December 5, 2013
Blossom and I recently celebrated 17 years of connubial bliss, or would have done, if she hadn’t been in Bangkok for the weekend. But that aside, we’ve been reflecting recently on how our lives have differed from those of our contemporaries, practically all of whom are married, and all of whom have astonishingly numerous cadres of children. That’s an area where we’ve been at odds with many of them; our cheerfully childless state has been an issue for many people, who wanted us to share in their pain. So we have decided, finally, to submit to the biological imperative, join the ranks of the Standard Unthinking, and give up lazing around in bed on a weekend.
We’ve bought a puppy.
Said puppy is only five weeks old, so we don’t actually get to pick him up until Christmas Eve. But we’re quite excited. And a little nervous. I can’t remember how to housetrain dogs, for instance. And what is this ‘crate training’ of which people speak? Also, I’m incredibly irresponsible, on the whole. So being responsible for a little dog will be a whole new thing.
For the record, he’s a brindle pedigree Boston Terrier, bred here from parents from Ohio and Texas. He’s currently extremely chubby and tends to leap about violently, then falls asleep wherever he might happen to be. Blossom just has to look at him and starts squeaking. As I said, his working name is Harley (I’ve always wanted a Harley…), because Blossom won’t let me call him Satan, but secretly in my heart he will always be The Vicious Beast of Death. But any other naming suggestions are most welcome.
I’m optimistic that this blog won’t become all about Boston Terriers, and that we won’t get too soppy and stupid about the dog. I used to work for a homosexual couple in Hong Kong who had a pair of collies, and they held birthday parties for them, complete with special cakes and party hats for the dogs. But they were spectacularly stupid people; I hope we’re not. It’s only a dog, in the end. We shall have to see.
November 28, 2013
Earlier this week, I had to organise a conference here in Phnom Penh, which involved getting a bunch of CEOs and decision-makers to sit through two hours of indescribably dull chat, and then have lunch. The guests who made it were a pretty impressive collection of PP’s great and good, and represented quite a lot of economic and social power.
But wandering around the lunch afterwards, I was struck by something: how few women there were. Out of about 60 people, there were about four women, and half of those were foreigners. This made me quite uncomfortable.
I think my discomfort was partly to do with a recent United Nations report that said that an astonishing 20.8 percent of Cambodian men interviewed admitted to having raped a woman, while 15.8 percent of those who admitted to raping did so under the age of 15. And more than five percent of Cambodian men have committed gang rape, considerably higher than the intolerable regional average. Forty-five percent of men who had reported having raped said they had done so out of “sexual entitlement.” And 49 percent of all men interviewed in Cambodia have had sex with a sex worker or paid for sex.
These statistics are shocking. But not entirely surprising. Until 2007, schools in Cambodia taught, as part of their core curriculum, such as it is, something called the Chbab Srey, or Code for Women. The Chbab Srey, which is written in verse, lays out a set of rules and principles for women, and encourages deference to their husbands. “You must remember to serve your husband. Don’t make him unhappy. Never touch his head. A woman must be polite and shy.” And so forth.
A Khmer blogger recently wrote that when she travelled to the provinces and talked to women about their experiences, she asked “what kind of husband they would pick. Many said simply, ‘One who drinks less and beats me less.’”
I was talking to a friend the other day who runs a school for gifted children here, which started from scratch a couple of years ago, and chose equal amounts of boys and girls. “One thing we hadn’t thought of,” he told me, “was that the girls we teach will almost certainly never get married. At least not to Khmer men. Because education isn’t something a Khmer man wants in a wife. And I’m quite conflicted about that.”
Cambodia’s two most famous living women are politician Mu Sochua and charity head Somaly Mam, and both are married, or were, to foreigners. Just sayin’.
Now I don’t have any answers to the problems of this country, and Cambodia is terribly poor and backward. But Thailand is led by a woman (sort of). So it can be done. I’ve just been reading about female kick-boxers here in PP, so perhaps things are changing. But there is an embarrassingly long way to go.
