May 15, 2013
Wafting to work the other day, I was startled to see that a new statue had appeared at the arse-end of a traffic island on a fairly major junction. The stone statue, of a very small man making a speech, has just been plonked down on the edge of a strip of grass near an advertising hoarding: a far cry from the millions that are being spent on a new statue of the late King Father, which gets its own vast pagoda, nearby.
But the new diminutive stone statue is far more important in the recent history of this country, reminding everyone of one of the more politically charged killings here in recent years.
The statue is of slain union leader Chea Vichea, and is close to where he was shot to death nine years ago as he read a newspaper.
The killing of Chea has all the elements of a Hollywood movie: a murdered political figure, assassins on motorcycles, death threats, allegations of police corruption, witnesses claiming they’ve been intimidated, and two men serving 20-year prison sentences for a crime almost no one believes they committed.
Chea’s funeral in Phnom Penh filled the city streets with tens of thousands of mourners, and his death sparked an immediate outcry from rights groups and foreign diplomats.
Chea had managed to survive the Khmer Rouge, and went on to help found what became Cambodia’s main opposition party.
His reputation grew as a charismatic leader who travelled around the country, working tirelessly to convince garment workers to join the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
After his shooting, the Phnom Penh police arrested two men, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun. But the apparently swift justice was soon under scrutiny.
Discrepancies in the investigation, along with a lack of evidence meant that at Born and Sok’s first trial in March 2004, the judge threw the case out, citing a lack of evidence.
However, the Appeals Court overruled his decision and ordered a retrial. The judge was removed from his post and transferred to a remote part of the country.
Two years later, they were brought to trial again. Born, who had signed a confession after his arrest, told the court he had been tortured by police into doing so.
Va Sothy, the key witness and the owner of the newsstand where Chea was shot dead, sent a notarised statement to the court saying that the two men were innocent.
“I understood that the fake murderers had been created, because I could clearly remember the faces of the murderers and they were not the same as the pictures publicised,” she wrote.
She did not testify in person because she had fled the country, saying that being the only witness to what was the most political murder of the decade had put her in danger.
The courts disregarded her testimony.
Hope were raised for the pair in December 2008, when the Supreme Court released them on bail and ordered the Appeals Court to reinvestigate the case.
However, late last year the Appeals Court upheld the original verdict. The pair were sent back to prison, where they remain today.
The Cambodian government has denied any wrongdoing.
“Right now everyone wants to put the blame on politics,” said a spokesman, rejecting claims of government intervention.
“We cannot say who is wrong or right, but we respect the court’s decision.”
I bet they do.
But I suppose it is progress of a sort that the government has let the statue be erected, although it’s a pretty feeble simulacrum, and tiny. But there’s a long way still to go.
May 8, 2013
When I lived for an extended period in Hong Kong, in the 1990s, we would occasionally discuss what we missed about the UK. As far as I can recall, it was basically the English countryside in Spring: blackthorn-blossomed hedgerows and downy-soft meadows, verdant forests nestled in tiny valleys in Somerset, the Yorkshire Dales; things like that.
On getting back to the UK, I remember discussing what had changed in the old place for the better, and only being able to come up with three things: Pret a Manger; cashback in pubs, and something else, which I can’t remember. Which could be related to the availability of cashback in pubs.
But last week, I got a long and chatty, gossipy email from an old friend. (Hint: I love long, gossipy and chatty emails…). In it, he mentioned that he’d heard a programme on Radio 4 about Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 novel Decline and Fall. He’d remembered that it was one of my favourite books, and kindly sent along a link. I casually clicked it, and spent the next 45 minutes missing England more than I would have thought possible.
It wasn’t great radio, in the way the Hindenburg going up in flames was great radio. Instead, it was three professors of English, and Melvyn Bragg, just talking about the book. I’ve never cared greatly for Bragg, but he knew what he was talking about. And, as I sat on my balcony, listening to Bragg doing his thing, looking out over the mighty Mekong, I was forced to reflect on some of what I’ve given up by moving out here.
