By the way, if you see anything that is silly, misguided or outright wrong, you can assume I have seen the error of my ways by now.
You can read these notes through top to bottom, or skip around these topics (not all are listed):
First Impression of Phnom Penh (July 19, 1995)
Settling In and fixing some coffee
Just Like Home, in which I notice similarities with Philadelphia
My House, in which I live
A Day in the Life, in which I also live, and take Language Lessons too
Justice: The Gavin Scott case
Misconduct by Men in Uniform
The Conviction of Scott, and the Ransacking of a Newspaper bode ill (November 15, 1995)
Cambodian Politics and the arrest of Prince Sirivudh
Hard Words from the Second Prime Minister (December 8, 1995)
Hun Sen Lashes Out (complete text of December 9 speech)
Health Care in Cambodia
The famous Mad Cow incident (April 1996)
The Death of Pol Pot
A Day at the Daily, or how we put out the paper (also see my FAQ on working at the Daily
Easter Sunday: Unusual rituals mark a day of tragedy (March 30, 1997)
Tension rises in the capital, explosions cause panic
Firefight on Norodom Boulevard (July 18, 1997)
Hun Sen Makes His Move: Funcinpec forces are routed (July 6, 1997)
Peace, or Post-Coup Depression? A look back at the damage and conditions in Phnom Penh
How I went from Beach Bum? No! Corporate Executive? Yes!--but not for long
(See also notes from the return to Cambodia, which picks up in 1998.)
Phnom Penh is a dazzling explosion of activity in the streets. Hordes of motorbikes, bicycles, cyclos (three-wheeled pedicabs), and NGO Land Rovers honking. Motos--carrying monks in saffron robes, or families of five and more--swarm along potholed streets driving any which way and not stopping for anything. Broken sidewalks are heaped with garbage. Vendors sell cloudy yellow beverages in old dirty Coke bottles (luckily before drinking any, I realized it was gasoline). Thousands of kids play a strange game that involves hurling their flip-flops at some stationary object. The sidewalks are taken over by whatever adjoins them; iron is worked, motos are repaired, barbershops are set up on them. In between there are holes like wells that drop ten feet to into bubbling sewage, so watch your step!
Was this the level of commerce in American cities before shopping malls? It is amazing that in so poor a country there is so much activity. At night, seen from the balcony of the Foreign Correspondents Club, the moon emerges orange and shines over the Tonle Sap and the Mekong River. Down below, the FCC generator hums amid a crowd of cyclo and moto drivers who await us foreign correspondents and assorted other drunks in hopes of a fare. The yellow walls crawl with finger-sized geckos looking for bugs to snap up and finding plenty. OK, it smacks of the colonial, but there is a pool table, and they screen movies every week.
One of the first and most important parts of settling in here in Phnom Penh was to engineer the best possible cup of iced coffee. When every day is a sticky hundred degrees F, and follows a late night doing layout at the Daily, iced coffee is a must. A short moto ride down Monivong is the Russian Market, a maze of tin-roofed mercantilism best imagined as Philly's Italian Market made narrow, continuing for blocks of twists and turns with perhaps a thousand booths peddling fruits and vegetables, moto parts, meats, housewares, stationery, silk and cotton sarongs to be custom-tailored at any of 40 sewing tables. It's dark and smells sweet from fruit turning in the heat, smoky from preserved meats hanging and greasy from the motos that drive through the two-foot aisles. Finally there's a lady who has plastic bags of fine-ground coffee. "Coffee Lao. This one seven dollars kilo. This one eight dollars kilo." I look at each, considering. "This one good. This one very good." I smell each--she's right--and buy the eight dollar bag.
At home I turn on the gas and boil up some tap water for a few minutes, imagining giardia beasties run screaming up the side of the pot and plunging into the fire below, turn off the gas and spoon in my Lao bean for steeping. A spoonful of sugar in the mug, and a couple of paper towels, and I pour the coffee through. Just like home, almost. Oops, I am home. My milk has gone chunky in the bottle. There must have been an especially long power outage yesterday, and for some reason Sam-ann won't run the generator during the day. Or maybe that's just the way milk behaves here. So I go for the Cow Head milk, which stays good, and get the ice, which I have cleverly prepared with water purified by my handy filter. Iced coffee, with some red spiky spur-fruit on the side. Mmmm.
I'd like to give you a feel for the layout of Phnom Penh, since I seem to be a layout guy now. Since most of you live in Philadelphia, dear readers, I'm going to use that greene country towne as my template. In fact, the word phnom means hill in Khmer, and Penh was the name of woman who lived on that hill, perhaps around the time the capital was moved here. So you have William Penn and live in Penn's Forest, and I have Srey Penh and live in Penh's Hill.
Now imagine that the Delaware River is the muddy, mile-wide Mekong, with Phnom Penh sprawling on its west bank. and that Penn's Landing is a marshy slope along Sisowath Quay where a few poor families bathe. The Old Market occupies the place where Philly's Market Street would begin--where Philadelphia's old market filled the center of the street, Phnom Penh's Old Market still fills a city block. But its real history is just as certainly erased: the vibrant Chinatown that existed there--very close to where Philadelphia's Chinatown is on my template--was wiped away by the Khmer Rouge in 1975.
Now it is a Khmer market like the others, fronted by a row of twenty or so stationery booths selling the identical limited selection of goods. As you walk west on what would be Market Street you enter the monumental center of town; that area with the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the French-subsidized Petit Lycee where my Khmer classes start on Monday, the major banks from France, Thailand, England, and Singapore, and Cambodia's own National Bank and Foreign Trade Bank, where I have opened an account. Off to the side of this center is Wat Phnom, the "Hill Temple", which with its park-like surrounds and rotary parallels Philadelphia's Basilica and Logan Circle.
Back inside the Foreign Trade Bank are rows and clusters of clerks maneuvering around piles of paper files, file cabinets, hanging folders, and bins full of forms, receipts and ledgers. There are three PCs, and nobody is using them. Paper money in bales sits on tables in the rear (it has been rumored that the Foreign Trade Bank keeps all its deposits in cash in the vault). When I first changed $50 into riel, I was given a half-brick-sized bundle of pink 500-riel notes, which are the standard unit of currency. One of them, about 22 cents, will buy two loaves of French bread, one melon, or half a moto ride. The 10,000 riel note, worth almost $5, is next-to- impossible to get rid of because most vendors don't have enough change.
The major north-south thoroughfare, Monivong, is our Broad Street. As it heads south, buzzing with motos in clouds of yellow dust, it passes near the Russian Market, which I compared earlier to Philadelphia's Italian Market, and also the Olympic Stadium, a cold gray concrete bowl where I watched the Chinese soccer team of Shenzen province humble the Royal Air Cambodge side (despite their splendid new Marlboro uniforms). Above the rim of Olympic stadium only the tops of two elegant wats are visible. Down at the edge of the ragged field three sets of honor guards, each carried their fluttering standards: China, Cambodia, and Marlboro. Prince Ranariddh, the First Prime Minister and heir to the throne, sat impassively at a small pink- draped table in the upper stands. He is reputed to be a big fan, so he probably did not hesitate to cough up the admission: 90 cents for the good seats under the roof. The total gate was about $2700. Twenty years ago Olympic stadium hosted what Veterans Stadium never has: hundreds of military officers and government officials of the defeated Lon Nol government arrived at the stadium to find out their assignments under the new regime. They were slaughtered en masse on the playing field.
West of downtown is the University of Phnom Penh's main campus, a collection of semi-abandoned three- and four-story whitewashed buildings set in an expanse of dust. Perhaps they spruce it up for Alumni Day as Penn does. Our journalism workshop is on the second floor of the front-most building, still awaiting a huge gift from Walter Annenberg.
Beyond the campus is Pochentong Airport with its one strip and brand-new terminal building. The airport also houses a dozen or so expressionless customs and visa officials who preside over the fairly quick but mysterious visa process. Just go where most people are going, and then do what they do, and you'll get through with a one-month visa. Tomorrow King Sihanouk will land at Pochentong and I am told that this means there will be a vast welcoming crowd of semi-worshipful Khmers. Warren Christopher may get the same on Friday.
My house is off Monivong on Street 334 (bei-rouy samseb-bouen), in what might pass for a northern section of South Philly or perhaps even Queen Village. Don't be misled by my street's high number; the next street north is 322, then 310, even though they are set closer as close as Philadelphia blocks. What were they planning for those extra numbers? My block passes for a very typical wealthy block here. Walls and gates face the street, topped with spikes, razor wire, or broken bottle shards set in mortar. Behind the gates are small patios. If wealthy people actually live in the house or if and NGO (non-governmental organization) has set up shop there, there will be a car and probably a guard or two dozing on straw mats inside. The corner house has a solid metal gate with two small holes through which two small dogs poke their heads, bark, and make me think of baseball.
It is equally likely on my block that a house is abandoned and stripped, or has been split up and lean-tos added for a self-contained slum effect. These seem more in keeping with the street itself, which has no trace of pavement, only rutted dirt. Recently some of the biggest holes which daily filled with rainwater have seen the attention of a kind of limited public-works project which has filled them with soft, loose dirt in some cases, and others with broken rubble including concrete chunks as big as your head. There are a couple of stores on the block: small lean-tos of wooden poles with corrugated metal roofs which sit on the margin of the street, staffed by children, selling some mysterious candies, fried something and a few household goods--again, the selection identical everywhere.
pteah = house
Mine is called the Medical Annex, and it's three stories of concrete, starting with a little paved courtyard where the well is, and the generator for when city power goes off, which is often. If you go in the iron gate, and cross through the courtyard you would walk into the house--our ground floor--of Juron and Toun-sarouen, which is the ground floor of our house. Juron and Toun-Sarouen are our two guards. Juron lost his left leg to a land mine, and Toun-Sarouen is crippled by polio; both of them used to repair bicycles for a project run by the same foundation that runs the Cambodia Daily. Juron is a Cham, a Cambodian Muslim. Both of them got tired of living alone, so last week they built their bed-platforms into four-posters, hung up draperies around them, and invited their wives and kids to live in. Our ground floor is now a sort of tent encampment in a 12 by 20 foot room.
Also sleeping in the ground floor is Sam-ann, the house manager, a hyperactive 22-year-old student. He unlocks the gate when Roy and I come home at midnight or 1am from work. Sam-ann gets frequent headaches ever since he fell out of a coconut tree on his head years ago, so he often has the red streaks on his arms which come from rubbing them with the edge of coin. Another popular technique here is to press suction cups or hot glasses on your forehead, so you see a lot of people with big red circles, and you know they had a bad day.
Narrow stairs up the side of the house lead to the double wrought iron and glass doors to a cavernous living room. This must have been the house of a Lon Nol general in the early seventies. In front is a balcony with potted palms, a good place to sit when the generator isn't chugging the air full of smoke, next to an office and bedroom suite that houses Mrs Shimamura, the Japanese pharmacist, for 10 days each month.
Roy and Tinker live in a dark-paneled room off the living room. Roy is my fellow layout editor, and Tinker writes freelance. Both are taking a year off from the Raleigh News-Observer in North Carolina.
This living room really echoes. There's not a soft surface in it; the floor is tile and the walls are concrete. One wall is filled with an enormous burnished plaster relief on an Angkorian military theme.
Past the door the room I started off in, a dull dormlike cube, another double door leads down a short corridor. First is the room of Chaeng, our maid, who daily makes our beds, washes our clothes, does our dishes. This takes a bit of getting used to, but I suppose I can. If it were your job to do the dishes, you wouldn't want someone else to do it, right? Chaing is 32, and unlike Sam-ann cannot speak any English. So my conversations with her have been limited to about one word in length. All Westerners seem to live like upper- middle class Khmers here. Guards and maids seem to come with the house, and in fact any Westerner is free to walk into almost any house occupied by other Westerners, as the guards cannot speak English and are normally unwilling to challenge them.
Then you see our kitchen, not badly outfitted with a small refrigerator, gas stove and sink. Since the electricity goes off all the time, things in the fridge tend to melt and refreeze a lot. We have collected five dishes, four glasses and several pieces of silverware so far. This is where I pump drinking water through my filter, and draw circles around the tiny ants with the special chalk they hate.
