Anti Vietnamese sentiment has been part of Cambodian culture for an exceedingly long time, and has only been on the rise since the hotly contested 2013 elections, in which the opposition CNRP party made animosity towards the Vietnamese, and their supposed colonial desires, a central tenet of its platform.
Spearheaded by Khmer Krom minority groups, anti-Vietnamese Cambodians announced five days of protests at the end of this September, demanding apology from a Vietnamese embassy spokesman for his remarks about the ownership of the Mekong River Delta area.
Some context, perhaps, would be useful here. Kampuchea Krom people hail from what is now Southern Vietnam, a region that once was part of the Cambodian Empire prior to the 1600s. The Vietnamese began to settle there and eventually took Prey Nokor – now Saigon – from Cambodian administration. The French partitioned the region to Vietnam in 1949, and it was deemed part of South Vietnam by the 1954 Geneva Accords – a state of affairs that the Kampuchea Krom population has never accepted.
Distinctly unwisely considering the current political climate, Vietnamese Embassy first counselor Tran Van Thong commented in June that Kampuchea Krom had been part of Vietnam for a “very long time” prior the French hand-over, enraging many Kampuchea Krom people, and Cambodians who believe that Vietnam continues to hold colonial designs on their territory.
Today’s protest was the second of a planned five days of protest against the Vietnamese at the Vietnamese Embassy on Norodom Boulevard in Phnom Penh. A mixed crowd of various ages, genders, and professions – monks to motodops – gathered on Norodom Boulevard and were not allowed to pass past Street 240.
The group convened at the park near Wat Botum, speaking for a while about the need for teachers to recieve higher salaries. They then proceeded down Sothearos Boulevard, walking all the way to Mao Tse Tung Boulevard and the turn-off to the Vietnamese Embassy. With no evident plans to threaten Hun Sen or government offices, authorities let them pass unhindered, and permitted them to block traffic as they passed.
A metal roadblock had been set up at the rather French colonial looking Vietnamese Embassy, blocking direct access to the front. However, only a few police were in evidence, many napping, most looking rather under-stimulated. The authorities have promised to crack down on the protest, per the Phnom Penh Post, but there was rather little evidence of this on display at the Vietnamese Embassy this afternoon.
As the protest wore on and hundreds of people milled around curiously, someone burned a Vietnamese flag, and others stamped on Vietnamese flags, a sign of profound disrespect in Southeast Asian culture. Someone had made enormous quantities of anti-Vietnamese stickers, and they were being slapped with abandon on trucks, motorbikes, and, quite popularly, people’s asses and ankles. The stickers reminded me of the common 969 Movement stickers one sees constantly in Yangon, stuck on taxi-cabs, food carts, and lamp posts.
Protesters draped anti-Vietnamese posters over the barricades, and some derisively threw discarded boxes of rice and water bottles over them and onto the street. The police leaned on the barricades by the sidewalk and looked on with mild interest, some taking naps on the sidewalk by the embassy interest.
Tellingly, a massive police presence in full riot gear had been assigned to the area near Hun Sen’s House at Independence Monument – indicating that the Cambodian authorities are considerably more concerned about challenges to the ruling party than they are about threats to the Vietnamese.
Where is all this going, and how will Vietnam respond?
I am regularly asked by acquaintances and friends why I hate backpackers. They are used to seeing my anti-backpacker screeds on Twitter or when they meet me at the bar, ready with my latest story about those horrible people who wear elephant-patterned pants and talk incessantly about spirituality. They conclude the obvious: I loathe backpackers and if I do not wish harm upon them, I do at least wish acute bedbugs.
Allow me to be honest: I don’t really HATE backpackers. Hate is a strong and meaningful word, a phrase that should properly be reserved for things that warrant it – such as, say, ISIS, neo-Nazis, and people who walk a bit too slowly on sidewalks. I would rescue a drowning backpacker. I would save a backpacker from feral dogs. I might give a backpacker marginally accurate driving directions. (I would not lend a backpacker money).
While I do not actually hate them, per-say, I do find them obnoxious, and that is really the root of all the effort I exert on mocking them, and why most expats I associate with share the same low opinion of their ilk.
