By May Thitthara
Stung Treng, Cambodia, October 30, 2017
My phone alarm rang at 4.30am in a small room in a guesthouse along the Sekong River, waking me and the photographer who planned to visit villagers whose houses had been flooded by a new hydropower dam.
As journalists, we often go to press conferences or meetings or even sit in our newsroom, but today we had a different job to do and we knew it was going to be hard.
We planned to write about and photograph the last of the ethnic families in Sre Ko commune, indigenous people whose houses had been flooded by the new Lower Sesan II hydroelectric dam and who had refused to leave their ancestral home, despite offers of other land or compensation.
Photographer Mai Vireak and I prepared what we needed the night before – I had a notebook and pen in my pocket and Vireak had his camera bag.
We walked downstairs in the guesthouse to the small, rented motorbike we were sharing and headed off in the pre-dawn darkness to Sesan district.
It was about 170 kilometres from Stung Treng town to our first destination in Ratanakkiri province.
When we stopped to get petrol about 40km from Stung Treng town, Vireak asked: “Brother, how far from here?”
“We are just about 40km from town. From Stung Treng to O’Pongmon is about 19km, then from there to the village is more than 130km, so please hurry and fill the tank,” I said.
During our ride Vireak continually pointed to the fuel gauge because we had run out while on jobs in the past.
After stopping two more times to fill up, we reached Boeung Krahorm and after that it was about 30km to Ratanakkiri province’s Banglong town.
I told Vireak we would take a dirt road to the village and it was about 50km more. I also asked him to hide his camera because from there to the villagers’ houses the police might check us.
After riding for about four hours we arrived at Sre Kor commune, but the road ahead was flooded and Vireak asked: “What should we do now?”
We had reached the edge of the rising water, which was now flooding the entire area.
I told him we’d park the motorbike here on high ground and I’d try to talk to one of the villagers and ask how we could reach Sre Ko village.
Vireak looked shocked, and asked: “Do we have to walk through the water?”
I said yes, if we don’t walk how can we meet the people and interview them?
With no food available in the flooded area, we couldn’t have any lunch, so I tried to call my sources, but none of the villagers answered their phones because they were busy taking their property from their flooded houses by boat to higher ground.
Then I finally connected with one villager. The villager said we could walk about 3km along the flooded road – the man told me the depth of the water was only about one metre or a little more – and he said we should go because people were now living in their forest community near their ancestor’s spiritual homes and graveyards.
After parking our rented motorbike on high ground, we started walking through the water, something that worried us because neither of us can swim.
After about 1km, we met a group of police who asked where we were going. I just smiled and said we were going to meet the villagers and the policemen didn’t seem interested in us.
Vireak had already concealed his camera and all I had was a notebook and pen in my pocket.
The police smiled and let us continue walking. They were in an area where the dirt road had come out of the water, but after we walked another 1km, the road dropped a little and we were back in waist-deep water.
One more kilometre on we met a group of people on a boat. These people were from the nearby Kbal Romeas commune and had come to help the villagers in Sre Ko, our destination.
I interviewed them and took notes about the situation in their village, where many had also refused to leave, and then we hired the boat to take us to Sre Ko village.
We were told people there were rushing to move their belongings to higher ground as the water from the dam kept rising.
After arriving by boat and doing some interviews, a group of police came by boat and said they were trying to get a video of some journalists they heard were in the area. I was in a boat with the villagers and the police didn’t notice us.
After the police left, the villagers told us: “Please leave from our village before 5pm. We saw another group of police trying to find you.”
At about 3pm, we decided to leave the village because we had finished our jobs. We walked out of the village with some others to higher ground and reached a dirt road that was not flooded. A local indigenous man then offered us a ride on a motorbike and said: “Please come on my motorbike now, otherwise the police will come.”
The two of us and one indigenous man rode for about one kilometre on one bike, but then the villager said to Vireak: “Please leave your camera with me and you can continue walking on the flooded road.
