Sax machine

October 19, 2016

I’m currently keeping a file on my computer desktop, to which I add stories from the Cambodian press which strike me as being particularly telling. I call it Ongoing Cambodian Stupidity. Lest anyone think that I have it in for Cambodia, I could clearly compile evidence of stupidity from almost anywhere. Brexit; Donald Trump; the Great British Bake Off – there is seemingly no end to muddled minds. But here are some more gems of sensible thinking from the Kingdom of Wonder.

A senior Forestry Administration official was released without charge after drunkenly killing a motorist with his car and leading police on a high-speed chase in Siem Reap province, because he had no “intention to murder” the victim, a court official said.

While “extremely drunk,” Yan Sideth hit a village security guard on a motorcycle. Police chased him for 13 kilometres. Despite police suggesting charges of speeding, drunk driving, leaving the scene of an accident and reckless driving resulting in death, the chief prosecutor decided to release Yan without charge.

A prosecutor’s spokesman said that the victim had been at fault for driving in front of a speeding car. A spokesman for the Institute for Road Safety, said “It is always difficult to bring justice to victims when the provokers are powerful government officials or rich people,” he said.

Meanwhile Phnom Penh authorities said the chief monk of a pagoda was defrocked after being accused of “encouraging his disciples to drink, take drugs and fraternise with women.” The monk and four novices were defrocked after they were arrested for smoking crystal meth in the monastery. A spokesman said that “after the arrest of those monks, authorities found many empty beers hidden under the Buddha statue in the dining hall.”

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen recently sent a pair of direct messages to acting Cambodia National Rescue Party president Kem Sokha, the first of which threatened “bloodshed” if protests confronted his eldest son in Australia, according to members of the opposition.

According to sources, the premier then said the party should remember what happened when anti-government protesters confronted him in Paris last October – a reference to the vicious assault of two CNRP lawmakers outside the National Assembly by soldiers from the premier’s personal bodyguard unit.

A party spokesman would only say the party had received a “threat to our safety.” He added that the party wanted the situation to “cool down” and would focus on encouraging supporters to register to vote.

And finally, for now, both Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk and Thailand’s late and much-lamented King Bhumibol Adulyadej were fluent French and English speakers and “shared a deep appreciation for jazz, making names for themselves as saxophonists.”

Despite being hugely important figures in the histories of their respective countries, the two were not particularly close. Apparently Bhumibol came to consider his Cambodian counterpart “a nuisance, in part because in 1954 Sihanouk apparently borrowed a gold-plated saxophone of the king’s and didn’t return it.”



Cambodia redux

September 7, 2016

As some of you may know, I’m not currently in the Kingdom of Wonder, and am working on finding somewhere else equally exotic to live. But, of course, I try and keep up with what’s going on back on the ‘Bodge. Somehow, from many thousands of miles away, some of what we take for granted in Cambodia seems even stupider and more unlikely. So here is an ongoing collection of things that have made me question how close Cambodia is to being a halfway functioning society, and not just a dim-witted semi-civilised satrapy dedicated to fleecing the west and eating its own entrails properly grown up.

Spanish activist and researcher Marga Bujosa Segado was recently deported from Cambodia for attending a protest, but before her deportation she was allegedly beaten by the police.

Police Major General Uk Heisela told a local newspaper that police officers were concerned when she started taking photos of them. “We were worried she might be a sorcerer and then take photos to do black magic on our stomachs,” he said. “Everyone knows the Spanish practice magic,” he said. “They can fly on brooms.”

I’ll say it again: “Police Major General.”

Meanwhile the Ministry of Defence has released a statement attacking the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party for accusing the military of intimidation by running helicopter, boat and troop training exercises just outside the CNRP’s headquarters, where opposition leader Kem Sokha has been holed up for months trying to avoid charges of the awful crime of having an affair.

As a local newspaper put it, “several helicopters swooped repeatedly over the CNRP offices. At the same time, boats carrying soldiers moored close to the property, while convoys of masked soldiers armed with assault weapons drove past.”

It continues: “When the Post arrived in the early evening, 10 boats were still visible, including two moored close to the CNRP property. They drove away when approached by reporters.”

The military statement read, in part: “The spokesman would like to reject the accusation from those politicians and strongly condemn any people with the intention to ruin the honour of RCAF, which upholds a neutral stance in protecting sovereignty, territorial integrity and the legitimate government.” The ministry questioned how CNRP politicians could present themselves as protectors of the nation while criticising exercises to strengthen the military.

