Rough Justice

March 30, 2012

One of the big issues in Cambodia is what’s known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, the UN-backed court seeking justice for the crimes of the 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge regime. In trying to get justice for the execution, torture, starvation and forced labour which saw the deaths of some 2 million Cambodians, the KRT has been welcomed by many in the country. But not by all.

Last week, one of the foreign judges on the KRT resigned: Laurent Kaspar-Ansermet from Switzerland. He quit, he said, because of continuing interference in the tribunal by his Cambodian counterpart, Judge You Bunleng, whom he claims is apparently trying to block the tribunal from investigating and possibly prosecuting any more KR suspects beyond the tiny handful of top leaders already charged.

Another foreign judge, Siegfried Blunt, quit last year, after making the same accusations of Cambodian judges interfering to stop any new investigations and possible prosecutions of former KR leaders.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has long been opposed to any more investigations, or really to the concept of the tribunal at all — he has said that he wants to bury the KR period and not look back. And that’s perhaps a valid and realistic attitude. It is conceivable that it might be motivated in part by the fact that Hun Sen was a member of the Khmer Rouge himself. While no one is suggesting that Hun Sen was guilty of anything for which he could find himself on trial, he has allies who conceivably could.

It’s worth noting that in 1998 Hun Sen invited Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan to his home and announced over a champagne toast that they would “bury the past.” Along with Ieng Sary, these three formed the leadership of the KR under Pol Pot, who evaded justice by dying that same year.

It has been suggested that Hun Sen probably just does not like the concept of the tribunal pushing harder into the past of important figures in Cambodia. It could certainly set a precedent he does not want to see for his own government.

The Cambodian government has said that prosecuting more senior KR figures would lead to civil war again in Cambodia, which is almost certainly nonsense: after years of destructive war, no Cambodians are interested in more large-scale conflict. And Hun Sen’s control of the security forces make such a scenario effectively impossible.

Cambodia’s opposition leader has criticized the government, accusing it of blatantly interfering with attempts to prosecute the KR leadership. Sam Rainsy says officials in Hun Sen’s government “fear a serious investigation …  any serious and in-depth investigation would show that several members of the current government were involved in the Khmer Rouge crimes.” It should be noted that Sam lives in Paris because of fears of arrest after suggesting that there was corruption in the Cambodian government. That’s how politics is here.

Whatever the political infighting surrounding the KRT, the basic argument remains: should those responsible for the horrific deaths of 2 million people be prosecuted? Many people in Cambodia think so, and the West certainly believes so. But should the country move on, put the past behind it, forgive and forget? The country’s Buddhist beliefs argue so. And the government thinks so.

For me, I believe fervently in the importance of justice being seen to be done. I believe, fiercely, that those responsible for the appalling horrors of the Khmer Rouge era should be given a chance to stand up in court and defend themselves against the charges, and, if found guilty, be punished. But I rather suspect that the KRT is descending into farce, a farce that suits no one, not the UN, not the business interests who want to get their feet under Cambodia’s table, and not the government. So the KRT will probably be killed off.  Some justice…


Much as I’d hoped to serve up a scintillating little essay on some fascinating aspect of life in South East Asia, I’m afraid I’ve been far too busy. I have a job, in an office, which requires me to nod sagely while people talk nonsense, and generally try to look like an adult.

It’s not all that bad. Instead of staying in bed until the last possible moment, running through the rain and then spending an hour taking the Tube to Canary Wharf crammed in like veal calves with some of London’s most unpleasant people, then working all day long with the rest of London’s most unpleasant people, here it’s a bit more civilised.

I rise at some civilised hour, without needing an alarm clock. After a mango or a papaya and a cup of decent coffee on the balcony watching the world go by, I saunter downstairs and into a waiting tuk-tuk, which wafts me regally down to the office for about 10-ish. And so it goes.

Being office-bound meant that I missed out on the highlight of Blossom’s week, which was a trip out to a nearby province to see two rural schools being opened by the admirable Mark Purser and his amazing charity Camkids. Along with Pub Landlord Al Murray, who raises a ton of money for the charity, they were feted by the two local communities, as thanks for building the schools and providing teachers ($50 a month and a sack of rice is what they get paid – do please consider making a donation); it was, by all accounts, a very moving day. Both Blossom and I plan to work with Camkids as much as we can.

These elderly ladies apparently claimed that they had never been photographed before in their lives. Which is quite a concept.