Next is a long bathroom, also quite well outfitted with an electrical heater for the shower water--which is quite unnecessary given the usual sweat level. Outside the bathroom door is a closed metal accordion-type door, through gaps in which one can watch the activities of the family living behind our house under a large metal roof. They have a set of shiny red living room furniture that looks like it was pulled out of a '57 Chevy, and it's said they are the people to go to if you've lost something and need some magic done to find it. They also do some palm-reading.
Moving on, a very narrow flying staircase, also made of concrete leads to my leafy bower...
Sok.supbaay? (How are doing?)
Knyom sok.supbaay. Choh neak? (I'm fine, you?)
By popular request--or at least one request, anyway...
After five weeks here, my daily routine is surprisingly regular. More so than it ever was in Philadelphia, maybe because I have less of everything and fewer options. Which is not a bad thing so far.
At 9:30 or so the beeping wakes me up for Khmer class. If the electricity has gone off in the night, it is already very hot in my top-floor room (another re-creation of my past life in the attic room Philadelphia?). In my bathrobe I step out of my room onto the roof of the house, which is a red-and-white checked patio. The sun is beating down with an intensity that surprises me every morning. I think it is cooler here at night and in the shade than in a US heat wave, but the direct sunlight here, burning through the thinnest possible atmosphere, is searing.
My room and the adjacent one are built on the roof of the main house like a second, little house, with the roof deck forming sort of a yard around it. Here I have set up a hammock with a blue tarp over it, but it is rare that I have a chance to use it. A few steps away from my front door is a bathroom, in its own rooftop structure, which I do not use much because its water reservoir is very small and provides little pressure. The shower just dribbles. The other structure in my yard houses the steep concrete stairs down to the second floor, where I take a shower. I inspect my bath towel very closely every morning, since the day I discovered--with great personal discomfort--that it was infested with the tiny red ants that bite.
Every morning Roy, Tinker and I plan to thoroughly review our Khmer over breakfast, while we listen to Professor Longhair or Hank Williams on my personal stereo, which is hooked up to $3 speakers, one of which blew out in the first hour after I bought them. So far our maximum morning review has been ten minutes, and then we head off to class on our bicycles.
People here tend to ride their bicycles very slowly. Many of the bicycles are Peewee Herman-style red high-rises made in Thailand with padded back seats over the rear wheel, and others are stripped-down touring bikes from decades past--no paint, no chain-guard, bald tires and sagging chains--they look like ghosts of bikes but are still going. Then a few, like Roy and I, have cheap Chinese-made mountain bikes which are great on the potholes but will probably only last a year or so. Our comparatively fast riding often inspires cheers and whoops from Cambodians, who must think we are a little nuts. We go up Street 63, which is one way except for the people going the other way, past the enormous yellow-domed New Market. We are threading our way through the eddying streams of cyclos, motos with five people on them, bicycles, motorcycles hauling wagons, white sedans with darkened windows, cyclos loaded with bricks, scooters piloted by 11-year-olds, truckloads of soldiers, whatever.
At the Lycee Francais (briefly used as a detention center for the overflow from the Khmer Rouge's urban liquidation centers) is Setha's Khmer-language class. Setha is 40 but he looks about 25, an animated instructor who plays out hilarious mimes. His shy Khmer girl act is a scream. This language itself is quite remarkable. The only difficult thing about it is the vowels, of with their are about 60, so many that to write it out in the Roman alphabet there is a special transliteration system with a whole bunch of mutant vowel symbols and combinations thereof.
Other than that, Khmer is as logically constructed as could be. There are no conjugations, or inflections of any kind. No plural forms. No tenses, other than a word for "will" and a word for "did". And the more complicated words are all compounded from the shorter ones, like milk is "water-breast-cow", clothes is "shirt-pants", university is "universe-knowledge-place". There are lots of great ones. Money is "looy", because when the French brought it there were pictures of Louis on the coins--as the story goes. The word for justice means to work the scales. And the word for "in the near future" literally means "behind", because since you can only look at the past, the future must be behind you...follow me?
My classmates, in addition to Roy and Tinker, are an Australian English teacher, a young Japanese/Indonesian couple on a Christian medical mission, an older American missionary couple, and a Japanese child care worker. They are quite reflective of the expat community here, which is made up mostly of Westerners and Japanese people who work for the foreign media, the UN, or other non-governmental agencies (NGOs); businessmen from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia; and various missionaries. These three groups do not mix together much.
Class ends at noon, leaving me with two or three hours free. This is the variety portion of my day, during which I might go to one of the street markets, do errands like shopping for a bicycle on street 182, or eat. Just a block from the school is the Seven/Seven grocery/restaurant/bar, a good place to see some BBC news from their satellite dish. It is the most elaborate of three or four stores selling expat products like spaghetti at extortionate prices--if you have to have beef that comes from Australia in plastic wrap, come here and pay $16 a pound. Otherwise, you could buy it from the lady at the Olympic Stadium market, who according to eyewitnesses sits up on the table and balances on her posterior as she lifts the slab between her bare feet, her long, curving toenails digging into its flanks for extra gripping power while she carves off your piece. I will have to see this spectacle for myself.
But I admit it, sometimes Roy and I go to the absolutely sumptuous $6 lunch buffet at the Allson Hotel and sit in air-conditioned splendor, wiping the street dirt off our faces with white linen napkins and eating two day's worth of European, Japanese and Khmer dishes. Another good place I've found is a restaurant by the Boeung Kak lake, an unexpected beauty spot in the city where they serve a delicious Khmer fresh (uh-oh, that means raw) beef salad.
Lunch is also a good time for a bike repair by the side of the road. Between the heavily potholed roads--where there's a surface to have potholes in--and the cheap tubes, flats are frequent. Springing up to serve the need are hundreds of sidewalk flat-tire fixers who for 20 cents will pull out your inner tube, still on the axle, find the hole with a tub of water, and hot patch it using a vise-like press which is made of a piston and footpeg from a moto, welded together, filled with burning oil. Nothing much goes to waste.
By around two I am usually in our newsroom on the second floor of what was previously a massage parlor and brothel. Upstairs we have a whole floor of tiny rooms partitioned off from each other. Now not in use, of course, except for staff napping. The job scene I'll leave for another time, but for now suffice it to say I get out usually between midnight and 1am. Sometimes a few of us will stop at the Irish Rover-- an actual Irish bar--or the Heart of Darkness for a post-work beer, but usually it's too late, and I just pedal home through quiet streets in the nighttime cool, passing by the looming mass of the Victory Monument, late night noodle stands, red-lit massage parlors, hopeful moto-drivers looking for fares, and bunches of cyclos, their drivers asleep in the passenger seat after a hot day of pedaling.
After bumping through the potholes on my street, I ring the bell and Sam-ann, rubbing his eyes, unlocks the gate, Inside the all is quiet but the raspy cluck-cluck of the geckos on the walls.
Originally, Dr Scott was accused of sexual intercourse with underage boys, but now it seems that the charge has been amended, possibly because his accusers may not be underage at all. It is difficult to tell, because the specific charges against him have not been made public; nor have the identities of his accusers, who are backed by several non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. These NGOs are dedicated to the absolutely noble cause of fighting "sex tourism" in Asia--one of the many repulsive results of the gross disparity in wealth between the North and the South, or the East and the West, or the industrialized nations and the third world, or the old and the young, or the men and the women, or the rich and the poor.
In Phnom Penh, there are some foreigners who are not NGO staff, journalists, technical consultants, missionaries, investment analysts, embassy staff, development specialists, wealthy adventure tourists or hippie backpackers. These others are the sex tourists, who come to Phnom Penh for reasons that lurk in the back of your mind (don't they?), but have come to the fore in theirs. Perhaps Bangkok isn't exotic enough, or too expensive, or too riddled with AIDS, or too done it already, been there and looking for something new. Here in Phnom Penh a policeman earns $10 to $20 a month, a government official $25. So how much of a person can you buy for five dollars, or ten?
But Dr Scott is no sex tourist--or not the usual kind. He was the doctor at a small local clinic serving mostly western NGO staff. Until recently he enjoyed a good reputation as a caring young doctor who gave attentive treatment for reasonable rates, and whose homosexuality was not a matter for condemnation or even particular attention. Or so I understand, because I only know of him as a inmate of T3 awaiting trial.
Those who condemn Scott, the certain NGOs, were intimately involved with the investigation against him and with his arrest. They would like to see an example made, to show that sexual predation will be brought to account, that being a doctor, even one with important friends and a social reputation does make one immune from prosecution. Scott's defenders say that these NGOs have enlisted the Cambodian organizations which usually defend the accused, leaving Scott--whose safe was broken into and his small savings stolen since he was put in prison--without an experienced defender. An English volunteer lawyer is not permitted to meet with him, as the law specifies that only Cambodian lawyers may represent the accused. Scott's defenders say he is being railroaded by faceless, nameless accusers, backed by organizations which should instead go after the heterosexual sex tourists who daily commit crimes against the dignity of young girls. Understand that this is country where sex slavery is commonplace.
Dr Scott is sitting in his cell right now. He doesn't deny that he is gay, nor that he has had sex with young men. He does deny that he has committed rape. Reportedly he has lost a lot of weight in T3, and cries frequently. What are they going to do with him? Decisions in Cambodian courts are not often made on the basis of the rule of law and careful consideration of the evidence. Remember, the judges are only being paid $30 a month. Free Dr Scott, and Cambodia will be known far and wide as a playground for sexual exploiters, where authorities turn away from the horror so that one more natural resource can be sold off like a timber concession or mining rights. Convict him, and the rule of law, already tattered, will acquire another hole.
When the government tries Dr Scott next month, it will have been decided already: While Gavin Scott sits in his cell in T3, less than a mile away in some ministry building, are men deciding his fate. They are on trial as much as he, and on the same evidence.
Norodom Boulevard, named for the royal family, is one of two north-south axes of Phnom Penh. From the massive and ungainly Independence Monument north to Wat Phnom, the pagoda on the hill, Norodom is lined with embassies, banks, and mansions both occupied and abandoned. It is the showcase street of Phnom Penh, which is probably why it was recently closed off to motos, bicycles, and cyclos. So if you have a car, you can drive on Norodom, but if you don't you will be whistled down by one of the traffic police who populate each intersection in groups of four or five.
Time was, I'm told, that these unarmed and underpaid officers could be safely ignored. One acquaintance was riding on the back of a moto-taxi, in mid-conversation on a mobile phone, when the whistle blew. His driver tried to speed up, but the frustrated officer grappled with him momentarily. The moto driver shook him off and accelerated away. My friend looked back to see the officer picking up his cap from the dusty road, and continued his phone conversation.
It makes me a little heartsick to imagine humiliation like that. I try to keep that in mind when I am whistled down. Now the traffic cops have been reinforced by heavily armed military police, and it's considered good form to pull over. I've seen people pull over fast when they hear a burst of AK-47 fire over their heads. The only reason anybody ever stops for police is the fear of getting shot by them, not any legal sanction. After you are pulled over, it is your opportunity to supplement the meager salaries of the cops on that corner. The first time I was pulled over, I showed my Pennsylvania driver's license. Things that look official often work well here, but my guy wasn't biting.
"Ah, here we drive right, in Americ drive left. License not good."
Really we drive right side in America too.
"Ah, OK, is good then. Ah, this is captain; he want you pay cigarette fine, one dollar."
Wait, I don't smoke--oh right, cigarettes for him. OK, fine, here you go.
"Thank you. You no license plate." That's a fact.
"You pay me twenty dollars, I get license plate for you. You pay now, you meet here tonight, OK?"
Eventually I convinced him that I didn't have enough money on me to double his salary just then, but I would consider it and maybe stop by later. The next time I got pulled over it was worse. I was on my bicycle and I came out of a one-way street the wrong way. It cost me two dollars, which I paid quickly because the MPs were coming over and I didn't want it to go up to two dollars each. "It wrong way, you must pay fine at office, two o'clock" What office? "Oh, you busy, you work two o'clock? OK, you can pay me now."
