Friday, September 25, 2009

A Voice of Reason

Rights Leader Urges Reconciliation With Government
By Sok Khemara, VOA Khmer
Original report from Washington
25 September 2009

Kek Galabru, founder and president of the rights group Licadho, testified before a US congressional hearing on human rights earlier this month. Following the Sept. 10 hearing, which was held amid concerns the government was cracking down on dissenters, Kek Galabru spoke to VOA Khmer in Washington.

She urged reconciliation between the government and civic groups, and outlined the necessary components of a working democracy, including freedoms and the rule of law.

“I regret that the government still doesn’t understand our intention and classifies NGOs as the enemy of the government,” she said.

Cambodia is like an ill patient, she said, but the symptoms need diagnosed, she said. “It’s just like the doctor. If we want the right medication, we need to tell this kind of sickness or that kind of sickness.”

She said she wanted to work as a partner of the government, not an antagonist.

“Let’s sit down together as Khmer and work with the same intention,” she said. “The government and NGOs are not different at all. It’s just that the government has more financial and human resources. For my group, we need to ask for assistance from outside.

“So we’ll sit together, Khmer and Khmer, and we can find the same formula and cooperate together, and when our country has prosperity, when the people are happy, have enough money, when everyone has land, who will receive the credit? Not the NGOs. They will say, ‘Oh! This government is working good to serve the people; behold.’”

In the meantime, a democracy requires freedom of access to information; freedom of assembly, for peaceful demonstrations and other association; and freedom of expression.

It requires not just a high quantity of newspapers, but quality as well, “good quality writing, without fear, complaint, criminal charges, imprisonment,” she said.

Modern Cambodia is a product of the Paris Peace Accords, signed by 18 countries, including the US, she said. Donors came together to help restore Cambodia, including its court system, to be independent.

“Why so?” she said. “Because any real democratic country, where the people have a good standard of living and the people are in good shape, with good development of their society and economy—they need an independent court system, and if it’s not independent, it’s impossible.”

“So I asked the US, do they have any means to please help reform our court system,” she said.

Kek Galabru also said she did not support the concept of cutting aid money from the US over alleged rights abuses.

“I’m concerned that the people and the poor would be impacted,” she said. “I do not want a cut in aid money. But I want a superpower country that has more abilities, like the US, to seek all means to cooperate with the Cambodian government, to reform them well.”

Now this is what I call a wise woman.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Human Rights

Amnesty International compiled a comprehensive report on the human rights situation throughout the world. You can download the 2009 report in its entirety here.

For ease of comparison I have excerpted the passages for Cambodia, Vietnam , Thailand, Malaysia , Singapore , and the USA.

It’s not pretty reading throughout. The violations differ in shades but not in severity. Judge for yourself. It is clear that another country’s human rights violations cannot be an excuse for your own country’s. But these reports clearly put in perspective the severity of violations everywhere.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I have never read, seen, or been advised of a member of parliament of any of those countries except Cambodia going to another country’s legislative body to request outright interference in internal affairs. And just recently there was a panel discussion in Bangkok held by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance. The Nation reports on Sam Rainsy’s remarks there . No mention is made about Thailand’s or the other SE nations’ situation in that news report. Don’t they have any problems there? The AI reports tell a different story. But, of course, it becomes more newsworthy if a politician makes those statements, and Sam Rainsy never tires of repeating the same tag lines over and over again, especially abroad. But then one might keep it with another blogger’s comment:

My sense is Sam Rainsy is a mosquito to the Prime Minister. Background noise.
His Excellency Hun Sen has things sewn up rather nicely as he sees fit while continuing his rather successful high wire act of donations, deals and ethics.
Where there is no viable opposition, it is only human nature to take things in one’s own hands.

Even the blog itself (DAS ) finds fault with his remarks.

Trying to saddle Hun Sen with the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge is fundamentally dishonest. Faced with an impossibly corrupt, U.S.-installed Lon Nol regime, a majority of Cambodians supported the Khmer Rouge at the time. Rainsy wouldn’t know that, though. He moved to France in 1965 at age 16.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Occasionally I come under verbal attacks about my commentaries here; therefore, I believe a word of clarification is in order. It appears as though I am a harsh critic of both Ms. Mu Sochua and Sam Rainsy, and indeed I am. I may have mentioned it before; I don’t doubt their personal integrity, but I do not support their kind of opposition politics. The goals in their party platform are laudable. But their way of getting their message out to the public hasn’t produced the desired results, not only because of their perennial claim of massive election frauds, but probably mostly because of the SRP leaders’ lack of appeal to the general public in Cambodia. In my view, they conduct confrontational opposition politics, which has historically been proven very counterproductive in a political arena such as Cambodia. Both may claim conciliatory steps haven’t been successful either, but I have yet to see those steps. The 1997 grenade attack may have been the pivotal incident that changed and formed their minds forever. But they seemingly forget the axiom that any action will provoke a reaction. A policy of positive engagement is oftentimes more conducive to producing results than what is practiced by the opposition in Cambodia today. Continuing along this path, they will never see the light of day in their lifetime. Indonesia, nowadays the showcase democracy in SE Asia, might perhaps most aptly serve as a precedent to follow.

