February 24, 2014
A recent proposal from Australia to the Cambodia government has people here in Phnom Penh agog, as well as most Australians of even the slightest liberal viewpoint.
A proposal from the Australian Foreign Minister that Cambodia resettle refugees seeking asylum in Australia has been greeted with hilarity here.
Speaking to the press on Saturday, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong revealed that his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, had made the request in talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, a proposal that the government was taking “very seriously”, he said.
Now, it’s easy to mock the proposal: most economic migrants would find Cambodia’s nonexistent welfare system, health care and education a bit of a black mark. An average daily wage of $1 is probably not what they were looking for when they got on the boats to go to Oz.
But genuine political refugees are unlikely to be particularly safe here. In 2009, Cambodia sent 20 Uighur refugees back to China after they were smuggled into the country by a Christian group. The 20 Uighurs said they were fleeing persecution after a crackdown that followed riots in western China.
The deportation, in the face of protests by the United States, the United Nations and human rights groups, came two days before China signed 14 trade deals with Cambodia, worth approximately $1.2 billion.
Before being deported, several of the asylum seekers told the office of the UNHCR that they feared long jail terms or even the death penalty. At least two of them have since been sentenced to life in China’s lovely prison system. Information on the others is unavailable.
Sarah Hanson-Young, an Australian Greens party senator and immigration spokeswoman says “Sending refugees to Cambodia is neither a sustainable or reasonable response to the fact that people seek safety from war and terror by coming to Australia.”
Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak told a local paper that Cambodia had a “horrible” refugee rights record. “We don’t have the financial capacity but we also don’t have the political will [for] refugees who need protection, especially when most refugees are of a political nature,” he said.
Meanwhile, people have been asking me about the progress of Harley the puppy. Well, firstly, we’ve decided he has oppositional defiant disorder, which is described as “an ongoing pattern of anger-guided disobedience, hostility, and defiant behaviour toward authority figures that goes beyond the bounds of normal puppy behaviour.” Yep, that’s Harley.
He’s also become enormous. Here is a picture of him considering whether to eat an entire, real, horse. Honestly.
And here is a picture of him trying to stop me taking his picture.
So Harley is fine, but an enormous pain in the arse.
But we love him immoderately.
February 17, 2014
This can be a very strange country sometimes. I wrote recently about the theft of some Buddha relics from a very sacred temple just north of Phnom Penh. Well, they’ve arrested a man for the theft, called Keo Reaksmey, who reportedly believes he is “the brother of the sun.”
Keo – a gentle and kind young man, according to neighbours – would put on a white robe and sash usually reserved for nuns, and would present offerings to the sun each day at dawn. So far, just a typical loony. What amazed me is that local officials apparently believe he was given powers of invisibility and superhuman speed.
Bot Pheakday, director of a school in Khvav commune, where Reaksmey studied, was quoted by local papers as saying that Reaksmey was thought to have inherited the “powers” from his father.
“This man could run very fast, and turn invisible sometimes. I think he had magic powers,” he said, with a straight face. “His father was also wanted by the police in the past, but he always evaded capture and disappeared.”
Meanwhile, in another village in another part of the country, thousands of people are flocking to pray to eight pythons they believe can bring good luck and ward off illness.
After the pythons were caught and handed over to wildlife officers, residents of the remote village began reporting high levels of anxiety and having nightmares about the snakes, according to the district police chief.
Word apparently spread that the eight pythons were deities that had been protecting the villagers for more than 100 years.
A seven-day “ceremony of happiness” has been organised to raise the money needed to build a new habitat, back near where they were found.
A villager told a local paper that they “do not know if they are pythons or holy pythons, but villagers have had nightmares telling them that these are the deities,” he said. “Some villagers are ill right now. If the pythons are not taken back to the same place, the whole village will be faced with a big problem.” Er, yes, quite.
And finally, a group of international UFO fanatics has announced plans to build an alien embassy here in Cambodia. These people, known as Raelians, believe life on Earth is the scientifically engineered creation of an advanced alien civilisation, called the Elohim, and their mission on the planet is to prepare humanity for their eventual return.
