Fun and games

July 25, 2012

So, I’m leaving Phnom Penh today, bound for the UK. But only for a week or so, to use up a plane ticket and to get some advice on the leg. Stupidly, however, when I booked the ticket, I failed to notice that I fly into London on the day of the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

I imagine that it might be possible to guess my attitude towards the Olympics. But if not, here’s what I think:

The Olympic Games are a colossal waste of time, a huge, shockingly corrupt boondoggle for financiers and politicians and health-corrupting corporate giants, and a cover for astonishing levels of kleptocratic behaviour in the name of sporting excellence.

As to the running and jumping: I suppose that’s fair enough. Just. If it really matters to you that Usain Bolt can leg it down the track one hundredth of a second faster than some other Jamaican, then knock yourself out. If you really care that some South Korean can weight-lift a tiny amount more than some Azerbaijani, then you’ll be happy. But 12 billion quid’s-worth of happy? I’d be surprised.

For the narcotized masses, force-fed a diet of panem et circenses involving European Cup football, Wimbledon, the Jubilee and now this dictator-fest of a school sports day this summer, everything in the garden is wonderful. But it was only a year ago that large parts of London were lit by decidedly non-Olympic flames as London’s youth practiced their running (away from the police), throwing (bricks through shop windows) and weightlifting (heavy TVs) and their misappropriation of expensive sports shoes.

So while the kleptocrats glide through London in their limousines in their special private lanes, and the general population huddles on Tube platforms for endless hours trying to go about their business, they’ll be able to reflect on the positives of this fatuous exercise in internationalism, leaving an exciting legacy of velodromes and canoeing courses, which are just what the East End of London needs.

The IOC has demanded 40,000 hotel rooms from London for the duration of the Olympics, including 1,800 four- and five-star ones, as well as 700 luxury cars to drive along the 250 miles of reserved roads. The sponsors and advertisers dictate what the people of London can eat, drink and wear, while the police and the armed forces train batteries of missiles at anything even slightly suspicious. If this doesn’t strike you as insulting, then I’m afraid you’ve drunk the kool-aid.

The opening ceremony, which I’ll miss, due to being stuck in a seven-hour immigration queue at Heathrow, will apparently feature an idyllic scene of the British countryside, with rivers, real cows and sheep grazing in meadows and a cricket match on a village green. Yeah, that sounds representative of the England I know. I’m glad we spent 81 million quid on that. I can’t think of anything better we could have done with the money.

As a side note, Cambodia is sending six athletes to London. So good luck to Sorn Davin, a female taekwondo person, middle-distance runner Kieng Samorrn, sprinter Chan Seiha, judo geezer Khom Ratanakmony, short distance swimmer Hem Thon Vitiny and her uncle, swimmer Hem Thon Ponleu. Sadly, they haven’t got a chance.

An area where you might have thought Cambodians might have a chance to shine is at the Paralympics. There is no shortage of disabled people in Cambodia, due to the landmines that the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese scattered so liberally around the country. But unfortunately, to compete in a wheelchair is expensive: far too expensive for a country as poor as this.

The Cambodian disabled volleyball team organiser, a saintly man called Chris Minko, said recently that the Paralympics “showcase the ability of people with disabilities around the world. But they cost an enormous amount of money. The blunt reality is that for nations like Cambodia, we’ve got nothing. The athletes are starving.”

Van Vun does the 100 metres in a wheelchair. Last year he won two silver medals at a regional meeting, after using a second-hand lightweight racing chair cast off by the Australians. As a result, “the difference in time over 100 metres is about 30 seconds,” he said. He can’t afford to go to London.

“It’s so goddam frustrating,” Minko said recently, “not to be able to participate in London and actually go for that goal. That would be a genuine goal achieved by our sporting ability, and not by our ability to purchase $20,000 hi-tech wheelchairs.”

I dunno, perhaps they could have taken the 81 million quid cost of the Olympic opening ceremony and just driven the IOC around, y’know, the real English countryside in their 700 air conditioned luxury German limos, and done something worthwhile with the rest of the money. I wonder what Van Vun thinks?

BP, Adidas, Coca-Cola and McDonalds will be laughing all the way to the bank. The 23,500 extra private security guards will be enjoying themselves bolstering the security state that is the UK today. Then the greedy and corrupt members of the IOC will take their first-class seats and jet off to the next city lucky enough to receive their vampiric attentions. Priorities, eh?

