Explosive arguments

January 27, 2014

Here’s a story that doesn’t seem to have been given much play by the world’s press, but is horrible. On Saturday night in a remote part of Kampong Thom Province, 11 people were killed in a grenade attack on a pre-wedding party.

Thirty-three people were injured in the attack, and police said they have arrested a 24-year-old suspect who had an argument with the groom a few days before the party. Both bride and groom were badly injured, but survived.

Details are sketchy; it is a remote part of Cambodia, but the governor of the province reportedly said that the suspect was in love with the bride and had a history of aggression toward the groom.

“Both men loved the bride and were jealous of each other,” the governor told a local newspaper, adding that commune police had previously detained the two men and “educated them to stop fighting each other.”

Another paper went on to report that guest Morn Cithy, 27, lost her father in the attack, while her mother, two sisters and two brothers were all injured.

“I was the lucky one in my family to not get injured, because at that time, I was just standing and laughing at my father dancing,” she told the paper.

Morn said she was unable to afford a funeral, and had to bury her father in the jungle, late on Sunday.

There’s not much to add to this, or to say. It’s tremendously sad that there are enough weapons still kicking around Cambodia to make this not especially unusual. And jealousy is, sadly, universal. I can’t help feeling that it might have been given more airtime had it happened somewhere else: 11 people is a lot. [Shakes head sadly]

Meanwhile, here in the capital, the simmering unrest continues. Yesterday a dozen people were hospitalised after hundreds of workers and opposition supporters took to the streets in defiance of a ban on protests.

Led by labour unions and rights groups, protesters had gathered to urge fresh wage talks for garment workers and demand the release of 23 people detained by police during the last crackdown, in early January, which saw five people shot dead. Rights activists say police, equipped with batons and electric prods, used force on protesters, who retaliated by throwing rocks at them.

And just today another half-dozen people were hospitalised after a peaceful rally was dispersed after more than 100 military police charged, “unloading volleys of smoke canisters and swinging batons to clear away stragglers.”

Security guards – the untrained, helmet-wearing men who have been used to violently enforce the ban on public assembly in recent weeks – also joined in, reportedly clubbing those, including journalists, who didn’t manage to get out of the way in time.

It’s a lovely country, but surprisingly violent at times. Land of contrasts, eh?


A kind of magic

January 21, 2014

The charity I occasionally help out, the wonderful CamKids, is constructing a new building out at the school it runs near Kampong Speu, a couple of hours outside Phnom Penh. And it needs to: the primary school, which has been open for nearly two years, now has 250 children registered. It is miles from anywhere, out in the paddy fields, with no electricity or running water, but the children are ecstatically happy, and so are the parents, who can foresee a better life for their kids, eventually.

The new building has a couple of classrooms, some storage space and various small offices, and basically doubles the size of the school. It is being paid for by an amazingly generous donation from an American who is funding the whole thing, in memory of his late mother. My role in the project is tiny: I have to go out to the school once a month, take photographs and write up a short report for the donor describing how the work is going.

So yesterday morning, shortly after dawn, I could be found on the back of a motorbike, haring across the Cambodian countryside. The weather was just warm enough for shirtsleeves (the driver was wearing a parka) and it was eerily beautiful.

If you spend too long in glossy, urban Phnom Penh, you forget how intensely rural Cambodia actually is: life goes on much as it has for generations, apart from the odd battery-powered TV and a few plastic buckets. All around me on the dirt roads were people subsistence farming: women wobbling on stately old bicycles to market, chickens hanging off racks on the back; men climbing coconut trees; women gathering lotus flowers; men driving scrawny cattle somewhere or other; people casting nets across ponds looking for the tiny fish that live there; the scent of woodsmoke and cow dung rising up through the still air. Everyone smiled at me, the deranged-looking barang grinning happily from my perch on the back of the motorbike, wreathed in feather-light dust. It was beyond magical.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to live there: I like decent espressos, good red wine and internet access. So it probably sounds a bit disingenuous and patronising for me to bleat on about the magic of the Cambodian countryside, where life is, for many people, nasty, brutish and short.

But my main thought as we negotiated the potholes and avoided overloaded oxcarts, was that it was a Monday morning, and I wasn’t on the Central Line, fighting my way to Canary Wharf. I have never been so glad of anything in my life.

The desolation of Harley

January 16, 2014

No curtain left untattered; no sandal left un-gnawed; no plant left un-denuded to standing puppy-height; no cushion left unchewed; no takeaway menu left unshredded; no cardboard box unmolested; no socks unholed; no doormat un-nibbled; no shirt left unripped; no table leg un-chomped; no picture frame unbitten; no trouser-leg unsullied; no rucksack untrashed; no electrical cable left un-nipped; no lampshade untasted; no newspaper unrippped and no bedsheets un-destroyed.

But isn’t he magnificent?


I kill when I wish! I am strong, strong, strong! My armour is like tenfold shields! My teeth like swords! My claws, spears! The shock of my tail, a thunderbolt! My wings, a hurricane! And my breath, death!

JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit

Striking out

January 3, 2014

Interesting times in Cambodia this New Year. And by interesting, I mean, not good.

Since Christmas Eve, a majority of the country’s garment workers have been on strike. Yesterday, an elite paratrooper regiment attacked strikers with metal pipes, knives, AK-47s, slingshots and batons outside a Korean-owned garment factory on the outskirts of the capital.

And today, the police shot and killed at least three strikers at another factory. There is a jittery mood in Phnom Penh, not helped by the country’s supine media not reporting much about the current events.

Garments are a huge source of income to Cambodia; some 600,000 people are thought to work for some 800 factories; most of them are young women from the countryside. The trade is worth some $5 billion to the country, or about 12 percent of GDP.

The issue, of course, is money. The striking workers currently get the minimum wage, of $80 dollars a month, and the opposition CNRP has vowed, if they win a rerun of last July’s disputed election, to raise this to $160. Of course, Hun Sen says there will be no new elections, but he is under a tremendous amount of pressure right now.

Whether increasing their pay is actually realistic, is unclear. With Bangladesh’s new minimum wage set at just $68, and Burma looming on the horizon, many doubt there’s room for such a drastic hike in wages. “I don’t think it’s deliverable, I think it’s a popular move that the opposition’s riding on,” says political analyst Ou Virak.

Garment factory owners are unlikely to want to double their wage bills, and would probably up sticks and decamp. That could lead to massive social and economic problems; most workers wouldn’t go back to the countryside. “If they stay in the city, there is the risk they may end up working in the indirect sex industry at restaurants or karaoke bars,” says Ou Virak.

Analysts say the situation is “precarious” and the government’s strategy was not to cave in, but to cling on and hope the protesting workers run out of money.

Of course, the CNRP is riding the wave of discontent, and has called off talks with the ruling CPP in protest at the violence. There are really no winners here, but, as ever, it is the very poorest who are getting shafted the hardest.