A swine of a man

May 5, 2015

While anyone watching the news on Southeast Asia at the moment will be sated with anniversary retrospectives of the fall of Phnom Penh, followed swiftly by Saigon, forty years ago, there is another anniversary that is worth mentioning: last Sunday marked the 45th anniversary of the Kent State shootings in Ohio, where National Guardsmen fired over 60 times into a crowd of unarmed college students peacefully protesting the illegal war in Cambodia, wounding nine and killing four. No one was ever found responsible for the killings.

kentbig

And despite decades of efforts by a Kent State Truth Tribunal, the US government will not accept responsibility, and, in 2012, the Justice Department refused to reopen the case, citing “insurmountable legal and evidentiary barriers.”

Kent_State_massacre

Clearly, I don’t remember Kent State, but I can remember the sense of outrage I felt when I found out about it (helped by Neil Young’s magnificently potent Ohio). And the anger I felt towards President Richard Nixon and national security advisor Henry Kissinger.

I was thinking about Nixon recently, as I often do when I’m in a bad mood. But specifically about the release last year of extended versions of Nixon’s papers that now confirm the long-standing belief that Nixon was a traitor to the US.

Nixon’s newly released records show that in 1968, as a presidential candidate, he ordered Anna Chennault, his liaison to the South Vietnam government, to persuade them to refuse a cease-fire being brokered by President Lyndon Johnson.

Nixon’s interference with these negotiations violated the Logan Act, banning private citizens from intruding into government negotiations with a foreign nation.

Nixon’s sabotage of the Vietnam peace talks has been confirmed by transcripts of FBI wiretaps. On November 2, 1968, LBJ received an FBI report saying Chennault told the South Vietnamese ambassador that “she had received a message from her boss: saying the Vietnamese should “hold on, we’re gonna win.”

In the four years between the sabotage and what Kissinger termed “peace at hand”, just prior to the 1972 election, more than 20,000 US troops died in Vietnam. More than 100,000 were wounded. More than a million Vietnamese were killed.

And as Wikipedia has it, “with limited data, the range of Cambodian deaths caused by US bombing may be between 40,000 and 600,000.”

But in 1973, Kissinger was given the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the same settlement he helped sabotage in 1968.

Nixon won re-election in 1972, then swiftly became the first American president to resign in disgrace, in 1974. Hunter S. Thompson’s obituary of Nixon is probably a good place to end this, for the good of my blood pressure.

He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.” 

Forever blowing bubbles

April 30, 2015

I’ve been banging on for a while now about a looming property bubble in Phnom Penh, but clearly prophets are without honour even far away from home. Here, in Cambodia in 2015, it’s all about profits.

A recent report from global estate agents CBRE says the supply of condominiums in Phnom Penh will increase by 533 per cent by the end of 2018, with some 9,500 additional units available for rent in the central and outer areas of the capital. A lunatic friend of mine even managed to sell a piece to the New York Times saying that Chinese investors would be lapping up Cambodian condos: I’m not so sure.

However, there’s no doubt that lots of people are rushing in to Cambodian property at the moment, and there are plenty of knock-on effects. One of these was brought home to me quite forcefully a couple of weeks ago, when one of my favourite bars, Cantina, was forced to close its doors because of unsustainable rent increases.

Run by a gentle American with the slightly improbable name of Hurley Scroggins III, Cantina was the unofficial gathering place of the foreign media in Phnom Penh. Ostensibly a Mexican restaurant, I’m not sure I ever ate there, but it was a wonderful place for a drink and a gossip. It was unassuming, and not the smartest place in town, but the Beer Lao was cold and the welcome cheerful. Everyone drifted past up and down the riverside, and, sitting gazing out over the waters of the Tonle Sap and the Mekong, you could catch up with old friends and meet new ones, arrange jobs, listen to fantasists and lunatics, laugh at stoned tourists stumbling out of the happy pizza place next door and get your shoes shined. But, after 10 years, the landlord kicked Hurley out, and Phnom Penh is a poorer place for it.