Enlightenment

July 23, 2012

So I’ve been told to lay off the politics and the doom and gloom for a while, as it’s too depressing, and people like the happy domestic stuff.

This is quite difficult to do, because I don’t really have much of a domestic life at the moment. Work, gnash teeth, go home, find myself in bed playing Angry Birds at ten on a Friday night – that’s about it. The daily rainfall makes getting around on crutches a terrifying prospect, as ankle-deep water isn’t wonderfully safe for planting the damn things in. So I mosly stay home and drink beer on the balcony.

I was doing that a couple of nights ago, and watching the night skies, and thinking that much as Phnom Penh needs more prosperity, there will be some things it loses along the way.

One of my bugbears in recent years in London was the preponderance of lights pointed into the sky. It seemed that the best way of advertising colossal environmental unthinking was to surround your building with ground-mounted lights painting the walls with halogen hell and polluting the night sky.

I’m a bit interested in astronomy: how could you not be? The scale, the beauty of the skies have been captivating mankind forever. I’ve watched the skies from Australian deserts and Scottish moors and remote Indian mountain tops, and been filled with the kind of wonder that is surely such a huge part of what it is to be human.

I have also lived in cities where no one cares in the slightest about light pollution. In Hong Kong, incoming aircraft pilots can apparently see the lights from 185 miles away. In Shepherds Bush, in west London, I fought for years with a local 5-star hotel who mounted lights in the ground pointing into the sky, to make their shabby £300-a-night shithole look grander.

Eventually, with the help of the Campaign for Dark Skies, they shifted a few of them. But have you seen a star from a London street recently? Let me answer that for you: no, you haven’t. Orange haze? Oh, yes. The world’s greatest free son et lumiere? Not so much.

Being Blossomless, I’ve been my balcony a lot recently, watching huge thunderstorms play out across the Mekong. And the skies. In the last few days, at around 0500hrs, the moon, Venus and Mercury have been hanging tightly clustered in the western sky, pendant as if hanging “upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear,” and taking my breath away. Such a simple thing. (it’s even better with Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium in the background).

But I fear that with increasing prosperity, Phnom Penh will succumb to the uplight phnomenom, and in a few years the stars will be invisible. And what an incredible shame that will be.

While the government busies itself shooting 14-year-old land-rights protestors, light pollution seems like a very distant worry. But if anyone has any thoughts, I’d love to hear them. And sorry not to be cheerful again. I really do need to get out more.

So to try and end on a more positive note, here’s a picture I came across the other day, of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses.
This picture makes me happy on all sorts of levels. And if you’ve read it, you can see that she’s definitely right in the heart of the Molly Bloom soliloquy section. So, again, you’ve gotta smile…

Oh dear. And it was all going so well. Cambodia has been convulsed with delight over its chairmanship this year of the 10-nation Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). International exposure and legitimacy for the kingdom!

But sadly, it has got the exposure, but not the legitimacy. In fact, it has ended up looking distinctly small-time, a lickspittle satellite of the political bruiser to the north: China.

To put it bluntly, Cambodia is China’s bitch. China’s direct investment in Cambodia was $1.2 billion in 2011, almost 10 times that of the US, according to the government.

And what China really, really wants is most of the South China Sea, including bits that are only a few miles from the shores of ASEAN states like the Philippines and Vietnam. Disputes over the territory, which may well be bloated with oil, have been simmering for years. ASEAN wants to present a united front against China’s territorial claims; China wants to split the grouping. And $1.2 billion a year buys you a lot of splitting.

So ASEAN foreign ministers met last week in Phnom Penh, with the South China Sea one of the most pressing issues. And Cambodia, predictably, buckled to Chinese pressure and tried to keep the matter off the agenda.

At one point, when Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario began to raise the issue, his microphone went dead. Just a  ‘technical glitch’, said Cambodia, to widespread disbelief.  At another point, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan was reportedly cut off in mid-address by Hor Namhong, Cambodia’s foreign minister, as he tried to bring up the topic. For the first time in ASEAN’s 45-year history, the bloc failed to come up with a closing statement, which, for ASEAN, is practically unthinkable.

Reuters quoted a diplomat as saying “It was one of the most heated meetings in the history of ASEAN,” while another described Cambodia, as “the worst chair.”

This actually matters a great deal. Last month Beijing said it had begun “combat-ready” patrols around waters claimed by Vietnam. These people are not messing around. Conflict could happen at any time. And poor, stupid, greedy Cambodia has been made to look shockingly inept at the same time.

