kompong svay district, Kompong Thom province – He may be named for a group of talkers, but this baby still hasn’t said a word after 10 months. He sits in his mother’s lap, watching and listening to everything going on around him, but seldom makes a noise.
Last June 11, Rothsaphea was born in a makeshift tent in the park across from the National Assembly. His mother and 90 other people from Phsoat village had spent seven months camped in the park, a visible eyesore they hoped would convince legislators to let them back into fishing areas that had been sold to a Kompong Thom province family.
It was hot and miserable in the park—and sometimes dangerous. Two days before Rothsaphea was born, a villager gathering scraps of wood for a cooking fire found a grenade someone left near the makeshift shelters. Police safely took the grenade away.
Sun Lap received no injections before giving birth, nor a warming fire beneath her later, as is often used in Khmer village deliveries. It was the other villagers who suggested the name Rothsaphea, which translates into English as “parliament,” again in hopes of attracting attention.
Two days later, Phnom Penh municipal officials cleared out the protesters, citing an upcoming visit by then-Thai prime minister Chuan Leekpai. The NGO Licadho helped moved them into Wat Botum for a week before Kompong Thom province officials arranged for the return to their village.
Almost all of Phsoat village floats off the eastern shore of the Tonle Sap about 10 km north of the bottleneck at the bottom of the lake. Boats are the only reliable transportation to the village; the scattered March rains were enough to turn the road from Kompong Thom town into knee-deep mud.
Sun Lap brought Rothsaphea to the village chief’s floating home for an interview—night had fallen and only the chief’s home has a light. Asked how much her child weighs, she put Rothsaphea on a scale the chief’s family uses to sell small dried goods stored in a corner of the house.
Rothsaphea weighs 7 kg, not much for a 10-month-old child. His tiny body looks a little too small to support his head. But his mother said he’s been reasonably healthy.
“He had measles a couple of months ago, and just this week he had a small fever,” Sun Lap said. For the fever, she took her child by boat about 12 km to the nearest clinic at Chhnoktrou town, Kompong Chhnang province, and bought 2,000 riel worth of medicine.
Chhnoktrou town is also the home of Im Mai, who with her husband Yit Yi owns the contested fishing area.
It is not a rich and powerful family. They sold their Kompong Thom farmland five years ago and borrowed enough to pay $30,000 to wealthy Kompong Thom businessman Puth Ho, who sold them an area about 4 km long and 1 km wide from Lot 4, the huge property Puth Ho bought from the Department of Fisheries.
Im Mai and her extended family live in a floating house that cost about $1,100 to build. There are surprisingly few hard feelings between Im Mai and the villagers who filed a complaint against her. Im Mai asked about Rothsaphea’s health, and obligingly rented a boat that could safely reach Phsoat village on a stormy day.
Im Mai said the maps she received from Ministry of Fisheries officials when she bought the lot did not make it clear that the villagers depended on those waters to sustain themselves. Her husband said they try to share the catch from the disputed area with the poor villagers while still making a living for themselves.
During the dry season, there’s nothing to fight about. The land in question is 3 meters above the Tonle Sap water line. During the rainy season, the land becomes a “flooded forest,” rich with easy-to-catch fish. But there’s not enough fish for both the lot owners and the villagers, especially with prices dipping as low as 200 riel per kilo at the market.
“So we end up going out into the middle of the lake” where there are public fishing grounds, Sun Lap said. “But our boats and equipment aren’t big enough to be out there, and we’re not experienced at knowing how fast storms will come.”
One week earlier, a 44-year-old woman from the village drowned when her fishing boat was caught in a Tonle Sap storm. “I’m afraid of being killed like my neighbor,” Sun Lap said.
The villagers probably won’t have to venture out into the lake as often in the future. In October, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered fishery officials to reduce the size of some fishing lots and return the areas to public fishing use. Their district chief has told the villagers they should have their rights back by May. Im Mai has been assured by Department of Fisheries officials that they will receive property elsewhere on the lake to make up for what they must relinquish.
In the meantime, Rothsaphea is the village celebrity. There has never been any talk of substituting a more traditional name. For now, he’s a silent symbol.
“We’re going to get our rights back, so the seven months of misery in Phnom Penh was worth it,” Sun Lap said. “When Rothsaphea gets older, I will tell him he was born in miserable conditions. And I will explain his name to him, and tell him why he should smile when they call him Rothsaphea.”