At least it's not like when they installed the traffic lights a couple of years ago. Nobody here had seen these things before--and still there are only two or three intersections with lights in Phnom Penh--and they didn't pay much attention to them. The traffic police adopted a simple strategy. When someone ran the light, the officers would block their path, pull them over, and beat them up on the spot. It worked. Unfortunately the traffic lights themselves rarely do.
But this is minor corruption, on the street-corner level. Sometimes the schemes get bigger, as when one of the editors of the Cambodia Daily was held up at gun point by a uniformed soldier and two accomplices, in front of his apartment, and relieved of his cash, his mobile phone, and his rented Honda Rebel 250 motorcycle (far and away the most popular make among tough guys). Later, he received a call from someone at the Interior Ministry, offering to sell him his mobile phone back for $50.
Also in the recent news, a couple of officials from the Ministry of Defense who kidnapped several young women and carted them around the country trying to get an acceptable price for them at the brothels. Disappointingly, they were only offered $70 apiece when they had hoped for $250. At least they were caught--in that one case.
Some of the corruption in the military is individual like that. There's a fellow named Sath Souen, an army officer in the north, who is getting quite a reputation. Called to the scene of a suspected burglary, he shot a 14-year-old. When police arrived and pointed out that the lad was still alive and needed to be hospitalized, Souen, witnesses say, shot the boy dead, saying "No need. Feed him to the fish now." He is reputed to have killed up to 25 people in Kompong Cham province, including a local reporter who had implicated a general in some corruption scheme. The military and the police have been squabbling over whose job it is to bring this fellow in.
But the larger-scale corruption on the part of the military stems from its use as a private armed force, or more accurately armed forces. Last week when the government closed down nine unlicensed casinos in Phnom Penh, one of them soon reopened, with 50 armed soldiers on guard to prevent the police from closing it down again. One of the two licensed casinos, actually a large refitted boat in the Mekong, also hires uniformed soldiers as guards. When the police arrived one night to harass some vendors, the soldiers--presumably paid for protection by the vendors--intervened. A firefight broke out, right in front of the ritziest hotel and casino in the city, and two policemen were captured by the soldiers. One police captain was held and beaten for two hours. Now the Defense Ministry has offered to pay the police department $600 to make up for it, but it's not enough for the police captain, who promises to exact appropriate retribution.
A day or two after that incident, a Malaysian official of the same casino disappeared. He was kidnapped and held for ransom by--surprise!--army officers who were supposed to be guarding him. Several days later police stormed a house in the provinces and rescued him. Thus it was demonstrated that foreign investors are indeed safe here; I mean, he was rescued!)
These same underpaid, undertrained soldiers and police are on guard outside the house of the Second Prime Minister, Hun Sen (a former member of the Khmer Rouge, who escaped an internal purge by fleeing to Vietnam and later returned as a puppet leader of the Vietnamese-dominated invasion force that overthrew the KR in 1979.)
So there they are, guarding Hun Sen's house next to Independence Monument on a certain night last month. The town was buzzing with rumors that troops loyal to First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh were on the move toward the capital, so maybe the troops guarding Hun Sen's place were nervous when a motorcycle rode past. They opened fire. The rider, Ian, who works for Land Rover, knew only that it was dark and someone was shooting at him. He sped up, but bullets hit his front fork and his leg, and one grazed his head. When he woke up he was on the ground. The soldiers--in the process of stealing the motorcycle--were surprised to see him wake up, and scattered. He managed to pick up the bike and roll it to the nearby Irish Rover, stepped in and collapsed. While he had been unconscious his wallet and telephone had been stolen, but he escaped with minor injuries. Moments after Ian was shot, the same soldiers peppered another motorcycle with bullets and brought down two Bulgarians--one the son of an embassy official--and a Brit.
All are now recuperating, but this incident did nothing to help Cambodia's Ministry of Tourism in their efforts at damage control after the travel guide "The World's Most Dangerous Places" listed Cambodia in the top five ("Hell in a Handbasket" is the name of the chapter). They invited the author of the Cambodia chapter to come back and see how safe it is. So he arrived and only days later foreigners were being shot at by trigger-happy soldiers in front of a prime minister's house.
Also in the recent news:
The government has removed signs warning of the risk of AIDS in the brothel neighborhood of Tuol Kork, because the signs were sexually suggestive and projected a negative image. A crackdown on brothels in general supposedly continues.
The governor of Svay Rieng province was pulled over by police who fired at his car and shot at him as he fled. He hid behind a villager at the side of the road, insisting that he was the provincial governor, until luckily for him a locally known official arrived and vouched for him. The governor angrily denounced police procedure, saying that when he was a police officer himself, he knew that you should make sure you have the right person before shooting them.
A rocket grenade damaged the house of Nuon Nguon, the editor of a morning newspaper. This editor has been in a running feud with the editor of another Khmer paper named "Island of Peace", which has run pictures of Nuon comparing him to a monkey and wondering how such a hard face might be softened. Maybe they found a way.
An Internet hoax is in the news here. Apparently a Reuters story was altered and posted on the net somewhere (maybe on soc.culture.cambodia?), quoting King Sihanouk as saying that Cambodia should cede some provinces to historic competitor Vietnam, in order to thank them for invading and overthrowing the Khmer Rouge. After strong denials from Sihanouk that he ever said this, the above-mentioned newspaper recommended that people should go the home of whoever perpetrated the hoax and split their monkey face with axes. That's thoughtful commentary for you.
And in other grenade news, someone or someones tossed a couple of them into a party congress of the third-largest party, the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, which is in the midst of a bitter split. No dead, but a lot of dangerous speculation about the guilty parties. Well, I'm sure a confession will be beaten out of somebody.
Gotta go--the Cambodia National Basketball Team is playing an exhibition game at Olympic Stadium versus the Ragtag Expats, who include a few friends of mine. The REs hope to not to lose by more than a two-to-one margin.
Telephones in Cambodia: 10,000 land lines, 10,000 mobile
Parking garages in PP: 0, 1 on the way
Broken sewer pipes in Phnom Penh: 30-40%
Hours of electricity per day: 10-22, depending where
Potable water: available over the counter
Valium, Xanax, more: available over the counter
Prostitutes testing HIV+: 36% (listen to NPR report, Nov 1996)
Limbless "toddlers" who do tricks to earn money: 2 that I've seen
Gavin Scott Convicted, Will Serve One More Month
Dr. Gavin Scott, of whom I wrote in #6, was tried on the same day the solar eclipse passed over Angkor. He was convicted of rape, although it is unclear whether he was convicted of actual rape or or attempted rape, both of which are covered by the same law. "Everybody knows those boys are prostitutes," an angry Scott reportedly said as he was led back to T3 prison. "They're lying." Scott will serve one more month for a total of five months. The rest of his two-year sentence was suspended. Scott has not said whether he will remain in Cambodia.
S'porean Killed Testing 'Magic Power'
By James Kanter and Chheang Sopheng, The Cambodia Daily
A 22-year-old Singaporean disc jockey was shot dead Friday afternoon about 30 kilometers north of Phnom Penh in what police are calling an accident involving a talisman's allegedly magical powers.
Chiang Hock Goan, who was popularly known as DJ Suave, was shot once in the stomach...after he asked a soldier to fire a pistol at the good luck charm to test its powers...[it turns out the soldier may be a Khmer Rouge defector, as well]
"At first, the Singaporean man put the object on a gate and asked the soldier to shoot at it," said Mau Chandara, noting that the object was of "Muslim" origin and about two centimeters in height.
"The soldier pulled the trigger three times at the object but there was no reaction from the gun. Afterwards the Singaporean put on the object as a necklace and then asked the soldier to pull the trigger again. Unfortunately, that last bullet fired and went through his stomach," Mau Chandara explained.
Sources at FM 99, where has Chiang had co-hosted the "Lunch Hour Hot Hits" program since June, said the DJ had been increasingly interested in the supernatural.
"At least in the Khmer tradition, you must not test these objects for their power. If you believe you just wear them," said Station Manager Som Chhaya.
Newspaper Office Invaded and Ransacked
The New Liberty News, a Khmer-language paper in Phnom Penh, was invaded by three truckloads of angry villagers who beat a staff member and destroyed the computers and office equipment inside. The newspaper had been critical of development efforts in the village of Krainyang. Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, the sole sponsor of the development efforts there, later told a group of the villagers that they had a right to do what they did, and he would be happy to provide the trucks for further efforts.
Second Forestry Concession Sells off 4% of Cambodia
The Cambodian government has sold logging rights to some 4% of the entire area of the country to one Malaysian company. A few months ago they sold a little over 2% to an Indonesian company. The area sold is 18% percent of Cambodia's forest cover. Have members of the government seen the satellite photos of Madagascar, where the surrounding ocean is stained blood-red as eroded soil flows from every river outlet after similar levels of deforestation? It seems that Cambodia as a nation is forced by its poverty to prostitute itself on the world's streetcorner, even as it collects dwindling welfare checks in the form of international aid, which is being replaced by workfare in the form of loans that are offered on condition that the economy privatize. Privatize how? See above.
In the vastness of the United States, political change is felt like swells rising and falling slowly in the ocean. They are caused by complex forces, by undersea rumblings and swirling weather patterns. No individual can drive these changes; the heaving surface lifts some, and swamps others.
Cambodia is a small pond, but this past week the waves have been crashing in its dark waters. On Friday evening, tanks surrounded the house of Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, as soldiers, on his orders, placed Prince Norodom Sirivudh under house arrest a few blocks away on Street 240. King Norodom Sihanouk, the half-brother of Sirivudh, and Sihanouk's son Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who is First Prime Minister, were unable or unwilling to stop it.
Sirivudh is the one who played the American classic song "Feelings" on his electric guitar at the King's birthday breakfast on October 31 (see above). Now he is accused of plotting the assassination of Hun Sen, who applauded along with the rest, but perhaps was not truly moved by the performance. The allegation is based on a newspaper report, denied by Sirivudh, and a snippet of audio tape from an unknown source.
There are two large parties in the current coalition government, and one small one. The party which won the UN-sponsored elections by a narrow margin is Funcinpec, the "formerly royalist" party which Ranariddh represents as First Prime Minister, and of which the now-imprisoned Sirivudh is general secretary. Internally, Funcinpec is in some disarray. Assembly member and minister of finance Sam Rainsy was first kicked out of Funcinpec for protesting corruption and was then kicked out of government altogether. His newly formed Khmer Nation Party was declared illegal last week.
The other major party is the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), which is the direct descendant of the Vietnamese-sponsored government that was installed in 1979 after the Khmer Rouge were driven back to the western hills and forests by the invading Vietnamese. The "formerly communist" CPP is headed by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was Khmer Rouge himself until 1978, when he escaped the KR's internal purges by fleeing into Vietnam. There he joined with Heng Samrin (later to be president of the Vietnamese-installed regime) and Chea Sim (now the CPP head of the national assembly) as figurehead leaders of what was purported to be a force of Cambodians liberating their homeland with the help of a few Vietnamese advisors, but was in fact a full invasion by the Vietnamese (see Elizabeth Becker's "When The War Was Over")
The third and much smaller party is the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, founded by Son Sann, who previously had raised his own non-communist army of resistance to the Vietnamese. The BLDP ruptured earlier this year into two factions, one headed by Son Sann and the other headed by Ieng Mouly, the minister of information. Son Sann's party congress in September was disrupted by two grenade attacks of unknown provenance. The investigation was brief and unsuccessful.
Funcinpec holds the edge in official power and national government posts, but the CPP has a much firmer grasp of the local governments across the country, the bureaucracies, and the military. Ranariddh and Hun Sen each have portions of the military loyal to them; there are "Hun Sen troops" and "Ranariddh troops". And when Ranariddh built a large public park in the capital, using his personal wealth, Hun Sen followed suit with a park of his own, financed by the wealth he has also somehow amassed.
