From Russia with love

February 18, 2015

Following on from my last post, about uppity foreigners getting kicked out of Cambodia, there is a bunch of barangs who seem to be in no danger of getting expelled, and that’s the Russians who live in the grubby little coastal town of Sihanoukville. Quite why Sihanoukville attracts so many dubious Russians is beyond me, but the local authorities certainly don’t seem to discourage them.

A major feud, between two well-known Russian figures in Sihanoukville, began in late November last year, when another Russian, one Denis Valov, was jailed for killing a high school student while driving drunk. Valov reportedly worked for a locally based businessman and biologist called Nikolai Doroshenko.

Nikolai Doroshenko

Nikolai Doroshenko

Doroshenko reportedly took a phone call at the end of November from an unidentified Russian-speaking man, who wanted him to give Valov $1,000. Doroshenko sent his son Ostap to pick up the money: instead, he was badly beaten up by three Russian-looking men, and had to be airlifted to Thailand for treatment.

Ostap Doroshenko

Ostap Doroshenko

Ostap Doroshenko, despite being Russian, is a captain in the provincial Cambodian immigration police, and drives a Porsche. His father Nikolai runs a questionable restaurant and zoo in Sihanoukville, called Snake House. (I went there once, and ate a rather uncomfortable chicken Kiev on a glass-topped table with a large python underneath. It gets poor reviews on Tripadvisor, except from Russians.)

Nikolai Doroshenko has been embroiled in a dispute with a flamboyant Russian ex-billionaire called Sergei Polonsky. Forty-two-year-old property developer Polonsky, who was once one of the richest men in Russia, is wanted in Moscow on charges of embezzling $180 million. He is on Interpol’s Most Wanted list. Cambodia’s courts have repeatedly rejected requests for his extradition.

Sergei Polonsky

Sergei Polonsky

So the elder Doroshenko, and Polonsky, have been arguing for several years about the ownership of four islands near Sihanoukville, one of which Polonsky lives on, and where he conducts business seminars for backpackers when he’s not making his Cambodian workers jump off boats at knifepoint in the middle of the night.

Doroshenko has directly accused Polonsky of having his son beaten up; Polonsky responded by suing Doroshenko for $800,000. The case is proceeding at a glacial pace.

But the latest sighting of the Russian mafia in Sihanoukville occurred this weekend, when a group of Russian men demanded protection money from another Russian man who is the official tour operator for what is known as the KaZantip music festival, to be held on an island near Sihanoukville for 10 days, starting this week.

When he refused, they attacked him with guns and knives, he said. “They said that they know where I live, where my wife lives, they know about my children, and then they said that even the president of KaZantip will pay them, so why am I not paying them?” he said. He added that KaZantip organisers had been asked to pay the group $45,000 but refused, according to the Cambodia Daily.

He identified the leader of the group that attacked him as an employee of Nikolai Doroshenko. “The first one who start to shoot, he works for Mr. Doroshenko … because I saw him many times and he presented himself as chief of security for Mr. Doroshenko,” he said. Two Russians have been arrested, and the police also confiscated three air-powered guns made to look like real pistols, three Tasers, knives and steel pipes.

KaZantip Electronica Festival

KaZantip Electronica Festival

The KaZantip festival, usually held in Ukraine, is ‘notoriously debauched’, and the government has been considering banning it. For some reason, though, they have finally decided to allow it, perhaps because of the estimated 100,000 likely attendees. Or perhaps they just like Russian ravers. Who knows? But what we do know is that gangs of armed Russians and international fugitives are wreaking havoc in a sleepy coastal town, while environmental activists who want to conserve Cambodia are getting booted out of the country. Confusing, eh?



Dammed if you don’t

February 15, 2015

Monks areng

As someone who has been threatened with deportation from Cambodia for speaking out about the preservation of the country’s resources, I feel very strongly about a story that has popped up in recent days.

Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng has ordered the authorities not to renew the visa of a 34-year-old Spanish environmental activist called Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, which expires next week.

Gonzalez-Davidson works for an NGO called Mother Nature. I’ve never met him, but he seems a thoroughly balanced, sane and committed man. He has been in the country since 2002, and speaks fluent Khmer.

His NGO is trying to stop the Cambodian authorities building a hydroelectric dam in the Areng Valley in the Cardamom Mountains in the southwest of the country.

