July 13, 2016
It’s been a strange and febrile week in Phnom Penh: how many times have I written that over the last few years? Last Thursday the anti-corruption NGO Global Witness published an outstandingly good and lavishly annotated report on the financial holdings of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family.
Using only information publicly available via the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce, the report said that Hun Sen and 26 other members of his extended family owned or part-controlled 114 companies with capital of more than $200 million, including firms with links to major international brands such as Apple, Nokia, Visa, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, Durex and Honda.
And these were just the public face of the family’s commercial dealings. Most business in Cambodia isn’t registered. The Hun family’s land holdings were not taken into account, which would boost the value substantially. I’ve heard figures of up to $4 billion.
The report says three of Hun Sen’s children jointly own a power company that sells electricity to the national grid. Two of the country’s biggest petrol station chains are run by companies owned in whole or in part by members of the Hun family. Three popular TV stations, a radio station and one of the most-read Khmer-language newspapers are all run by Hun Sen’s eldest daughter, Hun Mana, who also has shares in the largest mobile phone network and owns a leading bottled-water firm.
The Hun family’s response was predictable: vitriol was poured upon Global Witness and the papers that reported the story. As to refuting any of the actual, you know, facts: well, they managed to miss out on that. Instead daughter Hun Mana accused Global Witness of “try[ing] to tarnish my Father [sic] reputation” ahead of next year’s elections. “Anyhow, we thank you for your destructive efforts, which as a consequence will help my father in the coming election as they are all lies and deceitful to confuse the public about what my Father has accomplished.” Hun Sen himself put a picture of the immediate family on Facebook doing shots. Which is also confusing.
Meanwhile a government-approved news source published a cartoon based on a Nazi cartoon originally published in 1943, but with the heads of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin replaced with The Phnom Penh Post, The Cambodia Daily and Global Witness. I don’t really understand what they’re trying to get at with this: is the government trying to align itself with the Nazis? Do they not remember how that worked out for Hitler in 1945?
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told local media that “If you are not professional, we will take action on that one.” He went on: ‘“I don’t want the messenger to get killed, my friend,” he said with a laugh,’ according to the Cambodia Daily.
And lo and behold, on Sunday morning local independent political analyst Dr Kem Ley was shot twice, in the back and the back of the head, while drinking his morning coffee in a petrol station on a major junction in central Phnom Penh. He was 45 years old, married, with four children, and another on the way.
Kem Ley had recently criticised Hun Sen’s family following the release of the Global Witness report, telling VOA Khmer that the report provided clear information about how Cambodia really works and should be used to benefit the country through investigations by the anti-corruption unit, the National Audit Authority and the National Assembly.
The alleged gunman was quickly arrested. He apparently told police his name was Choub Samlab, which means “meet to kill” in Khmer. The 38-year-old said he killed Kem Ley because he owed him $3,000.
There are a number of inconsistencies here. How an itinerant farmer came to lend one of the country’s leading political analysts a large amount of money is confusing. How he thought that shooting him (with a $2,500 pistol) would get him his cash back is also a point of discussion. Why none of either parties’ families or friends had heard of the loan is a possible issue. But the government has promised a full and independent investigation. So that’s all right then.
It’s not as if full and independent investigations have failed before in Cambodia, as in the shootings of labour rights activist Chea Vichea in 2004 or environmentalist Chut Vutty in 2012. So the country is on edge right now. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. The funeral, in a week or so, is likely to be a potential flashpoint. We’ll be watching closely.
June 27, 2016
I saw a fatal hit and run incident the other night. It was, unsurprisingly, pretty upsetting. So I thought I’d share it.
I was coming home after dark, at about eight in the evening, in a tuk-tuk, going north on Norodom Boulevard, one of the main arteries in central Phnom Penh. Traffic was fairly light. Suddenly just in front of me, a woman on a moped had her back end clipped by a Toyota. She went down, and the car passed over some strategic parts of her body. As I watched, she sat up, then fell back down again, not moving.
Obviously, I was expecting the Toyota to stop. Instead it carried on. But it now had the moped stuck under its front bumper, showering a vast spray of sparks as it continued up Norodom. It is a very long straight road, and I watched it, and the sparks, for a couple of minutes as it disappeared off into the distance.
