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.”


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.


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.

Suffer the little children

September 9, 2015

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been travelling around Cambodia talking to orphans, for the annual sponsorship reports sent to people who stump up a small monthly amount of cash via the charity I work for, to help pay for a child’s basic needs: rice, soap, cooking oil, salt, washing powder, education and so forth.

Oddly, most of the children aren’t actually orphans: their parents have given them up as they’re too poor to look after them. Which makes my mind boggle a bit. The children range in age for about six to 19. Some of them are very disabled and will never live an independent life; others are bright and motivated and bursting with life and enthusiasm, waiting to get out into the world and become engineers and dentists and translators.

One orphanage is set up for kids with HIV, which you might imagine would be rather bleak, but the children are so funny and playful that they’re a delight to be around, even if it’s only for half-an-hour or so each once a year. They’re clean and just-about fed, and all of them are provided with anti-retroviral drugs. Nevertheless, two of them had died of AIDS-related illnesses since I saw them last year, which was a bit of a shock.

Orphanages here in Cambodia can be snakepits. Unscrupulous locals set them up, look for poor children, take them off their parents and open their doors to tourists who want to coo at the little people and hand over donations, which quickly disappear into the owner’s pockets. The government occasionally bust one of these when the children’s conditions get too bad, but it’s rare. Even worse is when a predatory paedophile from the West arrives and sets up an orphanage, giving him ready access to lots of delightful little children. It happens more than you think.

Of course, all the orphanages I deal with operate at the very highest standards and with the utmost probity. But that can be a rarity in this country. Travelling around the provinces with my colleague Saroen, it was fascinating to hear first-hand about the corruption so many people here take utterly for granted. Like which chains of petrol stations are owned by which government minister’s wife and so pay no tax. Or how that police car (pointing at a proper police car) is actually a fake, and is used for transporting illegal luxury wood to dealers in Vietnam. It was quite an eye-opener.

But later, sitting by a quiet village pond watching swifts dart across the skies and the vast thunderheads well up in the far distance across the perfect deafening green of the Cambodian countryside, or sitting in a roadside shack at dusk eating boiled corncobs and watching out for rock pythons, it seems like there are probably far worse places to be.

Unless you support the Cambodian football team, who lost 0-6 last night to Syria. Syria! Go Angkor Warriors!

Don’t call me, Ishmael

August 28, 2015

Well, the game is up. Our revels now are ended. The second shoe has dropped. Starbucks is coming to Cambodia.

The US-based coffee giant has announced it is to open its first outlet at Phnom Penh airport by the end of this year, with plans to open a second store in the city centre by the end of 2016. Starbucks already has more than 22,000 outlets around the world.

Whether Cambodia needs Starbucks is a matter of some debate. There is no shortage of coffee shops in Phnom Penh: there are probably 60 shops within a 15-minute walk of where I sit. Most of them, especially the locally-owned and entirely estimable Brown Coffee, offer a far superior product to Starbucks’s bitter, over-roasted nonsense and expensive and tasteless sandwiches and buns.

Is it a sign of progress that Starbucks is coming? It joins the likes of Costa Coffee, KFC, Burger King and Dairy Queen in clogging the streets, and the arteries, of Phnom Penh. Sure, it’ll provide a few jobs for bored students, but with all the profits winging their way back to the States, does Cambodia need it? A friend of mine used to be friends with Howard Schultz, the chairman and CEO of Starbucks, and would come back from dinner with him raving about his numerous Picassos. Schultz is worth over a billion dollars. I expect Cambodia will propel him even further up the rich list.

A spokesman for the company, with the unwieldy title of Group President, China/Asia Pacific, Channel Development and Emerging Brands, issued a statement saying: “Cambodia is a vibrant country with a rich cultural heritage, and we are proud to bring the unparalleled Starbucks Experience to this market.” Yes, he actually did write “Starbucks Experience.” It makes my soul weep.

A few years ago, The Onion ran a spoof piece on US bookseller Barnes & Noble opening a branch in Cambodia. “Speaking from Barnes & Noble’s New York headquarters, John Day, company vice-president in charge of overseas expansion, said that Cambodia represents an outstanding new market for the book chain. “Cambodia has all the signs of being a book-friendly country,” Day said. “Did you know that only one Cambodian in 10,000 has a television set? That, to me, is the hallmark of a literate culture.””