It’s also poorer after a slew of closures of live music venues, the most recent being a bar called Equinox, on Street 278 in the trendy BKK1 area. Unable to afford a non-negotiable 300 percent rent increase, the bar, which had hosted almost every band that’s ever played in Cambodia, was forced to close up just a week or so ago.

The former owner said that he was gloomy about prospects for the area. “It’s East Asians coming in with all this money,” he said, referring to the increased competition produced by mainly Chinese investors. “It’s infected the Khmer landlords.” Asian businessmen have been seen touring the premises, but nothing is known about the future of the space.

I liked Equinox. They had some great music; the pool table was a bit eccentric, but the huge floor-mounted fans tended to compensate for that. When it opened, nine years ago, the roads in the area had only just been paved. And look at it now.

The news of Equinox’s closure came on the heels of a long list of other closures around the city. Slur Bar, The Groove and Oscars 51 shut up shop just before the Khmer New Year. Memphis Bar shut down, and The Village closed for refurbishments and never reopened. These names may not mean much if you don’t live here, but, if you liked music and lived in Phnom Penh, they were crucial. Nothing is replacing them.

Meanwhile, an American popstrel called Demi Lovato (I had to go and look her name up; I could only recall her being called something like Devil’s Tomato) has announced a gig in Phnom Penh in a couple of weeks, and 35,000 people are expected. Her fans here mounted a sustained campaign on Facebook to bring her here: the Demi Lovato Cambodia Fan Club has over 23,000 followers. She’ll join an exalted list of musicians who have made it to Cambodia in recent years, including the distinguished Danish band Michael Learns to Rock and not offensively bland Ronan Keating.

I’m sorry, I can’t help sneering. I guess if 35,000 people turn out for a gig in Cambodia, that’s got to be a good thing. Except…

Donut even go there

April 24, 2015

Lard_lad_2

The relentless commodification of Cambodia continues apace, with the news this week that US donut chain Krispy Kreme is to open 10 stores across the country. Joining Burger King, Dairy Queen, KFC, Swensens, Costa Coffee and Dominos, amongst others (no Starbucks or McDonalds yet, though!), a little part of me dies every time I read about a new roll-out of some clean, well-managed, job-providing soulless corporate entity here. Especially when they say things like “This agreement … will enable us to bring our mission of touching and enhancing lives through the joy that is Krispy Kreme to the people of Cambodia.” But that’s just me.

And, to be fair, I can’t think of many places to buy donuts in Phnom Penh, should such an urge take you. Personally, I wouldn’t cross the road to eat a free donut. I seem to recall my brother having a pile of Krispy Kreme donuts as a wedding cake: a fact upon which I shall not comment further.

But it is kind of sad that it takes a vast US company to bring donuts to Cambodia, when Cambodians have a fascinating history with donuts, in America. Because the little sugary rings have acted as a lifebelt for thousands of Cambodian immigrants to the US for many years now.

Fleeing the Khmer Rouge, tens of thousands of poor and often illiterate Cambodians made it to the States from 1975 onwards, and a staggering amount went into the donut business. In Los Angeles, it is estimated that 80 percent of the 5,000 donut businesses are Cambodian-owned, and the figure is 90 percent in Texas. (In north-east Texas, there is even something called the Donut Trail, and every business is Cambodian owned. Glazing a trail, perhaps?)

The reasons for the rush to donuts is quite simple: the business is cheap to operate, needing not much more than flour, sugar and shortening, frying is easy to master, and the space required for sales is minimal. It is labour intensive though, and Cambodian families could manage that.

But there is another, more interesting reason for the Cambodian Donut Hegemony, and his name is Ted Ngoy.

