For Better or Worse, Change Comes to Mondolkiri

Sen Monorom, Mondolkiri province – New paved roads, round-the-clock electricity, streetlights, a postbox and plans for a major water plant: Mondolkiri province has come a long way in the last few years. Until recently, Sen Monorom was one of the least developed provincial capitals in the country. Today, its residents are welcoming the long-awaited changes which, they say, have made life a little bit better.

Where diesel generators were once the only means of lighting bulbs or powering televisions, two new hydroelectric dams at the Damnak Sadech and O’Romis waterfalls now generate 370 kilowatts of electricity per hour that, since Oct 20, provides Sen Monorom with non-stop power for the first time ever.

This recent leap into modern age has enabled local officials to authorize the installation of streetlights in Sen Monorom-also a first for the provincial capital.

Now, Mondolkiri is poised for visits from outside investors keen to exploit new opportunities and foreign tourists eager to traverse some of the country’s least trodden paths.

“When we have enough electricity and water supply in the province, more investors will invest in this province, and it will also attract more tourists,” said Kong Pisith, director of the Mondolkiri provincial department of industry, mines and energy.

Around 140 of the 150 planned streetlights have so far been installed along roads leading into and around Sen Monorom; they are turned on every evening at 6 pm and shut off at 5 am, Kong Pisith said.

The city’s first ever public mailbox is yet another development. The bright red mailbox showed up about a month ago near the town’s main traffic circle that goes around a water buffalo statue.

“Nobody uses this box or really knows how it works,” said Y Nita, 34, who runs the nearby Raksmey Phnom Thom restaurant.

“It’s just making people curious and people, especially young people, crowd around and look at the box because people have not figured out how to use it,” Y Nita said.

“Even myself, if I want to contact another person, I just call them directly,” she said.

Plans are also being drawn up for a $1-million water purification plant whose construction could start as early as 2010, Kong Pisith said.

Roads in Sen Monorom have also received a makeover, with workers paving 20 km and repairing another 30 km of unpaved roads since 2005, said Mau Thonnearak, director of the provincial Department of Transportation.

National Road 76-a 127-km long, 11-meter wide dirt road winding between Snoul town in neighboring Kratie province and Sen Monorom-is also on track for completion in 2010, Mau Thonnearak said, adding that a $55-million loan from the Chinese government is paying for the work.

“We will try our best to pave more roads in 2009,” he added.

The road construction and street lighting make it much easier to do business, particularly for Safety Driving School, Sen Monorom’s first driving school.

“Previously, it was very hard to reach the provincial town: There were so many potholes,” said Heng Saron, a driving instructor at Safety Driving School.

“It’s fabulous to have lights along the streets because it makes me feel safe to go out at night anywhere. Before no one used to go out of their houses in the evening because the electricity was turned off at 10 pm,” he said.

Ah Uien, a member of the Banong ethnic minority and resident of 40 years, said she has seen the town change from a quiet outpost to almost a small city. The pace of development in Sen Monorom is dizzying, she said.”This market used to be my family farmland,” she added.

Ani Sren, 28, a secondhand-clothes seller who moved to Sen Monorom six years ago, said that outside investment has changed the way the province’s ethnic minorities-who until recently well outnumbered Khmer residents-live.

Previously, ethnic minorities used and lived off the province’s natural resources, but now big companies are doing that,” she said.”I think big changes are happening here because of the investments,” she added.

But not all of those changes are welcome, particularly as investors tend to have their eyes on the province’s sparsely populated land, which belongs to the area’s indigenous minorities.

Hundreds of Banong rallied on Saturday against the clearing of their farmlands by the Khaou Chuly firm in Pech Chreada district, torching three excavators and damaging a fourth being used to prepare land for a giant rubber plantation.

In 2005, thousands of Banong held mass demonstrations against a land concession granted to the Chinese-backed Wuzhishan firm, which was granted vast swathes of territory to grow trees for pulp paper processing.

“When I first got here, there were only a few wooden houses,” Ani Sren said.

“Now with the big changes there are more people, more concrete buildings, more paved roads and more guest houses,” she said.

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