Thursday, January 31, 2008

An Unsung Hero - A Cambodian Life

There are so many heart-rending stories about the people who went through the terror of the Pol Pot regime, then survived the refugee camps in Thailand, to finally make it to a new home country arranged for through a joint effort by the UN and several Western governments, most notably the U. S. and France, which two countries had had the most impact on the recent history of Cambodia. These people arrived in their new homes destitute, without speaking the language of their host countries, not knowing a whole lot about that strange new culture. Most had children who were literally thrown into a new and very different social and educational system, who had to enter school without knowing a word of English. The elders had to find jobs, mostly menial, to carve out a bare minimum of living. But eventually, they all managed to establish new lives, some with great success, some with less, some failed and remained poor, some turned to crime, but the great majority were integrated into their new societies, making their way from poor immigrant refugee to respected members of their community.

In the West we always read about these people and the hardships they went through. Their experiences must be remembered untarnished, undiminished, with respect and honor. After all, all of them were victims of a brutal regime, of two disparate political systems, of the battles these systems fought over hegemony of the world, and worst of all, it was not their fault. Ruthless ideologues subjected them to inhumane cruelty and barbarism with a whimsical, fanatical zealotry.

But there were equally affected people whose stories are seldom heard. Those are the people who lived through the same nightmares but did not flee their homeland, perhaps did not have the opportunity, means, or courage to do so, or simply did not want to. These people remained in Cambodia to work, freely or by force, under the succeeding repressive Communist governments, first Vietnamese, then Khmer. These were also survivors of the Pol Pot regime whose minds will also forever be scarred by horrible memories. These are the people who made up the population of roughly 7 million in 1993, at the time of the U.N. sponsored elections, versus the roughly 150,000 to 200,000 Khmer who fled the country (according to Marjorie Zieck in a study entitled UNHCR and Voluntary Repatriation of Refugees – A Legal Analysis).

I want to recount the story of one such survivor; a man who was not to be vanquished by the vicissitudes of geo-political power play and the unconscionable pursuit of unrealistic political goals by infamous rulers.

Born to middle-class parents in 1946 in the Northern region of Cambodia, Bun* and his parents moved to Phnom Penh as a toddler when his father got a job as a medium-ranked civil servant in the still French-run administration of Cambodia. He was the second youngest child and had two sisters and 5 brothers. The first years of his life were rather unremarkable, in no way different from many others in similar situations. He went to elementary and secondary school in Phnom Penh, where he met and made friends with many youngsters, some of whom he still knows today, 50 or so years later. He finished his secondary education with the French baccalaureate. Being of modest means his parents could not afford to send him to a college or university. His grades weren’t good enough for a scholarship either. Nonetheless, the French education he received left him with an open and inquisitive mind. His thinking was deeply influenced by his French or French-educated teachers, though he has remained to this day a firm believer in Buddhism and the traditional Khmer way of life. It also left him with one valuable asset; he learned the French language.

It was normal for many a young Khmer at that time to seek a career in the civil service, armed forces, or in law enforcement. If he became an officer this would lend considerable prestige to his social status, elevating him above his normal station in Khmer society. So he applied for a job as a police officer. He passed all necessary tests and was accepted as a cadet. According to him, the police force at that time was structured similarly to the military with the rank-and-file soldiers, the non-commissioned officers, and officers. He absolved a strict and severe training at the police officers academy and left as a junior lieutenant. But instead of being employed as a police officer in Phnom Penh, as he had hoped, he was posted with the border police in Northeast Cambodia along the border with North Vietnam, which was, as we know, Communist. He was also in charge of customs, which earned him some extra income. Little baksheeshes were as customary then as they are now. This was in the years of Sihanouk’s reign. He got married in 1967 and one year later had a baby girl, which was to be followed by 5 more baby girls until he finally had a son.

Eventually, because of his good work he was posted back to Phnom Penh where he was assigned to the secret police. Communist provocateurs and agents were omnipresent during those times, the Communist insurgency was in full swing, and the secret police was in charge of counter-intelligence. He was also promoted to the rank of 1st lieutenant.

Bun was not interested in politics and did not belong to any political party. For him police work was just a way of making a living. After Lon Nol toppled Sihanouk in 1970 the whole government and administration of the country was purged of pro-Sihanouk elements. Since Bun was apolitical he was not seen as a risk and was retained in his position in the secret police until 1975 when the Pol Pot insurgency finally achieved victory.

Since he was aware of his precarious situation due to his work in Lon Nol’s secret police he opted to flee from Phnom Penh even before the Khmer Rouge arrived there to evacuate it completely. He went into hiding in his home province but did not go to relatives or friends but went to live in the jungle. He left his wife and children in the care of friends and her family. He thought they would be safer without him. They could always claim he had died fighting with the Lon Nol forces. He also changed his name and got rid of all personal documents pointing to his true identity.

As the Khmer Rouge regime became more and more paranoid killing suspected opponents and the intelligentsia by the hundreds of thousands, he had to go ever deeper into the jungles to evade capture. Food had become scarce throughout Cambodia – a famine was ravishing the country. Altogether close to 2 million people died of starvation and by execution. Bun’s situation was even worse as he needed to survive on what nature had to offer in the jungle. Nowadays, there are reality shows on TV about survival in the wilderness. He actually lived it, and it sure wasn’t a game for him. No helicopter was waiting to evacuate him if he fell ill. He ate what the jungle would offer, insects, rats, berries, whatever he could find. He gave up hope of ever finding his family again when he learned of the scope of cruelty of the Khmer Rouge regime through his sparse contacts with villagers. Bun practically lived far from any normal civilization for most of the 4 years of the Pol Pot regime.

After the Vietnamese had invaded Cambodia in 1979 and driven out the Khmer Rouge he slowly ventured back into civilization, or what was left of it, by first going to his home town, only to find out that his parents as well as all his brothers and sisters had perished in the past 4 years. Inquiries about his wife and children did not reveal any news whether or not they were still alive or whether they had perished too.

He was a city person and couldn’t work in the fields so he decided to go back to Phnom Penh to try and find a job there. The question of his identity he thought he would be able to resolve somehow with the new authorities. Though a (different kind of) Communist of government, but an equally ferocious opponent of the Sihanouk and Lon Nol regimes, was in power, he thought he was too insignificant to be persecuted by them, especially since he had adopted a new name and shed his police past. Most of the new bureaucrats were drawn from different cadres. Previous government officials, if they still lived and had not fled Cambodia, were not employed in the civil service. We are in the year 1980 now.

After working a number of odd jobs he wanted to look for work more in line with his education. But he needed some form of identification to apply at government offices. Since many people had lost everything in the Pol Pot years, including all personal documents, it was relatively easy to get an id card in his new name. Subsequently he was able to land a government job, working in one of the ministries in various positions, ending as a special assistant to the minister in the late 1980s, even though he never joined the party nor was he ever active in politics, continuing his passivity in that respect. He had learned first-hand what it could mean working for the wrong side in a struggle for power. He wanted to rely on his expertise and experience only.

Since his return to Phnom Penh he had also frantically searched for any sign of life or whereabouts of his wife and children. He finally resigned to the fact that they were dead.

In 1982 he met another woman whom he married and with whom he had two daughters. One of the perks of being a government employee was that an apartment was assigned to him and his new family. It consisted of the ground floor of a typical Cambodian-style row house in the city.

However, shortly after getting married his first wife turned up in Phnom Penh looking for him. Now he was in a real quandary. He was married to two wives and had children with both. He loved them both, but the question of love had to be subordinated to how to take care of both families. He decided it the logical way – he believed he had a greater moral responsibility to his first wife and moved back to live with her and their children.

The second wife did understand when he explained he just could not simply leave his first wife. But he will take responsibility for his children with her as well. Thankfully, his second wife worked as a nurse and was not dependent on him for support. She also moonlighted as a first-aid station for a great number of neighbors with minor medical problems. This earned her some extra income, modest by any means, but still enough to feed and clothe herself and her children. Bun contributed whenever he could. He also divided his time between the two families.

His first wife certainly did not like the situation but couldn’t do much in the face of her husband’s resolve to live up to his two familial responsibilities.

In addition, he did find a number of his siblings’ sons and daughters, altogether eventually numbering 20. First there was one, and then a second one heard about him and joined him too. Word somehow spread to the other survivors and they all moved to Phnom Penh to live with their family.

The family with his first wife grew to 7 children, 6 girls and one son, and his one older sister who had also survived the genocide.

Now, this man supported two families numbering a total of 12 people plus an assortment of 20 nephews and nieces. Some of them were able to contribute to the family as soon as they had reached working age. But nonetheless, Bun’s tireless efforts sustained all these people throughout the eighties and early nineties.

Again, the government had helped him tremendously when it assigned him a two-story house in a nowadays very elite section of town, with enough rooms to house his large family.