The idea that there will ever be a radio station here that would devote 45 minutes to discussing a minor 90-year-old novel is absurd. The UK has only four times the population of Cambodia, but we are, perhaps, less culturally rich here.
Or are we? There are undercurrents here, swirling away, unseen by us barang; things we can’t even begin to guess at. Information moves around independently of us, unseen and unknowable. A large part of that is, obviously the language barrier, which makes life infinitely more mysterious, and I really should try harder. (My longest phrase so far in Khmer translates as “I have no money, but I have a stinky face,” which has ’em in stitches down at The Pub. Honestly.)
Hyper-despot Hun Sen announced this week that his son Hun Manet (not one of the ones wanted in Australia on heroin importation charges) was actually the son of a neak ta, a local spirit, who lives in a tree near one of their many houses. He said this during a nationally-televised speech, aimed at extending brand Kleptocrat for future gerations.
Now, if David Cameron had said that one of his sons was supernaturally-born, after a liason between Sam Cam and a wood spirit, the world would fall on its arse laughing. But here, Hun Manet’s poll figures went up. He’ll almost certainly get elected to the Senate in the July elections.
I realise as I write this, that I’m treading a fine line between being patronising and being stupid. So, to clarify, I don’t believe in neak ta, or god, or anything else supernatural. I think Hun Sen is a remarkably effective leader of this country, if by effective you mean that he is efficiently corrupt, bloodthirsty and unpleasant.
Yes, it is, I suppose, possible, that Hun Manet is the son of a woodland sprite. It is also possible that Hun Sen and his children might retire from public life, and let people get on with trying to make their lives better. Watch me hold my breath.
I’m absolutely sure that Hun Sen thinks he’s doing this country an astonishing favour by holding power in a death grip. The truth is, I can write anti-Hun Sen stuff until the cows get back from a night out at Howie’s Bar, because he’s got everything tied up nice and soundly, and worries about nothing.
As Gibbon pointed out, originally, every empire ends in a decline and a fall. It could be some time though.
May 1, 2013
I was always under the impression, when I lived in Hong Kong, that the city was blessed with the greatest number of public holidays of anywhere on earth, because it celebrated both British and Chinese holidays.
But I began to get a bit suspicious about that, after living here for a while. Because Cambodia, I suspect, has more public holidays than anywhere else on the planet. This year’s list runs from early January to mid December, and covers the following: Victory Over Genocide Day, Meak Bochea Day, International Women’s Day, Khmer New Year’s Day, International Labour Day, King’s Birthday, Visak Bochea Day, Royal Ploughing Day, International Children’s Day, King Mother’s Day, Constitutional Day, Pchum Ben Day, Commemoration of King Father Norodom Sihanouk Day, Paris Peace Agreements Day, King’s Coronation Day, Independence Day, Water Festival Day, and International Human Rights Day.
And it is worth noting that of those, four of them are three-day holidays. So, in all, 27 official days off. Which isn’t bad, really, is it?
Sadly, however, journalists don’t get any of them off, apart from three days during the Khmer New Year. And most people working in service industries: restaurants and bars, shops, hotels and so forth, often only get one day off a month.
But my colleagues from the paper’s ad department are all peeling off early today so they can get a head start on International Labour Day. Government departments and offices all faithfully observe each and every holiday. As I probably would too, if they were on offer.
In other news, I got an excited call from Blossom this morning, to tell me that she’d found a pair of three-month-old Boston Terrier puppies.
Apparently there is a bitch here in town, and the owners are planning to breed from her again in two or three months. So we’re now on the list. And, in the name of full disclosure, yes, Blossom found them at her new hairdresser’s salon. Cast that from your minds. They are absolute stone-cold killers, and we might well have one soon. Happy International Labour Day!
April 18, 2013
I was going to write about how this week in recent history isn’t a particularly good one, containing as it does the Khmer Rouge winning the Cambodian civil war in 1975, the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut 1983, the end of the siege of Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing, the birth of Adolf Hitler, the Columbine Massacre, and finally me breaking my leg like a Kit-Kat last year. But after the Boston Marathon, I thought that maybe I wouldn’t. Except to note that every time I see a headline with ‘Boston Terror’ in it, I read it as ‘Boston Terrier’, which is a little surreal.