Arriving in the US in 1975, Ngoy worked as a janitor in Long Beach. He managed to get hired by Winchell’s, a donut chain in southern California, and two years later, he had saved enough to buy the first of many dozens of donut stores. Within a few years, he had gone on to sell millions of doughnuts, made a fortune, bought luxurious homes, drove fast cars, holidayed in Europe, and had shaken the hands of three presidents.

Philanthropically, Ngoy would employ other Cambodians, and sell them stores to allow them to work their way up into entrepreneurial American society. Ngoy sponsored thousands of refugees, promising them work in his shops. At his peak, he owned 70 shops. In turn, those pioneers got their friends and relatives started.

By 1990, however, Ngoy’s gambling habit had taken over his life, and the Donut King’s fortunes plummeted. He eventually returned to Cambodia, penniless, and formed a useless political party, and then went back to the States. In 2005 he was discovered by the Los Angeles Times sleeping rough on the porch of a friend’s mobile home. “I don’t know who I am right now,” he told them.

In between, he had managed to secure Most-Favoured-Nation trade status for Cambodia after lobbying the US, making use of friends in the Republican Party.

Recently he has apparently been back in Cambodia again, most recently running a small real estate company on the coast.

Ted Ngoy in 2013

Ted Ngoy in 2013

Ngoy is pragmatic about the donut business in the US: “In America, many people do other things now. They have some more money, they go to other fields. But everybody starts from the base of doughnut shops and I think that’s a good start.”

Surely you jest?

April 19, 2015

Sometimes this blog could just write itself. Honestly.

The International Organization for Migration said it is expecting the first refugees to arrive in Phnom Penh within days from the Pacific island of Nauru, as part of a controversial resettlement deal cooked up between Australia and Cambodia last year.

News of the first arrivals follows the leaking of a letter that the refugees are being given that makes … interesting … claims about the state of Cambodia’s democracy, health care system and respect for free speech.

Under the agreement, Cambodia has agreed to take an unlimited number of the hundreds of refugees that Australia is currently holding on Nauru, in return for $35 million in aid.

Rights groups and lawmakers in both countries have attacked the deal, “accusing Australia of shirking its international obligations for the refugees by shunting them off to one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the region,” according to the Cambodia Daily.

Two separate delegations from Cambodia that visited Nauru have so far failed to convince a single refugee to take up the offer. Cambodia said the visiting officials gave the refugees “an honest take” on what they could expect life to be like in their country.

A leaked letter, however, shows that the refugees are being lied to. The five-page letter, which is being handed out by Australian immigration officials on Nauru, is titled “Settlement in Cambodia” and offers guidance to what help refugees can expect upon arriving here.

“Moving to Cambodia provides an opportunity for you and your family to start a new life in a safe country, free from persecution and violence, and build your future,” it says.

Cambodians “enjoy all the freedoms of a democratic society, including freedom of religion and freedom of speech.”

On the subject of safety, the letter tells the refugees that they have nothing to worry about. “Cambodia is a safe country, where police maintain law and order,” it says. “It does not have problems with violent crime or stray dogs.”

“Cambodia has a high standard of health care,” the letter goes on to say, “with multiple hospitals and general practitioners.”

Where to start?

Last year, researchers at Harvard and the University of Sydney ranked Cambodia’s 2013 national election the fifth most “flawed or failed” out of the 73 national polls held around the world in the previous 18 months. It beat Belarus, the Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, and Equatorial Guinea, though. Which is, I suppose, something.

In 2013, the US-based Freedom House ranked Cambodia “not free” for the 40th year running, placing it among the countries “where basic political rights are absent, and basic civil liberties are widely and systematically denied.”

Just last month, the World Justice Project ranked Cambodia 98th out of 102 countries in its index of government openness. Cambodia also consistently ranks near the bottom of global measures of corruption and press freedom.

The government regularly deploys police and soldiers to break up peaceful protests by force. The UN’s last human rights envoy to Cambodia said the judiciary was “riddled” with corruption.

