A bit of a Baracking

November 28, 2012

So, Phnom Penh is winding down from the excitement of having Barack Obama in town. And when I say excitement, I mean profound irritation.

We had high hopes for Obama’s visit, the only time a serving president of the USA has ever come here. Many people hoped that the president would raise some concerns over human rights; perhaps make a statement against the abuses that flourish here. As it was, eight protestors were jailed for painting the letters SOS on their rooftops, out near the airport, hoping that Obama would see it: they are due to be evicted shortly to make room for some private development.

As it was, those interested in human rights here got precisely nothing. No rousing speech, no statement of support. Instead, people have had to take comfort from the fact that Obama looked a bit unimpressed when he met Hun Sen, and that the White House has put no pictures of Hun Sen on their website story detailing the president’s trip to SE Asia. Hooray for freedom!

What we did get was total traffic gridlock as motorcades swept along the boulevards and the closure of the airport for many hours, stranding passengers here and at various airports around the region.  Local and international journalists were pointlessly hassled, (I was told at a press conference to take my sunglasses off my head, as it was “against protocol.”) inconvenienced and kept away from anything interesting.

But human rights? Well apparently Obama brought them up in a meeting with Hun Sen, which might explain their frosty body language. But we have no idea what might have been said, or what any reaction might have been.

The organisation Human Rights Watch released a report a couple of days before Obama’s arrival, which alleged that since 1991, more than 300 people have been killed in political attacks in Cambodia. The long, fully referenced report names a lot of names, including that of one Mok Chito. It says: “Mok Chito is now a three-star general in charge of the criminal department of the Ministry of Interior and oversees the criminal, economic and anti-human trafficking police. ‘He is the ultimate fox in the chicken coop,’ said a US diplomat. The United Nations and nongovernmental organizations have documented the involvement of Mok Chito in kidnapping, extortion, and killings over many years.”

We ran the HRW story, of course, being fearless, and Mok Chito himself responded by writing a letter to us. This is surprisingly acceptable, in terms of his usual alleged modus operandi. It also made me laugh, and I quote some of it here:

“I want to unleash strong criticism of The Phnom Penh Post, which published such a cheap, unreal, distorted, immoral, unethical and idiotic article in which the Post’s knowledgeable and scholarly human resources were, unbelievably, lobbied by the anger and insults of an international organisation that is known to be a promoter of human rights. [my italics]

My perception is that this attempt … to distort and defame my reputation, and the reputations of other high-ranking people, is a trick to obstruct the victorious progress of the Kingdom of Cambodia  … and especially to obstruct the path to success of the government led by Premier Hun Sen.

I should lodge a complaint about the stupid and distorted writing and publication of these cheap, tricky people.

But I feel sympathy for such people, who live in the darkness and complete unconsciousness of stupidity and who lack even the values of human conscience.

Finally, I want to pray for the God to give me justice and to reveal and punish the bad people and keep them in the darkness of life with no beam of light, faced with failure for their entire lives and living without happiness and tranquillity.

All these words come from the bottom of my heart, although they may not be as attractive as those of the authors.

I also insist that the editors-in-chief publish this entire letter in the interests of raising the awareness of these unwise people, as well as national and international public opinion, so they can judge the real situation of our whole society at the present time.”

What more can you say?


No money for nothing

November 21, 2012

It’s a nice feeling when you manage to find something you’ve been looking for for a long time. It happened to me last weekend, and I’m still quietly thrilled about it.

In 1975, as the Cambodian civil war was reaching its climax and Phnom Penh was about to fall to the Khmer Rouge, their political masters in Beijing decided to help put in place some of the necessary odds and ends that go to make up a civilised society.

One of the helpful things China thought the new shiny socialist paradise that was to be Cambodia would need was new banknotes. So they printed some for Pol Pot’s putative government. Available in seven denominations, from 100 riel down, they are things of beauty, watermarked with images of Angkor Wat, and featuring delicate intaglio engravings of heroic peasants labouring in the fields: planting and threshing and ploughing and harvesting and smiling as they strove to create the perfect society. Oh, and a bit of fighting too.

So Beijing printed them, and, once the Khmer Rouge had brutally sacked and emptied Phnom Penh, they flew them in and presented them to their communist cohorts. Who had rather different ideas.

In a move of breathtaking radical communist thinking, Pol Pot decided that his new society would start afresh, from Year Zero, and one thing they wouldn’t need was money. None. No private property, no commerce. No markets, no exchange of goods and services. No store of capital.

So the banknotes, presumably bales of them, disappeared into the void that was the Democratic Kampuchea, and were probably used as fuel for fires. No one knows for sure. Meanwhile, over the next few years, the Cambodian peasants did indeed labour mightily in the fields, some two million of them starving to death as the Khmer Rouge swapped their rice for Chinese weaponry.

So the Khmer Rouge money stood as an odd footnote to one of the greatest failed social experiments the world has ever seen.