For, picture this common scenario: you are over the age of 22 and a person of moderate aesthetic expectations residing in Southeast Asia. You spend time and money journeying to a supposedly bucolic island in the middle of nowhere, and on that glorious white sand, you find a pack of American frat-boys drinking Smirnoff Ice and hooting at one another. You are displeased. You thought you left this behind.
Someone proceeds to mock you for asking them to turn down the repetitive dubstep music. They are all doing shrooms and making out with each other and they are not even sharing their beer. Your displeasure turns to raw, vicious hatred.
The list of grievances – beyond this oft-repeated scenario – goes on. Backpackers show up at bars with acoustic guitars in the angelic hope of being scouted for “talent.” Backpackers will occasionally grow emotional for no particularly good reason and read you their poetry, which is inevitably heavily inspired by both Bukowski and that Kings of Leon song that really touched their hearts back in high school. Backpackers noisily demand that they be able to enjoy the trappings of home, from Family Guy reruns to chilled Snickers bars, wherever they noisily alight – cackling and domineering, like a flock of shitting starlings. Backpackers smell funny. Backpackers have better iPhones than you.
I could continue in this fashion, but it wouldn’t be very interesting. So, I thought I would explain with the assistance of some illustrations why I think backpackers blow, and maybe even offer some explanations for why I – and so many other expats – feel this way. (Hint: it comes down to self-loathing, kind of).
BACKPACKERS ARE THE WORLD’S LEAST OPPRESSED PEOPLE
Backpackers make for convenient targets because they are roughly the exact opposite of an oppressed group, the antipode of the world’s wretched, starving, and afraid. This makes them convenient: it’s true that making fun of disabled people, impoverished women, or the gravely mentally ill is cruel sport that is justifiably condemned by everyone with a conscience.
But backpackers are by definition among the planet’s most fortunate people. Unlike most everyone else, they are able to spend a good portion of the most productive and physically fit bits of their lives knocking around the world and doing inordinate quantities of shrooms.
Most are either attending a nice university or will soon head off to do so after gaining “life experience.” Most have nice families who care about them and wish they would get on Skype more often. Most will walk into decent jobs that appreciate how “worldly” they are after they finish contracting skin cancer in Sri Lanka.
All this makes them delightfully guilt-free targets — the Diet Coke and rice cakes of cruel humor. Mocking a backpacker does not harm them beyond the occasional bad feeling, but brings great pleasure to bitter expats undergoing existential crisis. Further, most backpackers are completely disinterested in the opinion of weird expats wearing business clothes in the first place.
Everyone (kind of) wins.
BACKPACKERS ARE HAVING WAY MORE FUN THAN US
Backpackers exist at an absolutely infuriating distance from real life, a division that often manages to annoy the piss out of locals and expatriates alike. Locals are often merely scraping by in their native country, subject to the whims of corrupt governments and poorly-planned economies. Expats usually are at least making a good faith effort at sustaining themselves in their new country (with varying degrees of success), and are subject to the usual concerns of paying their rent and soliciting paying work.
Into this situation, then, the backpacker saunters onto the stage with savings, a trust fund, or seriously poorly-advised credit decisions, and then proceeds to do nothing whatsoever but chill and eat marijuana-infused pizza.
At the same time, everyone else is selling fruit, closing real-estate deals, teaching English, driving tuk tuks, or analyzing political affairs — all pursuits a lot less fun than doing body shots off of mysterious but sexy Australians.
This can do nothing but breed a certain amount of resentment among people who are incapable of fucking off for two months to cover themselves in glow paint and drink buckets full of questionable liquor. Angry muttering ensures.
Backpackers, it’s true, do have their uses, as anyone who runs a business that caters to the drunk and stupid backpacker market will tell you. Purveyors of fine happy truffles or pizza, ladies who sell cans of Coca-Cola at Angkor Wat, the guy who does thousands of “tribal” tattoos each week: they acknowledge the economic usefulness of backpackers, but they’re probably not overwhelmed with love for them, either.
Expats aren’t often economically dependent on the backpacker market but will usually (under duress) cede one use for backpackers and their obnoxiously free-spirited ways: they are convenient if you find yourself lonely and questioning your existence at the dance club at two in the morning. And they don’t know any of your friends.
