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Researchers bring fresh eye to well-worn topics across region

Oudom Ham’s research focuses not on the viability of dams, such as the Lower Sesan 2, but the debate over the dams itself. Photo supplied
Oudom Ham’s research focuses not on the viability of dams, such as the Lower Sesan 2, but the debate over the dams itself. Photo supplied

Researchers bring fresh eye to well-worn topics across region

A new mentoring program from the Center of Khmer Studies is training nearly a dozen participants from across the region in the cornerstone of higher-education: research

When it comes to writing about the long-contentious issue of hydropower dams in Cambodia, there is little ground that has not been covered. But researcher Oudom Ham, an independent consultant and former anti-dam activist, thinks he has landed on unexplored territory.

Ham’s research project, Narratives Analysis on Hydropower Dam Development, focuses not on the impact and viability of hydropower dams, but on the debate itself – how pro-dammers and anti-dammers engage and make sense of (or fail to make sense of) each other’s points of view.

“The government has different ideas of dams. The communities have different ideas. How do they interact?” he said this week.

Ham’s project is part of an all-expenses-paid mentoring program hosted by the Center for Khmer Studies (CKS), an American academic organisation in Siem Reap.

The pilot program, which wraps up tomorrow, includes nearly a dozen mid-career professionals from Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, all researching topics under the theme of “conflict in the ASEAN region”, and receiving coaching and guidance from accomplished researchers along the way.  
According to executive director Uk Krisna, CKS hopes to form a “network of Southeast Asian scholars in the region” through the program, which is funded by the Ford Foundation and Henry Luce Foundation.

Scholarly research in Cambodia, as well as in the rest of the region, has generally lagged behind the West. Decades of conflict as well as high levels of poverty and the resulting dearth of academic resources are mostly to blame.

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Oudom Ham (left) works alongside a Thai CKS participant in Siem Reap. Photo suppled

“Of course, you have extremely good scholars [here], but too often I’ve seen a description [in a research paper] of a situation without too much analysis and then jumping to conclusions ... so what’s lacking then is good analysis,” said Oscar Salemink, a professor of anthropology at the University of Copenhagen and lead instructor for the CKS program.

Salemink has conducted academic research in the region for nearly 30 years, mostly in Vietnam, where he studies the ethnohistory of Central Highland minority groups. He said that, while scholarship and research quality had improved in recent years, there was still a ways to go in bringing the region, especially Cambodia, up to par.

“What’s really important is that what you do is solid, is credible, that it’s triangulated, that the data reflects realities on the ground,” he added.

Participants in the CKS program hail from think tanks, NGOs, government ministries and universities.

Their topics are as varied as their homelands, with subjects ranging from the importance of communal spaces in resolving the insurgency in Thailand’s deep south to the safety of border crossings in Laos.

Among the three participants focusing on issues specific to the Kingdom is Duy-Ly Chu, a Vietnamese researcher at the Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City. Chu is focusing on the decades-long territorial dispute at Preah Vihear on the border with Thailand, a politically charged issue in Cambodia.

“Being Vietnamese, he’s much more free to write whatever he wants, because he’s not constrained by nationalist considerations on either the Cambodian or Thai side,” Salemink said.

Specifically, Chu’s research is concerned with ASEAN’s role in the conflict. His question at the onset was this: what does ASEAN’s role in Preah Vihear say for how ASEAN might be able to assist Vietnam in its own international affairs?

“Studying ASEAN’s role in the Preah Vihear conflict can be a lesson, revealing implications for Vietnam in dealing with China in the South China Sea,” explained Chu.

“Legal evidence in the Preah Vihear case can be used as strong evidence if Vietnam proposes to send the [South China Sea territorial] conflict to the International Court of Justice,” he added. It was the first time anyone had approached Preah Vihear from that angle, said Salemink. 

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Land around Preah Vihear temple is claimed by both Cambodia and Thailand. Heng Chivoan

Chu, a scholar of international affairs, began his research over a year ago. He has visited the disputed temple, and interviewed Thai and Cambodian historians as well as diplomats and international affairs experts back home in Vietnam. He intends to publish his 15,000-word findings next year. What he found, however, did not bode well for Hanoi.

“ASEAN involvement is slow and ineffective, [with] no power to enforce its agreement[s],” said Chu. “Therefore, Vietnam cannot ask for a strong commitment of ASEAN in the [South China Sea] conflict with China.”

Ham, the dam researcher, had slightly more optimistic findings. In his exploration of the dam debate, the 30-year-old consultant was focusing on the controversial Lower Sesan 2 and Areng Valley dam projects, interviewing government officials and NGOs as well as farmers and fishermen who will be affected by the dams.

Ham found that, while affected communities and NGOs typically spoke of the dams as threats, and mostly without offering proposals for alternative sources of energy, government officials saw things much differently.
“They said: ‘We need electricity for the whole nation, so this community has to sacrifice,’” said Ham.

Both groups, Ham found, lacked a comprehensive understanding of the contentious issues involved in the dam debate, mainly energy management and environmental planning, which added to the potential for conflict, he said.

Such potential could be lessened, he reasoned, if both sides engaged each other more productively and sought to better understand each other’s arguments. As with most conflicts, the best solution was somewhere in the middle.

The third CFK participant focusing on Cambodia was Norm Sina, a researcher with the Asian Institute of Technology. Her project, which focused on female migrants from Battambang working in Thailand, was still in its beginning phases and she had no findings to share.

Sothy Khieng, a PhD researcher at the Cambodia Research Group, a Cambodian and Dutch academic group that promotes scholarly research in the Kingdom, applauded CKS’s new mentoring program.

“CKS’s program to improve research and the level of scholarship in Cambodia is a great contribution to Cambodia, where such capacity is limited and [trails] behind the region,” he said.

According to CKS executive director Krisna Uk, her organisation hoped to do another round of the program again, but this time with a different theme and new participants. And what kind of projects was she looking for?

“Any sort of project that can have an impact on policy in the region,” she said.

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