Angkor Again: Exotic Friends

angkorbacksideTo feel jaded about one of the planet’s most impressive monuments, is perhaps, to be tired of life. Or it is just a normal state of the human condition: when confronted with wonder, we are inevitably prone to sorting it away into neat boxes, to (cleverly) making it less and less wondrous every single time that we view it.

So too, has this happened when it comes to me and the temples of Angkor in Cambodia.

I first visited Angkor Wat in 2010 when the idea of moving to Asia was still new and romantically exciting to me: I was set to begin my first-ever newspaper job but wanted first to spend a week wandering around Cambodia’s crown jewel (or whatever) before dropping into the 2 to 12 and the perennial agitated shouting of the newsroom.

So I went to Siem Reap — bought a flight out of Bangkok, instead of braving the dodgy trans-border bus — and waited expectantly in the flight waiting area, looking at the people around me for tell-tale signs of being seasoned expats: I imagined they would all possess thousand-mile gazes and weird scars and interesting clothing choices. I look back on it now and they were pretty much all Lonely Planet toting Dutch tourists wearing practical Khaki clothes, but it felt sort of alluring at the time.

We took a small turboprop with tropical fish painted on it over the great marshy expanse of Cambodia, which gleams like a mirror in the sun from a plane window, and dropped into Siem Reap at the small airport there. It is an old airport: one where you disembark down metal stairs in a Jackie-O esque fashion, stepping into a sweltering and sugar palm-tree festooned plains land. (A landscape that now populates both my dreams and my days — but then, it didn’t. This was before).

The first time I set foot in Cambodia. I was excited: it was a big moment. At the time, I didn’t know how big it would become.

My first Cambodian tuk-tuk ever was waiting for me at the airport to take me to my hotel, driving the ubiquitous motorbike-hitched-to-a-chariot thing that has formed a large part of my daily life and times ever since.

“Different from the Indian tuk-tuks,” I noted to the driver, who was aware of the context and agreed.

“Simpler,” he said, punctuating the statement with a typically Cambodian ironic burst of laughter.


There’s no need to run through the whole description of a first time visit to Angkor Wat, I’m pretty sure. Not here. There’s the shocking size of the place and its awesome antiquity, the creeping vines and austere and crumbling faces of the Apsara dancers the sweaty heat of the day, and the child salespeople who have somehow memorized every world capital at some uncertain point of study. If you have been, you know all of this.

I rented a bike that first visit (an idea i look back upon three days later as rather shockingly ambitious) and sweated my way miles in the sun to the temples, where I maneuvered around large shoals of guided tourists. I climbed to the top of a pyramid temple nearish the Bayon and sat there for a while as a light misty rain began to fall, alone at the top of the steps and watching birds fly from tall tree to tall tree.

In these moments, moving to Cambodia seemed like the best possible choice.

I then took a bus to Phnom Penh and began work at the Cambodia Daily. That is another story: through this, and the passage of months and experiences both excellent and horrifying, I became at one point or another an expat.

And I kept going back to Angkor — when friends came, when family came, when I was around. Because why go to Siem Reap without staring at it? Even if it did cost me $20?

But it has happened: even Angkor Wat has become familiar. I have become, as they say, accustomed to its face.

I would not say the thrill is gone now — but rather, I’d describe it as the sensation of going through a beloved book again that you’ve already read once or twice or three times.angkorafternoongoodYou love the book but have also internalized large bits of it — can anticipate what it is saying before it says it, have figured out the intricacies of the plot and can stare around the corners at what is coming up. You fill in large swaths of it without reading the words. It’s become part of you.

So too with Angkor and me these days, where I’ve found that I can tick off and describe the monuments almost before I see them, know exactly where to navigate to see my favorite carving or strange pillar, or that particularly mango tree swarming with pissed-off weaver ants.

To that insufferable normalizing bit of my brain, even an Angkor visit has become something like navigating a suburban neighborhood in a practical car to a Starbucks outlet: it is a thing I know, a direction I can steer myself in.

Looking up at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.Perhaps Angkor has lost its exoticism with me but then I have gained something too.

A cultural marvel has become in some curious respect a personal friend, a closeness rendered to me by the singular advantage of my being able to visit often — just about as often as I’d like, whenever I’m willing to brave the bus-journey up from Phnom Penh and elbow aside a few European tourists to get to where I’d like to go. None of this is arduous.

