Taking care of business

October 28, 2012

It all started innocently enough. Back in London in the late 1990s, after six years in Hong Kong, I’d managed to blag a job at the BBCWorld Service, on a truly great program called East Asia Today, which was something of a dream come true. (And, in retrospect, the single cleverest and most satisfying place I’ve ever worked.)

One day the senior editor was handing out assignments, and she looked at me.

“You were in Hong Kong, right?” I nodded. “Well, that’s a pretty businessy city. Why don’t you handle business today?”

So, for the next few months I had three minutes or so to fill, writing, editing and presenting a round-up of Asian business news, despite having no qualifications whatsoever, apart from having lived in a money-obsessed former colony.

And yet, and yet. Since then, most of my formal, contract jobs have been business-related. “Oh,” an employer would say. “You did business for the World Service. Why don’t you do business for us?” Having a bank manager, a wife and a mortgage to satisfy, the natural, if slightly forced response, was to say yes.

So in the intervening years, I’ve worked on the business desks of several vast international news agencies, as well as various smaller magazines and newspapers, becoming more and more entrenched in writing about quarterly sales figures, market capitalisations and greenshoe rights options (or something).

I’m more than happy that I’ve managed to pay the bills. But, when I ask myself “where did it all go wrong?”, I go back to that morning in Bush House, and groan, internally.

Because, if there were a god, I’d have to assume he was messing with me. Because I loathe business news. My political attitudes were forged in the 1980s, on CND marches and during the Miners’ Strike, listening to Arthur Scargill and Tony Benn, watching Margaret Thatcher shred the social contract, and working towards a revolution that would return the control of the forces of production to the proletariat. Basically I was an unreconstructed Trotskyite. And I’ve become a business reporter. Go figure. Thanks, god.

The icing on the cake, so far, is my promotion, this week, to Business Editor of the paper I work for here in Cambodia.

I don’t want to seem churlish about this: it’s plenty more money, I get a much-coveted corner office, and my staff seem genuinely thrilled “to be working for a real journalist.” And it fits with my motives for moving to Cambodia in the first place, of helping to cement the fourth estate in this fragile democracy and teach people about the absolute importance of a free press, and how to do it.

But business news, again? You really couldn’t make it up. I liked it when irony was simply a rhetorical technique, not a way of life. But I guess that’s ironic too.


Royalty check

October 24, 2012

I don’t imagine it will come as much of a surprise, if I say that I’m a pretty ardent republican. In fact, my loathing for the whole concept of inherited privilege and inherited political power has led me, often and loudly, to demand that the heads of the British royal family be arrayed on pikestaffs outside Buckingham Palace, while the streets fill with the gleefully dancing populace. Opinion polls, however, tell me I’m in a minority. Not for the first time.

Nonethess, I am constantly surprised by people’s thoughtless genuflection at the shrine of injustice that is a royal family. In much the same way as religions surprise me, in still managing to make people believe their nonsense.

I managed to miss Princess Diana’s funeral, but I hated it from a distance: the confluence of celebrity worship and mindless sheeple-ish sentiment creating a storm of cringe-worthy faux-emotion that makes my skin crawl to think of it.

But it has been undeniably interesting watching Cambodia’s response to the death of King-Father Norodom Sihanouk. I’m not really allowed to have an opinion on the worth of the royal family here (although I do). But people here are pretty caught up in the whole thing.

Some TV channels are showing nothing but a black-bordered portrait of Sihanouk, and playing dismal music. Other channels replay the footage of his final sarcophagus-inhabiting four-hour trip back from the airport. All day and all night long. Nightclubs are shuttered, bars can’t serve alcohol, restaurants can’t play happy music. Several people in my office have shaved their heads as a mark of respect. Major roads have been closed down; gridlock has become a fact of life this week.

A small proportion of the crowds, from close to my office


So the bars, and the alcohol, and the traffic things are kind of a drag. What grates on me, however, is the widespread acceptance that Sihanouk was an undeniable force for good. Because there is no escaping the fact that he threw his lot in with the Khmer Rouge, and was to some extent responsible for the slaughter of fully a third of his subjects. But you don’t hear much about that in the air in Phnom Penh at the moment.

