December 28, 2016
So, I’m back in Phnom Penh, for the time being. In the last couple of months I’ve been in the UK (surprisingly relaxed, I thought) the USA (surprisingly busy writing the longest suicide note in history with a single pen stroke) and India (surprisingly confident and happy and increasingly wealthy).
One of my problems, I’ve decided, is that I’m incurably optimistic. When I first moved to Cambodia, I worked with a man who turned out to be amongst the very stupidest people I’ve worked with. I mean fantastically, breathtakingly stupid. But for too long I gave him the benefit of the doubt. “Surely no one can be that stupid,” I thought optimistically to myself, as I watched him try to arrange prostitutes for his best friend, a racist from the Deep South of the USA whom he had never actually met. “People have got him wrong,” I thought, as I listened to him explain how he would deliberately not use sources for articles he typed for the newspaper. “He’s bluffing,” I’d think, as I watched him take bribes from restaurants in return for articles in the newspaper.
I finally came to my senses when he subbed a piece of wire copy, and mistook the name of the French president, Francois Hollande, for a reference to the country of Holland. The piece therefore started “The French President Francois the Netherlands …” and continued for 800 words substituting ‘the Netherlands’ for ‘Hollande’ in practically every paragraph. The scales finally having fallen from my eyes, I had him fired shortly afterwards, and the last I heard he was trying to flog newspaper ads in Rangoon and smoking too much crystal meth. So, as I say, I have a history of cutting people too much slack.
And, on reflection, I think I’ve done much the same with Cambodia.
I arrived here all starry-eyed, seduced by the heat and the fruit and the history and intoxicated by the music. But since I’ve been here, all that has fallen away, and now I see the country differently. I see the horrific pollution, and how no one cares in the slightest about improving things. I’ve seen the awful crushing poverty. I’ve seen the crappy roads, the abysmal infrastructure, the disease, the acceptance of terrible educational standards.
But most of all I’ve seen the grinding corruption, and the concomitant economic inequality. The Rolls Royce showrooms in a city full of people living on a dollar a day. The vast gated mansions occupied by minor customs officials, the army officers who own huge tracts of land, the scions of government officials who carry automatic weapons in nightclubs and will happily use them.
Recently there has been a minor furore here, after it emerged that Singapore said it has imported $752 million of sand from Cambodia, but Cambodia’s records showed it had only exported $5 million-worth. What happened to the other $747 million, one wonders?
Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, the director of an environmental group that has often campaigned against illegal dredging, said: “The companies, which in reality are no more than criminal syndicates working hand in hand with powerful government officials, declare a tiny portion of the actual sand exports. This allows them to make vast amounts of profits, which of course must be shared with those in government who provide ‘protection services’ to them.”
Ministry of Commerce spokeswoman Soeng Sophary said it was unfair to hold Cambodia to the standards of more developed countries. She neglected to explain why. I probably could, but instead I’m going to move somewhere else. Nobody here needs my help to fuck this place up any more than it already is. I can see that now. Finally.
October 19, 2016
I’m currently keeping a file on my computer desktop, to which I add stories from the Cambodian press which strike me as being particularly telling. I call it Ongoing Cambodian Stupidity. Lest anyone think that I have it in for Cambodia, I could clearly compile evidence of stupidity from almost anywhere. Brexit; Donald Trump; the Great British Bake Off – there is seemingly no end to muddled minds. But here are some more gems of sensible thinking from the Kingdom of Wonder.
A senior Forestry Administration official was released without charge after drunkenly killing a motorist with his car and leading police on a high-speed chase in Siem Reap province, because he had no “intention to murder” the victim, a court official said.
While “extremely drunk,” Yan Sideth hit a village security guard on a motorcycle. Police chased him for 13 kilometres. Despite police suggesting charges of speeding, drunk driving, leaving the scene of an accident and reckless driving resulting in death, the chief prosecutor decided to release Yan without charge.
