Fear not, gentle reader: The Mighty Penh abides. It’s been a hectic week or so, half spent touring Taiwan, increasingly grumpily, and the other half racing to meet deadlines and dealing with leg-related issues.

The Taiwanese ill-humour was brought on by a surfeit of eye-wateringly dull museums: I spent over an hour one morning trying to feign interest in an exhibition of gourds, which was followed in short order by a hot springs museum and a historic oolong tea warehouse museum. The Taiwanese people, however, were unfailingly kind, polite and helpful, even when I was at my most bad tempered. (To be fair, this mostly consisted of me rolling my eyes a lot. I am quite polite too.)

Back in the Penh, I’ve been mainly typing in my hotel room, interspersed with runs to the hospital and emergency dashes to the office to proof other peoples’ pages. So in consequence, I haven’t seen much of Cambodia for a while. The elevator is almost in Chez Nous, apparently, although the final date has shifted, yet again, to the end of next week. Talking to the landlords, Blossom told them I was likely to be on crutches for at least another three months, which they found terrifically funny, to the extent that they had to wipe tears from their eyes. Not the response I would have expected. Especially as we’ve stopped paying rent until the lift is in.

The rainy season has finally begun, I think, which is nice. For an hour or so, usually after lunch, it pours, dramatically, then the skies clear and the roads dry out and life continues. Apparently annual rainfall in Cambodia is the same as central Ireland (and Uruguay); it’s certainly more dramatic. With the arrival of the rains, the heat has dropped to something less than furnace-like, which is a relief.

The rains have also emptied Phnom Penh of tourists. The Riverside, which is the Leicester Square (or Times Square) of Cambodia, is ghostly quiet, with only the very occasional crusty sexpat nursing a steadiying breakfast beer amidst acres of empty chairs.

The country is gearing up for local commune elections in a few days, and the streets are full of trucks with vast video screens on the back and the obligatory painfully overdriven speakers, showing campaign speeches. It’s hell on the congestion, but at least you get something to watch while waiting for a gap to appear in the traffic.

While the Cambodians seem, not unsurprisingly, extremely keen to have a go at democracy, no one is expecting any sort of changes. The theoretically far-more important parliamentary elections next year are also seen as a foregone conclusion, with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party certain to hold on to power. (His full job title is Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen, which is pretty good, I think.) Hun Sen is a wily political streetfighter, who’s been in power for 27 years now. Despite leading an administration of International Olympic Committee levels of corruption, the simple continuity and stability he represents is enough for the majority of people of this country, and who can blame them?

My excuse for the paucity of posts this week is a simple one: I’m not in Cambodia. Instead, I’m on a week-long jaunt around Taiwan, courtesy of the Taiwan Tourist Board, for a long series of pieces for an eminent US magazine.

So far, I’m rather enjoying it. How could one not? I’m being paid to look at the best bits of an extremely interesting country; I’m fed, watered and transported around at someone else’s expense in the company of an extremely nice and well informed guide. Everyone concerned wants me to like the place, so are trying their best to please me. And this is apparently called ’working’. It beats lots of other forms of working, as far as I’m concerned. If I had all the money in the world, this is probably what I’d do with it.

Of course, it’s not entirely perfect. I challenge anyone to deal with a hotel buffet while on crutches (the staff don’t seem to like it if you push your plate across the carpet with the tip of a crutch while hopping. It makes me laugh, though.)

My guide, the wonderful Felix, is deadly earnest about showing me everything possible, and keeps saying things like: ”There is an exhibition of traditional ethnic fish-drying techniques in the next village. Would you like to see it?”

Last night, he guilted me into going to see a ‘traditional ethnic music show’ by telling me that the performers didn’t work that night, but were coming along specially to entertain me. I sighed (theatrically) and agreed to go for half an hour. And you know what? It was wonderful, and I had the best time I’ve had in this country so far.

It was more folk club than ethnic music show, with lots of guys in thick-rimmed specs and girls in cheesecloth skirts strumming guitars and singing beautifully. At one point, two sisters from the local Amis tribe got up and duetted – apparently last year they won a Taiwanese Grammy. They sounded like the McGarrigles in Mandarin, plaintive and beautiful, and I sat in a candle-lit grove of camphor trees with a cool beer and was mesmerised. So I have to cut Felix some slack.

He did, however, have some making up to do. On Sunday we’d had a seven-course lunch, which I’d complained about. But yesterday’s lunch ran to 14 courses, most of them fish, and most of them uncooked. I was surprised at how hacked off I was by the end, as course after unwanted course of the vile nonsense that is sushi kept arriving at the table. It was probably pretty good, as sushi goes, but as far as I’m concerned that’s not saying very much.

