Scales falling

December 28, 2016

So, I’m back in Phnom Penh, for the time being. In the last couple of months I’ve been in the UK (surprisingly relaxed, I thought) the USA (surprisingly busy writing the longest suicide note in history with a single pen stroke) and India (surprisingly confident and happy and increasingly wealthy).

One of my problems, I’ve decided, is that I’m incurably optimistic. When I first moved to Cambodia, I worked with a man who turned out to be amongst the very stupidest people I’ve worked with. I mean fantastically, breathtakingly stupid. But for too long I gave him the benefit of the doubt. “Surely no one can be that stupid,” I thought optimistically to myself, as I watched him try to arrange prostitutes for his best friend, a racist from the Deep South of the USA whom he had never actually met. “People have got him wrong,” I thought, as I listened to him explain how he would deliberately not use sources for articles he typed for the newspaper. “He’s bluffing,” I’d think, as I watched him take bribes from restaurants in return for articles in the newspaper.

I finally came to my senses when he subbed a piece of wire copy, and mistook the name of the French president, Francois Hollande, for a reference to the country of Holland. The piece therefore started “The French President Francois the Netherlands …” and continued for 800 words substituting ‘the Netherlands’ for ‘Hollande’ in practically every paragraph. The scales finally having fallen from my eyes, I had him fired shortly afterwards, and the last I heard he was trying to flog newspaper ads in Rangoon and smoking too much crystal meth. So, as I say, I have a history of cutting people too much slack.

And, on reflection, I think I’ve done much the same with Cambodia.

I arrived here all starry-eyed, seduced by the heat and the fruit and the history and intoxicated by the music. But since I’ve been here, all that has fallen away, and now I see the country differently. I see the horrific pollution, and how no one cares in the slightest about improving things. I’ve seen the awful crushing poverty. I’ve seen the crappy roads, the abysmal infrastructure, the disease, the acceptance of terrible educational standards.

But most of all I’ve seen the grinding corruption, and the concomitant economic inequality. The Rolls Royce showrooms in a city full of people living on a dollar a day. The vast gated mansions occupied by minor customs officials, the army officers who own huge tracts of land, the scions of government officials who carry automatic weapons in nightclubs and will happily use them.

Recently there has been a minor furore here, after it emerged that Singapore said it has imported $752 million of sand from Cambodia, but Cambodia’s records showed it had only exported $5 million-worth. What happened to the other $747 million, one wonders?

Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, the director of an environmental group that has often campaigned against illegal dredging, said: “The companies, which in reality are no more than criminal syndicates working hand in hand with powerful government officials, declare a tiny portion of the actual sand exports. This allows them to make vast amounts of profits, which of course must be shared with those in government who provide ‘protection services’ to them.”

Ministry of Commerce spokeswoman Soeng Sophary said it was unfair to hold Cambodia to the standards of more developed countries. She neglected to explain why. I probably could, but instead I’m going to move somewhere else. Nobody here needs my help to fuck this place up any more than it already is. I can see that now. Finally.

 

 

 

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