But I was talking to a hotelier a couple of nights ago. He employs a lot of local staff, and takes a lot of interest in them. He told me that when he talked to the staff as a group, everyone was bowed down by the weight of their grief, full of nothing but praise for Sihanouk. But when away from the group, none of then cared overmuch. “Not a very good man,” was the consensus.

Mr Hotelier said he’d seen exactly the same thing during the commune elections earlier this year. In public, everyone loves Hun Sen’s ruling CPP. In private, everyone hates it. But the CPP still won, handsomely. So someone’s lying.

There is, perhaps, a feeling that this public outpouring of grief has more to do with a sadness at the growing desuetude and irrelevance of the Cambodian royals. At least Sihanouk had been a player on the world stage, and had managed to wrest independence from the French without a single shot being fired, which the country’s hated Vietnamese neighbours couldn’t manage.

The current king, 59-year-old Norodom Sihamoni, used to teach ballet in Paris, and is unmarried (his father noted once that “he loves women as his sisters”). His lack of an heir is not a major problem, as succession here is decided by a council of government ministers. Sihamoni, who by all accounts is a decent man, is perhaps most notable as the only reigning king in the world who can speak Czech.

The king sympathising


But if that’s your claim to fame, you’ve got to wonder how relevant you might be. So perhaps the grief on the streets is the last gasp of Cambodia’s royal pride, and, as such, is entirely  understandable. Khmers are justifiably proud of their history, and Sihanouk is a vital link to that.

Certainly the media and the magazine-buying public aren’t responsible for Sihanouk’s death, as they were with Princess Diana. And surely anything that gets 10,000 Buddhist monks onto the streets can’t be a bad thing.


Just a few of them

A seat at the top table?

October 22, 2012

To add to the sense of woe permeating Phnom Penh this week, following the death of King-Father Norodom Sihanouk, the capital awoke on Friday to discover that Cambodia had failed in its bid to win a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

The United Nations’ 15-member power bloc has the ability to impose sanctions and authorize military interventions, and Cambodia desperately wanted to bolster its international credentials by winning the seat. It claimed it had a great deal of experience in ‘conflict management’, which is probably, at best, about 50 percent true – it’s good at conflict, less so at management.

The country has been campaigning hard since the start of 2011, and had claimed that it had confirmed support from more than 100 countries, including, crucially, all nine of the other members of the Association of South East Asean Nations (ASEAN). In the event, however, Cambodia got a mere 43 votes, far short of the two-thirds majority needed. The winner of the seat in Asia was South Korea, with 149 votes.

Observers were not entirely surprised that Cambodia failed in its quest, after its abject performance as chair of ASEAN this year. The kingdom, which is basically in China’s pocket, allowed itself to be manipulated into keeping the important issue of territorial disputes in the South China Sea off the agenda at ASEAN meetings. One ASEAN diplomat described Cambodia’s chairmanship as “the worst ever”. The UN vote was secret, so we’ll never know if all nine ASEAN members did as they had promised, and voted for Cambodia. But I suspect not.

Human rights is another issue where Cambodia’s performance has been less than stellar this year. Readers may remember the murder of environmental activist Chut Wutty, the shooting dead of a 14-year-old girl who was protesting having her family’s land being forcibly taken away, the jailing of an elderly radio station owner for ‘secessionist activities’, the forcible relocation of hundreds of poor Cambodians at Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh so that various senior politicians can build luxury gated housing projects, and the butchering of a journalist who was looking into illegal logging.

None of these things inspire much confidence in Cambodia as a grown-up country.

Although, saying that, Rwanda won one of the other UN seats, despite apparently supporting a rebellion in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. And their genocide was much more recent than Cambodia’s. If Cambodia inspires less international confidence than Rwanda, than we’re really up the creek.

The king is dead

October 17, 2012

King Norodom Sihanouk, who has died in Beijing aged 89, would have been an extraordinary figure wherever he had been born: being ruler of a country like Cambodia, at a point when it was a regional geopolitical fulcrum, meant his importance became magnified to an almost impossible degree. He was an apt figurehead for a nation that, over his lifetime, and often under his rule, saw an extraordinary range of political systems vie for dominance, with often tragic results.

