Sunday, January 30, 2011

Repose

Most days we are consumed with thoughts about work, family, money, and other seemingly important things and find little time to savor the beauty of nature and local ambience around us. The free time we have we spend in front of the TV, or engaged in other distractions the modern world has presented us with.

So sometimes, we need to take that proverbial time out, which we occasionally do, but certainly not nearly enough. Here are a few pictures of such moments.

The monkey thieves - these cheeky inhabitants of the Udong hill steal the flowers from unsuspecting visitors - they make fine fare for them.




Sunset at one of my favorite restaurants in Sihanoukville.

Crabbers returning overloaded with our culinary delights.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tunisia in Cambodia?

A couple of days ago Prime Minister Hun Send referred to the ouster of the Tunisian president Ben Ali when he said that similar unrest would not be tolerated in Cambodia. He would ‘close the door and beat the dog’. Many scratched their heads wondering what he actually meant, at least those people who are unfamiliar with the phrase. This is actually a Chinese saying that found its way into other Asian languages as well. It was widely used after the Tiananmen massacre and Tibetan unrest in China when the Chinese government put restrictions on free movement and the flow of information at the time, trying to shut out the world.

This is what the Phnom Penh Post reported about Huns Sen’s remarks:

Also today, Hun Sen lashed out an unnamed critic that he said had advocated a popular revolution in Cambodia on the model of Tunisia, where rioting and protests forced out long-time ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali last week.


“There is a guy saying that Cambodia should foment a Tunisia style-revolt. I would like to send you a message that if you provoke or foment a Tunisia style-revolt, I will close the door to beat the dog this time,” Hun Sen said, arguing that the North African nation faces “the prospect of civil war” as it attempts to hold together its fragile interim government.


“This guy, if he enters Cambodia, will face arrest. This guy has a bald head. This guy says Cambodia should look to the style of Tunisia: if you dare to gather [the people] to do that please come, don’t say such silly words … I will beat you on the head.”


It was not clear to whom the prime minister was referring.

Obviously, Hun Sen was talking about Dr. Lao Mong Hay who had encouraged Cambodians to follow the Tunisian example. This Dr. Lao is a well-known Cambodian intellectual and activist living in Hong Kong who, of course, is banned from entering Cambodia due to his anti-government pronouncements that subliminally call for the ouster of the regime even by unlawful means. He also happens to be a staunch royalist and is a little out of tune with the times. In our Western understanding, there is only one way to bring about a change of government, that is, at the ballot box. However, many Western governments nevertheless encourage regime change in brutal dictatorships or governments that are not beholden to their Western interests, or as they like to put it ‘democratic ideals and principles’. Sometimes they even invade a country to bring about that regime change, like in Iraq, or in Grenada in the 1980s. On the other hand, it is quite comprehensible that a repressed people will rise up, and for the most part, it will have the free world’s support. But do we have these conditions in Cambodia?

Hun Sen reiterates that he won fair and square in the elections and the only way he will leave office is if he is defeated in elections. Radio Free Asia got a quick response from the government when an op-ed there criticized Hun Sen on his 26th anniversary as Prime Minister and asked that he step down. The government pointed to the U. S. and European Union’s statements that the 2008 elections, in fact all previous elections, were freer and fairer than the previous one. He is the democratically elected leader of the country.

Do we have a repressive regime in place here? According to Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch Asia, who wrote the op-ed for RFA, yes. I believe, however, Brad Adams has lost his ability for independent and objective observation. He hears or sees Hun Sen, he sees red. The fact is that according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s report on the state of the world’s democracies, Cambodia is a hybrid democracy and occupies rank 100 among the 187 nations listed. What does that mean? Cambodia has all the trappings of a democratic state but the ruling party enjoys an absolute majority that would even enable it to change the constitution. Essentially, it has become a one-party state, where the opposition parties play no significant role in the country’s political life. The King is the head of state without power as in the U. K., for instance. The Prime Minister wields all the power based on his party’s majority. By all appearances, the Hun Sen is rather autocratic and his word is just like the law. He is famous for micromanaging the state’s affairs. He will attend the opening of even the smallest road, as he did this Saturday when he came to the inauguration of a small paved side road of Hanoi Road in Phnom Penh Thmey. (Of course, this also enhances his visibility with the general population and earns him the gratitude of the Okhna who most likely footed the bill.)