Instead, I thought I’d write about pangolins. I have a big thing for pangolins. It all started when I was a small child, taking a car journey with the family. We were discussing animals, and I mentioned that I’d like a pangolin. My parents and brothers hooted with laughter, thinking that I’d made the animal up, and there was no such thing as a scaly anteater. However, I knew better, as I’d read about them a few days earlier in an encyclopaedia, and I was eventually able to prove their existence, although I don’t think anyone apologised. Not enough, anyway.
Despite holding the pangolin in great affection ever since, I’ve never actually seen one. There were some in remote parts of Hong Kong, and a friend claimed to have a number on his tea plantation in Sri Lanka, but I’ve never actually managed to see one in the flesh. But that’s OK – as long as they’re out there, that’s enough to make me happy.
But I was horrified to read this week that a Chinese boat that crashed into a protected coral reef in the Philippines was hiding the remains of a second environmental disaster in its hold: hundreds of dead pangolins. A coastguard spokesman said about 400 boxes, totalling over 10 tonnes of frozen pangolins, were discovered. I make that about 750 pangolins.
The Philippine pangolin haul is one of the largest on record. In 2010, 7.8 tonnes of frozen pangolin and 1.8 tonnes of scales were seized from a fishing vessel by customs officers in Guangdong, while a series of customs seizures in Vietnam in 2008 turned up 23 tonnes of frozen pangolins in a week.
All trade in the four Asian species of pangolin has been illegal since 2002, but the Chinese prize the meat as a delicacy, and its scales are believed to benefit breast-feeding mothers. This means the creatures have been virtually wiped out in China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
I’d been hoping to see pangolins in Cambodia, but there are hardly any left. During the dry season, which is coming to an end right now, pangolins tend to stay close to water sources, which helps hunters identify areas where the animals are likely to be. Although hunting methods vary, nylon snares are the most commonly used technique for capturing the pangolin in Cambodia, along with dogs.
However, turning to the internet, I’ve discovered that there is not just one, but two pangolin rehabilitation centres in the country. Which is a good thing, I suppose. I wonder if striving to make the country a bit richer overall might stop people killing pangolins, but I guess if people want to try and save the pangolin, then good for them. I hope they’re not too late.
April 9, 2013
So Margaret Thatcher has finally died. As a child in Britain in the 1980s, I had, like almost everyone, fairly strong feelings about her, and what she did to the country. But this is a Cambodia-centric blog, so I won’t go on about her, except in relation to the situation here. And, it has to be said, she didn’t cover herself in glory.
After the liberation of Cambodia by Vietnamese forces in 1979, the US, who were not best pleased at having had their asses handed to them during the “American War”, as they call it in Vietnam, continued to do everything they could to stymie the Viet Cong. And this included continuing to support Pol Pot’s dementedly murderous Khmer Rouge. This is despite them having killed a third of the innocent population of Cambodia.
Thatcher’s stance was clear – Britain did not recognise the new communist Vietnamese government in Cambodia. So between 1985 and 1989, Britain’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) ran a series of training camps for Khmer Rouge allies in Thailand close to the Cambodian border and created a ‘sabotage battalion’ of 250 experts in explosives and ambushes. Intelligence experts in Singapore also ran training courses.
Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that the British training for the members of the ‘coalition’ had been going on “at secret bases in Thailand for more than four years”.
The instructors were from the SAS, “all serving military personnel, all veterans of the Falklands conflict, led by a captain”.
The Cambodian training became an exclusively British operation after 1986.
“If Congress had found out that Americans were mixed up in clandestine training in Indochina, let alone with Pol Pot,” a Ministry of Defense source told Simon O’Dwyer-Russell of the Sunday Telegraph, “the balloon would have gone right up. It was one of those classic Thatcher-Reagan arrangements. It was put to her that the SAS should take over the Cambodia show, and she agreed.”
In 1991, journalist John Pilger interviewed a member of ‘R’ Squadron of the SAS, who had served on the border. “We trained the KR in a lot of technical stuff – a lot about mines,” he told him.