Perhaps if some of China’s money was washing around the impoverished countryside, helping to make Cambodians’ lives better, then that would be one thing. But, somehow, it is not. There are a lot of Lexuses on the streets of Phnom Penh though. Armani is believed to be opening a shop here soon. But taxi drivers only make $4 a day and children are dropping dead of easily preventable diseases. Some people have a lot to answer for.

Pretzel logic

July 16, 2012

There has been much excitement amongst the stupider media pundits in Cambodia over the last week or so because Hillary Clinton came to the country. This seems to confer a level of legitimacy on the despotic regime that means it’s possible to ignore the shooting of dissenters and the wholesale theft of the countryside in order to sell it to the highest bidder.

But Hillary did indeed come. Not for very long, and she didn’t say anything particularly exciting, but she was In The Country, and that apparently means that all is well.

She brought with her a large group of US business leaders: GE, Coke, Proctor & Gamble – all the good people. Cambodia’s useful idiots became sweaty with lust because of their presence, convinced that the economic salvation of the country was close at hand once kindly corporate behemoths like Coca-Cola favoured us with their attentions. They may have slightly missed the point that they were all on their way to Burma, five days after the easing of US sanctions on the country. None of them could give a stuff about Cambodia, which is tiny, has no money, and no useful way of getting goods in or out of the country.

The main obstacle for any large-scale US corporate investment in Cambodia, which the moronic cheerleaders seem to keep forgetting, is the existence of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which stops listed US companies from paying bribes in foreign countries. Bribery and corruption are normal parts of life here, especially with this government, which has turned the issue into an art form.

I’ve lived in some pretty corrupt places, but Cambodia takes First Prize – even the border guards extort you when you arrive. As to what Hun Sen and his cabinet are up to: a simple look at the houses these fuckers live in gives the lie to the fiction that they exist on government salaries, as they claim. Hun Sen’s house, on Phnom Penh’s grandest boulevard, is an obscene confection of cascades of vast roofs and high walls: I would imagine it could house about 400 people at PP’s average population density.

So the US business types appeared, failed to sign any deals at all (actually, GE did, via some untouchable subsidiary, agree to build a rice-husk power plant, for about $45) and then pushed off to eat more free dinners elsewhere and send some exotic postcards home.

I was reflecting on this, when I went to a meeting with two Cambodian-American businessmen a day or two ago. Both of them were removed from the country during the Khmer Rouge era, and grew up and were well educated in the States. Both very nice guys, slick, bright: one a banker and the other a lawyer. They both said they had come back to help the poor beleaguered country of their birth.

Towards the end of the meeting, we got on to the subject of my broken leg. The lawyer looked at me significantly, and asked, “Did it happen on private property?” Well, yes, I admitted, it happened on the outside area of a bar I was walking past. “So you know Cambodia passed a law last year that means you can sue them for damages? And I can help you with that?”

I was speechless. It had, honestly, never occurred to me that I might be able to palm off the responsibility for slipping and falling on to someone else. And that I could potentially put a small business owner out of business for money. I thanked him for his offer and left, concerned more than ever about the corrosive effects of US business practices. So thanks, Hillary, but it’s a ‘No’ from me right now.

 

I’m posting this on a weekend so that no one has to read it. It will be of limited interest to the general reader. However: I was asked at work to put together a timeline of Cambodian history over the last 20 years: the length of time the Phnom Penh Post has been publishing. Rather than make a scene about being asked to do intern-level scut-work, I just did it. It took me some hours, because such a thing doesn’t exist anywhere else. And that’s why I present it here: researchers, historians, whomever: these are the highs and lows of the last two decades in Cambodia:

January 1993: UN civilian agencies and NGOs request a public meeting to discuss election progress and the misconduct of UN peacekeepers.

May 1993: General election brings Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh as co-prime ministers into coalition government.

September 1993: New constitution promulgated, UNTAC dissolved.

April 1994: Two young Britons and an Australian kidnapped and killed by Khmer Rouge

July 1994:  Khmer Rouge murders an Australian, a Briton and a Frenchman, because they were “spies” for Vietnam

March 1996: Mine clearance expert Christopher Howse and translator murdered by Khmer Rouge

March 1997: Grenade attack in Phnom Penh kills 16, injures 150

July 1997: Prince Ranariddh leaves Cambodia for France, accusing Hun Sen of staging a coup.

April 1998: Pol Pot dies.

