Driving me insane

February 5, 2016

At the turn of the year, the king signed into law a new set of rules governing traffic rules and regulations in Cambodia. Probably the most eye-catching of these was the decision that the police would be allowed to keep 70 percent of anything they made in fines.

Of course, previously the police kept 100 percent of everything they made. Half of the traffic problems in this country were caused by people running away from police roadblocks, which always makes me laugh. The police just shrug and wait for the next dozy sucker to come along. But the new law does give a veneer of legitimacy to police efforts to curb the scourge of crap drivers, and the police have taken to it with gusto.

Police apparently pulled over more than 45,000 vehicles and collected almost $100,000 in fines in the first week of enforcing the new traffic laws. Which is $70,000 for them. Not bad work if you can get it. Coming back from Kampot last weekend, we passed four sets of police working on fleecing motorists, over the course of 140 kilometres. That’s pretty impressive, really.

To ease the public’s pain over the new rules, Prime Minister Hun Sen surprised the nation by arbitrarily scrapping the need for people to have a driving license for bikes under 125cc. In many ways, this won’t make much of a difference, as no one has a license anyway. But the vast majority of people here ride little bikes, and telling them they don’t need a licence is tantamount to lighting the blue touchpaper and then not retiring.

I’ve seen four motorcycle accidents in the past week; none of which were fun. In one, a woman was busy texting and swerved into the opposite lane. She wasn’t wearing a helmet. And neither was her eight-year-old son, on the back.

Of course, not everyone is that colossally stupid. Most drivers support tougher laws. But many of them say that it would be better to enforce them at night. The police only really work during daylight hours, having homes and families to go to, obviously, leaving the roads open to people without lights, huge lorries trying to avoid paying to drive through Phnom Penh, road racers and drunks.

And speaking of road racers, I was appalled to see a kid in Kampot last weekend pulling a wheelie on a Ducati at about 80 mph going up the main thoroughfare. I voiced my opinion, and Blossom leaned over to me. “You know what? You’re too old.” And I expect she’s probably right.

Sad Khmer Times

January 20, 2016

Despite Phnom Penh being, in anyone’s terms, a small town, it currently boasts three English-language newspapers. Three! That’s more than in Hong Kong, which has five times the population and rather more English language speakers. And rather more news, too.

Of course, none of Phnom Penh’s English newspapers sells very many copies: the Phnom Penh Post, the biggest and the best, shifts perhaps 5,000 copies a day, most of which seem to go to cafés and bars and the reception areas of larger companies. The Cambodia Daily looks like it’s printed on an A4 mimeograph machine, although it occasionally breaks a story, but generally lifts its content from proper broadsheet newspapers around the world. And then there’s the Khmer Times.

The Khmer Times is the creation of a Malaysian Indian called T. Mohan, and it’s a most eccentric thing. It started off very small, and only published once or twice a week. Over the last 18 months or so it has grown in size and confidence. It was originally edited and written by people with not a vast amount of journalistic experience (the deputy editor insisted on putting the letters PhD on her byline; the chief sub was a former car mechanic). But it now comes out five or six days a week, and has poached lots of half-way competent staff from the other papers.

I used to work there occasionally, doing extremely well-paid subbing shifts. I once edited the entire paper in a four-hour shift. But, like most people, I didn’t enjoy it much. And one of the reasons was Mohan’s copy.

Two or three times a week, Mohan would write articles for the paper, and, as the most senior sub there, I would have to edit them. As well as owning the Times, Mohan also owned a stack of economic land concessions (ELCs) in the south of Cambodia, as many wealthy people do. Basically, foreigners come in and buy huge chunks of the countryside, inserting a monoculture (rubber, sugar and so forth) on the land and sitting back and getting richer. Mohan, in his pieces, was often extremely voluble about the political situation in Cambodia, and how this affected his ELCs. So he would write 1,000-word pieces slamming the opposition. Or discussing root diseases in the cassava plant. Both of which were equally interesting to your average reader.

When faced with one of his anguished screeds, I would just roll up my sleeves and largely rewrite them so that they made a modicum of sense, grammatically, if not politically.

Which is why I’m delighted to see that none of the pieces I worked on have made it into ‘The Mohan Scandal,’ after it turned out that almost all of Mohan’s copy was directly lifted from other places: mainly Malaysian political bloggers, but also students, journalists, academics and even a priest. This has all been well covered by a local website which has mounds of evidence against Mohan. He seems to have just lifted entire columns and changed ‘Malaysia’ to ‘Cambodia,’ while swapping out the names of local politicians.

