A Khmer workshop

The location: a large room in a luxury hotel in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville or Siem Reap. The tapestry on the floor and the paint on the walls have colours that in Europe were modern during the ’70s or ’80s of the last century, a large fake chrystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. In the front of the room hangs a large screen, covered with green fabric, on which are attached in relief letters the occasion and the date. At the top of the screen hangs the Cambodian flag, with at its left side a portrait of the King, at the right side of the flag the portraits of the king’s parents, left his father, right his mother. Below are the logos of the donors that made the meeting possible. In front of the screen a stage with either a row of chairs, possibly behind a long table, or several “comfortable” chairs that look more like thrones, in case some really important people will attend. Left of the stage, seen from the room, stands a lectern with a flower arrangement (made from real flowers). To the right a table with a few chairs for the minute-taker and assistants. The tables and chairs in the room are placed in lines, like an old-fashioned classroom. On every table stands a small bottle of water and lay paper and pen or pencil. The room is cold, preferably freezing cold, and the airconditioning will remain on for the day.

PodiumA long table for the registration of participants is placed besides the entrance of the room. From 7.30 till 8.00 o’clock the junior clerks will distribute plastic folders with information and make sure everyone notes his of her name, sex, function, organisation and phone-number and, most important of all, signs for presence. Most participants are able to just walk into the room after that, but the important guests will be escorted to their places in front of the room by the a bit less junior clerks.

The scene is set for a real Cambodian congress/meeting/workshop (which is all the same word in Khmer, so difficult to differentiate), so let’s start. At 8.00 the MC (Master of Ceremonies) from the organising committee, will open the meeting with a short welcome and the playing of the national anthem. Everyone has to stand up, the MC calls something like “pay attention” and subsequently follows always the same squeaky version of the national anthem. It happens regularly that the tape doesn’t start so everyone will wait for around five seconds, sit down and start the meeting. The real opening of the meeting is provided by a speech from the most important person of the organisation, who is the formal chair of the meeting. After that follows usually a speech from an important guest. With those speeches the problems with the agenda will start. For some reason the standard time allocated for the speeches is 10 or 15 minutes, while everyone know it will take much longer. Important people (including the chair of the meeting) will speech for at least 45 minutes, longer most of the times, and not always related to the subject of the day. The more important they are, the longer the speech will take (the record of the prime minister is around 5 hours, second place after Fidel Castro). No one from the organisation committee is allowed to interfere, so it’s a matter of wait until they are finished.

ZaalAfter the speeches it will be time for the coffee break, the most important moment of the morning for Cambodians. Not because they are craving for coffee, but they are craving for the food that is served with it. A lot of sweets, slices of pizza, fruit, Cambodian jelly, all set out on long tables and piled up on the plates of the participants. Usually the tables are empty long before the end of the break.

Back in the room, an expert will introduce the real subject of the day, usually through a long powerpoint presentation. Oftentimes the presentation takes more than an hour, followed by a question and answer session. Sometimes the expert sends his/her assistant, who reads the presentation from paper. Then we skip the question and answer session.

presentatieAt exactly 12 o’clock starts the lunchbreak. Everyone who thinks to be able to continue for 5 minutes after 12, will be disappointed. No more attention will be paid, people will start to leave the room. The lunchbreak will, like every day, last until 14.00h.

In the afternoon the “interactive” part of the meeting will start. This should have started in the morning, so will be shorter than was planned. The participants will be divided into small groups, lead by a facilitator from the organisation, to discuss in separate rooms about an aspect of the subject of the day. Unfortunately, these small groups are usually comprised of 25 to 50 people, so only the front row is able to join the discussion. After the group discussion, we go back to the large room, where the facilitators give an extensive presentation about the results of the group discussion, usually supported by flip-overs. Somewhere in between, there has been another coffee break, with the same amount of food as before, although with a bit more fruit instead of other sweets.

The meeting will be closed by another important guest, who arrives just before he has to give his presentation. Because he doesn’t have a clue what happened during the day, but is supposed to reflect on it during his speech, the minute taker will first read out the minutes of the day. Then follows the last speech of the day. It is striking how easy it is to accurately predict what someone will say once you have heard him close this kind of meetings a few times.

After the closing, or quite often already during the closing, comes the highlight of the day for most participants. The payment of DSAs to those who signed the attendance sheet in the morning.

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