November 22, 2013
Without a great deal to write about at the moment, I think I’ll go back to a bit of a round-up of little things that have occurred to me in the past few days, rather than the trenchant political analysis you may have become used to.
Although the opposition CNRP is still refusing to take its seats in parliament, much to everyone’s deepening despair.
It seems like the party is simply holding out for the hell of it, and unless its takes up the seats it justly won back in July, it is doing its voters a disservice. I believe that the ruling party has many questions to answer about the conduct of the election, but the CNRP cannot reasonably expect any gains now; most countries have endorsed the results, and people want to get back to business. But the CNRP is calling for more demonstrations next month: most of the country is getting mightily irritated.
As a measure of quite how crap things can be here, Cambodia (population 15 million) just lost a game of football to Guam (population 159,000). Not the country’s finest hour.
On the block on which I live, which is, admittedly, fairly central, three new boutique hotels have opened in the past three months, which is a pretty impressive indication of the current speed of change in Phnom Penh. The hotels look pretty nice, although the one opposite our house has a live outdoor band in the evenings, and they fill the night air with syrupy saccharine-sweet Khmer music until the small hours, which is something I could do without. Blossom is seriously unamused. They also advertise that one of their restaurant’s specialities is frog porridge, which is entirely disgusting. I haven’t been in yet.
I went out today to the site of the amazing CamKids school near Kompong Speu, a couple of hours outside Phnom Penh. They were staking out the site of a new classroom building, and I was there to record the event for the man in America who has, incredibly generously, offered to pay for it all. It is hugely necessary, as the school now has 250 children who get educated, fed, taught basic hygiene, given access to medical care and dental work, given a school uniform and, when they graduate to big school, given a bicycle so they can get themselves there.
Before the school opened, in March last year, none of these kids would have gone to school at all. It is humbling to play even the tiniest part in the transformation of the lives of these kids, and to see their happy little faces. Most of them don’t want to leave the school, and some even try and sleep there at night, as they love it so much. So if you fancy doing something wonderful for Christmas, consider giving CamKids a few quid. You’d be making a big difference.
November 11, 2013
The United Nations has finally ruled on a disputed piece of land surrounding a famous temple in the far north of Cambodia, saying that the Thais must withdraw from the area, as it belongs to Cambodia. At least, that’s what I could work out from listening to the tedious verbiage that the International Court of Justice decorated its decision in – some people are saying that there is still a chunk of land they didn’t rule on.
The temple complex, called Preah Vihear, is miles from anywhere, and not many people get up there: I haven’t yet made it. It is spectacularly located, on the top of a 1,700-foot cliff, and construction began in the ninth century. I’m desperate to go. But it’s quite dangerous: 18 people died in military clashes there in 2011 after the Thais and Cambodians both asserted their sovereignty over the area, and many people expect more fighting this time.
The Bangkok Post is claiming that Cambodia has introduced more than a thousand plain-clothed “temple security guards” armed with AK-47s to the temple complex; this weekend the chief of Cambodia’s military called an emergency meeting after Thai aircraft were seen flying low around the disputed land.
A 1962 verdict by the International Court of Justice declared the temple Cambodian, but didn’t rule on the 4.6 kilometre area surrounding it. Cambodia sought a clarification in 2011, after fighting erupted.
Cambodia has a right to get a bit shirty about its neighbours trying to claim its territory. If you go into Thailand from Koh Kong province, you quickly notice how there’s this weird long and thin strip of valuable coastline that is supposedly Thai territory; to the north it’s all Cambodia. And at the other end of the country, visitors to Kep look out over the beautiful island of Phu Quoc, just 10 kilometres from Cambodia and some 40 kilometres form Vietnam, which administers it.
But analysts note that Thailand is in a precarious position, politically. “For Thailand, the ICJ decision on Preah Vihear comes at a critical juncture,” Thai political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak told a local newspaper. “Any change in the status quo would play into the hands and perhaps become the key catalyst of the anti-Thaksin/anti-government protesters in Bangkok. They … could well be for a government overthrow next week if the ICJ rules against Thailand.”