Now why would I as a foreigner comment on the political situation in Cambodia? Do I understand the machinations of politics there at all? I believe I do. Do I have a right to express my thoughts? Absolutely. Am I an expert whose words are heeded? I am as much an expert as any blogger or even journalist who has spent considerable time following politics in Cambodia. Some of my detractors would be surprised about some of the people who read my commentaries. In addition, when I write about something I do the necessary required research first, and don’t just take snippets out of context and twist them around to fit my purpose, as some of my fellow bloggers are liable to do.

Followers of this blog may by now know that I have spent a considerable time in Cambodia from 1989 to the present, I am married to a Khmer wife, have 3 Khmer children, they are all Khmer nationals with Khmer passports, I have invested considerable amounts of money in Cambodia, and chose to make Cambodia my permanent home (although I now only spend about one third of the year there but that will change again next year). I speak out in their name and their and my interest, both human and economic, in Cambodia. Three members of my family are voters, and I am their voice. As opposed to all those many critics of the government and the current situation in Cambodia, the majority of them evidently overseas Khmer, my family and I choose to live in Cambodia and work within the system to improve the situation as much as we can and our own circumstances allow us. We may have a limited effect on the overall situation, but at least we do something proactive. This is what gives me the right to write this blog about Cambodia, let alone the often-invoked right of freedom of expression.

It is easy to stand on the high ground and criticize, condemn, vilify, and even slander your political opponent while sitting in an easy chair abroad or even in Cambodia, enjoying the good life. It is even easier to write long articles and ‘expertises’ on the situation in Cambodia as a highly paid NGO-employee, who has never seen misery in their lives, and most likely never experienced an oppressive dictatorial regime. And a lot of bloggers and NGOs are clearly out of their depths. Do we ever really hear from the poor, the low-income worker, the average homeland Khmer, in other words, the majority of the Khmer population? And do those self-appointed defenders of human rights and equality really have those people’s interests at heart first?

Which brings me to the latest cause célèbre - Ms. Mu Sochua, her recently very public persona and her fight for democracy. One of her latest public pronouncements was that she is not doing this for herself but for the people, when speaking about her testimony before a U. S. Congress commission.

As an elected member of parliament it is highly doubtful whether another country’s legislative body is the right forum to air her personal grievances and call for sanctions against her own country, shrouding it in her professed fight for democracy, human rights in general, and women’s rights in particular. It casts grave doubts on her role as an MP and as a citizen of Cambodia to ask a foreign government to interfere in her own country’s internal affairs.

Let’s back up a little to see how this latest series of events started. During the election campaign the P. M. described someone with a certain expression, the interpretation of which is arguable; by inference he probably meant Ms. Mu Sochua, but he denied it. Mind you, that happened in the run-up to the general election in July 2008. It took Ms. Sochua an entire ten months to decide she felt slighted and brought an action for defamation against the P. M., obviously trying to beat him at his own game (the P.M. vs. Sam Rainsy), and possibly to demonstrate the extent of bias and influence of the government on the judiciary. However, one just doesn’t wait 10 months to feel insulted. One does this within a reasonable period of time, e. g. 30 days, or perhaps until shortly after the election. Why then did she wait this long? The rest of the story is known. I mentioned it before; I don’t think the whole affair has been handled in a fair manner by the P.M. either, though, and believe he received bad advice.

What I want to bring to the foreground is the time-span between the insult and the lawsuit, which is never mentioned anywhere. It’s just not credible. This is pure politics and not a fight for women’s rights. This is an ego thing. And you don’t expect to win that lawsuit. She publicly stated as much early on. She is ready to go to prison for this minor incident. She seems to be using this as a pretense to describe or morph herself into a political martyr, modeled on Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar. The difference is the latter won an election.

In this entire context, all her ensuing public actions appear as political maneuvering and tactics rather than working for the people, as she claims. Ms. Sochua portrays herself as a fighter for democracy and human rights. I believe her. Only her choice of tactics appears to be out of sync with those goals.

