Hiding in plain sight

June 26, 2013

Ah, justice in Cambodia, why are you so elusive?

I wrote last year about Chhouk Bandith, the former governor of Bavet town in southeast Cambodia, who had not been convicted of shooting three garment workers who were protesting about their working conditions. Witnesses saw him deliberately fire into a crowd, hitting the three women, before driving away.

In December the charges against him were dropped, but there was a huge outcry, and the appeals court reinstated them. And yesterday he was convicted of “unintentional wounding” and sentenced to 18 months in prison. He was also fined $9,500, to be distributed among the three women. However, he hasn’t paid the fine; nor is he serving his sentence. Because he’s run away, and hasn’t been seen for months.

I mean, where do you start? “Unintentional wounding”? Driving up to a crowd, pulling out a gun and firing it sounds fairly intentional to me. And 18 months? Yorm Bopha got three years for inciting violence, and she’s innocent. It’s enough to drive you mad if you think about it too much.

In other news, scientists have just discovered a new species of bird in Cambodia. Living in central Phnom Penh.

With a distinctive orange-red coloured tuft of feathers on its head, the remarkable discovery of the Cambodian tailorbird, or orthotomus chaktomuk, has astounded conservationists.

The Cambodian tailorbird

The Cambodian tailorbird


“The modern discovery of an undescribed bird species within the limits of a large populous city … is extraordinary,” Simon Mahood of the Wildlife Conversation Society told AFP. “It’s very surprising,” he added.

I have to say that I’ve never seen one. But I’ll be looking out for them.

But not for the next couple of weeks, as I’m going back to the UK for a spell. So I apologise if things get a bit quiet here. But, unlike Chhouk Bandith, I promise I’ll be back.




Welcome to the gutter

June 19, 2013

So, election season is upon us once more in Cambodia. But this year seems of a rather different tenor to previous, post-UNTAC elections. For a start, there have been no vicious political killings (although that could obviously change).

For instance, in June 1998, in the run-up to that year’s elections, the body of a political activist called Thong Sophal was found in a ditch: his fingers and one ear were missing and the flesh on his legs had been removed with a knife, before he was killed by a heavy blow to the skull. Nonetheless, the police decided his death was suicide. It was the fourth death of an opposition political activist that month.

This year’s elections have only been marked by unverified rumours against members of the opposition. But they seem to be having an effect.

The acting president of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, Kem Sokha, was accused the other day of referring to the infamous S-21 torture centre as a Vietnamese fabrication. He says the quote was taken totally out of context, and was made more than a year ago. But, lo and behold, thousands rallied in the streets against Kem Sokha. Although it turns out Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP paid for transport and produced the banners the protestors were waving.

Following this, the CPP’s permanent committee in the country’s National Assembly stripped all 28 opposition members of their parliamentary status, for merging their parties. Because the expulsion took place within six months of the elections, the seats left empty were effectively terminated until after the election.

Then the remaining 86 members of the assembly were called into an extraordinary session to pass new legislation, outlawing the denial of crimes committed under the KR regime, which was drafted and adopted within a mere two weeks of a direct call by Hun Sen for the new law. Oddly, the assembly doesn’t usually work that fast. (A not terrifically effective anti-corruption law was in the works for 16 years.)

So the new law curtails freedom of speech, and was never debated. Good stuff.

But Kem Sokha’s woes weren’t over yet. A few days later, a woman turned up at a political rally claiming to be Sokha’s estranged mistress, demanding money for child support for the couple’s two children. She also claimed that Sokha’s bodyguards had beaten up her mother. Sokha, on the other hand, claims he had never seen the woman before in his life.

And finally (and there’s still more than a month until the elections) Hun Sen told a crowd of thousands that in 2011 police informed him of a sexual encounter Sokha had recently had with a 15-year-old girl.

Hun Sen told the crowd: “That day, I got an urgent phone call to immediately arrest a lawmaker and president of an opposition party. He was taking a 15-year-old girl and had already paid $500 and was taking her to the Micasa Hotel near the riverside. I did not authorize his arrest. If I had, he might accuse us of intervening in his personal life,” the prime minister said, without explaining quite why he had allowed the alleged crime to continue without intervening.

“There is a political ploy of asking a politician to respond to a baseless rumour – and of course responding to a baseless rumour gives credence to the possibility of the rumour,” Justin di Lollo, an Australian political consultant, told the Phnom Penh Post. “In Cambodian politics, if this has never happened before, it could be a sign of desperation, or the stakes are higher. In that sense, it could be seen as a maturing of Cambodian politics. And in that case, welcome to the gutter.”

Playing in traffic

June 14, 2013

When I first arrived here in Phnom Penh, I was quite impressed with the way the traffic flowed: with basically no rules of the road, traffic was slow and relatively safe. I compared it to the Dutch town where they removed all the traffic lights, bus lanes and white lines, and found it was far safer.

But now I think I was wrong. I think Cambodian drivers are astonishingly awful, selfish and inconsiderate; it’s only because they mainly drive little mopeds that they don’t die in greater numbers.

Some 70 percent of Cambodian drivers simply buy their licenses. Most regard lane markers and traffic lights as nothing more than suggestions. They drive down the pavements, they drive on the wrong side of the road, they drive drunk. According to a study last year, only 30 percent of Cambodian drivers even understand the concept of speed limits.

Nearly 2,000 Cambodians died on the roads last year, the second highest cause of death in the country. And accidents cost the economy $310 million per year, the transportation minister said recently.