Of course, over the last 1,500 years, the three countries have ebbed and flowed over the maps here as warring kingdoms have advanced and retreated. But Cambodia has suffered more in recent years, and Preah Vihear is an important part of the country’s pride and self-image.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.
October 28, 2013
Well, we’ve just had three days of protests by the opposition CNRP, demanding recounts and an investigation into election irregularities. And frankly, I thought they were a bit of a disappointment. Despite a little hysteria before the demos (“As Opposition to the Regime Mounts, Cambodia’s Capital Braces for Bloodshed”, as Time magazine had it), nothing untoward happened. The government didn’t even put up its razor wire barricades, and they let the marchers wander around the city pretty much at will. So the CNRP gave great packages of thumbprints to various embassies, none of which were willing to comment on anything at all, and that was about it.
The general feeling in town now is that opposition leader Sam Rainsy should suck it up, take his 55 seats, and get on with being an effective opposition. Attitudes are hardening against the CNRP; businesses want to do business, people want to invest. Most of the protestors this time were poor rural people who had been bussed in; the young people of Phnom Penh, who had been so active in delivering the original substantial gains for the CNRP, were nowhere to be seen.
Blossom and I had been advised to stock up on food before the demos; I thought it was laughable, but Blossom went out and spent a large amount of money on various basics, all of which are now languishing in the freezer.
In other domestic matters, I discovered that the person who had stolen my shoes was the same tuk-tuk driver with whom I’d had the altercation earlier in the evening. It turns out that the security guard had let him into the building, told him which floor I lived on, and then let him back out, bearing my expensive shoes. I asked him what he thought he was doing, and he just shrugged. He’s since been fired, which is a shame, because he was a nice man, but since his only task was to stop people getting in and stealing stuff, I think he was a bit of a failure.
Another domestic tragedy occurred the other day, when our cleaner decided to wash a pile of laundry. This would have been fine, except we’d run out of washing powder, so she decided to use bleach instead, with predictably awful results. She meant well, and we haven’t fired her, but several of my shirts and a number of Blossom’s tops were ruined, although I guess we could wear them if we were going to a fancy dress party as aging hippies. Actually, seeing as we are ageing hippies, we could probably wear them normally. Ah, life in Cambodia … we love it.
October 18, 2013
This time last year, I happened to be in Bangkok for the South East Asian Write Awards, Asia’s biggest and most prestigious literary prize. I got talking to one of the organisers, and she mentioned that Cambodia hadn’t entered anyone for five years. Could I, she asked, perhaps look in to finding someone for this year?
So when I got back to Phnom Penh, I set about finding someone. There aren’t many poets and writers working in this country: most people are too busy trying to get enough to eat, and the publishing industry is tiny and resource-poor.
But I put together a committee, with the head of Cambodian PEN and a professor of Asian Studies from California, and together we decided upon a young Khmer songwriter who has had some fiction published in literary journals. And this week I watched as Sok Chanphal picked up the award from Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. It was quite a proud moment for me.
Chanphal, who seems like a very nice kid, was, I think, fairly bowled over by the whole thing. He got to spend a week at the ultra-deluxe Mandarin Oriental and hang out with the other nominees, fostering literary connections and making new friends. He’s come back to Phnom Penh with a new energy for writing and a determination to write more and better.
I’m not sure, entirely, that the Mandarin, superb hotel though it is, is quite the right venue for a literary awards – the ceremony itself was an exercise in plush and pointless excess – but I’m happy that Chanphal got to enjoy it, and I’m thrilled that Cambodia is, to some extent, back on the world’s literary map. It’s another step on the road to the recovery that this country so badly needs.
I also think I’ve found another writer for next year’s awards.
October 10, 2013
I was planning to write this week about my love of the Khmer people, their cheerful generosity, their friendly nature, their boundless enthusiasm for life. But then one of them tried to beat me up, and another stole my shoes.
