AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 227

[ Southeast Asia Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 227: New Forms of Social Organization in Cambodia

Organizer and Chair: John A. Marston, El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico

Discussant: Lindsay C. French, Rhode Island School of Design, USA

In her 1968 thesis anthropologist May Ebihara famously stated that, at the Cambodian village level, other than the Buddhist temple, there was no form of social organization between that of the family and that of the state. (It would be interesting to investigate how much, at the time of her research, this was true outside of the context of rainfed lowland rice agricultural communities.) At the present time, one finds much evidence of non-religious social organization in rural Cambodia, if much of it in a state of rapid change. These forms of social organization have their roots, in part, in long-standing cultural practices; they grow as well out of different movements and philosophies of socialist and post-socialist Cambodia—and, perhaps most of all, out of the livelihood needs of an expanding society with increasingly scarce access to resources. Community organization has been particularly evident on Cambodia’s coasts and in the floodplains of the complex system of waterways of the Mekong river and its tributaries. The papers on this panel will look new ways of integrating access to resources in this context, how communities have formed out of the need to manage scarce resources. the complex relationship these communities have with the state, and the ways there have been attempts to mobilize community when facing challenges from outside actors: the state and local or transnational entrepreneurs.

Farmers' Associations in Cambodia: Internal Functions and External Relations
Chanrith Ngin, Independent Scholar, Cambodia

This research report looks at the development in Cambodia of Farmers’ Associations (FAs), formed in response to a need to develop shared power when negotiating with external parties. In Cambodia, agriculture accounts for 34 percent of GDP and employs 70% of the labor force. Given that 35% of the populace live in poverty and most of them are rural farmers, improving the agricultural sector would seem the most effective way to reduce poverty. Agriculture has also been identified as key to diversifying economic growth, with the potential to reduce poverty significantly if focused on smallholders. It is believed that if agricultural productivity were increased by between three and four percent, the Cambodian Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on poverty might be achievable. However, agriculture in Cambodia is predominantly subsistence rice production, and despite a rice surplus in recent years, the bulk of the country’s poor are individual rice farmers who only grow enough rice to feed their families for half the year. This study examines the role collective action plays in helping Cambodian farmers resolve their problems in situations where individual Cambodian farmers are vulnerable. It will examine the internal functions and external relations of FAs and what organizational and environmental factors have contributed to their success. I argue that unless institutional arrangements are put in place to support collective action initiatives, small farmers will not be able to effectively leverage their bargaining power, vis-a-vis external actors.

Grass-roots Participation in Agircultural Water Governance in Cambodia
Vathana Thun, Independent Scholar, Cambodia

This paper will examine Cambodian farmers’ organization in relation to two issues: 1) sustainability of irrigation infrastructure and 2) farmer water user groups. Cambodia has an abundance of water for agriculture and other purposes; however, it is a commodity that needs to be managed and utilized to its capacity. It becomes one of the biggest points of contention between villagers and between villages. Damages to irrigation infrastructure are caused by mainly two factors: 1) floodwaters that enters the canals during high river flows and 2) heavy transport of products where irrigation structures are used as roads. The sustainability of irrigation infrastructure requires continuous maintenance and proper operation through Farmer Water User Groups (FWUG). FWUGs are usually limited by it by poor resources and thus dependent on external supports. Because of a recognition that irrigation water is provided to farmers with better results when operated by decentralized organizations such as FWUG, the policy of the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) is to devolve responsibility for all aspects of irrigation management to FWUGs. The main role of FWUG committees are day-to-day activities of operation and management, fee collection, water distribution, problem solving and external relations. FWUGs are expected to serve the interests of its members and remain free of political corruption, although, practically speaking, remaining free of political interference is difficult. The paper will examine the problems of organization and financing faced by FWUGs in practice.

A "People's" Irrigation Reservoir on the Tonle Sap Floodplain
John A. Marston, El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico

Cambodia’s Tonle Sap floodplain has been the focus of increasing attention as an ecological system, at the same time that there is increasing awareness of the possibilities it suggests for agricultural growth in a core region. Over the past six years, Kampong Thom province, with the encouragement of then-governor Nam Tum, has seen the construction of numerous rectangular dike systems designed to capture floodwaters for the irrigation of dry season rice. As the numbers of reservoirs increased, and as they increasingly encroached on protected areas (especially the Tonle Sap’s flooded forests) they have become increasingly controversial, to the point where in early 2010 Prime Minister Hun Sen called for all reservoirs to be destroyed. While the majority of the reservoirs are privately owned, some have been cooperatively constructed and run by villagers. These are not recognized by the state as either farming cooperatives or farmer water user groups—but developed at the same time that the state was promoting such organizations. The proposed paper will describe the development of one large “people’s” reservoir in Stoung district—how it grew out of protests against private reservoirs, how it itself has generated disputes and charges of corruption and unfair exclusion, and how its location near protected areas raises questions about its future (although in July 2010 it was granted at least a temporary resprieve). The paper explores questions of community mobilization and how this relates to larger patterns of social development in Cambodia.

Community and Religious Ceremony in Cambodia: Pchum Ben and Social Change
Judy Ledgerwood, Northern Illinois University, USA

This paper look looks at an old form of social organization, the ven or “turns” that Cambodian villagers take to prepare food for the monks and their fellow villagers during the annual festival of prajum ben, and how the organization of these groups seems to have changed in recent years. The research, conducted in southern Kandal province, compares the current ven system where the entire village turns out to prepare food on a particular day, and the perhaps older process whereby a kinship group, the descendants of one remembered grandmother, do so. For 15 days the monks do not go out on alms rounds, but temple supporters prepare food at their homes and bring it to contribute or they come together and cook at the temple to feed the monks and those who come to celebrate the festival on their assigned day. People try to attend as many as seven different temples during the 15 days, as their deceased ancestors are said to be returning as hungry ghosts, searching for their descendants to feed them. Research conducted in 2003, 2007 and 2010 in 21 temples in Kandal province showed that prajum ben was considered the most or second most important festival of the year and virtually 100% of respondents said that they participate in the ven system, often bringing food to more than one temple. How do changes to this “traditional” social system reflect larger changes in post-war society?