In the U. S. a few senators sent a letter to the Secretary of Defense requesting information on U.S. aid to the Cambodian military, attaching a report by the Human Rights Watch as testimony. As much as I believe this organization does honorable work, what bothers me in that report is the frequent use of the words ‘alleged’ and ‘is reported’. I read about the incidents but can’t comment on them for lack of inside knowledge, and I do not claim these incidents did not take place. Human Rights Watch should make the evidence public. What also bothers me is the frivolity of U. S. senators who routinely vote for the funding of the war on terror, the war in Iraq, and Afghanistan, where severe violations of human rights were committed by the U. S. military and other government agencies. These senators certainly do have the right to ask how U. S. aid money is spent, but their inquiry certainly appears hypocritical. And… the U. S. Congress has an Armed Services Committee overseeing the defense budget.

Recently six former CIA chiefs asked the president not to prosecute the people who ordered or committed torture by U. S. government personnel in the past. Both former president Bush and his vice president Cheney defended the use of torture, or ‘special interrogation techniques’ as they called it. The former vice president to this day says this is vital in the defense of the U. S. Rendition continues even under president Obama. In view of that all the efforts by the S. R. P. to enlist the U. S. in its fight for ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, and ‘human rights’ have a very hollow ring. It is nothing but plain hypocrisy.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Credibility Gap

I thought that the Tom Lantos Commission hearing would remain a non-event outside overseas SRP-circles. (It is a rather obscure commission to begin with.) Was I mistaken!

None other than the State Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ouch Borith, made a statement during a press conference, in effect saying Ms. Mu Sochua made part of all this up. He said she did meet with Secretary Clinton but Ms. Clinton never promised anything. According to him the U. S. ambassador to Cambodia only confirmed that an unofficial meeting outside the office (whose?) took place, but Ms. Clinton did not reply to Ms. Mu Sochua’s request for a delegation to Cambodia. An embassy spokesman would only confirm that an unofficial brief meeting between the two had taken place, in other words, it was a photo op, at which Ms. Sochua had uttered her requests.

The VOA reports on the hearing that another U. S. Congressman said the following:
“I do not believe that holding a hearing that gives voice to the opposition party and excludes the ruling party is the way for us to proceed in affecting change in Cambodia. I also do not believe that any Commission should usurp the role of the US Department of State or the diplomatic relations we have established between our two countries.”

Sound reasonable to me.

So it’s not only the Cambodian government calling the hearing biased. Nevertheless, two members of the commission sent a letter to the U. S. ambassador to Cambodia requesting to keep them informed about the safety of the witnesses at the hearing. They asked her to monitor the fate of those individuals and keep them informed.

This may be a nice request but ambassadors usually report to the State Department. Additionally, what will they do if Ms. Sochua is indeed arrested? (This is looming on the horizon, after all. Ms. Sochua vowed she would rather go to prison than pay the fine imposed as a penalty. The appeal is still to be heard, but no one believes it will change the ruling of the lower court.)
No matter what these congressmen think of their ability to influence events, Cambodia is a sovereign nation. Most likely, the U. S. government won’t have any interest to actually interfere, regardless of whether or not they consider the whole affair an injustice. They might issue a letter of protest, which the ambassador will hand over to the Foreign Minister. But that’s about all that’s going to happen. It’s a delicate situation for the embassy to begin with, as Ms. Sochua is a U. S. citizen as well as a Cambodian national and an elected member of parliament in Cambodia. Normally, embassies provide counsel for people who broke the law in a foreign country, or are incarcerated. But in this case?

Meanwhile Ms. Sochua is traveling from one overseas Khmer hot spot to the next hailing her success at that hearing. The VOA reports this:

Mu Sochua, an opposition lawmaker who testified before US Congress Thursday, said her trip to the US had meant more attention to Cambodia’s rights issues and more monitoring of the situation by the US.
The US will work to end injustice in the court and other crackdowns, she said, as a guest on “Hello VOA” Monday, following talks with senior US officials.
“First, they will send a team of high-level delegates to clearly assess the situation in Cambodia. And second, they said aid must be attached to the respect of human rights. Third, they will pay close attention and they will monitor and take action to end the use of injustice in the courts to crack down on opposition members of parliament.”
“What I came to testify here for was not my personal interest, but the people’s interest.”
End Quote

She was clearly playing to the SRP crowd at her gatherings. It is equally as clear that she is using that hearing for political purposes and, of course, for her and her party’s benefit in terms of fundraising purposes as well. If she, in fact, made those statements, and there is no reason to doubt the VOA, then she is either too full of herself, overestimating her influence, delusional, or she is just plainly misrepresenting the truth for political, and her party’s material, gain.