May 1998: Prince Ranariddh pardoned by King Sihanouk and returns to Cambodia.

April 1999: Cambodia becomes tenth member state of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)

December 2001: First Mekong bridge opens in Cambodia.

February 2002: Cambodia’s first commune elections held.

March 2002: Actress Angelina Jolie adopts Cambodian child.

January 2003: Rock star paedophile Gary Glitter deported from Cambodia

January 2003: Military planes fly hundreds of Thais out of Phnom Penh after violent demonstrations over the control of Angkor Wat.

August 2003: Prime Minister Hun Sen and Cambodian People’s Party officially win general election.

January 2004:  Labour leader Chea Vichea, affiliated with opposition party, shot dead in Phnom Penh.

June 2004: Cambodia’s two main political parties announce a power-sharing deal, ending an 11-month political deadlock.

October 2004: National Assembly ratifies agreement with the United Nations to establish a tribunal to try senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge.

October 2004: King Siahanouk abdicates.

October 2004: Norodom Sihamoni becomes king

February 2005: Opposition leader Sam Rainsy goes into self-exile.

March 2005: 20 convicts killed escaping from jail in Kampong Cham

June 2005: Two-year-old Canadian boy killed at international school in Siem Reap after gunmen take dozens of pupils and teachers hostage.

July 2006: Khmer Rouge ‘butcher’ Ta Mok dies

June 2007: 22 people killed when a plane crashed near Bokor Mountain.

Feb 2009: Trials of senior Khmer Rouge leaders begin.

October 2009: Overloaded ferry sinks on the Mekong, 17 killed.

July 2010: Comrade Duch found guilty of crimes against humanity.

September 2010: War crimes tribunal indicts four former Khmer Rouge leaders.

November 2010: Diamond Island tragedy; 456 people die in stampede.

July 2011: Cambodia’s stock exchange opens.

February 2012: Cambodia takes the chair of ASEAN.

April 2012: Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority becomes first company to list on Cambodian Stock Exchange.

April 2012: Environmental activist Chut Wutty shot dead.

 

If there is anything glaring I’ve missed, please don’t hesitate to let me know. This post is merely a resource for other people, and could be far better….

–NOTHING TO DO WITH CAMBODIA AT ALL–

The British papers have been full of debates in the last few days about reforming the House of Lords. For years, I believed that nothing short of heads on pikestaffs would do; now, being a little more temperate and having met plenty of politicians, I’m not so sure.

I came across the following debate on Hansard recently. While I’m not sure it advances the case for an unelected upper body, it is, without doubt, utterly charming:

Asked By Baroness Finlay of Llandaff:

To ask the Chairman of Committees what measures are being considered to improve pest control in the Lords’ part of the Palace of Westminster.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, the administration is fully aware of the problem with mice in the Palace of Westminster and is taking all appropriate measures to minimise their numbers. We retain the services of an independent pest control consultant and a full-time pest controller. The current focus is on poisoning and trapping, blocking of mouse access points, and more frequent cleaning of bars and restaurants to remove food debris. This programme was intensified over the February Recess and fewer sightings of mice have been reported since.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: I thank the noble Lord for his reply. How many calls have there been to the mouse helpline? Has the accuracy of that information been checked, given that the staff report seeing mice on a daily basis at the moment in the eating areas? Has consideration been given to having hypoallergenic cats on the estate, given the history? Miss Wilson, when she was a resident superintendent in this Palace, had a cat that apparently caught up to 60 mice a night. The corpses were then swept up in the morning. Finally, does the noble Lord recognise the fire hazard that mice pose, because they eat through insulating cables? It would be a tragedy for this beautiful Palace to burn down for lack of a cat.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, there are a number of questions there. I cannot give an answer to the number of calls made to the mouse helpline-if that is its title. I suspect that it would not be a good use of resources to count them up. But I am well aware of the problem of mice, as I said in my Answer. It is something that we take seriously.

As for getting a cat, I answered a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Elton, last week on this matter. I was not aware that such a thing as a hypoallergenic cat existed – I do not know whether our cat at home is one of those. There are a number of reasons why it is not a good idea to have cats. First, they would ingest mouse poison when eating poisoned mice, which would not be very nice for them, and there would be nothing to keep them where they are needed or stop them walking around the House on desks in offices or on tables in restaurants and bars – and maybe even in the Chamber itself. Therefore, we have ruled out at this stage the possibility of acquiring a cat, or cats.