Meanwhile warehouse owners in Phnom Penh have called on the Ministry of Interior to investigate the capital’s economic police, claiming they have been hitting them up for bribes.

An officer with the Phnom Penh economic police denied the accusations, before then offering a Post reporter money to not publish the story. “We just go through their homes and warehouses and we have not done anything like what they accused . . . so please don’t publish it,” he said. “We could give you a small amount of cash monthly or we could give you office materials like books and pens. Those people are just not happy when we do our jobs . . . we don’t ask for their money, they just give it to us from the heart.”

Oh, Cambodia…

Boiling a frog

June 1, 2016

Sometimes, life in Cambodia is a lot like that metaphor about boiling a frog: you think life is fine, and then all of a sudden you’re surrounded by police with AK-47s, and you realise it very much isn’t.

The police appeared around me as I was stuck in a traffic jam the other day, caused by opposition party protestors trying to present a petition to the king. I wasn’t particularly worried per se, but it is an ugly reminder of who has the power here.

The petition is the latest attempt to fight back against a rising tide of political oppression. It all stems from a stupidly obscure ongoing political story about the deputy leader of the opposition allegedly having an affair with a young woman. The judiciary apparently thinks he is guilty of being involved in prostitution and wants to arrest him, despite there being no evidence, and him having parliamentary immunity from arrest.

The petition calls for the king to step in and stop what’s widely seen as the ruling CPP using the alleged affair as a pretext for flimsy legal cases to neutralise its opponents via its control of the judiciary. Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy is already in self-imposed exile in Paris for the third time in his career.

NGOs say 29 people have been imprisoned so far, and call them ‘political prisoners.’ Even the normally supine European Union Delegation to Cambodia has expressed “deep regret” over the “dangerous political escalation” in recent days and called for “a halt to the judicial harassment of the acting leader of the opposition and representatives of civil society organizations.”

Meanwhile, there has been widespread hilarity after the government’s so-called ‘Cambodian Human Rights Committee’ tried to pass off snapshots of the Singapore skyline as those of pre-civil war Libya, in a propaganda video.

The video, with the wonderfully North Korean-style title Using Rights in an Anarchic Way stitches together a series of before-and-after photos of Syria and Libya, and warns that “the excessive use if [sic] rights will bring about destruction.”


The two war-torn states are a favourite of government officials who urge Cambodians not to ‘misuse’ their rights. Another great example of nuanced political thinking…

And finally, work on a private prison for rich criminals is to begin next month. The country’s interior minister said prisoners with money could pay to stay at the complex, which he described as being “like a hotel.” At the time, another official said the complex might suit the child of a tycoon who was accustomed to luxury. You just couldn’t make it up…

Striking out

January 3, 2014

Interesting times in Cambodia this New Year. And by interesting, I mean, not good.

Since Christmas Eve, a majority of the country’s garment workers have been on strike. Yesterday, an elite paratrooper regiment attacked strikers with metal pipes, knives, AK-47s, slingshots and batons outside a Korean-owned garment factory on the outskirts of the capital.

And today, the police shot and killed at least three strikers at another factory. There is a jittery mood in Phnom Penh, not helped by the country’s supine media not reporting much about the current events.

Garments are a huge source of income to Cambodia; some 600,000 people are thought to work for some 800 factories; most of them are young women from the countryside. The trade is worth some $5 billion to the country, or about 12 percent of GDP.

The issue, of course, is money. The striking workers currently get the minimum wage, of $80 dollars a month, and the opposition CNRP has vowed, if they win a rerun of last July’s disputed election, to raise this to $160. Of course, Hun Sen says there will be no new elections, but he is under a tremendous amount of pressure right now.

Whether increasing their pay is actually realistic, is unclear. With Bangladesh’s new minimum wage set at just $68, and Burma looming on the horizon, many doubt there’s room for such a drastic hike in wages. “I don’t think it’s deliverable, I think it’s a popular move that the opposition’s riding on,” says political analyst Ou Virak.

Garment factory owners are unlikely to want to double their wage bills, and would probably up sticks and decamp. That could lead to massive social and economic problems; most workers wouldn’t go back to the countryside. “If they stay in the city, there is the risk they may end up working in the indirect sex industry at restaurants or karaoke bars,” says Ou Virak.

Analysts say the situation is “precarious” and the government’s strategy was not to cave in, but to cling on and hope the protesting workers run out of money.

Of course, the CNRP is riding the wave of discontent, and has called off talks with the ruling CPP in protest at the violence. There are really no winners here, but, as ever, it is the very poorest who are getting shafted the hardest.