BACKPACKERS ARE CHEAP BASTARDS
Despite their obviously blessed position in life, backpackers are cheap bastards. Young Breeze may reside in a mansion in Malibu during her summer holidays, but while vacationing in Vietnam, she turns into a merciless penny-pincher – arguing virulently with aged women attempting to mark up cans of Coca-Cola by 50 cents in front of tourist attractions. They will always take the cheapest bus, even it has been known for decades that said bus is run by a professional thievery cartel and occasionally plummets off of cliffs. Hotel rooms filled with cockroaches, festooned with poorly-concealed blood stains, and set directly over a low-end strip club? No problem – it cost $3 less than the other place.
Backpackers are regularly seen savagely chiseling people over tourist trinkets, t-shirts, and things that have very visible price tags stuck to them. Some will even attempt to bargain with the wait staff at restaurants, apparently unaware that that is not actually a thing that happens. They will occasionally attempt to whittle down the price of a $5 souvenir t-shirt while at the same time texting on their latest-model iPhone.
Backpackers are also known for walking out on hotel tabs, absconding with random items in guesthouses and restaurants, stealing the toilet paper, and attempting to “borrow” $20 from you because they just haven’t quite been able to to get their mothers to Western Union them spending money yet. (Do not lend them $20. It is a trap).
They find their cheapness to be a point of pride, and will express both awe and derision if you mention spending more than $6 on basically anything. It usually goes like this: “You spent $12 on a three-course French meal, with wine? Ugh, are you insane? I just eat canned tuna for every meal, man.”
Despite their relentless bargaining, backpackers are more than willing to spend the average annual salary of a Cambodian farmer on liquor during their adventures through Southeast Asia. Pointing out this logical inconsistency only annoys and occasionally enrages them.
Backpackers are founts of bullshit spiritualism, a habit most likely directly resulted to the fact that they’re not actually worrying about making a living and thus are filled with a sense of serenity and happiness. This curious, opiate-effect of word travel is well known: many young people in Asia have informed all their friends on Facebook and thus the world that they are traveling to the Mysterious Orient to Find Themselves.
That’s fine to a point, I suppose, but the problem comes when you’re just trying to have a casual chat at the bar and someone wants to rave at you about how awesome Jack Kerouac is, or how that time they did pyschedelic drugs on the beach with roughly 15,000 students at Leeds University really saved their life man, or how they’re totally going to become a Buddhist monk next month, really. (I also believe that the movie “Into the Wild” – the point of which everyone seems to miss – ought to be banned with extreme prejudice).
This fondness for silly manifestations of spirituality is often wildly inflicted on the locals, who are dubbed “deep” and “so beautiful” by moon-bat travelers — who seem unable to appreciate that the locals are actually just fellow human beings trying to live their lives like anyone else, instead of exotic zoo animals with funny accents.
This grows especially ridiculous in Cambodia with its attendant Khmer Rouge history, where backpackers seem to feel the need to wax lyrical about how Khmer people “smile all the time, despite all the loss they’ve suffered.”
You are expected to nod and agree with the profound depth of this statement, as you are expected to smile and nod at all statements made by a backpacker with the faintest whiff of spiritual depth. Claiming you in fact think these observations about the solemn oneness of the universe (or whatever) are hilariously stupid will be greeted with mute incomprehension.
OH JUST A LITTLE SELF LOATHING
I freely admit that my public emissions of hatred towards backpackers are deeply rooted in self-loathing. I suspect this is not uncommon, and is part of the reason why backpackers are treated with such keen hatred by the expat community in most places.
The fact is that I often find it hard to figure out what differentiates me from them.
I mean, look: the below illustration is a typical backpacker.
And this is me definitely NOT being a backpacker. Somehow.
I think I’m not alone in my near-biweekly identity crisis. Most expats with functioning consciences are keenly aware of being interlopers in a foreign land, and we are also aware that in terms of both our appearance and our bank accounts, we are often rather hard to tell apart from the backpacking brethren.
Local people add to this sense of insecurity, scrutinizing us with amusement and saying “Oh, you LIVE here!” when you say something halting in the local language or express some vague knowledge of local geography.
I am often very afraid that someone in Cambodia will insist that I do NOT live here – and indeed, it has been a while since I really have. If I do not live there, where exactly do I live? Does that mean I’m just a backpacker who regularly showers and on very rare occasions collects a paycheck?