Cheery little kids looking forward to going to school. Which is quite a concept.


These old guys are much more excited than they look about having their grandchildren educated. The mind boggles when you think of the horrors they must have seen in the past.


A few other things we’ve learned this week: A case of beer doesn’t last as long as you might imagine. Don’t know why. And when you finally get the internet installed at home, it might not be as fast as you’d imagined (0.49Mbps).

This is how the local authorities coned off a section of road near our flat after fixing a pothole this week. It worked.

This amount of fruit costs the same as a pound of butter.

We had to go on a visa run to the Thai border, which was a bore. However, we did get to go past one of my favourite houses in Cambodia. A powerful warning against employing a five-year-old architect.

Coming back in to Cambodia, the corrupt border police stung us for far more than the real visa price. So if you’re reading this, Lt Col. Tho Sreng, you’re a corrupt and thieving shit, and a disgrace to your country. As I might have told you.

Phnom Penh has, for many years, been known as the Pearl of the Orient. I’d always thought this was because it’s really small, and just precious. But sitting on my balcony at both sunrise and sunset, I’ve begun to wonder if it wasn’t due in some part to the quality of the light here.

During the day, Phnom Penh is bathed in a harsh, even brutal sunshine. The shade provided by trees and walls is a valuable commodity, with stalls and small businesses clustering in the lee of anything casting a shadow. But for half an hour after dawn, and for and hour or so before sunset, as the shadows shrink and then lengthen, the city is drenched in a lustrous and pearlescent light that lends a romance that it lacks during most of the day.

Looking out across the Mekong River, as the gathering darkness rolls in from the direction of Vietnam, the clouds take on a nacreous quality, with layers of colour shifting and roiling and gradually being swallowed up by the advancing dark. Azure hints at tangerine, then raspberry, before eliding into pewter, then coal-black night.

Out on the west side of the city, the setting sun deliquesces into the horizon, and Venus (and Jupiter this week) rises up above the distant buildings; the occasional plane drifting in to Poechentong Airport is silhouetted in the rosy light. Finally only the high clouds catch the last few rays, before disappearing into the dark.

As the velvety night draws close, and the chorus of chuffing mopeds gives way to the gentle stridulations of the crickets, a calm descends. This city is, just, completely precious.

Christie’s in Cambodia

March 13, 2012

In what is being hailed as an important step towards Cambodia’s cultural reintegration with the rest of the world, international auction house Christie’s has held its first-ever sale of contemporary Cambodian art in the capital, Phnom Penh.

Works by 20 Cambodian and Cambodia-based artists went under the hammer at the auction, watched by government ministers, members of the royal family and international sponsors.

The Cambodian Minister for Commerce Cham Prasidh told the audience that Christie’s involvement was crucial in helping the country’s nascent art scene gain international recognition.  He promised that if Christie’s came back, the next auction could be held “against the backdrop of Angkor Wat,” The country’s most revered monument.

The quality of the art on sale, which included paintings, sculpture, ceramics and jewellery, was variable, but no lot went unsold. The highlight was Sopheap Pich’s Morning Glory 7, a delicate and sensuous openwork woven rattan sculpture, which sold for $9,000, against estimates of $2,500-3,000. Sopheap is considered one of the country’s foremost artists, and has exhibited several times in New York.

Also notable was Robotang’s The Icon, a sandstone head carved from short geometric planes, which made $1,700, against an estimate of $500. Both pieces seemed to indicate that buyers were interested in traditional Cambodian art media, but with a modern twist.

Observers were unsure as to whether this indicated a path modern Khmer artists should follow. Certainly, other works, such as the acrylics by Peap Tarr and Lisa Mam, struggled to sell, despite being technically accomplished and visually stimulating.

But perhaps the most exciting thing was the sight of Cambodians bidding on their own art. After the astonishingly tough last few decades in this country, the idea that Cambodian artists are allowed to make and sell art that appeals to their fellow countrymen is one that is widely encouraged, both by the government and by the international arts community.

The sale’s proceeds, almost $43,000, goes to Cambodian Living Arts, a well-established charity that aims to transform Cambodia through its arts.

Any number of highlights to note this week. For Blossom (the generally accepted favourite nickname so far) it would probably be her new bougainvillea bush. It flowers in five different colours at the same time. It also weighs 9,000 kilos (see previous posts about not having a lift and living on the sixth floor).