The website then looked at the Letters to the Editor, and discovered that not one single person named as having written in to the Khmer Times seems to exist in real life. Not one. Certainly, when I was there, I never saw the source of any letters. Most people assume Mohan wrote them.

Cue much hilarity around Phnom Penh. While no one knows who precisely is funding the Khmer Times, there have been dark whispers about government money behind Mohan. The man himself was forced to withdraw from writing for the paper, and they issued a sour and mealy-mouthed apology.

While this is funny, if you don’t work for the Khmer Times, it’s also sad. Oh, Cambodia. You couldn’t make it up. (Not if stealing it was easier.)

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With thanks to Khmer440.com

The great whitewash

December 27, 2015

There’s been a bit of an uproar in Phnom Penh in the last few days, after city authorities painted over a recently-created mural in the centre of town.

The White Building is an iconic 450 metre-long part of the fabric of the city, and is known to everyone who has spent any time here. It was designed as social housing in 1963 by architect Lu Ban Hap, and since then has become ever-more dilapidated, filthy and disreputable. Nevertheless, it is much loved by those who live there: prostitutes, drug dealers, artists, social campaigners, charity workers and working families. It has been hymned by the New York Times, Slate and Salon in recent months, and is widely regarded as a wonderful example of a New Khmer building.

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A couple of weeks ago, an American artist called Miles “El Mac” MacGregor painted a 10-metre green and black portrait on the side of the White Building, of a woman called Moeun Thary, who is a seamstress and resident of the building. The project was paid for by millionaire US artist David Choe, and was wildly popular, and rather beautiful.

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The mural, and Moeun Thary.

But, best laid plans and all that: it turns out that despite asking for municipal permission, and spending some $2,000 on permits, the artist and his team had only got verbal permission before starting work. And if you know Cambodia, you’ll know that that’s not worth the paper it’s written on. So after the mural had been up for about a week, City Hall came along and painted over it. Seamstress Moeun said she was sorry to see the painting go, and said that she thought that the mural showed a woman’s strength in supporting her family.

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It can’t seem to be anything than a giant ‘fuck you’ to artists, women’s rights groups, those working for the poor and underprivileged and those who like to see a more vibrant and colourful city generally. And in a town that is blanketed with huge and garish advertisements for beer and motorcycles featuring half-naked women, it seems petulant, churlish and politically counterproductive.

Artist El Mac had approached the project in the right spirit. “I hope this mural can serve as a respectful tribute to the importance and perseverance of Cambodia’s creative legacy, and possibly, in some small way, offer inspiration for younger Cambodian artists to sustain this legacy,” he said, before the mural’s defacement.

He went on to say: “Since I had the opportunity to paint such a large, visible wall in a place where there are seemingly no other large-scale murals like it, I felt an extra sense of responsibility to paint something beautiful, meaningful, and uplifting.”

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said that the authorities have no reason to apologise. “We are the people who obeyed and implemented the rule of law; they painted without permission,” he said. “We cannot say sorry.”

Spokesman Long later declined to comment on another popular mural which the authorities want to remove. Clearly frazzled by having to defend his political masters’ obdurate stupidity, he was quoted as saying: “I am not able to give an answer for this case and I wish to request that journalists stop writing this useless story.”

The kingdom of bloody hell

December 14, 2015

The tourist authorities here call Cambodia ‘the Kingdom of Wonder,’ and I have to say that that’s quite accurate, because it really does make you wonder sometimes.

The latest news to make me shake my head in sad astonishment is that six people have died in Kratie province after eating the meat of a dog that had been poisoned.

As a local paper put it: “the tainted carcass was first eaten by 76-year-old Chea Reth, who found it on Sunday morning and died the same evening. Unaware of the cause of death, dozens more locals consumed the meat at his funeral on Monday, leading to [five] more deaths and dozens of hospitalisations.”

The local commune police chief said that authorities are now driving around issuing loudspeaker announcements calling on anyone who ate the meat to come forward for free medical care.

Kratie is fairly poor, even for Cambodia, but it’s not that far from Phnom Penh, so there’s really no excuse. And why are people poisoning dogs in the first place? That’s just bad manners.

Those six deaths go along with another 13 in the province that have been chalked up to badly-brewed rice wine over the past couple of weeks. Personally, I’m not making any Kratie-related dinner plans any time soon.