Charming, charismatic and ruthless, Sihanouk was crowned in 1941, and over the next 60 years was alternately king, prime minister, Khmer Rouge figurehead, exiled leader, king again, and then king father. He won independence for Cambodia from the French in 1953, then gave up the throne to run in the country’s first independent elections. Through repression, vote rigging and the ignorance of the peasantry, he won, and set about reforging the country.

The years 1955 to 1970 were relatively good ones for Cambodia. Sihanouk began educating and improving the lot of the population, and the political movement he headed, known as the Sangkum Reaystr Niyum, practiced a benign if woolly-headed Buddhist socialism.

In cosmopolitan Phnom Penh, French and Khmer high society rubbed shoulders happily, revelling in a flowering of Cambodian art and culture. Sihanouk spent much of his time playing the saxophone and making films, with himself as cameraman, lighting director, scriptwriter, director, producer and leading man. Architecturally distinctive buildings went up, magazines and newspapers flourished, and amazing musicians flocked to the riverside clubs to play the nights away.

But outside the wealthy capital, darker forces were stirring. The war in Vietnam was encroaching on Cambodia’s borders, and Sihanouk, stupidly, allowed Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to bomb the border regions to disrupt Vietcong supply lines. The resulting death tolls, coupled with the lack of economic growth, meant Sihanouk was ousted in a coup in 1970.

Persuaded by the Chinese that the United States were responsible for his overthrow, he allowed himself to become the figurehead for the Khmer Rouge, a rag-tag rural communist guerilla force who eventually won the civil war in 1975, helped by Sihanouk’s prestige and god-like status amongst the peasantry. His decision to ally himself with the Khmer Rouge was an odd one for both sides, as he had fought them for a number of years; as they had fought to overthrow him.

Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh and was installed as president in the Royal Palace by the murderous Khmer Rouge, where he was put under house arrest after the first year, while 1.7 million of his former subjects were killed in one of the worst pieces of autogenocide the world has ever seen.

When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, Sihanouk was released, but instead of being grateful, he spent the next dozen years acting as ’a figleaf of respectability for the Khmer Rouge’ as the rest of the world lined up to try and get Vietnam out of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge, disgracefully, were allowed to keep the country’s seat at the United Nations, so inflexible was the attitude of the US towards the hated Vietnam.

Eventually, with the end of the Cold War, the geopolitical waves washing through South East Asia calmed, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia, and the UN stepped in to essay a fragile sort of quasi-democracy, with Sihanouk returning to the throne in 1993.

He still wasn’t finished with politics, helping the ruthless Hun Sen engineer a coup against his own son, Norodom Rannaridh. Hun Sen has been in power ever since, heading up a vast patronage network quite as corrupt and self-serving as anything a royal family could dream up.

Sihanouk eventually abdicated in favour of one of his 13 or 14 children in 2004, and spent most of his time in North Korea or Beijing as a guest of the Chinese government, in increasingly poor health.

Often criticized for his dramatic political flip-flopping, Sihanouk said he followed only one course: “the defense of the independence, the territorial integrity and the dignity of my country and my people.”

The New York Times quoted Michael Leifer, a professor at the London School of Economics, as saying “the record of the man … would suggest a greater facility for reigning than for ruling.” I’d say that was a pretty kind judgment.

The country was celebrating a five-day national holiday when Sihanouk died: a holiday meant to remember one’s ancestors. Every house and business in Phnom Penh is now flying the country’s flag at half mast. In the eyes of the people of this country, he was a unifying national hero, and the fact that without his influence they would have fewer ancestors to honour, and more living relatives, seems not to matter.


Norodom Sihanouk at the Cambodia/Thai border with Khmer Rouge leaders  Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan (wearing ties) in 1985. Picture copyright Roland Neveu


Street Spirit

October 12, 2012

Phnom Penh is a charming city in many ways: although it was founded in 1372, it didn’t become the capital of Cambodia until 1866, when the French colonisers tried to impose some order on it. This included a grid system of roads, which are numbered. This is handy for finding your way around, although once you find your destination street, there is absolutely no rhyme or reason as to the house numbers. Rather charmingly. If there were a postal service here, which there isn’t, the postmen would have an extremely hard time.