But in spite of this rivalry, it is difficult to see any ideological differences among these parties. In fact, I have not detected even the hint of one. The coalition government has been operating as a partnership in which both prime ministers cooperate in laying a wide and plush red carpet for all kinds of foreign investment. As I have mentioned, a substantial portion of Cambodia's remaining forest has been sold to Malaysian and Indonesian companies. Two large foreign-owned casinos operate in Phnom Penh, and Singapore's Raffles hotel chain has bought the two most famous hotels in the country. The national airline is mostly Malaysian-owned. Slated for privatization are the state electricity company, the state petroleum company, and the state insurance company. Hundreds of families west of the capital are soon to be displaced for Cambodia's first golf course, and Club Med, believe it or not, is planning to set up a resort in Sihanoukville, where an entire island has been sold to a Malaysian firm for a casino resort.
They also collaborate in their efforts to protect their partnership by chipping away at the freedoms which have made a brief appearance in Cambodia since the elections. They both ardently supported the new press law, with its vaguely defined proscriptions and strictly defined prison terms, and they jointly requested, in March, that the United Nations Center for Human Rights here be closed down.
But with the house arrest of Sirivudh, who has been an ally of Sam Rainsy and is a prospect for the throne, it appears that Hun Sen has chosen his moment to assert his power. Ranariddh (who saw in Sirivudh a threat within his own party) has failed to defend his half-uncle and party leader, who is one of the few people in Cambodian politics who may have threatened Hun Sen's rise. Sam Rainsy's party has been outlawed. King Sihanouk may be increasingly mellow and libera[oops--something went missing here!]ry immunity, without playing the tape, without any defense by the accused permitted, and without debate. Members leaving the chamber said that they had no choice. By mid-afternoon, crowds gathered in silence at both ends of Sirivudh's block on Street 240 as police put him in a car bound for T3 prison and a very uncertain future. Latest word is that he has refused an offer to leave the country, preferring to face a trial and a possible 20-year sentence.
And at the darkest, farthest edge of the Cambodian pond, the Khmer Rouge still wait, financing themselves with timber sales--just as the government does--laying mines, shelling a town here and there, and watching the ripples wash up on the shore.
Rumored eve of destruction. Dr Gavin Scott is free, but Prince Sirivudh is still imprisoned--not in the famously decrepit T3 but in a house at the Ministry of the Interior. He says he will stay and fight the accusation that he plotted to assassinate Hun Sen, the 2nd Prime Minister. It becaomes increasingly clear that Prince Ranariddh has everything to gain from the removal of Sirivudh from their party. As I see it, Ranariddh is providing a service to Hun Sen, namely, as a government coalition partner he is the living proof that the government--in reality under the control of Hun Sen--is really a government of national reconciliation, and thus a worthy recipient of the international aid that makes up half of Cambodia's income. But now, perhaps Hun Sen is realizing he does not need Ranariddh, he does not need foreign aid (and influence, see his speech, below). Maybe he is willing to have a smaller pie, as long as he gets all of it. There are plenty of resources here to be sold off.
Meanwhile, Hun Sen has gone down to the "Hun Sen development zone" in a neighboring province, and, in a speech on Tuesday to the villagers of Krangyov, called for demonstrations against foreigners and their embassies--in particular the French and the US embassies, on account of their interference in Cambodian internal affairs via their aid policies.
The Krangyov villagers are the ones who sacked the office of a newspaper in Phnom Penh. And it is rumored they are coming to town tomorrow to the US and French embassies, and the office of the new--and banned--opposition party of Sam Rainsy. All of which is within spitting distance of guess which office: The Cambodia Daily. King Sihanouk and Prince Ranariddh have both left the country for diplomatic trips unrelated to recent events.
On top of it all, our printer has given us two weeks to get our press out of his shop, claiming that the space is needed by a new tenant. It is tempting to report a real terror situation here. It's something about the glory of it all, and getting to be here at an exciting time. Right now it's hard to tell.
This morning Hun Sen made a speech to his Krangyov villagers, saying that The Cambodia Daily is an illegal paper which can be held responsible if any violence breaks out, such as a grenade explosion at an embassy: "if there is any blast in the embassy, you will be arrested" ie, for incitement. There has been a mysterious holdup of our official registration papers, which seems to be the pretext for calling us illegal. Shortly after this speech was broad cast on the radio, our printer came by and told us that he will not print tomorrow's (Mon Dec 11 1995) Cambodia Daily, so we are looking for a new place to print. Maybe go to a short version on photocopy if necessary.
Second Prime Minister Hun Sen's Speech of December 9, 1995
This is an unofficial translation of a speech delivered at the disabled soldiers' center in Kien Svay district, Kandal province. This excerpt is taken from the latter portion of the speech. Earlier in the speech, Hun Sen praised disabled war veterans and distributed gifts. Sections especially about the Daily are in bold.
Relating to the demonstration rumor against foreign embassies in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen would like to make the statement as follows: I would like all local and foreign media to record my voice till the end and very clearly and to broadcast this voice in full length.So that should give an impression of the Second Prime Minister. In the few days since then, there have been no riots or demonstrations yet, we have found a new printer--for the time being--and come up with contingency plans in case that falls through. I'm happy to say that we have put out the paper every day this week. We've removed our printing press from the former print shop (an Angkorian task in itself which involved moving an outdoor restaurant that was in the way, cutting through a steel fence, and about ten Daily staff, print shop workers, and hired contractors rocking it on rollers across the floor to a forklift that was sinking through the concrete like a hot penny on butter). On Tuesday Dec 12, King Sihanouk made an offer to Hun Sen: if he will release and "semi-pardon" Prince Sirivudh, the King will make sure that Sirivudh goes to France. Hun Sen quickly agreed, but it is not known yet if Sirivudh will. It would get him out of the country, which would serve Hun Sen--and his symbiotic partner Prince Ranariddh--quite well.
In the past few days, I have declared in Sa'ang, Prek Ambel commune, that seeing that interference from foreign countries in one internal affairs of Cambodia, against the sovereignty and integrity of Cambodia, is becoming more and more strong, so that the two PMs cannot tolerate anymore, I have made an appeal to have a nationalist movement in order to protect the sovereignty and integrity of this country, ending all interference in this country's internal affairs.
This movement can be made through the form or aspect of non-violent demonstrations; this movement is only to the level of protecting the sovereignty and independence of the nation. We have not declared wars against any country, not at all. What the RG [Royal Government] wants the people to support is only at the level of protecting the independence and sovereignty of our country, to stop the interference of foreign countries in the internal affairs of Khmers and to allow the problems of Cambodia to be solved by its own people. This intention or aim is the most reasonable wish, according to the national rights of all sovereign states in this world. This is a vital ritual of a state with sovereignty and independence and furthermore Cambodia is a state that has received the guarantee through the Paris agreement signatories, guaranteeing the sovereignty and independence of Cambodia.
What I want to do, and also the intention of Samdech Krom Preah Ranariddh, and His Majesty the King's intention, is only to the level of having independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. I have clearly said that the people of Cambodia are prepared to participate in a demonstration to protect the independence and sovereignty of the country. We have the right to demonstrate. They have the right to demonstrate, but I do not declare wars yet against any country and do not also order an attack against the embassy of any country because if we attack the embassy of any country, it is like making aggression against that country, as an embassy is a territory with independence and sovereignty inside our country.
We can make non-violent demonstration by sending protest letters to those embassies but we cannot enter the embassy. This is the framework that we want to do, it we are forced to do. Whether the demonstration takes place or not, depends entirely on the foreign countries, if they stop interfering in Cambodia or not. If not, the demonstration will take place and take place all over the country. Because the RG has the right to conduct a demonstration in order to show that the people of Cambodia support the RG in the protection of independence and sovereignty of the country and if there is agreement of RG, I, Hun Sen, would appeal to people to participate in this demonstration. Because it is a non-violent demonstration and demanding independence, not to be under foreign intervention in Khmer problems. But I do not order to attack the embassies, not at all.
Those foreign countries which are not guilty of interfering in Khmer problems, came to tell me, phoned to certain of my advisors, my ministers and secretaries of state, saying that what Hun Sen said is correct because this is the problem of independence and sovereignty. But the foreign countries which are guilty are very afraid, because they did something nobody knows. Please don't be afraid or scared; I have said already not to be scared. The only thing is whether they stop it or not. And another thing not to forget is that nobody will harm or touch your embassy. Even though, in Paris, the French authorities have allowed some Khmers of French nationality and some French people to demonstrate against the Cambodian embassy, but here we do not allow such things to take place. That is the first thing or problem.
The second problem is there is a rumor that there would be attacks against the embassies of some countries. I would like the ministry concerned to see to this matter and if there is violence taking place really in any of the embassies, investigations must take place immediately into all the newspapers who publish against the truth.
The tape recording of my speech in Sa'ang Prek Ambel commune, which was even broadcast on the TV and radio, should be taken to compare whether in the speech there was something relating to ordering attacks against embassies, no, there is not such an order. And if there is not such an order by me, and if any incident happens in any embassy today or in the days ahead, investigation and surveillance must be conducted against any newspapers who publish wrongly. From the truth inside that, we include the illegal newspaper Cambodia Daily. You are not yet fully legal, I heard that you are not yet legal, if it is not fully legal, why the police allow you to stay in Cambodia. If it is not legal, we send them back to their own country. But I do not force the expulsion, we have to do according to the law. Is there any staff from The Cambodia Daily coming here? You have to be responsible for your article. I would like to emphasize that if there is any violence taking place, the one who alters the truth is to be responsible. But first we have to investigate. I do not frighten those people to escape, do not run away. No problem, if you are courageous, do not escape or run away.
And please take my statement to broadcast in time for the noon transmission. All the embassies, do not worry. I do not oppose you. I have been a young diplomat for 16 years; I know clearly the sovereignty of each country. What I want to do is on the level of a great movement to protect independence and sovereignty of the country. And do not consider my country as a small district of your country. All those embassies do not worry, if I want to do it I would do it openly. Like last time they said Hun Sen sent tanks into Phnom Penh, yes it is true I sent 10 tanks on that day (But some said I sent one tank. Some said I sent three tanks), four tanks from my house and six tanks from outside. And it is altogether 10 tanks, in case there was something coming, they would have destroyed it.
I never try to assassinate people secretly. I never think about it. But if I want to do something I declare in front of a loudspeaker. Like I sent tanks, I declared that I sent tanks because it is the duty of the RCAF to protect. I am not hiding anything. If the demonstration starts I would inform one week in advance. I take one example, I have a good intention to tell Son Sann to delay his congress and that they should first solve their internal problem before having it, and Son Sann said he would have his congress as planned, and when I declared in Kompong Speu province that if Son Sann insisted to do it then he has to be responsible. And when he held the congress the bomb exploded really, and they said that it was the action of Hun Sen as Hun Sen declared before. So the one who declared openly is the one who secretly threw bombs at the Son Sann house. It is irony. I did not do it. If I do it I would go in force and do it openly; if there is resistance we would deal a stronger blow. But it is strange, after declaring openly, that person secretly throws bombs.
Like now as I openly declared that there would be demonstration, if some bad guys, 10 to 20 persons, demonstrate and attack their embassy, then I would be blamed entirely for that. So I would declare to all of you in advance, the police should look carefully, if I hold a demonstration I would inform one week in advance. Whether to attend the demonstration or not is the right of each citizen. But I want just one thing. Any citizen who supports the government in the protection of independence and sovereignty of the country to stop the interference of foreign countries, I would like them to stand along the street for the period of either one hour or 15 minutes or 20 minutes, all standing in the street, I would do like that so that we do not waste so much money, and much efforts to march. Just stand on the streets. Then raise the banners, and send representatives to deliver protest letters to those embassies or to broadcast on the radio, TV etc.
Then they publish and said that I am organizing demonstrations to attack embassies instead. So the newspapers who do not publish the truth, should be prepared. If there is any blast in the embassy, you would be arrested. We have to arrest without waiting. Because they are the source of the problem; they turn white to gray, then to black. If you do not want to publish, do not publish it. If you want to publish you must publish all my statement. If you publish more or less than the truth, I would use my right, you have to be careful. That is called creating turmoil. I want to make it clear we are not making war with any countries; we just want to have the right to protect our sovereignty. If AFP [Agence France-Presse] come also? And who are those sharp-nose guys, which agency they are from? They are taking a lot of pictures, maybe they come for that story also.