I take out this insecurity and lack of confidence in my social position on a convenient target: backpackers. Sure, I might be inept and suck at the language, but I’m not wandering around monasteries with my be-furred nipples hanging out of an Angkor Beer shirt. Nor am I haggling with an old woman over 50 cents.
I have fallen, perhaps, but they have fallen so much farther and don’t even *know* about it.
Want to visit an Internet cafe in downtown Phnom Penh? If the government has its way, that might not be an option for too much longer.
New circular 1815 has been put out by the Cambodian government that states that Internet cafes shouldn’t be allowed to operate within 500 meters of schools or educational institutions. Further, people under 18 won’t be allowed to use Internet cafes either, and no one will be allowed to play “all kinds of games.” Why?
Because Cambodians are apparently engaging in terrorism, economic crimes, and even looking at pornography with the benefit of the Internet. (And here I thought they were all just playing Facebook). You can read the circular in Khmer here.
OK. These directives sound simple enough, if rather insulting—until you take into account just how many schools there really are here in Phnom Penh.
Human rights NGO LICADHO is on the case—and they’ve produced a rather damning map of Cambodian schools, with the requisite 500 meter No Internet Zone drawn around them. As you can see, that leaves essentially no room for Internet cafes to operate, and spells big trouble for the many already extant within the red-zones. Problem.
What would happen if an Internet cafe is caught within the red zone, or if a “crime” is committed on the premises? The circular, according to LICADHO, says the shop would be closed, all the equipment would be confiscated, and owners would face arrest. No big.
Furthermore, average Cambodian Internet users would suddenly find themselves with very limited access to information—likely the intended result of the circular.
“There is nowhere for the Internet cafes to go,” said Urban Voice Cambodia team member Nora Lindström at a mapping meeting last night of the new circular.
“That means only people who have personal computers can access the Internet, while people who are using Internet cafes will not be able to access the internet. This is a issue of freedom of expression, and freedom to access information.”
I’ve got to wonder how exactly this directive might apply to hotels and cafes that provide free computers for customers to use, although they’re not primarily “Internet cafes” as such. I have a rather sneaking suspicion that lucrative businesses that cater primarily to Internet-addicted foreigners would probably be able to get away with an exemption—or at least some healthy bribes.
Sure, it’s unclear exactly how much power a “circular” actually has to effect change here in Cambodia, or if this is likely to ever become law. But the fact it’s floating around at all is a disturbing indication that the Cambodian government is looking into restricting its relatively free Internet, following the deeply dubious lead of China, an influential friend to the Hun Sen regime.
Furthermore, they’re doing it in a way that’s downright condescending. Did they really think the pro-Internet freedom lobby would fail to notice and condemn this immediately?
Finally: even if this measure never becomes law, it’s enough of a Sword of Damocles over the heads of Internet cafe owners. It could easily be used as a rationale for unscrupulous sorts in the government to collect hefty bribes from owners if they want to continue operating. As we well know, that could get ugly.
No one knows exactly where these cafes are in relation to schools, and putting them down on paper could help alert the owners whose businesses are at risk of closure, or at least serious extortion.
Furthermore, this action would indicate to the government that Internet freedom supporters are absolutely paying attention—and a supposedly “sneaky” circular like the Internet Cafe rule is by no means going to go unnoticed.
“We want to crowd-source the location of all the Internet cafes in PP, because whether or not the government decides to implement this decree—which seems unimplementable—it does allow them threaten and intimidate owners of internet cafes to pay bribes to continue operating,” said Nora Lindström.
So if you’ve got any time this week and are an advocate of the free Internet in Cambodia, head to Urban Voice Cambodia and document your friendly neighborhood Internet cafe. You can submit a report here, and it’s a very easy process. Every little bit helps.
It’s becoming increasingly dangerous to be a peaceful protester in many parts of the world, and impoverished, corrupt Cambodia is no exception.
Since November 2011, gun violence against peaceful protesters has been on the rise in this troubled Southeast Asian nation. Local NGO Licadho has found that five land-dispute protests turned violent between November and January of 2012, while a city governor has been personally involved in a February garment factory dispute. Almost no arrests have been made in these incidents, and the police seem markedly disinterested in pursuing prosecution.
In what has become perhaps the most widely publicized case, a city governor personally fired into a crowd of 1000 garment factory protesters in Bavet, seriously injuring a 21-year-old woman and wounding two others. Bavet city governor Chhouk Bandith promptly disappeared after the shooting, although he allegedly showed up at the woman’s hospital to ask her not to press charges in exchange for money.
