Bordering Life - Cambodia / Thailand

The border, the embankment: the limit. Imaginary lines tracing places separated by different languages, currencies, flags, anthems, customs and traditions. The control by the authorities ensures that the limits are respected.

Poipet, Cambodia, a small town bordering with the Thai province of Sa Kaeo. Here everyday the border is crossed by thousands of people in both directions, but the greatest flow is definitely of Cambodians going back and forth to trade all kinds of goods (and services). It is not too hard to guess that there are margins to go beyond legality. At the Golden Gate Plaza (friendship border market), past the area where fish is sold, it is forbidden to go further – and it’s not authorities that stop you, but a bunch of seemingly amicable Cambodian men. A doctor working in the charity sector to assist children victims of trafficking defines it an “illegal border”. Just like people are not just barely their physiognomy and hide secrets, so borders have their “black holes”, their breaches letting through what cannot and should not be seen.

The Golden Gate overflows with goods and people, whereas on this side of the border the Mongkul Poipet Market is almost deserted, except for a few stalls and shoppers. The goods on display come from Thailand, and the prices are higher than on the other side of the border.

How do you measure a border, its thickness? The sense of this space, a strip of no man’s land between two states, harbours an incessant movement. As in an ants’ nest, all its inhabitants have a precise task to perform: there are those cooking, those making photocopies, taxi drivers, those waiting for a passage to the other side, those pushing carts full of goods, the ladies working as croupier, emerging in the morning from the casinos to have breakfast... This border has a width comprised between Thailand and the casinos in Cambodia: as if it were the foam of the sea on the breakwaters. Between the casinos and Aranya Pratet, the Thai town on the other side, is comprised the border. Banteay Meanchey, the province where Poipet is located, over the next years will surely develop thanks to its position, to new infrastructures promised by the government (like the railway), and the wide availability of cheap labour. At the moment the Cambodian government’s investments are limited to the primary sector, to rice cultivation and little more. Some companies connected to the production of technological components are operating here, but the greatest government revenues in the area come from the building of casinos of foreign property, disregarding the favourable tax regime. It is foreign investors thus that benefit of the gambling, Thailand in primis, just as gamblers are in the vast majority Thai and Chinese. With such heavy flows of money, in the middle of a land that remains destitute in the end, there are people living of begging, charity, prostitution and all sorts of activities one can imagine to earn a dollar more.

At the end of August some local charity sources informed me that new children kept arriving in Poipet from Thailand, lured with the promise of work. It is not possible to know what has become of them, whether they begged for days, enriching their traffickers, and then returned – or if they got lost in the nights of solitude, sniffing glue and with no direction, expectation or protection.

The fascination for this place, this promised land smelling of money and opportunities, lures people from all over the Kingdom of Cambodia (Kâmpŭchea). They go in search of their place in the mosaic, and so the slums running parallel to the National Road No. 5 never stop growing. National Road, a name that seems to show the way for the subjects. In this vicious circle of corruption, servility and misery, politics plays a role of its own. Democracy is a badly synchronised duet between the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Political violence and breaches of basic human rights are way too common, and build on the massive, outrageous legacy of the recent past, marked by the genocide (both of the dead and of the survivors) of the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot.

Cambodia is indeed growing, the figures speak for themselves, it’s opening to global markets and exchanges. Over the last 5 years the GDP has always been growing, exceeding 7%. Phnom Penh is a dynamic and expanding city, but which development model is it following?

The very same government supporting big business, in the area of Poipet’s dumpsite rents some areas to families of migrants who build there their homes, and who pay everyday a small fee for the right to scavenge among the trash to see what could be sold and earn a living. On the 26th August 2016 these families had three days left to leave their homes and move: where to? Well, anywhere but there. The bulldozers will come anyway to take down everything.

The border, the embankment: the trench. On this fine line walks the desperation of the desire to conquer a better tomorrow. The border is there, almost devoid of sense, to regulate a game that has nothing to do with the geographical reality. Across and on the border together coexists a population gamblers, entrepreneurs, tourists and abused and trafficked children. Some of them can be traced, even for the use they make of credit cards and smartphones, hotel registrations and casinos entrances; some others cannot undergo the global control, and simply do not exist. If you don’t exist you can disappear, nobody will come to look after you. The passport is not needed, it doesn’t confine, it doesn’t identify, and in the worst of cases, you can rest “in peace”.

Alessandro Brasile Phnom Penh 2nd September 2016

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