She clearly forgets that the U. S. is not the largest donor country; in effect, it is among the smaller donors (China and Japan by far outrank the U. S.) Consequently, the influence the U. S. can wield is of limited effect. If they were to curtail aid, China would just be more than happy to jump into the breach. However, the Cambodian government will not want to antagonize the U. S. That goes without saying. It will say to the U. S. that those complaints are blown out of proportion, and the U. S. will in the end just shuffle the paperwork aside. Certainly, I don’t think the U. S. government will go to extra lengths to straighten out internal judicial or human rights issues in any country, as examples with other countries have shown in the past. A lesson in realpolitik may be called for at the SRP leadership. Another fact not to overlook in the U. S.–Cambodian relationship is the U. S. view that Cambodia is a significant partner in combating transshipments of drugs destined for the U. S. and Europe, and in the fight against human trafficking. Cambodia also ranks higher than China or Vietnam in its labor standards. It still enjoys ‘Most Favored Nation’ status in the U. S.

So what to make of all this? To me it appears as an exercise in grandstanding. In the end she may find out she does not want to play the role of the political martyr, after all. Or how about this scenario: she loses the appeal, will be arrested, but writes a letter of apology to Hun Sen and then is swiftly pardoned by the King.

Post script: I believe that the lawsuit by Ms. Sochua and then the countersuit by the Prime Minister were unreasonable at best and outright ridiculous at worst. It certainly appears unfair to reject Ms. Sochua’s lawsuit but then render a guilty sentence in favor of the P.M. The Prime Minister would have been well advised to drop his lawsuit as well. It would have raised his stature, at least internationally and among human rights groups. Now his lawsuit is seen as revenge and as an attempt to silence critics, although Sam Rainsy doesn’t mince any words when it comes to criticizing the government. It only bolsters the impression that the government controls the judiciary. If he had been more forgiving, he could have used this more effectively to his political advantage and avoided all those accusations.

What’s The Outcome?

The recent hearings by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U. S. Congress on the situation in Cambodia got normal coverage in the Khmer papers, as well as in the Phnom Penh Post. Needless to say, it was reported on the Voice of America Khmer Service and got big play in the SRP-leaning Internet blog KI-Media. But in the U. S. this hearing was a non-story. No national paper found it newsworthy, not even the Washington Post, an article of which was quoted in the commission’s invitation, ran a story.

The big question now is whether the commission will take any action on the requests Ms. Mu Sochua made, and on the suggestions from Moeun Tola, head of the labor program unit of the CLEC, and Dr. Kek Galabru, president of Licadho. Just to be clear: commissions of the U. S. Congress don’t have any legislative powers. They hold hearings and normally issue a report, which may include recommendations and which is then passed on to the appropriate body in the U. S. Congress, or the President, or any other department in the administration. It would be up to any of these to initiate action on any recommendations. Don’t hold your breath for seeing anything along those lines in the near future as a result of that hearing. The Subcommittee On International Organizations, Human Rights, And Oversight is the one with legislative power. None of the commission members is a member of that committee. That is not to say that they are powerless. It’s just a little harder to get something tangible accomplished. A good example would be the 9/11-Commission that came up with a lot of recommendations, many of which were ignored by the Bush administration. Judging by the way this commission maintains its website, not much will happen here either. All members are active in other fields as well, and let’s face it, domestic issues by far outweigh such, for them esoteric, questions as the situation in Cambodia. After all, the U. S. maintains a well-staffed embassy there whose job it would be to point out the issues that need to be addressed by the State Department. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly bemoaned the fact that the donor countries pay only lip service to human rights issues in Cambodia.

According to a statement released by Ms. Mu Sochua, which I again gleaned from KI-Media, she met with Hillary Clinton and other administration officials and was promised a U. S. delegation would visit Cambodia on a fact-finding mission. Additionally, Hillary Clinton promised she would hand over a letter to the Cambodian Foreign Minister about certain conditions for continuing U. S. aid. Now this sounds more encouraging. I will be keen to learn what’s in this letter, if it ever gets published.

The important thing about this mission, as the participants and their followers will point out, is, of course, that it raised awareness of the human rights situation in Cambodia. And they will undoubtedly point to the statements made by the members of that commission.