A prosecutor’s spokesman said that the victim had been at fault for driving in front of a speeding car. A spokesman for the Institute for Road Safety, said “It is always difficult to bring justice to victims when the provokers are powerful government officials or rich people,” he said.
Meanwhile Phnom Penh authorities said the chief monk of a pagoda was defrocked after being accused of “encouraging his disciples to drink, take drugs and fraternise with women.” The monk and four novices were defrocked after they were arrested for smoking crystal meth in the monastery. A spokesman said that “after the arrest of those monks, authorities found many empty beers hidden under the Buddha statue in the dining hall.”
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen recently sent a pair of direct messages to acting Cambodia National Rescue Party president Kem Sokha, the first of which threatened “bloodshed” if protests confronted his eldest son in Australia, according to members of the opposition.
According to sources, the premier then said the party should remember what happened when anti-government protesters confronted him in Paris last October – a reference to the vicious assault of two CNRP lawmakers outside the National Assembly by soldiers from the premier’s personal bodyguard unit.
A party spokesman would only say the party had received a “threat to our safety.” He added that the party wanted the situation to “cool down” and would focus on encouraging supporters to register to vote.
And finally, for now, both Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk and Thailand’s late and much-lamented King Bhumibol Adulyadej were fluent French and English speakers and “shared a deep appreciation for jazz, making names for themselves as saxophonists.”
Despite being hugely important figures in the histories of their respective countries, the two were not particularly close. Apparently Bhumibol came to consider his Cambodian counterpart “a nuisance, in part because in 1954 Sihanouk apparently borrowed a gold-plated saxophone of the king’s and didn’t return it.”
September 7, 2016
As some of you may know, I’m not currently in the Kingdom of Wonder, and am working on finding somewhere else equally exotic to live. But, of course, I try and keep up with what’s going on back on the ‘Bodge. Somehow, from many thousands of miles away, some of what we take for granted in Cambodia seems even stupider and more unlikely. So here is an ongoing collection of things that have made me question how close Cambodia is to being a halfway functioning society, and not just a dim-witted semi-civilised satrapy dedicated to fleecing the west and eating its own entrails properly grown up.
Spanish activist and researcher Marga Bujosa Segado was recently deported from Cambodia for attending a protest, but before her deportation she was allegedly beaten by the police.
Police Major General Uk Heisela told a local newspaper that police officers were concerned when she started taking photos of them. “We were worried she might be a sorcerer and then take photos to do black magic on our stomachs,” he said. “Everyone knows the Spanish practice magic,” he said. “They can fly on brooms.”
I’ll say it again: “Police Major General.”
Meanwhile the Ministry of Defence has released a statement attacking the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party for accusing the military of intimidation by running helicopter, boat and troop training exercises just outside the CNRP’s headquarters, where opposition leader Kem Sokha has been holed up for months trying to avoid charges of the awful crime of having an affair.
As a local newspaper put it, “several helicopters swooped repeatedly over the CNRP offices. At the same time, boats carrying soldiers moored close to the property, while convoys of masked soldiers armed with assault weapons drove past.”
It continues: “When the Post arrived in the early evening, 10 boats were still visible, including two moored close to the CNRP property. They drove away when approached by reporters.”
The military statement read, in part: “The spokesman would like to reject the accusation from those politicians and strongly condemn any people with the intention to ruin the honour of RCAF, which upholds a neutral stance in protecting sovereignty, territorial integrity and the legitimate government.” The ministry questioned how CNRP politicians could present themselves as protectors of the nation while criticising exercises to strengthen the military.
Meanwhile warehouse owners in Phnom Penh have called on the Ministry of Interior to investigate the capital’s economic police, claiming they have been hitting them up for bribes.
An officer with the Phnom Penh economic police denied the accusations, before then offering a Post reporter money to not publish the story. “We just go through their homes and warehouses and we have not done anything like what they accused . . . so please don’t publish it,” he said. “We could give you a small amount of cash monthly or we could give you office materials like books and pens. Those people are just not happy when we do our jobs . . . we don’t ask for their money, they just give it to us from the heart.”
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.”