I heard about the banknotes during a lecture given by a French academic a few years ago, where he showed a few notes he had found. “Occasionally,” he said, “some shows up at the Russian Market.” And I was gripped.

I quite like money, in an abstract sense, as well as the being-able-to-pay-for-stuff one. I used to have a one-hundred-trillion dollar Zimbabwean banknote taped up above my desk, to remind me of something or other about capitalism. So I developed an intense desire to get me some Khmer Rouge money. And last week, I finally managed it.

At a tiny, dim and dusty stall tucked away in the Russian Market, a stern-faced old lady pulled a thin file from beneath the counter, and there they were: a full set of all seven, slightly the worse for wear, but indisputably Chinese-made unissued Khmer Rouge money. We haggled for a while, and both came away happy (she was better than me though).

A local framer put them in a beautiful double-sided frame for less than the price of a taxi from Oxford Circus to Shepherd’s Bush, in 24 hours, and now I’m just waiting for my landlord, the saintly Mr Sokha, to come up and put a nail in the wall. Which may take a while.

He’s almost certain never to have seen the stuff, and I wonder about his attitude when he finds out what it is. He was a teenager when the Khmer Rouge took over, and has presumably seen horror beyond imagining. I hope he doesn’t mind about it. If he does, I’ll buy him a pint. With US dollars, which is what we use here now.

Two nights in Bangkok

November 17, 2012

I spent last weekend in Bangkok: years ago it might have been the beginning to some terribly sordid story, but thankfully it wasn’t this time.

As a mark of my incredible advancing years, I worked out that I’ve been going in and out of ’Bangers’ for the last 25 years. When I lived in Hong Kong, I used to pop over for weekends, the details of which would make your hair curl, and on which I am officially silent. It was, however, a fun town, and I made a lot of friends, although not necessarily ones I’d take home to meet the parents.

Over the last few years, I’ve become quite disenchanted with the city, and with Thailand in general. I think this may be more my problem than Thailand’s. Bangkok has grown beyond all imagining. Sleek glass-clad towers punctuate the skyline in every direction; when I first spent time there it was basically a collection of shacks [obviously not entirely true, but I have a journalistic licence].

It would be both churlish and arrogant to complain that Thailand has done brilliantly well in terms of making life better for its people. It’s not Monaco, but from certain angles, it could be. It might have lost the sort of soul that jaded old hacks like me like so much, but the people are clean and well-fed and generally happy, so more power to it.

I was staying, thanks to an almighty piece of blagging, at the Mandarin Oriental, which almost beggars belief in its cradling sumptuousness. (I had my own butler, for god’s sake. By the end I got bored of saying ’thank you so much’ as he removed my shoes to polish them yet again. I still said it, though.)

One morning, I took a long-tail boat up the Chao Praya River, through the vast canyons of luxury apartment buildings crowding the river’s edge. The ride was choppy and faintly unpleasant, and I decided that I still didn’t like Bangkok much anymore.

Then we turned off into the network of little canals that criss-cross the city, and gradually, Southeast Asia charmed me again. There were little wooden houses on stilts, draped in bougainvillea, straggling down to the waterline, old ladies paddling dugout canoes with baskets of produce, people fishing for their dinner, children splashing in the shallows. It was lovely, bucolic, simple.

Eventually, we turned back on to the main river, the skyscrapers piercing the low clouds, the din of commerce and economic progress loud in my ears. The hotel limo wafted me silently and coolly to the airport at warp speed, along the elevated freeways next to the monorail tracks, and an hour or so later I was back in Phnom Penh.

Installed in a rattling tuk-tuk, I couldn’t help but reflect on the differences between the two cities. It was stiflingly hot and dusty, with thick traffic fumes, and the tuk-tuk’s elderly engine whined deafeningly. Half-naked children played in the dirt at the edge of the road, while old men wobbled by on even older bicycles laden with mountains of aluminium saucepans and cardboard egg boxes.

We stopped at some lights. Next to us was another tuk-tuk, filled with bananas, maybe 5,000 of those tiny thumb-sized ones, threatening to overtop the carriage. The banana driver saw me looking at his load, and broke into a huge smile. Why, I don’t know. But of course I smiled back. It was good to be home.


November 11, 2012

I was at a drinks party the other day for a bunch of architects, hosted by the French embassy, and was lurking near the bar in an effort not to have to talk to any French people, when I saw someone I recognized. Unfortunately, I couldn’t place him, my memory being
(according to Blossom) “selective.”

He was a young Khmer guy whom I’d definitely seen around. I decided that he probably worked for an architectural firm. We smiled and exchanged pleasantries, and I continued lurking.

The guy was also fairly attached to the buffet-centric location, and seemed to be giving himself a
pretty free hand with the canapés. In fact, I got the impression that he’d missed lunch and breakfast, and was redressing this with the wilted sandwiches and cocktail sausages. But I thought no more of it.