He sent them all to school for at least a basic education. Some of them fared better than others, but eventually they all found jobs to support themselves. He was their surrogate father. According to Cambodian tradition his nephews and nieces all considered him their father. Traditionally, Cambodian families are very close-knit and children show extreme loyalty to fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, and grandparents. In the same vein, cousins are considered more like brothers and sisters.

On account of his work he traveled quite extensively as part of Cambodian delegations to ‘brother’ Communist countries like East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary, which left him a man with a rather worldly, sophisticated outlook.

In 1988 Cambodia was slowly opening its borders to Western people following Vietnam’s example, which had introduced its own kind of glasnost and perestroika, called Doi Moi (renovation). This was when the writer met Bun the first time. Bun had seen the change in Cambodia’s path coming. He, like many people, did some side business trading goods, initially mostly from Vietnam. But when he came in contact with Westerners, he decided there probably was more of a future in business than continued civil service with a meager income.

In 1989 he did his first business deals with the writer importing goods from Europe. The writer, in turn, saw opportunities there with rising demand for Western goods, as this country virtually needed everything. Money was in short supply, though, which created some sort of natural restrictions on those opportunities. But nonetheless, Bun and the writer set up a joint business importing all kinds of goods, ranging from cement, to batteries, to light machinery.

During the nineties Bun continued raising his big family. This had its benefits too. Whenever we needed some special service, he had someone handy to help with the work. I asked him, ‘Where do you find these people?’ He said, ‘Oh, this is one of my nephews and his friends.’ When I needed a business visa with a longer validity he turned to one of the older nephews who was an officer with the immigration police. I promptly got a business visa for 5 years for only a nominal fee.

As if he hadn’t enough dependents already, his second wife adopted a newborn foundling who had been left on the doorstep of the hospital where she worked. He got this youngest son at the age of 49. Of course, this is not old age for Cambodian men to have children. But normally they are grandpas at that age, which he was too.

He was blessed with good luck in that all his daughters found good husbands once they had reached marrying age. Being a semi-traditional Khmer he did not mind his daughters seeking their husbands on their own. But naturally, he had to approve the match.

His business ventures did not turn out to be so successful since many other people seeing the same opportunities just hopped on the same bandwagon. So eventually, you had 5 or 6 companies importing batteries, for instance, which led to a rapid decline in prices, oftentimes shrinking profits to zero or even a loss.

At the turn of the century he didn’t have much to show for all his business efforts. Eventually he stopped doing business altogether as bigger companies started taking over all sectors of business. He just made enough money to sustain his immediate family.

He renovated his house and rented it to foreign businesspeople. He himself rented a simple apartment for his family for under $100 a month. He lived on the rent income of $500 a month and the little money he earned as an interpreter for French companies who had come to Cambodia. For a time he worked for a French tour operator and made $600 per month. But this was short-lived as the anti-Thai riots in 2003 killed the tourist business.

He then went to work for South Korean entrepreneurs setting up garment processing factories. There he also made $600 a month. In the end he practically ran the factory, but the owners did not show their appreciation by raising his salary. He was too timid to ask for more despite my urging him to do so. He was afraid they might lay him off. In the end he did lose that job when the garment factory went bankrupt leaving behind unpaid wages of about $1 million (which debt the government assumed and paid the workers).

He then turned to on-call free-lance work for other South Korean businessmen. He made $50 each time they needed him for some service. But those calls were not frequent. It was just enough money to pay for the basic necessities. He was in dire straits again, but he plodded on.

I had always told him to sell his house and use the money to start a real business. He always rejected this idea saying that the house was the only thing he owned, and he didn’t want to lose it.

But in 2003 and 2004 his numerous South Korean acquaintances had started to invest heavily in real estate and made a lot of money. The land speculation boom had begun. Now he decided to sell his house and go into real estate to try and finally make some real money.

So he bought a small piece of land and ‘flipped’ it after a short time. With this money he bought a bigger piece of land and developed it and sold half of it. He is currently keeping the other half for prices to rise even higher to increase his profit.

Since he didn’t have enough money he asked his meanwhile grown daughters for loans, $5000 here, $10,000 there. So all his family will participate in the profits. (One son is still in college, the other still in school.)

Additionally, he became a partner with one of his French acquaintances who had opened a couple of boutique hotels in Phnom Penh. They are building another boutique hotel banking on the growing tourist business. This turned out to be a very profitable investment.

Except for his son, the second daughter with his second wife, and his adopted son, all his children, nephews and nieces are married now and have their own children. They all have good jobs (by Cambodian standards) or successful small businesses. One daughter met a Khmer-American on his visit to the land of his parents. They eventually got married and she now lives in the U. S. and has two children.

Thanks to Bun they all turned out well and are honest, hard-working and good family people.

It looks as though at the tender age of 61 success and a modest prosperity has finally come his way. He built a new house for his wife and the family of one of his daughters with her husband and two children live there too. He owns a big second-hand Mercedes limousine; his son drives a small Korean import. He has a live-in maid who looks after the grandchildren.

Every Friday the family gathers at his house to eat and chat and simply have fun. They all get along well with one another. After all the hardships in his life, Cambodia is finally good to him.

When I asked him why he has his daughter and her family living with him, because I personally can’t wait until my 4 children have left the house, he replied, “Oh, I can’t just live alone with my wife, it would be too boring. I just love when the grand children run all over the house, like when I am lying on the floor and they trample all over me. I need this.”

This is the story of an average Cambodian. This is the story of a hero. By his actions and what he did that many people would not do, Bun exemplifies the spirit of the people of Cambodia of the time that truly loved their country. He took charge of his own fate showing courage, bravery, and patience. He had an unwavering, indomitable belief in survival.

People meeting Bun would never guess what this man went through; and he doesn’t tell this story to anybody. I am a rare exception having been his close friend for almost 20 years.

When he met old school friends, some of whom have reached a high position in government, he can explain away his name change, because people in Cambodia understand what it was like in the late seventies.

When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, a large wave of refugees left the country. A lot but not all feared for their lives because of the threat of persecution by the Vietnamese authorities. Among them were followers or members of the coalition government that had been formed to oppose the Vietnamese forces in Cambodia. They felt they had no choice but to leave Cambodia to save their own lives.

Bun on the other hand elected to stay and tough it out. He may have done so instinctively, without much thought to politics, motivation or whether any other options were available. He believed that his family was still alive. He fervently hoped to be reunited with them. That may have played the decisive role in his subconscious decision-making process.

He made sure that over 30 people for whom he assumed responsibility over the years made it through those hard times to build a new life for themselves. This alone was a Herculean task in itself. He had a will not to be defeated by the circumstances in his country. He showed tenacity and perseverance. But most of all, he was of firm and steadfast character when it came to helping his family survive. He is one of a generation that built the foundation of today’s Cambodia. They cannot be given enough credit for their contribution in building a new and free Cambodia. They are the ones making it possible for erstwhile refugees to come back and possibly retire in their homeland. And they are the ones that will pass on to their children a country worth living in again and to be proud of. A country that has a long way to go but there is this proverbial silver lining on the horizon, not the least thanks to him and his contemporaries.

*Name changed.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Land Speculation and Building Boom Revisited

