Thursday, October 1, 2015

What’s in a political image?

It appears as though the government always has the innate need to threaten legal action against anyone who in their opinion uses words that seem to criticize them.

The latest case in point was a press conference held by the spokesman for the Ministry of Labor. There is an ongoing discussion about the minimum wage for garment workers with the labor unions. Some of the unions used terms like living wage or minimum wage. Now this obviously very bright spokesman stated that anybody who uses the wrong terminology will have to face legal action. For what I don’t know. What kind of wrong terms can one use in this context? He did not really elaborate on this. One can only presume they want to warn off the union members to go on strike which might turn violent again as in January 2014.

Another example is a speech the PM gave recently. It is a well-known fact that the he often resorts to crude language and threats when dealing with the opposition or anybody who dares to voice even the mildest criticism.

He said if the opposition won the next elections and would act on their plans to reclaim land lost to neighboring countries and redistribute land owned by rich people, they would provoke a war. They would have powerful enemies indicating well-heeled people in the audience. He intimated that they would not stand for it, and neither would the neighboring countries, alluding to the past allegations about Vietnam’s encroachment on Cambodian territory. These ‘enemies’ would protect their rights and holdings. He said that these tycoons are the opposition’s class enemy and taking away their hotels and giving them to the poor would provoke a war. Class enemies –isn’t that a term out of a Communist textbook?

He also referred to the current refugee crisis in Europe saying that the people left Syria, Iraq, and Libya because there is war, there are color revolutions, a desire for change. He must have gotten that wrong somehow. The people are leaving because of religious civil wars raging in these countries (Sunnis and Shiites – ISIS). In none of those countries did a color or peaceful revolution happen. That was the Ukraine before they had their own civil war. These people do want change, that’s for sure, but they want change from autocratic governments and a change in their lives so they can live peacefully. He seemed to imply that Cambodia might undergo the same problems if the opposition won.

The PM also referenced an interview in which Sam Rainsy said the PM wants to avoid the fate of Muhamar Ghaddafi. If he wants to topple him by a military coup Sam Rainsy should reserve a coffin. A very statesman like statement.

One might really conclude from all these statements that he must really be fearful of losing the next election. Why else would he conjure up war? It is as if he is trying to intimidate the entire population by playing on their fears?

Another fall-out from speeches and press conferences like this is the damage to the government’s image, maybe not so much at home but definitely abroad. After all Cambodia is still very much dependent on foreign aid, to the tune of approximately $800 million a year to be exact.  Why portray an image of a bully, although that characterization has clung to him for a long time. If the ruling party has a strong base within the population they don’t need to resort to these crude tactics. They could just let the image of a benevolent, caring government work for them. After all, this is what they think of themselves.

He chastised developed nations for not giving enough foreign aid to developing nations. A little ironic seeing as Cambodia itself is a major recipient of foreign aid. However, without that aid Cambodia would not be able to pay for many budget items, such as its security forces. A better image would behoove him well with the donor nations one might think. The donor nations overlooked many negative things in the past because any cuts in aid would affect the population in their opinion. Let’s not talk about corruption in this context though and where a lot of that money is spent.  He also repeated that request in a speech at the U. N. later. One can only wonder how much resonance this request elicited among the countries that fall short of those goals, e. g. the U. S.

Intrinsically, however, the PM is dead right. If the opposition were to win the next election and embarked on some of the plans, specifically seriously combating corruption, review of land property, sources of income of the rich in the public and private sectors, etc., they would not survive long. The rich and powerful are too deeply entrenched and have a wide network of cronies in place, not the least the many generals who would also stand to lose quite a lot, to accept any meddling in their affairs. A coup would not be unthinkable in that event, or would it? But I am sure the opposition realizes this without any of the warnings and threats. Before the PM left for New York he told the armed forces to look after Cambodia while he was gone. That pretty much says it all. He controls the military, he has the power, and as long as this remains like this, there won’t be a change of government.

