Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Dey Krahom Dispute on Blogs

I feel I have to make one more statement in clarification what I have said about this so far. It is apparent that many people just don’t read the post and comments thoroughly enough.

First let me point out that this blog, as most other blogs, is not a journalistic work, nor does it aspire to be. Though several contributions on this blog were written by a journalist, and with the exception of one, they were all op-eds.

As it says in the header, this blog consists of observations, ruminations, and commentary. Consequently, what I write and post are my personal, but first-hand, observations, and information gathered directly from a source, unless I quote information in the public domain, but most of all they are my personal opinions. I am not a journalist but a businessman who publishes this blog as a hobby and as a vehicle to present a different opinion to people who read and want to know more about Cambodia.

In the case of Dey Krahom I was accused of not doing enough research. I don’t remember one piece, including the one about Dey Krahom, where more extensive ‘research’ needs to be done, other than what I know and gleaned from various sources, including newspapers, legal material, and protagonists in the story. My contributions are no legal briefs, and do not claim to use legally relevant verbiage nor arguments that may be presented in a court. But I am fairly conversant with many aspects of the Cambodian legal framework. Most of it is readily available in English translations on the internet these days. Although I do speak Khmer fairly well, my knowledge of the Khmer alphabet is still rudimentary.

In that sense the post on Dey Krahom must be read as a discussion not a legal presentation. My detractors write in the same style, therefore, I don’t see that any criticism in this respect is valid. I am not above using derisory or deprecatory terms with other bloggers and neither are they. I believe this is still in the realm of fairness. I don’t use profane language here or on any other blog.

When I use ‘facts’ I can substantiate them. Contending something doesn’t necessarily mean it is a fact. I may just express a thought. When I dispute something, e. g. that the inhabitants of Dey Krahom didn’t have legal title to the land under Cambodian law, I make that statement in the knowledge that none of those titles, or similarly adequate documents according to the land law, were presented to the management of Dey Krahom. My argument in this dispute has been that Dey Krahom was a slum, nothing else. Slums need to be reclaimed as they constitute a health hazard, not only to the dwellers themselves but to the general public, notwithstanding the ownership issue. As such, the municipality would have had every right to expropriate the ‘owners’; naturally, with adequate compensation.

And compensation is what it was all about. The people didn’t object to be moved to another location. What they wanted was, plain and simple, higher compensation than what 7NG offered. If memory serves me right, 7NG started with $500 per family (which was pitiable, but then that was back at a time when the real estate prices hadn’t soared yet), and in the end they offered $20,000, sometimes it was reported even $30,000, to the remaining families there. Most of the original inhabitants took one offer or another and moved to the village the company had built on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, or elsewhere. Finally, when even this rather adequate offer was refused 7NG moved in and forcibly evicted the dwellers. This is what would have happened in any other country as well – for those who don’t know or believe this, please Google this subject for the U. S. or the UK on the internet. If there were some shady dealings at the beginning of this whole quagmire, I don’t dispute that. We all know this is a way of life not only in Cambodia. Does this make it right? No, certainly not. Believe it or not, I do support the right to protest, and I do believe in the rule of law. I don’t encourage or condone human rights abuses. But this is not what really happened, in my opinion. What reined here and dictated the dwellers’ actions was obstinacy at best and greed at worst.

Clearly, the remaining families, judging from newspaper reports, were encouraged by disingenuous NGOs and other, mostly, foreigners who didn’t see the reality of the marketplace but were obviously blinded by the soaring economy of 2005 to 2008. They abetted the dwellers to hold out and ask for more, directly or indirectly. The dwellers were only a bouncing ball in their game for media attention and for the promotion of their agenda, and possibly their quest for more donations. After all, this was an ideal issue to justify the existence of some of them. They couldn’t have hoped for a better one. The more publicity about their role, the more donations would possibly come in. The story about that Canadian humanitarian worker who died in a moped crash in Sihanoukville and the breathless activitiy of that NGO collecting donations is one prime example of an NGO gone awry.

