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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Light the touch paper - and hope for the best

Light the touch paper - and hope for the best

In 1990, the district of Kong Pisey in Kampong Speu province had only one

fireworks factory. Since then business has, to use a phrase, boomed.

Today there are several dozen manufacturers involved in the cottage


Kheang Sokhom prepares cardboard containers for his fireworks.

That is good news for the local economy, of course, but recent

disasters in China and India show that the homemade fireworks industry carries

substantial risks if not monitored properly. In Cambodia it is not monitored at


Forty-five-year-old Touch Chhum knows this better than most. Ten

years ago she was frying the powder - which was not the method her father-in-law

taught her - when it exploded, burning her torso, arms and head. Her husband was

also injured, and in the ensuing blaze her house was burned to the


"It was the worst accident I have ever had," says Chhum. "All of

the money I had earned from the fireworks business I had to spend on treating my

husband and myself. Two of my brothers whom I taught the craft a few years ago

have also been injured by burns."

She still makes fireworks, although she

no longer fries the powder to dry it out, no matter how great the demand for her

fireworks. In the 1980s she would buy TNT from government soldiers. Although it

creates a colorful explosion, she says, TNT is too dangerous and she no longer

uses it. Business these days is good and there is plenty of variety for the

discerning customer, who will have to pay up to $80 for a single


Fireworks are usually bought for displays at big celebrations

such as Phnom Penh's Water Festival, Independence Day celebrations, traditional

ceremonies and funerals. The Phnom Penh municipality is one regular customer, as

is the committee that organizes national celebrations.

Min Khin is the

director of that committee. He says there are no prohibitions on people

manufacturing fireworks, and he is positively pleased that so many local people

are now doing so. Among the benefits are that imports decrease and the cost goes


Exposed to obvious danger, a child rolls explosive pellets at Sokhon's fireworks factory in Kong Pisey district, Kampong Speu.

Although the quality of the local product is not up to that of

imports, they are substantially cheaper. In the early 1990s his committee spent

around $160,000 a year on fireworks. Now that he gets them from Kong Pisey

district, the cost has gone down to about $20,000.

Khin acknowledges that

local manufacturers take extreme risks producing their fireworks, since many do

not know the proper formulae. His confidence in the local product, though, is

not convincing: his committee generally pays the manufacturer to set off the

fireworks at a ceremony.

"Some military personnel told me that some

makers use the powder from B40 rockets," he says. To minimize risks, Khin

suggested bringing in Chinese or Japanese experts to train the local


"It is very dangerous," he admits. "I was told that some makers

have had accidents and been killed. Some people I saw have had their hands

burned because of errors."

Another local fireworks maker, Kheang Sokhon,

explains why Cambodian fireworks have only four colors: red, white, indigo and

yellow. The explosives for green and blue, common in Chinese fireworks, are

simply too unstable, says Sokhon. He knows how to mix them, but is too afraid to

do so.

"I can make these two colors," he says, "but it is very dangerous,

because it is highly sensitive to the fire." Not that the other explosives are

stable: all are sensitive to heat, and Sokhon admits the method he uses to

measure temperature is mere guesswork.

So, what, you might ask, does it

take to set up a fireworks factory? The chemical ingredients are a mix

of homemade and imports from China and Vietnam: aluminum, sulfur, and charcoal

from the tamarind or kapok trees.

At some stage the powder has to be dried,

which is the tricky part since it is explosive. Sokhon recommends drying it in

the sun, although it needs to be monitored closely. It can catch fire if the sun

is too hot, although the alert fireworks maker will notice the sharp smell that

it releases before it explodes. If that happens, Sokhon simply wraps the powder

in a cloth and throws it in a bucket of water.

The Post visited Sokhon's

fireworks factory on a sunny but windy day. Ten children are gathered around

baskets of explosive, rolling them into pellets. He doesn't employ any of his

five children, though - the ten belong to neighbors and are paid a few hundred

riel for their troubles.

Despite his unwillingness to use his own

children for the job, Sokhon is adamant the powder is not hazardous to the

health of the neighbors' kids. That is, he says, unless it catches fire. If it

does, the resultant damage could be substantial: he stores hundreds of fireworks

and rockets in a variety of sizes in his house, only a few meters


"So far so good," he says with relentless optimism. "I have never

had an accident, not since I started in 1987. Each year I earn around 50 million

riel from selling my fireworks. Sometimes even Prime Minister Hun Sen has bought

my fireworks for up to $8,000. Business is very good, although we often face

extreme danger."

Chin Keel is 74 and has been making fireworks for almost

60 years. Unusually for someone in the trade, he has never been burned. The

reason is that when his teacher in Pailin taught him the craft, he learned not

only the practical, formulaic side of the job, but the spiritual requirements


"Whenever I am invited to light fireworks I pray to my teacher to

remember me so that I can circumvent any possible dangers," he says. "I burn

incense and put out some candy for the spirit, and ask him for no


That approach has worked for Keel. However, if Cambodia's

unregulated fireworks business continues on its haphazard way, it seems likely

that one day Sokhon or one of his fellow fireworks makers won't make it in time

to his tray of explosive powder baking in the sun.

And then?




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