Portraits of Cambodia – Mr. J


A Dam has so many effects, both good and bad. The effects on the people, who lives are at stake, are sometimes forgotten in the whirlwind that occurs before a dam project is given the go ahead. Here I tell a few stories of the people who will bare the brunt of the Sambor Dam across the Mekong River in Cambodia, if it goes ahead. 

Mr. J is the district leader for the government party in power – the Cambodian’s People’s Party. Credit: Nuala McBride

A smiling Mr J ushers us into a sparse room, offers us the traditional greeting and then promptly leaves the room. We’re left a tad bewildered. A couple of minutes later he comes scuttling back into the room with water bottles in hand. My face breaks out into a smile at this kind gesture, given it’s over 30 degree outside! As I start to chat to Mr. J, despite the language barrier, I can feel the gentle and welcoming spirit that he offers.

The conversation starts with the pleasantries as he tells me (with a big smile) that he’s been the district head for 8 years and worked within the Cambodian People’s Party before that. For every question that I ask, he questions me about my life and about England. He comes across as very confident – a stark contrast to the others that I’ve interviewed.

Soon enough, the million dollar question is posed ‘tell me about the proposed Dam project’. Carefully, he answers that he knows very little about this project. Yet, he then goes on to explain the detailed process in which the Chinese Dam building company decide whether the potential Dam is feasible or not. Firstly, the company will study the geography of the area to decide if the land is good. Then, it will consider the impacts that it will have on the community. Finally, the advantages and disadvantages will be weighed up to make a final decision. He clarifies that the Dam isn’t happening yet; but that the company is currently weighing up whether it is advantageous to build the dam. He ends with the statement that he doesn’t have any more information about it.

I decide to probe further and ask whether he thinks it is a good idea. Due to Cambodia’s violent and turbulent history, people don’t like to share their personal thoughts and feelings about government matters. Given this, I was expecting Mr. J to say that as the government thought it was beneficial, he did as well. He begins by saying that his party (the party that is in government) supports the idea and that he has faith in the company who would like to build the Dam. Silence then descends on the room; as he knows as well as I do that he hasn’t answered the question. After a long pause he says that he himself wants it to happen. His truthful answer lets me trust him more.

I’m guessing that my facial expressions give away my views on this; as he quickly clarifies that for some people, if they don’t understand about the Dam then they think that it’s a negative thing. He believes that the local people will benefit from the electricity and that this will (in time) improve the economy of the area. Mr. J does admit that it’s not fair on the local people, who will bear the biggest cost of the Dam being built. But, Mr. J holds strong belief that the government will provide adequate compensation depending on the size of the house and resettle the people where there are good schools for the children.

As I glance down at my notes to see if there’s anything else I wish to ask, unprompted Mr. J starts to speak. I look at him trying to gauge what he’s saying and notice the sadness that washes over his face. Mr J has said that dam or no dam, he doesn’t know whether he’ll be district leader next year; so it’s really out of his control.

This strikes me as an odd thing to end with and poses so many more questions. Yet, my time is up so I nod, offer him the traditional goodbye and thank him for his time.

I’m left flooded with confusion. For a man that initially came across as so regimented, he showed few cracks that transcended the language barrier. It makes me wonder whether he truly thinks this Dam is beneficial for this community that he’s put his whole life into. Would he really want to see it disappear from history, as so much of Cambodia already has?

The series will be next updated on the 7th March with more accounts that include a Government official and local teacher.

More articles in Portraits of Cambodia
  1. Portraits From Cambodia – A Village That Could Be Lost
  2. Portraits From Cambodia – Mrs. K
  3. Portraits of Cambodia – Mr. J
  4. Portraits of Cambodia – Mr. F
  5. Portraits of Cambodia – Mr. W
  6. Portraits of Cambodia – Mrs. L

Deputy Editor 2016 -2017. I'm a Geography student here at Southampton. Also, an avid adventurer; who is always up for discovering somewhere whether it's new or old.

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