Democracy dies in Cambodia

November 20, 2017

Even though I don’t live in Cambodia any more, I still take a keen interest in what goes on there. I loved the precious little country, and am still amused, from a distance, by its cheerful venality and corruption.

Recent stories in what’s left of the English-language press in Cambodia have included these gems: ‘A Siem Reap deputy provincial prosecutor was released without charges last week after killing another motorist while allegedly driving under the influence and then trying to flee the scene. Deputy Prosecutor Samrith Sokhon drove his Lexus into a motorbike shortly after midnight … [dragging] the motorbike and driver almost 1,000 metres while trying to flee … Sokhon had been drinking. Despite all this, Sokhon was released, for reasons … influenced by his position. “After he crashed into the motorbike we arrested him and released him, because there was an understanding. Because we know him clearly; he works in the prosecutor’s institution.”’

And: ‘Police in Battambang province arrested an opposition CNRP official and sent him to the provincial court on accusations of illegal weapons possession, despite one officer admitting that they have not actually found the weapon he is accused of owning.’

But last week’s news that the Supreme Court of Cambodia has ordered the dissolution of the country’s main opposition party is, for me, practically the final nail in Cambodia’s coffin.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, often described as “pugnacious and dictatorial” is, in fact, one of the most evil men on the planet. In charge of the country since 1985, he is the world’s longest-serving prime minister, and one of the most corrupt, conscience-free, vicious, amoral, money-grubbing, self-serving tyrants ever to walk the earth.

The ruling effectively disenfranchises more than three million Cambodians who voted for the CNRP at local elections earlier this year, and clears the way for the ruling CPP to run unopposed at next year’s general election. In a televised address shortly after the ruling, Hun Sen said the court’s decision was based solely on the law, and promised that Cambodia would continue to “strongly adhere to democracy at the national level.” Cue the sound of hollow laughter.

This year Hun Sen has already arrested the head of the opposition, shut down one of the leading newspapers, kicked out American democracy-promotion groups, caused more than half the opposition politicians to flee the country and ranted, harassed and defamed the opposition. It would be inaccurate to call his party ‘the government’; it is, by any standard, a patronage network, and one from which he has cheerfully milked billions of dollars for himself and his family over the years.

Amnesty International called last week’s decision “a blatant act of political repression.” The International Commission of Jurists also attacked the ruling, noting that the president of the Supreme Court occupies a seat on Hun Sen’s party’s highest decision-making body, and is a close personal friend of the prime minister.

The international community has, since the early 1990s, spent tens of billions of dollars trying to make Cambodia a democracy. They might as well have gone out and just bought themselves a new hat, for all the good it’s done. Now, in response, the US says it will withdraw its funding from the Cambodian National Election Committee. Which will clearly have Phnom Penh quaking in its boots. Otherwise, nothing from the international community. Rather confusingly everybody’s favourite American, Donald Trump, has been cosying up to Hun Sen, who has clearly drawn inspiration from Trump’s playbook when it comes to his attitudes to the press, and to the truth.


China, on the other hand, has been supportive of the court’s decision. Over the past 15 years, Chinese cash has bankrolled bridges, highways, hydropower dams and property developments (although rarely schools or hospitals), entirely decoupled from demands for human rights or good governance. In exchange, Cambodia has been happy to be China’s poodle, and support China’s positions on a range of issues, from Taiwan and Xinjiang separatism to the South China Sea.

It’s like Eisenhower’s Domino Theory has come true: there now isn’t a genuine democracy anywhere in mainland Southeast Asia: Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos; now Hun Sen has extinguished the final beacon of democratic light in the region. It’s 2017, but things are getting increasingly dark in my favourite part of the world.

It hurts my very heart.


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.




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.”


Sick of it all

October 19, 2015

Here is a story that in many ways typifies some of the things that are wrong with modern Cambodia; a story that would make you cry if you weren’t already laughing in disbelief.

Millions of dollars in aid given to Cambodia by The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria have reportedly been left sitting in a bank account for more than a year.

The money remains untouched because Cambodia’s National Malaria Centre is refusing to sign a funding agreement, because it objects to a request to provide detailed accounts of its spending.

What this means is that the NMC won’t spend the money it has been given, some $21 million over the past two years, because the Global Fund doesn’t want to see it all stolen.

The money was awarded as part of an urgent initiative to combat drug-resistant malaria in the Mekong region. A source close to the Global Fund told a local newspaper that the NMC’s decision could potentially put thousands of lives at risk.