The US Bureau of Diplomatic Security last year released a report for embassy staff that gave Cambodia a “critical” crime rating. “The frequency of armed robberies involving weapons continues at high levels.”

The Australian Foreign Affairs Department says visitors to Cambodia should take out medical evacuation insurance.

“Health and medical services in Cambodia are generally of a very poor quality and very limited in the services they can provide,” the department says. “Outside Phnom Penh, there are almost no medical facilities equipped to deal with medical emergencies.”

The Guardian's take on the subject...

The Guardian’s take on the subject…

But on the bright side, Cambodia has just won a Guinness World Record, for making the biggest rice cake in the world. Weighing in at four tons, the cake was paraded through the streets of Siem Reap, to general joy and delight.

giant-cake_supplied

Hun Many, a CPP lawmaker and son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, said the accomplishment would earn Cambodia international respect. “I am proud to be a child of Cambodia, and today we have achieved a giant sticky rice cake, and the world will acknowledge that from now on.” Hun told an audience in Siem Reap.

“Our hard work comes from having a singular spirit and a single target to make a giant sticky rice cake to make the people and the international stage know what Cambodia is today and what can come from our unity,” he added.

Dog eat dog

April 7, 2015

I was sad to miss an interesting little rally held in central Phnom Penh last weekend, because it concerned a subject which I find quite interesting: pet meat. I was also saddened that I missed it, because it was very nearly violently broken up by the police, and I quite fancy a little bit of a rumble with the filth, when I’ve got right on my side.

Eating dogs and cats is common in Cambodia, even if it doesn’t appear in many tourist guides. I’ve never bothered, mainly because the sort of restaurants that serve dog meat are so foul as to require immediate giant doses of worm medicine, once the food poisoning finally wears off.

A few years ago Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema even encouraged the eating of dog, and said banning dog meat would hurt the city. “Come on, dog meat is so delicious,” he said. “The Vietnamese and Koreans love to eat dog meat.” Dog meat should be sold openly in the markets, he said, because poor people eat dog meat. “They don’t have [nice] wine, but poor people can enjoy their dog meat with palm juice wine,” Kep said.

Yummy?

Yummy?

My landlord has had three dogs stolen since we’ve been here, all taken for the pot. He seems pretty blasé about it. His latest response is to own a dog that just looks incredibly unappetizing. This one has been unmolested for more than a year. But we have to take a lot of care when we walk Harley the Wonder Dog, as plenty of casual passers-by see 12 kilos of tasty protein strolling by on the end of a leash, and not the apogee of canine evolution that we do.

Harley, Hammer of the Dogs

Harley, Hammer of the Dogs

But the “Say No To Dog Meat” rally on Sunday, which seems to have been organized mainly by expats, was banned on the spot by the authorities, despite the event being initially sanctioned by the local council. Some 25 owners, with about 30 dogs, gathered at Neak Banh Teuk Park, intending to walk their dogs to another nearby park for a speech, and to circulate a petition for a law banning the trade of dogs and cats for consumption.

But instead, several van-loads of angry policeman turned up and started remonstrating with the walkers, shouting at them and telling them they would be arrested and their dogs kicked to death if they didn’t disperse.

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the municipality could not permit people marching with animals. “We understand [if] they walk to campaign against trafficking or eating animals such as dog, but we don’t allow a walk like that,” Dimanche told a local paper. “It’s not normal.”

Now, I can understand that the authorities might be concerned if the march had involved thousands of woefully underpaid and underfed garment workers asking for better pay and conditions. But 25 expats with fluffy dogs? What’s the worst that could happen? And they were all, to a man, apparently carrying plastic bags to scoop up any dogshit that might have been unloaded upon Phnom Penh’s pristine streets.

As I say, I’m fairly neutral on the subject of eating dogs. I’d prefer not to do it much myself, but surely, if we eat everything else on god’s green earth, what’s wrong with chowing down on a little chow? Pigs are thought to be smarter than dogs, but I bet many of the Phnom Penh Puppy Posse had a bacon sandwich that morning.

