‘Tis the season

December 18, 2014

It’s that wonderful time of year in Cambodia when the temperature drops below insanity-creating levels, and it feels like you live in a sensible city. Some website tells me it was only 28 degrees here today, which is, to be honest, a bargain. Last night, I slept under a sheet. This is something that is not possible for 50 weeks out of the year.

But, for anyone who has read this blog for a while, they’ll sadly recognise this as happening at precisely the same time as last year. Seasons: ho, hum.

But it is wonderful, to walk the awful dog while not sweating to death. That’s something we have to look forward to, even at six am, next April and May (and June and July).

I’ve just finished reading Sebastian Strangio’s Hun Sen’s Cambodia, and, despite him being a friend of mine, I’m happy to say that it is a wonderful book. If you want a brilliantly well-told account of why Cambodia is how it is, now, then you need to read Strangio’s book. This is the best book that’s been written on Cambodia in the last 15 years. I’ve toyed with the idea of a decent book on modern Cambodia: Strangio has beaten me to it.

And, finally, in what is a fairly random collection of thoughts, the big story in the country this week is the discovery that at least 106 people in Battambang have been infected with HIV, after being treated (stuck with needles) by an unlicensed doctor.

In a statement headlined “HIV cases in Battambang”, the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, Unicef, the Pasteur Institute in Cambodia and the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention say they are investigating “an outbreak.”

The “doctor” went on the run after the story broke, but, not being an important business figure, was quickly tracked down and arrested.

Blame is also being directed towards a system that enables people to get away with working as unlicensed doctors.

“From now on, I will stop believing in all doctors. They do not pay attention to the patients; they think about only themselves,” a local figure told a newspaper.

Early reports point to the reuse of needles as being the source of the infection.

This is especially unfair on the people who have contracted the disease: one of the few areas where Cambodia has done well is bringing down the AIDS transmission rate. Of course, it would be a lot lower if people stopped treating bar girls as sex toys, but this rash of case involves people aged between three years old and 82 years old.

Despite this, Prime Minister Hun Sen, quoted in a local newspaper, said he was “99 per cent” sure that the results are wrong. “Right now, 99 percent, I don’t believe its AIDS,” he said. “They might have a virus, but it’s not AIDS . . . Can an 80-year-old person get AIDS? And can young people who do not know anything get AIDS?”

That’s a good question.

Shooting pains

December 8, 2014

As Cambodia slips back into its usual state of torpor after the excitements of last year’s elections, local journalists are scratching around to find much to write about. At least until two weeks ago, when a local businessman was shot to death on the street, a shooting which has captivated the nation.

Businessman Ung Meng Cheu was shot six times outside a fruit shop in central Phnom Penh on November 22 and died at the scene. Security camera footage of the shooting was circulated widely, and can be seen below. However, if you don’t enjoy watching someone getting gunned down and actually dying, then I’d advise against it.

The police, moving unusually quickly, named another local tycoon called Thong Sarath as the man behind the shooting. As well has his business interests, Sarath is a deputy cabinet chief at the Ministry of Defence and one-time member of the government’s Brigade 70 military unit.

Countless allegations have been levelled against Brigade 70 since its inception, including claims of murder, fatal crackdowns and political arrests, which critics say were carried out with impunity. A 2007 report by environmental group Global Witness accused the unit of running a logging and contraband trafficking operation worth more than $2 million a year.

But Sarath has disappeared, with rumours saying that he’s fled to Vietnam. No one expects him to surface any time soon.

The police have arrested a number of his bodyguards, and charged them with the murder, after raiding a number of his houses.

In a bizarre press conference just hours before the raid, his mother, Keo Sary, defended her son from allegations of involvement in the killing.

Dripping with expensive jewellery, boasting about her family’s wealth and even at one point counting wads of banknotes, which she later handed out to journalists, Sary said her son had gone into hiding to escape arrest over a crime he did not commit.

But last night, both parents were remanded on charges of gun possession, and could face up to three years in jail.

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Before their remand, Sarath’s parents emerged from questioning to apologise to Phnom Penh’s police chief, whom they had threatened to have fired for investigating their son.

This story will run and run. Local journalists are delighted.