Realistically, NGOs ought to have advised them to accept the last offer and taken the money. When it was all over, the dwellers saw the mistake they had made and wanted to salvage the situation by asking for reinstatement of the offer - why not take it in the first place?

Oh yes, there were outcries by human rights organizations – plenty of them. On the surface it appeared that severe human rights abuses had occurred. In my opinion, though, they failed to look at the background of this whole saga more thoroughly. They just saw the dwellers as victims, who in part they are, but there could have been a way out if they had struck a compromise. The UN office didn’t even publish anything until well after the dwellers were removed. The vast majority of Phnom Penh’s population didn’t pay attention to this matter at all, not to mention that most of the rural population had never heard of it.

I will be happy to post any genuine documents relating to this story in both English and Khmer on this site. If they prove me wrong, I will be happy to acknowledge that and state this here. Anybody who cares can send those documents to me by email, or cite a download link. If anybody cares to read up on the Social Land Concession Decree or the Land Law of 2001, they can be viewed here

Now, before anybody starts ripping me apart for this commentary, please read it carefully before you go on a rant. And for those of you who are familiar with the U. S., I am no Rush Limbaugh, but I do have opinions, without being opinionated, and I don't accuse my fellow bloggers of criminal wrongdoings, so please refrain from indicating that I am engaged in illegal activities.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Khmerization Blog

Lately, I have come under fire from the blogger calling himself Khmerization, an overseas Khmer living in Austalia. He reviles me for painting a more realistic picture of the events relating to the Dey Krahom quarters in Phnom Penh, for giving my opinion.

Norber Klein, another blogger and former German journalist who used to work for the Deutsche Presse Agentur, also weighed in, but being a true professional in a more sober manner, stating that I may not have studied the history of Dey Krahom. I would just like to post my reply here as well for readers that do not normally access Khmerization's blog, which is somewhat over-the-top in its approach to current Cambodian events and many of his ideas are simply pretty half-baked. But what is worse is the fact that this (young?) man comments on events and life in and about Cambodia that he doesn't know from first-hand experience. He may visit it every once in a while but we all know those visits don't really give you a well-founded impression.

What I had wanted to point out in various comments on several blogs was that the homeland Khmer populations doesn't seem to care very much about what's going on there. The great outcry comes from foreigners, mostly associated with NGOs.

Here is my reply:

Mr. Klein, I would appreciate your showing documents verifying the former occupier's ownership by title or possession since 1989 of Dey Krahom. The social concession was established to provide housing in the normal sense, e. g. houses, and did not extend to the squatters and their ramshackle huts that occupied the area for many years but never obtained formal recognition by the municipality. A concession comprises the right to occupy or use for a certain (possibly renewable) period of time. The squatters were tolerated, and when the community leaders sold the land, or rather the social concession was terminated by mutual agreement against compensation, the squatters needed to be relocated. You can hardly call it premature after this had been going on for years. The methods were heavy-handed, but one has to take into account the local mentality. In general, Cambodia, and all of Asia for that matter, has a different set of values than the West. You will possibly remember a word by a famous colleague of yours, Peter Scholl-Latour, who once said, ‘The West must cease to impose our set of values on other cultures in order to be successful in cooperating with those cultures.’

As for Junior’s post, and his name is really fitting for some of his postings, which are really sophomoric:

By no means did I express any support for anybody, but, if those fire-brand Aneke-jooan Khmer read and understood the context a little better, they would have seen that there are always too sides to a story. Blanket condemnations and artificial outrage, based on second- and third-hand information, have never helped any cause. And again, the homeland Khmer don't seem to care very much. This is a country still doing its first steps as a free country, and certain concepts still need to take root. But things aren't helped by demagoguery.

It is pathetic that these so-called justice-lovers sit in their warm kitchens overseas hurling invectives at people with different opinions. Of course, I know I incurred their wrath as I don’t think much of their idol, Sam Rainsy, who in my mind has miserably failed in his politics, as he can’t offer any real alternative solutions to present-day Cambodia. He is basically a stuffed shirt. His “solutions” are pretty much the same as the ones circulated on this and similar blogs – condemnation of the government, corruption, failed politics, etc. To this day they have not presented a detailed program how to combat poverty more effectively, how to fight endemic corruption, and how to stimulate the economy. Parroting U. S. politicians and programs certainly aren’t solutions for this country.

