NOTE: If you have been linked to this page in search of my story: Cambodia and Thailand: One Year Later, that page has now been relegated to the archives. Please click here to read the story.
The political stalemate that has prevented Cambodia from forming a new government following the July national elections has grown from a shake your head, chuckle, and have another beer and talk about something else kind of situation to a hmm.... there are actually some serious problems developing here.
The results of the election found the ruling Cambodian People's Party short the necessary seven seats to have the two-thirds majority needed to form a government outright. Yes, that's right, I said two-thirds majority, not 51% like most normal countries, but two-thirds. But that's what's in the current constitution which dates from Sept 21, 1993 (amended March 6, 1999 for the establishment of the senate). This constitution was the final mandate of the UNTAC mission. And do you think UNTAC had any influence on this document? I digress, neither of the runners-up, Funcinpec nor the Sam Rainsy Party, have agreed to join in a bipartite coalition preferring instead to take part only in a tripartite arrangement or nothing at all. As if it was their decision to make. The two losing parties also went so far as to form the "Alliance of Democrats" which is essentially a powerless and meaningless organization that, other than in one particular almost daily English-newspaper, has been ignored. As it should. Losers of elections do not have the privilege of dictating to the winners how a government is going to be shaped.
So seven months later, hamstrung by a two-thirds majority rule clause, Cambodia remains without a functioning government and problems are beginning to develop.
The one situation that has received the most media attention has been the several apparent political assassinations of opposition figures. Such killings are hardly unique to Cambodia and are in fact endemic to the region, if not most of the developing world. Not to trivialize the death of anyone, but I do find it curious that such assassinations receive so much attention outside of Cambodia when in neighboring Thailand, a considerably more developed country that experiences no shortage of politically-motivated violence, such actions are largely ignored. I've often said that Cambodia is unfairly scrutinized by the international community in respect to politics and human rights, no doubt in part due to the large presence of international organizations and international aid, and I do wish that Cambodia would be treated more equally as its more developed neighbors are. I'm all for political freedoms and human rights but it often seems Cambodia is unfairly held to higher standards than its neighbors. With that said, I'm going to get away from the political violence issue, because it really is not the problem here.
The problem here is there is no functioning government.
Without this government, vital infrastructure projects that involve international aid are on hold as this aid is suspended in the absence of a government, government agencies are in a funding crunch, and foreign investor confidence is diminishing. We may have very well lost a year of road construction, which may push, for example, such important projects as the Poipet to Siem Reap highway from a projected 2006 completion date to 2007.
Street corners of Phnom Penh are occupied by military and paramilitary forces, apparently as a measure to provide some sense of security no matter how shallow it may be. There is a sense in the capital, albeit small, that something could "blow". Personally, I don't see any reprise of that little 1997 military exercise as there are no opposition forces or opposition government members that need to be removed. Unlike 1997, this is a case of getting people into the government, not getting someone out. I don't see that a violent solution will be used to end this impasse.
It's been suggested around a few Phnom Penh bars that perhaps seven suitcases stuffed with oh, maybe, US $2 million each might convince a few Funcinpec or SRP party members to defect to the CPP. But seeing as this hasn't yet occurred, my optimism is waning that it will.
Barring an agreement then, there's really nothing that can be done. King Sihanouk has suggested changing the constitution to permit 51% majority rule which would allow the CPP to automatically take the government. But this too, hasn't happened because there's no government to enact a change to the constitution.
At this point, one can only hope that the CPP can find a non-violent way to take over the government, constitution be damned, and make it their first order of business to change the constitution to permit 51% majority rule. Of course should the CPP take the government on their own, the opposition demonstrations would be considerable and Phnom Penh would likely be a mess for a little awhile. Siem Reap of course, would be fine, but the tourists hearing news reports on the other side of the globe won't know this and we'll once again see another tourism drop.
We can only hope for the best. The stalemate shows no sign of improving, the opposition simply refuses to join ranks with the CPP and that is the most unfortunate situation of all. I think the opposition is showing nothing but selfishness. The stalemate is now showing signs of generating true economic damage to the country and it's time then to end it. The elections are over and the results are in. The opposition needs to accept these results, join the government, and concentrate on defeating the CPP in 2008. 2003 is over, the election results will not change, you cannot stage a victory after the game is over.