I would like to tell the secret of a foreigner who dare to prepare a draft statement for an assassination plot witness, for that witness to make a statement that this assassination plot is a joke, but this witness is quite smart, he said that I do not know whether he is joking or serious, but he really said it. Whether it is true or not is the competence of the judge. I do not understand this foreigner or US citizen who works in the Asia Foundation, who manipulates the witness statement and this action is in article fifty- something of the Untac penal code and must be in prison from one to two years. Now Mr Om Yun Tieng is filing his complaint in the court already maybe. To pressure the witness is to be in prison, and for foreigner, would he be in prison or not? The white color, they want to change it to black or gray. This is our heart's pain or grief. We do not know what was behind the curtain.
The foreigners who are living in their countries and they did not know anything about Cambodia, they demand us to free the criminal, but they did not know anything about that. They recognize that he really said it but as a joke. Whether it is a joke or not, we should not comment; the judges know their work. Is it a joke or serious to say that to attack my convoy en route to Krangyov, using five B-40 rocket launchers?
Like the case of the bomb blast at Son Sann house, if at that time we had our forces there we would have been able to kill the assailants on the spot, and we would have had proof of who was doing that thing. [END]
That's quite enough for this week. I've been working 12 hours a day and
sleeping the rest. My motorcycle is getting a suspension overhaul, my orange
cat is back, I have two new housemates For my birthday tomorrow, I give
myself a trip to the beach at Sihanoukville--home of white sand so clean
it squeaks, phenomenal seafood, clear cool water and aah.
We've been getting clippings from the US press...The New York Times and the Washington Post, and maybe others, running stories like "Cambodia slips back into chaos" etc. From here, it looks to be true. The direction is not positive, rather it seems that the powers here have decided to go for what they call the "Asian style of democracy" which is their code word for a sort of corporate autocracy.
Things have calmed down. The power structure has been effectively rearranged, and those who rearranged it would like to sit back and see what reaction there will be to their accomplishments. We at the Daily are returning to our foolhardy ways...until the next time, at least.
You would think that in the dry season the mosquitos would be on the retreat, holed up in some moist place, awiting thier opportunity to reproduce once again in the wet season. No, in fact they are much worse now. They are truly voracious--they struggle through your hair to bite your scalp, they jam their proboscis through your socks into your ankles, even through your jeans. She hovers along your arms as you try to sleep, brushing your skin with her wings until she finds a the one spot you missed with the DEET. There she alights, and her hooked feet cling to you as she finds that sweetest spot where her proboscis can slide gently through to the warm thick blood within...
Night-time mosquitos hide during the day, like bats. Pick up a dark-colored item from your laundry pile and a cloud of them disperses confusedly. A burst of Shelltox at a time like this can lift your mood for the whole day.
Health Care Debate Comes to Cambodia
Anybody who has ever been exposed to my ranting and raving on the farcical health care debate in the US will understand how dismayed I am that the health care reform question is rearing its ugly head here. In Cambodia, there are only a few hundred doctors for a population of around 10 million. Doctors at public hospitals usually work one or two hours a day and then leave to work at their private clinic. Nursing staff is in short supply as well; normally family members of hospitalized patients stay in the hospital to tend the sick, bring them food, and bribe the staff for attention. Donated medical equipment is found sitting idle, stripped for parts, or just disappears without a trace into the black market.
This underfunded system competes with traditional medical methods that include scraping the skin with the edges of coins until it is raw, and applying heated glass cups to the forehead, chest or back so that the vacuum inside the cups breaks capillaries under the skin and leave round red marks. Pharmacies are also very popular. Feeling under the weather? Buy some random antibiotic and feed it to yourself intravenously. It's good to get vitamins intravenously too. Something about having a needle stuck in you really works--it's so high-tech.
But there is one area in which the Cambodian health system excels, and that is cash savings. The government here spends just $2.80 per year per person. Just think of the savings if that could be duplicated in the United States! What fools we were to fight for a Canadian-style system (let alone the atrocious Clinton plan) when a Cambodian-style system could have been instituted for just $700 million a year. Just think about it--a 99.95 percent savings over the current US system is not too shabby.
Ha, fooled you. I'm in the striped shirt.
For more about this trip, see Patrice's travelogue.
OK, OK, call off the dogs. I'm still here, if harried by computer woes which have seriously impaired my e-mailability. I have been getting messages-I don't know if I've gotten all of them-and I've even sent a few, although it seems clear that those have not all arrived at their destinations.
"HIV" virus hits Cambodia
More than a month ago I received, thanks to Lisa S, the famous e-mail originated by Young Bradley late last year that attempts to mimic the spread of HIV by asking people to forward it on. A week later The Cambodia Daily received and ran a wire story about Young Bradley's experiment. As if that weren't enough to demonstrate the way these things can spread across the globe, one week later our network here at the Daily was attacked by a computer virus that turned our working lives to misery.
You'll be interested to hear that one of the fast speedboats to Siem Reap exploded at the dock in Kompong Chhnang--the little town where we got food poisoning (click for Patrice's account). Remember that arrangement where they had a 55-gallon drum of gasoline on the back deck of the boat feeding the engines, and a guy sitting on top of it smoking cigarettes? No one was seriously injured though.
But last week a small pleasure boat carrying 22 tourists from France capsized and four drowned. It turned out the boat was being piloted by a 12-year-old and a 7-year-old. So the government says it will think of some licensing rules for those boats (which I frequently go out on with friends). It's another example of a chaotic society gradually introducing the type of regulations we take for granted in the US, except when we are complaining about them. Another bit of freedom traded away for security.
Dave the Scot:
I recall we had an elaborate paranoia-fest at Eid restaurant sometime in August. Recently, I was perusing an old newspaper an ran across this, from the (Bangkok) Nation, Sept 25, 1995:
NEWCASTLE, England - Robots are potentially capable of threatening mankind and experts should start looking at ways of curbing their power now before it is too late, a leading scientist said recently.Dave H:
"This is the whole of the human race [at risk] if we let it go...It is possibly a bigger issue than human genetics," Professor Kevin Warwick said before a keynote speech to a British scientific conference. Warwick said experiments showed robots could already learn from their own experiences and from other machines they were linked up to directly. The next stage is for robots to communicate with others via computer and even on the Internet. As information was shared, robots could potentially become as "intelligent" as men, said Warwick, a professor at the University of Reading's cybernetics department.
Christmas in Cambodia? My housemates threw a little party featuring actual eggnog. They got a little dead bush and hung Buddhas on it, and played Southern folk songs on the guitar, and also Elvis Presley's Blue Christmas. We went to work on Christmas Day, a normal workday here in all respects.
No, there have been no worries about the the dreaded Mad Cow disease here. Business at the "BurgerMania" fast food restaurant is slow--but it has been since the place opened a few months ago, and in fact the new "Lucky Burger" (a dead ringer for Burger King) debuted just a couple of weeks ago next to Lucky Market.
But despite the lack of Mad Cow panic here in Phnom Penh, some of you may have noticed references to The Cambodia Daily and its position on Mad Cow in publications in your part of the world. So follows a great example of how an idea can spread across the world with next to no effort, if conditions are exactly right.
One of my workmates, Pip Wood, the national editor, mentioned to me that our friend Conor had a great idea: Send Britain"s mad cows to Cambodia to shake and shiver on the minefields here. Ten million cows, ten million landmines, problem solved.
As opinion page editor, I suggested that Conor should write it up as a letter to the editor. As quick as a wink--the next day actually--I received the letter, from Conor and another friend, Richard. It was corny, stupid, and pretty darn funny, so into the paper it went. And that's when things got screwy.
The local correspondent from Reuter new service picked it up and sent it to the regional Reuter office. They then sent it out to all the newspapers and other media who subscribe worldwide. Somewhere in the translation, the fact that the letter was a Letter to the Editor was dropped, and the item went out as if the proposal was The Cambodia Daily's editorial opinion.
Next day, the Bangkok Post featured the Reuter item on the front page. Then the phone rang and it was Israeli national radio, doing a show on land mines. They eagerly interviewed Chris Decherd (because he answered the phone) and got him to do a hilarious reading of the whole letter. The floodgates were open.
Faxes and calls arrived from the Daily's contacts reporting sightings everywhere. The New York Times. Time magazine. Newsweek. National Public Radio. The New Yorker based a back page humor piece on it, and Harper's put the mad cow vs Cambodia land mines ratio in their "Index." They all went for it. This one item may have gotten more play in the world's media than anything else in the Daily"s short history--but why? Because the moment was right, and because the world always thirsts for what we at the Daily call the "wacky brief."
It's interesting to note how the story changed as it was picked up by news organizations, and then cited by people and passed around (here's an example). Here are a few of its appearances:
What is going on there? I heard rumor about the turmoil in Cambodia, even in Phnom Penh, is it true? What seems to be the problem? When will Khmer find peace? Having visit Cambodia for a few times, I saw a lot of improvement in our country...I am also the one who was born in that land and want a nice place of peace for it as well.
--Sincerely, a Concern Khmer.
Yes, there is turmoil, but it's the same turmoil as everywhere else. The story is the same--gains made in the past through human struggle against oppression are being chipped away steadily and successfully by corrupt politicians, and other cupbearers of the greedy. Your inheritance is being taken away--your land is being sold to rich investors, your resources are being sucked into the gas tanks of Mercedes-Benzes, your brothers and sisters are being sold into lives of servitude and misery. Welcome to the nineties!
I'm kneeling down, squinting in the dirt at one in the morning. I'm looking through an opening about 30 centimeters wide and 10 tall. If I reach through this opening, and I have, there's a lock locking the dead-bolt. I can't open the gate. I can see though the courtyard, past the generator on the right and the pools of old evaporated oil under it, and the flowering plants on the left under the wall topped by broken glass. In the middle of the open entranceway to my house stands a folding chair, and leaning up against it, completing its geometry is our house AK-47. That's what right now is standing between me and the robber gangs who have been having the run of Phnom Penh for the last three weeks while I've been away. Standing between me and them, except for the gate standing between me and it, while I glance around behind me for the approach of the moto and its two riders, the back one with a gun that (from what I've heard) is definitely big enough to be convincing.
I can't even make out if what is on the bed beyond the AK is a pile of clothes or the new AK guard, Sokh--he is brand new on the job. I left my bike in neutral, pointing obliquely enough so if I jump on I can kick it and get away down the block.
There have some changes made in the three short weeks I have been in the US. The night has been made our enemy. Roy was held up on the corner of the block where our house is, at 8pm, and Dutch had a gun to his head just as he arrived at his house. Everyone says the crime wave is on.
So it's not making me happy standing out here, is it. No, it's not. Sokh scrambles up. Here's a guy stands maybe five foot four, shy, embarrassed smile. KILL, Sokh, KILL! OK, just get the gate open and shut it behind me, that's a start. I can see we've got some work to do.
Since I've been gone, a fortress mentality has descended. The best bars are empty. Nervous foreigners travel in convoys, or in vans contracted by the bars. The standard greeting for friends you haven't seen in a while is: "Hey, been robbed yet?"
Oh yes, this is what I came back for. From having my feet dabbling in both worlds, east and west. Three weeks reliving the old life, or having it relive itself (I watch it crank up, wheezing and puffing, from the table. Rusty gears screeching into motion, my old life was sits up on the table, re-animated, oh god no, it's just not right to bring that back, looking around, looking until those travel-taxed batteries wore out. So I came back to where the air is sweet with rot and the dust coats your face and your eyeballs until they squeak when you blink.
In the good news, the BBC has started broadcasting here 24 hours a day on FM100. It is wonderful. World news on tap at the touch of a button, a constantly available reminder that the rest of the world does indeed exist. Strange that it is so much more real on radio than it is when the world news stories come in to the Daily by modem. I myself do a lot of the sifting through the international news, picking stories and deciding how to play them. But seeing them scroll past on the computer screen, it seems like so much fiction, like when you're driving a car and the windshield starts to look like a movie screen. Now I wake and sleep to the BBC.
