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…


Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

September 29, 2014

Well, they’ve gone ahead and done it: Australia and Cambodia have signed a deal to see Cambodia take a number of Australia-bound refugees from Nauru and settle them in the countryside here somewhere.

At a ceremony on Friday, Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison signed the deal with Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng, which also includes $40m extra cash for Cambodia. The ceremony was farcical, with waiters upending trays of Champagne and neither Morrison nor Sar Kheng saying a word to anyone, even each other, for the five minutes they stood drinking on stage. Journalists were baffled.

Afterwards, Cambodia said that Australia had asked them to call off a planned press conference; Australia later denied this, saying that media arrangements were down to Cambodia. So much for international cooperation.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop defended the deal, saying that Cambodia asked Australia if it could help resettle asylum seekers, because it has aspirations to be a developed country.

“Cambodia is very keen to get people into their country who can help them grow their economy,” Bishop said.

Ah, yes, that entrepreneurial spirit. Just what Cambodia needs; a thousand or so more dirt-poor people here to rely on the country’s education and health care systems. However Cambodian officials have said they might begin by resettling just five refugees.

Most people here in Cambodia are against the deal; street protests have been held outside the Australian embassy. The UNHCR and Amnesty International have both condemned the deal.

President of Cambodia’s Centre for Human Rights, Ou Virak, said it was both “shameful” and “illegal”.

“The Australian Government has an obligation to protect refugees and sending them Cambodia’s way is not how a responsible country protects refugees,” he said.

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy warned that “very little” of the money exchanged under the deal will filter down to the refugees.

“It will be pocketed by corrupt government officials,” he said. “Refugees are not like any ordinary goods that can be exported from one country and imported by another country. They are human beings.”

But a local English-language newspaper had a different point of view: “Mr. and Ms. Refugee, given the realities of human smuggling, you and your family gambled big – and lost … In return for an investment of several thousands dollars, you thought you had a winning lottery ticket by entering Australia by the back door … 
Cambodia’s economy is growing by seven percent – last year, this year, and probably next year… So, pull up your socks (you won’t need them here), and adjust to your new reality.”


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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.


Stalemate continues

August 27, 2013

So yesterday was a big-ish day for Cambodia, with the holding of a mass rally in Phnom Penh by the opposition CNRP. The mood in the city was a bit febrile and slightly jittery, but there was, in the end, no violence. Which is something of a relief.

Opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha told the crowd of 10,000, which was described as “raucous”, that unless the ruling CPP cooperated in forming an impartial committee to investigate election irregularities within two weeks, the CNRP will hold more nationwide mass demonstrations. Which sounds ominous.


“We are pushing to create a fair and independent committee to investigate election irregularities. If they don’t create an independent committee, we will hold a demonstration,” Rainsy said.

The Constitutional Council will confirm final election results by September 8, allowing a new government to form by the end of next month.

The CNRP has alleged widespread manipulation of voter lists and identity fraud engineered by the CPP in cooperation with the NEC.

After two rounds of negotiations over the past three weeks, the CPP and CNRP have made no progress in deciding what group would head a committee to investigate the scale and impact of election irregularities.

In a recent briefing, human rights organization LICADHO said “problems were documented in an alarming percentage of the stations visited; ranging from voter roll irregularities, to indications of intentional fraud or vote rigging, to intimidation.”

In his last public remarks, nearly a month ago, Hun Sen said that should the CNRP boycott the National Assembly, their seats would legally be given to the CPP.

Since election day, the CNRP has said it would accept nothing less than victory and the removal of the CPP from power following the election, which Rainsy has claimed the opposition won with 63 seats to the CPP’s 60.

“Our Cambodia National Rescue Party is the party that got the real win. We thank all the people who rightly decided to vote for the CNRP. It means that you voted for the fall of the present leaders that are communist, corrupt, partisan, nepotistic and who caused damage to our country’s property,” Sokha said, sticking it to the man, as it were.

A young woman at the rally was quoted as saying she was willing to stand up to the government, regardless of how heavy-handed it was in trying to suppress mass demonstrations.