Jim Moran, according to his words the initiator of the hearing made the following statements:

“If we are going to provide assistance, if we are going to raise the status of Prime Minister Hun Sen as one of the world’s leaders, then he needs to clean up the mess of his own country in terms of the judicial system.”
“If we don’t do anything and allow the opposition party to be repressed, if we allow the media to be silenced, if we allow the Cambodian people to lose their homes and be put out in the fields without any belongings, then we are complacent.”
“We bear responsibility if we allow that to happen and don’t speak up.” “The relationship [between the US and Cambodia] is not going to warm up until [Hun Sen] cleans this up, because as far as Congress is concerned, this is unacceptable.”
“Cambodia has made tremendous progress, but now it’s going back. It’s moving towards Burma instead of towards Indonesia. That’s unacceptable.”
“This is not about American interest. This is about human interest, human rights and the ability of the Cambodian people to express themselves freely, to move freely, to organize freely, and certainly to engage in a free and fair election, and that’s what we’re concerned about.”
“We want to give Hun Sen, the prime minister, every opportunity to correct the situation, to the change some of his policies.”
“Maybe he’s just getting bad advice and he can sack whatever minister is giving him that advice. We don’t want to suggest how he might want to deal with this, but things need to turn around, and I think that’s the point of this hearing. It is unacceptable what’s going on there.”

These are strong words. Would he be able to deliver?
Much more moderate was James McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, he is the co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. He said:
“My message is to stress that the United States wants a good relationship with Cambodia. We want a strong alliance with Cambodia, but human rights is an important issue, and there are some serious concerns about the human rights situation in Cambodia. And we will urge the Cambodian government to try to address them.”
“I want to make it clear that every single member of this committee will remain in contact with you, and we will follow closely with you what will happen to you when you go home, there should be no retribution for telling the truth.”

To ensure that the witnesses will be safe upon returning to Cambodia, Frank Wolf, the Republican co-chair of the Human Rights Commission, said he would write a letter to the US Embassy in Cambodia asking officials to keep a watchful eye on the returning witnesses.
He also said: “Speaking for myself if there is any harm or ill-will done to any of you, I personally will offer an amendment to cut aid across the board, zero doubt, military, non-military, everything, to Cambodia.”
This really sounds like posturing. He certainly pleased the witnesses. Obviously the U. S. has so far found it necessary to work with the Cambodian government in other fields and issues.
The lamest statement came from the State Department’s participant. He said about a tentative meeting between Hillary Clinton and Hor Nam Hong: “We are still working on when and where exactly, but certainly we want to keep that dialogue going.”

That meeting is to take place at the UN in New York City.

So how would you judge the outcome? It may be too early to tell but it sure sounded a lot like lip service on the commission’s part. For both Licadho and the Union representative it probably was a little discouraging. I would estimate that the Human Rights Watch director has no illusions about anything anyway, particularly governments. Probably only Ms. Mu Sochua left with a sense of accomplishment. This elevated her international stature one more notch and surely played well in front of her overseas Khmer supporters, who most likely bankrolled her tour. Did normal citizens except SRP followers in Cambodia itself pay any attention to this?

(All quotes taken from the VOA Khmer website.)

Monday, September 14, 2009

The ‘American Virus’

Recently a Cambodian woman in the U. S. was sentenced to 33 months in prison for arranging sham marriages between U. S. citizens and Cambodian nationals so the latter could easily immigrate into the U. S.

This is a well-known practice, so much so that I am really surprised that the USCIS, as it’s now called, did not catch on sooner. This is not only confined to Khmer people, but to Vietnamese, Chinese, and other nations with a high percentage of people in abject poverty. While the Chinese and other nationals will go just about anywhere that can offer them a chance at earning more money than at home, the Khmer and the Vietnamese clearly prefer the U. S. over any other country.

I can’t imagine that there is anybody out there who doesn’t know how this works. But for the uninitiated, here is the lowdown on it.

A Cambodian in the U. S., whether a naturalized citizen, green card holder or just there on a visa, looks for an American who is willing to marry a Cambodian national for the express purpose of immigrating into the U. S. Needless to say that the Americans available for this kind of deal are usually not too well-off themselves. Mostly people find one through Cambodian businesses and their clientele, by word-of-mouth, or any other confidential means. But from what I know, most of these transactions are for family members, even extended ones. In that sense, the case of the Khmer woman who seemed to make a business out of it was an exception.

Of course, the American doesn’t do this for free. Since most of the time the prospective Khmer bride/groom doesn’t get tourist a visa to the U. S. it becomes necessary for the American to travel to Cambodia where they meet. Sometimes, to make it more credible to the very suspicious embassy consuls, they travel back and forth several times. Then they get married in Cambodia, get the civil marriage license from the Sangkat, get a family book, and all the other documents necessary to apply for an immigrant visa to the U. S.