This small matter of not having formed a proper government is creating a climate that’s leading to some rather interesting fund-raising schemes on the part of the various government ministries and agencies.
At the overland border crossings with Thailand the old vaccination card scam has resurfaced but with a new twist… SARS screening! You remember SARS, right? That little bug that wiped out the tourism industry here *last year*? Well, long since the WHO certified the region SARS free, the good folks in Poipet and Koh Kong have determined that Cambodia must *now* be kept SARS-free and have devised some rather moronic (until, I suppose, they get some naive tourist’s money) scams to make some cash off of it.
Down in Koh Kong arriving visitors are being asked to fill out a questionnaire as to where they’ve been lately and do they have any flu-like symptoms. They are then asked to produce a vaccination card (remember that one?) and a 50 baht “fine” is slapped to those who cannot produce it (which is most people). Curiously, when I last crossed there in December, once the guard realized I lived here and could manage a few mangled phrases in Khmer, the form was pulled away half-filled and I was sent on my way with no further questions asked. But tourists are getting “fined” regularly. As if vaccinations for, I don’t know, small pox and diphtheria are going to prevent the spread of SARS?
Poipet hasn’t quite gone so far as to require filling out a form, but a friendly smiling official (well, friendly and smiling until you ask him what the f@$& is going on!), hands out a yellow form that reads:
There has been no consistency but some tourists have been charged as much as 100 baht to be given this form, other times 50 baht, and sometimes nothing. You figure it out. But whatever the fee, what kind of impression does it make to welcome tourists with a meaningless piece of paper and on top of it all, to charge them for it? Do they really think your average tourist is so stupid as to think the above form actually contains something of substance?
Back down to Koh Kong, I recently heard from someone who had made a visa run from Thailand. As he wasn’t staying in Koh Kong, he was told he could purchase a “transit” visa for 300 baht. So he did. And when he went to get stamped in and out of the country he was told the visa was the wrong visa and that he had to go back to the visa room (one door down) and get a regular tourist visa which they continue to charge 1100 baht for, which with the declining value of the US dollar is now equivalent to $28.50 for what is normally a $20 visa. Transit visa? Seems to be a new twist to the 300 baht “border usage fee” the guards at Koh Kong have for some time now, been levying on expats on visa runs from Thailand.
Back to Poipet, next to the health clearance desk (buy your yellow form and be cleared!) some outfit by the name of Angkor Adventure Tours is selling bus tickets to Siem Reap... for $12!!!!! Imagine two tourists plunking down $24 to sit around for half the day waiting for the bus to fill up and then get dragged along on a cramped five-hour bus trip concluding with the usual guesthouse hassles. Or imagine two tourists plunking down $25 for a taxi and getting to Siem Reap straightaway in less than three hours. Hmm. So here's your reminder: full Cambodia overland information here.
And a bit of caution for those heading to Thailand via Poipet: The recent sacking of the head of the Thai immigration there (sacked because too many Thais were leaving the country to gamble) has been followed up with the hiring of an entirely new staff. Due to a combination of one, Thailand scrutinizing passports more thoroughly, and two and probably more significantly, that this new crop of employees have proven to be thoroughly incompetent and indifferent (at least that’s how it looks from the outside), waits of up to two hours (that had once been ten minutes) to enter Thailand are becoming more common now. Plan accordingly and try to arrive before 11 a.m., noon at the latest.
Western males do be careful walking along Phnom Penh's riverfront. There has been a recent resurgence in slingshot attacks here resulting in some injuries. Marbles and ball bearings have been fired at western males strolling along the riverfront.
What to do? Other than not walking along the river there's not a whole lot you can do. I suppose if you get fired at you could file a report with the police, but you'll probably pay for the privilege. And it would help if you could ascertain where the shot came from because by the time the police turn up there won't be anyone standing around with a slingshot in their hand waiting to be arrested.
Some of the foreign embassies have jumped in the act, issuing warnings to their citizens and complaining to the police about it. But again, short of having police standing on the street corners or actually making an arrest this vicious form of random violence won't cease until the perpetrators grow weary of this latest form of entertainment and go find another way to cause trouble.