“The management team at NMC has downed tools and taken the grant-making process hostage,” the source told the newspaper. “They have frustrated attempts to finalise grant negotiations because they don’t want to provide receipts for travel and hotel expenses. The government is sitting on a heap of money, crying there is a malaria outbreak, but refusing to do anything about it, unless they are allowed to steal the money.”

Officials at the NMC and Cambodia’s Ministry of Health have been ordered in the past to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Global Fund after they set up fake bank accounts to receive bribes and kickbacks.

The NMC’s impact on efforts to combat malaria has reportedly been severe. Malaria testing kits and drugs are running out. Earlier this year, $2 million worth of mosquito nets were purchased with Global Fund money, but have not been handed out because of the dispute over expenses transparency.

At the same time, figures show that the number of cases of malaria in Cambodia has increased by 35 percent in the first six months of this year.

The NMC’s alleged failure to carry out planned anti-malarial work could have global consequences. Millions of Africans died in the 1990s when a malaria parasite that had developed resistance to chloroquine spread to Africa from Cambodia.

In 2013 the Global Fund threatened to suspend or reduce more than $100 million of grants to Cambodia if it failed to meet a 30-day deadline to return funds identified as “misused.” It later changed its mind, saying that because a fraction of the money had been returned, it showed a desire to cooperate.

Courting disaster

September 23, 2015

Well, imagine my surprise! A delegation of international legal experts from the International Bar Association has found that Cambodia’s judiciary is riddled “with endemic corruption, bribery and political influence,” and has recommended the IBA reconsider Cambodia’s bar association’s membership in the international body.

The IBA found Cambodia’s judiciary is, at all levels, rife with corruption, while cases are overwhelmingly decided based on bribes or political influence.

Dr Philip Tahmindjis of the IBA said the level of judicial corruption in Cambodia was “staggering.” He went on: “We have seen a lot of corruption in other countries, but nothing on the endemic level that appears to be going on here.”

Another member of the IBA told a local newspaper: “We tried to find the names of judges who were independent minded and who don’t accept bribes. We got one anecdote from one very admirable lawyer who said that he had dealt with a judge who he knew hadn’t accepted a bribe and he thought the judge had ruled on the merits of his case. That was one lawyer, and he said it had happened to him once.”

The President of the Bar Association of Cambodia, Bun Honn, declined to comment, saying he had yet to see the report.

Suffer the little children

September 9, 2015

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been travelling around Cambodia talking to orphans, for the annual sponsorship reports sent to people who stump up a small monthly amount of cash via the charity I work for, to help pay for a child’s basic needs: rice, soap, cooking oil, salt, washing powder, education and so forth.

Oddly, most of the children aren’t actually orphans: their parents have given them up as they’re too poor to look after them. Which makes my mind boggle a bit. The children range in age for about six to 19. Some of them are very disabled and will never live an independent life; others are bright and motivated and bursting with life and enthusiasm, waiting to get out into the world and become engineers and dentists and translators.

One orphanage is set up for kids with HIV, which you might imagine would be rather bleak, but the children are so funny and playful that they’re a delight to be around, even if it’s only for half-an-hour or so each once a year. They’re clean and just-about fed, and all of them are provided with anti-retroviral drugs. Nevertheless, two of them had died of AIDS-related illnesses since I saw them last year, which was a bit of a shock.

Orphanages here in Cambodia can be snakepits. Unscrupulous locals set them up, look for poor children, take them off their parents and open their doors to tourists who want to coo at the little people and hand over donations, which quickly disappear into the owner’s pockets. The government occasionally bust one of these when the children’s conditions get too bad, but it’s rare. Even worse is when a predatory paedophile from the West arrives and sets up an orphanage, giving him ready access to lots of delightful little children. It happens more than you think.

Of course, all the orphanages I deal with operate at the very highest standards and with the utmost probity. But that can be a rarity in this country. Travelling around the provinces with my colleague Saroen, it was fascinating to hear first-hand about the corruption so many people here take utterly for granted. Like which chains of petrol stations are owned by which government minister’s wife and so pay no tax. Or how that police car (pointing at a proper police car) is actually a fake, and is used for transporting illegal luxury wood to dealers in Vietnam. It was quite an eye-opener.

But later, sitting by a quiet village pond watching swifts dart across the skies and the vast thunderheads well up in the far distance across the perfect deafening green of the Cambodian countryside, or sitting in a roadside shack at dusk eating boiled corncobs and watching out for rock pythons, it seems like there are probably far worse places to be.