As spouses, Khmer partners have the first priority in family-based immigration, and there is no limitation on the numbers of visas available. Once everything is processed, and the Khmer partner survived the embassy grilling, they are good to go. The whole thing can take anywhere from 3 months to 1 year, depending on whether all documents were submitted on time.

The U. S. removed one big obstacle from this procedure when they opened the embassy in Phnom Penh to hold those immigration interviews. Formerly interviewees needed to travel to Bangkok for this - another substantial expense.

In the U. S. the newly-weds are supposed to live together, share a joint bank account, etc.; in general, actually live like husband and wife. The ones I know don’t, although I am sure there are some that actually go through with this. After 2 years (it used to be 3), there is another interview with the USCIS to verify that the marriage was real and not just a sham. Of course, if the partners play by the rules, are convincing in their interviews, and have their paperwork in order, they will actually be issued a green card that is good for 10 years (although that may differ in some cases). Both can then go on their own way and eventually file for divorce. If it’s amicable and there is no distribution of property involved, this will be comparatively inexpensive. Additionally, the Khmer individual is eligible for U. S. citizenship after 5 years after they take civics lessons and a mandatory test.

The costs altogether are considerable, though – in my view outright prohibitive. As you all can imagine, the American partner will not bear any of the expenses or costs that need to be ponied up. The fee for the American him-/herself can range from $2,000 to $10,000. In some cases, I heard even $20,000 changed hands. Since most Khmer don’t know the procedures and don’t speak enough English they need to use an immigration attorney to handle all the paperwork.With travel expenses, sometimes two or three times, the fees in Cambodia, which are also no small item, as everything needs to be done expeditiously, and all the other miscellaneous expenses, the whole shebang can add up to anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000, sometimes even more.

As a neutral person, I have often wondered why people go to such extremes to immigrate to the U. S. In my view, if you are poor in Cambodia you will also be poor in the U. S. And most of the time, the would-be immigrants don’t have the money to pay for all this, so they borrow from a family member in the U. S. and maybe scrape together the jewelry they own and sell it.

Just imagine you spend $30,000 to $50,000 to go to the U. S. to do what? Work as an unskilled laborer for minimum wage of $5.75? But when you ask people in Cambodia would you do that, they will in the majority reply without hesitation with a resounding yes. So is poverty in the U. S. better than poverty in Cambodia? And why not go to France or Germany where the social system is much more refined? There the government will provide you with a minimum income of about $600 a month forever if you can’t find a job. Finding a job is the most difficult part of it all. Most of the people coming here don’t speak English at all. They even might have some sort of education but all they work at is on minor jobs on assembly lines in factories, cleaning jobs, etc.; in other words, menial jobs of the lowest category. And those factory jobs are disappearing by the thousands every month right now.

How will they be able to repay that loan? They will practically be in servitude for their entire lives to the person who loaned it. I know of one such person who employs in his store at less than minimum wage three of his relatives whom he brought over. He found willing Americans, paid for all those expenses, and now these three people are in debt to him forever; and he wants it this way. Because they will have to work for him practically their entire lives, and continue the business after he retires so they can support him then. Not a bad idea as such, but at what price for the relatives?

Some will say, at least they have a job, a roof over their heads, and food to eat. Yes, correct, I agree. But it still has that slave labor ring to it, doesn’t it?

The U. S. is the only industrialized country without mandatory health insurance. (The debate over Obama’s health care reform is currently raging at a feverish level.) The U. S. is the only industrialized country that has employment at will, which means employees can be fired at a moment’s notice for no reason at all. After someone has lost their job, they can get unemployment benefits for 6 months. That’s it. After that, you are left to fend for yourself. No wonder you see so many homeless people. In the U. S. roughly 14% or some 43 million people live below the poverty level, which incidentally coincides with the number of people who can’t afford health insurance. Outside the big cities, there is no public transportation system to speak of. Consequently, everyone needs a car just to get to work. If you work 8 hours a day at minimum wage, you make about $1250 a month, which will leave you with about $935 after taxes if you are single and $1000 if you are married.

With a monthly rent of $600, at least $200/month for the car, health insurance of $250/month, which I consider vital, and $300 for food, how can you survive on that kind of income? You can’t, and that’s why these people get a second job, share the apartment with a roommate, and literally work their butts off to make ends meet. The price is high, and there is practically no way out of it, since these people spend all their time working and have no chance of getting a better education; they simply don’t have the time, let alone have some kind of enjoyment with other things like movies, bowling, travel, etc. Is that the kind of life you want to spend $30,000 to $50,000 on, just to get there?

