Cambodia: MTV Exit and Changing Societal Perceptions

December 20th, 2008

MTV Exit is part of the MTV Europe Foundation, a UK-based charity whose overarching aim is to utilize and maximize the power of MTV’s network to educate youth and adults on critical social and human rights issues.  The Foundation produces multimedia programming and events aimed at raising awareness and influencing attitudes and behaviors on key issues, as well as inspiring young people to take action.  In addition, the Foundation seeks to support nongovernmental organizations that are working on the ground to address these issues and effect positive change.

Four concerts in Cambodia are the start of a regional campaign intended to shift social norms so people not only know what exploitation and trafficking are, but they are unwilling to accept its existence.

(above: concert goers cheer at the MTV Exit concert at the Olympic Stadium, Phnom Penh)

I thought this would fit nicely with my thesis of Cambodia: Victim to Survivor where I’m weaving a figurative Cambodia (trafficking survivor Srey Neth) with the literal Cambodia represented by the government and the NGO’s. MTV Exit would fit into that NGO realm, the money from USAID and QB Cellular to back it, along with the officials who made highly similar speeches of thanks and congratulations; together this would be a fine slice of the literal Cambodia. Most importantly, though, were the people who showed up at the concerts. They are the ones these concerts are meant to effect.

The four concerts started in Sihanoukville, the beachside quasi-resort town sporting a deep water port, a flirtatious affair with a potential US naval base, and a highway built by the United States military (ostensibly for munitions transport) before Cambodia’s descent into genocide and war. Unfortunately, there’s no surfing. However, if Chevron and the government figure out the oil royalties and Chevron begins developing its offshore oil patch, Sihanoukville will make any Wyoming oil boomtown look like a daycare center at nap time.

Second was Kampong Cham, a town bearing the same name as the province, a few hours north on cluttered two-lane highways. The MTV guys were pretty excited by what they said were “thousands of farmers watching in the fields.” Considering that trafficking often starts with the rural or impoverished seeking economic opportunity, I would think this might have been one of the most important concerts.

Citizen buy-in, through emotional connection and intellectual understanding is essential to changing social norms. You may be appalled, but there are many parents here who think nothing of sending their 14 year-old daughter to a promising job offer in the city, or their son to an offer in Thailand–a country with one of the fastest growing GDP’s in the region built largely, according to a report I skimmed today, on the back so migrant workers. A lack of education, awareness, and an economic need for one less mouth to feed at home–one that could be sending money from some lucrative job instead–drives people to send their children off. Many don’t know the risks.

(above: UK band Placebo performs at the MTV Exit concert in Angkor Wat)

The third concert was in Angkor Wat. This is where I hooked up with the show. It was the first ever rock concert held at the UNESCO World Heritage site and involved quite a few officials and ministries and connections to happen. It was a VIP crowd of 1000, largely of government and NGO folks, but off in the bushes were a lot of the locals who work nearby selling stuff to tourists. As far as concerts go, the access was fairly open (with the exception of Placebo which imposed the oft-used only-three-songs-for-pictures rule) and the setting was quite stunning. You can run through the temples, as I have, trying to capture it on camera before the light changes or the crowds appear, but if you pause, even for a moment, it’s pretty spectacular to realize the significance of the temples. I had a moment like that on my first visit at dawn to Angkor Wat, and later watching the sun set on its western facade, and this trip when I was the last tourist to climb down from Phnom Bakheng in the Cambodian twilight.

While the event was fun for me, and I had a chance to meet The Click Five band members and hear how they were just learning about human trafficking, I felt the images were…just concert shots with no real context for my project.

(above: Khmer hip hop performance at Olympic Stadium, Phnom Penh)

Phnom Penh, I thought, would be better. It was in the Olympic Stadium, a capacity for 50,000, and much more open to the public–the people for whom these shows were meant. Kim Reed, a volunteer photographer from Pittsburgh whom I know through my sister, was in town and together we took a moto to the stadium. We got off at what I call the Shit Pool, a retention pond that reeks of sewage and rot I used to run by when I came to the stadium for a morning workout. Up the ramp and across the top of the stadium where we passed by the “aerobics” classes and looked into the bowl. Coils of razor wire delineated no-go zones around a stage oriented towards the central bleachers. This wasn’t going to be a show for 50,000.

(above: a young Khmer woman sways to The Click Five at the Olympic Stadium, Phnom Penh)

We found our way in, through minimal security, figured out the shots we might make, then waited for the show to begin. As dusk fell, the crowd grew until the bleachers were nearly full. I was up near the top, next to the ministers and police generals, when the Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng’s security detail arrived. Clad in black pants and black straight-hemmed shirts, they carried radios but not much else (as far as I could tell). I realized I was sitting next to a small wicker table with a cloth over it. Delicately, I checked beneath it. And then I looked around for untended bags. Or people who sat alone. I suppose when you end up sitting and waiting and waiting your mind wanders. But it sure would suck to be that unlucky foreign journalist in the way when someone with a vengeance wants to act.

The speeches were rather agonizing. Again, in my opinion they lacked real substance, but that might be hard to do when it’s an English/Khmer translation. Except when Sar Kheng spoke. He did a gentle “is it on” tap at the microphone, then launched into a lengthy prepared speech. No one translated for the English speakers and the crowd erupted in cheers for his last few sentences. Then the show began.

(above: Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng prepares to speak to the crowds at the Olympic Stadium, Phnom Penh)

We waded down through the masses; fire codes be damned, there were no aisles any more. I looked back. Kim was following me as were four other Khmer cameramen. I pushed on, down to the crowds on the ground. With no dinner I grabbed us a couple Cokes and some water–it was going to be a long night if we stayed.

Kim stayed by me as we went in and out through the guards at the backstage entrance; I had a pass and she didn’t, but there’s something about a bunch of cameras and looking like you know what you’re doing that helps. Eventually she felt she could transition on her own. I found Somaly Mam backstage with her daughter, talking with The Click Five. Her “older sister” Sophea was there as well, with her daughter.

(above: The Click Five perform in Phnom Penh)

The Click Five had driven from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, having a chance to see the countryside and more of the culture. In Phnom Penh the went to AFESIP’s Tom Dy facility where they heard some of the girls’ stories. Sophea translated and the band burst into an acoustic set. In return, the girls sang for them. MTV was there to record the tears, but I just heard it from those involved. In this one week since Siem Reap, it seems The Click Five has learned quite a bit about human trafficking and what trauma and victimization can do. I hope they continue to use their celebrity to educate and build awareness. It’s easy to lose that drive when “life” gets in the way. But each time one of those girls shares a story, Sophea has to translate, or Somaly talks about her past, it takes something from them. They do it so others will know and then maybe it can stop.

When I came here two years ago I was moved by Somaly as a person and by the work her organization does. Since then I’ve done a lot of research both in the books and in the field; I have a more advanced degree in this work, but it’s still rudimentary. Yet when I meet people like The Click Five who are drawn to individual stories but don’t yet understand the regional, much less global context, I think about how to use the stories I have heard to help them understand–so the subject don’t have to endlessly revisit their trauma. But I think that is the subject of a different post.

What I do know, is like the MTV Exit campaign, I hope to build awareness and advocacy. I just have a lot smaller budget.

(above: view a gallery of images from the Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh concerts)

(below: another little video)

Cambodia: MTV Exit Concert from on Vimeo.

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