Even Cambodia’s deputy prime minister has jumped into the fray, after local police, at his request, offered the 21-year-old victim $500 if she did not press charges. The young woman, who is nursing a serious chest injury, refused the money, committing a noble act that may come to haunt her later under Cambodia’s current leadership. As for the governor, he has lost his job –although he will still retain a provincial government post of some kind.
Trafficking is indisputably a big problem, but many outside observers in Cambodia make the mistake of assuming every woman in the sex trade is a trafficked and helpless victim. Although the electroshocked zombiefied 14-year-olds of Kristofian writing are definitely out there, there are plenty of over-18 women who have decided the sex trade appeals to them considerably more than working for minimum wage at a garment factory.
This passage from the article linked above is of particular interest…
“In the sex workers’ union office in Phnom Penh, a banner pinned to the wall reads, “Don’t talk to me about sewing machines. Talk to me about workers’ rights.”
Cambodia’s anti-human-trafficking law has given rise to police raids on brothels where sex workers are “rescued” and retrained for jobs in low-wage garment factories. Workers get minimal instruction to operate sewing machines and usually receive no wages during the two- or three-month training period.”
I’ve also heard heresy of former prostitutes being “rescued,” locked in training centers, and escaping back into the streets….doubtless while their saviors scratch their heads in confusion. But is their reaction really so strange?
I am the same age as many of Phnom Penh’s bar girls, and I liked chatting with them at the foreigner-frequented girly bars I would occasionally find myself at. They were charming, spoke good English, and were usually happy to talk with a foreign woman their own age. Although I couldn’t exactly delve into their personal lives over a beer or two, they didn’t seem like they were being locked in a prison or forced into slavery or regularly beaten with chains.
Maybe life at the bars was not their first life choice, but in their minds, it was probably an improvement over life in the rice paddy, or a job in a poorly insulated and potentially dangerous factory.
These motivations would be considered pretty normal for an intelligent young woman, if these women didn’t just so happen to be impoverished Cambodians. Curiously enough, the idea that these women might enjoy drinking beer, having sex, and hanging around in bars more than menial labor is considered to be something close to blasphemy in some circles. Me? I’m 23, and I believe it.
If we want to stamp out prostitution and the sex trade in Cambodia—and we never will entirely—we need to help women get decent and decent jobs, jobs considerably more appealing than minimum wage sewing work.
As it is, assuming that every single bar girl—prostitute or otherwise, and many are not—is both victimized and helpless is downright patronizing. Let’s give these women some credit for their intelligence and initiative in a desperate situation. Do you really think you’d choose much differently if you were in their shoes? I know I wouldn’t.
Borei Keila evictee Art Samnang spoke to me yesterday after her second arrest.
Land Grabs in Cambodia
Human rights in Cambodia have gone from bad to worse in January, prompting Human Rights Watch to issue a damning report on the Southeast Asian nation’s rights slide.
The Cambodian government has been especially rough on protesters demonstrating against an apparent land grab. Rampant government-backed private development means those unlucky enough to live in the path of progress are taking to the streets in a desperate attempt to find justice.
January has already seen the violent eviction of hundreds from their former homes at the Borei Keila slum—forcing over 300 “extra” families not provided for by the Phan Imex development company to take to the streets of the capital city of Phnom Penh. Eight were arrested in the eviction fray for resisting the government, and remain in prison.
Cambodia is in the throes of another land-grab drama in the early days of 2012, after the Borei Keila slum development was suddenly razed on the morning of January 3rd. The wealthy Phan Imex development company had promised the slum’s residents 10 alternate apartment buildings to make up for their soon-to-be destroyed homes: instead, the company built only 8 facilities.
Many Borei Keila residents fought back against riot police, in a fray that lasted half a day and saw plentiful injures on both sides. But the villagers couldn’t hold out long: 300 families soon found themselves out on the streets.
The luckiest among them were eventually allowed to take plots of land in desolate and far-off relocation sites, with hygiene and safety standards worse than those found in many refugee camps. The unlucky are now homeless, roaming the streets of Phnom Penh and asking for help from anyone who will listen. Despite protests outside Western embassies, no international help is forthcoming for the abandoned of Borei Keila.