Of course, once they get married the picture changes slightly. With both working two jobs, they can earn a decent income and with a frugal life-style, they will eventually be able to afford all the things that the American way of life stands for: a car, probably you will need two, a house, and maybe a trip or two. If they have children, and most will, the children just follow in their footsteps. A higher education is expensive in the U. S. – another big drawback in this country – and who can afford it ? (It’s free in all EU countries and Japan.) They will also get the uncertainty of a modern industrialized world. They may lose your job overnight. I know someone who worked for the 3M Company for 15 years and was laid off because they transferred their operation overseas. Also, see below the trailer for a documentary on the closing of GM plant – if anybody gets HBO, it’s definitely worth watching. Yes, I do know people who have come here in the late eighties, found a job mostly as a blue-collar worker, or started their own small business, became part of the American social fabric with their own house, cars, etc. But the majority of them couldn’t climb up the social ladder very far according to the U. S. census. Part of the reason was that they spoke none or insufficient English. Even people with a higher education had to get menial jobs. It still surprises me how little English some of those people speak after so many years in the U. S. - some still don’t speak any at all.

They or their parents had no choice at that time but to leave Cambodia after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Many of those people had worked for the Lon Nol government and would be persecuted. But that was then, and this is now. Is it still worth the price? I believe it is exactly those people that emigrated in the late eighties that infected their relatives with that ‘American virus’- American politicians like to call it the American Dream. They made it and they keep telling their relatives they can too. There are about 200,000 – 250,000 Khmer overseas people living in the U.S., France, Canada, and Australia (plus a small number in other countries). The 150,000 or so living in the U. S. managed to infect a great part of the homeland Khmer population with that ‘virus’. Ironically, it is the U. S. that appears so attractive to them, the very country that brought on the misery in Cambodia in the first place, because of its failed policies in SE Asia. One never knows, but if the U. S. government hadn’t overthrown Sihanouk, perhaps the Khmer Rouge would not have won the civil war later. And which country bombarded Cambodia illegally, killing thousands and thousands of people? But that’s another story. Sometimes, when I think about this, I am really baffled. And just as ironically, the same applies to the South Vietnamese. They are afflicted with that same ‘virus’. But here you have over one million U. S.-Vietnamese spreading it. Yes, the present younger generation that was born in the U. S. is better off, or are they? Again according to the U. S. census, roughly 25% get a college degree, about the same as among white Americans. But as we all know this is no guarantee for a well-paying job these days. Yes, there are success stories, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

The situation and attitude is slowly changing in Cambodia, I think. With the world economy in the doldrums, there is little incentive to emigrate; they would simply jump from being jobless in Cambodia to being jobless somewhere else. The U. S. has also become more restrictive in their application of immigration laws. Before it seemed more generous, possibly because of a collective feeling of guilt. Many have started their own families and don’t want to leave them behind for an uncertain and unknown future. They barely scrape by but they have their families to turn to, to give them support, if not materially than at least mentally. So why venture out? And what about Cambodia? Doesn’t this country need its own people help rebuild the country - even the poor farm laborer? Who would do that if they all emigrated? Where is the love of your country that is so often invoked? Not all is well, a lot needs to be done. This is why Cambodia needs its people to stay, work for a better Cambodia, and thereby make a better life for themselves at home.

To counter some arguments from the start, although I am very critical of some aspects of the U.S., I have been living here on and off since the mid-eighties – first, because of a good business opportunity I was offered, and second, because I hated the weather in Europe. (I still found the time to spend more than four years full-time in Cambodia and countless months since.) There are many good things here, don’t get me wrong, but there is at least an equal number of negatives. For poor people, the U. S. would not be my first choice. It would be France or Germany, and the U. K. to some extent, with their social systems. But how many immigrants can they take in? Additionally, those countries suffer from almost the same economic malaise as the U. S. The U.S. is good for people who are already secure in their financial situation, or for the rich, for people who don’t have to worry where the next meal comes from. There are many disturbing things in the U. S., but they usually don’t affect more affluent people in their daily lives, they simply don’t see them because they are never confronted with them. But for the poor immigrant it’s an entirely different story altogether.

Trailer for the HBO documentary 'The last truck'

Monday, September 7, 2009

Where Is The Outrage?

Maybe I am mistaken, but I get the impression as though NGOs in the field of protecting and advancing the principles and application of human rights active in Cambodia have singled out this country as an easy target. If you read the Thai press, for instance, there is not nearly as much coverage of human rights abuses as in Cambodia. Why is that, I am wondering? Malaysia? My goodness, Cambodia is heaven compared to Malaysia, at least judging from press reports. According to a Malaysian businessman, whom I had the chance to talk with recently and who knows all the SE Asian countries, as well as India, Cambodia is really not so bad.