On the other side of the aisle, so to speak, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha visited a Cham community the other day. Kem Sokha said there is no racial discrimination in Cambodia. Sam Rainsy supported this remark explaining there is no xenophobia only apprehension about the loss of land that has been going for so long. This was quite obviously in response to the PM’s statement to the new U.N. Human Rights Rapporteur that she should focus on racial discrimination in Cambodia. This should certainly be one point in any effort for reforms in Cambodia. But the claim that there is no racial discrimination is absurd, especially coming from such prominent proponents of anti-Vietnamese campaigns as Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha. They use every opportunity to raise the subject of Vietnamese encroachment, illegal Vietnamese immigrants, and illegal Vietnamese voters rigging the elections in the CPP’s favor to foment racial resentment among the population. Reading or hearing this, one cannot help but think of them as self-serving, sanctimonious hypocrites and opportunists. Sam Rainsy had seriously claimed in one of the past election campaigns that the rapid increase of the population was because of all those illegal Vietnamese immigrants - unproven and outright false. How is that for fomenting racial discrimination?

Sometimes Sam Rainsy was called charismatic. How on earth did he ever attain that attribute? 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Panasastra University Phnom Penh

This is a private institute of higher learning in Phnom Penh. In a previous post I had pointed out the different characteristics of colleges in Cambodia as compared to the West.

Since the secondary education in Cambodia is rather poor, to say the least, and which is evidenced by the poor results of the high school diploma examinations where only about 53% pass and finally graduate, the colleges have to compensate for the lack of rather basic knowledge. Students have to attend a compulsory foundation year, which is nothing else but lessons that are part of the Western high school curriculum, which usually is a prerequisite for college admission.

Panasastra is one of the institutions with a rather good reputation. How it earned that is not quite known. If you go to college ranking websites worldwide it hovers somewhere in the 3000s They do offer morning, afternoon, and evening classes. Tuition is similar to the Royal University of Cambodia, and which is ranked much higher in the 600s. But ironically, the word among students is that the right thing to do is to go to Panasastra. They believe a degree from there will give you better job opportunities upon graduation.

However, Panasastra suffers a chronic shortage of adequate teachers. Normally, students take four courses per semester but it can happen that Panasastra just happens to be short of a teacher for one course. Consequently the student ends up with only three courses. He/she will have to take it the next semester, which naturally results in prolonging the entire time needed to get that degree. If this happens 3 or 4 times, and it quite often does, this will mean at least one additional semester, and it can quickly become an entire year just for lack of proper college management.

Some teachers also have a way of not showing up for class without any explanations. If it is a long holiday weekend some tend to extend it by a day or two. Of course, student attendance is mandatory and counts towards the grade.

Morale among teachers is reputedly not the best. The fluctuation of faculty staff is quite high. That is not good for the quality of courses at a college. Pay is supposedly not that great either, so it is no wonder they don’t attract enough teachers. Still, they have a huge student body, particularly in the English language department.

Another particular and peculiar feature in Cambodia is the fact that students normally do not receive their diploma upon graduation. Sometimes they have to wait 1 year, in some cases even 2, to receive them since there are not enough graduates for a ceremony.

So, if I had to decide again where a son or daughter should go, it would not be Panasastra.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Any Change in Sihanoukville?

It has been a few months now since a new city governor, or mayor as we would call him, and a new police chief were appointed. The new police chief vowed to clean up the city and rid it of undesirable elements and criminals, in particular mentioning Russian crooks. He had one notorious Russian criminal arrested and swiftly deported. This man had become very close to some local officials and even courts. How else could he have avoided legal repercussions here for so long. This was a headline grabbing action and gratefully acknowledged by the few other people, mostly other Russians that had been affected by that so-called oligarch’s activities. The police chief also promised to clamp down on the traffic police’s illegal stopping of hapless foreign tourists to shake them down for a few dollars. They usually found an excuse for pulling them over, but many times they had no cause for that and then just asked them for their international driver license. After many complaints from hotels and their guests, not to mention foreign expats, he told a meeting of business owners that he would put an end to this. This was also duly reported in the press.