I’d obviously be furious, and inconsolable, if someone stole and ate the Mighty Harley. Probably about as much as I would be if someone stole and ate my brother. But other people’s dogs? Maybe not so much. A western paper recently asked a diner at a dog restaurant in Vietnam if it made any difference to him that his meal could be someone’s pet. “No,” he said. “It’s not my pet, so I don’t really care.”

No, what gets me is the hypocrisy of the authorities in getting out the jackboots to hassle 25 dog owners on a Sunday afternoon.

First they came for the Socialists…

Picturing poverty

March 23, 2015

Most people who know me would, I imagine, say that I’m pretty laid back; relaxed and even placid, on the whole. But if there’s one thing that is practically guaranteed to bring me to a paroxysmal rage, it’s Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper.

The Daily Mail website is now the world’s biggest news site, although I use the word ‘news’ in its loosest possible sense. A quick look just now shows that it is currently running hundreds of stories, almost all of them about people whom I don’t know: boy band singers, soap actresses, reality TV people: most of them have either split up with someone or have left the house wearing something that the Mail finds comment-worthy – too revealing, too tight and so forth.

As the New Yorker put it recently, in a highly amusing takedown of the paper and its attitudes, apart from its usual right-wing UKIP-ish tirades against immigrants, the Mail is full of “a beguiling lineup of novelty stories (the girl who eats nothing but chicken nuggets), animal stories (the surfing hippopotamus), personal essays (“I married a skinflint!”), barely disguised press releases (cranberry-cheese-flavoured crisps on sale at Tesco), recipes, gossip, crosswords, obituaries, amusing pictures, and heartwarming fluff. The Mail is the place to go if you want to see a house that looks like Hitler, or a tabby with its head encased in a slice of bread.” The piece is worth a read.

I also like the Daily Mail headline generator website – I just got “Are Muslims Stealing From Pensioners?” and “Will The Euro Give Drivers Swine Flu?”

Out in Cambodia, we don’t see many Mail journalists. It’s only when a British tourist dies of a heroin overdose on holiday or a remote tribe are discovered to have unusual sexual mores that a Mail hack will turn up, churn out a few hundred words and then stand everyone drinks for a night on his fabulous expenses. Which is fine.

But I was thrown into a spittle-flecked rage the other day by a piece on photography in Cambodia. The Mail had got hold of a photojournalist in Siem Reap who objected to tourists taking pictures of poor people. The photographer, a Spaniard called David Rengel, sputtered to the Mail: “What disgusted me, what I didn’t understand and what I don’t think is understandable is why these tourists visit places where children work, or visit orphanages where children have lost their parents.”

Obviously, disgust is a hallmark of the stuff the Mail wants to cover, to make us all feel equally queasy.

But Rengel went on: “It seems awful to me that tourists and people with money take part in this, from their position of privilege, show such contempt towards the inhabitants of the countries they visit and towards their human rights. What is the most contemptuous, what we shouldn’t allow under any circumstances, is that they use children like a some kind of entertainment, violating all their human rights in the process.”

Rengel, of course, has a point. But the piece is liberally illustrated with his pictures. Which are, naturally, of children working in a dump outside Siem Reap. The pictures are huge, and gorgeous. But they are pictures of extremely poor children, working in appalling conditions. I expect Rengel got paid for them. The hypocrisy makes my head spin.

Not exploitative at all...