When I say NGOs, I am excluding the UN High Commission, the Human Rights Watch, and Licadho, which I am sure all do good work and have the noblest of intentions, and they do their work worldwide. And to preempt any criticism from overseas Khmer supporting the SRP, I am also sure that the SRP and its two prominent leaders, Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua, have the interest of the Cambodian people at heart and that their criticism and condemnations of the Cambodian government’s disregard of some human rights are heart-felt and genuine, as opposed to believing they do it for political expediency and are self-serving in the pursuit of financial contributions from overseas Khmer and organizations committed to helping further the cause of human rights. But on second thought, perhaps that also plays a role, or does it?

But on the other hand, the upcoming hearing by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U. S. Congress on the situation in Cambodia and its political utilization by the SRP lead people to believe that the U. S. is indeed very much interested in Cambodia and attribute, in my view, undue significance to the U. S. as a shining beacon of the practice of human rights. In a recent letter to the editor of the Phnom Penh Post Mu Sochua held out the U. S. as a country to emulate in its policies. She is, after all, a U. S., citizen who in the course of her education both in school and as preparation for obtaining citizenship is indoctrinated in that belief.

If you take a closer look, however, you will find that the U. S. does not fare that well. On a list by the UK’s respected newspaper The Observer/The Guardian, the U. S. is ranked 86th, Cambodia 78th, in other words, the U. S. is only slightly ahead of Cambodia. The paper balanced the score of abuses with the human development index (HDI). Now, that list dates back to 1999, so it’s 10 years old and might be considered outdated. (I couln’t find a more recent ranking.) I agree. But the conclusion would also be that with the intervening Bush years in the U. S. and the undoubtedly improved situation in Cambodia, they would rank about the same, or would they?

We read about violations and abuses in Cambodia on a daily basis. I don’t need to repeat them here. But what about human rights abuses in the U. S. – that land of the free and the brave?

Just to list a few: the death penalty, executions of innocent people, discrimination against minorities, disenfranchisement of minorities - particularly African-Americans, racial profiling, renditions of people without court order or concrete evidence, torture of so-called enemy combatants, employing mercenary armies to carry out assassinations (Blackwater), the routine meddling in other nation’s affairs, helping overthrow inconvenient governments, supporting friendly dictatorships, tolerating human rights abuses in allied countries (Saudi Arabia), looking the other way in the face of genocide (Darfur, Ruanda), and so on, and so on. For a more detailed look got to Amnesty International’s website or the Human Rights Watch’s website. What you can read there will make you shudder.

And much can be said about the U. K., France, and Germany - all countries with a stellar reputation for human rights and the protection of the persecuted. Again, check these countries out on AI and HRW. It is outright disheartening.

Now, I am not excusing abuses elsewhere just because ‘enlightened’ and developed countries don’t have a handle on human rights either. What I am railing against is the hypocrisy with which opposition politicians, and Mu Sochua seems to have of late become their voice, and NGOs active in Cambodia hold out other countries as exemplary in their handling of democracy and human rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. Where is the outrage against the U. S. and others?

This makes a mockery of their fight for justice and human rights. This makes them nothing more than opportunists who ride the wave of sympathy for the poor, the downtrodden, and the persecuted. Ms. Sochua has become a celebrity in those circles for the simple reason that she chose to sue the Prime Minister and lost, which was to be expected from the beginning. She mounted that campaign on a flimsy pretense; for what - to gain freedom fighter status or become a martyr? One would think she could have chosen a more worthy cause. This is not a fight for freedom and human rights. This is a clash of two egos. I said it before, this is probably more than anything else an exercise in showing who is in charge to those returned overseas Khmer politicians, who didn’t go through the hard times in their home country but led a cushy life in safety and prosperity, and who now want to lecture the government on how things are to be run.

Where is the outrage by NGOs against corruption in the U. S., which is widespread? I would like to use a quote on corruption from one Axel Boldt, a math teacher at a college in the U.S.

“……policemen keeping confiscated drugs for themselves or demanding sex from prostitutes, guards smuggling drugs into prisons, a mayor taking kickback money, immigration officers issuing fake green cards and so on. …..

…..Large-scale corruption of the legal kind infects every level of U.S. society. In fact, the USA invented and perfected the system of effective legal corruption. Politicians receive their money from corporations. Government regulators get well-paid positions on corporate boards once they leave the government. Plea bargaining is the rule in criminal court. Drug companies help researchers write medical articles and lather doctors with gifts and trips. Bond rating agencies are paid by the bond issuers. The news media depend on advertising money.”

Give me a break.