One of the main goals of Raelism is to build a $20 million embassy for the Elohim. They want to build it in Israel, but their symbol – a swastika enveloped in a Star of David – means the movement is banned there.
So Raelians are looking eastward and have applied to the Council of Ministers in a letter addressed to Prime Minister Hun Sen. A spokesman for the Council of Ministers said that although he was not aware of the application, he would welcome an extraterrestrial movement in Cambodia. “To me, this would be great if we can start an alien movement or institution in Cambodia. We are not alone, my friend. When I tell my friends at work, nobody believes me.”
The group’s leader, Frenchman Claude Vorilhon, founded the cult in 1974. Controversies over attempts at human cloning in Europe have sadly led to Vorilhon’s exile from France, where there is a warrant out for his arrest.
Despite the movement’s expressed alignment with Buddhist values, since its first seminar in 2006, it has only managed to attract 10 adherents in Cambodia. So perhaps the country isn’t quite as strange as it occasionally seems.
February 11, 2014
Epic Arts is a charity based in the UK, China, and here in Cambodia, where they have an arts centre in the gorgeous, sleepy riverside town of Kampot. They work with the disabled, and “believe in a world where people with disabilities are valued, accepted and respected.”
You may not have heard of them, but they have some high-profile supporters and patrons, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who says of them: “I am deeply moved by Epic Arts’ determination to see lives transformed through the arts and by their commitment to fight injustices that affect people with disabilities. Epic Arts opens our eyes to our common humanity so that all of us can flourish.” Amen to that.
Anyway, someone showed me a video a couple of days ago that they made, and I can’t tell you how impossibly lovely, life-affirming and heart-warming it is. It stars 11 deaf people, 10 physically disabled, 15 learning disabled, six parents and Sothon, who is blind – you’ll know who he is, if you watch it. They’re dancing and singing along to the Pharrell Williams song ‘Happy’ around Kampot, and if it doesn’t make you grin like a maniac, then you’re probably dead.
So go on, give it five minutes of your time – Epic Arts get some money every time it gets watched – and share it around if you like it. And you will like it, guaranteed.
February 9, 2014
An odd week, here in the Pearl of Asia. Last weekend was great: an old and very dear friend from London came for the weekend. We had a profoundly cool time, caught up properly and insulted each others’ football teams in a mutually satisfying fashion.
On his last night, I dropped him at his hotel, chosen by me, which is new, and looks great, at about 0230hrs. At about 0730 he was banging on the door of our flat, having had all of his possessions stolen.
These things happen; of course they do. His wallet, watch, phone and iPad were all replaceable, and probably securely insured. The fact that someone made it past the rolls of barbed wire and over a second-floor balcony, without being detected by the hotel’s security staff might raise an eyebrow.
But what really pisses me off is the attitude of the hotel staff. The manager, some deeply pointless Frenchman, couldn’t care less, and actually excused himself from any discussion on the subject. The culpable security guard just laughed, even when accused. The hotel is called La Librarie, on Street 184, and I’d rather stab myself in the face with a radioactive knife than recommend that anyone stay there. Tripadvisor beckons.
The police, of course, were worse than useless, and are withholding issuing an insurance-helpful certificate, because my friend had to fly out to a range of meetings in KL and Singapore. Although they intimated that with the right payment, everything could be resolved happily.
So that was the bad.
The next day saw the launch of Phnom Penh’s new bus service, which runs the length of the city, for a mere 1,500 real, or 37 cents. The story has made the news worldwide, but that’s probably due to a huge crew of teenage freelance journalists here desperately trying to sell something, more than actual news value.
But, by god, this city could use a decent bus service. Traffic has got significantly worse in the couple of years I’ve been here: snarls and gridlock during rush hour are persistent and unpleasant. I got stuck at a major intersection a week or two ago when the traffic lights failed, and it looked like Rorke’s Drift.