Now all we need is Macdonald’s to arrive, and we’ll have the full house of soulless corporate behemoths jostling small local businesses aside and expanding their bland cultural hegemony over this once-proud nation. Oh, the joy…

Welcome, Thunder Dragons!

August 26, 2015

I’m not particularly interested in sports. I maintain a passing interest in the fortunes of the mighty Fulham Football Club and in the England football team. I’ll watch the Ashes, and maybe the Wimbledon final. But otherwise, I find professional sport pointless and boring. In my final year at school, I managed to wrangle playing pool as my option for PE – that was a very good year.

The last time I watched an international football match in the flesh was in Nairobi in about 1987: it was Kenya vs someone like Egypt in the African Cup of Nations. I was travelling around East Africa with a girlfriend, and we thought it would be fun to watch. It was not. Just after half time, all the lights in the stadium went out, and the entire 40,000-strong crowd decided it would be a good idea to start running, en masse, round and round the stadium, in silence. When we managed to make our way out, the fans were rioting, turning over cars and setting them on fire and looting shops. It was a torrid night, to say the least. I don’t know who won, and, quite frankly, I don’t give a damn.

Recently, Cambodia have been doing quite well at football, making it into the second round of the World Cup qualifiers, for the first time ever. So far, they’ve lost to Singapore, 0-4, and Afghanistan. But big crowds have been turning out to watch them, in a triumph of hope over experience for a team rated 180th in the world. So when it was announced that they would play a friendly against Bhutan, I thought I should go and have a look.

Bhutan (population 750,000) are generally rated as the worst team in the world, swapping 209th place occasionally with Montserrat (population 4,500). However, they’ve been on a bit of a streak recently, going up to 164th, after beating Sri Lanka. Since then, they’ve lost 0-6 to China and 0-7 to Hong Kong. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to watch two of the world’s worst teams play each other.

As football matches go, it was pretty tiresome, as was probably to be expected. But the crowds were great: happy, non-violent and sober, unlike back in the UK, and completely lacking the terrible miasma of pies and stale beer that is so prevalent at matches in England. Whole families were there, cheering Cambodia lustily: there was no chanting or swearing, no racist or homophobic insults; just a lot of people cheerfully supporting their national team.

I didn’t see any Bhutan fans in the crowd, probably because there are no Bhutanese living in Cambodia, as far as I know. I was one of the very few non-barang in the stadium, so was interviewed live on national TV, and was able to pontificate on Bhutan’s lack of penetration and how Cambodia should work the channels better, thanks to my sterling work with Angkor Beer.

The Vann Molyvann-designed Olympic Stadium is an impressive sight, although it is supposed to hold 50,000 people, whereas I can’t imagine more than about 15,000 squeezing in. The walkways behind the stands were full of women barbecuing pork and ears of corn, and people selling a large number of heavy wool Cambodia scarves (motto: “You’ll never walk alone”).

Cambodia won, 2-0, and everybody was happy (except me, because I secretly wanted Bhutan to win). Cambodia play Syria next, in early September, and I might well go along to that as well.

Except that I probably won’t, because it’s still pretty boring.

Oh, Canadia!

August 17, 2015

When I first came to Cambodia, in about 2008, I stayed at Raffles, the city’s grandest and most venerable hotel. I had a suite on the second floor, and from my balcony I could look out across the city, and actually see most of it. I couldn’t remember coming across such a low-rise city: most of the buildings were only a few floors high at most.

There was, unusually for a capital city in the twenty-first century, only one skyscraper, the 32-storey Canadia Tower, which was right in the middle of my view. It is not a pretty building: it looks as if someone has rammed a large, square-barreled syringe into the earth.


Over the years I’ve been here, I’ve come to rather like Canadia Tower. Although it’s an office building, it has almost no tenants. The Cambodian Stock Exchange was located on two floors for a while, and the offices were pleasantly empty, there being only one stock to trade (and practically no one ever did). Once the exchange doubled in size, to two stocks, they moved out into a converted mansion nearby, which I should imagine is still as quiet as a tomb.