I still can’t really get my head around it. I mean, you always hear that if you hit someone in the countryside you shouldn’t stop, as the local villagers will beat you to death. But this was central Phnom Penh. No one looked particularly surprised. But I certainly was. The guy didn’t even slow down. Astonishing.
In other news, after my post the other day about outdoor defecation, the government has decided to tighten up, and have now banned dogs from doing their business across Phnom Penh. As well as putting up ‘Do Not Defecate’ signs in parks (actually, they say ‘Do Not Detecate’), they’ve added one that shows a dog taking a crap with a big red line through it. Which is a problem for Harley, the Hammer of the Dogs.
Well, actually it isn’t. Our local pooping park is sparsely policed, and I always have a plastic bag with me. But we nearly got in trouble the other morning as he was having a quick slash against a bush in front of the Royal Palace. Some secret security guy saw this and started shouting ‘No!’ at the poor little beast. Of course, I feigned ignorance and pretended I didn’t know what he was objecting to. It culminated with him exasperatedly demonstrating taking a shit while all his colleagues laughed at him, before I shrugged and walked off, leaving him fulminating with rage.
Of course, he was lucky I didn’t beat the holy crap out of him: there’s nothing I detest as much as minor officials trying to enforce stupid petty rules. And there’s a lot of that in Cambodia. Give a man a walkie-talkie and he turns into Pol Pot.
Another thing Cambodia has a lot of is convenience stores. Many of the bigger ones try and copy western branding, especially that of Seven-Eleven. I went past one the other day called Nine-Eleven, which I don’t think they’ve properly thought through. However I go past another one called Seven-Elephants, which is rather clever.
Other names of businesses that have made me wonder recently include restaurants called Mega Kak, as well as Collagen Soup. And one called Sleuk Chark, which just sounds really objectionable.
June 1, 2016
Sometimes, life in Cambodia is a lot like that metaphor about boiling a frog: you think life is fine, and then all of a sudden you’re surrounded by police with AK-47s, and you realise it very much isn’t.
The police appeared around me as I was stuck in a traffic jam the other day, caused by opposition party protestors trying to present a petition to the king. I wasn’t particularly worried per se, but it is an ugly reminder of who has the power here.
The petition is the latest attempt to fight back against a rising tide of political oppression. It all stems from a stupidly obscure ongoing political story about the deputy leader of the opposition allegedly having an affair with a young woman. The judiciary apparently thinks he is guilty of being involved in prostitution and wants to arrest him, despite there being no evidence, and him having parliamentary immunity from arrest.
The petition calls for the king to step in and stop what’s widely seen as the ruling CPP using the alleged affair as a pretext for flimsy legal cases to neutralise its opponents via its control of the judiciary. Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy is already in self-imposed exile in Paris for the third time in his career.
NGOs say 29 people have been imprisoned so far, and call them ‘political prisoners.’ Even the normally supine European Union Delegation to Cambodia has expressed “deep regret” over the “dangerous political escalation” in recent days and called for “a halt to the judicial harassment of the acting leader of the opposition and representatives of civil society organizations.”
Meanwhile, there has been widespread hilarity after the government’s so-called ‘Cambodian Human Rights Committee’ tried to pass off snapshots of the Singapore skyline as those of pre-civil war Libya, in a propaganda video.
The video, with the wonderfully North Korean-style title Using Rights in an Anarchic Way stitches together a series of before-and-after photos of Syria and Libya, and warns that “the excessive use if [sic] rights will bring about destruction.”
The two war-torn states are a favourite of government officials who urge Cambodians not to ‘misuse’ their rights. Another great example of nuanced political thinking…
And finally, work on a private prison for rich criminals is to begin next month. The country’s interior minister said prisoners with money could pay to stay at the complex, which he described as being “like a hotel.” At the time, another official said the complex might suit the child of a tycoon who was accustomed to luxury. You just couldn’t make it up…
April 29, 2016
It’s hot. If you’re in Southeast Asia, you’ll know this. Anywhere else, you probably will not. But it’s really hot here. Cambodia has just seen its highest ever temperature, of 42.6C/108.7F. Laos and Vietnam have also both set records. Now, if you’re shivering in the UK in the snow, you’ll probably be envious. But don’t bother. Because it’s brutal here.