So we wish the bus service all the best. One article I read suggested that there were 1.5 million mopeds here, in a city of 1.5 million, so that’s clearly wrong, as I don’t have one. And nor do too many children under the age of about, oh, seven. Everyone else does, though.
The next good thing was that the garbage collectors’ strike ended. These poor people work like Japanese beavers, for next to no money; finally they went on strike. A compromised was achieved, and everyone seems relatively happy, but for three or four days, the trash built up on street corners, and, in this heat, it can fester. Good god, but it can stink. I believe they now get $100 a month.
And finally, Blossom got a call this morning to tell us that a great friend of ours had died. He was one of the nicest guys I knew here. I last spoke to him just before he flew to Kota Kinabalu, where he had a massive heart attack: he had a great plan that involved us working together on a fun project. He was smart and serious, a gentle soul, and the world will miss him. RIP Chip.
So that was a week.
January 27, 2014
Here’s a story that doesn’t seem to have been given much play by the world’s press, but is horrible. On Saturday night in a remote part of Kampong Thom Province, 11 people were killed in a grenade attack on a pre-wedding party.
Thirty-three people were injured in the attack, and police said they have arrested a 24-year-old suspect who had an argument with the groom a few days before the party. Both bride and groom were badly injured, but survived.
Details are sketchy; it is a remote part of Cambodia, but the governor of the province reportedly said that the suspect was in love with the bride and had a history of aggression toward the groom.
“Both men loved the bride and were jealous of each other,” the governor told a local newspaper, adding that commune police had previously detained the two men and “educated them to stop fighting each other.”
Another paper went on to report that guest Morn Cithy, 27, lost her father in the attack, while her mother, two sisters and two brothers were all injured.
“I was the lucky one in my family to not get injured, because at that time, I was just standing and laughing at my father dancing,” she told the paper.
Morn said she was unable to afford a funeral, and had to bury her father in the jungle, late on Sunday.
There’s not much to add to this, or to say. It’s tremendously sad that there are enough weapons still kicking around Cambodia to make this not especially unusual. And jealousy is, sadly, universal. I can’t help feeling that it might have been given more airtime had it happened somewhere else: 11 people is a lot. [Shakes head sadly]
Meanwhile, here in the capital, the simmering unrest continues. Yesterday a dozen people were hospitalised after hundreds of workers and opposition supporters took to the streets in defiance of a ban on protests.
Led by labour unions and rights groups, protesters had gathered to urge fresh wage talks for garment workers and demand the release of 23 people detained by police during the last crackdown, in early January, which saw five people shot dead. Rights activists say police, equipped with batons and electric prods, used force on protesters, who retaliated by throwing rocks at them.
And just today another half-dozen people were hospitalised after a peaceful rally was dispersed after more than 100 military police charged, “unloading volleys of smoke canisters and swinging batons to clear away stragglers.”
Security guards – the untrained, helmet-wearing men who have been used to violently enforce the ban on public assembly in recent weeks – also joined in, reportedly clubbing those, including journalists, who didn’t manage to get out of the way in time.
It’s a lovely country, but surprisingly violent at times. Land of contrasts, eh?
January 21, 2014
The charity I occasionally help out, the wonderful CamKids, is constructing a new building out at the school it runs near Kampong Speu, a couple of hours outside Phnom Penh. And it needs to: the primary school, which has been open for nearly two years, now has 250 children registered. It is miles from anywhere, out in the paddy fields, with no electricity or running water, but the children are ecstatically happy, and so are the parents, who can foresee a better life for their kids, eventually.
The new building has a couple of classrooms, some storage space and various small offices, and basically doubles the size of the school. It is being paid for by an amazingly generous donation from an American who is funding the whole thing, in memory of his late mother. My role in the project is tiny: I have to go out to the school once a month, take photographs and write up a short report for the donor describing how the work is going.
So yesterday morning, shortly after dawn, I could be found on the back of a motorbike, haring across the Cambodian countryside. The weather was just warm enough for shirtsleeves (the driver was wearing a parka) and it was eerily beautiful.
