April 18, 2013

I was going to write about how this week in recent history isn’t a particularly good one, containing as it does the Khmer Rouge winning the Cambodian civil war in 1975, the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut 1983, the end of the siege of Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing, the birth of Adolf Hitler, the Columbine Massacre, and finally me breaking my leg like a Kit-Kat last year. But after the Boston Marathon, I thought that maybe I wouldn’t. Except to note that every time I see a headline with ‘Boston Terror’ in it, I read it as ‘Boston Terrier’, which is a little surreal.

Instead, I thought I’d write about pangolins. I have a big thing for pangolins. It all started when I was a small child, taking a car journey with the family. We were discussing animals, and I mentioned that I’d like a pangolin. My parents and brothers hooted with laughter, thinking that I’d made the animal up, and there was no such thing as a scaly anteater. However, I knew better, as I’d read about them a few days earlier in an encyclopaedia, and I was eventually able to prove their existence, although I don’t think anyone apologised. Not enough, anyway.


Despite holding the pangolin in great affection ever since, I’ve never actually seen one. There were some in remote parts of Hong Kong, and a friend claimed to have a number on his tea plantation in Sri Lanka, but I’ve never actually managed to see one in the flesh. But that’s OK – as long as they’re out there, that’s enough to make me happy.

World News - Dec. 21, 2012

But I was horrified to read this week that a Chinese boat that crashed into a protected coral reef in the Philippines was hiding the remains of a second environmental disaster in its hold: hundreds of dead pangolins. A coastguard spokesman said about 400 boxes, totalling over 10 tonnes of frozen pangolins, were discovered. I make that about 750 pangolins.

The Philippine pangolin haul is one of the largest on record. In 2010, 7.8 tonnes of frozen pangolin and 1.8 tonnes of scales were seized from a fishing vessel by customs officers in Guangdong, while a series of customs seizures in Vietnam in 2008 turned up 23 tonnes of frozen pangolins in a week.

All trade in the four Asian species of pangolin has been illegal since 2002, but the Chinese prize the meat as a delicacy, and its scales are believed to benefit breast-feeding mothers. This means the creatures have been virtually wiped out in China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

I’d been hoping to see pangolins in Cambodia, but there are hardly any left. During the dry season, which is coming to an end right now, pangolins tend to stay close to water sources, which helps hunters identify areas where the animals are likely to be. Although hunting methods vary, nylon snares are the most commonly used technique for capturing the pangolin in Cambodia, along with dogs.


However, turning to the internet, I’ve discovered that there is not just one, but two pangolin rehabilitation centres in the country.  Which is a good thing, I suppose. I wonder if striving to make the country a bit richer overall might stop people killing pangolins, but I guess if people want to try and save the pangolin, then good for them. I hope they’re not too late.


Ding dong, etc

April 9, 2013

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rides a tank in 1986

So Margaret Thatcher has finally died. As a child in Britain in the 1980s, I had, like almost everyone, fairly strong feelings about her, and what she did to the country. But this is a Cambodia-centric blog, so I won’t go on about her, except in relation to the situation here. And, it has to be said, she didn’t cover herself in glory.

After the liberation of Cambodia by Vietnamese forces in 1979, the US, who were not best pleased at having had their asses handed to them during the “American War”, as they call it in Vietnam, continued to do everything they could to stymie the Viet Cong. And this included continuing to support Pol Pot’s dementedly murderous Khmer Rouge. This is despite them having killed a third of the innocent population of Cambodia.

Thatcher’s stance was clear – Britain did not recognise the new communist Vietnamese government in Cambodia. So between 1985 and 1989, Britain’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) ran a series of training camps for Khmer Rouge allies in Thailand close to the Cambodian border and created a ‘sabotage battalion’ of 250 experts in explosives and ambushes. Intelligence experts in Singapore also ran training courses.

Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that the British training for the members of the ‘coalition’ had been going on “at secret bases in Thailand for more than four years”.

The instructors were from the SAS, “all serving military personnel, all veterans of the Falklands conflict, led by a captain”.

The Cambodian training became an exclusively British operation after 1986.

“If Congress had found out that Americans were mixed up in clandestine training in Indochina, let alone with Pol Pot,” a Ministry of Defense source told Simon O’Dwyer-Russell of the Sunday Telegraph, “the balloon would have gone right up. It was one of those classic Thatcher-Reagan arrangements. It was put to her that the SAS should take over the Cambodia show, and she agreed.”

In 1991, journalist John Pilger interviewed a member of ‘R’ Squadron of the SAS, who had served on the border. “We trained the KR in a lot of technical stuff – a lot about mines,” he told him.

“We used mines that came originally from Royal Ordnance in Britain, which we got by way of Egypt with marking changed … we even gave them psychological training. At first, they wanted to go into the villages and just chop people up. We told them how to go easy.”

A report by Asia Watch filled in some details: the SAS had taught “the use of improvised explosive devices, booby traps and the manufacture and use of time-delay devices”.

The author of the report, Rae McGrath (who shared a joint Nobel Peace Prize for the campaign on landmines), wrote in the Guardian that “the SAS training was a criminally irresponsible and cynical policy”.

The former SAS soldier Chris Ryan, now a best-selling author, lamented that “when John Pilger, the foreign correspondent, discovered we were training the Khmer Rouge in the Far East [we] were sent home and I had to return the £10,000 we’d been given for food and accommodation”.

It is fashionable in many circles to loathe John Pilger, but not many Cambodians do. As he put it: “Henry Kissinger, whose bombing opened the door to the nightmare of Year Zero, is still at large. Cambodians remain desperately poor, dependent on an often seedy tourism and sweated labour.  For me, their resilience remains almost magical. In the years that followed their liberation, I never saw as many weddings or received as many wedding invitations. They became symbols of life and hope. And yet, only in Cambodia would a child ask an adult, as a twelve-year-old asked me, with fear crossing his face: ‘Are you a friend? Please say.’”

The eyes have it

April 2, 2013

Just before Christmas, Blossom came back from a day spent working out at the school at Chbar Chros, out in the provinces, which is funded and run by the awesome charity CamKids. She mentioned that she’d seen a 14-year-old kid there who was almost totally blind – he had to hold a book parallel to his right ear to read it, and yet he was helping other kids with their reading.

Apparently he had been able to see fine until he was four or five, when his mother said his hair got too long and got in his eyes, and after that his sight got worse, until he ended up with only something like 5 percent of his sight.

Koung Vith

Koung Vith

“Well,” I told Blossom, “We should get someone to take a look at him. It sounds like it might be curable.” So we discussed it for a bit, and Blossom made some phone calls. And to cut a long story a bit shorter, last week he had his second and final operation, and now has 95 percent sight in both eyes.

It was, apparently, cataracts, which I’d thought it might be. And now they’re gone.

I tell this story not because it does me any credit, much as I’d love some, but simply to show how easy it is to make a difference. It’s not that no one cared about Koung Vith, but no one knew what to do, and his needs got a bit lost, and what with the school having grown from zero pupils to 219 in twelve months, people were a bit tied up. But with a little bit of shoving, he got the help and treatment he so badly needed, and instead of being a burden on his family and community, now he has a seriously improved chance of a decent life. Thanks must go to CamKids and One-2-One who did all the heavy lifting on this.

He said just after his last operation: “I can watch everything and won’t be shy of others like before.” That warms my heart.

Koung Vith last week

Koung Vith last week

All of the staff of CamKids are volunteers; no one makes any money off the charity. If you feel like bunging them anything to help any of the thousands of incredibly impoverished kids in Cambodia, please do.