Friendship park

March 20, 2016

Most days, as well as walking Harley, the Jah Rastafardog, in the morning, I take him out in the late afternoon as well. I pick him up from his sister’s house, where he has been alternating between fighting and dozing all day, and we take a tuk-tuk to the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship Park, which is about halfway home. We get dropped off at the south end, walk up through the park, pick up the same tuk-tuk at the northern end, then get taken home to collapse from heatstroke.

In the centre of the park is a huge monument, obviously to commemorate Cambodian-Vietnamese friendship. Which is ironic, as the Vietnamese built it shortly after invading the country, in 1979. And Cambodia and Vietnam aren’t really friends at all.

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Around the monument is a large area paved with faux marble, which is considerably smoother than the paving in the rest of the park, or, in fact, anywhere else in Cambodia.

And its here, in recent months, that Cambodia’s skateboarders have begun to congregate late in the afternoon, during what is known here as ‘the golden hour’ (because the vast amounts of dust in the air make the sunset light a wonderfully warm gold) to take part in what they call the ‘Sunset Skate.’

It’s sweet to watch. Four years ago there was really very little youth culture in Phnom Penh apart from the insanely rich and spoiled kids racing each other on their Ducatis up and down the riverside. But now, as the country as a whole gets richer, more people have hobbies.

Of course, the majority of kids in Cambodia are still working in the rice fields or on sugar plantations, or in carwashes or at the dump. But there are a small number of people who, after school, can spend an hour or two socialising with their friends, flirting and skating and being young. There are some BMXs, and a few guitars, and everyone seems to be having a lovely time.

And, this being Asia, they are completely non-threatening. In the UK, if you came across a gang of 70 or 80 kids on the street, you’d put your head down and cross the road. Here, they’re entirely benign and unthreatening. And none of them smoke, or sniff glue. It’s as if they’re Singaporean clone children. And I mean that in a good way.

So Harley and I weave through the crowd, through the lengthening shadows, waving to the occasional friendly face, dodging the odd miscued skateboard, and for the second time in a day, I think to myself how different it is to Shepherd’s Bush Green.

And then I wonder how long it will be until the authorities ban it.

The lucky country?

March 15, 2016

I’m thinking of retraining, giving up my gilded life as a journalist, and becoming an Australian politician. Mainly because the barriers seem so inexpressibly low. Apparently you can be dumber than a box of rocks, and still get paid by the Australian taxpayer to make horrendous decisions on their behalf. I mean, I’m stupid, have awful table manners and irritate almost everyone I meet. But I’m still a better human being than most Australian politicians today.

If you want proof, just look at the much-vaunted A$55-million refugee deal between Australia and Cambodia, which saw a grand total of five  people sent to live in Cambodia, from the Pacific hellhole of Nauru, where they had been detained on their way to a better life. For A$55 million to the Cambodian government.

A few months ago, a Rohingya, from the most oppressed class in Burma, a country not famous for its even-handed treatment of minorities, decided to go back, as he was ’homesick.’ I have a great deal of difficulty in getting my head wrapped around how unhappy you’d have to be in the Kingdom of Wonder to voluntarily choose to relocate to the most prejudiced place on the planet. But he did.

And now, two Iranian refugees who were transferred to Cambodia have returned to Iran voluntarily. A spokesman for idiot Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton confirmed last week that the husband and wife had left Cambodia.

Australian Senator Sarah Hansen Young has called for the country’s auditor-general to investigate millions spent “to grease the wheels of a corrupt regime, so that the government can dump a handful of people in an impoverished country”.

Of the two refugees left in the country, one says he feels abandoned and fears he will die in Cambodia. “I feel unwell, lonely and sad,” Mohammed Rashid, a 26-year-old Rohingya Muslim, told Fairfax Media while lying on the floor of a decrepit house in a Phnom Penh suburb. “I fear that I will die here.”

Rashid said promises made by Australian officials remain unfulfilled, including offers of help setting up a restaurant, accommodation and an $8,000 cash payment. He sleeps alone in an International Organisation for Migration office, despite Australia paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to rent a luxury villa in a Phnom Penh suburb for three years.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said: “It was a classic Phnom Penh sting job on a donor: get the money upfront but don’t concede the operational control over the project – and then stall or obfuscate until you get the outcome you want, which in this case was only a handful of refugees.”

Peter Dutton’s spokesperson said in a statement: “The Government remains committed to supporting the Government of Cambodia to implement settlement arrangements in Cambodia and encourages refugees temporarily in Nauru to explore this settlement option.”

The Mighty Penh’s spokesperson says: “Peter Dutton is one of the stupidest men on the planet. How is it that Australians are satisfied by being represented by these losers? The mind boggles.”