o’svay village, Stung Treng province – In the 1960s, this village along the east bank of the Mekong River, just south of the Lao border, was a thriving market town and the administrative center for Thala Barivat district.
Traders from Laos and Cambodian farmers from as far as 100 km away would meet in the market area to exchange goods near a statue that featured a young King Norodom Sihanouk. A sugar refinery and silk weaving center stood near the newly built school, police headquarters and district hospital.
Although O’Svay was for many years a port-of-call for French colonial merchant ships that operated along the Mekong River, there were just a few dozen families who lived here up until 1963.
The government of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk was worried about protecting and maintaining the unpopulated border area and moved more than 200 families here from just about every province in Cambodia, as well as from Kampuchea Krom.
“We were very poor and we wanted to have our own land,” said Meas Chime, a 69-year-old woman who left her homeland in Svay Rieng province and saw tigers wandering nearby in the years after she arrived.
Older villagers still remember the day in 1968 when a helicopter landed in the village and then-Prince Sihanouk stepped out to inaugurate his “special village” and to unveil the village’s own Independence Monument. And they remember when, two years later, the Sihanouk era of peace and relative prosperity came to an end with the arrival of Viet Cong soldiers, Khmer Rouge cadre and US bombs.
It has taken decades, but villagers have begun rebuilding. The bombed-out buildings remain, but nearby bomb craters have been filled in and a new school has been built. Water hand-pumps and filters have been installed. A glass-walled pagoda, where children can learn English, stands on the site where soldiers once lived. Another pagoda, half-built on top of a hilltop, should be completed in the next few months.
A village revival was “impossible” until just a few years ago, according to villager Yen Sokhan. Khmer Rouge troops usually held this remote area from 1970 until the movement sputtered out in 1998.
“Nothing much has happened there since 1970,” said David Wright, Stung Treng project coordinator for Partners for Development. “We couldn’t get very far up the river [until 1998].”
For years, young villagers could look forward to just a few years of education and then a lifetime of subsistence rice farming.
But with newfound political stability, villages like O’Svay are realizing that relying on just rice farming won’t get them ahead financially.
Fourteen young villagers recently returned from Preah Vihear province, where they received five months of silk weaving training at the Veteran’s International silk project.
With the help of Partners for Development the villagers hope to bring back the small silk-weaving industry O’Svay had in the 1960s, adding another facet to the village’s small economy but also reviving a village tradition.
“The older women who did silk weaving [during the Sihanouk-era] wanted to see that reestablished before they died,” said Wright. “The community hand-selected their best and their brightest.”
The villagers were trained by disabled people in Preah Vihear to weave, dye silk, raise silk worms and take silk from cocoons, according to Bud Gibbons, Veteran’s International project manager and a veteran of the US war in Vietnam. Gibbons said the young trainees didn’t ask about the US bombing of O’Svay during their stay in Preah Vihear.
“[The war’s] been sort of forgotten by this generation. And it is not my intention to bring it up, for a variety of reasons,” he said. “One of the reasons [Veteran’s International] is here is to rectify our mistakes from the war.”
The village will begin producing and selling silk kramas by the end of the year, Wright said. Veteran’s International has agreed to purchase the village’s silk products. Villagers will use donated money to build a center where looms and other materials will be kept.
Srey Mom, 16, is happy to help revive her village’s silk weaving tradition, but most of all, she “wanted to have a job.”
Thao Sao, a 71-year-old woman who moved here from Kandal province in the 1960s, is happy now that her son, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, has returned from Anlong Veng. He recently married the daughter of a prosperous family and lives on the opposite side of the Mekong River, she said.
She’s also proud that silk weaving is being revived in O’Svay.
“I wanted to continue weaving, but I cannot because my eye is not so good,” she said. “I am very happy in my heart now. We wanted to continue this and give it to the coming generation.”