Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Government’s One-Sided Approach to Tourism

Recently the Phnom Penh Post ( published an article about the tourism industry, and the minister of tourism Thong Khon also stated that they want to develop cultural heritage and eco-tourism. Another article in the PPP, however, rightly points out that the definition of eco-tourism is rather hazy and everybody wants to hop on the bandwagon to profit from the changed perception of travelers, especially in Europe. Of course, the recent surge in tourist arrivals is principally due to the cultural heritage site Angkor Wat combined with the relatively low price levels in the service sector, which makes Cambodia an attractive destination. Now officialdom wants to add Preah Vihear to this, which certainly will give it an additional boost, though as with many parts in Cambodia, that part of Cambodia lacks the necessary infrastructure.

Public announcements and intentions by the government notwithstanding, things aren’t always what they appear to be. Following is the story about the experience of someone who for some time now has actively been looking for a site to build a, for Cambodia unique, small and romantic resort at the seaside. General aspects about tourism and a description of this resort were published on this blog in November 2007.

Initially, he wanted to build this resort in Kampot province believing that Sihanoukville, although having the superior beaches, would not fit the bill because of the hustle and bustle of a port town and its in part seedy character. The area between Kep and Kampot promised ideal parameters: it had a nice town with some restaurants, a private nearby zoo, the caves, the outlying islands, its proximity to Bokor, which would be re-developed, and to Sihanoukville, which guests could reach easily in 30 minutes, if they so chose, but beaches were scarce. The only suitable beachfront property had been bought by a French overseas Khmer who is currently in the process of improving the land into a resort.

The fact that otherwise land there was practically unsuitable, though, did not keep several land owners from asking outrageous prices of about $40/m2 for a rice paddy near a mangrove covered shoreline and praising the virtues of the location.

So on he went to Sihanoukville to check out Otres Beach, just to make sure he would not miss out on an unexpected opportunity, as they sometimes come along. He did not hold out much hope for that already high-priced area, though. There was a prime lot available and the owner was even willing to sell him only 1 ha, the size of land he needed for his project. But he wasn’t too surprised when he heard the price - $125/m2. Negotiating fiercely, he was able to talk them down to $100. His entire project would be approximately $5 million. But with this land price he needed partners to invest. While he was seeking investors he continued looking for alternatives. As it happens, a cabinet minister’s daughter who had bought it in 2001, most likely for a pittance, owned that piece of land. Finally he decided to forgo this land, as the numbers wouldn’t really work out for him. A few weeks later he learned that the entire beach had been sold to a consortium of Chinese and Khmer investors.

Someone pointed out the area around Stung Hao to him. He found an ideal spot, secluded, but still only 30 minutes from Sihanoukville. The road no. 145 is well paved and Phnom Penh is only a little over 3 hours away. Of course, an access road to the beach needed to be built, the power grid connected, and a well for potable water needed to be drilled. Not an easy task given the circumstances. The village chief said that they had a master development plan for the area but couldn’t give any specifics. This, of course, could mean that someone might decide to build a fish factory right next to the lot. The allure of a romantic getaway would vanish overnight if that happened, and with it the guests.

The price was all right (he doesn’t want to say how much exactly so as not to put any ideas into anybody’s mind). But the catch was that they had 9 ha for sale and did not want to split up the block. But he kept going back and forth in the hope to persuade them to cut off the required 1 or 2 ha.

In the meantime, someone contacted him and wanted to sell him a piece of the Ream National Park. Anybody who has been there knows how beautiful the beaches there are. He pointed out that this land can’t possibly be for sale, as it is state property to begin with, and part of the national park. So he didn’t put much credence into that offer and let it pass.

When he returned to Stung Hao he found out that the 9 ha had just been sold to the highest-ranking general in Cambodia.

And lo and behold, right around that time he found out that 1000 ha of Ream National Park had been leased to a Chinese company for 99 years. They are to build a golf course, resort, and casino on the southern coast of Ream National Park. Construction of a road has already begun. All relevant ministers had signed off on the deal - the Minister of the Interior, the Minister for the Environment, the Minister of Commerce, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Tourism, and the CDC. One really has to wonder how much money changed hands for that deal to happen.

Just a couple of months earlier an acquaintance, who operates three boutique hotels in Phnom Penh, had met with the CDC to gain access to a small piece of land in Ream National Park for an ecologically balanced, small resort, complete with solar power, waste composting, etc. He wanted to lease it for 15 to 20 years from the state. His total investment was to be about $200,000. This would give the park some additional attraction as accommodations there have so far been lacking completely. The impact on the environment would have been negligible. It would have blended into the scenery of the park perfectly. The CDC just laughed at the proposal. They are looking for the big bucks. If it’s not at least $10 million they won’t even give you the time of the day. Well, selling out a National Park like this clearly shows they don’t put their money where their mouth is when they profess to seek to develop eco-tourism. Of course, 500 rooms, a golf course, and a casino all blend in very well within a National Park.