Unless you support the Cambodian football team, who lost 0-6 last night to Syria. Syria! Go Angkor Warriors!

A seat at the top table?

October 22, 2012

To add to the sense of woe permeating Phnom Penh this week, following the death of King-Father Norodom Sihanouk, the capital awoke on Friday to discover that Cambodia had failed in its bid to win a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

The United Nations’ 15-member power bloc has the ability to impose sanctions and authorize military interventions, and Cambodia desperately wanted to bolster its international credentials by winning the seat. It claimed it had a great deal of experience in ‘conflict management’, which is probably, at best, about 50 percent true – it’s good at conflict, less so at management.

The country has been campaigning hard since the start of 2011, and had claimed that it had confirmed support from more than 100 countries, including, crucially, all nine of the other members of the Association of South East Asean Nations (ASEAN). In the event, however, Cambodia got a mere 43 votes, far short of the two-thirds majority needed. The winner of the seat in Asia was South Korea, with 149 votes.

Observers were not entirely surprised that Cambodia failed in its quest, after its abject performance as chair of ASEAN this year. The kingdom, which is basically in China’s pocket, allowed itself to be manipulated into keeping the important issue of territorial disputes in the South China Sea off the agenda at ASEAN meetings. One ASEAN diplomat described Cambodia’s chairmanship as “the worst ever”. The UN vote was secret, so we’ll never know if all nine ASEAN members did as they had promised, and voted for Cambodia. But I suspect not.

Human rights is another issue where Cambodia’s performance has been less than stellar this year. Readers may remember the murder of environmental activist Chut Wutty, the shooting dead of a 14-year-old girl who was protesting having her family’s land being forcibly taken away, the jailing of an elderly radio station owner for ‘secessionist activities’, the forcible relocation of hundreds of poor Cambodians at Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh so that various senior politicians can build luxury gated housing projects, and the butchering of a journalist who was looking into illegal logging.

None of these things inspire much confidence in Cambodia as a grown-up country.

Although, saying that, Rwanda won one of the other UN seats, despite apparently supporting a rebellion in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. And their genocide was much more recent than Cambodia’s. If Cambodia inspires less international confidence than Rwanda, than we’re really up the creek.

Due to my current unipedal status, I’ve barely been outside for the past couple of weeks, so I don’t have a great deal I can talk about. Instead, I’ve got another example of the ugly side of this beautiful little country.

Cambodia has a recent history of violence so profound that stories which would be on the front pages in the UK hardly rate a mention here: acid attacks and stabbings, mass beatings, rapes, drownings and shootings seem to happen on a daily basis across the country, with hardly an eyebrow raised.

But the recent shooting of environmental activist Chut Wutty has shocked even the most hardened observers, with its casual brutality and its stench of blatant corruption.

Chut was a founder and director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, a small NGO dedicated to saving what little is left of Cambodia’s forests. Chut had taken a trip with two journalists to the southeastern province of Koh Kong to investigate “forest crimes”.

They were interested in a heavily forested area near a dam being built by the China Huadian Corporation (CHC) at a place called Stung Ressey Chrum Krom. The project has drawn widespread criticism, due to the impact the dam will have on the livelihoods of local villagers in the Southern Cardamom Mountain’s protected forest, as well as wildlife in the area.

Chut was seen taking photographs “without permission” and this, according to a military police spokesman, prompted a complaint from CHC. What happened next is disputed: a number of different versions have been put forward. What is undisputed is that Chut was stopped on a public road, and subsequently shot dead by Cambodia’s military police.

The military spokesman said the bullet that killed Chut Wutty was fired by a 32-year-old soldier called In Rattan, who, realising what he had done, turned his AK-47 assault rifle on himself, pulling the trigger twice, with bullets entering his abdomen and chest. Case closed, according to the authorities, with no small relief.

Then the story changed, with a security guard called Ran Boroth charged with ‘unintentional murder’ for killing soldier In Rattan while trying to disarm him.

The deputy director of the Cambodian Council of Ministers said that government and police investigations into the matter were now closed. “We don’t care about some NGOs who criticise us. What our committee has done is get the evidence that is true,” he claimed.

Ran Boroth is a security guard for a company called Timbergreen, which is licensed to clear the area around the dam project near where the shooting took place. Chut had repeatedly alleged that Timbergreen exploited clearing licences to cut down trees far outside of their permit areas.