Unfortunately, this did not seem to have trickled down to the traffic cops on the streets because they happily kept on pulling over tourists, even demanding as much as $25. This was already in the rainy season when there aren’t as many tourists in town, so they did have a need to bolster their meager incomes accordingly.

Lately, however, there appears to be a larger traffic police presence on the streets, pulling over mostly motorbikes for minor infractions like not wearing a helmet. The writer could not observe any predilection towards foreigners. Should the complaints finally render some results?

The job of the traffic police is enforcing traffic laws, right? Not so in Cambodia. Their job is to collect as many fines as they can from motorists, both local and foreign, to make a decent living. One could call that soft corruption. A society needs a police force but they must be paid enough to support them and their families. With $50 to $100 a month this is hardly possible. Consequently, one mustn’t really wonder at the audacity with which some of the traffic cops collect their additional incomes.

There is a new traffic law going into effect this year, to be fully enforced in January 2016. They introduced stiffer fines for traffic infractions in order to combat the haphazard driving style encountered on the roads on a daily basis. The most ludicrous feature of the new law will be that traffic cops can retain up to 70% of all fines for themselves. That’s the brightest idea in this respect that I have ever come across in my entire life, most of it living in several foreign countries.  The people who came up with this idea need to be awarded the medal of stupidity. While we are on the subject, enforcing rigorous schooling and testing for driver licenses would be a good start to fight the high rate of road accidents and fatalities.

As regards the undesirable elements the immigration police have been cracking down on illegals. One would not believe that such a problem exists in Cambodia at all. But not surprisingly, Cambodia attracts a good number of poor foreigners, or foreigners that have run out of money for various reasons like drug use, etc. and, of course, low-lives that seek refuge in any easily accessible country. These people then have no money to extend their visa so they simply stay on in the hope of not being caught. That went well up to now as the government wasn’t interested in foreigners at all unless they broke a law. Now with the work permits being enforced the immigration police is part of that and in the process weeds out people who overstay their visas. A few days ago I was subject to such an inspection twice – one at my house outside Sihanoukville and one at my business, which means they move from house to house where foreigners live and check on them. They stated they will do their rounds every three months.
On another front, bag snatching in the dark is a popular sport of younger thugs riding on their motorbikes, coming on to an unsuspecting mostly female tourist from behind and ripping the hand bag off their shoulders. Sometimes the bag doesn’t come off easily resulting in the mugger dragging the victim along the road for sometimes up to 100 m. One can imagine what scrapes and wounds these people sustain, let alone the mental anguish they go through in the aftermath. If one thought that the new police chief would ensure a larger presence of the police on the streets after, say, 5 pm, would be greatly mistaken. Police routinely abandon their posts when it starts raining, during lunch time, and after dark. Only sometimes do they install check-points and conduct weapon searches. Reports of rape and other violent crimes among the local population have not decreased either, at least judging from newspaper and internet reports. So has anything improved? I have my doubts. There are no tangible results that anyone can see. However, when this one senator published some questionable documents on Facebook and was promptly arrested for it, the police were reputedly put on alert. One can only surmise the government expected that young restless opposition party followers would take to the streets to vent their anger at this. Consequently, they had no time for any other police business, or so it seemed.

Sihanoukville is one the main tourist destinations in Cambodia. As opposed to the early 2000s tourists now travel to Cambodia not only as an extension to Thailand but as a full destination visiting Phnom  Penh, Siem Reap, Kampot and Sihanoukville at least. Unfortunately, Sihanoukville still has a rather negative reputation among foreign tourists. This is mostly because they see it as one of the dirtiest cities in Cambodia. Trash is strewn all over the place, the beach is dirty and unkempt, sewage still flows into the ocean, beggars populate the beach walkways, even going into restaurants, the streets are flooded after a downpour and the stench of rotten food permeates many places.

