Saturday, June 21, 2014

Khmer Chinese Funeral


The other day I attended a Khmer-Chinese funeral. My neighbor’s father-in-law had died at the ripe age of 96. Courtesy required that we pay our respects and extend our condolences. There is not much to be said about the funeral itself. A pig is roasted; food and fruit are prepared so the deceased has enough to take him/her over to the afterlife. The priest utters chants and incantations in Chinese.The family who kneel before the casket on command by the priest raise their hands with incense sticks wishing the deceased a good journey. This is done in turns beginning with the more removed family until finally it is the children’s turn. They also proffer the food by raising it several times, again in turns. Remarkably, for those who don’t know, the color of mourning in Buddhism is white. So the family are dressed completely in white, the guests wear a white blouse or shirt, preferably with a black skirt/pants.

Altogether, what struck me was the absence of solemnity. It all had more of a practical character. Each step in the procedure was carried out swiftly and rather unceremoniously – at least at this funeral.  This ceremony lasted about an hour. The casket is then lifted onto a hearse which is taken to the designated pagoda in a long procession of guests’ cars. My neighbor is a rather prominent person in Sihanoukville so the procession was impressively long. I would estimate at least a hundred cars and SUVs. A tent had been erected at the pagoda where the guests take a seat. The pig is carved up and offered on bread to them.

The deceased in Chinese funerals is interred whereas Khmer cremate them. There are no headstones but rather large vault-like tombs. The size depends on the wealth of the family.


In the last couple of frames you can see that in typical Khmer fashion they don’t pay particular attention to keeping a holy site clean. Trash is everywhere here too.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

It Couldn’t Be Any Clearer

The cat is out of the bag, so to speak. Some people may say this has been known a long time, but I think it has never been stated more unequivocally than recently. I am talking about the Prime Minister’s remark ostensibly directed at Sam Rainsy. This was reported in the press: “ I’m the only person who can order all the types of armed forces, and if I really die, you must pack your bags and run away … because no one can control the armed forces. It is an idiot who prays for Hun Sen’s death.”

This statement is not only unambiguous about today’s situation implying that Hun Sen is actually indispensable, irreplaceable really. It is also very intriguing for its insinuation what would happen if Hun Sen is no longer around, be it because of death or because he was defeated in an election. The implication is that the military would stage a coup returning either the CPP to power or maintain a status very similar to Thailand’s at the present time.  His warning implicitly says that Sam Rainsy and his party stalwarts are better off with him and better come to an agreement with him. The current state of affairs could become permanent as obviously there is no need for an opposition that has not taken their seats in the assembly. Certain circles might even be tempted to think that no further elections are necessary as the opposition will boycott the results anyway.

Another conclusion might be that even if the CNRP were to win the next election they could be unseated very quickly by the same means used in Thailand. The CNRP always points to foreign governments how they would condemn any more illegal maneuvers on the CPP’s part. But they should look at Thailand. Nobody even lifts a finger in support of any particular party there.

The powers that be are so entrenched in Cambodia that anything that would run counter to their interests would eventually lead to a clash with a CNRP government and their reforms. This clash can only end in a coup d’etat.


The road to reform is long, hard, and arduous; it must be navigated with circumspection and a willingness to tread lightly. Sam Rainsy just might not be the right person for that.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What To Do with A Cambodian Education

My step-son is about to graduate high-school in June. He is attending one of those private schools that sprang up like mushrooms in Cambodia, although this one has been around a few years. When we enrolled him there 2 years ago (after we had researched the background and interviewed the principal) we thought he is on the way to a better education than what he would get in a public school and would pave the way for a decent college education and a good job here after that.

In fact, he has been getting a better education insofar as they offer an English language curriculum; the Khmer classes are a sort of an add-on. The main emphasis there is on that international program. He had not been doing so great at the previous school (Zaman); he simply didn’t like it there.  Well, the change didn’t help much either. He did like his school in the U. S., but mostly for its athletic program. Academics is not his thing. Let’s just say he is not the best student.

Initially we also thought that he would graduate from a school that would have an internationally recognized diploma. Fact is that though the school had applied for international accreditation it obviously did not pass muster as now they simply bestow an in-house diploma on their students. Also, the sort of funny thing about this is that their 12th grade students shrank from initially 8 down to 3, 2 Koreans and he. Most of the more affluent parents had sent their children to Australia or the U. S. for their high school diploma. After paying dearly for this quasi-education we will be left with a diploma that is recognized only by a handful of Cambodian institutions. If he were to go abroad he would have to take an additional high school year and possibly graduation there to qualify for college admission;  this apart from being able to show qualifying SAT or ACT scores, which have become the yardstick internationally to prove one’s aptitude. I am sure many parents are faced with the same dilemma. Your offspring is an average student at best and now we need to search for something that both fits their abilities and, not the least, meets with their enthusiasm. For most young people it is hard enough to choose the right studies or profession. Most people change careers at least once, some twice or even three times, and that includes me.

Aggravating this whole situation is the fact that Cambodia’s job market does not really offer many opportunities for college graduates, not to mention just high school graduates. A simple high school diploma is not worth much in the West, so one can imagine what you can with a Cambodian diploma here.  After college, only the brightest will find a decent paying job.  They may even get a scholarship abroad.

Here again we can see one of the most striking failures of the government in the past decade. It has not invested in its education system. The population growth is quite remarkable as most families still regard the number of their children as a guarantee for their support when they have retired. A huge 52 % are younger than 24; that includes 31% under 14. This is the number of children that will be  and are in  need of an education and the jobs afterwards.  An unqualified  workforce does not attract qualified investors, that is, investors that would bring more than garment processing into the country. What we have seen is an emphasis on agriculture, which in itself is an important sector for Cambodia. But huge tracts of land have been granted to foreign, mostly Vietnamese, companies for rubber plantations. This industry does not provide qualified jobs (I know about that; I own one, albeit small). Is does not create added value to the economy either. Profits are repatriated and the workforce is below minimum wage labor.

Tourism is the next largest foreign exchange earner and provides about 20% of the jobs in the country. Again, this is minimum wage labor for the most part and the workforce is mostly unskilled and needs to be trained on the job. It is very hard to find halfway skilled employees in the hotel and hospitality business. Lower and middle management is usually recruited from expatriates, e. g. Filipino. The BA in tourism is not much to speak of. Graduates hardly know anything about accounting or marketing their product abroad. But they do know Angkor history.

All this leads me to believe that my initial estimate of a generation (about 20 to 25 years) it would take Cambodia to catch up with its Western neighbor needs to be recalculated.  After all, Thailand took about 30 years to raise itself from developing country to a threshold economy. Judging from the progress this past decade Cambodia, despite having made great strides in its overall development, will take more than those 30 years to emulate their neighbors. Too much precious time is lost in this most important field – education - for the future generations.


Coming back to my step-son;  considering this situation we are hard-put to point out the right direction to him. I must admit that I personally misjudged the prospects in Cambodia for younger people. We just may have to find a way to send him abroad for studies that will give him the tools to make a decent living when he comes back, if he then comes back at all.

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