They were crouched down on the broken red earth, clutching a smattering of belongings in the dusty air. Straw sacks, canvas bags, and empty water bottles were scattered in between the small spaces that separated one person from another. Children clung to parents. None of us knew why they were asked by the Thai border police to sit there or how long they would be waiting. The afternoon was sizzling hot with a temperature of around 35°C (95°F). There was no shade. We (myself, students from the program, and a few others) were permitted to continue directly to passport control without a second glance.
Witnessing a new wave of Khmer migrant workers fleeing from Thailand’s recent military coup is only one of many social realities students of Lang in Cambodia 2014 will be encountering over the next five weeks. As the next iteration of this international civic engagement program unfolds, we take up urgent questions of political resistance and organizing, the militarization of public space, environmental politics, displacement and migration, endemic poverty, educational access, and ongoing structural violence—all of which inform the lives of everyday Khmer people and are crucial considerations for the country’s overwhelmingly youthful population.
Students have already begun to interrogate critically the landscape of development that mediates much of what they see around them. They are making important links between the history and politics of the Cambodia they have spent the last six months studying in a classroom in New York City and the Cambodia that stands before them in the markets, tourist sites, NGOs, and factories of the city and the temples, rice fields, and villages of the countryside. They are listening to the stories of children, families, and communities who are struggling with basic issues of food security and access to clean drinking water. They are meeting young people who are traveling long distances by foot or bike to attend school, the youth who are the future of this nation.
In turn, the students of Lang in Cambodia 2014 are grappling with what it means to collapse the distance between their lives and the lives of the local people with whom they are creating relationships. They are becoming acutely aware of the material and discursive realities that go hand in hand with a world marked by growing inequality, as well as the political conditions and dynamics of power and knowledge that produce it. They are posing questions about their place and purpose in such a world.
Students will be sharing their experiences of academic seminar (anthropology of development), Khmer language classes, and field-based projects through this blog and the Lang in Cambodia 2014 Facebook page. As faculty director, I feel immensely privileged to be part of this learning endeavor. My deep thanks to the Ponheary Ly Foundation for hosting The New School, once again, and for allowing all of us to learn from the organization’s staff over the coming weeks.