“We used mines that came originally from Royal Ordnance in Britain, which we got by way of Egypt with marking changed … we even gave them psychological training. At first, they wanted to go into the villages and just chop people up. We told them how to go easy.”
A report by Asia Watch filled in some details: the SAS had taught “the use of improvised explosive devices, booby traps and the manufacture and use of time-delay devices”.
The author of the report, Rae McGrath (who shared a joint Nobel Peace Prize for the campaign on landmines), wrote in the Guardian that “the SAS training was a criminally irresponsible and cynical policy”.
The former SAS soldier Chris Ryan, now a best-selling author, lamented that “when John Pilger, the foreign correspondent, discovered we were training the Khmer Rouge in the Far East [we] were sent home and I had to return the £10,000 we’d been given for food and accommodation”.
It is fashionable in many circles to loathe John Pilger, but not many Cambodians do. As he put it: “Henry Kissinger, whose bombing opened the door to the nightmare of Year Zero, is still at large. Cambodians remain desperately poor, dependent on an often seedy tourism and sweated labour. For me, their resilience remains almost magical. In the years that followed their liberation, I never saw as many weddings or received as many wedding invitations. They became symbols of life and hope. And yet, only in Cambodia would a child ask an adult, as a twelve-year-old asked me, with fear crossing his face: ‘Are you a friend? Please say.’”
April 2, 2013
Just before Christmas, Blossom came back from a day spent working out at the school at Chbar Chros, out in the provinces, which is funded and run by the awesome charity CamKids. She mentioned that she’d seen a 14-year-old kid there who was almost totally blind – he had to hold a book parallel to his right ear to read it, and yet he was helping other kids with their reading.
Apparently he had been able to see fine until he was four or five, when his mother said his hair got too long and got in his eyes, and after that his sight got worse, until he ended up with only something like 5 percent of his sight.
“Well,” I told Blossom, “We should get someone to take a look at him. It sounds like it might be curable.” So we discussed it for a bit, and Blossom made some phone calls. And to cut a long story a bit shorter, last week he had his second and final operation, and now has 95 percent sight in both eyes.
It was, apparently, cataracts, which I’d thought it might be. And now they’re gone.
I tell this story not because it does me any credit, much as I’d love some, but simply to show how easy it is to make a difference. It’s not that no one cared about Koung Vith, but no one knew what to do, and his needs got a bit lost, and what with the school having grown from zero pupils to 219 in twelve months, people were a bit tied up. But with a little bit of shoving, he got the help and treatment he so badly needed, and instead of being a burden on his family and community, now he has a seriously improved chance of a decent life. Thanks must go to CamKids and One-2-One who did all the heavy lifting on this.
He said just after his last operation: “I can watch everything and won’t be shy of others like before.” That warms my heart.
All of the staff of CamKids are volunteers; no one makes any money off the charity. If you feel like bunging them anything to help any of the thousands of incredibly impoverished kids in Cambodia, please do.
March 28, 2013
I’m sure everyone is really bored with me banging on about justice, or the lack of it, in Cambodia, but I do spend a lot of time worrying about it. And today was no exception.
The Phnom Penh Supreme Court Municipal Court has just rejected Yorm Bopha’s appeal against her three-year sentence on charges of inciting intentional violence.
Yorm, a 30-year-old mother of one, is a representative of the Boeung Kak Lake community, who came to prominence during the campaign to release 13 imprisoned Boeung Kak women last year. Which I’ve written about before.
Before her arrest she was threatened, harassed and intimidated and told by police that she was “on the blacklist”, and that she would be “in trouble soon”.
The charges against her were in connection with the beating of a suspected thief, but the real case against her is crystal clear – she, and the rest of the Boeung Kak community land activists are thorns in the side of the authorities, and need to be silenced.
The case against Yorm also involved her husband, Lous Sakorm, but, sending a clear signal that Yorm was the real target, her husband’s sentence was suspended last year and he walked free.
The prosecution’s theory appeared to be that Yorm and her husband had masterminded an assault on two individuals sitting in a drink shop and had then showed up to witness their plan in action.