I was coming back from a night out with an old friend, and my tuk-tuk driver demanded twice the usual fare, thinking, perhaps, that I was a tourist and therefore here to be fleeced. I told him, perhaps somewhat abruptly, precisely where he could stick it, and he then tried to physically extort it from me. This was a guy perhaps slightly over five feet tall, and spindly, so I flung him into the street, and nipped though my gates. My security guard told me that he was extremely drunk. He shouted imprecations over the gates for a few minutes, then was led away. Not a problem, precisely, but a bit troubling.
I then went upstairs, to find that someone had stolen my best shoes.
I bought them back in the UK a couple of months ago, a pair of nice and not inexpensive black leather cap-toe Oxfords, which I kept on the shoe rack outside my front door.
Now we, for those of you unfamiliar with our domestic arrangements [too many of you; come to Cambodia!], we live on the next to top floor of our building, and we’re the only flat on the floor. Therefore, the only foot traffic our floor sees is people coming or going from the roof. So it must have been someone doing something on the roof. As I don’t suspect the French couple who live up there of nicking the shoes, they must have had someone come past our door, see them, and decide to nick them.
What they didn’t consider was that there is a security camera on the ground floor. The landlord’s daughter has promised to look at the footage and report back. I don’t suppose I’ll ever see the shoes again, but we might find out who did the deed, and get some measure of justice.
That said, Cambodian justice can be a bit more basic than we’re used to in the West. Living here, one is often told, if you’re in a traffic accident, to run away: if you stick around, you’re likely to be beaten to death by angry mobs, no matter who’s at fault. I refused to believe this at first, but reading the papers, it turns out to be true. Thieves are regularly beaten up by crowds: justice is done by the mob.
And while I wouldn’t, on the whole, want to see the shoe thief beaten to a pulp, I can understand the impulse.
October 1, 2013
I have a friend here in Phnom Penh who is known as Dom the Legend. This is because he is, in actual fact, a complete, total and utter legend. He runs a school for gifted children, and spends most of his spare time running the awesome charity CamKids. I could go on and on about his legend status, but don’t want to embarrass him if he should ever read this.
A few months ago, Dom had an idea. He had discovered, in the commune of Preaek Thmei, near his school, an old floating shack. The shack was dilapidated, and listing badly. Many of the floorboards were rotting, the roof was rusting away, it had no power and it was filthy. So Dom, obviously, decided to buy it.
Fast forward a few months, and Dom is now the owner of the shack. I don’t know what he paid for it, but it can’t have been very much. You reach it down a long, partially flooded muddy passageway, and a bit of a scramble through ankle-deep river. There is no furniture of any description. But Dom has strengthened the metal frame, replaced many of the floorboards and put new flotation barrels in. And it is a truly sensational place.
After driving for half an hour south of Phnom Penh, you park in a local family’s mud-floored compound, and buy beer and ice from the family. Then you make your way on board the shack and sit and watch the turbid brown waters of the Bassac river flow quietly past, revelling in the cool breezes, and just be.
We went out on Sunday afternoon and drank beer and ate cheese and crackers and watched the glorious sunset while playing quiz games. It was simple and unglamorous, and entirely wonderful. The only downside was that Blossom couldn’t be there, being in Bali instead. But otherwise the afternoon was close to being perfect.
Some people don’t get the shack, and think it’s an act of ostentatious madness. But others do, and are queuing up to buy plastic chairs and cans of paint, beanbags and solar lights. They get it. And so does Dom. Because he’s a legend.
September 24, 2013
I wish I had something new to tell you about the situation here; really, nothing much has changed. The new parliament was sworn in yesterday, and, as promised, Sam Rainsy and the rest of the CNRP failed to show up. No one knows what is going to happen next, but the mood in Phnom Penh is uneasy. The razor wire barricades are back, making life extremely difficult for anyone who wants to get to work on the other side of the fences.
The CNRP are still claiming that the ruling CPP rigged the July 28 elections, and want an independent investigation under the auspices of the United Nations. However, China has affirmed its support for the CPP, making any UN intervention highly unlikely.