I don’t much mind the heat, generally, although I sweat prolifically (sweating like a rapist, as Australians so charmingly put it). But I’m sick of the heat. You stick to furniture. I’ve got a towel under my mouse-arm as I type this. You get very short-tempered. Your beer gets tepid in seconds. You get even more bad-tempered.
But the boring minutiae of everyday life aren’t important. What is important is the fact that people are going to start dying very soon. In fact, they already are. In Phnom Penh it has only rained once so far this year, for five minutes. The rainy season is supposed to start in June: experts say it may not arrive until July or August. Which would be a disaster.
In Malaysia, they’ve shut hundreds of schools because of the heat. Thai people have been told to stay indoors and drink plenty of water. Here in Cambodia, 18 out of 25 provinces say they are experiencing a drought. Several provinces say that tens of thousands of people are at extreme risk in the next 10 days without something being done. An elephant died of heatstroke carrying tourists around Angkor Wat. Sixty-five tonnes of fish in a lake died because the water was too warm. Rivers are about 80 percent below their usual levels. Cattle are dying. Rice and fruit farmers are crying out for help. Famine is a real possibility.
These worries were brought home to me yesterday when our taps ran dry, and I couldn’t have a shower. You start thinking about the end of the world when you can’t brush your teeth. I was mapping out scenarios in my head of how to flee the country if the water runs out. Luckily, it’s back on now, but it was a worry.
In the midst of all this, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has been playing politics, warning opposition parties that they have to help the people of this country with access to water, or the people will remember when they come to vote in commune elections next year. Quite what they’re supposed to do is unclear, not having access to the levers of power that the government does.
So we carry on, sweating and worrying and huddling up to the fan, and open another beer. That won’t run out for a while, I hope.
April 19, 2016
I took our tuk-tuk driver Setain to the clinic the other day. This involved sitting around for a spell, a period of gabbling in Khmer between Setain and some doctor-type people, Setain being given a plethora of pills, and me paying the surprisingly ample bill. I hope that doesn’t sound paternalistic or patronising: we genuinely like Setain, and despite us paying him pretty well, he probably couldn’t afford decent medical help without going to a loan shark. So we’re happy to help.
It turns out that the poor bloke has kidney stones, mainly due to him not urinating enough. And that’s no great surprise. As a tuk-tuk driver, he, like every other driver, and hundreds of thousands of other people in Phnom Penh, has no access to public toilets. Setain is a man of great dignity and pride, and would hate to be spotted pissing against a wall. That’s not the case for every Cambodian. It’s an utterly unremarkable sight to see men angled up against walls, all over the city: no one thinks twice about it. Which only adds to the general pungency of Phnom Penh, especially during the dry season.
There is a tree on a side street next to the Royal Palace a few metres from the main thoroughfare. In the evenings and at weekends, thousands of people congregate on the maidan opposite the palace to hang out with their families and drink beer. Which means that the tree gets visited probably a couple of hundred times a day by micturating men. I have to keep Harley well away from it in the mornings, but, to be honest, I think he finds it a bit overwhelming. He’s only a little dog.
And it gets worse. The only park in the city, again, just yards from the palace, is used for more, er, textural deposits. There is a little sign on the way in which says ‘No Defecation’, but for some reason it’s in English, and I would imagine that English speakers crapping in a park in Phnom Penh’s central business district isn’t a huge problem. Nevertheless, the margins of the park, and the surrounding gutters are studded with coprolites.
And what do the women do? I have absolutely no idea. Not a clue. It must be magic.
Now, the provision of public toilet facilities has, as far as I know, never been an issue in Cambodia: there are far more pressing and urgent things to worry about. But I have noticed recently that city authorities have replaced almost every street sign, city-wide, with new and fancy ones. And in the Cambodian-Vietnamese park, a short walk to the south, they’ve replaced the edgings around the patches of grass: they were formerly concrete; now they’re beautifully milled granite. Neither of these jobs can have been cheap. One has to wonder about their priorities, if only to keep Setain out of the clinic and on the road.
March 20, 2016
Most days, as well as walking Harley, the Jah Rastafardog, in the morning, I take him out in the late afternoon as well. I pick him up from his sister’s house, where he has been alternating between fighting and dozing all day, and we take a tuk-tuk to the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship Park, which is about halfway home. We get dropped off at the south end, walk up through the park, pick up the same tuk-tuk at the northern end, then get taken home to collapse from heatstroke.
