I’ve just got back to Phnom Penh after spending a couple of days in Bangkok with my absurdly generous and lovely brother. Although I’m less a fan of ‘Bangers’ since it became a proper world city, and not a collection of tin shacks on a bend in the river, as I used to know it, it is a surprisingly lovely place. People say that Phnom Penh is like Bangkok 20 years ago; I can’t really see that to be true. Phnom Penh will have to come a long way in the next two decades if it’s going to have a McDonalds’ or a 7-11 on every street corner – not that they’re particular signs of civilisation, of course.

We were staying at the Westin, which was extremely civilised. I had a suite big enough to park my Lear Jet in, if I hadn’t had to sell it to pay the taxi driver to take me into town. My brother had brought a number of gifts from the US, including a little stuffed pig for Harley the Wonder Dog, which he had been assured in the pet shop was indestructible. (It turns out to be highly destructible if you’re Harley.) I put the pig on one of any number of dressers; when I came back to the room later, housekeeping, thinking it might be lonely, had made a bunny rabbit out of a small towel and some orchid petals, and put them together. I thought that was a nice touch.

Bunny

On the first night we ate at a restaurant called Gaggan, which has just been voted as the 10th best restaurant in the world. It was quite an experience. We had the 24-course tasting menu, which is basically Indian food via molecular gastronomy, or molecular masala as someone called it, with lots of dry ice and intense half-remembered flavours, newly imagined. It was sensational, although I was flagging a bit by the time we got to course 20 or so.

The second night, we went to Nahm (number 22 on the world’s best restaurant list) and had god knows how many courses: probably a dozen or so. It was also stunning, although the chilli became a bit overwhelming towards the end, and (whisper it) Asian restaurants don’t do good desserts.

After that, it was back to reality: a budget flight back to Phnom Penh, a tuk-tuk through the rutted muddy streets and a cheese sandwich at home with Blossom and the dog. Bangkok is astonishing, but there’s really no place like home.

A thin blue line

June 9, 2015

The police in Cambodia are, to be honest, a dismal organisation. Badly paid, trained and equipped, they’re usually to be found lying in the shade at the side of major roads, occasionally getting up to extort bribes from random innocent motorists. Otherwise, they’re an irrelevance.

Unless, that is, you like smoking shisha pipes, in which case they can be an unmitigated menace. Last weekend, Phnom Penh police arrested 80 people for smoking shisha in two nightclubs, held them for 24 hours, ‘educated’ them and then told their parents. All of those arrested were over the age of 18, so were adults. But they had to be released into the care of their parents. I know that shame is an important part of the societal glue that holds Asian cultures together, but this seems ridiculous.

While it is certainly true that smoking a hookah is illegal in Cambodia since last year, bringing the parents of adults into the situation is insane, and deeply troubling. A chap called Brigadier General San Sothy told a local newspaper: “We educated them and made an agreement with their parents to guarantee they would not use shisha again,” he said. “The majority of the parents did not know that their children used shisha.”

Miscreants brought to book. Streets now safe.

Miscreants brought to book. Streets now safe.

Last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen, an unrepentant tobacco smoker, said young Cambodians were skipping school to smoke sisha, and the tobacco could be laced with other drugs such as opium. “Parents are concerned by this,” the prime minister said. Well, it might be a thought, perhaps, to crack down on the import of opium. But that’s never going to happen in the Medellin on the Mekong, is it?

Meanwhile, the National Military Police are a somewhat different matter. They mean business. They made the news earlier this year when the head of the NMP was caught on tape urging his troops to follow his lead and learn from Adolf Hitler. These are the same troops that shot and killed five unarmed garment workers the previous year.

The head of the Military Police, one Sao Sokha, who is also the head of the Football Federation of Cambodia, was recently approached by a journalist, who wanted to ask him about the FFC’s support for FIFAs appalling Sepp Blatter.

After refusing to confirm whether the FFC voted for Blatter in the recent presidential ballot, the general said: “We are not thieves with them, and we are not involved with them.” He then went on to add: “My point of view is that I hate The Cambodia Daily.”

Cambodia is ranked 178th out of 209 FIFA member states.

According to FIFA website, it has paid for five projects in Cambodia since 2000, including the construction of the FFC’s headquarters, which cost $440,000, three projects at the country’s football training facility in Takeo province, for just under $1.5 million, and the resurfacing of the Olympic Stadium, which cost $500,000. Cambodia also receives $250,000 a year from FIFA for ‘development.’

Last night, I was going for a sunset drink with an old friend, and I decided to take Harley the Wonder Dog with me. I took a tuk-tuk to the north-west corner of the Royal Palace, so he could have a bit of a walk, down to the riverside; as I got out of the tuk-tuk it began to rain, hard.

We walked slowly along the wall of the palace, sheltering as best we could from the monsoon rain, coming in from the south, in the lee of the wall. By the time we got to the end of the wall, we were both soaked, but still had a couple of hundred yards of open ground to cover, so I decided to lean up against the wall and watch for a bit.

As we stood there, casually watching the world go by, I heard a crack above me and looked up. And saw a vast tree branch falling directly at us. With my well-known ninja skills coming to the fore, I kicked the dog away from me, and about a billionth of a second later this humungous branch sailed past our heads and smacked into the pavement.

