Friday, January 7, 2011

New Year’s Eve

It’s a little late for this post but I will put it up anyway. Sometimes when you read the NGO reports and some blogs about Cambodia you might think the whole country and its people are in a deep mental depression; that this is the country of the poor, the downtrodden, the bereft, the displaced, the oppressed, the unhappy.

Everyday life tells you a different story, though. I am not denying the underlying causes of the problems described in the reports published by various human rights organizations, such as Licadho. What I want to point out, though, is that the people, and I am talking about the vast majority, like in the 90 percentile, are generally happy with the life they have. Of course, they would wish for more, like everybody else in other parts of the world who doesn’t happen to be in the 5% top income bracket.

A case in point was this past New Year’s Eve. My family and I spent it in our house in Sihanouk province and went to Ocheuteal Beach in the evening. I can’t tell how many people roamed the walkway along the beach, or sat in the lounges, but my guess would be more than a hundred thousand. When we got there at eight o’clock, the parking lots were full, the people had already started their own fireworks. People were shooting those little flare rockets that had 100 flares in them all up and down the beach. They kept on doing this until well past midnight. They were eating, drinking, dancing, laughing, some getting drunk, just like everywhere else in the West. Everybody seemed to be having a good time. It was a big party. I can only marvel at the amount of money that was spent on those fireworks.

What I am saying is that this is not the picture of an unhappy people. Call me naïve or simplistic in my view but I believe this is symptomatic of the general state of mind in Cambodia. The majority of the population is under 30; they don’t know anything about the past, or if they do, very little. Those reminders before or on Jan. 7 don’t seem to take hold in their minds. The general attitude might well be, ‘That was then, this is now.’ And this generation is pretty much apolitical, so it is no wonder that the opposition parties with their Vietnam border issues don’t make much headway into this segment of society. The young want to enjoy life, they want to buy the latest gadgets like i-phones, have a new motorbike, or whatever their heart desires. Looking at the 25% or so of the urban population many of them have succeeded in fulfilling part of their dream, at least on the material side. And this is not restricted to the cities. The rural population is equally eager to emulate the Western youth in their life-styles.

This New Year’s Eve was a perfect example of the change of life and life-style the Cambodian people are undergoing. Whereas the traditional Khmer New Year in April is a more sedate affair, this international New Year’s Eve was a big party in the best Western tradition. I remember a New Year’s Eve I ‘celebrated’ on Ocheuteal Beach in 1994. The only acceptable hotel at that time was the New Hong Kong Motel, a Thai-style lovers’ tryst. There were maybe four Western expats on the beach; no lighting, no fireworks, no Khmer in sight. What a change.


Anonymous said...

... and look, their dogs, monkeys, and cows are happy too! If one has never tasted freedom (freedom of speech, freedom of the press), who knows the difference? Certainly not the happy little dogs. Why of course, my job at the brick factory is much better than no job at all. Let us eat, drink, be merry, and forget of our troubles for this one day, for tomorrow we shall die. Want more proof of our happiness? Just look!

Anonymous said...

You can't make a revolution on an empty stomach - I don't care about freedom of press or speech if I am hungry; I have all the freedom if I can buy the latest gizmos, the latest fashion, listen to hip-hop.

If I am ignorant and uneducated I believe what's fed to me whether in Cambodia or in other countries (free and not so free).

I am not oppressed if I can travel wherever I want; I am not deprived of information if I can read all the news I want or need on the internet.