There were some misguided incidents with the press and opposition politicians, e. g. Mu Sochua, and at least the English-speaking press freely reports that some judges are afraid of adverse consequences if they rule against the ruling party’s interests. This does cast doubts on the judiciary’s independence.

Nevertheless, the press enjoys the most freedom among most of the SE Asian countries. Notwithstanding the fact that some police hired for the protection of a private construction site overstep their authority as in the case of the PPP reporter who got beaten up, the press can go about its business freely unless they publish patently false stories or slanderous rumors. You can’t just accuse politicians of corruption without hard evidence. Also, the Khmer-language press is notorious for printing uncorroborated stories, or even trying to extort money from individuals for not printing negative stories about them. So there is a flipside to this coin as well.

The best English-language paper in the country, the Phnom Penh Post, is a prime example of what a newspaper should print. They also report and print stories critical of the CPP, the Prime Minister, or any other politician for that matter. I have not seen or heard any repercussion or attempts to silence the paper. Of course, they never engage in rumormongering. They abide by the New York Times’ motto: ‘All the news that is fit to print.’ This is a maxim the Khmer-language newspapers should engrave in their editors’ minds. A lot of the conflicts with an admittedly press-sensitive government could be avoided.

Despite the recent hullabaloo about the shutting down of a domain, the internet is freely accessible. Sometimes, the powers that be seemingly try to please the Prime Minister and his wife by trying to control content. Madame Bun Rany is rather puritan in her views and wants to ban all things erotic from cell phones and the internet. That, of course, is a hopeless undertaking in today’s technological world. Consequently, any attempt to block sites will prove futile, as people will always find a way to circumvent the blockage, with or without the help of some savvy hackers at home and abroad. The flow of information cannot be stemmed. This is a fact that the government seems to have internalized already. You can buy any foreign newspaper or magazine – uncensored, as opposed to neighboring countries.

In Tunisia, the masses protested in the face of economic hardships, high unemployment, and rising prices while the accumulation of the Ben Ali family’s wealth continued unabated; these protests were obviously triggered by Wikileaks cablegate and the self-immolation of a street vendor. Global Witness reported allegations how the Prime Minister Hun Sen’s clan amassed fortunes by selling out the country. Ministers, generals, and high-ranking officials are all seen to be rich. GW and other organizations accuse them of having gained their riches through corruption, theft, or other illegal means. Whatever truth there is to these allegations and accusations, could this lead to the same demonstrations as in Tunisia? I don’t think so and this is where Dr. Lao errs in believing that such an upheaval could or should happen in Cambodia.

I did business in and with Tunisia and know the country, although it certainly has undergone some change in the last decade. Dr. Lao should have checked the CIA World Factbook before making such a recommendation and drawing the ire of the Cambodian government. Although it gained independence from France in 1956, the same time period as Cambodia, its history is vastly different from Cambodia’s; most significantly, it never went through a dark ages period. The population is generally more educated and affluent than Cambodia’s. Prosperity has penetrated many levels of society. Their contact with the modern and western world came early with the advent of mass tourism, one of the major industries in Tunisia. This happened almost along the same time line as the development of Thailand, which also began in earnest around the early 1970s, after the Vietnam war and the influx of tourists from Western countries. Cambodia lags about 30 years behind in this.

Despite some organizations’ and people’s misgivings, justified or unjustified, about the current government, it has proven to be positive for the country as a whole. It has brought stability, peace, and a good environment for investment. People power as in the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine will not happen here. The older people are tired of unrest and instability, the younger people want to enjoy life. The mentality of the people is just not conducive to uprisings. This is seemingly what politicians or activists like Sam Rainsy or Dr. Lao overlook. Being a baby-boomer and having always been intensely interested in current affairs, I cannot remember one instance in all those post-war years where extra-parliamentary opposition has succeeded in bringing about regime change without the help of the entrenched power structure, or in some cases with outside help. Of course, if you let agitators into the country, you might open the floodgates. Sorry, folks, but those people better stay out. It is not good for the country. If you want to beat the system, work within the system. If you preach democratic principles, please apply them too.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

All Hyped Up

Yesterday the Google domain that hosts this blog among many, many others was inaccessible in Cambodia, possibly from other countries as well. Blogspot.com, of course, is a huge domain with blogs probably numbering in the hundreds of thousands. It is quite conceivable that sometimes there might be logistical problems, e. g. servers are overloaded, electrical failure (power outages still occur), or similar problems.