If you spend too long in glossy, urban Phnom Penh, you forget how intensely rural Cambodia actually is: life goes on much as it has for generations, apart from the odd battery-powered TV and a few plastic buckets. All around me on the dirt roads were people subsistence farming: women wobbling on stately old bicycles to market, chickens hanging off racks on the back; men climbing coconut trees; women gathering lotus flowers; men driving scrawny cattle somewhere or other; people casting nets across ponds looking for the tiny fish that live there; the scent of woodsmoke and cow dung rising up through the still air. Everyone smiled at me, the deranged-looking barang grinning happily from my perch on the back of the motorbike, wreathed in feather-light dust. It was beyond magical.
Of course, I wouldn’t want to live there: I like decent espressos, good red wine and internet access. So it probably sounds a bit disingenuous and patronising for me to bleat on about the magic of the Cambodian countryside, where life is, for many people, nasty, brutish and short.
But my main thought as we negotiated the potholes and avoided overloaded oxcarts, was that it was a Monday morning, and I wasn’t on the Central Line, fighting my way to Canary Wharf. I have never been so glad of anything in my life.
January 16, 2014
No curtain left untattered; no sandal left un-gnawed; no plant left un-denuded to standing puppy-height; no cushion left unchewed; no takeaway menu left unshredded; no cardboard box unmolested; no socks unholed; no doormat un-nibbled; no shirt left unripped; no table leg un-chomped; no picture frame unbitten; no trouser-leg unsullied; no rucksack untrashed; no electrical cable left un-nipped; no lampshade untasted; no newspaper unrippped and no bedsheets un-destroyed.
But isn’t he magnificent?
I kill when I wish! I am strong, strong, strong! My armour is like tenfold shields! My teeth like swords! My claws, spears! The shock of my tail, a thunderbolt! My wings, a hurricane! And my breath, death!
JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit
January 3, 2014
Interesting times in Cambodia this New Year. And by interesting, I mean, not good.
Since Christmas Eve, a majority of the country’s garment workers have been on strike. Yesterday, an elite paratrooper regiment attacked strikers with metal pipes, knives, AK-47s, slingshots and batons outside a Korean-owned garment factory on the outskirts of the capital.
And today, the police shot and killed at least three strikers at another factory. There is a jittery mood in Phnom Penh, not helped by the country’s supine media not reporting much about the current events.
Garments are a huge source of income to Cambodia; some 600,000 people are thought to work for some 800 factories; most of them are young women from the countryside. The trade is worth some $5 billion to the country, or about 12 percent of GDP.
The issue, of course, is money. The striking workers currently get the minimum wage, of $80 dollars a month, and the opposition CNRP has vowed, if they win a rerun of last July’s disputed election, to raise this to $160. Of course, Hun Sen says there will be no new elections, but he is under a tremendous amount of pressure right now.
Whether increasing their pay is actually realistic, is unclear. With Bangladesh’s new minimum wage set at just $68, and Burma looming on the horizon, many doubt there’s room for such a drastic hike in wages. “I don’t think it’s deliverable, I think it’s a popular move that the opposition’s riding on,” says political analyst Ou Virak.
Garment factory owners are unlikely to want to double their wage bills, and would probably up sticks and decamp. That could lead to massive social and economic problems; most workers wouldn’t go back to the countryside. “If they stay in the city, there is the risk they may end up working in the indirect sex industry at restaurants or karaoke bars,” says Ou Virak.
Analysts say the situation is “precarious” and the government’s strategy was not to cave in, but to cling on and hope the protesting workers run out of money.
Of course, the CNRP is riding the wave of discontent, and has called off talks with the ruling CPP in protest at the violence. There are really no winners here, but, as ever, it is the very poorest who are getting shafted the hardest.
December 31, 2013
Well, Harley’s home, and he’s completely adorable. And completely insane.
Over the years, I’ve had a lot of dogs in my life. But not that many puppies. The last one I had to deal with in any protracted sense was a 10-week-old Jack Russell called Bonsai, whom I drove from a remote Scottish island all the way down to Dorset, howling in a cardboard box on the passenger seat for 13 hours. I think we were both pretty relieved when that journey was over.