In the centre of the park is a huge monument, obviously to commemorate Cambodian-Vietnamese friendship. Which is ironic, as the Vietnamese built it shortly after invading the country, in 1979. And Cambodia and Vietnam aren’t really friends at all.
Around the monument is a large area paved with faux marble, which is considerably smoother than the paving in the rest of the park, or, in fact, anywhere else in Cambodia.
And its here, in recent months, that Cambodia’s skateboarders have begun to congregate late in the afternoon, during what is known here as ‘the golden hour’ (because the vast amounts of dust in the air make the sunset light a wonderfully warm gold) to take part in what they call the ‘Sunset Skate.’
It’s sweet to watch. Four years ago there was really very little youth culture in Phnom Penh apart from the insanely rich and spoiled kids racing each other on their Ducatis up and down the riverside. But now, as the country as a whole gets richer, more people have hobbies.
Of course, the majority of kids in Cambodia are still working in the rice fields or on sugar plantations, or in carwashes or at the dump. But there are a small number of people who, after school, can spend an hour or two socialising with their friends, flirting and skating and being young. There are some BMXs, and a few guitars, and everyone seems to be having a lovely time.
And, this being Asia, they are completely non-threatening. In the UK, if you came across a gang of 70 or 80 kids on the street, you’d put your head down and cross the road. Here, they’re entirely benign and unthreatening. And none of them smoke, or sniff glue. It’s as if they’re Singaporean clone children. And I mean that in a good way.
So Harley and I weave through the crowd, through the lengthening shadows, waving to the occasional friendly face, dodging the odd miscued skateboard, and for the second time in a day, I think to myself how different it is to Shepherd’s Bush Green.
And then I wonder how long it will be until the authorities ban it.
March 15, 2016
I’m thinking of retraining, giving up my gilded life as a journalist, and becoming an Australian politician. Mainly because the barriers seem so inexpressibly low. Apparently you can be dumber than a box of rocks, and still get paid by the Australian taxpayer to make horrendous decisions on their behalf. I mean, I’m stupid, have awful table manners and irritate almost everyone I meet. But I’m still a better human being than most Australian politicians today.
If you want proof, just look at the much-vaunted A$55-million refugee deal between Australia and Cambodia, which saw a grand total of five people sent to live in Cambodia, from the Pacific hellhole of Nauru, where they had been detained on their way to a better life. For A$55 million to the Cambodian government.
A few months ago, a Rohingya, from the most oppressed class in Burma, a country not famous for its even-handed treatment of minorities, decided to go back, as he was ’homesick.’ I have a great deal of difficulty in getting my head wrapped around how unhappy you’d have to be in the Kingdom of Wonder to voluntarily choose to relocate to the most prejudiced place on the planet. But he did.
And now, two Iranian refugees who were transferred to Cambodia have returned to Iran voluntarily. A spokesman for idiot Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton confirmed last week that the husband and wife had left Cambodia.
Australian Senator Sarah Hansen Young has called for the country’s auditor-general to investigate millions spent “to grease the wheels of a corrupt regime, so that the government can dump a handful of people in an impoverished country”.
Of the two refugees left in the country, one says he feels abandoned and fears he will die in Cambodia. “I feel unwell, lonely and sad,” Mohammed Rashid, a 26-year-old Rohingya Muslim, told Fairfax Media while lying on the floor of a decrepit house in a Phnom Penh suburb. “I fear that I will die here.”
Rashid said promises made by Australian officials remain unfulfilled, including offers of help setting up a restaurant, accommodation and an $8,000 cash payment. He sleeps alone in an International Organisation for Migration office, despite Australia paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to rent a luxury villa in a Phnom Penh suburb for three years.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said: “It was a classic Phnom Penh sting job on a donor: get the money upfront but don’t concede the operational control over the project – and then stall or obfuscate until you get the outcome you want, which in this case was only a handful of refugees.”
Peter Dutton’s spokesperson said in a statement: “The Government remains committed to supporting the Government of Cambodia to implement settlement arrangements in Cambodia and encourages refugees temporarily in Nauru to explore this settlement option.”
