search for economic security, women who

were abandoned by their husbands and never found another, losing economic security,

and men and women who have left the children of earlier marriages with friends or

relatives when they entered new marriages and new economic arrangements. But if you

want to describe a Khmer family, how can you avoid these issues?

This series has also been motivated by an interest in the question of the fit of

western journalism to the situation and problems of Cambodia. I sometimes focused

on the semantic content of Khmer words and phrases, to raise the question of the

utility of straightforward English prose in capturing, describing or criticizing

Cambodian society. Why should we assume that the English semantics of social description

will fit those of the Khmer language exactly. Why should we imagine that the western

criteria of news-worthiness would also?

The reality behind these stories, to the extent one can discern it, is one of constraint

and adaptation. This Cambodian family in Phnom Penh is not dead, nor is it being

reborn, it is not at an end nor is it at a beginning. It is struggling, adapting,

and somehow coping in a social and economic reality shaped in part by the weight

of tradition, by the arrogance and immunity of power, by the ambiance of threat,

under pressure from a burgeoning economy and the widening disparities in the distribution

of opportunity and wealth. It resides in a place where justice still has to be bought,

where the role of chance has not yet been reined in.

A final note. Even though this family is being torn apart by gambling, greed and

the play of chance, they still reserve for themselves a space for love, laughter

and hope. There are still hugs for the children, and games along the street. My failure

here is that I have not paid enough attention to these aspects of their lives. Perhaps

I, also, am too much of a western journalist.



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