Not exploitative at all…

So is Rengel just stupid, or is he actively mendacious? “While I was taking photos to demonstrate the realities of child labour, I realised tourists were arriving to visit, sometimes in buses and other times in tuk-tuks … I thought it was horrible, and it should be reported.” Right, reported in the Daily Mail…

It’s difficult to take pictures of people in Cambodia that don’t have an element of poverty to them. Most people in the country are grindingly poor. But they are also dignified and beautiful human beings, and deserve better than to be turned into grist for the Mail’s hypocrisy mill

Copyright Daniel Rothenberg

Copyright Daniel Rothenberg

Working, even tangentially, with charities in Cambodia, poverty porn is a constant issue. We at CamKids get lots of visitors who want to see what we do. But you can’t show them gleaming classrooms and happy and well-fed children, hard as we strive to provide them. So it’s a delicate balance – people have to see the harsh realities, so they understand the scale of the task, but you can’t exploit the children.

I’m not sure that there are really any hard and fast rules as to who should be allowed to take pictures of poor people. But I am entirely sure that as a discussion, it shouldn’t be left up to the picture desk of the Daily Mail to decide.

In the end, perhaps the final word should go to some of those who usually only appear in the pictures. The Cambodia Daily talked to several workers at one of Phnom Penh’s dumps: “First I wondered why they came to take pictures of us, but then I realised that maybe they took pictures to show their friends in other countries the young Khmer people living in the rubbish,” said one, adding that he hoped the pictures would help to rally international aid.

Another said foreign visitors were an interesting novelty. “I have little education, and I was happy when I saw many people interested in me,” he said. “They’re strange people.”

From Russia with love

February 18, 2015

Following on from my last post, about uppity foreigners getting kicked out of Cambodia, there is a bunch of barangs who seem to be in no danger of getting expelled, and that’s the Russians who live in the grubby little coastal town of Sihanoukville. Quite why Sihanoukville attracts so many dubious Russians is beyond me, but the local authorities certainly don’t seem to discourage them.

A major feud, between two well-known Russian figures in Sihanoukville, began in late November last year, when another Russian, one Denis Valov, was jailed for killing a high school student while driving drunk. Valov reportedly worked for a locally based businessman and biologist called Nikolai Doroshenko.

Nikolai Doroshenko

Nikolai Doroshenko

Doroshenko reportedly took a phone call at the end of November from an unidentified Russian-speaking man, who wanted him to give Valov $1,000. Doroshenko sent his son Ostap to pick up the money: instead, he was badly beaten up by three Russian-looking men, and had to be airlifted to Thailand for treatment.

Ostap Doroshenko

Ostap Doroshenko

Ostap Doroshenko, despite being Russian, is a captain in the provincial Cambodian immigration police, and drives a Porsche. His father Nikolai runs a questionable restaurant and zoo in Sihanoukville, called Snake House. (I went there once, and ate a rather uncomfortable chicken Kiev on a glass-topped table with a large python underneath. It gets poor reviews on Tripadvisor, except from Russians.)

Nikolai Doroshenko has been embroiled in a dispute with a flamboyant Russian ex-billionaire called Sergei Polonsky. Forty-two-year-old property developer Polonsky, who was once one of the richest men in Russia, is wanted in Moscow on charges of embezzling $180 million. He is on Interpol’s Most Wanted list. Cambodia’s courts have repeatedly rejected requests for his extradition.

Sergei Polonsky

Sergei Polonsky

So the elder Doroshenko, and Polonsky, have been arguing for several years about the ownership of four islands near Sihanoukville, one of which Polonsky lives on, and where he conducts business seminars for backpackers when he’s not making his Cambodian workers jump off boats at knifepoint in the middle of the night.

Doroshenko has directly accused Polonsky of having his son beaten up; Polonsky responded by suing Doroshenko for $800,000. The case is proceeding at a glacial pace.

But the latest sighting of the Russian mafia in Sihanoukville occurred this weekend, when a group of Russian men demanded protection money from another Russian man who is the official tour operator for what is known as the KaZantip music festival, to be held on an island near Sihanoukville for 10 days, starting this week.

When he refused, they attacked him with guns and knives, he said. “They said that they know where I live, where my wife lives, they know about my children, and then they said that even the president of KaZantip will pay them, so why am I not paying them?” he said. He added that KaZantip organisers had been asked to pay the group $45,000 but refused, according to the Cambodia Daily.