“Present day Cambodia is without fear. We are not scared of tanks. Even if they had nuclear weapons, I would not be scared to demonstrate,” she said.

In more typical Cambodian news, I spotted this man doing something up a pole the other day.


Now, I don’t care much for Health & Safety rules, but this just seems insane. This is just a single, scaffolding-thickness pole. And he’s not tied on to anything.

High up

He’s the tiny figure in the centre of the picture. Everyday life above the streets of Cambodia, eh? I couldn’t watch…


Same same, but different

August 12, 2013

Apologies to anyone who’s bored by the recent election here in Cambodia, but it’s a pretty big ongoing story, and difficult to ignore.

To recap, there are basically two parties, both of whom are claiming victory: the ruling CPP, which says it won 68 seats, down from 90, and the opposition CNRP, which is claiming 63. Both cannot be right, so there’s a lot of faffing about going on with the National Election Committee and various independent observers looking at ‘irregularities’ in the voting process.

The opposition CNRP, led by the charismatic Sam Rainsy, is desperate to get the United Nations involved in any investigation; the CPP don’t want this. Meanwhile, tensions in the country are mounting. Someone planted a bomb outside the back door of the Municipal Court a couple of nights ago, which blew up a bit of pavement at 0100hrs. No one has claimed responsibility. Was it the CNRP? Unlikely – there’s not much to be gained by that for them. Was it the CPP, trying to make it look like the CNRP? No one knows.

In a slightly more ominous move, soldiers in armoured personnel carriers were spotted in the capital a couple of days ago, the first time heavy armour has been deployed anywhere in the country, apart from on the Thai border, in the past decade. A brigadier told a local paper that “we’re just bringing them back to the warehouse for repairs,” although from the look of them, they’re in pretty good shape. And when he says “warehouse” it looks rather like he meant “by the side of the main highways in and out of the capital.”

The deployment comes after the country’s interior minister warned of “trouble” if the election situation isn’t sorted out, presumably in the CPP’s favour, fairly quickly.

The consensus amongst people I’ve been talking to is that Sam Rainsy should take his guaranteed 55 seats and just get on with it, lining himself up for much bigger gains in five years time. Prime Minister Hun Sen is on the back foot right now, and is going to have to concede some power. But he is a wily and often brutal political streetfighter, and has a lot to lose, so anything could happen.

So things are a little tense here in Phnom Penh. But only a little. And Sam Rainsy, for some reason, has popped off to the States for his daughter’s wedding, which is adding to the feeling of instability. But generally life continues pretty much as usual.


July 26, 2013

“D’oh ri min d’oh?” – “Change or no change” – that’s what thousands of teenagers are shouting across Phnom Penh during the last full day of campaigning for the fourth round of national elections, to be held on Sunday. The streets are impressively full of young people, riding in their thousands along the city’s boulevards, chanting and banging drums as they make a final push for votes for the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). They’ve been invigorated by the arrival in the country of party head Sam Rainsy, who has spent the last few years in self-imposed exile to escape spurious legal charges. However last week Prime Minister Hun Sen arranged a royal pardon for him, conferring a fig leaf of respectability on an electoral process that few believe will be free and fair.

Sam’s reappearance has reinvigorated the opposition; more than 100,000 people turned up at the airport to celebrate his arrival. Everyone I’ve talked to is happy to see him; my tuk-tuk drivers all flash CNRP badges at me when asked about their voting intentions. And yet Sam was widely seen as a nutjob by reporters on the paper, and he’s far too quick to play the vile anti-Vietnamese card to be taken entirely seriously.

Which is lucky for Cambodian-Vietnamese relations, but bad news for a country that desperately needs a decent opposition. In the end, Sam has precisely no chance of taking power from Hun Sen (he can’t even stand, having been stripped of his seat). Hun Sen is so relaxed he even gave up personally campaigning last week. However he has warned that civil war will erupt unless his party is re-elected and launched personal attacks on deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, accusing him of adultery and paedophilia, among other crimes, without actually presenting any evidence.

