Sad Khmer Times

January 20, 2016

Despite Phnom Penh being, in anyone’s terms, a small town, it currently boasts three English-language newspapers. Three! That’s more than in Hong Kong, which has five times the population and rather more English language speakers. And rather more news, too.

Of course, none of Phnom Penh’s English newspapers sells very many copies: the Phnom Penh Post, the biggest and the best, shifts perhaps 5,000 copies a day, most of which seem to go to cafés and bars and the reception areas of larger companies. The Cambodia Daily looks like it’s printed on an A4 mimeograph machine, although it occasionally breaks a story, but generally lifts its content from proper broadsheet newspapers around the world. And then there’s the Khmer Times.

The Khmer Times is the creation of a Malaysian Indian called T. Mohan, and it’s a most eccentric thing. It started off very small, and only published once or twice a week. Over the last 18 months or so it has grown in size and confidence. It was originally edited and written by people with not a vast amount of journalistic experience (the deputy editor insisted on putting the letters PhD on her byline; the chief sub was a former car mechanic). But it now comes out five or six days a week, and has poached lots of half-way competent staff from the other papers.

I used to work there occasionally, doing extremely well-paid subbing shifts. I once edited the entire paper in a four-hour shift. But, like most people, I didn’t enjoy it much. And one of the reasons was Mohan’s copy.

Two or three times a week, Mohan would write articles for the paper, and, as the most senior sub there, I would have to edit them. As well as owning the Times, Mohan also owned a stack of economic land concessions (ELCs) in the south of Cambodia, as many wealthy people do. Basically, foreigners come in and buy huge chunks of the countryside, inserting a monoculture (rubber, sugar and so forth) on the land and sitting back and getting richer. Mohan, in his pieces, was often extremely voluble about the political situation in Cambodia, and how this affected his ELCs. So he would write 1,000-word pieces slamming the opposition. Or discussing root diseases in the cassava plant. Both of which were equally interesting to your average reader.

When faced with one of his anguished screeds, I would just roll up my sleeves and largely rewrite them so that they made a modicum of sense, grammatically, if not politically.

Which is why I’m delighted to see that none of the pieces I worked on have made it into ‘The Mohan Scandal,’ after it turned out that almost all of Mohan’s copy was directly lifted from other places: mainly Malaysian political bloggers, but also students, journalists, academics and even a priest. This has all been well covered by a local website which has mounds of evidence against Mohan. He seems to have just lifted entire columns and changed ‘Malaysia’ to ‘Cambodia,’ while swapping out the names of local politicians.

The website then looked at the Letters to the Editor, and discovered that not one single person named as having written in to the Khmer Times seems to exist in real life. Not one. Certainly, when I was there, I never saw the source of any letters. Most people assume Mohan wrote them.

Cue much hilarity around Phnom Penh. While no one knows who precisely is funding the Khmer Times, there have been dark whispers about government money behind Mohan. The man himself was forced to withdraw from writing for the paper, and they issued a sour and mealy-mouthed apology.

While this is funny, if you don’t work for the Khmer Times, it’s also sad. Oh, Cambodia. You couldn’t make it up. (Not if stealing it was easier.)


With thanks to