He identified the leader of the group that attacked him as an employee of Nikolai Doroshenko. “The first one who start to shoot, he works for Mr. Doroshenko … because I saw him many times and he presented himself as chief of security for Mr. Doroshenko,” he said. Two Russians have been arrested, and the police also confiscated three air-powered guns made to look like real pistols, three Tasers, knives and steel pipes.

KaZantip Electronica Festival

KaZantip Electronica Festival

The KaZantip festival, usually held in Ukraine, is ‘notoriously debauched’, and the government has been considering banning it. For some reason, though, they have finally decided to allow it, perhaps because of the estimated 100,000 likely attendees. Or perhaps they just like Russian ravers. Who knows? But what we do know is that gangs of armed Russians and international fugitives are wreaking havoc in a sleepy coastal town, while environmental activists who want to conserve Cambodia are getting booted out of the country. Confusing, eh?

 

Dammed if you don’t

February 15, 2015

Monks areng

As someone who has been threatened with deportation from Cambodia for speaking out about the preservation of the country’s resources, I feel very strongly about a story that has popped up in recent days.

Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng has ordered the authorities not to renew the visa of a 34-year-old Spanish environmental activist called Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, which expires next week.

Gonzalez-Davidson works for an NGO called Mother Nature. I’ve never met him, but he seems a thoroughly balanced, sane and committed man. He has been in the country since 2002, and speaks fluent Khmer.

His NGO is trying to stop the Cambodian authorities building a hydroelectric dam in the Areng Valley in the Cardamom Mountains in the southwest of the country.

The Areng Valley, in Koh Kong province, is in the country’s last pristine natural forest. The valley is home to some 1,300 members of the ethnic Chong community, who have lived in the area for centuries. Besides their livelihoods, the Chong would lose their ancestral spirit forests and burial grounds if the area is flooded

The Areng Valley also contains the habitats of at least 30 rare and endangered animal and fish species, including the Siamese crocodile, of which there are thought to be fewer than 300 in Cambodia.

On the other hand, the hydropower project would supply some 108 MW of power. It is to be built and operated by a notably wonderful Chinese firm called Sinhydro.

“The population would be forcibly displaced to a place which, judging by the standard relocation sites we have seen in this country so far, would be equal to abject poverty and total squalor. No water, no fertile land, no access to markets, without access to traditional sources of medicine, food, construction materials,” Gonzalez-Davidson said recently.

He also dismissed Hun Sen’s promise of jobs for the families if the project went ahead. “One only has to take a visit to any of the under-construction dams in Cambodia to see that most of the jobs actually go to outsiders such as migrants from other parts of the country and hundreds of Chinese nationals … not to the population living nearby.”

But it looks as if Gonzalez-Davidson is going to be removed from the fight. Sok Phal, the director-general of immigration, said that the decision not to renew the Spaniard’s visa was made after local authorities in Koh Kong lodged a complaint about his activities.

When asked if it was because of his environmental activism, Sok replied, “Don’t ask me that. I can’t comment on it; I only do technical work.”

Koh Kong provincial governor Bun Leut said: “Alex made trouble with local authorities in Thma Bang district. He took the car of his NGO to block my deputy governor’s group who went to visit the villagers in the Areng area.” Which sounds pretty bad to me.

Ruling Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker Chheang Vun has been gunning for Gonzalez-Davidson for several months. “I am taking up measures with competent authorities to check whether that foreigner is permitted to operate in Cambodia, confront the authorities, and animate people to jostle with authorities.”

He went on: “Cambodia is too lax, it’s too easy for a foreigner to make an entire region socially unstable, and he excuses his actions by saying he is protecting the people like this or like that,” the National Assembly member said.