The "Death of Pol Pot"
You may have heard news reports about the death, by malaria, of one Mr Pol Pot, formerly Saloth Sar, known as the "shadowy leader" of the Khmer Rouge rebels. You may be wondering, "Can it be true? Can the architect of the genocidal Maoist revolution etc etc be finally out of the way? Can he have escaped the longed-for war crimes trial, the groundwork of which is now being laid by earnest researchers at the Genocide Project?"
Keep wondering. At this end, there is no sign that there will be any proof of Mr Pot's continued life or belated death. Even the news reports were unconvincing, and in the week or so since the (non)story broke, even the Daily has featured a dwindling number of stories along the lines of: [name of political leader or country] says he/it knows nothing about Pol Pot. Until we see Pot's body--live or dead--paraded in the streets of Phnom Penh, we are not going to know for sure. That means there is a very strong chance that we will never know when Pot dies. He may have already been dead for several years.
Short of physical proof, Phnom Penh society has been abuzz with theories. Every Cambodian I have spoken to, and every one I've even heard of, believes that Pot is alive, too tricky to die. There are some good reasons the Khmer Rouge would want to make it appear that he is dead, not least of which is that without Pot, they will be more palatable, and support for the government's war against them may dwindle. But the second prime minister, Hun Sen--who needs Pol Pot alive, as a nemesis--may have said it best: Pol Pot is alive, and even if he is dead, he is still alive.
You may have had the experience of working so many hours that you pass through the feeling of working too much, right into the feeling of working too little. You no longer have any idea of what to do when you're not working, and the idea of free time is intimidating. That's a responsibility you don't have when you work. When you work every minute is filled with action, and the problems you confront are all inside the world of your work. And as difficult and complex as that world may be, it is very simple compared to the world outside.
And if the pace slackens, it can be a little frightening to face the larger questions coming up: what am I doing here--is this a break or is it a life? A "learning experience" or a career? If I'm not working I have to pay the bill not paid, write the letter not written, look for answers to the questions unanswered.
Let me tell you about my day at work tomorrow.
It will start off around noon, when I arrive at the Daily office after a quick ride up Street 63. With any luck, I will not see anything like I saw one day last week: a crowd of 300 people staring up at a power line worker, back arched, stiffly tangled near the top of a rusting steel pylon. A grim reminder of the price of progress.
I will park my motorcycle in the back lot of the Daily, next to the generator if I'm lucky, where a small roof will shelter it from the afternoon and evening downpours.
At the top of the stairs I will wave to Anou, the receptionist, through the glass doors. There is a 40 percent chance she will beckon to me, with a look of distress, because her 80s-vintage computer is broken again and she cannot add to the database of headlines.
Down the hall is Maria, so nicknamed by former employers, probably refilling the hot water for the thickly sweet liquid that counts as coffee. I will say hello energetically and turn right, into the newsroom. As I approach my mailbox, there will be one thought in my mind: Please, let there be no computer disasters. I have timed my arrival for lunch, when it is quieter, but there is still a 30 percent chance that someone will inform me of one before I make it to the mailbox. There is an additional 10 percent chance of a note in the mailbox with a similar message.
It's possible that there will be several such problems: the server won't connect to the network, the modem didn't receive the international news, the printer is jamming. Maybe these problems will be easy to fix tomorrow. In any case, I will answer at least four questions before I get to my favorite corner of the newsroom, where sits my current favorite computer near my desk, which is unusable because of the pile of broken or simply mysterious computer equipment sitting on and around it waiting for a lookover. Guy, our advertising art director from Canada, will be there, scanning some photos of bulldozers or copy machines into the computer.
I will open up tomorrow's newspaper, which as I write this I have just returned from producing, and immediately spot two or three minor errors. The word "advisor," for example. For the hundredth time I will glance up at the large sign I have put on the wall, which reads simply, "AdvisEr." Worse, I may realize that we should have put the photo in columns two and three, not three and four. I will mark it in red and put the issue in the yellow folder, a device I am promoting as a forum for critique.
On the wall is a whiteboard, where I will write "'Today' is Wed Sept 11" so we can remember to write from the perspective of the day after tomorrow. Then I will write on the whiteboard a list of the pages of Wednesday's paper, and who is assigned to lay them out, big enough to read from across the room. I am on a campaign to cut down the undirected cries of "Who's on local biz 12? Has anyone started local biz 12?"
Steve will be combing through the wire stories we get by modem from Japan each day. He's new here but picking it up quickly. There is a certain talent in choosing the limited international stories. You have to weigh the interests of the readers, the relevance of the stories to Cambodia, and the quality of the individual pieces, while being consistent, following up previously run stories, and keeping a lookout for articles that complement each other. Even within the limited scope of a hundred or so articles a day, all from the mainstream news services, you have considerable power to shape the impression of the world that readers will get.
As soon as I can, I will get on the opinion page. Most days, I run two or three pieces from the wires. If there is a letter in my mailbox tomorrow, a good one, I'll run it. Not another dull statement from some NGO (what we call a non-governmental organization) about how not having enough food is no fun. The only thing duller is a New York Times staff editorial.
I used to play a game with Times editorials. I would read off the headline, and ask people to predict the concluding paragraph. Let's say it was Bosnia (or Northern Ireland, or the West Bank): "...Unless both sides stand behind the peace agreement and refrain from further violence, continued hostilities are certain." Rain forests (or the ozone layer, or nuclear waste): "...Those who are responsible for keeping this planet for future generations must make a prudent choice with regard to Issue Y, or there may be undesirable consequences." Or maybe not.
Usually I can find better stuff (in fairness, often other commentaries from the Times). Anything on Southeast Asia will likely be used. Some of the best comes from papers in Singapore and Indonesia, where toadying papers mouth their government's loathsome lines: The West should stop trying to impose its alien Western ideas of human rights and democracy to us developing Asian nations. People here are not interested. Just send us your factories--our people want rice, not rights.
Oh, the mechanics of it. It's done on the computer, of course, all the layout and most of the editing happens on the page, seen on the screen. If I can get the opinion page on plastic--ready for the printer--like by 3pm, my afternoon will be simplified. Then I will move on to the features page.
As the afternoon goes on the day becomes a flurry of pages in, pages out. New staff are learning how to lay out pages, and I am training them. They will bring me their pages of international and regional news and I will drench them in red ink. As I find errors and inconsistencies, I will add them to the Daily's rapidly growing house style book. The great thing about the style book is that writing it, like constructing the opinion page, provides endless opportunity to look for elegant solutions to puzzles, using grammar, general knowledge, logic and ethics.
In the editorial office the editor-in-chief, James will hold the afternoon meeting with the local new writers--a meeting which, as managing editor, I should probably attend but the workload is too intense, so I will miss the discussion of the breaking news, and have my first critique of it later, as it's laid out.
Sometime in the late afternoon I will wonder if I'll have time to eat away. An hour later I will call a restaurant for a food delivery--recent favorite is a disgusting, sloppy chili dog and fries--and eat a la computer. So the hours will slip past, free, I hope of major and minor disasters. These could include running out of water in the bathroom, air conditioning, or even electricity, rainstorms that bring torrents through the roof into the editorial office and fusillades of bullets fired at the skies from just outside, fatal printer breakdowns that send us running back and forth from the newsroom to the reporters room, pages of the paper held on floppy disks, telephone lines cut or flooded out, or worst of all, late-breaking big stories that force us to redo big sections of the paper late at night.
The last plastics will be printed by midnight I hope, pages counted and checked, jumps just right, in the hands of our printing man, who will jump on his motorcycle and ride across town to the print shop. That's the weak link, but so far he hasn't crashed.
This has been the pattern for the last two months: 12 hours and more Sunday to Thursday, plus some on Friday just so I can feel I'm making progress on longer-term ideas. Everything I do at work that is not geared to getting tomorrow's paper out is intended to make things run better and save time in future days, so that my life can be more difficult because I will have to face those more difficult tasks.
Thursday, our foreign editor fell ill with tonsillitis, two badly needed incoming staff e-mailed that they couldn't make it to Cambodia (one family problems, the second pregnant) and James, the editor, faxed to say he fractured his elbow during a one-week trip to Hong Kong and now must return to the UK for 3-4 weeks of rehab. Meanwhile, Gretchen the deputy editor is moving to Pakistan on Nov 1.
Unfortunately, we still have to feed--I mean fill--this paper every day. At this rate, I'll have to work from about 8am to midnight every day.
A mile away from the blood-spattered placards near the National Assembly, in the roofed-over parking lot that serves as home, temple, dining hall, and--yes-- parking lot to our neighbors, the preparations of the last few days are coming to fruition.
Softly tinkling xylophones are massing and swelling. They are joined by increasingly deep drums. The band is set up next to an enormous fish tank made of concrete and glass that was constructed and stocked with correspondingly enormous fish yesterday.
In the middle of an area almost immediately below my bedroom window, under the open sky, an odd Christmas-tree-shaped shrine stands. I watched them constructing it yesterday, while the fish were being flopped into the new tank from an old-fashioned bathtub.
First they heaped up a big pile of sand around an up-ended folding stool, so the four feet of the stool stuck out the top of the sand pyramid. Then they pushed bricks around the base of the pile, to hold it in place. Meanwhile, a pack of women and girls dressed in white and sitting on a white-tiled area (normally the location of the family's upholstered living room set) cut up palm and banana leaves. A huge cylindrical umbrella, embroidered with designs and script in sequins was hoisted up and planted in the pile, braces with the buried footstool.
The final result was visible this morning. The palm and banana leaves have been used to construct rocket-shaped cylinders grouped around the umbrella pole. The whole thing is loosely wrapped with white twine and strings of flashing lights. Bowls of incense are burning all around.
The music is building to a crescendo and joined by dozens of excited voices. We watch from the bedroom, peering through the dusty screen, and then run upstairs to the roof for a better vantage point.
Now a dozen or so men and women, all in white, are hopping in a circle around the shrine. They make short, chopping karate-style motions in time to the throbbing beat of the drums and hypnotic winkling of the xylos. They are joined by a thin, middle-aged woman in a leopard-skin print pantsuit. She wears a saffron sash, and a leopard headband, and dances jerkily around the shrine, hopping on one foot with the other aloft. In her hand she hold a yellow plastic spray bottle from which she squirts some clear liquid toward the shrine and occasionally on her fellow celebrants.
Other adherents are sitting and standing around the shrine, watching. Eventually they too are infused with the spirit and lose themselves in the dance.
This family next door specializes in fortune-telling and finding lost items, and they get their power from the ghost who is today's guest of honor. It's not a Buddhist ceremony; it's traditional magic.
Meanwhile the planet they're dancing on is spinning away through space, away from the departure point of the 39 souls en route from Rancho Sante Fe, California to their Higher Source, a spaceship hitched onto a comet.
It's Easter Sunday. He is risen, and the spirit is everywhere.
See the Washington Post article on the FBI's investigation of the attack.
Things are still tense three weeks after the grenades. Rainsy left town for the US. You probably heard about Sirivudh's abortive return a few days ago. Fpec troops at the airport, all kinds of people making all kinds of statements, the air thick with second-guessing. Ranariddh mysteriously out of town meanwhile (he's back) There are coup rumors all the time--but then again we've heard all those before, haven't we.
Basically, I think Sirivudh will stay in HK for a bit. Maybe try to meet with the King, who's in Beijing. If he comes back, he'll get put in T3--and if anyone tries to prevent that, there will probably be a fight, and any number of people could get sort of rounded up and railroaded, or even accidentally shot, and it could look like their own side accidentally shot them, too.
Besides, the King says he'll abdicate if there's such a fight, and HS certainly doesn't want that. Sirivudh too would look as if he contributed to the abdication.
Maybe the King should abdicate, suggest Sirivudh as his replacement, get Sirivudh installed (thus auto-clearing him of all charges). Then Sirivudh could abdicate too. They could use the throne as a sort of royal car-wash.
I think radical steps may be taken soon, unless some players get out of the picture. HS is a chess-player, and it looks like there are too many key pieces on the other side. Acceptable positions for opposing pieces are: head of a cooperative Fpec, T3, France, the throne. Other spots can cause problems for the HS strategy.