The Areng Valley, in Koh Kong province, is in the country’s last pristine natural forest. The valley is home to some 1,300 members of the ethnic Chong community, who have lived in the area for centuries. Besides their livelihoods, the Chong would lose their ancestral spirit forests and burial grounds if the area is flooded

The Areng Valley also contains the habitats of at least 30 rare and endangered animal and fish species, including the Siamese crocodile, of which there are thought to be fewer than 300 in Cambodia.

On the other hand, the hydropower project would supply some 108 MW of power. It is to be built and operated by a notably wonderful Chinese firm called Sinhydro.

“The population would be forcibly displaced to a place which, judging by the standard relocation sites we have seen in this country so far, would be equal to abject poverty and total squalor. No water, no fertile land, no access to markets, without access to traditional sources of medicine, food, construction materials,” Gonzalez-Davidson said recently.

He also dismissed Hun Sen’s promise of jobs for the families if the project went ahead. “One only has to take a visit to any of the under-construction dams in Cambodia to see that most of the jobs actually go to outsiders such as migrants from other parts of the country and hundreds of Chinese nationals … not to the population living nearby.”

But it looks as if Gonzalez-Davidson is going to be removed from the fight. Sok Phal, the director-general of immigration, said that the decision not to renew the Spaniard’s visa was made after local authorities in Koh Kong lodged a complaint about his activities.

When asked if it was because of his environmental activism, Sok replied, “Don’t ask me that. I can’t comment on it; I only do technical work.”

Koh Kong provincial governor Bun Leut said: “Alex made trouble with local authorities in Thma Bang district. He took the car of his NGO to block my deputy governor’s group who went to visit the villagers in the Areng area.” Which sounds pretty bad to me.

Ruling Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker Chheang Vun has been gunning for Gonzalez-Davidson for several months. “I am taking up measures with competent authorities to check whether that foreigner is permitted to operate in Cambodia, confront the authorities, and animate people to jostle with authorities.”

He went on: “Cambodia is too lax, it’s too easy for a foreigner to make an entire region socially unstable, and he excuses his actions by saying he is protecting the people like this or like that,” the National Assembly member said.

Gonzelez-Davidson said that there was “no doubt” that the decision to deny him visa renewal was related to his anti-dam activism. “They will have to deport me. I will throw as many eggs as I can at their face,” he said, vowing not to leave the country before his visa expires.

As award-winning Cambodian filmmaker Kalyanee Mam has said: “this is not an ‘anti’ Areng dam movement, but more a movement to protect Cambodia’s natural and spiritual heritage.”


Work permits

February 4, 2015

One of the great things about Cambodia, for a foreigner, is that it is very easy to come here, and live and work. Basically, you turn up at the airport, get a $30 business visa, and you’re all set. Within a month, you get somebody to extend your visa for 12 months for $300 or so, and repeat indefinitely. That’s why there are so many expats here, and more arriving every day, starting businesses and investing in this great little country.

But not any more. The government has decided that all foreigners here now need to have a work permit. This is causing a great deal of consternation amongst expats, as, with typical brilliance, the government doesn’t actually seem to have thought this through.

The basic, inalienable rule seems to be that if you’re here on a business visa, you need a work permit. So that’s practically everyone, except diplomats (probably). Volunteers with NGOs. Children of people working here. Retirees. Researchers. Freelancers.

The laws on work permits have been on the books since 1992, but it seems that the imminent implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of this year has pushed the government into enforcing cross-border rules to bring it into line with the rest of ASEAN. And the famously incorruptible tax department is relishing the chance to rake in more filthy lucre.

But even the government seems confused as to how it’s going to work. Asked about it, Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour seemed confused, and was forced to finally admit that he didn’t know: “I am not the head of every department,” he said.

The work permit laws say that securing a permit involves an application, photos, passport and visa copies, proof of insurance and a medical certificate issued by the Labour Ministry’s Health Department.

The health certificate has to be done by the Ministry of Labour, and has provoked a great deal of hilarity across the foreign community here. People have reported their height has been measured at six metres, their eye colour as ‘none,’ and the head of the medical department has admitted that blood tests are being conducted to detect syphilis. Which is odd.

So life may well become considerably more difficult here in the near future. Of course, you could pay off someone, which I’m sure many people plan to do. But not me, being an upright sort of chap. But living here without an employer is going to become increasingly tenuous. Watch this space.