This is a photo essay about the Borei Keila site itself, which I managed to get into after my friend Alex, who lives near the site, texted me to tell me the police had finally moved away from the area. Cops barred my previous attempts to get into the site, after some heart-wrenching photographs were released to the public from the January 3rd violence.
“They tore down one building and they’re tearing down another,” he told me. My boyfriend and I immediately headed over to the site.
I scrambled around on rebar, tile, and brick, and took some photos of the collapsed apartment building. Many random possessions—bras, stuffed animals, clothing items—were strewn among the bricks. Some of these things probably belonged to the protesters I’ve spoken with outside the US Embassy.
This woman was trash-picking the wreckage of the apartment complex. I don’t know if she lived there or not.
It is at times difficult to avoid the Stuffed Animal Poignantly Sits Amid Wreckage photograph. In any case, it tells the story.
These kids live at Borei Keila and were interested in me and my camera. I’ve heard the apartment complexes they are standing in front of are slated for destruction in the near future. I hope they have somewhere to go.
This woman was hanging laundry outside her apartment. I think this complex will be taken down soon as well. As my boyfriend pointed out, the hanging trees make the complex look almost like an Angkor-era temple.
Change-agent. Friendly construction workers. Like they have a say in this one way or the other. Some of these guys probably live in very similar conditions.
As my boyfriend and I went through my photos, we stopped at this shot of kids playing outside the still-standing complex. “They were playing some game involving shooting each other,” I told him.
“They were playing riot police against villagers,” he said. “Look at the cardboard shields.”
I’m almost certain he was right. These three kids, after all, saw one of Phnom Penh’s most violent housing riots in recent years on Tuesday. Cops armed with riot shields shot rubber bullets at residents armed with stones and Molotov cocktails. Many were injured on both sides.
Why wouldn’t they decide to emulate the most terrifying – and exciting – event they’ve probably ever seen?
This kid was playing with a toy excavator extremely similar to the one taking down what may have been his former home. The irony was probably lost on him, but I doubt it was lost on the small group of hard-faced adults standing nearby.
The Borei Keila site is directly behind a bus station where there are always at least 30 foreign tourists having a drink and awaiting the next bus out. They probably have no idea what has happened to the former residents of Borei Keila. I like to hope they’ll pick up a local English paper at some point during their visit here and realize what was going on literally behind their backs.
A food vendor has set up shop outside Borei Keila, and a couple of families seem to have taken up residence on mats set up in this sandy corridor, in lieu of anywhere better to go. This man was selling eggs. He didn’t look very happy to see me.
I wish it was easier to explain sometimes why I’m taking pictures of other people’s pain.
The common theme in these examples of extreme government force?
A total lack of respect for Cambodia’s own people.
Cambodia has become a country so divided by rich and poor that I suspect the top-brass of this nation find it difficult to regard their poorer relatives as people, much less as equal players in an ostensibly democratic society.
Brutal violence against the poor seems to be becoming more normal. We may recall the beating of a Boueng Kak lake protester late last year into a bloody pulp. We may recall the constant clashes between police and protesters at the lake – clashes which forced the World Bank into action (not that it seems to give two farts about Borei Keila).
The people of Cambodia were under the impression that the boot of the powerful had finally, after so much suffering and battle, been removed from their necks. Instead, the poor are finding themselves ground face-first into the dirt once again—in the most literal sense of the word.
Interesting debate on Twitter today over whether Cambodia’s course of development will more closely mirror that of India or China.
The consensus? It’s going to be much more like China. China has achieved a true economic miracle in the past 20 or 30 years.
It has done so by means of forced evictions, the violent suppression of free speech, liberal prison terms, a widely enforced death penalty, and the deployment of a police state so profoundly creepy that it has every ostensibly free Western nation worried.
This is in stark contrast to India, where a robust, if shockingly corrupt democracy, means that people do have some legal apparatus to fight back when a developer wants to take their land. It takes a long time to get things built in India because of this. Some might argue it takes too long.
But India, at least for the time being, isn’t willing to pay the price in human suffering that China has for rapid economic development. For that reason, I’ll take India over China anytime, anywhere, for any reason.
Things are better in this country than they used to be – no one will dispute that. But as one mototaxi driver and Khmer Rouge survivor told us at Phnom Bat last week: “This (the evictions) reminds me of the Khmer Rouge time.”