Pretty soon news made the rounds that one or two Cambodian Internet providers had shut down this domain, although the incidence and regions seemed to vary. On being contacted, one of them confirmed that a manager had ordered staff to block that domain. Subsequently, the general manager denied any such instruction; the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication purportedly also knew nothing about this, as did the Ministry of the Interior. For the full story, please see www.phnompenhpost.com .

Some pundits also got all hyped up about that whole situation and voiced their self-righteous indignation in blogs and comments. Sure, it could only have been the government, right?

Among the many blogs blogspot.com hosts, KI-Media, a news aggregation site, is probably the most widely read blog about Cambodia. KI-Media obviously gets its posts by searching the net for news about Cambodia, reprints it, and also must have good connections into some government circles because it sometimes publishes information that could only stem from those sources. Evidently, they are very close to especially one opposition party (SRP) and get a lot of their inside information from them. It also enjoys very close relations with overseas Khmer activists, plus the bloggers themselves are most overseas Khmer. A few of them, however, actually seem to be homeland Khmer. These people all have one thing in common: they want to unseat the present government and KI-Media is their mouthpiece.

They also have some contributors that have transformed the site from a sheer propaganda outlet for the opposition to a site for civic lessons. One contributor calling himself Khmer Democrat publishes texts from various legal sites, including the Cambodian constitution, obviously trying to educate the ‘dumb’ masses of Cambodia. This person may think he/she is pretty smart with what he/she is doing but nowadays nothing is easier than ‘cut and paste’ from the internet. What this person also seems to forget is that he/she is missing the intended target, as the people who would make a difference in Cambodia just don’t read the website – the young. What amazes me, however, is that one Theary Seng uses this forum for her publications as well. This lady is an intelligent and well-educated woman, a U. S. licensed attorney no less, who enjoys a solid reputation in Cambodian civil societies and is certainly misplaced on such a crude site as KI-Media.

The way KI-Media has evolved and goes about its business is beyond the pale, in my mind. From what started as a rather good, purely news gathering site, if you disregard the prevalent obscene readers’ comments, they have turned into a slanderous, undemocratic, demagogical, virulent, bile-spewing, contemptible political trash site. Those purportedly highbrow articles posted by several seemingly well-educated contributors cannot help their stature. A few years back I got a few posts published on that site, but once I became critical of the main opposition party I was henceforth banished. So much for their objectivity.

They accuse the government of being illegitimate, of having stolen the last elections, of tolerating, even supporting, corruption at all levels, brand the heads of the ruling party as traitors, of being murderers, and generally act as a platform for the failed opposition leader Sam Rainsy. They are outright racist when it comes to their opinion of the Vietnamese government and the Vietnamese people. It might anger some CPP officials what they read there, but they also might just dismiss the site as somewhat ludicrous.

The site never tires of calling for the respect of human rights, freedom of speech (and press), democratic principles, etc., but their own website does lack these things. We all know Cambodia is a developing country with all its woes and all is not well in the Kingdom of Wonder but KI-Media with its kind of low-level attacks is certainly not helping the democratic process. Overseas Khmer with a few homeland Khmer chipping in every now and then run the site. A duplication of the site without the vile commentaries is a blog called Khmerization (I have had many a dispute with that blogger about the situation in Cambodia).