Mon Jan 28, 2008By Ed Cropley

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - After decades of war and upheaval, including the Khmer Rouge "Killing Fields", Cambodia is enjoying an unprecedented boom, its economy expanding at around 10 percent annually for the last five years.But the breakneck growth, fuelled mainly by garment manufacturing, tourism and real estate development, is turning its once-sleepy capital into a building site and forcing many ordinary Khmers from their homes."I will move only when they pay me enough to find another place to live," said 49-year-old Ngay Tun, a fisherwoman living on Boeung Kak, a 120 hectare (300 acre) city-centre lake about to be drained and filled in to make way for a housing project."I worry about it every day, that they are going to come suddenly in the night to kick us out," she said, paddling a small wooden boat through floating banks of morning glory.While the outlook for the garment industry and tourism appears solid -- especially while the U.S. dollar, Cambodia's de facto currency, continues to fall -- the same cannot be said for real estate, where prices are spiraling to dizzy heights.Figures from Bonna Realty, a leading estate agent, suggest the price of prime Phnom Penh land doubled last year to $3,000/sq m -- compared to less than $500 in 2000.By contrast, land in Bangkok's downtown Silom district is $5,000/sq m, while Ho Chi Minh City, the hub of neighboring Vietnam's red-hot economy, prices can be as high as $15,000."There is a debate about whether there's already a bubble," World Bank country economist Stephane Guimbert said."On the one hand, clearly the market was very depressed until a couple of years ago because there was little security and stability. But on the other hand, it's surprising that prices are increasing so fast," he said. In one of the first signs of overheating, annual price inflation has spiked to more than 9 percent in the last year, almost double its level in the preceding five years, and anecdotal evidence points to big upward pressure on wages.MISSING BILLIONS COME HOME?At the top of the market, prices are being driven by huge foreign-funded ventures such as "Gold Tower 42", a $300 million South Korean apartment block which, at 42 storeys, will be three times higher than Phnom Penh's current tallest building.Even though it will not be ready until 2012, Cambodia's super-rich are already snapping up some of the 360 units on offer at $2,150 a sq m, only a shade cheaper than Ho Chi Minh City.But such prestige projects are the tip of the iceberg, and foreign funding accounts for only a fraction of the boom, analysts say.The domestic financial services industry is growing fast -- private sector lending by Cambodia's 20-odd banks grew 60 percent last year -- but remains too small to be funding projects to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.Instead, analysts say, much of the funding is Cambodian cash stuffed into mattresses, locked up in gold, or squirreled away in anonymous offshore bank accounts for years."There are a lot of people in this town who are fantastically wealthy," said Trent Eddy, director of Phnom Penh-based Emerging Markets Consulting. "The banks are not doing mortgage lending for the sort of stuff that's driving up prices."The most popular theory on the streets of Phnom Penh is that a global banking clean-up after the September 11, 2001 attacks smoked out billions of dirty Cambodian dollars sitting quietly in bank accounts in Singapore, which encouraged its repatriation.With few other investment options, and a steadily improving regulatory and legal framework -- not to mention political stability under ex-Khmer Rouge strongman Hun Sen -- real estate is the obvious choice for the prodigal loot, so the theory goes.HYPE MARKETEven though the economy remains one of Asia's smallest, with a GDP of around $6.5 billion, the hype is such that international portfolio investors have been looking into setting up domestic real estate funds, mainly in the hotel sector.U.S. property services firm CB Richard Ellis is also hoping to get in on the action with the opening of a Phnom Penh office in the next few months.The prospect of revenues from off-shore oil and gas by 2010 reaffirms the view of outsiders that the economy is only heading in one direction, and that rapid urbanization and demand for better housing from Cambodia's 13 million people must follow.The clearest example is another South Korean venture, a $2 billion "new town" called Camko City taking shape on the northern outskirts of Phnom Penh."They are targeting primarily the Cambodians. There's very little accommodation in Phnom Penh, but demand is growing," said Lee Sangkwang, commercial attache at the South Korean embassy. "It's kind of pioneering."The changes, however, are not coming without costs.The city's infrastructure, already in a dilapidated state after nearly three decades of civil war, is creaking under the weight of the expansion, with roads clogged by traffic, leaking sewers, and frequent floods and power blackouts.Critics also point to a lack of transparency and vision in urban planning -- despite assurances from Mayor Kep Chuktema that he "listens to the views of all stakeholders".Social tensions are also emerging, with many city centre communities living in fear of eviction and pop songs lamenting the growing obsession with property speculation and the desire to make a quick buck."Now, the war in Cambodia is over land," said tuk-tuk driver Ros Sopheak.(Editing by Michael Battye and Megan Goldin)

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Discussion by Email with a (Nationalistic?) Khmer

I think this is a discussion worthy of being put in the public domain. Here goes (this writer in black, the response in blue):

As a fellow blogger about Cambodia I came across your web page and was a little surprised at your heading, which states you are concerned about an imminent threat to being reduced to a minority in your own country. You appear to be well-educated and secure economically in Cambodia. I know there are a lot of Vietnamese living in Cambodia illegally and the government doesn't do squat about it. Sam Rainsy even accuses the government of using these illegals to register them as voters to support the CPP in the upcoming elections. The number of illegals is variously put between 1 and 4 million. I am a Westerner, but please don't say I don't understand anything about Cambodia and its people, but I don't think Khmer people run the risk of being a minority. You country will become a multi-ethnic country, which in large part it already is, just like Thailand, or the U. S. for that matter. The U. S. is currently battling the exact same problem. The Vietnamese people you have in Cambodia are for the most part economic refugees from their own country for the simple fact that it is much easier to make a living in Cambodia than in Vietnam. Vietnam's rural population is just as poor as Cambodia's. And as long as the government doesn't fight this they will continue to come. However, there will come a point when even the current government will realize that these illegals take away much needed jobs from the their own population, and then even the mostly passive rural population will demand action, creating a backlash against the current tacit tolerance of those illegals. It's almost like a natural law. So consequently, I believe your motto for your blog is somewhat overdone, but, of course, it is your right to say and choose as you see fit. And, after all, who really is 100% Khmer these days. Officially, the Chinese part of the populations is put at 1%, Vietnamese 5%, others 4%, and Khmer at 90% (CIA World Fact Book). But you must admit that the Khmer-Chinese part is much, much larger. So all these immigrants were eventually absorbed in your society. It might happen with those Vietnamese too. This is the way the world operates these days.

I would like to express my sincere thanks for your observation even though it's rather superficial.

Please find attached Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 of "The subjugation of Cambodia" written by Simon ROSS.

I don't think it was superficial but there are limits imposed by an email format. I read the chapters you sent me with interest. The point I am trying to make is that Khmer people should try to live in the present and look into the future rather than dwell too much on the past. I know these events of VN aggression won't be forgotten, but to base the assumption of VN imperialist ambitions just on the past is patently wrong in today's world. Each country pursues its economic interests and VN is no exception when it utilizes weak spots in a country's position and takes advantage of a pliable government that has no knowledge nor experience in performing in an international arena. After all, most of the cabinet were either schooled in Moscow or Hanoi, from which they took instructions during the Communist era, and, therefore, are still beholden to the VN government. I only touched on the reasons for Vietnamese (illegal) immigration into Cambodia. Other countries also have a 10% share of foreigners in their population, and yes, there are groups that cry foul and want to stop it. But the world is truly global nowadays, where xenophobia and old enmities must slowly be erased, hard as it is. With 10% foreigners there is no risk of becoming a minority in your own country. The problem are not the Vietnamese but your own externally weak government. It is up to the intellectual Khmer elite to educate the people so they can vote knowledgeably in the future.

To be perfectly honest with you, I was stunned by your first message and that was the reason why I did not say much in my response to it. Your second email gave me a TKO right on chin. I almost fell off my chair.

From your writing, you appear to be extremely intelligent. But it was the lack of depth in it that knocked the daylight out of me. I am sorry to be so straightforward. Nonetheless, this is me whether you like me or not.

I hope it didn't hurt too much. Again, this is the gist of what can be said about foreign infiltration of a population. Naturally, seeing this in a historical context resentment and animosity will arise. But it is exactly these sentiments that need to be overcome. The literature you sent looks backwards and the paper from France contains estimates, which I am not in a position to doubt at this time. Only a properly conducted census would give an exact number. That report, however, is from 2004. It left out completely that according to independent statistical data 50% of the current population is under 21, in other words they were born between 1986 and now. So there has been some hefty natural population growth. I don't want to discount or dismiss certain claims but it appears that many arguments are based on past numbers that have been rendered outdated. I know there are segments that believe the Vietnamese immigrants are welcomed by the government to bolster their voting rolls. In part this is probably true. But that was not the point. The point is that the fear of becoming a minority some people have is not borne out by the facts. Nor is it borne out by the ethnic diversity in the Khmer population itself. Who nowadays can say he is 100% Khmer, without any Chinese, Laotian, Thai, or Vietnamese blood? Judging from your name I suppose your are of Chinese ancestry yourself. In other words foreign infiltration into the Khmer population is an age-old phenomenon, but they are all Khmer today. And again, if the government signs a territorial agreement to Cambodia's detriment, don't blame the others for that.I should point to the people of Israel to make a point of how forgiveness works and can lead to a harmonious cooperation. Because the Jewish people forgave, if not forgot, the post-war German generation Germany's Holocaust against their people. This is my point.And please don't accuse me of being superficial or lacking in depth. This is an email exchange of opinions, not a scientific discussion. Your remarks are rather insubstantial and as such not conducive to the subject matter, though I would look forward to a more comprehensive exchange.

Please let me pick up only a few points from your last e-mail message.

My question: Do you have a more recent report on the exact number of illegal Vietnamese immigrants in Cambodia? If you do, please send me a copy and I'll send you a cheque of US$10.00 as a token of my appreciation. It's not much, of course. But that's all I can afford at the moment.

I disagree totally. The Kingdom of Champa was heavily defeated by the Vietnamese in 1471. It took Vietnam only 250 years to completely wipe out Champa of the wolrd map in 1720. The Kampuchea Krom (Lower Cambodia or Cochin-China or South Vietnam) was ceded to Vietnam against Cambodia's will by the French Protectorate on June 04, 1949. Twelve million or so of Cambodian people living in Kampuchea Krom have already become an ethnic minority in their own contry and have been at the mercy of the successive Hanoi genocidal regimes since that illegal hand-over by the French almost 60 years ago. The Lao PDR has been under Hanoi's total control since the fall of Indo-China into the hands of the communists in April 1975. So has Cambodia since the well reported Vietnamese total invasion of this South-East Asian country on January 9, 1979. Soon after Hanoi had secured its illegal occupation of Cambodia by installing a puppet regime under the name of Heng Samrin government only weeks after its victory over Pol Pot, it forced its lackey in Phnom Penh to sign a bilateral treaty which was aimed mainly at getting then People's Republic of Kampuchea to provide food, shelter, land and security to any Vietnamese settlers who wish to come and live in Cambodia without restriction of any sort. That treaty was called the 1979 treaty.

