Thursday, October 19, 2006

Road Signs

I have seen many rather amusing road signs and billboards in Cambodia, but this little gem that we spotted in Kampot a few weeks ago is pure gold. I will award something to the person with the most amusing caption. My first question was, why are they all wearing scarves if they are that close to the sun?

Also in the amusing photo category is this road sign on the highway to Siem Reap. It would appear that this highway (which, a cynic would point out is the route most travelled by tourists) has been the lucky beneficiary of the all new national road safety initiatives and funds. Not only are there speed humps (which most Land Cruisers seem to speed up for), ripple lines (ditto), but these nifty new road signs. Without wanting to delve too deeply into the realms of petty ex-pat intolerance/racism, the positioning of these road signs seemed to exhibit the customary Khmer foresight and critical thinking.

The L-word and an open solicitation

In yet another predictable bout of self-assessment and introspection fuelled by our imminent departure, I have been fretting about something that plagues vain political leaders towards the ends of their terms – the l-word. In the last 2.5 years I have paid someone to wash my underwear every day, had my feet regularly massaged by sex workers I suspect were trafficked from China, eaten a lot of bread produced by high-end foreign owned bakeries, underpaid countless motorbike taxi drivers, failed to learn Khmer properly, and spent large sums of donor money on projects for the main reason that the money needed to be spent. Beyond this typically middle class guilt induced self-assessment, I have been wondering, what meaningful things have I actually contributed to Cambodia since I have been here and what could I have done better? This is no doubt a question that many people before me asked, and many people after me will continue to ask.

In the last 2.5 years I have had MANY debates with friends and strangers about what if anything should the roles of ex-pats be in Cambodia. I have also witnessed countless volunteers and other ex-pats come to Cambodia (including myself) and get bogged down in the predictable cycle of naivety, hope, disenchantment and disengagement, and hopefully hope again. With the lofty and likely unattainable goal of informing people that may be thinking of coming to Cambodia, I would like to offer an open invitation for responses from current or former residents to some of questions that I have heard endlessly debated:

Can an ex-pat make a meaningful contribution to the development of Cambodia and in what capacities (length of stay, employment status, role, sector etc.)?

Is it inevitable that every ex-pat working in Cambodia becomes cynical and jaded? Is this necessarily a bad thing?

Can the salaries of ex-pat staff be justified? If so, is there a point that they become unjustified?

To what extent should NGOs try to engage the government when working on projects and is this practical?

Has the NGO sector created a false economy in salaries? Is this having an effect on the private sector?

Anger and ignorance

Several weeks ago Anth and I were trying to purchase an updated Lonely Planet (to get some information for our trip to Mondulkiri) from one of the many young children that ply the riverfront with baskets of books. In the throng of negotiating simultaneously with multiple young merchants, I accidentally forgot with whom I was supposed to enter into the transaction with. After paying the wrong kid, the aggrieved party started yelling “Fuck you! Fuck you! You shit! Fuck you!” repeatedly at me. Knowing that this young boy was most likely hooked on glue and was understandably annoyed that I hadn’t paid him, I probably should have let this go. Instead, I made it pretty clear in Khmer that this was not appropriate behavior. He continued to abuse me, and followed Anth and I across the street to the car (DISCLAIMER – it had been raining very heavily and we are both sick that week, so the bicycles had been abandoned in favour of more obtrusive NGO wheels) where he ripped a part of the project sticker off, flicked it at me, and then spat on the door.

Later that night, my housemate was returning home from a few quiet drinks on his motorbike along an empty road, when he was rammed pretty hard from behind by a guy in a government pickup who was on his phone. After the driver sped off down the wrong side of the road, he decided to pursue the vehicle to make his disapproval known. A short chase around town (that mysteriously involved another motorbike following the pickup) ensued that climaxed in my housemate letter out a torrent of abuse (whilst this guy was still on his phone no less). My housemate is a pretty level headed person - so how does this happen? Why was I arguing violently with a 12 year old earlier that day? More importantly, how do things like this happen on a weekly basis in Cambodia?