The previous governor made a small effort once to clean the beach, which indeed helped a short while, but after the various New Year celebrations it all looked like before. One particular eyesore is the street directly at Ochheuteal Beach – Mithona Street. The many beachside restaurants' rear faces this street and as is the habit of 95% of all Cambodians they just deposit their trash behind their restaurant. This makes for a very beautiful sight, of course. There is a trash removal service, but it you don’t deposit your trash curbside it doesn’t get picked up. Another very appealing feature is the restaurants’ restrooms. They are in a state that no normal Western people would dare use it. And where does all the waste flow. Although there is a sewage pipe running along behind the restaurants it still flowed into the ocean in at least 3 to 4 locations. They put up a septic tank at one end but that quickly overflowed in the rainy season, again producing this intolerable stench.

It is quite ironic that the government put up a sign at one of the entrances to Ochheuteal saying, ‘Sihanoukville – the Most Beautiful Bay’. The bay certainly is beautiful – the beach is far from it.

Otres 1 and 2, very popular destinations, probably outdoing Occheuteal in a couple of years is no better. The roads along the beach are still unpaved and full of potholes – dusty in the dry season, and muddy in the wet season. I am not sure whether there is any trash removal, I know for sure though there is none at Otres 2. At least they all got city water and electricity there now.

This  all says nothing about other primary infrastructure deficiencies, such as good drainage, a working sewage system, proper construction of roadways that last past the next rainy season, directing the flow of truck traffic , cleaning up shanty towns (of course, with alternative housing available).

The new governor promised a complete overhaul of the entire area, designating the southern part of the province for tourist development. Apart from the extensive construction of new hotels and condominium building, any progress on those vital issues that affect foreign, especially Western, tourists, does not seem to have materialized into actions besides the good intentions the powers-that-be formulated. Those formulations have been plentiful in the past. Seeing as where we stand now the past 5 years haven’t resulted in any great strides toward an improvement of the secondary infrastructure.

Just yesterday, however, there was report on the news that the national government issued an ordinance that would fine businesses up to $250 if they just dumped their trash at the curb instead of putting it into plastic bags or appropriate containers. Private citizens would be fined up to $2.50 if they just dropped their trash on the street or any public place. Let’s wait whether this will be enforced. I for one will believe it when I see it.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Dual Citizenship – One Man/Woman - Two Votes

This topic has in the past been the subject of many discussions and varying standpoints in Cambodia. At first glance it may be an issue of law – whatever the law of the land states is generally accepted. Differing interpretations are, of course, determined by moral aspects, and there is no clear-cut singular concept. There is no absolute line what is right and what is wrong in this respect.

Cambodia had many overseas Cambodians returning after 1993. Many of those had acquired the nationality of their adopted country, in most cases the U. S., Australia, or France. They were welcomed as they brought much-needed skills the country did not have. (Although sometimes one had to question what a donut baker would bring to the table in terms of administrative experience. During the Funcinpec/CPP coalition one such was sent to the U.N. as second secretary.)  It was considered a question of unity. The question of nationality had not even come up then. Cambodians born in Cambodia are automatically Cambodian nationals. Therefore, they could return any time. This has been the policy since 1993.

In the aftermath of political conflicts with members of the opposition parties, most notably the leaders of Funcinpec, Prince Ranariddh, and Sam Rainsy of the eponymous party, who had fled the country when they were sentenced to prison terms after being tried for several offenses under Cambodia law, the ruling party began a discussion for single nationality. Initially, this might have been a vindictive thought so that people could not just escape justice by leaving the country, but later it also gained some traction with independent political analysts. Of late the discussion revolved around holders of public office, e. g. members of parliament, the senate, ministers, state secretaries, etc.

Other countries, like the U. S., the U. K, and Australia allow dual citizenship, as does Germany but limited to the E.U. countries. France for one does not allow dual citizenship. Several Cambodians hold both Cambodian and French nationality, which is an obvious contradiction but Cambodian nationality was obtained by birthright and French by acquisition. Cambodians did not have to renounce their Cambodian nationality, which they could practically never lose as long as they were born in Cambodia.

The U. S. allows public office holders dual citizenship; the underlying reason probably being that it still considers itself an immigration country, whereas most European nations do not despite the fact that mainly the former colonial powers have become immigration countries with many people from their former colonies settling there, while Germany is a magnet for immigrants because of its economic power.