I thought the dog was dead. Luckily he was not. But another two inches, and it would have broken his back like a breadstick. Another two inches the other way, and it would have pulverised my skull. I don’t want to exaggerate, but this branch was six or seven inches across at its thickest, must have been fifteen feet long and weighed a couple of hundred pounds, and fell about 40 feet. We were incredibly lucky (also, ninja).

It was, incidentally, at almost precisely the same spot where Harley spotted a snake a few weeks ago, oiling its way across the pavement. We went over to take a closer look, and the snake, which was green and about three feet long, rather took against this, and got all attack-y, which I thought was a bit much. Luckily Harley was on the leash, so I pulled him away, or the morning would have become something of a veterinary nightmare.

I had just been reflecting about accidental death that morning when reading about the ferry sinking in China; one moment you’re cheerfully asleep: the next and you’re trying to breathe the Yangtze in the dark. Luckily, I thought, that’s unlikely to happen to me, as I live a very sober and quiet life. When I was younger, however, like most young men, I did any number of colossally dangerous stuff, often involving shotguns, motorbikes, feral bulls, rock faces, agricultural machinery, chemicals and alcohol. But I grew up, and stopped practically all the bad shit. Now, apart from taking tuk-tuks on the streets of Cambodia, I do nothing dangerous at all: I am old and wise and careful.

And yet, in the last three years, I’ve been hospitalised for a week and spent six months on crutches after simply walking down the street. And was hit by a rogue motorbike. And now was almost turned into human pâté like something from out of The Omen. I’m not sure that Cambodia is any more dangerous than anywhere else, but sometimes it feels that way.

And still on the subject of stuff I don’t know: I’d always thought I knew quite a lot about British rock music of the 1970s. But a few days ago I discovered that a host of British music luminaries held a series of concerts to benefit Cambodia in 1979, and I’d never heard of it.

Organised by the unlikely duo of Paul McCartney and former-Nazi UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea were held between Christmas and the New Year at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. They featured, amongst others, The Who, The Clash, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Queen, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, The Specials, The Pretenders, Wings, and a band of all-stars organised by McCartney, which included John Paul Jones and Robert Plant, and saw John Bonham’s last-ever British appearance.

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The concert was released on vinyl only, in 1980, and has never been re-released. Allmusic says of the vinyl recording: “The audio quality is shabby; nothing leaps out as being more sonically interesting than a live radio broadcast, and the performances are okay but not staggering.”

Like everything else in life, it is available on Youtube, but I haven’t watched it yet, because it starts with Queen, and I’d really rather stab myself in the face with a radioactive knife than watch Queen. Or perhaps take the dog out for a walk.

The suffocating heat continues to enfold Phnom Penh in its brutal embrace: apart from waiting for the rainy season to start and give us all something else to moan about, nothing is happening here. A friend of mine asked me to take over his stringing position for one of the most prestigious news magazines in the world while he took a couple of months off. I was excited at first, but have come to realise that I won’t be getting my feet underneath the desk, because nothing is going to happen here at all.

Casting my mind back over the past few weeks, apart from the Russian gangster Sergei Polonsky finally getting booted out of the country (for overstaying his visa), very little of any import has happened here for weeks.

Sergey Polonsky on his way home.

Sergei Polonsky on his way home.

Indeed, the only story that stands out is one that involves a 13-year-old girl who was told that she was to be reunited with her mother on live television. The girl, Autumn Allen, who despite being Caucasian, sings in Khmer, appeared on a variety show called Penh Chet Ort (Like It or Not), and was told she would meet her mother, whom she hadn’t seen or heard from since she was six years old. However, after plenty of build up, a cross-dressing comedian appeared instead, to much hilarity in Cambodia, and much disgust across the Twittersphere. It does seem a bit heartless to target motherless 13-year-olds for a cheap laugh, but the media here can be a bit clueless.

Autumn Allen

Autumn Allen

The Autumn Allen debacle follows an equally stupid piece of media promotion by a local cinema chain for the mindless car-porn film Fast & Furious 7, that encouraged contestants to break the speed limit, and to take pictures of their speedometers as they drove as fast as possible. This is in a country where some six people die every day on the roads. Before the cinema pulled the competition, the fastest entry was 145kmh, or about 90 miles an hour, which might not seem that fast, but, trust me, if you think that, you haven’t seen the roads here. And the urban speed limit is 80kmh.

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Again, it was the Twittersphere that caused a backlash and apologies all round. Much as it pains me to say it, but it seems as if Facebook and Twitter might have a use after all, as a kind of corrective conscience.

So it’s something of a worry to see that the government has threatened criminal proceedings against Facebook users who insult or defame government leaders.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, in a post to his own Facebook page titled “A Letter Regarding Prejudiced and Unethical People,” claimed that some Facebook users have recently been abusing the freedom of expression they get online.

“In recent times, I have noticed that there have been some people who have used social media to use words that are rude, insulting, scornful, exaggerating and defaming toward civil servants,” Siphan said. “We will take any action, technical or legal, in order to maintain freedom and dignity in online use.”

Rude, insulting, scornful, exaggerating and defaming? Nope, can’t be having that…

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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