I was thinking about this after reading the startling news that 23-year-old Keam Piseth Narita is to be released from prison in a few weeks. In March she was sentenced to three years in prison after driving into and killing three children and injuring 11, and then fleeing the scene. That was March this year. There is video of the aftermath on YouTube, which I was going to link to, but have decided that no one needs to look at dead and mangled children.

“Based on the hearing and the accused person’s confession, the court has found that Keam Piseth Narita has committed the offence as accused,” presiding judge Kor Vandy said. “But because she had meningitis and was on medication that made her drowsy – according to the official letter from the doctors – the court decided to sentence her to three years in prison, but the real implementation of her punishment will only be three months and 15 days. The rest of the sentence was suspended, and a fine of six million riel will be put into the state’s budget.”

Genius medical student

Genius medical student


So she killed two eight-year-olds and a 12-year-old, and only served three-and-a-half months, and was fined $1,500? Only in Cambodia…

But actually, it cost her, and her family, more than that. According to the judge, Narita’s father, the deputy director of Kandal Provincial Hospital – had paid compensation to all the families of the victims, all of whom had since withdrawn their complaints. Reports say $20,000 was handed over.

According to Community Legal Education Centre executive director Yeng Virak, the fact that the driver was even tried and sentenced marks a major improvement on how such cases are usually handled.

“To me, it’s quite, quite fair,” Yeng Virak said. “If she commits the same thing in the future, she should be severely sentenced.”

I get knocked down…

June 4, 2013

In one of my very first posts here, some 18 months ago, I mentioned that I’d found the house I wanted to live in, and that I aimed to buy it one day.

She should have been mine...

She should have been mine…




Phnom Penh’s heritage under threat


One of Phnom Penh’s most beautiful French colonial villas may be under threat of destruction, after its owners put it, and, more importantly, the land it stands on, up for sale.

The canary-yellow house sits on Street 178, across from the National Museum. Originally built as a royal villa between 1900 and 1910, it was the home of the famous No Problem Café during the UNTAC Mission in Cambodia between 1991 and 1994.

In recent years it has hosted art shows and has been used as the Cambodian offices of its owners, a French property fund which owns several pieces of land around the capital and on the coast.

The house and its land is on the market for $14 million, and comes with planning consent for a new seven-storey structure on the site.

However Etienne Chenevier, a director of owners City Star, denied that the group planned to knock down the villa. “I strongly deny it. Why would we want to knock down our own building? If you say we will, I will sue you.” [And he did. How did that work out for you, Etienne? Did you get your money’s worth? You worthless, cheap, aggressive huckster.]

But others disagree. “The old houses are disappearing” Anne Lemaistre, head of Unesco’s Cambodia office told the London Financial Times recently. “Over the past 10 years, at least 50 per cent along Norodom Avenue have disappeared. One remarkable house, which had become run down, was demolished during a holiday, when no one was around to notice. With land being more valuable than property, developers prefer to destroy these houses and build condominiums. Laws should be enacted that oblige owners to preserve heritage properties or, if they cannot afford to, to sell them to those who can.”

Dougald O’Reilly of Heritage Watch, agrees: “It is truly a shame that permission has been granted to destroy such a grand old structure, and, further that permission to construct a seven-storey building in its place has been given. I would venture this action will destroy the character of the neighbourhood.”

O’Reilly says he has been concerned about Phnom Penh’s heritage for many years, “as there has been a trend since the late 1990s to tear down old buildings to erect newer more profitable properties. Clearly one cannot stand in the way of development, but there is, I would argue, a responsibility on the part of the authorities to try to retain some of the city’s heritage narrative.”

Calls to the Ministry of Culture and the Mayor of Phnom Penh’s office were not returned.

Professor Michael Tomlan of the Historic Preservation Planning Department of Cornell University says other Asian countries have been more respectful of their colonial properties.

“Surveys of Bangkok and Saigon have done a considerable amount to raise the public awareness, and it has become commonplace to note the “French districts” in those cities, and similar French concession areas in Chinese cities.  In most of these instances, however, there is a functioning local historic property and district commission that assists the planning commission in these cases.  Cambodia is behind its regional peers, without a doubt. It should make an effort to catch up.”

He adds that “the more of these structures that are demolished, the more the city becomes an anonymous collection of boxes of varying types and sizes, often more dependent on automobiles and SUVs that clog the streets.”

Architect Geoffrey Pyle, who has worked extensively in Phnom Penh, agrees: “I think the historic buildings are, of course, valuable in heritage terms, and the best ones should be protected through the legal system.”

He goes on: “I would support any local initiatives to develop a system of protecting particular buildings, whilst seeking opportunities for funding or technical advice for owners. I believe there would be generally quite a lot of support amongst Cambodian society.”

Pyle says there were rumours that there “was a proposal to build a seven storey building next to the villa in question and the villa would be kept. That, in principle, could be a good solution, where the value of the land can be realised and can support conservation. It is nice to have gardens around old villas and in some cases that should be argued for, but one has to be practical too.”

Local property expert Sunny Soo agrees: “It is good to protect old historic buildings – they bring in tourists and so on, but obviously we’ve seen many of these buildings knocked down, in favour of further development. But I don’t see much hope for this one. It is just too small to last. And, really, we’re just talking about sentimental value. Very soon it’ll be forgotten.”

Source from Phnom Penh Post