Obviously, this decision has a lot to do with the construction of a bigger airport in Sihanoukville. Airlines had pointed out they wouldn’t consider instituting direct flights for lack of appropriate accommodations. So the government is obviously thinking that by having those large developments they will gain those much sought direct flights. So far plans for three major resorts have been announced, one by the Sokha Group, another one by the Queens Group from Greece (a casino operator in Greece, although noted on the London stock exchange), and now this Chinese project. Will that be enough? Hardly, if you look at the number of rooms they will create. A previous article on the development of tourism on this site takes a closer look at this question. It is clear that much more than a few multi-million dollar projects are needed to re-vamp the entire coastline to convert it into a major tourist destination. The current emphasis on big projects alone won’t be able to accomplish this. A good mix is the way to go.

Well, to get back to the search for a suitable piece of land, he found another slice of beach in the Stung Hao area. Since access by road is not possible at the moment he motored over in a small fishing boat to take a look. The owner, a simple fisherman, went with him. It wasn’t the greatest piece of land for such an undertaking, but it would do. It had the right size, and it was beachfront. But the owner didn’t know how much to ask. He needed to get back to his friends for advice. They all owned about 50 ha in the area. It goes without saying that they didn’t have any hard title. So the first problems loomed on the horizon. Finally, a few days later he got back and said he couldn’t agree on anything with his friends. Our friend also learned that there were indeed ownership problems. So here went another chance down the drain. Probably he was also just too late to get into this. The current land speculation craze plainly overtook him and has steamrolled the project.

Seeing his inability to establish a smaller resort in the face of the current land craze, in his frustration he turned to a different business and bought a small rubber plantation in Kampong Cham province, which in addition to still affordable land prices produces a nice income right from the get-go.

Though he hasn’t given up on his plans for that boutique resort, he finds it increasingly difficult to deal with the current bureaucracy and its philosophy. We all don’t know whether to blame it on the personal greed of the involved officials or on their skewed planning, but it has become really hard for smaller and medium-sized investors to establish a business in Cambodia. We see the emphasis on large investors as unhealthy and it looks like a sell-out of the country to whoever pays the most. Or as one of our Khmer friends said, ‘Cambodia is a cake and the government cuts it up and sells it in big slices’, and maybe if they get lucky, a few crumbs will be left over for the smaller guys. But that’s the way the world runs, isn’t it?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Dey Kraham Revisited - The other side of the coin.

There are always two sides to a story – Dey Kraham is no exception. So far we have heard from the dwellers there, Licadho, various other organizations, political parties, and whoever felt the need to speak out. The outcry and the outrage resonated beyond Cambodia. Nobody ever felt it necessary to interview the other side, the owner of the land. Of course, this is not easy to accomplish, as the owner is a very publicity shy person who does not enjoy being in the spotlight. He does not give interviews, as he knows he will be lambasted at every turn. Incidentally, this man was once just as poor as the people who squat on his land.

Sure enough, Sam Rainy, who is widely seen as the advocate for the poor people, eagerly takes advantage of such situations to enhance his profile and reputation as their guardian.

What has also been missing in the widespread reports is a certain degree of objectivity and fact-finding. Most reports were focused on the apparent injustice inflicted upon people who were seemingly unjustly evicted from their dwellings, as ramshackle, dirty, unkempt, and unsanitary as they were.

This article does not condone any unjust, unjustified, and haphazardly unlawful evictions. In developed countries the government will render assistance to poor people as much as they can in any given circumstance. It is a given assumption that the rule of law applies in the developed world.

People always call for the rule of law in Cambodia, where it more often than not is disregarded, to say the least. But the rule of law applies to everyone, even poor people. Humanitarian aspects and governing law unfortunately do not always coincide.

Has anyone ever asked how those people got to live there? Or how those people gained legal ownership of the land they so vehemently defended? There were about 2050 families living in the area in what is commonly called a slum - unsanitary, subhuman conditions by any standard. Most of these people had come from rural areas to Phnom Penh to find some kind of work. It is a fact that quite a few of them were engaged in begging as their only source of income. It is also known that many young girls from there were earning their livelihood as prostitutes plying their trade at the low end of the spectrum as street walkers offering their services for as little as 5,000 riel. The area is also rife with drugs, thieves, and other assorted criminals.

The vast majority of these people had lived in Dey Kraham less than 5, even often less than 2 or 1 years. Not one family in Dey Kraham had any title to the land they occupied; in other words, they had no legal claim to the land. They had not paid any rent to the city or, after it had been sold about 3 years ago, to the rightful owner. The city government tolerated their presence there, as it plainly had no idea what to do with them. The owner also tolerated their presence for some time as he was engaged in different real estate projects outside of Phnom Penh.

In order to develop the site he also needed to line up funding for it, which, despite the current boom, is a time-consuming task. So when he got ready for the development he offered the people money to move, ranging from $200 to $1000. Since the people had no obvious place of employment in Phnom Penh, they were free to go wherever they wanted.

