Monday, February 28, 2011

Rip-Off?

I posted a story in August 2009 about a little village at the junction of Hanoi Road and State Road 5A. (http://about-cambodia.blogspot.com/2009/08/foreign-direct-investment-in-cambodia.html - ‘Where is all the outrage?)

At that time the residents of that village, nothing more than an assembly of wooden shacks in a deplorable state, had to pay $100 per family to get their name on the Sangkat list for relocation. All families on the list made them eligible for a plot of land somewhere else as part of compensation for the loss of their current dwellings. A developer who saw some merit in the location at the junction of two major roads had obviously bought the land. The way this little settlement looks now it is probably a boon for the residents to be relocated. The only thing that bothers me personally is that they haven’t been informed of the new location.

Now in the latest development one and half years later it turns out that each family has to plunk down another $200 to get assigned that piece of land. It is supposedly a normal-sized lot of 4.5m x 12 or 16 m. Location: still unknown. We are talking about approximately 50 families or 200 to 300 people. Not a big deal, right? But who gets the $200 or $10,000 altogether? And who got the $5,000 the first time around. One can see that in order to get your personal documents, e. g. ID-card, etc. right, you need to pay a fee, even if it is $100. This means that you do get the right of residence at a particular location. Way back that ‘carnet de residence’ cost only a few riel, but like everything else, prices have gone up, in other words, the $100 were half-way acceptable. I am sure, though, $30 went to the middleman, the policeman in charge of safety at the village no less, and $70 were divvied up among the commune chief and his cronies.

Now what is it with that second list? It doesn’t look like there is any need for it, right? Possibly the middleman didn’t think so, because that demand came from him. No doubt he will have to share it again. Again, no official plan, no location, nothing, nada. On hearing about the additional demand the people at the village started hustling to scrape together the $200. They didn’t even ask one question about the legitimacy of the demand. It seems that when you practically live above a little river, which serves as the local sewer, and which rises up into the shacks during the rainy season with all the health problems that entails when you live in your own waste, you don’t ask too many questions. Poor people have so gotten used to being bounced around and being taken advantage of they accept everything lying down. Is it part of the Khmer mentality that no matter how poor you are you still get squeezed dry by your neighbors; and that policeman is a neighbor? It is not only the rich who do this, no it pervades the whole Khmer society from top to bottom, or so it seems.

But I again dare ask the same question: ‘Where is all the outrage?’ Where are the NGOs, where are the media? Probably not worth the trouble of sending somebody out there to ask a few questions, I guess. But then, that might have an adverse effect on the whole deal, might it not?
During the rainy season

Location

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Will It Ever End?

The dispute about the Preah Vihear temple and the adjoining territories is into its 3rd year without an end in sight. If it were not so serious, one could easily dismiss this as politicking to enhance politicians’ stature. By all appearances, though, there are real fanatics at work; these would be the so-called yellow shirts in Thailand.

A possible, surely very unofficial scenario, of the recent round of fighting along the border must have gone down like this: the Thai PM called for the removal of the Cambodian flag from a temple in a disputed district. The Cambodian PM promptly denied this. So what could the Thai PM do? Nothing. This enraged his power base – the yellow shirts. They vowed to make things right and took matters into their own hands and marched to the border, most likely with the aim of removing that hated flag.

The Cambodian soldiers stationed at the border seeing the advance of the yellow shirts, probably accompanied by Thai soldiers, feared an invasion and opened fire. Needless to say, the Thai side retaliated in kind and in the end there were 2 or more dead (exact numbers are hard to come by even today), and many injured soldiers and civilians on both sides.

As happens in such cases, both sides claimed to have prevailed, but the result tends to point to the Cambodians as winners - the flag is still there, the territory is still Cambodian.

One can only suspect what happened the following days. It is well conceivable that the Cambodian soldiers were a little nervous and therefore trigger-happy. At the slightest movement on the other side they fired a few rounds in that direction, which promptly flared into another exchange of artillery rounds and machine gun fire.

Enough is enough, the Cambodian PM said and called on the UN Security Council to deal with this matter and send in UN observers or even peacekeepers. Finally, he also sent a letter to the International Court of Justice in The Hague ‘to clarify’ their 1962 judgment that the disputed territory belongs to Cambodian, as does Preah Vihear. How about that? Why didn’t that happen two years ago?

Diplomacy being diplomacy, one couldn’t really expect any concrete steps from the UNSC. I mean, the UN is a paper tiger anyway when it comes to resolving armed conflicts. Why should it be any different now? Surely enough, it called for ‘utmost restraint’. My goodness, that will defuse the situation, won’t it?

Having been sort of rebuffed, the PM then made a proposal to have ASEAN observers present. A smart move, as in the past practically all Cambodian moves were smarter than the incessant Thai calls for a bi-lateral solution. Even the Thai English-language newspapers acknowledged this fact. After more than 2 years, it must be clear to even the most naïve observer that a bi-lateral solution is not possible. So, now what?

Of course, the Thai PM is on wobbly legs already and needs to maneuver cautiously among the various factions of his supporters. The army is already itching to send him where he belongs, namely in some corporate boardroom. One thing is clear. The Thai PM cannot control his regional military commanders, let alone the military per se. Those regional commanders run their districts like fiefdoms, it is said; and it seems they all have their own agenda. It is a well-known fact that military people are not exactly known for their progressive thinking. Consequently, one cannot expect much from that side.

So will it be more of the same in the coming months and years, or will the Thai side finally come to their senses? And it is clearly them who are on the wrong side of history and international law here. We’ll see - check the news in the coming days for new developments – I wouldn’t hold my breath though.

