A monkey, a tiger and a bear strolled through the crowd down Sisowath Boulevard Monday morning. They and their friends carried cardboard signs that urged the protection of Cambodia’s wildlife.
Of the thousands milling around Phnom Penh during the Water Festival, most people are here for profit, fun or both. But this year’s festival has seen a number of socially conscious Cambodians trying to get their messages to the masses.
Pao Navy, a team leader for Mlup Baitong, or “Green Shade,” and her menagerie marched around the city to locations where they could draw the most attention with their homemade animal costumes.
Pao Navy said her organization usually focuses on teaching primary school students about the value of Cambodia’s forests and their inhabitants. But by working the festival crowds in the morning and afternoon, they have access to many Cambodians of all ages, she said.
Municipal Chief of Cabinet Mann Chhoeun said the city granted many groups licenses to lobby festival-goers this year. “During the celebration a large number of people are in Phnom Penh. So the municipality must use this opportunity to let NGOs and other associations educate people about the significance of [various issues],” he said.
The cause drawing the most support though is AIDS awareness. Two concert stages, one organized by the National AIDS Authority in front of Wat Botum and one organized by the HIV/ AIDS Coordinating Committee in Chroy Changva, kicked off variety shows with an AIDS awareness theme yesterday morning.
This concert is not only for singing sweet songs and making people laugh. It is also to educate the people how dangerous AIDS is,” said Dr Le Samorl, a director from the National AIDS Authority.
He said that about 2,000 volunteers from 47 NGOs will be distributing 150,000 condoms and 100,000 educational leaflets throughout the city. The volunteers will also target boatmen who could contract the disease while celebrating in Phnom Penh and then take it home to their villages.
Kong Udom, a member of the HIV/AIDS Coordinating Committee, said that the AIDS education efforts of the past seven Water Festivals appear to be paying off where risk and prevention are concerned.
“Prevention in general has been successful, but the discrimination [against victims of AIDS] is still there. We have to work harder to reduce the discrimination,” he said. His organization’s slogan for the year is “Live and Let Live.”
Hun Sotha, president of the boat committee, said Monday that Prime Minister Hun Sen has sponsored more than 300 boats of 57 crewmen each. Hun Sen’s name is featured on all of their hats and T-shirts.
“My uniform was paid for by Samdech Hun Sen, and he sponsored my rowers. I will try my best to gain success for my pagoda and Samdech Hun Sen,” said Nouv Sarath, 23, of Kandal province.
Chan Tha, another boatman wearing a Hun Sen T-shirt, said, “The boat committee told me that I have to wear the uniform during the competition day. I can’t take it off.”
Opposition parliamentarian Son Chhay said the Sam Rainsy Party did not sponsor racing boats because traditionally the boats and their crews have been organized by pagodas.
(Reporting by Kuch Naren, Nou Sophors, Lor Chandara, Yun Samean and Porter Barron)