Bun Tharum, Phnom Penh
I visited the Japanese Embassy in Phnom Penh last week after hearing that the embassy compound was open to residents for donations to the earthquake victims in Japan. Buddhist monks, students, business people and ordinary citizens were standing in line to pay tribute to the victims of the 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami, by writing sympathy notes, bringing bunches of flowers and giving donations to embassy representatives.
When the tragic news broke out in Japan, I was at home in front of my computer screen, reading the news stories and viewing photographs. I was also on TweetDeck, a web-based Twitter application, to read tweets from people I follow, as this is also a way I can get news from more sources. It was heartbreaking to see the destruction brought by the natural disaster. The technology allowed me to quickly know what was happening in Japan and to connect with the disaster in a way that was not possible a few years ago.
But it was at the embassy that I decided to give a donation. Not online. Although it’s possible to make donation to the Japanese Red Cross online via Google Crisis Response, I felt it would be better to stop by the embassy and see other people visiting the memorial to pay condolences to the victims. The experience would be more heartfelt, I thought, than donating money online through my debit card.
Being there and having a sense of the memorial was quite different from seeing the pictures on the Internet or television. I was able to see other Cambodians generously making small contributions through the Japanese staff to the victims in the compound. Importantly, to be there means I can pay respect to the victims. That gave me the feeling I was seeking. I’d have felt nothing if I only clicked to transfer money over the Internet.
As much as technology can do, there are some things it can’t do. So there, at the embassy, I decided to give $5 to the Red Cross. In return, I received a certificate for my small donation. As more and more people kept coming into the embassy compound to donate, I wrote, by hand, a condolence note on one of the books for guests like me. In my note, I wanted to send a message to the Japanese people that what brought them down to earth would only make them stronger.
As modern media continue to report what’s happening in Japan, among Cambodians, various efforts by groups and individuals have been carried out, both online and off.
From fundraising, to Buddhist ceremonies, to expressing emotional support for the victims, more informed people here feel how they care about a developed country like Japan, which has been one of the major donors to Cambodia since the 1990s.
It’s approximately 4,400 kilometers from Phnom Penh to Tokyo, and the earthquake tragedy, one of the worst in Japan’s history, was felt here in the Cambodian capital. In a blog post by venerable Thach Preichea Koeun, a poem was written to the earthquake victims, describing the tragedy as the teardrops of human beings.
Hak Chansy, a former student at Royal University of Phnom Penh who now works at the Cambodia Japan Center for Cooperation, learned about the disaster at her workplace through NHK, Japan’s state TV.
Hak Chansy, who has visited Japan twice, wrote in an email: “I am very sorry when i heard about this. I love Japan so much and i like Japanese people very much also. I have many Cambodian friends and Japanese friends living there. I wish them be safe, good luck, injoy living there, dont want tsunami and earthquake happening again.”
Chansy didn’t visit the embassy to donate, but she instead joined a “bang skol” Buddhist ceremony dedicated to the souls of the dead, held at center.
Others showed their sympathy to Japan in different ways.
In a note to his online friends, Eng Vannak, a 28-year-old NGO staffer who has never been to Japan, wrote: “let’s start donate some bucks to help our Japanese people… I did it already and YOU???”
“What make me donate my money is because Japan is a big donor for cambodia and we so far have a good relationship,” he told me later in an e-mail.
Eng Vannak first learned about the Japan disaster through online news outlets and encouraged friends to help the victims by any means possible. He told me that he gave 10,000 riel, about $2.50, a week after the disaster. A coworker collected the money from the staff and took it to the embassy.
Eng Vannak said he would have donated online, where it would be easier and more reliable, but he couldn’t find a way to do it at the time, adding, “the money can be lost or stolen when it is brought to the embassy.”
On Sunday, Japan Alumni of Cambodia held a Buddhist ceremony for the victims of the disaster. Nearly 100 people brought food for 50 monks. Later, along Sisowath Quay, near Wat Botum pagoda, volunteers from the Japanese NGO Network in Cambodia held their own call for donations. They sold T-shirts bearing the message: “Pray for Japan.”