As I was leaving, an hour or so later, the guy was standing outside on the pavement. “Hey,” he said. “You want a lift?” I shook my head, as I lived less than two hundred yards away, but impressed that he had a car. “No, it’s free,” he said, climbing onto the driving seat of a tuk-tuk. And then I realised where I knew him from: he was one of the gang of tuk-tuk drivers who live on the pavement outside my flat, and he’d driven me to work on numerous occasions. He waved cheerfully, and pulled into the traffic, full of French finger-food. I laughed.

I was reminded of this, and about people being where they shouldn’t be, after reading a story about a Cambodian tycoon’s son who has just been arrested for attempted murder, after trying to run over a man “who had spoken rudely to him.” But not on the street, but inside a police compound he had chased him into in his car.

The little shit, called Khy Dana, who had just been released from jail for some other undisclosed offence, had felt he was within his rights to pursue some poor moped-riding geezer through the streets in a high-speed chase, and to try to mow him down in his Landcruiser in front of dozens of Cambodia’s Finest. Apparently he was quite irritated at being arrested.

The sense of entitlement of some of the scions of the rich in this part of the world can be quite frightening. There are a bunch of clubs in Phnom Penh that are avoided by many seasoned westerners, as the offspring of the Cambodian kleptocracy have armed bodyguards who are more than willing to shoot people when ordered to do so, and these rich, charmless and snotty over-privileged tossers often like to provoke people in the name of fun.

In Bangkok a few months ago, the 27-year-old heir to the Red Bull fortune was accused of running over a police officer on his way home from a club, in his Ferrari. The officer’s body was dragged some distance under the car: the kid was caught because the police followed the trail of blood and engine oil back to the family mansion.

Initially he blamed the family gardener, but eventually confessed, and reportedly admitted murder, speeding, drunken driving, and cocaine use. No date has been set for a trial. His parents, worth $4.5 billion, must be so proud.

Yet I remember a story from The Hamptons a few years ago, where a deeply unattractive but awesomely well-connected PR specialst called Lizzie Grubman drunkenly, but precisely and deliberately, drove her Merc into a queue of people outside a club she wanted to get in to, hospitalising 16 of them. She served 37 days in prison for that. I prefer, I think, entitlement only to go as far as a few sandwiches.

The big five-oh

November 6, 2012

For anyone who hasn’t been following this blog sequentially, you may have missed the fact that I’ve been promoted, job-wise, in the world of work. Consequent upon this has come an astonishing amount of extra work, which I directly blame for my failure to write very much here.

Instead of having a nice and interesting time, and following it up with hours of gentle reflection, I’m currently spending most of my waking hours dealing with vacation requests from my staff and deploying people to go to stupid press conferences about shit that I don’t care about.

This is pretty much as I feared. And is why I have announced to the board that I’d like to step down as soon as is feasible. (Just so you don’t think I’ve been fired, if and when the news ever trickles out.) Business news, and the avoidance of it, is the reason I moved here in the first place.

As Dr Johnson so famously said, “no one but a block head ever wrote except for money” [don’t bother telling me how wrong I’ve got that quote], and I utterly believe in that. This blog has,oddly enough, brought me several writing gigs, for which I’m profoundly grateful.

So this blog post is number 50: WordPress is full of exhortational statistics and encouraging quotes to keep you at it. Oddly enough, though, it doesn’t keep a running total of words written. I estimate I’ve now written about 30,000 words here, which is both ’meh’ and far too much.

I’m a bit conflicted about this whole blogging thing: I’m not a big self publicist, and don’t really like drawing attention to myself. When I started, I saw this as just being easier than writing postcards to keep anyone who might care in the loop.

But, as it turns out, I quite enjoy the process. It forces me to crystallise my thoughts in a systematic manner, and to bring some semblance of order to the terrible chaos that is my mind. I enjoy trying to express myself clearly. I like writing; it’s refreshing and clarifying and thoughtful.

But it is also hugely self-referential and egotistical, and that makes me uncomfortable. I loathe reading whatever I’ve written, because I can see how badly I’ve done it.

At one point, soon after I got to Phnom Penh, I was musing gently on blogging as I walked down a side street, thinking about how life becomes grist to the blogger’s mill. Nailed to the side of a shop was an advertisement for some brand of Cambodian biscuits, and I found myself working on a clever sentence about biscuits.

Then it struck me. To be honest, even I’m not really even interested in what I think about biscuits. Good god, how dull would that be? I’m not interested in what anyone thinks about biscuits, whether you’re Salma Hayek or Jimmy Page or John Updike. (Actually, I’d listen to Updike on biscuits. But no one else.)

But, if the folks, my friends back home, might want to know about life in Phnom Penh, then perhaps I have a duty to set down my thoughts. But not about sodding biscuits.

The WordPress blog architecture offers an easy poll option, where reads can vote on any subject I ask. I have considered trying out the software and asking if I should continue writing this egotistical nonsense. I think I prefer not to know. So you’re stuck with it.

(I have also considered using the WordPress poll thang to see if people think Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solo on Red House is better than Eric Clapton’s on Crossroads. That’s the level I operate best at.)