Thailand may or may not be establishing new drinking hours. Midnight closures were supposed to go into effect on the 1st of March, but for the second time the government has backed up and decided to review this decision.
Should it ultimately pass, and pass it probably will, this stands as just one more in a long line of legislative acts clamping down on fun in Thailand. Aside from these measures curtailing fun, the feeling among many expats in Thailand is that the Thai government is increasingly fostering anti-foreigner sentiment and have backed this up with a variety of new laws as well as changes to existing laws that, for whatever purpose they may have been designed for, are saying to a lot of expats that Thailand no longer wants them.
So we have disenfranchised expats and now with the curtailment of fun in Bangkok, which will affect tourists and expats alike, how is this going to affect Cambodia and in terms of fun, Phnom Penh?
What you might hope for is that the Cambodian government (whenever we get one) will see what's going on and throw open its doors to the disenchanted multitudes ready to flee Thailand. Well, then again maybe not. When the first wave of would-be expats came to explore opportunities in Cambodia it was to all places: Sihanoukville! Sihanoukville... where people have an annual betting pool as to which expat will be the first to lose the plot each rainy season... where a pub crawl doesn't require knee pads... where the local tourism motto is "Come for our beaches, stay for our, umm, hmm, hold on, we'll think of something"... where thriving culture is found on the inside of a refrigerator... yes, Sihanoukville... and I think this is where I'm supposed to duck or something. I'm kidding guys, really... hey, feel free to take a dig at Siem Reap, we're all full of ourselves up there, anyway, right?
Where was I? Sihanoukville. Well, not really. I don't go to Sihanoukville. But a lot of expat refugees from Thailand came for a look, so many that one resident down there remarked, "No wonder Thailand wants to get rid of these people." And coming from Sihanoukville that says a lot.
Well, what about fun, then? The Cambodian government, well, Hun Sen, anyway, tried once in late 2001 to shut down all the bars, but that was short-lived. And every now and then there are a few mutterings about shutting down bars at midnight. Siem Reap did it for one night and the rumor mill in Phnom Penh has been cranking out murmurings of impending forced early closures, but for the time being, bars in Cambodia are open as late as they want. Phnom Penh offers a number of bars that routinely stay open until very late, and has one bar open 24-hours (note strategic advertisement placement).
So then, will the early bar closures of Bangkok lead to an increase in tourism to Cambodia which would likely be for the benefit of Phnom Penh? Well, I 'ave no friggin' idea, but I would expect it's going to have some effect on nightlife here and Phnom Penh certainly deserves it. Ever since the so-called "Open Skies" policy allowed direct international flights to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh has been complaining that they aren't getting their fair share of tourists. Well, offer them something and they will come. And here's your opportunity...late night bars abound, promote them!
Let's only hope that this doesn't lead to complaints from certain channels that Cambodia will receive nothing but degenerate sex tourists and drunks and something must be done to prevent this from happening! In regards to degenerates, the rate of arrests of suspected pedophiles has surged lately from several a year to several a month, so that issue is being handled already. And as for drunks, or perhaps as the Thai government puts it, "we want a better class of tourists", again, give me a break. An overwhelming majority of tourists seeking to enjoy a late night drink are just that, tourists seeking to enjoy a late night drink. Live and let live. I for one, think it would be great to see Phnom Penh develop a vibrant and varied nightlife and hopefully with some positive international attention for a change, and if it can do it on the back of Thailand, then all the better!
All that fuss in San Francisco about gay marriages hasn't slipped the notice of Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk. The king came out in support of gay marriages in a written statement published on his website, adding as well that transvestites should be "accepted and well-treated in our national community."
Well, if San Francisco is forced to stop issuing marriage licenses, I suppose Phnom Penh can always take over.
A quick update. Last month I reported on the doings of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his attempts at 'freeing' two girls from a Poipet brothel. As of last month's publication date, one of the girls had left her home and returned to the brothel (no surprise, but even Kristof has conceded that a positive outcome would indeed be a 'fairy tale ending', which raises the question why would you 'rescue' two girls on a whim if the odds are so long?). Well Bernard Krishner and his organization, American Assistance for Cambodia (which apparently does not include raising local journalistic standards) took over for Kristof, mosied on up to Poipet and 'rescued' the girl and according to Kristof's reports on the New York Times website, that she is in Phnom Penh planning to study modeling or hair dressing or something. It's an uphill battle... I hope they know what they are doing.