You have no fear of your country being annexed by Vietnam. You are lucky because your country is thousands of miles away. But the fear the Cambodian people have about the Vietnamese domination is legitimate because it's borne out of fact, not fiction. Journalists, diplomats, academics and historians know it. The World knows it. Only you do not know it. Well, on this particular point, I'd better stop my comment right here.

Since the end of the WWII, have the Germans put millions of Jewish people in concentration camps and killed them ever again? Not that I know of. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese expansionistic endeavour (Nam Tien in Vietnamese or southward march in English) to conquer all Indo-Chinese states and put them under one roof, the Uncle Ho's dream of an Indo-Chinese Federation, is real and unrelenting. On the other hand, Cambodians do know how to forgive and forget and move on. How many hundreds of thousands of Khmer people who perished under the ruthless and atrocious French rule from 1863 to 1953? And how many hundreds of thousands of Khmer people killed in a period of only 10 years from 1965 to 1975 by heavy bombings by the Americans? But no complaint has been whispered thus far by any Cambodian people about the atrocities inflicted upon them. Yet, you still want to profess about forgiveness. Well, I'd better stop my comment right here.

Last but certainly not least, I wish to say that I have tried my best to make you understand the apprehension or fear the Cambodian people have towards the Vietnamese. Who are the right people to allay this chronic fear? They must be the Vietnamese who are causing fear, not the Cambodians who have it. Have you ever heard or seen of any public statement made by Hanoi government to guarantee that the Cambodians should not fear the Vietnamese? Please send me a copy of that statement if you have. Another cheque of US$10.00 will be readied for you.

1) In preparation for the elections in 1993 UNTAC put the population of Cambodia at around 7.1 – 7.5 people in 1992. In 2007 50% of the population is under the age of 21, so population growth was considerable in the intervening years. Given this fact it is entirely logical that the Khmer population is 14 million people as published by independent sources, e.g. CIA World Fact Book, which is based on own intelligence data as well as on both UN and government sources. That number does not contain any illegal immigrants. The varying numbers given for those are estimates by all parties cited therein, including the paper you sent (which I somehow must have deleted). That group based its estimates on interpolations of birth rates, came up with a lower figure and attributed the difference to Vietnamese immigration, neglecting to look at the latest figures. This is pure demagoguery. As mentioned before, only a proper census would reveal the accurate numbers.

2) We are talking about the now and here, not the then and there. Your phrasing is typical of national conservatives, which in political terms would be called revanchist. The history of Cambodia vs. Vietnam is well known and no matter what happened in the past there is now an independent (capitalist) Cambodia and an independent (communist) Vietnam, two sovereign countries.

3) You grossly distort the facts. Nobody knows or presumes to know or can point to any hard facts that Vietnam wants to annex Cambodia, or wants to dominate it, except some part of the older Khmer generation, to which you seem to belong. No journalist, diplomat, historian, or other academic in his/her right mind would pronounce such an unrealistic thesis. This is pure propaganda disseminated by exiled national conservative Khmer, older overseas Khmer, and nationalistic Khmer in their homeland. The issue of annexation or domination is entirely separate from the issue of illegal immigration (and don’t point again at history, e. g. Kampuchea Krom).

4) You may have had sad experiences in your own life, for which you have my sympathy and empathy, and also my understanding for having certain beliefs and convictions. But again, the concept of Vietnamese hegemony of Indochina is a concept of the past. Vietnam and Cambodia are members of ASEAN and are both heavily dependent on foreign trade and aid. No country can afford to pursue illegal territorial expansion at a fellow member’s expense without serious repercussions. Former archenemies Vietnam and the U. S. are on very good terms again, despite Hanoi’s desolate state of human rights. Change is brought about by development, not by fomenting resentment.

5) You people must ask yourselves what Vietnam would gain by annexing or even dominating Cambodia in terms of economy, natural resources, etc. It simply doesn’t make sense. The disadvantages greatly outweigh the advantages. A thorough analysis of both countries’ economical and sociological structure strongly underlines this. Why would a country reaching Thailand’s or Malaysia’s level of development annex one of the poorest countries in the world? Are you guys thinking at all?

6) I think you vastly overstate the apprehension of a minority in Cambodia in the face of the majority’s position on this question. For most Cambodians today the question of how to feed their family is uppermost in their mind. The majority couldn’t care less about your unrealistic paranoia. You and the likes of you see a Vietnamese agent lurking behind each and every step the current government takes. This is detrimental to the development of Cambodia.

7) The Hanoi government does not need to make such a policy declaration guaranteeing Cambodia’s sovereignty, as it has no such (expansionist) policy on the books. Furthermore, Vietnam is a signatory to the Paris Agreements, protecting the territorial integrity of Cambodia. Their membership in ASEAN also precludes such a policy. Therefore, your call for such a guarantee is redundant.

You seem to continue living in the past. You (as does the SRP) keep calling for a re-convening of the Paris Peace Conference. That conference was to prepare and achieve a lasting peace between the warring factions in Cambodia. Cambodia is now a sovereign nation that concludes its own bi- and multi-lateral treaties. The signatory powers to the Paris Conference no longer have any say in Cambodian affairs.
That paper by the Free Vietnam Alliance, an archconservative extremist group with no political clout, is simply ludicrous. Hun Sen may have the support of the Vietnamese government, but other sources (see below) see the context of the 1997 coup d’etat quite differently.

8) I am not taking any Vietnamese position in this case, but I think the past should remain the past and should not be warmed over again and again to justify certain political positions. I need to come out strongly against conservative nationalists trying to sway public opinion by stating that recent history will repeat itself. This is patently false. I am raising a Cambodian family (with Cambodian nationality) who will return to Cambodia upon completion of their education. I want them to return to a liberal, progressive country, untainted by nationalistic ideologies, so they can help and contribute in re-building a truly free Cambodia. This is why I believe I have a right to voice my opinion as a Westerner. The world has been changing dramatically. Extreme nationalism has always been the cause for civil unrest and civil war.

9) You state on your blog that you live in Phnom Penh. Why do you publish your blog in English? Why don’t you try to reach Khmer people in Cambodia? It appears as though you want to give yourself legitimacy by using a Khmer residence. In reality you only reach mostly overseas Khmer, which are the backbone of that nationalistic movement. Maybe you don’t even live in Cambodia? You must realize that the political weight of 300,000 overseas Khmer is negligible, and not all of them support your beliefs. Most of the items on your blog are just reposts that have been covered on KI-Media already. And that blog is as nationalistic a mouthpiece as they come.
10) For some more scholarly reading on various subjects concerning Southeast Asian, Vietnamese, Cambodian relationships please visit

These are all excerpts published on so no purchase is necessary. But it will give you a more in-depth look at the current geo-politics of the region.

Those who always look back will only see their shadow!

Monday, January 21, 2008

When Will the Land and Building Bubble Burst?

Just recently another South Korean company unveiled plans to build another sky-scraper, and another satellite city both in Phnom Penh, and one in Sihanoukville, complete with shopping malls and full amenities - all with the benign approval from the Prime Minister himself, who has been known to boast with some pride that real estate prices are now even higher in Phnom Penh than in Hong Kong. Can Cambodia be compared to Hong Kong? After all, Hong Kong has been a vibrant economy for a long time with a lot of long-grown wealth dating back to the time of the Tai Pans, and land there is at a premium due to its geographical location and its overpopulation.

Cambodia has seen a surge in land prices and an unbelievable building boom over especially the last two years. Quite a few people became rich overnight and continued to fuel that craze. To pinpoint the origin and causes for this involves a little bit of guessing but with some insight into economics it seems like it all began with the development of the garment processing industry. Cambodia was identified as another cheap-labor country by Taiwanese and South Korean garment manufacturers, later complemented by Chinese companies. They flocked to Cambodia to build their garment factories and needed large tracts of land. At the beginning some of these factories were built right in Phnom Penh itself. Later they moved to the outskirts and nearby towns, such as Kompong Speu.

Initially, they mostly rented the land, which was then replaced by leaseholds concluded with the government or even private landowners. So far foreigners or foreign companies are not allowed to own land in Cambodia. Eventually, they circumvented this regulation by using Cambodian nationals as shareholders who would hold 51% of the shares. This way the company could buy and own land. By giving the Cambodian shareholders non-voting stock, foreigners owned the land de-facto. Why buy land in the first place and go to all this trouble? Land was still cheap. It could be bought for as little as $1 or $2 per sqm. Prices had only one way to go - up. Even if the factory wouldn’t survive, one could still fall back on the land.

Cash-strapped Cambodian landowners readily sold their land to these outside investors, got smart and bought another piece of land to sell. More and more people with a little money got involved in the speculative craze. (This also led to infamous land grabbing by powerful people.)

