Small-town blues

August 18, 2017

When I was a mere child, relatively, I spent a summer working on a cattle station in Far North Queensland in Australia, for reasons that escape me now. Suffice to say that it was both an eye-opener, and one of the most brutal and terrifying places I’ve ever been. When I get around to writing my autobiography, there’ll be a chapter on Escott Station, and it won’t be cheerful reading.
But one thing that has stayed with me is the feeling I got when I made it back to Brisbane. Now, Brisbane in the mid-1980s was not the dynamic, get-up-and-go cosmopolitan world city that it is today. Back then, it was Cow Town. But to a rube like me, freshly in from months in the sticks, it was a place of astonishingly urbane sophistication. I’d spent an age in a place with a single copper telephone wire, 1,000 miles from the nearest church or bar, with a population of 40. 
I remember clearly being astonished by escalators, car parks and restaurants. Traffic lights were a renewed revelation. Crowds were frightening. But obviously it all wore off pretty quickly, and cities became my natural home again.
But I’d thought that maybe the same thing would happen again over here in India. I’ve spent the last few days in Bombay, population 20 million, after living in Thiksey, Ladakh, population 2,500 for the last few months. So I was ready for some cognitive dissonance, with all of the world, good and bad, outside my hotel room. In Thiksey, there is a shop, but the man who runs it is not well, so it barely opens. In Bombay, you can get almost anything (except steak).
But no, being in Bombay was the same as being in Thiksey. Just another place. Small town; big city: same same. Shame really. Now I’m sorry I made you read all of that.

In other news, WAR! Indian and Chinese troops apparently clashed only a couple of hours drive from here just the other day. I got very excited about this, journalistically. Until I read the wire story, which said “Chinese troops threw stones at Indian soldiers near Pangong Lake…” Throwing stones? The two largest countries in the world, both armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, and they’re chucking stones at each other like schoolboys? Perhaps this’ll be followed up by a round of pigtail pulling, or some super-tense international ringing-the-doorbell-and-running-away. It’s certainly more charming than the current impasse on the Korean peninsula.
And I also laughed yesterday, Indian Independence Day, at a half-page ad on the front page of the Times of India, which read “Mahatma Gandhi believed in himself. He believed in you, and me, and India. In our skills and ability to match up to the best of standards worldwide. Jaquar salutes that spirit of Indianness. By adopting the highest quality standards in our products, Jaquar has become India’s most trusted bath fittings brand.” Bathos, that is. There isn’t much I can add to that.


Aussie rules?

February 24, 2014

A recent proposal from Australia to the Cambodia government has people here in Phnom Penh agog, as well as most Australians of even the slightest liberal viewpoint.

A proposal from the Australian Foreign Minister that Cambodia resettle refugees seeking asylum in Australia has been greeted with hilarity here.

Speaking to the press on Saturday, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong revealed that his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, had made the request in talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, a proposal that the government was taking “very seriously”, he said.

Now, it’s easy to mock the proposal: most economic migrants would find Cambodia’s nonexistent welfare system, health care and education a bit of a black mark. An average daily wage of $1 is probably not what they were looking for when they got on the boats to go to Oz.

But genuine political refugees are unlikely to be particularly safe here. In 2009, Cambodia sent 20 Uighur refugees back to China after they were smuggled into the country by a Christian group. The 20 Uighurs said they were fleeing persecution after a crackdown that followed riots in western China.

The deportation, in the face of protests by the United States, the United Nations and human rights groups, came two days before China signed 14 trade deals with Cambodia, worth approximately $1.2 billion.

Before being deported, several of the asylum seekers told the office of the UNHCR that they feared long jail terms or even the death penalty. At least two of them have since been sentenced to life in China’s lovely prison system. Information on the others is unavailable.

Sarah Hanson-Young, an Australian Greens party senator and immigration spokeswoman says “Sending refugees to Cambodia is neither a sustainable or reasonable response to the fact that people seek safety from war and terror by coming to Australia.”

Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak told a local paper that Cambodia had a “horrible” refugee rights record. “We don’t have the financial capacity but we also don’t have the political will [for] refugees who need protection, especially when most refugees are of a political nature,” he said.

Meanwhile, people have been asking me about the progress of Harley the puppy. Well, firstly, we’ve decided he has oppositional defiant disorder, which is described as “an ongoing pattern of anger-guided disobedience, hostility, and defiant behaviour toward authority figures that goes beyond the bounds of normal puppy behaviour.” Yep, that’s Harley.

He’s also become enormous. Here is a picture of him considering whether to eat an entire, real, horse.  Honestly.


Harley contemplating his horse d’oevres.

And here is a picture of him trying to stop me taking his picture.


So Harley is fine, but an enormous pain in the arse.

But we love him immoderately.

Oh dear. And it was all going so well. Cambodia has been convulsed with delight over its chairmanship this year of the 10-nation Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). International exposure and legitimacy for the kingdom!

But sadly, it has got the exposure, but not the legitimacy. In fact, it has ended up looking distinctly small-time, a lickspittle satellite of the political bruiser to the north: China.

To put it bluntly, Cambodia is China’s bitch. China’s direct investment in Cambodia was $1.2 billion in 2011, almost 10 times that of the US, according to the government.

And what China really, really wants is most of the South China Sea, including bits that are only a few miles from the shores of ASEAN states like the Philippines and Vietnam. Disputes over the territory, which may well be bloated with oil, have been simmering for years. ASEAN wants to present a united front against China’s territorial claims; China wants to split the grouping. And $1.2 billion a year buys you a lot of splitting.

So ASEAN foreign ministers met last week in Phnom Penh, with the South China Sea one of the most pressing issues. And Cambodia, predictably, buckled to Chinese pressure and tried to keep the matter off the agenda.

At one point, when Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario began to raise the issue, his microphone went dead. Just a  ‘technical glitch’, said Cambodia, to widespread disbelief.  At another point, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan was reportedly cut off in mid-address by Hor Namhong, Cambodia’s foreign minister, as he tried to bring up the topic. For the first time in ASEAN’s 45-year history, the bloc failed to come up with a closing statement, which, for ASEAN, is practically unthinkable.

Reuters quoted a diplomat as saying “It was one of the most heated meetings in the history of ASEAN,” while another described Cambodia, as “the worst chair.”

This actually matters a great deal. Last month Beijing said it had begun “combat-ready” patrols around waters claimed by Vietnam. These people are not messing around. Conflict could happen at any time. And poor, stupid, greedy Cambodia has been made to look shockingly inept at the same time.

Perhaps if some of China’s money was washing around the impoverished countryside, helping to make Cambodians’ lives better, then that would be one thing. But, somehow, it is not. There are a lot of Lexuses on the streets of Phnom Penh though. Armani is believed to be opening a shop here soon. But taxi drivers only make $4 a day and children are dropping dead of easily preventable diseases. Some people have a lot to answer for.