The bigger boulevards aren’t numbered, but are mostly named after Cambodian kings with rather sonorous names: Monivong, Sisowath, Norodom, Monireth. But some of them indicate a sense of the country’s turbulent recent political history. There is a Russian Confederation Boulevard, a Mao Tse Tung Boulevard, and even a Josep Broz Tito Street (Pol Pot spent an enjoyable summer in Yugoslavia in 1950 building roads).

But in the centre of town, there is one street that intrigued me enough to find out about it: Christopher Howse Street. It seemed somehow unlikely that Phnom Penh would have named a street after the Daily Telegraph’s resident grammar Nazi and nutjob Christian proselytiser of that name. And I was right, it hadn’t. It was a very different Christopher Howse.

This Christopher Howes was a British de-mining expert who was working for the Mines Advisory Group a few miles north of Siem Reap in the village of Preah Ko when he and his twenty-strong unit were abducted at gunpoint by a band of Khmer Rouge in March 1996.

Ordered by his captors to return to his base to collect ransom money, Howse flatly refused, so he could remain with his team and negotiate their safety. Instead the Khmer Rouge, under the command of Ta Mok, a famously psychotic one-legged guerrilla, released Howse’s team in a fit of pique, but kept the former Royal Engineer hostage for several days, before murdering him and his translator. However, his fate remained a mystery for more than two years, until Scotland Yard detectives recovered ashes from the site where Howse’s body had been burned.

Rae McGrath, the founder of the Mines Action Group, said at his memorial service: “Having known Chris as a friend and as a colleague I cannot find it within me to mourn. I will celebrate a heroic friend, a de-miner who put into practice his engineering skills to make this world a better place and who, at the cost of his life, showed his love to and loyalty for his fellow men.”

I now like to go down Christopher Howse Street as often as I can. There are some things that are important to remember.

(In October 2008 three former Khmer Rouge fighters were jailed for 20 years for the murder of Howes.)

Crosstown traffic

October 8, 2012

The awful sinking of a ferry just off Lamma Island near Hong Kong got me thinking. I used to take one of the (killer) ferries every day for years when I lived on Lamma, and though the crew were basically trogloditic pirates, I rarely felt unsafe. I must have spent weeks of my life in total safely gliding in and out of the harbour, 80 minutes a day, and it was all pretty smooth sailing, as it were.

But mass transit anywhere is prone to mass death. I used Moorgate tube station in London every day for years, where in 1975 43 people were killed when the driver carelessly forgot to stop, and slammed into a wall at full speed. So Et in Arcadia Ego, as it were.

But, in Phnom Penh, there is no mass transit. So little chance of mass death, one hopes.

I’ve been meaning for some time to write about the traffic in Phnom Penh. I have to immerse myself in it every day, and every day it surprises me.

I don’t drive here. I could, but life is difficult enough already, and, by god, tuk-tuks are cheap. And because traffic here is is … weird.

I think the Cambodians have evolved what traffic planners in the west are starting to tout as the solution to their urban traffic woes, which may or may not be called accommodative traffic management. Which basically means that if you go quite slowly, and watch what everyone else is doing, you can do what you want.

In super-enlightened Holland, urban planners illustrate the principle by having blindfolded bicyclists cross major intersections without warning. And it works. Without rigid rules, and thoughtless adherence to those rules, stop signs and traffic lights, when you look at other drivers, you drive better and more carefully.

(It may be time for me to trot out, yet again, my theory for increasing traffic safety: having every car fitted with a vicious steel spike protruding chest-wards from the steering wheel. If the consequence of braking hard was guaranteed death, roads would be a lot safer. Copyright: me)

Phnom Penh’s roads are a free-for-all. But it’s mostly OK. Outside the city, forget it. But here, you’re a bit safe. Speeds are so low that terrible injuries are fewer than in other places I’ve been. Delhi was, quite literally, hell on wheels, while Iran was truly terrifying.