Well, there are some thoughts, anyway.
If you have Web, check out the Phnom Penh Post's web page. The issue that came out today had some interesting BMD matter from the King, in which he seems to stress his general preference for an active political role rather than the royal one, and portrays his "reign don't rule" rule as a restriction he tolerates grudgingly.
They call them the "tensions" in newspaper headlines here. The symptoms are all over Phnom Penh.
A large bunker surrounded by sandbags has appeared on Street 214, where Prince Ranariddh, the 1st prime minister, lives. The US Embassy appears to have taken over a street alongside it, installing a drop-gate and a row of red barrels across the entrances. Workmen are installing a 5-meter high wall along the back side of the Royal Palace.
The important men are ferried around town in enormous Land Cruisers with armed escorts. Yesterday I saw one with 6 motorcycles around it, each carrying a driver and another soldier with an automatic rifle or what looked like a riot gun, plus an open truck with 6 more bodyguards in full battle gear. There are dozens of others on various scales.
A convoy like that one carries 2nd Prime Minister Hun Sen back and forth between Phnom Penh and his county house, affectionately known as the Tiger's Lair. On Wednesday night someone fired on this convoy, hitting one bodyguard, according to Hun Sen's advisers. The bodyguard appeared, with a bandaged head, at a press conference. The advisers immediately labeled the attack an assassination attempt--in contrast to the March 30 grenade attack on a peaceful demonstration, which killed at least 15 people and wounded over 100 more. One of the four grenades landed so close to opposition leader Sam Rainsy that a bodyguard who threw himself in front of Rainy was killed. That attack, the CPP said, could well have been staged by Rainsy himself. Some people really know how to stage an attack.
Sometimes tensions can spill over into panic. Friday morning at 9am people all over Phnom Penh heard a series of explosions from the west--in the general direction of Pochentong Airport, seen as a stronghold of Ranariddh's Funcinpec party.
I didn't hear the explosions, but I did get a call from a friend who works at a government ministry. In the background was the sound of voices on the edge of panic. In fact, all over the city conversations and meetings broke up as every mobile phone started to ring, and officials hurried out. Major marketplaces shut down, and parents flooded out of their workplaces to get their children out of school. Some foreigners and a few locals headed for their banks to transfer cash to overseas accounts--or just withdraw what they had.
Naturally, I tried to get onto the Internet. But with so many people on their telephones at once, the switches were jammed. I imagined them melting down, unnattended at a looted Ministry of Posts, and then me, picking my way through the rubble, laptop computer in hand, stepping over the twisted metal remains of the doorframe into the Internet office at the main post office and seeing through the smoke one last blinking server to plug into--"To: all. Subject: None. It's finally hitting the fazzzfftp
In fact, the lines came back up around an hour later. One of the land mine clearing programs announced on radio and TV that it had been setting off explosives as part of its training exercises, and they were louder than expected. Children returned to school, and adults, for the most part, returned to work. By noon the streets that had been scenes of panic in the morning were back to normal.
When the explosions boomed across the city, many Cambodians were ready to assume the worst. It's a vivid reminder to foreigners here that for many people here, the "stability" the country has been enjoying has only been a temporary break, and that Cambodians have little faith in it. And there is no special reason that they should.
Just the right time for me to write a letter to the editor...
Tuesday night at 10:30 Cambodia time the sky erupted with the sound of machine gun fire. From the front balcony of my apartment we could see tracer rounds arcing overhead, and the air reverberated with the thump of grenades. For about ten minutes the gunfire went on--thousands of rounds were fired, along with dozens of larger explosions. One's mind raced with possibilities--is it the end, is this the whole thing?
It was by far the biggest battle on the streets of Phnom Penh in the two years I have been here.
At the -dis- bar on Street 178, a group of journalists, teachers and others collected. It was as close as you could get--around the corner on Norodom Boulevard, the area between the house of Hok Lundy, the (CPP) director of national police, and Prince Ranariddh's house was the scene of serious sustained firing and intermittent grenade blasts. There had apparently been some kind of standoff there last night (Monday) between him and Ho Sok, a Funcinpec police official.
I got on the phone with the Daily, where the night staff was pinned down in the office by firing from all directions--they are right between the Palace and Hun Sen's houses. They said there was shooting and mortar fire from the area of Independence Monument (near Hun Sen and the CPP compound) and from the direction of Ranariddh's house.
Guy Nicholson, the Daily's foreign editor, went out to Norodom and was stopped by soldiers. They frisked him, robbed him, and marched him back into the office at B-40 rocket-point. Daily staff said from the office they could see a roadblock where soldiers were stopping and robbing all comers.
The Foreign Correspondents Club, crowded with journalists in town to cover the Pol Pot story, emptied out. Plates of food were left behind.
More than a dozen journalists and others took cover on the corner of 178 and Norodom, trying to see what was going on--I saw the flash of a grenade and watched truckloads of soldiers drive toward the action. We stayed low and behind solid objects, but the pull to see what is going on, and report it, is intense. We shouted at motos passing by who were unwittingly headed straight toward the fighting: Stop! Turn around!
The little crowd moving between Dis--which stayed open throughout, though with tables an dmotorcycles moved inside and the metal gates closed most of the way--grew, as reporters approacing the fighting realized that to go closer was foolish. Reuters Bangkok TV cameraman was woken from sleep and came out. Time magazine's Hanoi correspondent and their cameraman appeared. Mobile phones were whipped out and passed around as local journalists tried desperately to reach their editors and colleagues.
Across the street from Dis, dozens of monks gathered in the doorway of the pagoda, dodging inside whenever shots rang out at the roadblock set up on Norodom north of 178.
The shooting gradually became sporadic and tapered off. After an hour or so, there was only the odd shot fired by soldiers convincing people to stop at the roadblock.
There are early reports of many injured at Calmette Hospital. I heard that Matthew Lee, AFP correspondent, was shot and wounded. Bullet lodged in his upper left arm, but seemed to be in good spirits and will be OK. Nobody else I know has been hurt, as far as I know.
It's reported a mortar shell landing in the US Ambassador's residential compound and blew out windows in his house.
Two hours after the shooting began the city is quiet again. Hun Sen has reportedly dispatched military police to secure point around the city, with some saying tanks are moving in.
So far it's not clear exactly what sparked the fighting, how it stopped, and how it will affect the ongoing power struggle. Khmer-language radio said it was fighting between Hun Sen and Ranariddh bodyguards. But tomorrow, already a holiday for the Queen's birthday, will most likely be a very quiet day in the city.
In the late morning Saturday reports started coming in: fighting at the airport, fighting in Ang Snuol, standoff in Svay Rieng. Prince Ranariddh out of the country while the CPP accuses his party, Funcinpec, of secretly bringing defecting KR troops toward the capital.
Next to the airport, the CPP decided to root out some of these troops at a Funcinpec-controlled base called Taing Krasaing. My friend Patrick arrived at 10am, on what must have been one of the last flights in before the airport road was closed, rockets started to fly, and planes were ordered away.
At Psar Tuol Tompong, the Russian Market, vendors began to pack up their stalls early, around 3pm. Boards were drawn down and locked in place, boxed were packed and placed on motorbikes which squeezed through the crowded alleys. Suddenly the pace of activity picked up and took on a note of desperation. A sharp crack cut the air and the action froze for a moment, then accelerated still more. "Go home please--danger," said a woman passing by.
Not everyone fled. Those who did wove their way among others, who remained stoically on the sidewalk with their baskets of produce for sale.
Near the new and sumptuous Intercontinental Hotel the sharp cracks were louder. The house of a top Funcinpec general, Nhiek Bun Chhay),was nearby. Metal gates were pulled most of the way shut across shophouse fronts, but families stood, watching from the openings. The streets were filled with traffic, but it moved even more chaotically and intensely than usual. A lot of drivers were not looking where they were going.
At the intersection of Mao Tse Tung Boulevard and the road to Pochentong Airport, a dozen soldiers grimly stood guard, stopping all traffic to the airport about five km away. All except for the pickup trucks, loaded with soldiers and bristling with machine guns, rocket launchers and mortars, that screamed down the boulevard. A similar truck left the area, with two soldiers sitting in the back and another lying still on the flatbed, wrapped with bloody cloth.
But somehow, life went on. It seemed as if half the people panicked and fled home, and the other half ignored it. That was the strangest thing. On my street, children laughed and played the slipper-throwing game as usual, although there was markedly less traffic by late afternoon. The fruit-juice lady was open for business, the sandwich lady was absent.
A curfew was called, from 8pm to 6am.
Around the corner Rachana Tailor shop was open--though the metal gates were half closed. I brought them some new fabric I had bought at the market, and ordered up a couple of pairs of pants for work.
At 6pm the sounds of exploding shells still roared across the city from direction of the airport and from the southwestern quarter. A man arrived to drop off the bill for my digital mobile phone. The electricity remained on and steady, and telephone service was uninterrupted, though it was harder to get through than usual, probably because of high numbers of calls. From my roof I could see other people. Some on their roofs, some watching TV, some cooking dinner. All through the fits and starts of shelling not so far away.
Meanwhile, one of my friends described the scene on the other side of town, where refugees were fleeing from their neighborhood with their possessions on their heads, as smoke billowed from buildings hit by mortar rounds.
Now there is no government, it seems, just two warring political-military machines. Their two prime ministers (how ridiculous) won't work together--Hun Sen just spent the afternoon calling Prince Ranariddh and Funcinpec criminals who should be arrested. The National Assembly was scheduled to open its session in April, but the gates remain closed as the parties maneuver and manipulate the rules. The judiciary is widely seen as CPP preserve whose judges respond only to cash--when there aren't direct instructions from their political masters. Police and soldiers receive little or no pay, but survive on streetcorner extortion and open racketeering.
Somehow, this country without a government is still operating. Did the Royal Government, installed at a cost of billions of dollars and incalculable credibility lost to the international community, ever really exist?
Fighting continues in specific locations: in Strung Meanchey district, around Prince Ranariddh's house, and especially at Funcinpec headquarters. CPP denies it's a coup, but something seems a little fishy. There is no general outbreak of violence on the streets, though many areas are blocked off by troops. Airport still closed. CPP seems to be dominating the city.
Calmette hospital reports it has about 50 wounded, four or five killed.
Three weeks later, it seems that peace has settled on Phnom Penh. Three weeks later than what? Outside of Cambodia, it seems to be called a "coup d'etat". Usually, a bloody coup d'etat. Inside, government officials and CPP supporters sometimes call it the "special event of July 5-6". In day-to-day speech, we usually say "the coup", as in "Did you go out during the coup," or "How's business since the coup?"
Hun Sen's message now is that stability has returned. He's trying hard to prove his point--though there is still a mugging here and there, the capital does seem quiet, and as orderly as it's ever been in the last few years. There are fewer roadblocks now than before the, ah, "fighting that accompanied the CPP's consolidation of power".
A week and a half ago I rode my motorbike down Street 214, which passes in front of Prince Ranariddh's house, for the first time in over a year. This time I passed the smashed bunker which was manned by soldiers loyal to the prince. It was surrounded by torn sandbags, their contents spilling onto the street, and incongruous potted palms placed there by the previous occupants. It used to be such a pleasant-looking machine gun nest.
The prince's house itself now features a huge hole in the terracotta roof. Torn awnings and broken shutters hang askew, but on the whole, it is not the shattered ruin that I expected to see, given the heavy shelling heard during the "special event".
In front of the house, even the speed bumps have been removed. Street 214 is a normal street again. Stable as can be.
The rest of town tells the same story. Markets are open, shops and restaurants are running, and people are out at night. Not quite as late as before, but they're out. A few businesses have closed, it's true, but most of them belong to foreigners who left the country in the days after the "violent upheaval".
The -dis- bar on Street 178, where I and others took shelter during last month's firefight (a preview) has closed down, after being broken into and vandalized during the looting that followed the CPP military offensive. None of the liquor was taken, but the furniture was slashed up, possibly by neighbors finally avenging their nights of sleep lost to the bar's ear-shattering rave parties.