“I will give the camera back to you at my house, otherwise the police will confiscate your camera. They will not search me, but you look like an outsider and they may check you.”
As we walked along the flooded road, I became worried the police would find us so I tried to send a message to a colleague at about 4pm. There was no signal on my Cellcard phone, but luckily I had just bought a Smart SIM card and that had a signal.
I sent a text to my colleague in Phnom Penh, saying: “Please call the Stung Treng police chief and ask about two arrested journalists in Sesan district because I may be arrested soon.”
Luckily the police did not show up and we both arrived on the higher ground before them and went to the villager’s house near where we’d parked our motorbike. Vireak took his camera back.
I told Vireak it was going to rain, so we had to try to ride fast on the dirt road through the jungle in poor light to reach the main road for our own safety.
At about 5pm while riding along the small dirt road through the jungle it started to rain very hard, but we just kept going. It became very dark and the light on the motorbike was not very good.
“What should we do now – we have nothing,” said Vireak.
I told him we had to keep going until we reached the national road because it was night time and I was afraid that we would have a problem with our motorbike if we stopped.
We rode in heavy rain for more than two hours until we arrived at National Road 78.
We soon found a place to fill up with petrol as the heavy rain kept coming down. “What should we do? If we go to Ratanakkiri it is about 30km and if we go to Stung Treng it’s about 120km,” Vireak asked. I told him I am not good at riding at night and in heavy rain.
I didn’t want to go to Stung Treng because it was so far, but if we did not go there the owner of the rented motorbike would accuse us of stealing his bike.
We rode on through the rain. “Be careful, a buffalo is coming,” Vireak said. I told him I didn’t see it because it was raining so hard.
After riding for more than five hours in the deluge, we arrived in Stung Treng town. We went straight to our room to change into dry clothes. We were both hungry after not eating all day. I asked Vireak if he wanted to come and have some dinner.
“I’m sorry, but I have never had a day like this before and I am so tired I just want to sleep. You go and eat,” Vireak said.
The following day we had breakfast and made our way back to Phnom Phnom. I started to write my story while Vireak downloaded his photos and ate several quick meals.
Intrepid reporter inspires
May Titthara, better known to his friends and colleagues as Thara, has reported from some of Cambodia’s far flung provinces over many years. He travels light and is used to sleeping rough and going without food.
His efforts have paid off as he has also won more international media awards than any other journalist in Cambodia.
In an age when desk-bound journalism has become the norm in many countries, Thara stands out as an example to other reporters.
He has scoured Cambodia looking for stories that have taken him not only to every province, but to almost every district.
Thara’s dedication to exposing the reality of what is happening across his country is inspiring not only to other journalists, but also to readers.
His commitment to finding the truth at any cost has seen him forced to flee from military police in the early hours of the morning through more than 100 kilometres of dense jungle. This story is just one example of many.
2016: An award from the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media for Courage in Journalism for news reports that covered a topic identified as being sensitive or difficult to report on due to pressure or fear of repercussions, including land concessions, corruption and politics.
2015: A Transparency International award for a story on corruption.
2015: Society of Publishers in Asia award for excellence in investigative reporting for a series of articles.
2014: An investigation award at the annual WAN-IFRA Asian Media Awards, taking home two prizes at a ceremony in Hong Kong in the category of Best Editorial Content – Newspaper Feature Article for a story called “Big Biz Using Tiny Hands”.
2014: An Asia Indigenous People Pact and Building Community Voices award for outstanding reporting on indigenous people issues.
2013: Society of Publishers in Asia award for Best Reporter of the Year in Asia.
2013: He was part of a panel of Society of Publishers in Asia-award winners who participated in lectures and discussions on journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University.
2011: Plan International and Cambodia Club of Journalists award for excellence in reporting about children’s rights.
2011: Society of Publishers in Asia award for excellence in reporting breaking news.
2009: Society of Publishers in Asia award for excellence in human rights reporting.