What is so frustrating and disappointing, and one could really lose one’s faith in the intellectual abilities of politicians, if one hasn’t already, is that this is happening in the 21st century, where leaders throughout the world are supposed to be more open-minded and have a better understanding of the complexities of human interaction. Hasn’t anybody learned that armed conflict never solves anything permanently? But then, I never thought a war in Iraq or a continuing war in Afghanistan would ever happen. All the time people are dying for their leaders’ mistakes. Human lives aren’t worth much, are they? To me, this whole conflict is a travesty of diplomacy and a human tragedy, both in terms of the loss of individual lives and of the inability of leaders to resolve a needlessly deadly conflict.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Anonymity on Blogs/Websites about Cambodia

The internet and its social networks have played a vital and transcendent role in both the uprising in Tunisia, the ongoing revolt in Egypt, and the civil unrest spreading in Jordan, Syria, and Yemen.


Exactly what role it has played is somewhat hazy but undoubtedly its impact was tremendous; what is clear is that it enabled the spread of information within seconds of becoming significant to the cause. Words like ‘We should do something about it.’, meaning the oppression, censorship, and other curtailments of basic rights, can ignite into a wildfire. We can see the results of a call to take to the streets in Egypt. Unmistakably, the internet and Facebook have become a powerful tool for opposition groups that leaders in oppressed countries have only now come to realize, or so it seems.

On the other hand, about 60% of all Internet traffic is to sites with sexual or pornographic content. Another big nuisance of it is that anybody can post anything on websites, e. g. this domain, for free; some people choose to use their real names, some choose to use a pseudonym, and others do it anonymously. This anonymity leads, of course, to a flood of vicious, vile, and insulting postings that only serve one purpose: to besmirch the author of the post or one of the comments. Bloggers, myself included, feel they have something to say so they publish their thoughts on a blog. They do this because they want to share their thoughts, possibly provoke a discussion, offer a different point of view; but most certainly their aim is not to be vilified.

Someone, I believe it was a NYT reporter, once said bloggers have become the new form of print journalism, as sometimes they do break news the mainstream media has not picked up on yet. However, that person was obviously referring only to the serious ones, like the ones that can be found on the New York Times website, or the Huffington Post; certainly, vulgar websites and posters were not included in that statement.

An overseas Khmer political scientist by the name of Gaffar Peang-Meth published an article on the subject of anonymity on a number of websites, including his main vehicle the Pacific Daily News. He simply listed a number of observations made by other people, the gist of which was what we all know already – humans are capable of writing things anonymously, regardless of civility or propriety, they wouldn’t otherwise write. If all people lived by certain universal ethical standards we would not need laws or in the case of internet blogging, moderation of comments.

I, for one, choose to post anonymously in order to avoid those profane and vile comments that would, and in fact did, automatically follow, to some people controversial, posts. (However, anybody can learn my identity if they get in touch by email.) I know the names afforded certain groups or nationalities, e. g. rednecks, the N-word for Africans, guinea for Italian, mick for Irish, kraut for German, frog for French, etc. Again, they don’t serve any purpose but to denigrate other people. In my view, those vicious comments are just a waste of space on the internet, and any self-respecting blogger would just not have his/her site marred by such trash.

The a. m. Mr. Gaffar mentioned that anonymity is the shield from tyranny of the majority (quoted from the U. S. Supreme Court). Understandably, anonymous posters might also fear reprisals from authorities in countries with oppressive regimes. While this certainly has validity in countries like China and Vietnam, for instance, does this apply to Cambodia?

There are many anti-government websites, including blogs, on the internet. The most notorious one is probably KI-Media, which is a prime example of a typical unmoderated blog. The site itself is anonymous so they publish the most virulent anti-government comments. Most are overseas-Khmer who I am sure sometimes come to visit relatives and for that very reason wish to remain anonymous. Their contention most likely runs somewhat along the ‘You never know’ line. On the other hand, Licadho or the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and their members are and live in Cambodia and continue to exist without interference from the government. Of course, they are internationally recognized organizations and harder to influence or control than mere individuals. I have no idea how Facebook features in the dissemination of information about Cambodia, but if other examples are any guide, it probably has the same prominence as elsewhere.

Another anti-government propaganda site is Khmer Intelligence. Now this site doesn’t really exist, but the people behind it send regular Cambodia-related news, mostly rumors and outright fabricated information, by email. This site is actually rather redundant. Other self-appointed anonymous critcs living abroad fall mostly into the same category. They think they make a difference and possibly wish they could foment an uprising like the ones in Tunisia or Egypt with their posts, but they fear to lose the comforts of their normal life so they opt for anonymity and remain armchair experts, content in their belief to have achieved something by putting it out in cyberspace. Only by stepping out of their anonymity and by revealing their true identity can they hope to make a difference; real leaders always have a name.

On the other side of the spectrum, a blog of serious content is ‘The Mirror’ written by former DPA (German press agency) correspondent Norbert Klein. He voices his opinions and often critical observations in broad daylight, so to speak. Well, he is not Khmer, so is he afforded special status or is it that his pieces are of a more mature,sophisticated nature and on a higher level? Said Mr. Gaffar and Ms. Theary Seng, a prominent Khmer activist, also publish their articles under their true names; nothing has happened to them either. Sadly, though, both also choose KI-Media for their publications.

Mr. Gaffar headlined his article ‘Anonymity has its Time and Place’. I would believe this for the most part does not apply to the people who really do want to work for change in Cambodia.



Postscript: Another at times anti-government blog has disappeared from the scene, it seems. Details Are Sketchy ceased from one day to the next. A recent comment on my blog was wondering what happened to her. Although I believe her blog had mostly rather superficial content and some nasty comments, I also wonder what happened to that blogger.

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