If someone who survived one of the most murderous regimes in human history is drawing the analogy—the analogy a lot of us international commentators are awfully loathe to draw— perhaps we’d best listen.
Last year, we had Preah Vihear. This year, instead of Thai on Cambodian aggression, Cambodia appears to be turning on its own people.
Worst of all, it is turning on the poor and defenseless.
The Phnom Penh Municipality issued another poor explanation for its detention of 30 women and children at the Prey Speu Social Detention Center Friday. I’m here once again to break it down for you.
Claiming to have “investigated” the 22 families detained at the center, the City found…..
“14 families illegally bought the house on the State’s land (during the restricted period). In exchange to that illegally bought-houses the authority offer compensations with a new plot of land, but sadly they rejected the offer;
06 families illegally bought the house on the State’s land but not for living; instead, they rent it out; (Right, what with being poor and all. One would think if you owned a house, you’d have the right to do whatever you wanted to do it with it.)
01 family had been compensated with a house but later on the house was sold. This family is asking for a new one for their children. (Because keeping an entire extended and prolific Cambodian family together in one tiny apartment will work out great for everyone involved.)
01 family is an opportunist-squatter. This family stayed on the spot hoping for compensation. Initially, they agreed to the authority offer of 500USD and a plot of land but later on they rejected the offer. (Because that is a lousy offer. Having seen those plots of land, I agree with evictees who said “they aren’t fit for a dog.” Further, having talked to these evictees, the cash offers were more along the lines of $50—and those who did receive plots of land often had to pay cash to get them)
One pities the city authorities. Trying so hard to get by with their paltry incomes, scraping for gas to fill up their Lexuses and keep their wives in high-end footwear—and these horrible evictees are asking for something more than a piss-stained plot of land in the middle of nowhere in exchange for their long-term homes.
We would like you to thoroughly consider is it appropriate that some families illegally bought the house on the state’s land while others initially agreed to the arranged compensation policy but later on they rejected the offers?
Poor developers – it must have just slipped your mind to build those last two apartment complexes.
After all— it’s so easy to forget to complete major building projects. (Case in point: the Phnom Penh skyline).
Now, here’s the real winner of the statement….
“Transferring these 22 families to temporary stay in Prey Speu Center does not mean that they are under detention. The purpose is to give them a proper care and provide vocational trainings. But if you still accuse that the authority attempts to detain them, we would like to question if they were under detention why they can freely and comfortably make phone calls out or contact outside the center? During their stay in this center, the authority is trying to figure out their real needs and intentions. They are entitled to every rights as long as they respect the law. “
The Phnom Penh Municipality appears to believe that we—media, evictees, the public—are unaware of the fact that detained people are generally allowed to make phone-calls. Cell-phones have this remarkable ability to operate through walls. You should try it sometime.
Also, note “the authority is trying to figure out their real needs and intentions.”
The writer of this statement, with that single sentence, has suddenly rendered this supposedly “comforting” missive creepily Orwellian.
In a democratic state—which Cambodia swears up and down it is—the people dictate their own needs and intentions, not an amorphous body of authorities at a detention center.
In a democratic state, peaceful protesters are not forced into a bus, along with their children, and shoved into a “center” which various human rights groups have likened to a prison.
Further: Yeng Virak of the Community Legal Education Center has stated authorities have threatened some of the detainees at Prey Speu into agreeing to be relocated to the Phnom Bat relocation camps, in exchange for their release.
This is nothing less than coercion—and once again, this is not what a democratic state does to its own people.
“On the other hand, we suggest that your judgement should be based on an impartial press, not on the bias and misleading one which does not reflect the press ethics and might lead you to wrong conclusion. If possible, we would welcome you to Phnom Penh to see what is really happening rather than only listening to bias, groundless and meaningless information. Then, you will understand the hardship and challenges the authority is facing.”
The only possible answer to this is: I’m media. I’m in Phnom Penh. I’ve been to Borei Keila, I’ve been to Phnom Bat, I’ve been to the US Embassy. I’m drawing my conclusions from what I’ve seen and heard on a first person basis.
The conclusion I draw from these poorly written and argued municipality missives is this:
The Cambodian authorities are operating under the assumption that both media and evictees are stupid—stupid and lazy. I hope we can prove them wrong.