That didn't prevent an ear-shattering closing night, at which a $5 stamp got you free access behind the bar. While glasses were hurled and and shattered on the walls inside, a few customers in the relative quiet outside gave their glasses away, whole, to the beggars bold enough to approach the area.
West of town, the looting took a much more serious tone. The road to Pochentong was rapidly turning into the showcase for a society that was creating a wealthy class with startling speed, going straight from deprivation to excess.
In the frenzied encore to the special event, entire showrooms full of new cars were emptied. Vast warehouses were stripped of thousands of motorbikes. The airport terminal was left a shell, without furniture, air conditioners, wiring, light switches. Its post office spilled out thousands of letters, every one of them ripped open.
Nobody knows how much the looting has cost the Cambodian economy. In the short term, even Hun Sen agrees that it might be $10 million. But the total will be far higher, as foreign investment projects are held up and canceled by the score. Dollar figures don't tell the story anyway.
The cousin of an acquaintance of mine owned a motorbike shop that was looted. He had borrowed money to stock up. After his creditors visited to tell him they still expected to be paid back, he killed himself.
The only person I know personally who was a casualty was Michael Senior, or Sokhon, a Cambodian-born Canadian who was adopted and raised in Vancouver. Two years ago he came back, he told me, to learn Khmer, study Buddhism, and rediscover his culture after an upbringing by Christian missionaries. He worked at the Cambodia Daily where I did, briefly, and then moved to Sihanoukville to teach in an orphanage. He got married back in Phnom Penh and they had a son. Sokhon taught English at the Australian Center for Education, and read the news in English for TVK.
On Tuesday after the coup, he was shot at point-blank range by a soldier during the looting, in front of his wife. It's said he begged for mercy in English before they shot him again.
Another teacher from ACE came to the Foreign Correspondents Club, or FCC, to tell others about what happened. "Where'd you say the cremation is?" asked one news service photographer who overheard.
"Wat Preah Puth, three o'clock," she said.
"Thanks a lot," he answered, grabbing his camera bag, "you just paid for my dinner."
Two blocks from -dis-, on the waterfront, the restaurants are operating again as usual. Stopping by the FCC a few days ago, I sat down with Antony at the bar for an iced coffee. He told me I was the second customer of the day. The hordes of foreign journalists, some of paid $1500 to be on the first flight in after the coup, had mostly moved on to greener pastures.
After Antony went into the kitchen, I sat at the bar alone with my iced coffee. Nat King Cole was singing Stardust on the stereo, and as I looked around the familiar deep yellow walls I saw what it might look like in six months: covered with dust, remnants of broken furniture strewn about. The colored cloth ripped from the lampshades. Broken glass and echoes. Antony and Kelly thousand of miles away, in another restaurant in another world.
I don't know if it will happen that way, but the whole event has put people here in an odd mental place. Suddenly the most basic assumptions that inform your plans are disrupted. You think ahead and you can't find anything to fix on. A kind of anomie can set in. That's that post-coup depression.
Some say that 6000 people have left Cambodia through Pochentong Airport. Ranariddh supporters have fled in droves, but what seems to worry Cambodians most is the exodus of foreign aid workers.
The strongest stand against Hun Sen has been taken by the US, which has cut off aid for at least 30 days, until August 10. It's not just that some checks will be held back. All US-funded programs have been shut down. Local-hire staff, both Cambodian and foreign, of these projects are all over town looking for work, while US staff were ordered out of the country with a week's notice, in many cases transferred to similar projects in neighboring countries. Projects that developed infant-survival programs, supported opposition newspapers, and "developed democracy" have been cut off in midstream.
Many argue that the programs were weren't working anyway, and it's obvious. Others, especially those who worked in the programs, passionately argue that the aid cut is counterproductive. Cut the aid, they say, and the government will just increase their logging and mining for gems. They'll strip the country dry in ten or twenty years. But on a more emotional note, they point to the Cambodians who gathered at the airport fence in the first weeks after the coup. We were building trust, and now we abandon them.
All over town, those of us who stayed get the same question from friends and strangers alike. "You're still here? You're staying?" they ask, surprised but relieved. We all get the same question from abroad, especially from our families.
I never felt like leaving, I want to tell them. Yes, there's been a change, but how much has really changed? It was not a democracy before, and it never was. Human rights weren't respected before. The CPP ran the country before.
There's nothing I'm contributing to now that I wasn't contributing to before. It's no more dangerous now, maybe just a little more honest. Even as a journalist, my work here is the same. Nobody has told me what to write, and nobody has threatened me. That doesn't mean it will never happen, but I can worry about it when it comes.
In case some of you on this list have been wondering, I should explain what I've been doing for a job lately.
After leaving the Daily in mid-February to go to the Thai-Burma border for a couple of weeks, I came back to Phnom Penh with the plan of taking a few months off from regular work and moving out to the provinces for a while. That way, I thought I could get away from English-speaking expat culture, relax my state of mind and get familiar with the real Cambodia, where 90 percent of the people live. This plan became ever more elaborate, but only in my mind.
There in the world of imagination, I lived in the semi-abandoned Independance (sic) Hotel in Sihanoukville, which stands forlorn on a jungle-covered bluff over the beach. In the mornings I would take my bicycle for long rides in the surrounding countryside, returning for invigorating ocean swims and long lunches at the beachside, where I would practice with local people the Khmer that I learned off of cassette tapes in my room. My laptop computer and I would spend time together on the roof as the setting sun streaked the sky with rose and turned the sapphire sea to gold, and at night my newly installed wireless telephone would hum with e-mail to all corners of the globe.
I'm not really sure how, but that idyllic scenario never quite materialized. The appeal of the Independance diminished as a imagined the terror of walking its desolate halls at night, and just about disappeared entirely when I heard about how it had became a hideout for a number of convicts, mostly murderers, who had escaped from the provincial prison and were using the hotel as the base for their evening sprees of robbery and assault. The fact that the police made a raid on one room full of bandits, kicking open the door of their room and liquidating four of them on the spot with automatic weapon fire, did not bring back my enthusiasm. Not only that, but I couldn't find a way to get a functioning phone line at the beach.
Meanwhile, things were picking up in Phnom Penh. After a bit of a slump, people were starting to come to me with work they needed done. I freelanced a few articles on the Internet starting up here, filled in on night-editing duty at the Daily for a week here and there, and picked up some graphic design and computer consulting work. It was starting to keep me busy all the time. Meanwhile, I started negotiating for this job at another newspaper in town. Oh perfidy!
The whole thing started to get embarrassing. I would be at the Heart of Darkness bar, and people would come up and say, "Hey Rich, haven't seen you for a while. How's life at the beach?" And I'd say, "Uh, I wouldn't know. Haven't been there," and mumble something about not being very successful at vacationing.
Then, at the end of June, things got really strange. I seem to have become a corporate executive. Actually the title is Executive Editor, running not one but two newspapers--the Cambodia Today in English and the Kampuchea Tngay Nih in Khmer. Each is published three times a week and has its own editor and staff, and then there are shared production, ad sales, and circulation departments. The whole thing is owned by a Malaysian company called ganad (yes, the small g just makes it worse).
Startlingly, I have 75 staff on three floors of a building, and my own office with bathroom and swivel chair.
Historically, if two years can be called a history, the Today has not been of the finest journalistic quality. Some of you who have been in Cambodia are well aware of that, although it's only fair to point out that it's improved tremendously in the past six months since the current owner bought it and hired a hardworking editor, Zack Taylor. So I come in with the goal of making them the highest quality papers in town.
I knew I had my work cut out for me. The entire advertising department had been fired for malfeasance a few weeks before I showed up, and left no contracts behind, except for a few that were made in Malaysia and included intolerable sweetheart deals for favorable editorial coverage. The circulation department was in reorganization and had no manager. The whole thing was like a big truck sitting there without any bolts holding it together--it had never had one person in charge of the entire operation.
Four days in, we had this coup. The editorial department, disorganized as it was, fell apart before I even knew a quarter of the names. The office is in the southwest corner of town, where the fighting was heaviest, and it was impossible even to open the building on Sunday the 6th. Monday we tried to put out a paper, but I had to tell the staff to go home to relative safety as the violent looting began. One of our reporters was hijacked and had his motorbike stolen at gunpoint, a phenomenon of which we could see examples right from the newsroom window. Scattered mortar fire still shook the air from a nearby Funcinpec commander's former house.
The Malaysian staff, including the accounting and finance department, fled the country and took all the cash and checks with them, and the printing shop we use started to refuse to work at night, forcing us to keep a deadline that's way too early.
It was not a promising start. Within two weeks, of only four native English speakers on the Today's staff, one had to be sacked, one left for a previously arranged trip abroad, and worst of all, Zack fell victim to the US aid cut-off: his wife, who worked in a USAID-funded health project was ordered out to Thailand. Because they have two young children, Zack felt, reasonably, that he had to go too.
The one remaining native English speaker, Wil the deputy editor, came in sporting a black eye after being beaten up in a mugging last week, and yesterday he had two motorbike accidents.
It hasn't been life at the beach. But I think we are making progress, and with a few temporary staff, the paper is already improving. The organization can only go up, as long as the Malaysians (who returned only Friday) keep investing.
The coup and the reorganized government have so far not interfered with us, despite our running numerous stories of human rights abuses and the like, as well as highly critical opinion pieces. The Tngay Nih even had the honor of being named by the international human rights office as the only Khmer-language paper in Cambodia which didn't toe the CPP line after the coup, while all opposition papers suddenly shut down and the rest turned into mouthpieces, although the Ministry of Information's official line is that freedom of the press will be respected.
So that's the situation at work, like I said, in case you were wondering.
What editorial position did the Cambodia Today take on the "coup"?
We didn't really take a position, though I think we did a good job of reporting the basic facts. Unlike in the foreign media, which says things like "the bloody coup d'etat by Cambodian strongman Hun Sen" we had to be careful to be factual and neutral. Every part of what happened now has at least two possible interpretations, so we would just try to make sure that what we say is true is not disputable.
Everything else, basically, is attributed to someone saying it. That way, as long as we get a good variety of sources, the readers get enough information to evaluate the situation.
In the opinion section (which only existed when we had something to put in it), we ran a wide variety, from the entire CPP "white paper" explaining the rationale for the, ah, defense of the country against anarchic forces, to angry denunciations by Cambodians abroad, and analyses in which writers called it a gross violation of the constitution, a criminal act and so forth.
Nobody had to put a gun to my head to tell me it was time to get out of Cambodia. They pretty much did, two nights before my plane was leaving, right in front of my apartment. It's now been more than two months since I left, and it already seems like a few lifetimes away.
I was going to go anyway. After over two years here, I needed a long break at the least, and that goes double considering the past summer, with its bloody power grab by Hun Sen, fighting in the streets of the capital, the collapse of hope for democracy, and then the crash of that Vietnamese jet at the Phnom Penh airport. At least I didn't have a job in journalism then, so I didn't have to see that carnage, as many of my friends did.
By the time of the plane crash I had already reserved my flight from Bangkok to Istanbul. One afternoon, looking out over the river from the balcony of the FCCC, there was a black pall hanging over Phnom Penh. Its edge formed a nearly straight line across the sky, just a few degrees above the horizon, leaving a bright band of clear sky to the east.
Below, the roiling waters of the Tonle Sap reflected only black and blue in dark eddies and whirlpools. Currents from below bubbled up and spread out across the viscid surface as the river changed direction, which it does twice a year. Some Cambodians say that's why the country's screwed up--even the river doesn't know it's supposed to go one way.
I did think that at least I would get out of Cambodia without ever being robbed. How wrong I was. It was a garden variety robbery of expats in Phnom Penh, the same kind as most of my friends have experienced. Three of us, talking on the sidewalk at 11pm, and two young guys who pull up on a moto. The one in back held a Russian K-something pistol, silver-plated, snub-nosed and convincing.
"Money, money," they muttered, and we handed it over, of course. They walked around and patted us down a little, missing my telephone but getting a watch my father gave me years ago. Now I have a $10 Longines knock-off from the market. It looks OK, except for the cheesy vinyl band.
See also notes from the return to Cambodia, which picks up in 1998. You can find more of my travel stories from other places too.
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