Now it cannot come as a surprise that these two sites thought the government had blocked their sites when the outage occurred. Although the information at hand is ambiguous, I am sure the Cambodian government has by now come to realize that it just can’t simply and easily shut down websites. Proxy servers abound and it is not a problem to access a banned website from within Cambodia through those. It rather sounds as if some overzealous ISP employees misunderstood an instruction and blocked it. But it sure enhanced KI-Media’s profile over the short term and their number of hits, as well as those for Khmerization. This Australian accountant considers himself the great authority on Cambodian politics anyway, perhaps missing a sense of proportion in the grand scheme of things (although admittedly some of his posts that reach me via email are not too bad, especially the ones dealing with history). KI-Media and Khmerization simply attach too much significance to their blogs. In other words, they are just a little too full of themselves, aren’t they? Cambodia is not the U. S. or Australia. Although the internet is widely available and uncensored in Cambodia, the penetration of internet usage is only about 3-5 %. So who are they preaching to?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Education at What Price?

Interested expats all know about the state of the Cambodian education system in comparison to other more developed countries. An indication of what it is like is the fact that people of means send their children to private schools or even abroad.
At the beginning of the past school year, I had to make a choice where to send my Cambodian stepson. He had completed middle school (8th grade) in the U. S. with average grades; it goes without saying that we wanted to give him the best education available in Cambodia. Ideally, we were looking for a bi-lingual school. Being Khmer it makes sense that he should be able to read and write Khmer on an advanced level; being in the era of globalization with English the dominant language, we also wanted him to continue his education in English.

The public schools don’t enjoy much of a reputation and naturally don’t teach in English, although English is taught. I experienced first-hand with my two stepdaughters the level of knowledge they pass on or rather don’t pass on to their students. They had both completed middle school here when they came to the U. S. American high schools are not too demanding to begin with, but these two girls were pretty much lost there. Nevertheless, they both managed to obtain their high school diplomas there.

Numerous private high schools in Phnom Penh teach in English. Many, I don’t know exactly how many, are just elementary schools. Practically all of them have a very big minus in my mind. They do not employ native English speakers. If parents want their child to learn a foreign language it is best taught by a native speaker of that language, right? Well, many of those private schools may not have the funds for that. After some research I narrowed my search down to just a handful of high schools. Unfortunately, the best ones offer curriculums in English only. So I had to weigh whether it would be desirable for my stepson to have a decent English education but probably wouldn’t be able to write a decent letter or document in Khmer.

Anyway, here are the schools I contemplated:

The International School of Phnom Penh (ISPP)

This is clearly the top secondary education school in Cambodia. They offer the International Baccalaureate, which is recognized practically worldwide and opens admission to even the best colleges in the English-speaking world. They possess all the modern facilities a high school needs to have in this day and age. Needless to say, that the curriculum is very demanding and rigorous. I also do know about the IB first-hand as my own son entered the IB-program in the U. S., only to resign after just one semester. It was too strenuous for him, although he did have the brains for it.

All this excellent education comes at a price, of course. With registration, capitalization, tuition, etc. the annual amount parents would have to dole out is in the range of $15,000. That’s more than most normal colleges in the U. S. cost. Considering the cost and the fact they my stepson with his average grades wouldn’t probably cut it, and that this would only be good if he were to go to college abroad, I eliminated this school from my list.

Northbridge International School Cambodia (NISC)

What was said about the ISPP applies to this school as well, except that they don’t offer the IB. A few years back they were accredited for the Diploma Program but must have lost that in the intervening years. According to their website, though, they will most likely be a member for the next school year. Tuition fees, etc. are practically the same as at the ISSP, and for exactly the same reasons I eliminated that school too.

I am sure both are excellent schools and offer an outstanding Western education but they are both geared towards diplomatic and NGO personnel with the means to pay these kinds of fees.