Anyway, this is most likely how the cycle started, and it is still going on to this day. Basically, it is the fundamental economic law of supply and demand. In a healthy economy the minute demand levels off prices start to stagnate and if there is an oversupply prices will start falling.

The problems start when speculators sell to other speculators exclusively, and not to end-users. This seems to be the case in Cambodia today. And this is not limited to just land. The building boom is just as affected by this ‘virus’. First it was only a few, but word spread quickly, and people came in droves from overseas, especially South Korea. Then Cambodians, including overseas Khmer, who had made money played the game with each other – buying and selling land at a pace never seen before in Cambodia. But condos and town houses are equally bought with the expectation of rising prices.

Another problem is that Cambodia is not a developed country with a healthy economy built on the foundations of a sound financial and fiscal structure. This speculation and building boom bypasses the general population altogether. Out of 15 million how many participate in this boom and how many benefit from it? There is no concrete data available but I would think perhaps between 50,000 and 100,000. After all, this is a country where more than 40% live on less than $2 a day. Wealth is concentrated in a few hands, and the majority of the wealthy people live in Phnom Penh and Seam Reap.

Cambodia is not the first, and won’t be the last, to go through such a real estate boom - and resultant bust. Europe has had it at various times, so has the U. S., and its next-door neighbor Thailand saw its real estate boom/bust in the late 90s. The latest bust in the U. S. is now having worldwide repercussions, which is the result of unparalleled real estate speculation fueled by easy money through sub-prime mortgage lending. All the signs point to a recession in the U. S. dragging down other markets with it. Just this week the European and Asian stock markets dropped by more than 7% in one day, more than at any time in 6 years, on the fear of a rippling effect on Asian economies. Experts say the axiom, ‘When the U. S. sneezes, Asia will catch cold.’ still applies.

It will reach Cambodia sooner rather than later. The U. S. is the primary market for its garments. In a recession U. S. companies will buy less. Money will be tighter and the psychological effect will have its impact on the real estate market in Cambodia as well. Europe won’t be able to make up for the losses since there is already talk of a leveling-off of their economies as well.

A look at the vast number of construction sites and at land that is being prepared for construction is more proof that the whole thing is completely out of balance.

Projects are under way, like Camko City, that in its sheer size and level of luxury seem to be built for another country. Camko City is not the only one. There is a multitude of others. Phnom Penh is practically one huge construction site. The above-mentioned Korean project is another case in point. It appears that Koreans do the majority of the construction, and the majority of the land speculation is now in the hands of Cambodians. A brief count of ongoing construction projects arrived at 50,000 units. Considering the sites being prepared, another 150,000 – 200,000 units are in various stages of planning or construction. This extends not only to the city itself but has reached the suburbs and outskirts as far away as 50 km from the center.

Land prices have reached exorbitant amounts, ranging from $100 per sqm in New Phnom Penh, a satellite city near the airport, to $8,000 per sqm in the center of Phnom Penh or along the riverside. Profits are equally exorbitant, or outright obscene. One sqm in New Phnom Penh, for example, a year ago cost about $30, now it is $120. Just the announcement of the building of a bridge across the Tonle Sap River 50 km from the city catapulted land prices in that area from $5 to $50, and now to more than $100 per sqm.

Town or row houses, so-called Cambodian flats, cost between $40,000 and $250,000 depending on location. (Some are also being built just like Western style town houses.) Single-family homes or villas can easily fetch a few million dollars. This boom seems to have left the realm of reality, it has reached what Alan Greenspan called ‘exuberant’ proportions. He had referred to the Internet bubble, but this phrase is easily applicable to this bubble in Cambodia.

A look at the simple and basic demographics of Phnom Penh underlines this assumption. There are about 1.5 million people living within city limits. 500,000 of those live at or below the poverty level, sometimes in simple cardboard or wooden shacks in slums. An average family has 4 members, that is, the remaining 1.0 million people constitute 250,000 households. Various estimates put the number of families with available cash of more than $100,000 at 50% (though I believe this number to be exaggerated), which would be 125,000. These would be able afford to buy one of those luxury condos or town houses. All of these more affluent families do own a town house, condo or other real estate property for their own use already. They would most likely buy these units to rent out or to re-sell.

Who and where are the buyers? Certainly it will not be the rural population, the 40% unemployed, or the slum dwellers. One segment is young people, the sons and daughters of those wealthy parents perhaps, that receive them as a wedding present. Another segment is the newly rich from all this speculation that put all their eggs in one basket and came out a winner and move upward in their housing needs; or others who made some money in a business venture.

Then you have the foreigners, a not insignificant factor. But will all these add up to a base to sustain that hyper-boom in construction? Even given that the city population will become more affluent in the coming years, this will be a somewhat slower process, most likely spanning a period of up to 20 years. So as a consequence, the surplus of construction can conservatively be estimated at 150,000 to 200,000 units after 2 to 3 years, if that boom continues unabated.

However, eventually, builders will find out, as others in different markets before them have, that supply outstrips demand. This will lead to a leveling-off of prices and finally, once the full scope of the problem has been recognized, to rapidly falling prices of both land and houses. It is a safe bet that this would happen in late 2008 or early 2009, most likely sooner if the fall-out from the impending recession makes itself felt in Cambodia in about 3 to 4 months. The real estate market will simply collapse. In parts of the U. S. one could find the exact same characteristics and symptoms. And sure enough, the bottom eventually fell out. There is no basis for a school of thought that this will not happen in Cambodia. There are no factors pointing to and showing that a poor country like Cambodia will be spared a crash caused by hyper-speculation such as the current one. When speculators sell to speculators a boom in that industry will lead to a bust as sure as night follows day. The question is not if but when.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Afterthought – Animosities

The preceding article was also published on KI-Media, a blog by an overseas Khmer and a Khmer from Cambodia. The comments made there were for the most part strident, abusive, insulting, and mostly beside the point. KI-Media is obviously a platform of opponents of the current government, and supports Sam Rainsy. I am wondering whether they do themselves or the opposition movement a favor by allowing those crude people to populate their forum. Convincing the majority of the people that it is best if they voted for their party of choice, not by having what is generally called a mob rant and rave overseas, can only bring about change in Cambodia.

Most of the readers have not read my article thoroughly, or didn’t understand what is being expressed. It was not supposed to be a scientific study into the psychology of the Khmer mind, but rather a personal reflection on the possible causes for those animosities. It is clear that they are deep-rooted and must stem from the traditional hostilities between these S. E. Asian countries, in which, unfortunately, the Khmer Kingdom, Republic, or State more often than not came out the loser.

Animosities between peoples of the world abound. The fate of the human race has been shaped by wars throughout its history, whether it was Sumerian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman, French, German, English, Russian, to name a few among countless more, or Khmer. So their history is not singular in its characteristics. Khmer people tend to think that Westerners are unable to understand their feelings or their mind. Europeans and Americans wrote many of the history books on Cambodia. There are quite a few Western scholars of Asian cultures and traditions as well as politics. People who study a culture are quite capable of seeing things in their proper context.

From my knowledge of recent history, there are only four or five events that deeply scarred the mentality of an entire people or ethnic group, the Stalin purges, the Holocaust, the Pol Pot Killing Fields, the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, and the Rwandan genocide. Now a sixth may be added in Darfur. It is tragic that a small country like Cambodia has to be among the victims of almost unparalleled human cruelty.

But recent history may have contributed more to this aversion in the older generation’s minds, especially in overseas Khmer who fled the country and had to go through refugee camps, mostly in Thailand, where their treatment wasn’t always how humans should treat others in need, to put it mildly. So the article didn’t mean to disparage any overseas Khmer, adding insult to injury, so to speak; and it didn’t. I completely sympathize with any refugee, whether Khmer or Vietnamese (and there were also many Vietnamese who fled the Communists). And it is not a whole-sale condemnation of overseas Khmer either.

But just as the Jewish people as a whole have forgiven the post-war Germans their atrocities against humanity, it is time for the Khmer people to turn to another page in history and forgive, if not forget, the past. Buddhism speaks of Karma. Seeking good Karma is the right thing to do now.

If it is the current government people do not agree with there is only one way to get rid of it - by a vote at the polls. Ultimately, it would stand to reason that overseas Khmer, if they really do want to bring about change, they should put their money where their mouth is. Go back to Cambodia, work constructively in the rebuilding of the country, and strengthen the democratic system by being an active part of it. It won’t happen overnight, as real change always comes slowly. But it will eventually happen.

P. S.
For those who need a closer look at the Vietnamese invasion again, here is the link to a concise, un-refuted description.

And for those who doubt that Wikipedia is a reliable source, a comparison has established Wikipedia to be more accurate than the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Eternal Khmer-Vietnamese and Khmer-Thai Animosity

On one of my recent visits to Cambodia I asked a friend of mine whether the Khmer people in Cambodia hate the Vietnamese as much as the overseas Khmer.