Trendy as hell

December 7, 2015

I went to an intriguing party over the weekend. One of Phnom Penh’s more exciting restaurants, The Common Tiger, closed down a few weeks ago when the villa it was situated in was sold off, to be turned into a block of flats. (The Mighty Penh, passim.) But it has just reopened, reincarnated, as The Tiger’s Eye, and it promises to be even better than before.

I know the chef/owner, who has an adorable French bulldog called Hunter, so I got a coveted invite to the opening. And it made me feel very old indeed.

I’ve been to quite a few parties since I’ve been in Phnom Penh, but never one that was so achingly trendy. About half the people there wouldn’t have looked out of place in Williamsburg, with their lurex baseball caps on sideways, waxed moustaches, bow ties and trilbys. They spent all their time taking selfies – at one point I spotted nine camera phones being held up above the throng.

Despite their utter pointlessness, I was rather charmed by them. It felt as if Phnom Penh was finally coming of age, if it now has hipsters. God knows, Cambodia needs more than artisanal sourdough bread, Sylvia Plath cardigans and fixed-gear bicycles, but it must be moving in the right direction if these things are popping up. Nevertheless, I left at about half-past eight, to go and have a quiet dinner with my dog.

Another feature of this weekend was what is apparently known as Brangelina popping up everywhere in Phnom Penh. Ms Jolie-Pitt and her husband, who have been filming in Siem Reap, were in town to take part in the Cambodian International Film Festival, and blimey, but you heard about it. Call me a snob, but I entirely fail to see to point of getting excited about glimpsing a celebrity from a distance. But it seems I’m in a minority. Even relatively sober journalists were texting me describing what Angelina was wearing. Some friends of mine got to meet the couple and gosh, did the sheen of stardom ever rub off on them. I don’t suppose they’ll have to buy themselves a drink for a month. No one seemed to mind that the pair got around town by helicopter, or that the film they’re currently making is being produced by their son Madox, who is 14 years old. I guess if it makes you happy…

One thing that does make me happy is our new quarterly literary and cultural magazine, The Mekong Review. The website is now up and running, and you can buy PDFs or subscribe. Just sayin’.

And finally, I have just been voted on to the board of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia. Our first order of business was to decide which bar the OPCC would designate as the watering hole for hacks in town on a Thursday night (Red Bar, Street 308, as it happens). It seems like this might be a fun gig.

Sam the man?

November 20, 2015

Phnom Penh has been in a febrile condition for a couple of weeks now, as Prime Minister Hun Sen starts to move into election mode, a full three years before the elections are slated to take place. A few weeks ago, Hun Sen was on a state visit to France, when he was heckled and abused by a crowd. Incensed, he threatened retaliation, and the next day two opposition lawmakers here in Phnom Penh were dragged from their cars and savagely beaten by ruling party sympathisers. Later that week, opposition politician Kem Sokha, the First Vice President of the National Assembly, was ousted from his post by the ruling party.

This rather upset the opposition, and their leader, Sam Rainsy, speaking in Japan, called Hun Sen a fascist. This did not go down well, and a couple of days later a warrant was issued for his arrest for a conviction of defamation in 2011, despite him being pardoned by the king in 2013.

Sam Rainsy was still out of the country, but vowed to come back on Monday night and face the music. However, at the last minute, he changed his mind, and is currently holed up in South Korea. In the battle of wills between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy, it seems that Sam blinked first.

Of course, there were good reasons for him doing so. Thousands of demonstrators were wandering the capital, and most of them had planned to go to the airport to make sure Sam wasn’t arrested. Knowing the Cambodian security forces as we do, this probably wouldn’t have been the finest idea ever conceived by man. Large numbers of armed police are still patrolling the capital; both Britain and the USA have issued warnings and travel advisories. The US said “the pattern of actions against the opposition suggests a return to the harsh political practices and tactics … that the Cambodian people have made clear they no longer want.” Seeing as this includes shooting protestors dead, it was understandable that lots of people here have been very nervous recently.

Though some analysts considered Sam’s decision ‘responsible’ in avoiding potential violence, others have suggested the move leaves him appearing weak. Sam recently drew parallels between the success of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy over Myanmar’s military junta in the recent elections in Burma, and the CNRP’s own hopes for 2018.