Gonzelez-Davidson said that there was “no doubt” that the decision to deny him visa renewal was related to his anti-dam activism. “They will have to deport me. I will throw as many eggs as I can at their face,” he said, vowing not to leave the country before his visa expires.

As award-winning Cambodian filmmaker Kalyanee Mam has said: “this is not an ‘anti’ Areng dam movement, but more a movement to protect Cambodia’s natural and spiritual heritage.”

 

Work permits

February 4, 2015

One of the great things about Cambodia, for a foreigner, is that it is very easy to come here, and live and work. Basically, you turn up at the airport, get a $30 business visa, and you’re all set. Within a month, you get somebody to extend your visa for 12 months for $300 or so, and repeat indefinitely. That’s why there are so many expats here, and more arriving every day, starting businesses and investing in this great little country.

But not any more. The government has decided that all foreigners here now need to have a work permit. This is causing a great deal of consternation amongst expats, as, with typical brilliance, the government doesn’t actually seem to have thought this through.

The basic, inalienable rule seems to be that if you’re here on a business visa, you need a work permit. So that’s practically everyone, except diplomats (probably). Volunteers with NGOs. Children of people working here. Retirees. Researchers. Freelancers.

The laws on work permits have been on the books since 1992, but it seems that the imminent implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of this year has pushed the government into enforcing cross-border rules to bring it into line with the rest of ASEAN. And the famously incorruptible tax department is relishing the chance to rake in more filthy lucre.

But even the government seems confused as to how it’s going to work. Asked about it, Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour seemed confused, and was forced to finally admit that he didn’t know: “I am not the head of every department,” he said.

The work permit laws say that securing a permit involves an application, photos, passport and visa copies, proof of insurance and a medical certificate issued by the Labour Ministry’s Health Department.

The health certificate has to be done by the Ministry of Labour, and has provoked a great deal of hilarity across the foreign community here. People have reported their height has been measured at six metres, their eye colour as ‘none,’ and the head of the medical department has admitted that blood tests are being conducted to detect syphilis. Which is odd.

So life may well become considerably more difficult here in the near future. Of course, you could pay off someone, which I’m sure many people plan to do. But not me, being an upright sort of chap. But living here without an employer is going to become increasingly tenuous. Watch this space.

Burning up

January 30, 2015

I was going to write about going to a Burns Night Supper last weekend.

I thought that I could get an elegant little piece out of it about the cultural dissonance involved in being in Cambodia and watching a bunch of men in skirts loudly declaiming about “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beasties” and “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face/ Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!”  while eating a sheep’s stomach filled with lungs and entrails. But, on reflection, I decided that it’s a pretty weird thing to do wherever you are: even in Scotland. And, to be honest, my memories of the event are a little hazy. (I was apparently found at the end of the evening with my head on a table, fast asleep.)

A somewhat more troubling import from abroad is an admiration of the life and work of Adolf Hitler.

Cambodia’s National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha attracted justified criticism after he told his subordinates at a meeting in Phnom Penh last week that he “learned” from the Nazi dictator.

Sokha’s comments were apparently made amid speeches defending the authorities’ deadly crackdown on protests last January, which saw five people shot dead.

Sokha quickly backtracked, saying said his comments had been misunderstood, and that while he acknowledged that he “raised the name of Hitler” and said that he learned from him, he said the lesson was far from inspirational.

However a tape of his remarks quickly surfaced: “Speaking frankly, I learned from Hitler. Germany, after World War I, was not allowed by the international community to have more than 100,000 soldiers, but the Nazis and Hitler did whatever so they could wage World War II.
This is the first thing.

“Secondly, I learned from the Vietnamese guerrillas to take small numbers to fight against the big, but that cannot be for winning, but to destroy them. If we want to win, we have to take big numbers to fight against the small—to fight them until they are frightened and it is finished. This is what I can say; it is not accidental, it is not  boastful. My thoughts and methods are to achieve this.”

I leave it to you to decide what you think about his attitude. I think I prefer Burns.

 

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