Again, I'm not trying to put down helping to remove a girl from a brothel if it's what SHE WANTS! but my criticism remains that Kristof's decision to free these two girls was made with no pre-arranged plan as to what he could do for them or whether either one was ready to be removed from what has been her only environment for a number of years. The good intentions thing and some road, right?
On a related note, Kristof's involvement has stirred up some debate on journalistic ethics as criticism has been levied that he became too involved in the story and therefore lost his objectivity. Kristof has responded that as a columnist he has more latitude since by nature, he presents opinion-based stories, anyway. I support Kristof in this respect, though I don't consider myself a journalist in any normal sense (I'm too sloppy among other things). I do, however, produce opinion-based stories derived from my own experiences that can at times be heavily influenced by my own personal biases. However, I don't consider my readership to be stupid, but rather, know they are perfectly capable of recognizing opinions and bias when they see them and can deal with them as they see fit. I also believe that in all but a few cases where I may really have dropped the ball on an issue, I don't limit my ability to educate or entertain people. No reason then, it should be any different for Nicholas Kristof. While I still think his impromptu decision to free these girls was a bit ill-advised, I do defend his right to do so and write about it and I don't see it as damaging his credibility, not in the least.
An interesting story was filed a few days ago by the AFP. Seems the Cambodian government plans to remove thousands of Thai-style Buddha statues that are sitting in a number of pagodas, mostly in the northwestern region of the country. Thai-style Buddha images are illegal in Cambodia and have been since 2002. Apparently, there is concern that these images create a cultural intrusion which Cambodia would like to do without.
Chao Sikano, chief of the religion department in the Cambodian border province of Banteay Meanchey was quoted in the Cambodia Daily, "'We are worried for the future of our religion.... We will have a crisis for the next generation... The Thais have a long-term strategy to invade our culture and religion."
Here we go again... more divisiveness. <sigh>. You want to remove the statues in favor of your own? Fair enough. But the comments made by Chao Sikano border on the absurd. Both countries are populated predominantly by followers of the Theravada branch of Buddhism. You share the same religion! Your similarities are far greater than your differences.
And what exactly is Khmer Buddhism and what sort of crisis is there? Well, no sooner did this story come out, that another story was filed by the AP of a "war" between rival factions of monks at Russey pagoda in Battambang province. What kind of war? How about firing ball bearings with slingshots and hurling Molotov cocktails at each other! According to the report seven monks were injured and there was fire damage to the temple. And this was not the first fight between these two rival groups, who have been at odds over who would manage the temple. Well, based on a report like that I might be worried for the future of religion, as well.
[Amendment March 3, 2004: Once I publish a story I rarely amend or alter it, but this piece has generated a bit of negativity from a number of Khmers, that I feel it is necessary to elaborate my point as follows:]
First of all, in the original published story I had attached an insulting derogatory name to Chao Sikano. The name has been removed and I apologize to him and to anyone who was offended by it. It was in poor taste and I am sorry for having made the comment.
Secondly, the report filed by the AFP was published in a number of newspapers. In Thailand, The Nation published a more complete account of the story while the Bangkok Post published an edited version. I had initially seen the report in the latter not the former. The Bangkok Post failed to include the following line in their account which did appear in The Nation:
I will be the first to agree that having images of the Thai king on statues of the Lord Buddha in Cambodia is an odd thing indeed and I have no problem recognizing that most Khmers would not find this particularly appealing.
However, apparently my writing was not very clear. The criticism I made was NOT directed at the removal of the statues, Thai king or not, but at the comments made by Chao Sikano. Khmers are welcome to remove any element of Thailand from their country if they so choose. I have no problem with this. I do however, still have a problem with the comments made by Chao Sikano.
Let me make this as clear as possible:
I have no issue with the removal of the statues.
I do have an issue with the comments made by Chao Sikano.
Is everyone clear?