Yes, there are small secrets still left at Angkor to me, and there are still smiling Buddhas wreathed in vine and pot shards buried in jungle, and forest trails and seasonal waterfalls — but the size and shape of the main temples have become well known and comforting.

It is not defeat but familiarity. It’s a love borne out of going again, and again, and again.

The Obama Drones/Cambodia Analogy: Ur Doing It Right?


Obama’s Nixonian Precedent – New York Times

Drones invade our dreams in 2013, our blogs, and the sputtering discourse on television and on airwaves. Now the pundits have rediscovered the Cambodian carpet bombing nastiness of the Vietnam War era, and are making analogies left and right comparing small-scale drone strikes to the constant onslaught of metal and fire that rained down upon Cambodia. As a Cambodia specialist, I have issues with this — but this is for later.

I address today Mary L Dudziak’s New York Times editorial which takes a somewhat different approach to the Drones And Cambodia discussion: secrecy and that it is Bad News. Much to my surprise, I feel Dudziak managed to use the oft-abused Cambodia–drone strikes analogy without utterly manhandling it.

Most interesting to me about this little column is Dudziak’s assertion that the now-infamous “white paper” on drone use referred to a 1970 statement by John R. Stevenson claiming that “except for scattered instances of returning fire across the border, we [the US] refrained until April from taking such action in Cambodia.”

Now, this is patently false, as Dudziak notes: Nixon had in fact started the sweeping and murderous Operation Breakfast bombings more than a year earlier, operating in a sort of total secrecy that managed to confound observers both inside and outside the government for years.

Here’s what I like about this piece: although Dudziak makes the standard admission that the US carpet bombing of Cambodia was a major factor in the fall of Sihanouk and the rise of the Khmer Rouge — a point that is somewhat contested in research circles — she also admits that making an analogy between the mass destruction that was the Cambodian bombing campaign and the small-scale drone strikes that are our current reality is perhaps not the best idea.

To wit: “The Cambodia bombing, far from providing a valuable precedent for today’s counterterrorism campaign, illustrates the trouble with secrecy: It doesn’t work.”

Exactly. Good arguments against the Obama drone campaigns that use the Cambodian analogy focus on their secrecy and extrajudicial nature.

Bad arguments, on the other hand? They attempt to conflate the political situation of mid-century Cambodia with 2013 Pakistan, making dire warnings that drone strikes will set off some sort of Khmer Rouge like domino effect among the pissed-off-children of drone victims.

And that argument, if you ask me, displays both a remarkable lack of knowledge of the history of the Indochina war and is, well…downright preposterous. But more on that front later.


Ieng Sary is Dead – So It Goes

iengsaryreadingI began the day with the news that Mam Sonando had been released, which segued smack dab into the news that 87 year old Khmer Rouge Tribunal defendant Ieng Sary had died. A busy day. A day that can be defined as both productive and profoundly sweaty, in a way that only Cambodia in March can really be.

The reaction here in Phnom Penh has been what can only be described as “meh” to Ieng Sary’s death. He was not beloved, but I am not sure he permeated the public consciousness enough circa-2013 to be adequately described as “reviled” either.

There is no mass celebration of Ding Dong the Witch is Dead, and if there are mourners, they are keeping quiet.  Sary had lived free up in a palatial and expansive Phnom Penh mansion up until 2007 with his equally guilty wife Ieng Thirith, when he was finally arrested and put on trial at the ECCC. That is where he’s stayed ever since.

He’s kept mostly silent and deeply displeased looking while sitting in the chambers, while being fed decent food and accessing better health care than the vast majority of the Cambodians who the genocidal regime he supported committed to poverty or death. On the whole, it has not been such a bad deal for him: wheeled to the court somewhat like a piece of malevolent and silently objecting furniture when things are in session, kept with (as I have heard) a television and a bed when he is not.


And now he is dead. The journalists circle and wring their hands and analyze, just as I am doing now, just as we will do tonight at the bar. We make it out to be a big deal. The Cambodians I know, on the other hand — well informed and intelligent — say “He was old. And who cares about the court?”

Perhaps this is a better punishment for him than a conviction and a tribunal: he has been consigned to the dustbin, and the people are mostly disinterested in thinking about him. He and his cronies cannot make them do that anymore.

The body was hustled out of the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital around 2:30 PM, curiously enough, just when all the journalists had gathered for a press conference. Perhaps they wanted us to see that he was really dead, although the remarkable haste of the van carrying his remains indicated they didn’t want us to be able to do much poking-around of the body, either.