Political analyst Sebastian Strangio told a local newspaper that the events of the past few months had led to this test of wills in which Hun Sen now seemed to have a clear advantage. “This was the moment for Sam Rainsy to have his ‘Aung San Suu Kyi moment’, to stand up bravely and call Hun Sen’s bluff. Whatever the reason for [his] delayed return, it’s hard not to see it as yet another in a long line of capitulations to the prime minister’s bullying.”

The National Assembly’s permanent committee has stripped Sam of his lawmaker status, leaving him without parliamentary immunity, and formed a special commission to make sure he is arrested. The session where these decisions were made was boycotted by the CNRP.

Analyst Ou Virak said the special arrest commission and stripping of Sam’s MP status were “warning shots” to try keep him abroad. He also echoed Strangio’s comparisons to Suu Kyi. “That’s where they draw the line between a great leader and the rest, when you’re willing to take very, very tough decisions. I understand as a human being we all want to be safe, but that’s why we’re not all given the Nobel Peace Prize.”

The latest reports say that Sam is now in the Philippines, and is then going to Europe for a month.

Kampot yet again

November 16, 2015

A couple of months ago, a friend and I, over the course of a beer or two, decided that we should start a literary festival in Cambodia. If second-tier places like Galle, Ubud and Bath could have literary festivals, then why not Cambodia? And why not a nice little town like Kampot? We decided we must do something about it.

So, I’ve just come back from the inaugural Kampot Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, which, happily for all concerned, was not organised by me in the slightest.

The four-day festival was among the best times I’ve ever had in Cambodia. Kampot is the perfect place for it: sleepy and laid-back, but full of artists and musicians wafting around town as the Kampot River drifts lazily by, while crumbling old French-colonial buildings doze in the heat and time passes almost imperceptibly.

The festival was occasionally quite hard work, as I had to sit on various panels and pretend to talk knowledgeably for hours on end about things I know very little about, like journalism and publishing. But in between me doing my dog and pony show, there was lots of proper fun to be had: cooking demonstrations, poetry readings, photography exhibitions, graphic arts workshops, film previews, puppet shows and lots and lots of bands. Then there was the food: lots of foreigners have set up restaurants in Kampot, some of which are completely brilliant, including an Italian restaurant under a tarpaulin against a wall at the side of a road, run by a mad Italian, which had the best pasta I’ve eaten in years.

Best Italian restaurant in South East Asia.

Best Italian restaurant in South East Asia.

One of the highlights for me was watching a group called The Messenger Band, who are made up of former garment industry workers. They would earnestly describe what each number was about: forced labour, domestic sexual violence, being orphaned because of AIDS, land grabbing and so forth, then, when the audience was thoroughly depressed, launch into these astonishingly beautiful songs, the voices rising ethereally up into the night skies. It was sublime beyond belief.

The weekend also saw the launch of my genius friend Minh’s new magazine, The Mekong Review, which he put together in just three weeks, but which is quite brilliant, and well worth buying if you see a copy.

It rained quite a lot, but it didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. If there was a criticism to be made, it was that the festival was organised by white men, and many of the participants were white men. But what can you do? You’ve got to start somewhere, and strenuous efforts were made to get as many locals as possible involved. Seeing as the festival was put together in just seven weeks, the organisers did a fantastic job, and next year will be even better. I can’t wait. I’d book a plane ticket now, if I were you.

Sticks and stones

October 28, 2015

Dearly as I love this wonderful little country, sometimes it’s just completely fucked up. On Monday, two opposition MPs were beaten unconscious outside the National Assembly building in central Phnom Penh by thugs employed by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

A large crowd of idiots had gathered outside the National Assembly to protest the very existence of opposition MP Kem Sokha, for ‘inciting hatred between the government and opposition.’

“Kem Sokha is a political provocateur and he creates a culture of discrimination encouraging Cambodians to hate each other; he is a terrible person who has to be toppled from his position,” a protester, who identified himself as a CPP supporter, told a local newspaper.

The ruling CPP denied any involvement in organising the demonstration, despite CPP politicians being in the crowd, and Prime Minister Hun Sen warning the previous day that such a protest would take place.

After most of the protestors had departed, opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Saphea were dragged from their cars while leaving the Assembly and badly beaten.

From his hospital bed, where he was nursing a double arm fracture, a broken nose, chipped front teeth and horrific facial swelling, Kong yesterday spoke of his horror as “at least 10” heavy-set men attacked his vehicle as he attempted to leave the National Assembly. “They broke my car windows and dragged me out. I lost consciousness for a little bit,” he said. “I don’t think they were civilian; they were strong men, police or military or something, they were strong.”