As for Dey Krahom – it is clear that this land needs to be developed, as do many other pieces of land in the city and the country as a whole. It takes entrepreneurs to do this. Junior has shown a profound lack of economic knowledge. Land is only worth as much as a buyer is willing to pay. Many of the figures they read in the papers were just hypothetical. $4,000/m2 for riverfront and downtown property was more wishful thinking than anything else. If there were indeed some crazy speculators who bought at those inflated prices, it only serves them right for losing their shirt over those outrageous speculative prices, ending up with a piece of land nobody wants to buy now. Some people don’t seem to understand that even now. They are still asking out-of-this-world prices. Many a Korean now wished he had never set foot in Cambodia.

Development costs money. It is not just buying a piece of land. It is putting something on it. If the cost of land exceeds 10 to 15% of the overall project it is normally not economically worthwhile doing. To recover an investment even in a lifetime is nearly impossible if real estate costs exceed 40 and 50% of the project, as in many cases in PP. People, and some Koreans were and are among them, didn’t pay attention to this significant bit of micro-economics. They are now suffering the consequences. Paying $200,000 for 50m2 is just idiotic. Propagating such notions puts the writer squarely in that very category. Using standard figures and land required for the project as 1 ha, the whole project would have to amount to roughly $250 million. But those armchair experts have no idea what it takes to develop – and develop this country it must. Of course, it is a question of how, but one can’t eradicate human nature and its inherent greed.

Junior is wont to disparage people who think differently. He may be ethnic Khmer, but in reality has lost touch with present-day Cambodia. He accuses me of having ulterior motives. I have invested considerably in Cambodia, both in the past and present. I provide jobs for Cambodians and support some of the extended family of my wife’s. I participate daily in the Cambodian economy, spending money, contributing to the economic cycle. I am part of what is called ‘foreign direct investment’, something the country desperately needs and welcomes. And everywhere I go in Cambodia I am well-received for that contribution and my understanding of the Khmer way of life. I do not deny that I am acquainted with people in higher positions but have not reaped any benefit from it.

And what are those ranting overseas Khmer doing? Outside of using foul language in their posts and comments, nothing. Why is it that the homeland Khmer aren’t too taken with their overseas brethren? They aren’t on the same page anymore. For most in Cambodia it is a fight for survival, not a fight who is right or who is wrong, and they certainly don’t want to be lectured by people who, when they do come back to Cambodia, mostly fail in their business undertakings, or political endeavors, for that matter, as both Ranariddh, Thomico, and Sam Rainsy more than amply prove.

Homeland Khmer don’t know how to handle those for them abstract ideas put forth by some foreigners and overseas Khmer pundits. If you want to help and change things, go back to your country and work actively. By publishing on blogs in English you don’t reach any substantial number in Cambodia anyway. More than anything else, you only stroke your own ego with those blogs. Go to Cambodia and start a grass-roots organization to change the way people think. This will eventually lead to a change in system as well. Spouting off about human rights abuses, government malfeasance, etc., in blogs won’t change anything. You will only be laughed at. Go get on the ground and put your money where your mouth is. Don’t blast the government from abroad. Participate in the political process on the ground in Cambodia. That is true patriotism. What you do is blowing hot air and hypocrisy at best, and outright cowardice at worst.

I am no supporter of the CPP, but I am convinced there is no other party in Cambodia at present who can run the country. Despite its many weaknesses and shortcomings this party is still the best for the country. The opposition simply lacks the personalities, and until it produces a charismatic leader this will not change for the forseeable future. I have extensively written about that on my blog.

Accusing me of profiting from my possible connection to the party, which I don’t have, shows very clearly what kind of people we are dealing with and of what mind they are. And one last word about NGOs. Some of them are outright suspicious to me, especially the ones where the directors salary comprises 25% of the overall budget. On that subject please read the Asia Times Online article of Nov. 14, 2008. Enough said.