His reply was, ‘Nobody likes the Vietnamese, only Hun Sen does.’

I had asked because all the Khmer blogs, forums, and other English-language publications on the web display a thorough, deep-seated, and often-times virulent, hate of the Vietnamese people in general and the Vietnamese government in particular. This seems to be somewhat surprising given the fact that it was the Vietnamese that liberated Cambodia from its stone age Communist Pol Pot regime, which, after all, managed to kill 2 million Khmer, either directly through executions or through starvation.

So perhaps a quick look at its history will reveal some insight into the reasons for this ever lasting hate, which, it appears, goes only in one direction as both Thais and Vietnamese do not harbor the same feelings towards Khmer. Their attitude towards Khmer people can maybe best described by arrogance, or even contempt, though even that has slowly been undergoing change. Nowadays it seems to be more indifference than anything else.

Like all neighboring countries in the world, Cambodia and Vietnam were at war at one time or another throughout their history. War obviously is in the human nature. Whether it is a war to gain territory, a war over birthrights, a war along ethnic lines, or a war over religion, people have always found a reason to go to war.

Cambodia because of its size and population has not been a powerful country in the region for a long time. Bordering Thailand and Vietnam have always overshadowed Cambodia. However, during the Angkor period the Khmer Empire was an advanced civilization. Though it declined after the 13th century it remained a powerful country until the 15th century. Many wars with its neighbors, however, left it weakened, and the Thais finally defeated Angkor in 1432 (see Wikipedia for a full timeline). Even after that, the empire conducted many wars with the Thais and the Vietnamese, which only resulted in the loss of more territory. Ever since the Khmer Kingdom had been subservient to both neighbors.

A king who had been installed by the Thais in the 19th centuries finally sought protection from the Thais from France, which would lead to Cambodia finally becoming a French colony in 1863. In that respect Vietnam did not fare any better as it was also colonized by the French in the mid-1800s.

Thailand has never in its history been a colony of a foreign power with the exception of the Japanese occupation during WW II. The Thai people derive considerable national pride from that.

After gaining independence from France in 1954 following the Indochina War, Vietnam was divided into Communist North Vietnam and republican South Vietnam. Of course, we all know that in 1975 the Communists took over South Vietnam after first having defeated the U. S.’ efforts to defend South Vietnam, who withdrew in 1973, and then the South Vietnamese forces.

After the U. S. withdrew from Indochina the Communist insurgent movements in Laos and Cambodia gained the upper hand, and Pol Pot toppled the Lon Nol government in Cambodia. To pursue its goal of hegemony over the region the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and drove the Pol Pot regime into the jungle 4 years later where the Khmer Rouge continued to battle both the Vietnamese occupation forces and the Vietnamese installed Cambodian government until 1993, when the first free UN-sponsored elections were held. The Vietnamese forces had withdrawn from Cambodia in 1988. Jan. 09 is celebrated in today’s Cambodia as a day of liberation from the evil forces of Pol Pot. The opposition sees it as the day Cambodia lost its independence to Vietnam.

It is widely held that Vietnam pursued a policy of uniting Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam into one Indochinese Communist state under the government or at least leadership of the Vietnamese. Vietnam did, however, lack the economic foundations. History in a way overtook that concept with the Soviet Union’s policy of perestroika and glasnost, finally its collapse. Vietnam itself introduced an opening towards the free world by its own Doi Moi (renovation) policy, which implemented free market reforms in Vietnam.

During Vietnams 10-year occupation of Cambodia they exploited Cambodia’s natural resources to bolster their own weak economy and to preserve their own resources. They literally plundered the country. Before the occupation 80% of Cambodia was covered by forest. That had dwindled to 45% at the end of their occupation in 1988. Unfortunately, the subsequent Hun Sen regime, both under the Communist banner, and as reformed democrats after 1993, continued this exploitation on a large scale.

Thailand on the other border has been a staunch U. S. ally since WW II, which contributed to its economic development. In the late 1960s and 1970s Thailand was a staging area for U. S. forces in the Vietnam War and became infamous as an R&R place for GIs in that time. Though a multitude of coup d’etats hampered modern development, Thailand nonetheless embarked on its road to prosperity in the early 1970 with the advent of international tourism. Heretofore it had been a languid, agricultural, and exotic country. It is now one of the 5 Asian Tigers with a strong economy, and it certainly dwarfs both Cambodia and Vietnam, though the latter has made great strides to become the sixth Asian Tiger.

Cambodia, on the other hand, had remained a backward country due to the Pol Pot period and the subsequent isolation from the outside world. Going to Cambodia in 1989 was like going back in time by about 50 years. Modern development did not start until after 1993, when the first free elections were held.

It would appear that it is exactly this backwardness and their economic inferiority to its neighbors that led to this sentiment of animosity towards both neighbors. These feelings were not helped either by the influx of Thais and Vietnamese after Cambodia opened its borders in 1993 to foreign investments. It was a country for modern adventurers. The state was bankrupt. There was literally no money in the State Bank, Cambodia did not have anything that could be sold to the highest bidder, no industry to speak of, there was no electrical power in most of the country, people survived on subsistence farming. Government officials plundered state coffers of its foreign reserves for their own private purposes. The only money-making business in Cambodia at that time was logging. This is what the Thais and Vietnamese came for. Though it was eventually outlawed in the 1990s, it continued unabated, spurred by corruption. About 40% of the price of the relatively cheap logs and lumber went into government officials’ pockets. Both Thais and Vietnamese businessmen took advantage of this situation, as, despite the high share of corrupt money in the price of wood, it was still cheap by Thai standards, and the Vietnamese just wanted to protect and preserve their own forests. Contributing to this fact was that logging was illegal in Malaysia, Thailand, and parts of Indonesia. These countries initially constituted the main customers for wood from Cambodia. There was and continues to be a very lucrative market for exotic semi-precious and precious hardwoods.

The years immediately following the opening of the country created a climate of free-for-all reminiscent of the robber-barons in colonial America. Adventurous businessmen from neighboring Vietnam and Thailand, as well as Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea streamed into Cambodia. A military clique controlled the forests and were eagerly selling, mostly illegally cut, logs to those rapacious businessmen, pocketing hefty profits. All this money, of course, bypassed the general population. This could not go unnoticed by the population who was for most part still on the verge of starvation and did not know where the food for the next day would come from. But Khmer, in fact most Asian, people are rather stoic, being devout Buddhists, accepting their poverty as their fate, even in the face of a few getting rich. The Communist dictatorship contributed its share of suppressing any nascent form individualism.

Since the Vietnamese were the main buyers of Cambodian wood over a longer period of time the Khmer people came to see them as the main villains, which were later complemented by the other Asian nationalities, such as the Thais, Malays, and Indonesians. The population also knew very well that Hun Sen had been installed by the Vietnamese government during their occupation. So they continued and still continue to see the Vietnamese as their oppressors, trying to steal their land.

Though Cambodia is nominally a democratic free country, Hun Sen and his government rule the country with an iron fist, suppressing any emerging strong opposition with any means available, including intimidation, vote-buying, phony law-suits, etc. The masses remain more or less docile as Hun Sen’s CPP network pervades all strata of government throughout Cambodia. The one opposition party was rendered leaderless at one time for almost 2 years by having the chairman, Sam Rainsy, sentenced to a jail term for defamation of Hun Sen. Sam Rainsy was later pardoned by the King and returned to Cambodia, albeit in a much more agreeable and pliable form.

Nevertheless, Sam Rainsy and his party lambaste the CPP for stuffing voter rolls with Vietnamese nationals to ensure an absolute victory for the CPP in the next elections to be held in July 2008.
Sam Rainsy is practically running on an anti-Vietnamese platform.

Current Khmer society on the whole is rather uneducated, and that includes the upper echelons of the country’s leadership. Cambodia lacks an educated elite, from which impulses can arise and be passed on to the general population. This, of course, is the result of the virtual annihilation of the existing elite under the Pol Pot regime. This tends to make people to think in very simple terms and to see things in black and white. They are not able to make educated and informed assessments and judgments of given situations. They are very susceptible and responsive to blaming outsiders for their misfortune.

Again, looking back in history this appears to be a false impression, as it was their own King who asked the French for help. And it was again their own King who did not object to an arbitrary French ruling that gave the so-called Cochin-China to Vietnam, also called Kampuchea Krom, which covered the Mekong Delta and which had and still has a Khmer minority, when French rule over their Indochinese colonies ended.

Kampuchea Krom is a very serious bone of contention between the nationalistic faction of the Khmer population, especially overseas Khmer, and the current Cambodian government and the Vietnamese government. The resultant dislike or hate from this fact is unfortunately extended to the entire Vietnamese people who are seen as land-grabbers, and generally dishonest and shifty people. But it must not be overlooked that this part of Vietnam, though originally settled by Khmer, has been Vietnamese for 4 centuries. To claim it is still Khmer and to have it ceded back now seems somewhat absurd.