Zaman International School

Zaman enjoys an excellent reputation among Cambodians. Many would like to send their children there if they could only afford it. This school has exactly what I was looking for: classes in both English and Khmer. 20 of the 40 weekly class-hours are taught in English. The Ministry of Education and an international education body accredit them (see their website). This institution comprises not only elementary and secondary education, but they have an outstanding university as well. Equipment and facilities are on a par with today’s requirements. High school graduates earn a Khmer diploma as well as a Zaman diploma, which is recognized by a number of colleges in English-speaking countries. So this would fit my bill, it appeared. The one drawback for me was that the level of my stepson’s Khmer is not sufficient to enter high school just yet. Registration, tuition, etc. run to about $3,500 a year, which would appear to be very reasonable under the circumstances. This school, however, was founded and is run by Turkish people. Although they profess to employ only native English-speakers for their English-language classes, I found out this is not quite true. Of the English-faculty staff, there are maybe two or three native speakers. Even the English teacher is Turkish. This is a big disadvantage. I heard that they had more native speakers originally, but seemed to have phased them out over the years; probably for cost reasons. Turkish teachers may be less expensive than say Brits or Americans. Other than that, being Turkish doesn’t mean that they are Muslim-oriented; they are an all-secular school. Classes, however, are not co-ed.

British International School

As opposed to all the other international schools this institution blooms in the dark, so to speak. They do not advertise, nor do they have a website. When asked why, we were told that they rely on word-of-mouth only, so as not be overwhelmed by wealthy Khmer who many a time think their money can buy the grades and the teachers’ goodwill in the face of the children’s bad behavior.

In short, they offer the English A-levels diploma, which is similar to the U. S. diploma, possibly a little more rigorous, but not quite as demanding as the IB; only native speakers, of course, all the modern equipment and facilities, as far as we could tell, so pretty much the same as the ISSP, and the NISC. At $6,500 a year not exactly a steal, but still considerably cheaper than the former two. I was rather tempted as I put great stock in European schools. I always think they are better when it comes to general knowledge. The U. S. system is probably better at the tertiary level.

Logos International School / Hope Schools

Logos is apparently an excellent teaching institution with everything that’s needed and equal to NISC in the quality of education they provide. However, it is faith-based and as an avowed atheist, I cannot send anyone to a school that starts the day with a prayer, has daily Bible studies, and teaches Intelligent Design. To their credit, though, they also teach Darwinism. Additionally, I don’t believe Christian schools have a place in Cambodia to try to convert mostly devout Buddhists to their faith through, although admittedly good, education. They do say they do not indoctrinate but they do want to convince people that only the Christian faith will make them better and happier people and that their salvation lies in a Christian life. It is not exactly cheap for a Christian school – around $4,000, considering that many Christian elementary schools in Cambodia are free. Here is a quote from their website that says it all:

“In the case of religion, enrollment may be censored when necessary in order to maintain the strong Christian culture of the School.”

Western International School

This is a Cambodian-run institution, the staff is Cambodian, and it seems the only appeal they have is that their tuition fees are downright cheap in comparison to the other schools – only about $1,000 per year. Although they offer a high school in only English, it is only part-time, so a student would only get part of an education. I later learned that many of them go to a public school as well. The impression I got was not too favorable, so I eventually ruled it out.

Golden Gate American School

This school has been around since 1996 and was founded by overseas Cambodians. One of their sons who obviously stayed here when his parents emigrated runs it. They offer kindergarten to high school, or K-12 as it is generally known. However, high school currently consists of one 9th grade of nine students with exactly two teachers who between them teach four subject classes. They hope that this 9th grade will become 10th grade next year, but the future is somewhat hazy if you take a closer look.

At around $5,000 a year, this school is there for the money it seems, even though I don’t doubt its teachers’ motivation and good intentions. The director seems to be a little out of his depth, though. One of the teachers also told me that most students go to a public school in the afternoon. Again, this demonstrated the contradiction in the schools pronouncements. They offer full-day classes. Everybody is free to come to their own judgment. I cannot recommend it.

In the end, I decided on Zaman school for the one and simple reason that they offer Khmer-language instruction as well. After all, an educated Cambodian must be able to speak, read, and write literate Khmer. What if he wants to make a career in his home country - which, incidentally, I ardently hope for? Where would Cambodia be in the future if all its elite were to emigrate? He can always take the exams for any diploma later on, or enter an international school at grade 11 or even 12, if he is so inclined and bright enough. Zaman might not be the best school in English-language classes but it is unique in its combination in Cambodia. Additionally, any foreigner who wants to study in another country usually needs to take an admission test like the SAT or ACT in the U. S. anyway, no matter which diploma he or she holds, except, for the most part, the IB-diploma. So for the time being, all options are still open for him.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Normal Daily Madness

Many people have commented on the traffic situation here but this recent Friday I experienced one of those for Westerners incomprehensible situations at the intersection at the Daem Koa market just before Mao-Tse-Tung and Monireth.  This is an intersection best avoided at any time but this situation drove home in abundant clarity the point that the government really needs to do something drastic to educate their moped and truck drivers, and to a lesser extent car drivers.

