The Mekong River–which translates to the “mother of all rivers”–starts in the mountains of Tibet, flows through China’s Yunnan province and then into Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It’s an extraordinary region, home to 250 million people and some of the most dynamic and troubling developments in the world.
In the vivid new book Crossing Borders: Reportage from Our Mekong, the Inter Press Service has assembled articles and photo essays from 17 journalists who scramble around the region to ferret out unusual stories. They have gone after the stories that rarely make it into the U.S. press–the underside of China’s development projects in Laos and Cambodia, the lives of sex workers in Vietnam, the decline of Dai culture in Yunnan province. It is an impressive compendium of Inter Press Service journalism from and about Asia.
In this photo, Cambodian police catch a looter near the Thai border. Cambodian antiquities are still hot items on the international market, despite efforts to preserve such world famous sites as Angkor Wat. “While looting at the Angkor complex, a World Heritage site since 1992, has dropped dramatically since a more than 300-member heritage police was assigned to guard it in the late 1990s,” writes Khem Sovannara in his photo essay, “it continues at other sacred sites across Cambodia, including pre-Angkorian ones, that do not get as much attention as Angkor.”
According to Heritage Watch, “at least 20% of tourists have unknowingly bought ancient Khmer artifacts, often thinking that they are just ordinary items.”
In this photo, the Venerable Moha Samai, a Buddhist monk in Thailand, hosts a radio program on environmental issues. The station is located in Surin, not far from the Cambodian border, and the environmental programming goes out in Thai, Lao, Suoy, and Khmer languages.
“The monk said it was not easy to get the radio station off the ground,” reports Ung Chamroeun, “because some government officials were not too keen on efforts that would undercut the profitable activities of corrupt officials. But today, with the help of Cambodia-based NGO Mlup Baitong, environmental topics get the lion’s share in programming. Commercial advertisements, including those pushing beauty products, are politely refused.”
Crossing Borders is a superb way to indulge in political tourism without getting on a plane. The articles are written by journalists from the region, who know it intimately. They neither turn their eyes away from the seamier side of the region’s development nor ignore the inspiring of examples of civic and cultural activism. It is a region “rich in stories,” as editor Johanna Son relates in her introduction. “Several Mekong countries are grappling simultaneously with trends that other nations have dealt with over much longer periods of time: the transition from a centrally planned economy, recovery from years of conflict, the pressure to open up markets under a freer-trade regime, and the opening of borders.”
FPIF, December 27, 2006