Cold weather and tsunamis

December 23, 2013

It’s freezing in Cambodia. Well, not actually freezing, but considerably colder than usual. Yesterday, the temperature at noon was 21°C (70°F), which is pretty cold for Phnom Penh. The Ministry of Meteorology says that this is the coldest weather Cambodia has seen for 30 years, and is blaming it on strong winds from the northeast carrying abnormally cold air southward into Cambodia from Siberia. This is probably true; northern Vietnam has seen snow this week.

Now, most people would say that 21°C is pretty warm. But not Cambodians, and, after perhaps too long here, not me and Blossom either. We shut the terrace doors last night, didn’t turn on the fans, and I almost slept in a T-shirt. That’s nothing compared to the locals: this morning our tuk-tuk drivers were wearing parkas zipped up to their chins and bobble hats. They appeared to be suffering.

The cold weather has had one beneficial effect; we’ve discovered we’ve got hot water. Despite occupying our flat for nearly two years, we only just discovered that if you flip a switch on the fuse box, the showers get extremely hot. Most of the time, some 51 weeks a year, we don’t need hot water: it gets pretty hot on its own sitting in a tank on the roof in the scorching sunshine. But it’s been nice this week.

In other news, the opposition CNRP’s recent decision to hold daily protest rallies, which provoked a huge collective groan of boredom when it was announced, received an unexpected boost yesterday when more than 100,000 turned out to call for new elections and for Hun Sen to stand down. The CNRP, perhaps optimistically, reckoned that there were half-a-million protestors, which seems a little high; they called it a “political tsunami.” But a minimum of 100,000 good-natured electors were out yesterday, the biggest anti-CPP demos since the disputed elections of 1998.

The demonstrators cited a list of reasons for Hun Sen to step down, including the wholesale selling of Cambodian land to foreign agricultural firms, deforestation, the minimum wage, the shooting of garment workers and spiralling unemployment. Hun Sen said in reply that he had “done nothing wrong” so didn’t need to quit.

I, of course, managed to miss the whole thing, being laid up in bed with a savagely bad back, a sign of my increasing decrepitude and age. But if the demos carry on, there could be much more to watch.

Getting dull

October 28, 2013

Well, we’ve just had three days of protests by the opposition CNRP, demanding recounts and an investigation into election irregularities. And frankly, I thought they were a bit of a disappointment. Despite a little hysteria before the demos (“As Opposition to the Regime Mounts, Cambodia’s Capital Braces for Bloodshed”, as Time magazine had it), nothing untoward happened. The government didn’t even put up its razor wire barricades, and they let the marchers wander around the city pretty much at will. So the CNRP gave great packages of thumbprints to various embassies, none of which were willing to comment on anything at all, and that was about it.

The general feeling in town now is that opposition leader Sam Rainsy should suck it up, take his 55 seats, and get on with being an effective opposition. Attitudes are hardening against the CNRP; businesses want to do business, people want to invest. Most of the protestors this time were poor rural people who had been bussed in; the young people of Phnom Penh, who had been so active in delivering the original substantial gains for the CNRP, were nowhere to be seen.

Blossom and I had been advised to stock up on food before the demos; I thought it was laughable, but Blossom went out and spent a large amount of money on various basics, all of which are now languishing in the freezer.

In other domestic matters, I discovered that the person who had stolen my shoes was the same tuk-tuk driver with whom I’d had the altercation earlier in the evening. It turns out that the security guard had let him into the building, told him which floor I lived on, and then let him back out, bearing my expensive shoes. I asked him what he thought he was doing, and he just shrugged. He’s since been fired, which is a shame, because he was a nice man, but since his only task was to stop people getting in and stealing stuff, I think he was a bit of a failure.

Another domestic tragedy occurred the other day, when our cleaner decided to wash a pile of laundry. This would have been fine, except we’d run out of washing powder, so she decided to use bleach instead, with predictably awful results. She meant well, and we haven’t fired her, but several of my shirts and a number of Blossom’s tops were ruined, although I guess we could wear them if we were going to a fancy dress party as aging hippies. Actually, seeing as we are ageing hippies, we could probably wear them normally. Ah, life in Cambodia … we love it.



Deadlock continues

September 24, 2013

I wish I had something new to tell you about the situation here; really, nothing much has changed. The new parliament was sworn in yesterday, and, as promised, Sam Rainsy and the rest of the CNRP failed to show up. No one knows what is going to happen next, but the mood in Phnom Penh is uneasy. The razor wire barricades are back, making life extremely difficult for anyone who wants to get to work on the other side of the fences.