Two of Hun Sen’s sons, who are standing, have remained at the stump. His party, the CPP, has massive standing in rural areas, and will deliver the votes he needs with a comfortable majority. But in the cities, especially in Phnom Penh, things will be much tighter.

So far, the elections have been rather good fun; cheerful, good-natured, surprisingly free of violence. I was outside just now watching an encampment of several hundred CPP cadres dancing to Achey-Breaky Heart in the noonday heat.

The US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies predicts in an briefing paper that while Hun Sen will win overwhelmingly, his sons “would be wise to pay attention to the trajectory of South-East Asian politics. Strong arming, corruption, intimidation and a refusal to play by the rules will not secure votes forever, likely not even for long,” the paper said.

I’m posting this on a weekend so that no one has to read it. It will be of limited interest to the general reader. However: I was asked at work to put together a timeline of Cambodian history over the last 20 years: the length of time the Phnom Penh Post has been publishing. Rather than make a scene about being asked to do intern-level scut-work, I just did it. It took me some hours, because such a thing doesn’t exist anywhere else. And that’s why I present it here: researchers, historians, whomever: these are the highs and lows of the last two decades in Cambodia:

January 1993: UN civilian agencies and NGOs request a public meeting to discuss election progress and the misconduct of UN peacekeepers.

May 1993: General election brings Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh as co-prime ministers into coalition government.

September 1993: New constitution promulgated, UNTAC dissolved.

April 1994: Two young Britons and an Australian kidnapped and killed by Khmer Rouge

July 1994:  Khmer Rouge murders an Australian, a Briton and a Frenchman, because they were “spies” for Vietnam

March 1996: Mine clearance expert Christopher Howse and translator murdered by Khmer Rouge

March 1997: Grenade attack in Phnom Penh kills 16, injures 150

July 1997: Prince Ranariddh leaves Cambodia for France, accusing Hun Sen of staging a coup.

April 1998: Pol Pot dies.

May 1998: Prince Ranariddh pardoned by King Sihanouk and returns to Cambodia.

April 1999: Cambodia becomes tenth member state of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)

December 2001: First Mekong bridge opens in Cambodia.

February 2002: Cambodia’s first commune elections held.

March 2002: Actress Angelina Jolie adopts Cambodian child.

January 2003: Rock star paedophile Gary Glitter deported from Cambodia

January 2003: Military planes fly hundreds of Thais out of Phnom Penh after violent demonstrations over the control of Angkor Wat.

August 2003: Prime Minister Hun Sen and Cambodian People’s Party officially win general election.

January 2004:  Labour leader Chea Vichea, affiliated with opposition party, shot dead in Phnom Penh.

June 2004: Cambodia’s two main political parties announce a power-sharing deal, ending an 11-month political deadlock.

October 2004: National Assembly ratifies agreement with the United Nations to establish a tribunal to try senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge.

October 2004: King Siahanouk abdicates.

October 2004: Norodom Sihamoni becomes king

February 2005: Opposition leader Sam Rainsy goes into self-exile.

March 2005: 20 convicts killed escaping from jail in Kampong Cham

June 2005: Two-year-old Canadian boy killed at international school in Siem Reap after gunmen take dozens of pupils and teachers hostage.

July 2006: Khmer Rouge ‘butcher’ Ta Mok dies

June 2007: 22 people killed when a plane crashed near Bokor Mountain.

Feb 2009: Trials of senior Khmer Rouge leaders begin.

October 2009: Overloaded ferry sinks on the Mekong, 17 killed.

July 2010: Comrade Duch found guilty of crimes against humanity.

September 2010: War crimes tribunal indicts four former Khmer Rouge leaders.

November 2010: Diamond Island tragedy; 456 people die in stampede.

July 2011: Cambodia’s stock exchange opens.

February 2012: Cambodia takes the chair of ASEAN.

April 2012: Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority becomes first company to list on Cambodian Stock Exchange.

April 2012: Environmental activist Chut Wutty shot dead.


If there is anything glaring I’ve missed, please don’t hesitate to let me know. This post is merely a resource for other people, and could be far better….