Re: Chao Sikano. I will reiterate that the Thais do not have some strategic plan to impose their culture on Cambodia and I would welcome anyone to produce facts to the contrary. Culture is generally imported not exported, anyway, and no one takes over another nation's culture without that nation's permission. Thai culture, much of which is derivative of Khmer culture anyway, will only replace Khmer culture if the Cambodians allow it.
Secondly, as I have stated, both nations are predominantly populated by followers of Theravada Buddhism. How can Thailand invade your religion when you are both of the same religion? While there are differences found in religious rites and festivals and both nations enjoy their own unique traditions, both countries still share the same *religion*. The similarities are far greater than the differences. At the end of the day, both nations are Buddhist, Theravada Buddhist, and I would only hope that they would both remind themselves of this common ground. Trying to forge a divide over religion is a very counterproductive course of action and I would hope that in the future Chao Sikano can separate local tradition from religion.
Amended March 3, 2004.
You're in a bar. You leave your wallet on the bar or table. The lights go out. The lights come back on. Your wallet is gone. Don't blame the bar owner. Instead, ask yourself, why am I leaving my wallet on the table, especially during a power failure? Seems obvious to me.
So far so good on the avian flu front. While random cases have been popping up in both Vietnam and Thailand, the hysteria that surrounded last year's SARS outbreak seems to have been averted (so far) and we haven't yet seen mass cancellations of tourist plans, though we haven't seen an elimination of them, either. Let's keep our fingers crossed.
Okay, since I give it a bit of coverage in the next item, "Responses", let's talk about the Khmer Connection website. Basically, it's an Overseas Khmer site based in Long Beach, California set up to offer news about the homeland. However, the centerpiece of the site is its rather large discussion forum which helped create the next item.
Last month's lead story, Cambodia and Thailand: One Year Later, though generating no e-mail replies to me personally, was reproduced on several Khmer discussion forums and for the most part, criticized negatively, something that neither surprises me nor bothers me. The mere fact that Cambodians continue to accuse me of having a pro-Thai bias and at the same time, Thais accuse me of having a pro-Khmer bias only reinforces my belief that I am exactly where I should be on this issue.
Seeing as the Khmers, or shall I say, Overseas Khmers predominantly, took liberties in reproducing and commenting on my piece in their own forums, I'm going to reproduce and address some of their comments here.
I would also like to remind some of my Khmer critics that I have spent an extensive amount of time in both countries, since 1997 for Thailand and 1998 for Cambodia, which is much more time in Cambodia then many of you have spent, that I maintain residences in both Bangkok and Siem Reap, and I am neither Khmer nor Thai, which does give me a certain advantage in the objectivity department, especially seeing as this issue is far more emotionally-charged than driven by any form of logic recognizable to most outside observers.
Khmer Connection produced the most commentary. From the politics branch:
From someone posting as khmer1975:
Points I can agree with. I appreciate this because it brings to light one major and seemingly obvious point I overlooked, and my apologies for having done so. When I cited reasons why Khmers might hate Thais, I missed a biggie: the appropriation of Khmer culture on the part of the Thais and without credit. This is of course a very legitimate complaint on the part of the Khmers. Certainly a prime topic for a future column and again I apologize for that omission.
Someone posting as Simoneek clearly doesn't care much for me:
Slag me all you want Simoneek, but give up on the actress. She never made the statement attributed to her and the reporters in Cambodia admitted that they acted on rumor without verifying the facts. See: http://www.indexonline.org/news/20030227_cambodia.shtml. The Thai government was under no obligation to offer a statement over rumors that were the result of a fabrication in the Khmer press.
It's easy to support something when you don't have to live with the consequences.
The international community didn't get involved because it was a dispute between two sovereign nations and there was nothing to get involved in.
You're right, you didn't have 50 million dollars.... and who once again has access to Preah Vihear? Thailand, that's who. And what country is finding a government most agreeable to their investment plans in Cambodia? Thailand, that's who. One way or another this bill will be paid.
That's not what you showed them.
I have not once ever heard anyone from any nation say Angkor Wat belongs to Thailand.
That's *exactly* the point I made. I defended the Khmer position and suggested Thailand might do well to adopt the same thinking in respect to northwest Cambodia (and a majority now do).