The CNRP are still claiming that the ruling CPP rigged the July 28 elections, and want an independent investigation under the auspices of the United Nations. However, China has affirmed its support for the CPP, making any UN intervention highly unlikely.

Whatever the strength of the CNRP’s claims, Hun Sen and the CPP remain in control of the army and the police, the judiciary and much of the civil service, and this is unlikely to change in the short term.

There have been calls for King Sihamoni to play a more active role, but the idea that Sihamoni would ever do more than play a strictly constitutional role is a reflection of the CNRP’s hope winning out over reality. The days of Cambodian kings getting involved in politics have long gone and I’ve seen no indication that the newly politically conscious Cambodian electors want that.

The usual crew of ambassadors turned up to watch the swearing in, but US Ambassador William Todd, who seemed to go out of his way to avoid Prime Minister Hun Sen’s receiving line at the event – seemingly the only diplomat to do so – told reporters that his attendance was “basically for patronage for the King, but this in no way is an endorsement of the election result.”

“America still believes that the election results still have errors and irregularities that need to be looked into,” he added.

The EU also pointed to the necessity of both parties’ participation, and noted “with concern the ongoing dispute over alleged irregularities in the electoral process.”

Meanwhile today is a public holiday (Constitution Day, said with a straight face), so the streets are a little quieter than usual, but the barricades are apparently to stay until Thursday, so perhaps the CPP’s show of force will cow the general public into a tired submission.

And in an ominous development, a group of journalists and protestors were attacked by masked men on Sunday night near Wat Phnom. At least six people were injured, while an additional five were treated for slight wounds. An unknown number of people – journalists and rights workers among them – sustained injuries from electric prods and marbles fired from slingshots by men in facemasks “who appeared to be under police protection.” Attacking western journalists is rarely a good idea. Desperation, perhaps?

As Australian historian Milton Osborne puts it, much of what has happened since the election “appears to reflect Sam Rainsy’s readiness to push matters to the outer limits of possibility, a tactic that has previously twice led to his having to exile himself from Cambodia.” So we’re all waiting to see how this all plays out. Fingers crossed.


A change of mood

September 16, 2013

Saturday was a good day. Blossom and I went out in the evening; restaurants were full, the nightclubs were packed, we saw a band of young Cambodians playing classic Khmer rock ‘n’ roll. We wandered home cheerfully in the early hours, and went to bed.

The next morning, things were different. Menacing razor-wire barriers, manned by bored-looking police had appeared on almost all of the streets near where we live, cutting off a large swathe of the city. Which put a bit of a crimp in our brunch plans. So, prudently, we retreated back home and embarked on a Sopranos marathon instead. In the distance we could vaguely hear the chants of protestors. The barriers remained in place long after I thought they’d be taken down. They’re still there now. People can’t get to work, businesses are closed and there is an air of uneasy tension. But much of the city is carrying on as usual: people have to eat.

Royal Palace protected, mainly

Royal Palace protected, mainly


Violence in central Phnom Penh

Violence in central Phnom Penh

But inside the wires, things were going quite badly wrong. At least one man was shot dead and four seriously injured when clashes broke out between protesters and police. The police used water cannons and tear gas on the protestors, as well firing live rounds.

The dead man, 29-year-old Mao Sok Chan, was shot through the forehead during the clash at the Kbal Thnal overpass. “He was just working at his job as a newspaper binder and then was going home. And then I heard he was dead,” said his brother, Mao Sok Meth.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy are supposed to be meeting this morning to discuss the stalemate. They met on Saturday, but only managed to talk for 25 minutes, because they loathe each other so much, so I don’t imaging they’ll sort anything much out.

The discovery of a couple of homemade bombs near the demonstration site on Friday has also jangled a few nerves; many people speculate they were planted by the CPP to intimidate protestors.

And people watching local television would have had no idea the CNRP was staging a mass protest. Instead, anyone tuned into state-owned TVK or the pro-government broadcasters CTN, CNC, TV3, Bayon TV, Hang Meas and Apsara TV had the usual daytime-TV diet of Khmer soap operas, karaoke videos and kick-boxing matches to keep them entertained.

But all is OK here so far; Blossom and I are fine, and in no danger. We’re keeping well away from the trouble spots and being sensible, so no one need worry.

More news a bit after it happens.


