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…