Three of the witnesses called to testify against Yorm gave contradictory accounts of the events, and it was apparent that two of the witnesses could not be sure who Yorm or her husband were. It also emerged that one witness had gone for dinner that evening, but couldn’t recall who with, due to being completely smashed, although he did remember that Yorm Bopha was present at the incident.
Every single witness stated that Yorm Bopha and her husband had not been violent themselves, and had been present only after the fight had broken out, and only outside the shop. Yorm and her husband testified that they had been nearby chatting with a neighbour and gone over to the shop after hearing shouts.
Amnesty International has called Yorm a prisoner of conscience, and has called for her to be released immediately and unconditionally.
And so do I.
March 26, 2013
It appears to be wedding season here in Cambodia; I’ve got to go to three inside a week. I don’t know why this should be so, but I suspect it has something to do with it also being the beginning of mango season. There’s definitely a link that can be made between fructification and marriage.
Anyway, there are lots of weddings on at the moment. Last Saturday, Theary, the daughter of our landlord, the saintly Mr Sokha, plighted her troth to Vuth, to whom she’s been engaged for six years. Blossom and I were delighted to be invited, and turned up at the hall where the dinner was being held nearly on time, only to discover we were an hour and a half early, and that the time on the invitation is really only meant as a piece of fun, or something.
So we sat in a corner and drank warm beer, and watched as the place filled up. With nearly 1,000 people. It was truly enormous. As well as the guests, there were innumerable waiters and people with ice buckets and baskets of beer and soft drinks wandering about, so it was all a bit like being in Grand Central Station at rush hour.
Except for the women. By god, they like to dress up, and put some makeup on. They’re not shy about vivid colours, with purples and cerises and yellows, but all very modest, with long skirts and demure blouses. But the hair and the maquillage were quite astonishing. Lyta, my plant-watering sidekick, said she’d spent two hours having her hair and face transformed, from being a naturally pretty little thing, to looking like someone had covered her face with marzipan and then iced it. Her face was as smooth as marble, and as white as snow. Theary was practically unrecognisable. And not in a good way.
But hell, the whole thing was such fun, and everyone was so nice and welcoming, and there was so much Black Label, that it would be perfectly churlish to complain about aesthetics. The women all looked lovely. Not particularly human, but lovely nonetheless.
For readers in the UK and the USA, currently shivering in what you call ‘Spring’, I’m sorry to have to tell you that as well as being mango season here, it is also 37 degrees C (98.6F) today, which is the same temperature as the human body, apparently. All of the trees are in flower; the tamarind and bougainvillea and jasmine and other assorted nice stuff. And they have what are called Mango Showers, which are brief evening rainstorms: we had our first last week, which was the first rain I’ve seen this year.
And for anyone who’s bothered to read this far, I’ll probably be back in the UK at the beginning of July for a week or two, so anyone who fancies a soothing ale or two, let me know. I’m hoping your weather will be fixed by then.
March 17, 2013
Kind of a mixed week for justice in Cambodia.
The big news here was the death of Ieng Sary, the 87-year-old former Brother Number Three and foreign minister of the Khmer Rouge. He was on trial for crimes against humanity at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia.
Ieng Sary was known as a strong believer in the Khmer Rouge’s extreme revolutionary ideas, and was described as “a duplicitous and manipulative man,” according to the BBC.
“I have done nothing wrong,” Ieng Sary said before his arrest in 2007. “I am a gentle person. I believe in good deeds. I even performed good deeds to save several people’s lives.”
But Ieng Sary “repeatedly and publicly encouraged, and also facilitated, arrests and executions within his Foreign Ministry and throughout Cambodia,” wrote Steve Heder, a Cambodia scholar who assisted the tribunal.
This included persuading hundreds of Cambodians living overseas to come back to the kingdom. When they did, they were all executed.
It’s important to note that Ieng Sary had not been convicted of any crime. And now he never will be. Nor will his wife, Ieng Thirith, who was let off last year because she’s thought to be suffering from Alzheimers disease. So that leaves just two of the former senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge still on trial: Brother Number Two Nuon Chea and former head of state Khieu Samphan. They are both in their 80s, and the court is working extremely slowly. It has sat for just 15 days so far this year.