If found guilty of unintentional murder, Ran will face between one and three years in prison and a fine of $500.

So, in short, a thorn in the side of logging interests was shot dead by a military policeman, in the interests of China and a corrupt military and business elite. But before he could be questioned and possibly charged, he shot himself, or was shot by someone working directly for a logging company, who faces a laughably small penalty.

Chut Wutty was eloquent, charismatic, capable and organised, and worked tirelessly with local and foreign media. Because of that, he was a high-profile irritant. He no longer is.


Chut’s death was the highest profile killing in Cambodia since the assassination of trade union leader Chea Vichea in 2004. In February this year three women who were campaigning for better working conditions at a factory that supplies German sportswear giant Puma were shot. They survived, but the alleged gunman, a district governor, has only been charged with the trifling offence of causing “unintentional injuries”.

Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, according to a 2005 report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The country’s primary rainforest cover fell from over 70 percent in 1970 to just 3.1 percent in 2007, and deforestation is accelerating at an alarming rate.

A U.N. special human rights representative to Cambodia said that concessions for “sustainable logging” are a huge mistake. “If this process is not stopped, the country will face a human and economic tragedy which will affect the lives of not only the present but also future generations.”

Lao Mong Hay of the of the beleagured Cambodian Centre for Human Rights said Chut’s murder “has clearly shown how far the powerful are prepared to go to protect their own interests.”

It is chilling to see so clearly how much it is easier kill people who are willing to stand up and object, than to safeguard the rights of the majority of people in this impoverished country.


The price of justice

April 18, 2012

In my job, I have to deal with a lot of property developments; Phnom Penh is full of half-built grand skyscrapers looming above the skyline. Last week I had to write a story about a new development on Cambodia’s south coast, on an island called Koh Puos, or Snake Island. It turned out I’d actually stumbled across the island last year, and had been horrified by what the developers were trying to do to this pristine little patch of paradise.

But as I researched the development, and made a few calls, a far more horrifying story emerged; one that seems to have much to do with the state of Cambodia today.

In 2006 the Cambodian People’s Party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, was approached by a Russian property developer who wanted to buy an island. So they let him.

Alexander Trofimov created a Cambodian shell company to buy Snake Island. With money seemingly no object, he said he would also link the island to the mainland with a 900-metre suspension bridge. No figures were published, but the number $300 million was often bandied around. No one knows where the money came from, but Cambodia has consistently refused to sign up to international money laundering agreements. No one knows where much of the money has gone, but Cambodia is, sadly, famous for the scale of its corruption.

Trofimov produced a book of seemingly cut-and-pasted designs that he said would encompass a $200 million resort consisting of 900 villas, a dolphin aquarium, two hotels, a shopping centre and a marina – all crammed onto the tiny island. The website for the project looks fabulous. The bridge is now complete.

However, the project was slowed considerably when it emerged that Alexander Trofimov wasn’t who he said he was, but was in fact called Stanislav Molodyakov. This fact emerged after he was charged with raping 19 underage Cambodian girls aged between six and 15, some of whom he found when they were collecting cans on the beach to sell. Molodyakov also turned out to be on the run from Russia, and wanted by Interpol for sex offences against six children under the age of 10 in Russia.

ImageStanislav Molodyakov

Luckily for Snake Island, two more Russian businessmen seamlessly emerged to take over the project, representing a Cypriot holding company that, it later transpired, had owned the Koh Puos project from the start.

Luck was also on Trofimov’s side; he went to trial, and was eventually sentenced to eight years, although he faced up to 20 years on each charge. This might help to explain why there are quite as many paedophiles as there are in Cambodia. The judge accepted that Trofimov had paid as little as $5 and as much as $2,000 for sex with girls but he reduced the sentence “because he apologized and, as a foreigner, did not know the local laws.”

Even more luckily for Trofimov, he was released after just four years, after being granted a royal pardon. It was noted after his release that he hadn’t served the hardest of times: he had been given an especially comfortable private cell, and was frequently allowed out for the evening.


Once out of prison, Trofimov promptly disappeared. Interpol are still looking for him; the Russians want him, and an arrest warrant has been issued for him in Cambodia. The local police claim, somewhat unconvincingly, that he’s in Vietnam or Thailand. But really, if you were a predatory paedophile with access to stacks of cash and friends in very high places (a royal pardon!) where better to be than Cambodia?

This makes me sad.

If you know where Alexander Trofimov is, I’d love to know.