It was again a Khmer king who allowed Vietnamese refugees fleeing from a war to settle in this region in the early 17th century. In the following years ever more Vietnamese settled in the region and roughly 90 years later the Vietnamese installed their own administration, which practically separated this region from Cambodia. Cambodia was too weak to counter this because of its ongoing wars with the Thais. Kampuchea Krom has been Vietnamese ever since. The only chance to get it back was in 1954, but the French granted it to Vietnam without any opposition from the then King Norodom Sihanouk.

Lately, the relatively unhindered immigration of Vietnamese in practically free Cambodia has also irked most Cambodians. They also perceive them to receive very favorable treatment by the current government. Additionally, 2 years ago Cambodia and Vietnam concluded a border treaty delineating a firm borderline for many previously contested regions with Vietnam. Large chunks of Cambodian territory are considered to have been ceded to Vietnam by the current government. This claim is made not only by the opposition party but also by the former King Sihanouk.

It appears that all the Khmer contentions that they were wronged by their neighbors is not borne out by historical facts. But nonetheless a sort of inferiority complex evolved from this, which continues to make this a very volatile issue in some quarters. The Kampuchea Krom and border issues also leave the very bitter taste that the Cambodian people always get the short end of the stick in their relationship with their neighbors.

Nevertheless, the Vietnamese ‘guest laborers’ that had come to Cambodia in search of jobs in the early 1990s were considered good and reliable workers, much better in many respects than their Khmer counterparts. This fact was underlined by many Khmer builders who exclusively used Vietnamese workers in the construction business in that time. This picture has slowly changed over the years as Khmer workers acquired the skills to put them on an equal footing with the Vietnamese.

The U. N. sponsored elections in 1993 and its preparation brought in a great number of U. N. forces from all over the world, which was seen as a great opportunity to make money by prostitutes. Consequently, a great number of Vietnamese ladies of the night came to Cambodia to ply their trade there. As a matter of fact, during that time about 90% of all prostitutes in Cambodia were Vietnamese. Decent Khmer people saw this with dismay and lumped all the Vietnamese together as pimps, prostitutes, and thieves. Seeing Cambodia as a practically lawless country at that time this also appears to have been the time when criminals began using Cambodia as a major transit point for human trafficking. Again, many of those gangsters have been Vietnamese, though many young rural Vietnamese girls are also their victims.

In comparison to Vietnam Cambodia is a free country, though not fully by Western standards. But this continues to lure Vietnamese (and Chinese) people in search of jobs to Cambodia. Unlike Vietnam (and China) life is virtually uncontrolled by any authority, nobody pays taxes, and if you are apolitical Cambodia compares very favorably to their home country. Vietnamese do not need visas to enter Cambodia but Khmer need visas to go to Vietnam.

The Thai and Vietnamese economies are much larger and stronger. Vietnam, despite its still Communist authoritarian rule, managed to elevate its country from a developing to a threshold country in the past 19 years, whereas Cambodia in almost 15 years of quasi-democratic rule is still dependent on foreign aid for 50% of its budget. Before Cambodia will reach the same level of development it will take at least another 10 to 15 years. There are, of course, vast disparities in both countries’ infrastructure, but it would seem that the rigid authoritarian Vietnamese rule accomplished more than the robber-baron rule of a capitalist Cambodia. The ruling clique there is seen to line its pocket to the detriment of their own people hampering progress for the benefit of the people.

Given all these facts and aspects it is easy to understand, at least on the surface, the dislike, aversion, or even hate some Khmer people harbor against the Vietnamese. On the other hand, there is a great number of marriages between these two nationalities. There seem to be two factions utilizing this anti-Vietnamese feeling – one, the overseas Khmer who for the most part are very nationalistic, similar to their overseas Vietnamese counterparts, and two, the opposition parties in the country. Overall the population in Cambodia might not really like their neighbors but they have come to accept their presence and live with it. At worst, I believe it may be called an ambivalence.

For the overseas Khmer, however, judging from their publications, it is outright hate. Of course, it is safe for them to rant and rave living more or less comfortably in the U. S. or France. But their contention that Vietnam will one day occupy Cambodia again is outright ludicrous. Of course, Vietnam and Thailand will pursue their interest in their dealings with Cambodia, but the times of outright colonialism in any shape or form are forever over. No Western or Asian power will stand by and watch Vietnam annex Cambodia. Thailand has never committed any acts of aggression against their neighbors in modern times anyway and one is hard-put to see Thailand invading Cambodia.

Both Thais and Vietnamese are very friendly and hospitable, the same as Khmer. It is hard to understand for a foreigner to see some Khmer to usurp these sentiments for their one-sided goals. Shouldn’t reconciliation be the major objective? One can only hope that the younger generation, which will be more educated and because of their exposure to the mass media and internet, will come to see these things in their proper context and use their minds and ambition to build a better society free from hatred against their neighbors.

Europeans know about this best. They managed to unite countries that had been at war throughout history into one union without borders, with a common currency, and a joint political body. Yes, there are still resentments among certain nationalities. It is noteworthy, though, that it is mostly lower class people who hold those resentments. The better educated the more open-minded the people will be. Similarly, once the young Khmer will have achieved at least a semblance to other nations in the region, and have gained some stature among their neighbors, those resentments or harsher sentiments will slow diminish and finally disappear, maybe not completely, but they won’t be a significant factor in their relationships with their neighbors.

As for overseas Khmer, their views ought to basically be discounted as they have no major influence in Cambodia itself. They are too far removed from events and do not have the wherewithal to play a major role in Cambodian politics. There are about 300,000 overseas Khmer in the U. S. and Europe. Most of them have enough on their hands carving out a living in their host countries to care about politics in Cambodia. Eventually, the second and third generation will assimilate into their host societies completely and not think of themselves as Khmer but as Americans and French, or whatever they are. But the present anti-Vietnamese, anti-Thai propagandists should try to educate themselves a little more in order to understand that the world is not black and white, and that fostering hate is self-defeating and negativistic. Hate has no long-term chance of survival.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Desirable Resort Project

The following is a description of a project for such a resort.

Cambodia has 443 km of coastline extending from the Thai border near Trat to Vietnam about 20km from Kep in Kampot province.

The beaches in Kampot province are usually rocky and if sandy the sand is grayish in color due to the lava rock formation. Kep town itself boasts of just one short stretch of about 1 km of sandy beach.

For this reason we consider Kep not suitable for this project, perhaps at a future time it might be ready for such a development. But at the present time only the beaches of Sihanoukville offer the environment for this project. Otres Beach offers a laid-back and serene environment, a tranquil beach, clear and clean water, day-trip destinations, such as Bokor mountain, the former casino (which is reported to be re-developed shortly), magnificent limestone caves near Kampot, a private zoo with tigers and other local fauna, multiple islands as a lover's getaway, snorkeling (though no corals but still views of colorful sea life), truly local ambience, and a multitude of restaurants serving great seafood.

Sihanoukville is fully electrified. The envisioned location of this project can be easily connected to the power grid. Wells provide drinking water. Septic tanks (to be installed on the property) will take care of sewage. The road from Phnom Penh was renovated and is well paved. Traveling time from the capital is about 2 1/2 hours.

This offers an opportunity for a medium-sized 3 to 4-star resort with initially about 50 to 60 rooms/bungalows (with room for expansion to 100 to 150 rooms) with a full infrastructure, e. g. tropical garden, restaurant with Western and Asian cuisine, souvenir shop, entertainment facilities (Apsara dances, Karaoke lounge, dancing), satellite TV and video, beach activities. We are sure we won’t be the first or the last to arrive on the scene with such a project but the complete absence of similar-priced full feature resorts will make it a successful and highly marketable addition to the tourism industry in Cambodia.

The 3 to 4-star category offer the best chances for marketing such a property worldwide successfully. It will attract middle-class to upper middle-class customers and their families seeking a good price/product value ratio, who also have good purchasing power for all amenities and other activities. This segment represents the largest share of the consumer base in industrialized countries.

The key for the success of any commercial enterprise is marketing – in creating demand for the product. Nowadays, the worldwide availability of the Internet offers any business the chance to market its product through that venue at a so far relatively low cost. The problem, however, is to be seen when people search the web, getting the ‘hits’. One way to reach the maximum number of people is by advertising on Goggle.

The old-fashioned way is, of course, to market the facility through large tourism agencies, e.g. Diethelm travel in Bangkok with Asian-wide offices and representations in Europe and North America, and other large agencies in Asia and most importantly, China. These ‘wholesalers’ sell tourist destinations to tour operators, which, in turn, sell to the consumers through catalogues, advertising, Internet, word-of-mouth, promotions, and trade fairs.

A combination of these will ensure the success of the property over the medium term. It is estimated that the threshold to profitability can be reached in 2 – 3 years after completion.