The Mighty Penh’s spokesperson says: “Peter Dutton is one of the stupidest men on the planet. How is it that Australians are satisfied by being represented by these losers? The mind boggles.”
February 28, 2016
Cambodia’s latest foray into the pages of the world’s press is perhaps a little unfair on the country itself. Usually the country and its gang of bandit overlords can bring the country into disrepute without any help from the rest of the world.
But this time, the (probably) unwitting protagonist is Thai princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, for whom a Thai building company spent $40,000 building her a lavatory in Cambodia. To be used by her precisely once.
And in fact, she never used it at all. But she did look around it. So that’s OK.
The toilet is located near Yeak Lom lake in Ratanakiri province, in the northeast of the country, where the princess was whisked by helicopter to begin her three-day visit to Cambodia last week.
The lavatory, housed in a freestanding outhouse measuring eight square metres, is fully air-conditioned, took two weeks to build and apparently cost 66 times the average annual salary in Cambodia.
The lavatory was constructed by a Thai firm called Siam Cement Group, who are reportedly owned by the Thai royal family. So the princess was merely spending her own money on building her own crapper. And the Thai royals are not short of money: Forbes reckons the king is the richest royal on earth, and worth some $30 billion.
My problem isn’t with Sirindhorn. If she wants to spend obscene amounts of her own money buying bogs she won’t use, than that’s fine. It’s the servility that gets me. It’s well known that the queen of England thinks that everyone’s bathroom smells of fresh paint, because that’s all she ever smells. Why do we take these people seriously?
A majority of Cambodia’s population has trouble using any toilets at all.
Some 33 percent of schools nationwide have no toilet facilities at all, according to the Cambodian ministry of education. NGOs estimate that the figure could be as high as 80 percent in areas like Ratanakiri.
But after the princess left Yeak Lom, her special commode was thrown out and the building is being converted into an office for local officials. A manager from SCG said: “Normal people can’t use a [royal] toilet.” Hmmn.
February 15, 2016
This morning, I was walking Harley, the Hammer of the Dogs, at the very ungodly hour of dawn. It’s the best time of day to go for an hour-long walk around Phnom Penh: you get weird Western joggers, and bar girls sloping home unloved, construction workers soaping themselves under random spigots, people selling little bags of corn for tourists to feed to the mangy pigeons, early-morning photographers, drunken sexpats, and, sometimes, for the purposes of my story, dog walkers.
At this time of year, the temperature can drop – almost – dramatically, and twice in the last two weeks, we’ve seen 19C, or 66F, in the early mornings. Which is a delight. They haven’t swept most of the streets yet at that time of day, so there’s plenty of crap for the Aweful Harley to Hoover up when I’m not looking, which, to be honest, is most of the time: my interest being in watching the sun rise gloriously over the Mekong. And then going back to bed.
Super-Wolf Harley gets to meet his little doggie pals of a morning, and bite them. And I hang out with their owners. Which is, if you like dogs, an unmitigated pleasure. There’s Tish and Joe. Lily and Valentine. Julia and Marlow. Shaan and Ivy. Sarah and Zeke. Christine and Hunter. I’ve met most of central Phnom Penh’s expat dogs. And they’re all pretty fine.
But this morning, I met new Khmer lady walking a new dog, a sweet brindled mutt. We got talking, the usual complaints about the local vets and the excellence of dogs with brindled coats. And then, two minutes later, we were discussing Khmer Rouge atrocities that she had experienced.
I don’t know how we got on to that. She was 15 when the KR overran Phnom Penh. She described, with awful clarity, her two-year-old brother dying in her arms on the march to Battambang. She had to crawl over a football-pitch-sized field of dead bodies to make it to Thailand, before being sent, as an orphan, to live in Australia. And all of this presented coolly and matter-of factly, without a trace of self-pity.
I got home, reeling from what I’d heard. I don’t know why this was. There are plenty of people in Cambodia who can tell you similar, or worse stories. Some people are happy to talk about it; many will never bring it up. I think it might have been the contrast between the prosaic quotidian morning shuffle around the palace, and the absolute horror of the woman’s story. It just reminded me, yet again, of the terrible things this country saw, and how relaxed people can be about it. You don’t get that on Shepherds’ Bush Green.
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.