But Canadia Tower was, for years, a highly useful landmark in Phnom Penh. You could tumble out of a bar and instantly orient yourself. You could tell tuk-tuk drivers that you were going somewhere near the tower. They would switch the lights on the roof off at 2230hrs, if the geezer at the switch remembered, so you could get a rough idea of the time. From the balcony of my flat, you could watch planes coming in on the Western Track to Poechentong Airport fly at precisely the same spot through the line of the building.

But, as I’ve said before, Phnom Penh is undergoing a property bubble, and high-rises are going up all over the place. Everywhere you look, pretty old houses are being ripped down and ugly multi-storey apartment blocks are going up. There was a lovely little wooden house I looked at the other day with an eye on renting: last week they tore it down and a 10-storey monstrosity is going up in its place.

And just last week, I wandered out onto my balcony to see that a new tower block was about to hide Canadia Tower from my view.

Bye-bye Canadia Tower! (Vatican Tower to the right.)

Bye-bye Canadia Tower! (Vattanac Tower to the right.)

Obviously I’m delighted that Phnom Penh is developing. But I’m still mystified by who’s going to live in all of these apartment blocks. Most Cambodians can’t afford to. People say the Chinese are buying them to rent out, but to rent out to whom? I’ve looked around a few of these developments, and they are, uniformly, grim.

Copyright: When Asia Meets Asia

Copyright: When Asia Meets Asia

Canadia Tower is no longer the tallest building in Cambodia. DeCastle Royal, Olympia Towers and Gold Tower 42 are all higher. Gold Tower 42 has stood unfinished since the last global property crisis, like an abscessed tooth in an otherwise attractive smile. The country’s tallest building, Vattanac Tower is apparently finally finished, three years behind schedule. It is mostly empty. There is apparently a Hugo Boss shop in there: I haven’t been.

Finally: I don’t usually post about Cambodian grammatical infelicities in English, but this sign made me laugh.


Approaching dry land

July 27, 2015

Some things in life bore me to distraction. Talking about taxes, for instance, is like nails on a chalkboard. It’s bad enough having to pay them: to devote any more time than that to them seems crazed. Which might explain why my finances could best be described as chaotic.

Another thing that bores me is the weather. Weather happens; there’s nothing you can do about it, so you just deal with it. Listening to weather forecasts makes my eyes glaze over with tedium. I’m with Proust’s narrator’s friend M. Bloch, who famously said: “Sir, I am absolutely incapable of telling you whether it has rained. I live so resolutely apart from physical contingencies that my senses no longer trouble to inform me of them.”

I live in a country where it rains a lot, and yet I don’t own an umbrella or a raincoat. Or at least, I live in a country where it usually rains a lot. But not, so far, this year. This year, the rains have been noticeable only by their sporadic and infrequent nature. And that’s beginning to worry me.

A technical adviser with the Mekong River Commission says the entire country has been suffering from “really bad drought” since the end of last year. “It’s as bad as it’s ever been,” he told a local newspaper. “The whole country is in drought, so is Vietnam, so is Thailand.” Wells and rivers have already dried up; people are having to spend their scarce cash on bottled water. People who have been out in the provinces report browning and desiccated rice crops in the paddies.

A lecturer in environmental studies told another paper: “Farmers who depend on rain-fed farming to grow their crops are going to face more disasters.” Rice production is expected to decline, leading to the migration of farmers to look for work in urban areas. Increased pressure will be put on urban infrastructure; food prices will escalate; malnutrition will be common.

The Ministry of Water Resources issued a notice in May, saying that heavy rain was not expected to begin until July. Well, July is pretty much over, and the Mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers are well below their usual levels for this time of year. Usually, in July and August, you curse the skies as they fill the streets ankle-deep with foul and fœtid water: not this year.

The rains could still come. And Cambodia has lived through droughts before, often contiguous with the occurrence of the El Niño warm water system in the eastern Pacific. But it is worth noting that the Angkor temple complex, the world’s largest pre-industrial city, the glory of Cambodia, is thought to have been abandoned due to drought in the early 15th century. So I hope people are taking this seriously. Because it’ll be dull if they’re not.


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