Notwithstanding the different rules for public office in terms of nationality, the one contention that many opponents put forth is that there is a conflict of interest for those in public office. Which country has their allegiance? When becoming a naturalized citizen of a country other than their birth country, people have to swear an oath of allegiance to uphold the laws and defend their new country. And this is exactly the point where the moral, if not legal, problem lies. When people become citizens of another country they choose this country as their new home. They vow that their interest and center of life now lies in the new country. They subject themselves to the laws of the new country in all respects. In most instances permanent residence of a certain duration is a prerequisite for applying for nationality. Residents could just retain their old nationality if their ties to their birth country were still closer than to their adopted country. Because of their refugee status most Cambodians didn’t have any personal legal documents with them. The excuse that they would need valid legal identifications in their new country and only naturalization would afford them those is not acceptable. Legal Ids were and are issued to residents too. In other words they consciously chose to make the new country their home, and to sever their political and legal, if not emotional and spiritual, ties to Cambodia.

In this context it is quite interesting to learn whether all people with dual nationality file their tax returns in their adopted country. If you are a European or North American citizen, for instance, you are required to file a tax return for your world-wide income there (with the possible benefits of a double taxation treaty, which Cambodia does not have with any of those countries).

For MPs allegiance might become significant when it comes to voting on legislation that concerns and affects both countries. In Cambodia’s case there is no great risk of this happening it seems, as most legislation at the present time concerns Cambodian interests. There is nothing that the Assembly could vote on that would benefit another country, with the exception of its neighbors. There is, however, no known public official who holds both Thai or Vietnamese and Cambodian citizenship.

Opponents have a point in doubting or questioning loyalty. It is easy to take a political risk including inflammatory speeches that might lead to legal repercussions, or even abuse one’s official authority when a second passport makes it very convenient to leave for distant shores to avoid responsibility. As in Sam Rainsy’s case he used that option three times in the past. Even currently he uses very strong language knowing that if it indeed backfires he can once again leave and go into self-imposed exile as it was euphemistically called. One has to admire Kem Sokha, without agreeing to his statements and policies, that he keeps firing away at the governing party without having that recourse of a second passport.

In the U. S. which is frequently used as a model, the President must be a U. S. born citizen. There is no law barring him from having a second nationality. Prime Minister Hun Sen suggested that the PM in Cambodia should have only one nationality. Most people, even the ones that are neutral in Cambodian politics, would probably agree. I am not so sure about the MPs, senators, etc., but it would make sense. They were elected by their constituencies to represent them in parliament and promote their inherently Cambodian interests. As no foreign national is allowed to do that why should a Cambodian with dual citizenship be able to do that?  

Democracies have the one man, one vote rule. This rule is certainly undermined by dual citizenship. A person can vote in elections in both countries. Admittedly, this may be a small number in the grand scheme of things, but in terms of logic it is not correct. It would also certainly be a legal aberration if a Cambodian MP with U. S. citizenship votes in the U. S. presidential elections next year, or the French elections.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Tale of Maps

The opposition party in Cambodia has for months now conducted a campaign about the border demarcation to Vietnam. They claim that the government is beholden to the Vietnamese in acquiescing to incursions by Vietnamese settlers in the border region. Cambodia is losing a sizable swath of land this way.

They asked the government to make public the maps they use for placing the border posts, again claiming that it uses Vietnamese drawn maps. Unfortunately, the government did not release those maps which only heightened the opposition’s suspicion of foul play, so to speak.

The government, on the other hand, stated that this is not a matter for the opposition to handle, which only uses this issue for their political gain. One must understand that Vietnamese people are not too popular with the Khmer, although many have lived here for decades and are naturalized citizens. The opposition can ask questions in the assembly and that’s about it. It is not a job for the legislature but for the executive. Not the wisest statement either, if you ask me.

The opposition even went so far as to gather about 2,500 people to travel to the border to inspect border posts. They were met by hostile Vietnamese farmers there and it came to minor clashes. Reputedly, the opposition MP who organized this trip spent $50,000 on it. (Like there wasn’t a worthier cause to spend this kind of money on.)