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Photos on the internet showed both politicians bleeding heavily from their faces, as well as the severe damage caused to their vehicles, caused by protesters wielding metal bars.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement: “Using a mob to attack opposition members of parliament sends a chilling signal to Cambodians that a new wave of political violence can be unleashed anytime and anywhere.”

CPP officials have denied the beatings were sanctioned by them, despite claims that police posted outside the Assembly watched as they were carried out.

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When asked why there were so few police in the area and the ones who were there did nothing except watch, the local commune police chief said officers had been relieved of their duties because the protesters had mostly left the scene. “[the protesters] dispersed and returned home, so our forces went for lunch,” he said.

The police also managed not to turn up at all during a six-hour-long attack on Kem Sokha’s house that afternoon, where a crowd threw stones, breaking many windows. Kem’s wife was inside during the attack.

Meanwhile, pro-government media outlets have published photographs of Cambodian soldiers along the Thai-Cambodian border rallying with signs saying “Kem Sokha is an inciter” and “Kem Sokha is a bad person who creates never-ending problems.”

The director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said that the campaign violated both the Constitution and prohibitions on partisanship in laws governing the armed forces.

Sometimes this country terrifies me.

Sick of it all

October 19, 2015

Here is a story that in many ways typifies some of the things that are wrong with modern Cambodia; a story that would make you cry if you weren’t already laughing in disbelief.

Millions of dollars in aid given to Cambodia by The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria have reportedly been left sitting in a bank account for more than a year.

The money remains untouched because Cambodia’s National Malaria Centre is refusing to sign a funding agreement, because it objects to a request to provide detailed accounts of its spending.

What this means is that the NMC won’t spend the money it has been given, some $21 million over the past two years, because the Global Fund doesn’t want to see it all stolen.

The money was awarded as part of an urgent initiative to combat drug-resistant malaria in the Mekong region. A source close to the Global Fund told a local newspaper that the NMC’s decision could potentially put thousands of lives at risk.

“The management team at NMC has downed tools and taken the grant-making process hostage,” the source told the newspaper. “They have frustrated attempts to finalise grant negotiations because they don’t want to provide receipts for travel and hotel expenses. The government is sitting on a heap of money, crying there is a malaria outbreak, but refusing to do anything about it, unless they are allowed to steal the money.”

Officials at the NMC and Cambodia’s Ministry of Health have been ordered in the past to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Global Fund after they set up fake bank accounts to receive bribes and kickbacks.

The NMC’s impact on efforts to combat malaria has reportedly been severe. Malaria testing kits and drugs are running out. Earlier this year, $2 million worth of mosquito nets were purchased with Global Fund money, but have not been handed out because of the dispute over expenses transparency.

At the same time, figures show that the number of cases of malaria in Cambodia has increased by 35 percent in the first six months of this year.

The NMC’s alleged failure to carry out planned anti-malarial work could have global consequences. Millions of Africans died in the 1990s when a malaria parasite that had developed resistance to chloroquine spread to Africa from Cambodia.

In 2013 the Global Fund threatened to suspend or reduce more than $100 million of grants to Cambodia if it failed to meet a 30-day deadline to return funds identified as “misused.” It later changed its mind, saying that because a fraction of the money had been returned, it showed a desire to cooperate.

Courting disaster

September 23, 2015

Well, imagine my surprise! A delegation of international legal experts from the International Bar Association has found that Cambodia’s judiciary is riddled “with endemic corruption, bribery and political influence,” and has recommended the IBA reconsider Cambodia’s bar association’s membership in the international body.

The IBA found Cambodia’s judiciary is, at all levels, rife with corruption, while cases are overwhelmingly decided based on bribes or political influence.

Dr Philip Tahmindjis of the IBA said the level of judicial corruption in Cambodia was “staggering.” He went on: “We have seen a lot of corruption in other countries, but nothing on the endemic level that appears to be going on here.”

Another member of the IBA told a local newspaper: “We tried to find the names of judges who were independent minded and who don’t accept bribes. We got one anecdote from one very admirable lawyer who said that he had dealt with a judge who he knew hadn’t accepted a bribe and he thought the judge had ruled on the merits of his case. That was one lawyer, and he said it had happened to him once.”

The President of the Bar Association of Cambodia, Bun Honn, declined to comment, saying he had yet to see the report.

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