In Phnom Penh you’ve got the offspring of government officials in their Ferraris (really!) roaring stupidly up and down the side roads late at night to impress karaoke hostesses, but otherwise most people are on tiny Chinese-made mopeds, that are not overwhemingly quick.

I quite often hear the awful crunch of bike hitting Tarmac, and wails, as some of the clueless 11-year olds let loose on mopeds run into each other during rush hour, but mostly the protagonists get up and walk away. (Although a week spent in the main emergency hospital here has meant I rarely get on motorbike taxis now. I’ve just had about enough of blood and major trauma, personally.)

But no one plays by the traffic rules here. One-way streets? Pshw. Riding on the, er, sidewalk? Of course. But it works. At one junction I go through quite often, all the tuk-tuk drivers simply speed through the pumps of the petrol station on the corner to avoid the lights. No one thinks twice about it. And it works.

It’s one of those things that occupies my mind, as I sit, being gently wafted through the streets in a tuk-tuk: why Phnom Penh hasn’t got a public transport system. Even Calcutta has a metro. In East Africa, there are mutatus, a sort of shared (exceptionally closely-shared) public mini buses. Even poor benighted Rangoon has public buses. But not Cambodia. It would be easy to identify obvious bus routes, put up a few bus stops, and rake in the small change. I haven’t worked out yet why this hasn’t happened, but if anyone has any thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

The voice of the Beehive

October 2, 2012

Cambodia’s prime minister, the fearsome ex-Khmer Rouge soldier Hun Sen, ought to be a fairly content man. He has been in charge of the country since 1985, and has brought a degree of stability to Cambodia that is widely appreciated. He is fully in control of the armed forces. His party won 90 out of 123 seats in parliament at the last general election, in 2008. And he has a few quid in the bank.

And yet he sometimes seems awfully thin-skinned.

There isn’t much in the way of opposition to the government in Cambodia. The leader of the opposition lives in Paris, because he faces several years in jail here for the terrible crime of pulling a wooden stake out of the ground. What other parties there are spend more time arguing with each other than presenting a united front, and the media here is generally complaisant.

So you might have thought that all would be well in Hun Sen’s world. Yet it seems it isn’t.

Back in June, an independent radio station called Beehive Radio, listened to by about a dozen people, broadcast a report about a complaint brought to the International Criminal Court (ICC) accusing the Cambodian government of crimes against humanity. The following day, Hun Sen called for the arrest of the owner, a gentle soul called Mam Sonando.  After he returned to Cambodia in July from a trip abroad, to answer the charges, Mam Sonando was arrested at his home, in connection with an alleged secession movement in Kratie province.  This had apparently come to light after a raid on a village in Kratie during which a 14-year-old girl was shot dead by the military.

Rights groups say the raid was merely an excuse to evict hundreds of families locked in a land dispute with Russian agro-business company Casotim, part of a pattern of abuses across the country that has seen the government violently evict people from their land so they can sell it to foreign companies. The police recently showed the press some of the weapons that were apparently to be used by the alleged secessionists; which included several spades and some elderly bows and arrows. The so-called secessionists are all farmers.

On Monday, Mam Sonando, who is 71, was sentenced to 20 years in prison, for crimes including insurrection and inciting people to take up arms against the state.

Mam Sonando being hustled off to jail.

Rights groups have repeatedly derided the authorities’ statements of an attempt at secession, and legal experts said no evidence was presented to link Mam Sonando to the alleged secessionist movement or to prove such a movement even exists. Trial monitors condemned the verdict outright. Amnesty International classified Mam Sonando as a prisoner of conscience and described the verdict and sentencing as “absolutely outrageous”.

Local government watchers say that Mam Sonando will probably be allowed leave to appeal, and the verdict will be upheld. However, he will likely be told that if the complaint to the ICC is dropped, he will be released on compassionate grounds. This sounds very plausible.

Sonando issued a brief statement saying that despite the verdict, he was “happy” at heart because he knew he was innocent. There are other people involved in his case who are, perhaps, less than innocent. But I couldn’t say whom.