Blossom has also just leant over my shoulder and told me to mention her new anti-ant technique: cinnamon. To keep ants out of the bin, she read somewhere, you need to sprinkle cinnamon around it. This may or may not work (it’s early days) but it doesn’t seem to make the floor any cleaner. So our kitchen is wonderfully scented, and so far ant-free, but looks like a clay tennis court.

Another highlight this week was eating a fried tarantula. Known as a-ping in Khmer, and supposedly discovered as a necessary source of protein during the Khmer Rouge era, they’re one of those South East Asian delicacies for fools, like blood clams, balut and cobra heart.

We were offered one in a restaurant by a Frenchman at the next table who’d accidentally ordered half-a-dozen. They’re surprisingly large; about the size of your hand, and off-puttingly hairy. They’re deep-fried and then tossed in a garlic, chilli and sugar, which apparently stops the hairs sticking to the inside of your throat.

You pluck off the legs first, which feel like warm floppy twiglets. The exoskeleton is similar to a prawn’s shell; inside the flesh is a sort of nutty paste, slightly like hazelnut. The body is more of the same. It’s not inedible, by any means, and actually quite tasty, but our western food taboos make it quite hard to put it in your mouth.  We’re not rushing out to stock the fridge with them.

Waking early this morning, I went for a stroll around the neighbourhood, and was struck by what is conceivably the ugliest house in the world.

If the picture isn’t sufficiently clear, let me stress that the roof is purple. And this really is a house, for people to live in. It’s off-the-chart ugly, and I love it.

However just around the corner from that monstrosity is the house in which I intend to live one day soon.

Around the back, it has a small swimming pool, and, oddly, a hammock made of barbed wire (it’s a work of art, apparently). I’m not sure how long that’ll last after I move in.

Flat is the New Hot

March 7, 2012

So, we’ve moved in to our new home. Perhaps inevitably, it hasn’t been quite as smooth  as we might have wanted. Issues have reared their head. Probably chief amongst these is the lift, or the lack of it.

We thought we’d been assured that the lift would be installed within a day or two of us moving in. Currently there is just an open lift shaft, sans doors, running up the building. One drink too many, and it could turn into the black oubliette of death. But the main problem is that we’re on the sixth floor, and climbing six floors in this furnace heat carrying household goods is less fun than it might sound. And now we’re told it may not be installed this month.

Which might be acceptable if the internet was on. But as that seems to have been relegated to some vague point in the future as well, it means that every time I need to check my emails or look something up – both useful if you’re looking for work – you have to set off on the Trans-Sahara Vertical Marathon to find wifi. The potential health benefits have been explained to me; I don’t think anyone really believes it.

And this evening as we were going out for dinner, the (sweet) owner of the building said that as we have no security guard yet (not until the weekend, he swore) he would wait up to let us in the outside gate. Like being back at school.

But these are fairly minor problems, really. On the plus side, we have some lovely plates, the view is hypnotic, the breeze refreshing and we have a house gecko. The shop on the corner sells Stolichnaya vodka for $7 a litre and we managed to move the washing machine off the balcony and into the kitchen. It looks much better there.

I’ve already started planning a housewarming drinks party. With vodka at seven bucks a litre, we can have some fierce punch. It’s probably best if we wait until the lift is in before we do. That way, no one will die, and it might give us time to make some friends to invite. One thing at a time.


The First Ten Things

March 3, 2012

OK, so I was going to come up with several really finely-wrought articles on subjects I’ve been thinking about over the last few days, including Angkorian-era sandstone carvings and the nature of the Phnom Penh sunset. But I’ve been really, really busy.

Knowing, however, the cynical and unforgiving nature of the people who might be reading this, I thought I could just list exactly what has been keeping me so busy over the seven days that Petal and I have been here. So, I’ve:

1)   Found a flat to live in.

2)   Furnished the flat, to the extent of: two towels.

3)   Learned to count up to 19 in Khmer.

4)   Found the best hamburgers in Phnom Penh.

5)   Found the best foie gras in Phnom Penh.

6)   Saw a man use a ladder in a way I would never have thought possible.

7)   Watched the sun set from the far side of the Mekong River.

8)   Got a definite lead on a couple of jobs

9)   Eaten mango, pineapple, dragonfruit and papaya for breakfast. Every day.

10)  Smiled more than I have in years.

Sorry if this all sounds insufferably smug. Well, sorry-ish.