But how quickly memory fades. I had completely forgotten what a pain a puppy can be. But with the arrival of Harley, I’ve been reminded, forcefully. Harley likes to chew things. And Harley doesn’t take well to being baulked when it comes to chewing. It doesn’t matter what it is: trouser legs, socks, fingers, the walls, earlobes, newspapers, curtains, lamps, electrical cables, cardboard boxes; all is grist, as it were, to his mill. The dog is relentlessness personified.
Now I hesitate to call a dog stupid, especially one that’s owned by me. But it is true to say that Harley’s mind is a little … underdeveloped. He is only eight weeks old. And he is your basic tabula rasa. It’s a delight to see a thought cross his little mind: he’ll be walking in one direction, when he’ll think of something and spasm up into the air to turn around to act on that thought immediately. Even if it involves him running headfirst into a wall.
Another problem that we hadn’t fully anticipated was that until he finishes his shots, in about six weeks, he can’t be let outside. Rabies, distemper, parvovirus: all of them could kill the little beast, and coupled with his habit of putting everything in his mouth in this, a profoundly unclean city, he is in no small amount of danger. So for the time being, we can’t have someone come in to walk him at lunchtime; instead, Blossom has taken him to work today in his cage, and deposited him underneath the stairs. I’ve been dreading a phone call from Blossom at her wits end, but apparently it hasn’t been too bad, apart from him crapping repeatedly in his cage, and filthy children wanting to play with him. (Blossom hates filthy children.)
And I’ve just got back from the pet store. Dog food is $18 for a kilo-and-a-half! That’s apparently enough to last him 11 days. That’s almost more expensive than the food I eat. But Blossom says pizza crusts aren’t nourishing enough for him. The mind boggles.
Anyway, that’s enough dog stuff for now. Have a brilliantly happy New Year, everyone.
December 23, 2013
It’s freezing in Cambodia. Well, not actually freezing, but considerably colder than usual. Yesterday, the temperature at noon was 21°C (70°F), which is pretty cold for Phnom Penh. The Ministry of Meteorology says that this is the coldest weather Cambodia has seen for 30 years, and is blaming it on strong winds from the northeast carrying abnormally cold air southward into Cambodia from Siberia. This is probably true; northern Vietnam has seen snow this week.
Now, most people would say that 21°C is pretty warm. But not Cambodians, and, after perhaps too long here, not me and Blossom either. We shut the terrace doors last night, didn’t turn on the fans, and I almost slept in a T-shirt. That’s nothing compared to the locals: this morning our tuk-tuk drivers were wearing parkas zipped up to their chins and bobble hats. They appeared to be suffering.
The cold weather has had one beneficial effect; we’ve discovered we’ve got hot water. Despite occupying our flat for nearly two years, we only just discovered that if you flip a switch on the fuse box, the showers get extremely hot. Most of the time, some 51 weeks a year, we don’t need hot water: it gets pretty hot on its own sitting in a tank on the roof in the scorching sunshine. But it’s been nice this week.
In other news, the opposition CNRP’s recent decision to hold daily protest rallies, which provoked a huge collective groan of boredom when it was announced, received an unexpected boost yesterday when more than 100,000 turned out to call for new elections and for Hun Sen to stand down. The CNRP, perhaps optimistically, reckoned that there were half-a-million protestors, which seems a little high; they called it a “political tsunami.” But a minimum of 100,000 good-natured electors were out yesterday, the biggest anti-CPP demos since the disputed elections of 1998.
The demonstrators cited a list of reasons for Hun Sen to step down, including the wholesale selling of Cambodian land to foreign agricultural firms, deforestation, the minimum wage, the shooting of garment workers and spiralling unemployment. Hun Sen said in reply that he had “done nothing wrong” so didn’t need to quit.
I, of course, managed to miss the whole thing, being laid up in bed with a savagely bad back, a sign of my increasing decrepitude and age. But if the demos carry on, there could be much more to watch.