Whatever the strength of the CNRP’s claims, Hun Sen and the CPP remain in control of the army and the police, the judiciary and much of the civil service, and this is unlikely to change in the short term.
There have been calls for King Sihamoni to play a more active role, but the idea that Sihamoni would ever do more than play a strictly constitutional role is a reflection of the CNRP’s hope winning out over reality. The days of Cambodian kings getting involved in politics have long gone and I’ve seen no indication that the newly politically conscious Cambodian electors want that.
The usual crew of ambassadors turned up to watch the swearing in, but US Ambassador William Todd, who seemed to go out of his way to avoid Prime Minister Hun Sen’s receiving line at the event – seemingly the only diplomat to do so – told reporters that his attendance was “basically for patronage for the King, but this in no way is an endorsement of the election result.”
“America still believes that the election results still have errors and irregularities that need to be looked into,” he added.
The EU also pointed to the necessity of both parties’ participation, and noted “with concern the ongoing dispute over alleged irregularities in the electoral process.”
Meanwhile today is a public holiday (Constitution Day, said with a straight face), so the streets are a little quieter than usual, but the barricades are apparently to stay until Thursday, so perhaps the CPP’s show of force will cow the general public into a tired submission.
And in an ominous development, a group of journalists and protestors were attacked by masked men on Sunday night near Wat Phnom. At least six people were injured, while an additional five were treated for slight wounds. An unknown number of people – journalists and rights workers among them – sustained injuries from electric prods and marbles fired from slingshots by men in facemasks “who appeared to be under police protection.” Attacking western journalists is rarely a good idea. Desperation, perhaps?
As Australian historian Milton Osborne puts it, much of what has happened since the election “appears to reflect Sam Rainsy’s readiness to push matters to the outer limits of possibility, a tactic that has previously twice led to his having to exile himself from Cambodia.” So we’re all waiting to see how this all plays out. Fingers crossed.
September 16, 2013
Saturday was a good day. Blossom and I went out in the evening; restaurants were full, the nightclubs were packed, we saw a band of young Cambodians playing classic Khmer rock ‘n’ roll. We wandered home cheerfully in the early hours, and went to bed.
The next morning, things were different. Menacing razor-wire barriers, manned by bored-looking police had appeared on almost all of the streets near where we live, cutting off a large swathe of the city. Which put a bit of a crimp in our brunch plans. So, prudently, we retreated back home and embarked on a Sopranos marathon instead. In the distance we could vaguely hear the chants of protestors. The barriers remained in place long after I thought they’d be taken down. They’re still there now. People can’t get to work, businesses are closed and there is an air of uneasy tension. But much of the city is carrying on as usual: people have to eat.
But inside the wires, things were going quite badly wrong. At least one man was shot dead and four seriously injured when clashes broke out between protesters and police. The police used water cannons and tear gas on the protestors, as well firing live rounds.
The dead man, 29-year-old Mao Sok Chan, was shot through the forehead during the clash at the Kbal Thnal overpass. “He was just working at his job as a newspaper binder and then was going home. And then I heard he was dead,” said his brother, Mao Sok Meth.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy are supposed to be meeting this morning to discuss the stalemate. They met on Saturday, but only managed to talk for 25 minutes, because they loathe each other so much, so I don’t imaging they’ll sort anything much out.
The discovery of a couple of homemade bombs near the demonstration site on Friday has also jangled a few nerves; many people speculate they were planted by the CPP to intimidate protestors.
And people watching local television would have had no idea the CNRP was staging a mass protest. Instead, anyone tuned into state-owned TVK or the pro-government broadcasters CTN, CNC, TV3, Bayon TV, Hang Meas and Apsara TV had the usual daytime-TV diet of Khmer soap operas, karaoke videos and kick-boxing matches to keep them entertained.
But all is OK here so far; Blossom and I are fine, and in no danger. We’re keeping well away from the trouble spots and being sensible, so no one need worry.
More news a bit after it happens.