On the whole, though, Taiwan is a delight. Except for the buildings, which are epically, apocalyptically hideous. The general aesthetic standard of the country’s architecture makes Birmingham look like Venice. A four-year-old with a box of grimy Lego could construct better-looking towns. The Best of Taiwanese Architecture would go on the list of the world’s shortest books, along with Italian War Heroes, The Wit and Wisdom of George W. Bush, and Great Golf Stories. I’ve covered five or six hundred miles of the country so far, and haven’t seen a building I’d want to live in. And I don’t have very high standards.

I’d like to be able to draw some clever parallels between Cambodia and Taiwan, but I don’t think I can. Cambodia is dirty, corrupt, lively and chaotic. Taiwan is clean, well-mannered, orderly, polite, and grown up. Cambodia is an unruly teenager; Taiwan is in its late middle age. Yet both countries are relatively recent inventions: Cambodia only really began in 1979; Taiwan in 1949. But if you gave Cambodia another 30 years, it still wouldn’t be Taiwan. And I can’t wait to get back there.

Due to my current unipedal status, I’ve barely been outside for the past couple of weeks, so I don’t have a great deal I can talk about. Instead, I’ve got another example of the ugly side of this beautiful little country.

Cambodia has a recent history of violence so profound that stories which would be on the front pages in the UK hardly rate a mention here: acid attacks and stabbings, mass beatings, rapes, drownings and shootings seem to happen on a daily basis across the country, with hardly an eyebrow raised.

But the recent shooting of environmental activist Chut Wutty has shocked even the most hardened observers, with its casual brutality and its stench of blatant corruption.

Chut was a founder and director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, a small NGO dedicated to saving what little is left of Cambodia’s forests. Chut had taken a trip with two journalists to the southeastern province of Koh Kong to investigate “forest crimes”.

They were interested in a heavily forested area near a dam being built by the China Huadian Corporation (CHC) at a place called Stung Ressey Chrum Krom. The project has drawn widespread criticism, due to the impact the dam will have on the livelihoods of local villagers in the Southern Cardamom Mountain’s protected forest, as well as wildlife in the area.

Chut was seen taking photographs “without permission” and this, according to a military police spokesman, prompted a complaint from CHC. What happened next is disputed: a number of different versions have been put forward. What is undisputed is that Chut was stopped on a public road, and subsequently shot dead by Cambodia’s military police.

The military spokesman said the bullet that killed Chut Wutty was fired by a 32-year-old soldier called In Rattan, who, realising what he had done, turned his AK-47 assault rifle on himself, pulling the trigger twice, with bullets entering his abdomen and chest. Case closed, according to the authorities, with no small relief.

Then the story changed, with a security guard called Ran Boroth charged with ‘unintentional murder’ for killing soldier In Rattan while trying to disarm him.

The deputy director of the Cambodian Council of Ministers said that government and police investigations into the matter were now closed. “We don’t care about some NGOs who criticise us. What our committee has done is get the evidence that is true,” he claimed.

Ran Boroth is a security guard for a company called Timbergreen, which is licensed to clear the area around the dam project near where the shooting took place. Chut had repeatedly alleged that Timbergreen exploited clearing licences to cut down trees far outside of their permit areas.

If found guilty of unintentional murder, Ran will face between one and three years in prison and a fine of $500.

So, in short, a thorn in the side of logging interests was shot dead by a military policeman, in the interests of China and a corrupt military and business elite. But before he could be questioned and possibly charged, he shot himself, or was shot by someone working directly for a logging company, who faces a laughably small penalty.

Chut Wutty was eloquent, charismatic, capable and organised, and worked tirelessly with local and foreign media. Because of that, he was a high-profile irritant. He no longer is.

 

Chut’s death was the highest profile killing in Cambodia since the assassination of trade union leader Chea Vichea in 2004. In February this year three women who were campaigning for better working conditions at a factory that supplies German sportswear giant Puma were shot. They survived, but the alleged gunman, a district governor, has only been charged with the trifling offence of causing “unintentional injuries”.

Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, according to a 2005 report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The country’s primary rainforest cover fell from over 70 percent in 1970 to just 3.1 percent in 2007, and deforestation is accelerating at an alarming rate.

A U.N. special human rights representative to Cambodia said that concessions for “sustainable logging” are a huge mistake. “If this process is not stopped, the country will face a human and economic tragedy which will affect the lives of not only the present but also future generations.”

Lao Mong Hay of the of the beleagured Cambodian Centre for Human Rights said Chut’s murder “has clearly shown how far the powerful are prepared to go to protect their own interests.”

It is chilling to see so clearly how much it is easier kill people who are willing to stand up and object, than to safeguard the rights of the majority of people in this impoverished country.