June 16, 2005
Giants and Infants of the Mekong
Ethnic Vietnamese on the Mekong in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Days after the hopeful releasing of the endangered Mekong River Giant Catfish into the Mekong River in Cambodia, this morning an armed group has taken several hostages, some as young as 4 years old, at a school in Siem Riep, apparently demanding cash and weapons and transport into Thailand. The Mekong River, one of Asia's largest and most important rivers has been the circulatory system of this area, beginning in China and traveling through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and ending in the river deltas of Vietnam.
The Return of the Giants
The Mekong River Giant Catfish, which has been described to look like a toothless upside-down dolphin, is apparently down to critical numbers, can be seen as a metaphor the slow transformation of the traditional ways of life for the people living off the river. What has affected the catfish have most certainly affected the peoples.
For generations, Cambodian families have pulled fish out of the water almost at will. But in recent years, there has been a drastic decline in catches, and estimates suggest that giant catfish numbers have fallen by 90% over the past two decades. Possible causes include over-fishing, including the use of explosives and electricity, pollution and the building of dams upstream.
The Mekong River Commission, was established a decade ago "To promote and co-ordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the countries' mutual benefit and the people's well-being by implementing strategic programmes and activities and providing scientific information and policy advice." The MRC addresses issues such as sustainable agriculture and fisheries, flood management and mitigation and hydropower among others. Unlike other regional multinational organizations, such as ASEAN, the MRC is not a political one.
Mekong: Flow and Re-flow
The flow of the Mekong River actually changes directions as the seasons change, one goes upstream one season goes downstream the other. This also can be indicative of life here. One must live with inevitable change.
What happens in Burma or Thailand does indeed affect Vietnam and Cambodia. The effects of massive damming projects in China to the lower Mekong River nations are still unknown but certainly will be unfavorable.
We know that violence has the potential to spread like wildfire. This region of the world has seen more that its share of modern human devastation from the war between the United States and Vietnam, the genocide of the Khmer Rouge and the recent violence in Southern Thailand which yesterday saw another beheading of a buddhist monk.
At present there is little information regarding the hostage situation. It remains unclear whether the armed group are affiliated with any organization. Their motive also as yet remains unknown. For whatever motive, the targeting of schools and children for violence is truly abhorent. From experience, we know that these situations rarely turn out positive, from the hostage situation in Beslan, Russia ending in over 300 dead children, toddlers and infants to the burning of 18 schools in southern Thailand. We can only hope for a better outcome in this developing crisis. It has been reported that they seek entrance into Thailand. We recall the burning of the Thai embassy by rioting Phnom Penh Students in January 2004. The relationship here with Thailand will be interesting. Vietnam, on the otherhand, for whom many Cambodians feel as much historical animosity or even more for, has been leveraged as one of the safest nations in Asia. This perception has done miracles for the burgeoning tourism industry here. Many of the tourists in HCMC take the day trip to the Mekong River Delta. There are approximately 5 million Khmer speaking peoples living throughout the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam. Consider this, the entire population of Cambodia is approximately 11.5 million. I will be looking for how the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai media frames the hostage situation in Cambodia over the next days.
Mediating the Mekong
I have been given the opportunity to pursue my arts research project, Mediating the Mekong, with a research grant from the Martell Corporation and the Asian Art Archive. As connections between catfish and violence can be seen as just one of many that can occur with the ever reconfiguring of the Mekong, we might also approach the arts within this interconnected model.
Posted by rst at June 16, 2005 04:09 PM
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The hostage standoff has ended. Sadly, with one child dead.
Posted by: r. streitmatter-tran at June 16, 2005 07:29 PM