In the spirit of the culture of dialogue that both parties had come to follow the government relented somewhat and admitted there might have been mistakes in placing some of the border posts. The PM sent a letter to the U. N. and the French government asking them to send the original maps with the border delineation the French had drawn up in 1939 and which were later deposited with the U. N. and the French government in 1964 by King Sihanouk. This was to show that this map or actually maps are identical to the ones the government is using for the border demarcation and which formed the basis for the border treaty with Vietnam in 1985.

One can understand that this may be an issue of importance for a country but the opposition’s use of this one issue to enhance their profile is sort of preposterous in a country where so many things need to be addressed much more urgently. Additionally, it would appear that border issues had better be handled on a bilateral basis in negotiations with the other country – and that is clearly the government’s job.

Another MP traveled to the U. S. looking for copies of those maps in the Library of Congress. Another opposition member – a senator - fabricated documents, in fact falsified and forged the border treaty with Vietnam and posted it on Facebook. This brought a swift response. This MP was arrested and charged with treason, admittedly a rather far-fetched interpretation of the term treason.

The PMs goodwill and patience with the opposition’s shenanigans was over. He called Sam Rainsy the leader of the thieves and a liar. I don’t know whether the much heralded culture of dialogue is still in effect. Judging from the PM’s speeches lately it does not seem so.

The U.N. sent an envoy with the maps and they were duly compared; apparently they were identical with the governments maps except for a couple of partials that were UTM projections. A week later the maps from France arrived with the same result.

One would believe that the matter would now be put to rest. But the opposition is still clinging to what might be considered the last straw. They said even though the maps were more or less identical that doesn’t mean that the maps the government used for this comparison were actually the ones they used for the border demarcation.

There is a respected cartographical, reputedly independent scientist working on this. He declared the veracity of the government maps and their use and challenged the opposition to follow the entire border, even on foot through the jungle, to ascertain the accuracy of the demarcation.

One would think that aerial photography and the use of GPS would be sufficient to answer any questions. There is even a company in Phnom Penh that specializes in this. Aerial photographs can be converted into the exact scale of a map and overlaid on it to identify the exact course of a border line. Understandably, this might be a little difficult with impenetrable terrain or where the forest foliage makes this all but impossible. There are many ways to use a map of whatever projection and GPS to identify exact locations. (The writer was trained in navigation in his young years.)

Of course, it is a well-established fact that the opposition has racist tendencies; it has been using those racist overtones in all their election campaigns taking advantage of the population’s general animosity toward Vietnam. Looking back in history it is probably not too hard to find the reasons why there is this racist undercurrent in Cambodia. After all, they lost land – southern Vietnam - to the Vietnamese 400 years ago, and again when the French draw the border somewhat arbitrarily in 1939, and lastly, were occupied by Vietnam for 10 years after these invaded Cambodia to overthrow the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. Many in the opposition still want to reclaim Kampuchea Krom (southern Vietnam), Prey Nokor (Saigon), and Koh Tral (Phu Quoc). I believe in political parlance this is called revisionism. The map issue is just another all too transparent populist strategy of pandering to the less educated Khmer with Vietnamese resentments. History cannot be rewritten or changed. What the opposition fails or does not want to understand is that these Vietnamese territories are recognized under international law, and the international court would not award Koh Tral to Cambodia – not to mention the question of jurisdiction as two recognized governments affirmed the border drawn by the French. According to historical research there was no Khmer presence on Koh Tral during the last 200 years. And most importantly what would they do with the island? For a more in-depth look at this issue see

Personally, I think the Foreign Minister was pretty much on point when he said the opposition must think all is good in Cambodia because they only harp on the border map issue.  Well, even if there are discrepancies they could and should be worked out in a different way, just like in any other civilized country. The Spratley Islands and Kuril Islands, both hotly disputed territories, are not domestic issues of the magnitude in the countries concerned the opposition makes the border issue out to be here. At present the opposition engages in pure demagoguery. Why don’t they just let it go and focus on the things that concern 99% of the population not living the Svay Rieng border region for a change?