As a foreigner in Cambodia, you get a lot of the petty "Oh my God I can’t believe my maid didn't buy me the right bread", or the "look at how these ignorant savages ruined my favorite underwear" type annoyances. But what causes the previously mentioned all out explosive impulses and episodes? One could very convincingly argue about the lingering effects on nationwide post-traumatic stress disorder, the social complications associated with loss of face, the relative value of human life, or the effects of having to suppress one's emotions to conform with local cultural norms. I'm neither Khmer nor a sociologist or psychologist – so I am not qualified to delve too deeply into these issues.

One thing I do experience on a regular basis, and that I am convinced is a major contributing factor (for both Khmer and ex-pat alike), is the rampant culture of impunity and the blatant disconnection from and disrespect for fellow human beings exhibited by the privileged few – examples of which I could rant endlessly about. A question I have been asking myself for the last 2.5 years – and don't feel any closer to answering – is why Cambodia's elite behave the way they do? Simple responses would be because they can, or because the entrenched social hierarchy and associated sense of entitlement. There has to be more than this though.

I’m always hesitant to tar all of this country’s ruling elite with the same brush, surely they aren't all the same. I also wonder how my lifestyle as a wealthy ex-pat is morally superior to theirs. One of lingering regrets I have leaving Cambodia is that I never sat down face to face with members of the elite and asked them a bunch of questions to ascertain their values and priorities. How do you view your fellow Khmers? Do you think its morally acceptable to pay $100 to the family of someone you ran over and killed while you were drunk? Do you really need your underlings to chop down another 10,000 hectares of rainforest so you can buy some more investment properties overseas? Do you genuinely want to change the current system of patronage but are afraid of the consequences if the people in your network don’t get their cut? Are you so distrustful of the future after the last 30 years that all you can think about is making enough money so you and your family can live comfortably in France and Australia if and when things turn to shit again? Are you caught up in a status war with all of your friends about who has the newest car, the most bodyguards, the biggest house, and the prettiest mistress?

I know that many of the individuals I’d like to talk to are seemingly rational Western-educated individuals and would be able to offer some interesting responses. Alas I will never know…

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Imminent Departure... (Part I)

For anyone in Oz that may be interested, Anth and I will be back home on December 3 and embarking on an extended Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney road trip. We changed our tickets this morning so that we can see...

Clean Hand Treaties

Last week 110,000 Clean Hand treaties were presented to the National Assembly. Logistically the event went well considering the very short timeframe in which it was organised (2.5 days). One member from each political party was invited to attend the event, but at the last minute the CPP (Cambodia's ruling party) pulled out and the event was swamped by MPs from the Sam Rainsy Party (the opposition party). Given the lop-sided attendance, you could question whether all the advocacy goals were achieved. Hopefully though, a small percentage of the 110,000 people that signed the treaty realised that their voice is being broadcast to those that matter. Now if only the MPs would cease busily squirreling all their monumental assets away in hard to reach locales, and focus their attention on passing the 13 year old anti-corruption law, which is the victim of a protracted game of hot-potato between ministries.

Proud to be Australian

Its really heart-warming to see that the Hun-Sensation is getting a warm welcome from the Australian government. In return for behaving like a true statesman and condenming his friends in North Korea for their rogue ways in unison with Howard, deals that will no doubt benefit everyone are being struck left right and centre, and also:

BHP Billiton/Mitsubishi sign agreement to explore for bauxite in Cambodia 10.11.2006, 01:48 AM
SYDNEY (XFN-ASIA) - BHP Billiton and Mitsubishi Corp have signed an agreement with the Cambodian government to explore for bauxite in eastern Cambodia, BHP Billiton said. A BHP Billiton spokeswoman said the two companies will also look at the potential for constructing an alumina refinery if bauxite mining proves feasible. 'It is very early days with pre-feasibility and feasibility studies still to be carried out,' she said. The spokeswoman said the studies will include environmental impact and the possibility of unexploded ordinance being within areas which may be mined. She said BHP Billiton and Mitsubishi will have exclusive rights to negotiate a mining agreement with the government once the initial studies and exploration work are completed, which is most likely to be by the end of 2008. Earlier, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is visiting Australia, and Australian Prime Minister John Howard ratified the agreement at a meeting in Canberra.

Its nice to see that all that deforested land will be put to something useful. Current information puts the size of the concession at 1 million hectares - which represents %5.5 of the entire country! It should also be noted that BHP are also in on the great oil game that is currently taking place in Cambodia, as they have exploration rights for one of the offshore blocks near Thailand. Roll on resource curse...

Cambodia in a picture