I'll concede one point to Simoneek, agreed, there is a difference in how Thailand and America have behaved after the war. However, the United States, while taking in refugees, did continue to support the Khmer Rouge throughout the Vietnamese occupation and even today, is attempting to influence Cambodian politics via the distribution of aid.
Every expatriate community uses its own workers to one degree or another. This is not limited to Thais. I would point out though, that of the many small businesses I know that are Thai-owned, every one of them has an almost entirely Khmer staff.
Of course you didn't see them, very few visit Phnom Penh. They mostly visit only Angkor and since the riots, their numbers have diminished significantly. Thailand's tourism business is far from bankrupt. You are aware that for every tourist that visits Cambodia, Thailand receives approximately 25 foreign visitors?
CrashX adds some considerably more intelligent and enlightened opinions:
From Khmer Connection, Arts & Culture branch:
Re: my comments about the lack of intelligent discourse on Khmer discussion forums, we have some intelligence from Dario:
And how many Khmers died from the bombs of the Americans? I did mention, though in a more general sense, the horrible treatment Khmers received from the Thais following the fall of the Khmer Rouge and asked why there was no hatred for America considering what that country did to Cambodia?
I said, "And then only under intense international pressure did Thailand allow the refugees through and camps were set up."
I have made this point in previous columns.
From Point_Dexter, this was in fact, not directed at me but to another respondent, but as I'm not Khmer, it's still relevant and the writer makes some good points:
And from Camweb.org:
From someone posting as Sot:
Actually Sot, the destruction hurt all businesses in Cambodia, including Khmer-owned. And I've heard a lot more than one Khmer spew hatred. And I've heard a few Thais do the same, too.
Anyway, enough of that. One of these days when I get my discussion forum up and running we can all run around in circles over this topic... or not.
Letters from the virtual mailbag.
It's not Cambodia, but it does address a glaring omission of talesofasia:
I will deal with this deficiency... when I can.
Last month re: Internet phone shops and the ban on internet telephones in Cambodia, I said the following: "There's no denying that this ban is for entirely selfish reasons on the part of the government but it does make for a pleasant change to walk into an internet shop and not be bombarded with the sounds of Khmers yelling into these phones as loudly as possible and repeating every sentence (which means they get to hear themselves four times!) as they communicate with overseas relatives." I received the following:
I responded to the writer: "Fair enough and point well taken. I probably came across as more negative than I had meant to be. I don't at all agree with the government's decision on this one, it smacks of nothing but greed and corruption... but I have to say, and please don't take this the wrong way, prior to the ban and prior to anyone ever thinking there would be a ban, it really was annoying sometimes to walk into some of these internet shops while three different conversations were going on at full volume..."
Some travel advice:
Avian flu hysteria:
Any suggestions? E-mail me and I'll pass them along:
Koh Sdech revisited:
Some of the questions I get asked....:
I'm continuing to receive a few travelers' reports every month, mostly detailing experiences on the Poipet to Siem Reap road. They may be read at the Overland page. See the various Travelers' Reports pages. There are now five of them.
I've also begun a Readers' Submissions section which is open to just about anything you want to say. Reader's Submissions will be published on any country and on most any topic. Visit the section for more information.
The offerings have expanded and I've created a new page devoted exclusively to business and employment opportunities. Here it is.
It's a done deal. I now have a Visa merchant's account and if you want to purchase a photograph from me you may now do so on this website using your Visa card. Go to the newly redesigned Photography section for more details.
I have published on this website a considerable-sized FAQ file, recently expanded to 138 questions and answers on a variety of Cambodia subjects that should answer a majority and then some of the questions tourists and would-be expats might have. While I welcome e-mail questions from readers and I try to answer them all promptly and properly, the answers you are looking for might be found in the FAQ file. Have a look. Five sections were updated this past month.
And don't forget to check out the Guide to the Provinces - quick summaries of the tourist highlights found in each of the Cambodia provinces and municipalities.
Siem Reap Guide
The latest version of my comprehensive guide to Siem Reap and Angkor went up on Febraury 7. The section will be updated more or less on a monthly basis as it's proven quite popular even if Google still hasn't quite found it. Have a look.
Guesthouses, restaurants, tours and more: Cambodia businesses to serve your every need.
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