Lots of the clerks and translators have been on strike in the last week or two, saying they haven’t been paid this year. This suits former Khmer Rouge cadre and now Prime Minister Hun Sen, who really doesn’t want the court to continue picking through the evidence that he and his senior colleagues were an ineffably nasty bunch of bastards, who shouldn’t be allowed to run a carwash, let alone a country.
On the plus side for justice here, radio station owner Mam Sonando has been freed. In October, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail for stoking a so-called secessionist movement in Kratie province – a claim used by the government to justify a violent mass eviction last May that saw a 14-year-old girl shot dead by police.
Of course, it was beyond ridiculous that he was ever jailed in the first place.
Rights groups and legal monitors noted that no credible evidence had ever been presented suggesting either that such a movement existed, or that Mam Sonando masterminded it.
Among the critics of the conviction were US President Barack Obama, who raised the case with Prime Minister Hun Sen during his visit last year. So at his appeal this week, prosecutors dropped the charge of secession against him (he wasn’t even in the country at the time) and freed him. However, they charged him with something called a ‘forestry crime’ and gave him a five-year suspended sentence. So they can wheel him back in any time they feel like it.
Mam Sonando was, and, one hopes, still is, a fierce critic of Hun Sen. Because we need all the help we can get around here.
March 10, 2013
We’ve now been here just over a year, and are feeling pretty comfortable about things. We’ve made some friends, done some travelling, seen some things. We’re not yet living in a colonial mansion, but, on the whole, things are pretty good right now. In fact, I think we’re about to take a leap of faith, and get a dog.
We want to get one of these:
And no, I don’t want to hear any comments about hairdressers. These are perfectly manly dogs, and I’m secure enough in my sexuality to be perfectly happy to be seen in public with a Boston Terrier. They are intelligent, loyal and lively, and I’m looking forward to a dozen years of fun and friendship with the little beast, although Blossom has told me I can’t call it ‘Satan.’
There are a couple of problems, though, apart from finding one out here (there are a number in Bangkok, so we’ve got some people working on that).
The first problem is that of finding somewhere to walk it. Most cities usually have about 12-15 percent of their land as suitable for recreation – that is, as parks. However, here in Phnom Penh, they reckon the figure is nearer three percent. From our flat, I reckon it’s about 15 minutes walk to the nearest blade of grass. And even that’s only about 10 yards across, with six lanes of traffic either side of it.
Back in London, we had Shepherd’s Bush Green within two minutes walk, Holland Park within five, and Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park within 15. Here, we’ve got the Riverside, the Independence Monument, and the Olympic Stadium. And that’s the lot. It’s not entirely fair on a dog.
Even less fair, in my opinion, is the fact that our landlord, the saintly Mr Sokha, has had his two dogs stolen this year, and eaten. If people see a hunk of protein wandering down the road sniffing lampposts, they’ll steal it and cook it, and eat it.
It took me a while to work out what Phnom Penh was missing when I first moved here. In other large Asian cities, you’d have to keep half an eye on packs of dogs. But not here. There are no dogs at all, apart from those on leads.
Mr Sokha lost his first dog just after we moved in: it was a fairly small thing, as I recall. The other was more substantial, about the size of a small Labrador. I could never remember what it was called, but used to greet it cheerfully every evening. They’d let it fossick around outside the gate, and it barked if anyone new came to the house, but otherwise we just cheerfully ignored each other. But this week Blossom mentioned that she hadn’t seen it for a few days. That evening, we asked Mr Sokha, who told us, while laughing uproariously, that yes, the dog had been snatched from just outside the gate at 0600hrs a couple of mornings ago.
We looked fearfully at him, and made little eating motions. Oh yes, they would have eaten him, for sure, he told us, grinning from ear to ear. He’s quite an odd man.
Anyway, we’re borrowing a dog shortly from a couple who are going away for a few days. It’s a small one, and repulsively ugly, but should give us a feel for the realities of dog ownership here in PP.
And finally, and for no reason at all, here is a picture of a gun. It is real.