I don't need to go into details as most people living here know what I am talking about. Cambodians just love to create gridlocks. They have no sense of how to effectively avoid getting stuck in traffic. It's like they really love inhale all those noxious fumes. It's complete chaos and sheer madness; and this happens all over Phnom Penh on a daily basis.


I do understand how this evolved. Some 20 years back there was hardly any traffic on the roads and people could drive whichever way they pleased - against traffic, U-turns at will, etc. Even seven, eight years ago it it wasn't so bad except that people making a right turn at a traffic light would just pass all the stopped traffic on the left and go around it in front, never mind that the light might change in the meantime. This seems to be a thing of the past right now. But the will to cross or pass in front of the passed vehicle is deeply ingrained in people's minds. They would pass you on the right, just to cut in front of you and make a left turn.

But since ever more people have been able to buy a car the traffic density has increased accordingly, but unfortunately, the traffic behavior of the people to a large part hasn't. Car drivers are a little more careful as they don't want any harm to come to their prized possessions. Truck drivers in their delapidated, road-unworthy frames on wheels take quite a different attitude unless they see one of those big SUVs with military or state government plates. The worst, as mentioned in a previous post, are the mopeds and the tuk-tuk drivers. The motodups usually are a little older and still used to their old ways in traffic, the younger ones just imitate the older people, and what's common to all of them is that they have to be the first. Also, many of them, especially the younger moped riders seem to be possessed by that inexplicable urge to commit suicide.

Anyway, the attitude and people's comprehension of traffic rules and the explosion of cars on the roads just haven't kept pace. In my years in SE Asia I have never seen such ignorant traffic behavior as here in Cambodia. Thailand underwent that explosion of cars just the same as Vietnam did. Although there were chaotic situations in terms of erratic driving there as well it had never reached such irrational proportions. Nowadays, of course, Bangkok is practically a huge parking lot but that's a different story; in Vietnam, though also pretty unruly in general, mopeds at least stay in the right lane and cars usually drive in the left lane. You rarely see people running red lights. So what is it with Cambodians? If this goes on like this Phnom Penh will also become that proverbial parking lot, but for different reasons.

Or just look at that moped; he is carrying 350 kg on his moped that was made to carry two adults or approximately 250 kg max. This is just a tiny example what goes on on Cambodia's road in terms of overloading.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Eat Your Heart Out

At the height of the real estate boom people bought properties left and right, some in places you would never believe would have any future value; especially rice paddies in rural areas that normally cost $.25-.35 per square meter.

So this one man whom I know was one of those people. Of course, he had a little money to spend to begin with, true to the maxim: ‘To make money you need money.’

He bought lots all over the place in 2005; one of those was a rice paddy of 3 ha near the Vietnamese border. The price he paid was $30,000, so $1/m2; already an inflated price at that time. Now guess what? Yep, he sold it in December – are you sitting down? - for an unbelievable $1.0 million. Who would pay such a ridiculously high price for a rice paddy? It turns out that the area is up for development due to a widening of the road to Vietnam (it is not road number 1) and an upgrading of the border crossing to a major entry/exit point to/from Vietnam. I don’t know who the buyers were but perhaps they want to build a casino on the lot; if not that, then definitely something that will recover the investment in rather short a time, otherwise it wouldn’t make any sense economically.

Now you people out there who always believe that the spoils of the rich were gained in a shady manner, how is that for a profit? I can just hear people say, ‘Sure, he is probably a big shot in the government and/or well-connected.’ This guy just happens to be a private businessman, nothing else; no special political affiliations. The way I see it this is pure capitalism at work, nothing more nothing less.

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 na├»ve 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.


Visitors