Mellow demo

September 9, 2013

So, the demonstration on Saturday went off smoothly, with no signs of problems or violence. So that was nice. It was actually one of the nicer demos I’ve ever been on; although it was brutally hot, everyone was smiley and cheery and friendly. Of course, being a foreigner with a camera and a press pass automatically makes you a bit more popular with opposition forces, who want as much international recognition as they can get. The police tried to keep foreigners away, and we’d been warned by the Foreign Ministry to stay at home, but it wasn’t particularly hard to evade them.

Following the demo, the Election Commission announced what it called the official results of the elections, which predictably gave the ruling CPP 68 seats and the opposition CNRP 55. The CNRP, also predictably, immediately announced a new series of demos for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday next week.

Many in Phnom Penh are wondering when the CNRP are going to cave in, and take their 55 seats. From my vantage point, it’s obvious that much investment and new business is sitting on its hands, waiting for resolution, and business people are getting increasingly frustrated with the stalemate.

The King, widely seen as a peacemaker, is flying back from a month in Beijing in a couple of days, which may or may not help. And there are mutters of US involvement with the process, although they’re almost impossible to substantiate.

Meanwhile China has now emerged as a focus for the opposition, with prominent politicians warning that the Cambodian government has given too much ground to Beijing, which they fear is threatening to overrun the country.

Opposition heavyweight Son Chay led the attack in an interview with a local magazine: “We appreciate America a lot,” Son Chay said. “The country that has assisted Cambodia in moving forward with democracy is the US … In contrast, the Chinese are quite different. We have never had a good, beneficial relationship with China.” It’s a welcome change for the opposition to attack someone other than Vietnam, attacks that seemed tasteless to many western observers.

Son Chay said the Chinese were exploiting the country’s resources. “Look at our forests, they have cut down all of our trees—and they have cheated us on all of these loans.”

China has become Cambodia’s biggest lender over the last 20 years, ploughing more than $11 billion into the country largely through soft loans, which it says come with no strings attached.

However, Chinese companies have won vast economic land concession from the Cambodian government, which has also defied its neighbours and backed Beijing over the South China Sea issue.

It’s an attack the government was quick to defend. Cambodian Red Cross President Bun Rany, the wife of Prime Minister Hun Sen, said Cambodia and China were “brothers” and were always ready to help each other.

The problem for Hun Sen and the ruling CPP, however, remains the Khmer Rouge. Cosying up to the Chinese isn’t always good politics in this country.

Older Cambodians have long memories, and China was the only country to actively support Pol Pot during the Khmer Rouge era. Whether support for China will continue through the Khmer Riche era is a different question.

In other news, the Khmer Rouge Trial has just announced the resignation of British co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley. The court, and the prosecutors, have been having a troubling time recently. Cayley’s resignation statement said in part: “I certainly hope that some of the immediate financial issues the court faces can be resolved to allow the caseload to be completed in an orderly and timely fashion.  It has been a great honour to be part of this historic process of bringing a measure of justice to the Cambodian people.”

A measure of justice. Quite.

Street-fighting men?

September 2, 2013

So, still not much to report from Cambodia at the moment, but tensions are ratcheting up a little. The opposition CNRP has announced a mass demo in Phnom Penh for this coming Saturday, which is expected to attract huge crowds, although no one is coming up with any figures so far.

In response to the demo being called, some 2,000 municipal police officers spent yesterday ostentatiously practicing crowd control techniques in central Phnom Penh. Wearing full body armour, and carrying tear gas, batons, gas masks and shields, they deployed barricades and barbed wire and used water cannons.

Most people are hoping any protests won’t turn violent, and that the show of force is merely that; a show. In response, the CNRP has been training its supporters in the art of non-violent protests, also in the centre of town. About 500 opposition supporters took turns pretending to be protestors and the police, linking arms and being pelted with empty water bottles. The Cambodia Daily described their training as “decidedly less orderly” than that of the police, saying that “few could refrain from giggling and smiling through what looked more like a play fight than genuine training.”

Foreigners have been warned by the government to stay well away from the protest; journalists are frantically trying to hunt down gas masks. I expect there to be further outflows of capital from the country, and the supermarket shelves to be stripped bare again this week, but I don’t foresee any major problems.  I could be wrong though. The Daily quoted a CNRP supporter as saying “The police will not be as gentle as us. It will be hard when it becomes real. Anger will be met with anger and the people and police might clash. People might get hit on the head and there could be blood.”

So watch this space. Oh, and don’t worry about me and Blossom; we’re far too canny to get caught up in anything.