Land prices vary greatly at this time; currently $100/m2 must be anticipated. Over the short-term further price increases are to be expected. Construction costs will be projected in the appropriate chapter. Labor cost structures are low due to the availability of unskilled labor, which will be trained on-site. An emphasis will be placed on returning value to and on engaging the local community and population.

Cambodia's Investment Law also offers incentives for foreign investment, e.g. 9 % corporate income tax, tax holidays of up to eight years, full import duty exemptions for export-oriented projects, free repatriation of profits, no nationalization and price control, no withholding tax on

dividends, five year loss carried forward.

A Look at the Tourism Industry in Cambodia

Cambodia is still one of the poorest countries in the world and still lacks the basic infrastructure, especially in rural areas, to promote better economic conditions for the whole population. Roughly 60 to 70 % (estimates vary) of the rural population lives on subsistence farming.

The Communist past until 1991 and its subservience to the then Soviet Union, Vietnam, and the other Communist East European countries kept it one of the most backward countries in Asia, if not the world. After the fall of Communism the United Nations organized the first free elections in 1992, which laid the groundwork for the current development of Cambodia.

The years from 1992 to 1997 were marked by relative stability, brought on by the coalition government formed after the election. The country was mostly dependent on foreign aid for approximately 95% of its budget during those years.

In 1997 there was an internal struggle between the two prime ministers (a unique form of a coalition government following the indecisive outcome of the elections in 1993). One coalition partner had to relinquish their position in the government. This led to erosion of confidence by the foreign investor community and resulted in a meltdown in the budding development for the next 6 years.

However, in 2004, after new elections and a rapprochement of the majority parties, the situation stabilized and as a result the economy enjoyed healthy growth rates of 5% in 2004, reaching an estimated 7.2% in 2006, and a projected 10% for 2007. Some sectors, such as tourism and the garment industry even enjoyed growth rates of 15%, as foreign investors re-gained confidence in the stability of the country. This fact is borne out by the 15% increase in foreign aid the donor countries extended to Cambodia for 2008. Foreign aid still constitutes about 50% of the national budget. But it is noteworthy that the greatest contributors to economic growth are tourism and the garment sector.

Oil companies have found oil in Cambodian territorial waters and will begin exploiting these fields in 2010. This will also contribute to further growth, and hopefully, development of the Cambodian economy.

These factors combined create a favorable environment for resort developments by the private sector, offering opportunities not only for large scale investments but also for small to medium-sized developments that will not only benefit the investors but also the local population by training them and creating jobs.

If adequate emphasis is put on ecological aspects this will lend added attractiveness to foreign, especially Western, tourists.

Current Situation of Tourism

Cambodia currently counts about 1.7 million tourist arrivals per year and expects to reach the 2.0 million threshold either in 2007 or certainly in 2008.

Most arrivals come from South Korea (300,000), China (160,000), Vietnam, Thailand and other ASEAN countries (150,000), and Japan (100,000), followed by British, German, other European and U. S. tourists. Accurate numbers are hard to come by given the still underdeveloped state of government statistics.

Tourism income amounted to about $1.3 billion in 2006 and contributed to about 5% of the Gross Domestic Product in Cambodia. As a whole, agriculture contributes 35%, industry (mostly garment) 30%, and services (including banking and tourism) about 35% to the GDP. Along with the garment industry, tourism is the major foreign exchange earner for Cambodia.

The major attraction in Cambodia is, of course, the temple complex of Angkor Wat in Siam Reap. This city and province has seen a huge influx of capital with an ensuing hotel building boom. Hotels of varying categories, from 5-star international hotels to simple guesthouses were built. Overall occupancy rates hover around 60% in Siem Reap, which is normal for tourist destinations that have to go through seasonal fluctuations. We believe there is an over-development of tourist hotels in the area, and therefore, economic success will be somewhat long in coming.

As a consequence of that building boom land prices have skyrocketed and are affected by huge speculative buying. It is our impression that this bubble will soon burst, as all economic bubbles caused by hyper-speculation will burst eventually. There is a certain saturation point for the destination, particularly in view of the government’s necessity to preserve this national treasure, which is literally being trampled upon by the millions of tourists visiting the sites each year. Access to the sites will have to be limited in order to guard against man-made erosion and destruction.

Nevertheless, the outlook for tourism in Cambodia remains bright as Angkor Wat is unique in the world and will constitute a lasting contributor to the Cambodian economy, comparable to the tourism industry in Thailand, which is a major economic factor there.

Generally, Cambodia can most aptly be compared to Thailand, only that Thailand began its major tourist development some 35 years ago. Cambodia can become a viable alternative to Thailand.

What is generally called warm-water tourism, that is beach resorts, is still in its infancy in Cambodia. There are, however, several larger projects under way in Sihanoukville, the port city of Cambodia.

Most tourist arrivals visit Angkor Wat for 3 to 4 days and only a relatively few extend their visit to another 2 days in Phnom Penh, and possibly 3 to 4 days at the beach in Sihanoukville. The establishment of direct flights to Siem Reap further cut down on tourists spending more time and money in Cambodia.

Cambodia still is a favored destination for backpackers and, unfortunately, tourists looking for cheap sex. This segment can best be countered by creating holiday resorts catering to family vacation packages.

Sihanoukville at this time does not encompass the attractiveness tour operators look for in their package tours as it does not have the necessary tourist infrastructure, e. g. jet ski rentals, kite surfing, windsurfing, boat rentals, snorkeling excursions, fishing charters, to lure package tourists to its beaches. So far it is mostly indivdual tourists and backpackers visiting this city. But since the best beaches are to be found in this city, it is the ideal location for a full-featured resort in the 3- to 4-star category. There is only one 5-star hotel in Sihanoukville offering all these features.

Sihanoukville, as the country’s port city, receives a good share of foreign visitors – merchant marine, military vessels, etc. - that, unfortunately, also make part of it somewhat seedy with prostitution and drugs rampant.

The beaches are relatively tranquil, but owing to its basic state there is a good number of back-packers. Local people and expatriates come from Phnom Penh on weekends. Otres Beach is so far completely undeveloped and offers a unique opportunity for creating a secluded resort on the one hand but close enough to areas of entertainment.

Once oil exploration has begun, however, there will be an additional influx into Sihanoukville of all kinds of people connected to the oil business, from oil platform riggers to engineers, which will create a bustling, vibrant port city.

The Cambodian government issued licenses to operate casinos throughout Cambodia. The concept banks on nationals from neighboring countries (Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam) where gambling is illegal to come to Cambodia to gamble. These casinos are almost exclusively owned by foreign companies, which will repatriate profits. They do not create jobs on a larger scale and in general do not contribute to the overall development of the Cambodian economy and certainly do not benefit the Cambodian people.

Given the geographic location of Cambodia with its tropical climate without major temperature fluctuations, the country’s political stability, and its dollar-based economy, there is a huge potential for further tourist developments comparable to neighboring Thailand.

Cars and motor coaches can easily reach all major cities and towns on renovated roads in relatively short time. All major cities and towns have electrical power and water (though proper care must still be taken for potable water).

The people are very friendly and hospitable to foreigners. Crime against foreigners is almost non-existent, mostly because of the government’s crackdown in order to safeguard a vital economic factor. If crimes are reported it is mostly petty theft.

More than 50% of the population is under 21 years of age and will create a huge base for work training and recruitment in the years to come. The young generation is particularly eager to learn about Western technology and achievements.

For a look at a project for a resort hotel in Cambodia visit

Saturday, January 5, 2008

This Blog

By now there are millions of blogs on various subjects and certainly enough about Cambodia, on the internet. So why add another one? I believe some of the subjects are not covered objectively by either the bloggers or the comments posted. I will try to depict the situation as I have experienced it in and outside Cambodia for the past 20 years. I will also draw from Cambodian newspapers, but rather than just repeating the news I will comment on them with my personal views and knowledge.

The numerous forums on Cambodia are mostly run and contributed to by overseas Khmer whose picture of their homeland is rather biased and more based on what they believe should be rather than what actually is. Some are rather virulent in their stance, and many times outright abusive in their language. Many of them lack the distance from personal experiences, sometimes tragedies in their families, to make objective judgments, as sometimes necessary even in a historical setting. Only detached people are able to analyze thoroughly and in an unbiased manner.

Forums run by foreigners abroad tend to cater to travel information and, unfortunately sex and prostitution tips, and expat forums in Cambodia talk about their life and experiences there.

This blog does not purport to be a publication of New York Times standard but I will nonetheless strive to elevate the musings and writings to a different level from what I have so far found on the internet.

Since postings will sometimes be very critical of the powers that be in Cambodia it is advisable to remain anonymous. It has been known that the freedom of speech is not always guaranteed there. But people can always contact me at the email address listed, if they don't want to leave a comment here.

My affinity to Cambodia comes from my professional activities in that country and my marriage to a Cambodian wife, whose three children live with us. Though obviously not Cambodian myself, I am from Europe but consider myself a true cosmopolitan, having lived in Asia and the U. S. for one third of my life.