Sary has been released to his family who are planning to cremate him up in Malaii District (cue the bonfire cracks from the peanut gallery) which I admittedly had not actually heard of before today, a sad admission that I need to spend more time staring intently at a map of Cambodia.

Some journalists are planning to go up to crash the party, but I think I’d rather stick around to see Mam Sonando walk out of Pray Sar prison instead.

They say they are sending a fleet of 1,000 tuk tuks to greet him as he walks: I’ll believe it when I see it, but the idea of a shoal of welcoming and freedom living public transportation specialists is awfully appealing.

Here’s my news story:


Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary dead at 87 – GlobalPost

PHNOM PENH – Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary has died at the age of 87, representatives from the Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia confirmed on March 14 — cutting short legal efforts to prosecute Sary for war crimes committed during the time of the Cambodian genocide.

ECCC spokesperson Lars Olsen confirmed that Sary passed away at 8:45 AM local time in Phnom Penh at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital.

Co-prosecutor Chea Leang said in a hospital press conference that the octogenarians cause of death was “irreversible cardiac failure.” No autopsy will take place, and hospital authorities have released the body to Sary’s family for funeral services.

Read more from GlobalPost…

Money quote for me: “When we talk about legacy, really we’re talking about the end of impunity in Cambodia, where people in power commit crimes against members of the population,” said Smith. (William Smith, one of the co-prosecutors).

“We can’t turn back the hands of time and make the accused young again, so they can avoid death from natural causes.”

Mam Sonando Appeals Court: A few rays of hope for supporters of the radio host

PHNOM PENH – Hundreds of Cambodians turned out on March 5th and 6th to attend appeals hearings for 72-year-old Cambodian radio station owner and pro-democracy activist Mam Sonando, who is currently facing a widely decried 20-year prison sentence on charges of sedition.

The hearings lasted until midday Wednesday, when court observers reported that the prosecution had requested the most serious charges against Sonando be dropped, and replaced with a lesser charge related to illegal forest clearing — leading long-pessimistic supporters to hope the March 14th verdict may see Sonando finally walk free, after spending 236 days in detention.

Amnesty International Asia researcher Rupert Abbot said that there’s “quite a strong chance” that Sonando will be released on March 14th.

“What the prosecutor is now suggesting is outlandish, but it’s a much shorter sentence, which provides some hope that Mam Sonando will be released soon,” noted Abbot.

The hopeful tone was echoed by political analyst Lao Mong Hay, speaking to reporters after a beatific looking Sonando had left the court in a prison van.

“It’s not the first time the prosecutors have changed the charge,” said Mong Hay, referring to the Boueng Kak 13 case, where thirteen female land rights protesters were eventually released on reduced charges, after initial sentences of up to two and a half years.


Hay added that the combined pressure of the public, the French Prime Minister, and a personal message from Barack Obama himself— among others — likely had proved persuasive to Cambodian legal authorities.A citizen of France, Sonando is the owner of Cambodia’s Beehive radio station and is a pro-democracy activist, as well as the founder of the Association of Democrats, an NGO promoting human rights and democracy education. Sonando was arrested in July of 2012, alongside two co-defendents, for his supposed role in a May 2012 sedition plot by villagers in the small village of Pra Ma — although he was not actually in the country at the time of the incident.

Authorities quickly moved to quash the supposed rebellion, igniting a scuffle between villagers and security forces that saw a 14 year old girl die of a gunshot wound.

Cambodian civil society’s appeals to release Sonando and absolve him of the charges fell on deaf ears: on October 1 of 2012, he was sentenced to 20 years of jail for “sedition.” Co-defendants Chan Sovann and Touch Rin received three and five years on related charges.


Mam Sonando’s supporters — largely senior citizens, clad in traditional Khmer scarves and cardboard hats printed for the occasion — repeatedly shouted “Dahkling!” at the court house walls on March 5th, which translates roughly from Khmer into “walk freely.”

The next day, the greatly reduced crowd produced a poster board inscribed with petition signatures in support of Sonando, and watched the gates of the courthouse intently for signs of a resolution.

Association of Democrats undersecretary Pannary Huon waited outside the Court of Appeals with Sonando’s supporters on March 5, hoping but less than hopeful.

“I guess they [the government] is afraid of the elections, and also afraid because a lot of people support Sonando,” she said. “He never did anything wrong, he followed the rules — that’s why it was a crime that they put him in prison.”