Lord Bradshaw: I have spoken continually to the staff in the eating places in the House and I acknowledge that there has been some diminution in the number of mice around. But could I press the noble Lord, because further action needs to be taken? I know that this is an old building, but mice are still here and we are talking about places where food is served. I have no magic solution, but perhaps the consultant who is being employed might have some answers.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I am well aware that there are still mice around. I saw one in the Bishops’ Bar only yesterday evening. I do not know whether it was the same one that I saw the day before or a different one; it is always difficult to tell the difference between the various mice that one sees. We believe that the problem is getting better. Cleaning is one of the measures we are taking, as I outlined in my original Answer. As I speak here this afternoon, the Bishops’ Bar and the Guest Room are being Hoovered, so we can get rid of the food scraps from lunch. If you were a mouse, you would rather eat the crumbs of a smoked salmon sandwich than the bait. Therefore, we want to remove the crumbs as quickly as possible.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: Why should I and noble Lords trust the Executive to deal with mice when they cannot deal with the economy?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I do not actually deal with the economy. I am glad to say that that would be above my pay grade, whereas trying to deal with the mice is probably just about right for me.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I was in total ignorance that there was anything of the nature of a mouse helpline until this Question Time. Can the Chairman of Committees tell us what helplines there are for Members of the House on other issues that we do not know about?

The Chairman of Committees: I rather hope that we do not have too many other ones. I was not going to advertise the existence of the mouse helpline, although it was advertised some time ago. Indeed, I invited Members of the House to telephone when they saw mice. The trouble is that when the person at the other end of the helpline goes to check this out, very often the mouse has gone elsewhere.

The mighty keyboard

July 5, 2012

Last year, an elderly friend of mine living in a tiny town in the Philippines was attacked and subsequently treated pretty badly. I was incensed, and looked into ways of getting him some revenge, including recruiting some toughs to institute a round of much-deserved beatings. Instead, I eventually spent 10 minutes writing the following letter, knocking up a fake letterhead, and sending it off:

Mayor Santy R. Austria

Municipal Government of Jaen

2nd Floor, Jaen Municipal Hall

Brgy. Dampulan, Jaen, Nueva Ecija 3109

Philippines

 

Dear Mr Austria,

It is with some regret that we at the Canadian Overseas Justice Department are writing to you, but we have been made aware of an issue in your municipality that we cannot easily overlook.

It has come to our attention that on the 10th June, a Canadian citizen, a Mr Brian Lord, currently resident in your municipality was attacked, tied to a tree and viciously assaulted by a group of at least 15 drunken males near his home in Jaen.

While he was subsequently hospitalised following the cowardly assault, the District Captain and the Chief of Police conspired to have him charged with trespass and carrying a deadly weapon, and coerced him into paying a large amount of money in compensation to his attacker, a man ironically known as ‘Manny’.

We are very concerned about this incident for a number of reasons. Firstly, Mr Lord is a well-known figure in Canada, a decorated war veteran and a figure of some reverence. He is also, I should note, 77 years of age, and has never been in trouble with the law at any stage of his long and distinguished life. We are worried that, should news of the assault reach the general population of Canada, there would be some measure of antagonism towards the Philippines, which would be harmful to all concerned.

Secondly, while we do not wish to question the judicial process in your municipality, from the information we have received, we are forced to conclude that justice was neither fair nor transparent in this case.

We would also note that the Canadian government delivers approximately $20 million annually in overseas development aid to the Philippines, mainly through the Canadian International Development Agency to “foster efficient, responsive, transparent and accountable governance at all levels.”  If we decide that this is not the case, we can recommend that these payments are suspended. We imagine that the government in Manila would be somewhat unhappy to hear that events in Jaen had caused the suspension of said payments, and would be interested to hear why we felt it necessary to do so.

We feel that at the very least, some sort of formal apology should be made to Mr Lord, as well as some form of financial restitution, and a thorough investigation made of the events of the evening of June 10, with a view to punishing the men responsible for the cowardly attack on an elderly Canadian war hero.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Kelly Dean

Chief Executive,

Canadian Overseas Justice Department

A few days later, Mayor Austria turned up at Brian’s door with the ringleaders, who apologised to him. They paid him back the several thousand dollars. And the mayor then even asked Brian if he’d help him with his next re-election campaign.

So I think that worked out pretty well.

(Brian was not a war hero, he was a rather dissolute radio DJ. There is no Canadian Overseas Justice Department.)