It is said this compensation is a pittance compared to the land prices of $4000/m2 the owner would be able to obtain. Yes, it is a pittance, but as in any free society, if you own something you have the right to use it the way you see fit, but within certain legally prescribed parameters, such as zoning ordinances. The poor people, as sad as it may be and as harsh as it may sound, did not own the land so they were in no position to ask for any money to begin with.

Again, in the developed world the government is expected to step in and provide at least temporary shelter. But even there, it is often difficult and people end up being homeless. The U. S. and Europe are shining examples of the public sector’s failure to extend assistance to the entire population. One must recognize that there are natural limits to what a government can do.

But organizations such as Licadho, as important a role as they play as a watchdog over human rights, whenever they cry foul, they encourage a certain element to protest and demand things they clearly are not entitled to.

As a result 50 or so families remain in Dey Kraham who cannot be moved because of the public outcry. They do not own the land; have not gained ownership by possession (having occupied the land for a minimum of 5 years), nor do they have the right to live there.

The ringleaders of these 50 families have been identified as rabble-rousers who made it their calling to protest and basically extort money from either government or owners. Roughly 2000 families took the money and moved because they saw the situation as it was, not what they wanted it to be, as those crooks who shamelessly utilize those human rights organizations and are able to hitch Sam Rainsy before their cart and to be their mouthpiece. Those ringleaders are known to travel from one hotspot to the next following the same pattern.

The only people with an apparent claim to ownership are the ones living in the dirty, gray apartment building nearby, or as the Khmer call it, Boding. This building has become synonymous with prostitution and crime. You ask one of the countless free-lance taxi drivers for an address for the cheapest sex in town, and he will always take you to Boding. This building houses the lowest elements of Phnom Penh’s population. But the periodical counts by the Sangkat put most those people down as having lived there for longer than 5 years. Some took possession of apartments in the building as far back as at the end of the Pol Pot era and neither the Vietnamese nor the subsequent Cambodian governments did anything about it, some came just before the elections in 1993. The owners of those apartments make a tidy living off both petty and hardened criminals and the prostitutes they rent space to.

Legally, the land this building is on also belongs to the owner of Dey Kraham, which makes for an even more complicated situation, compounding the problems. The owners of those apartments ask as much as $50,000 for a 40 m2 apartment. Multiply that by 100 and one knows how much money is at stake here. The owner estimates he would have to shell out about $3,000,000 initially just to be able to start the process. He simply does not have the money for that. This is why that eyesore of a building is still there.

In short, the situation is a mess. Right now, the government does not have the money to move those people to another place, and the owner is not able to compensate the rest or move the illegal squatters.

Now, some people might say if the greedy government officials weren’t on the take the way they are there would be money enough to provide shelter for those people. Maybe, maybe not. But the situation as it is now is not good for the poor people, not good for the owner, and not good for the government. The status quo is a roadblock to the development of what would normally be a showcase of Phnom Penh, what with the otherwise nice surroundings.

Yes, human rights organizations say that development cannot be carried out on the backs of the poor people, but Cambodia must develop in order to survive in a competitive economic environment with its neighboring countries. This often entails people getting rich because of it, as it did in the developed world too. Think of the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts.

We must stop trying to impose our way of thinking, our concepts, and our basic philosophies on other cultures. This also happens to be one of Sam Rainsy’s greatest flaws. It would be wiser for him to work within the system to try to change it rather than just voice criticism.

This has boomeranged and led to many a bloodbath in the past. The West has gone through more than 250 years of mental development in order arrive at the kind of maturity and respect for human rights people now enjoy. We must give countries like Cambodia more time to come to grips with the many, very difficult facets of post-Communist live. 15 years might seem like a long time, but these things take at least 2 generations to change.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Post-Civil War Cambodian Morals and the Story of One Such Cambodia Family

Over time I have met so many Cambodian people both inside and outside Cambodia. In the last almost 20 years I have not only found friends there, in fact my best friend too, but also at one point a beautiful, good wife. I have also done business there extensively. Naturally, you meet not only nice and friendly people, but also the sometimes outright nasty kind that wants to relieve you of all the money you supposedly have. But for the most part I found Cambodian people hospitable, friendly, occasionally a little inscrutable, but on the whole they will help you wherever they can.

But one thing that has struck me as very odd is the family life many of them lead, given the understanding that family values are sacrosanct in Asian societies. I am talking about middle-aged and older people, say from 40 to 70 years of age. I am not quite sure which way the young generation of up to 30 is going in that respect. According to tradition Khmer supposedly hold the institution of marriage very dear. The wife is not only in charge of the children and hearth but also of the finances. The traditional lifestyle seems to have changed, though. Some of the more modern appearances have been described in an essay written by Keo Mony of the Harbor View University in Washington State. (

Many men I have met kept mistresses on the side, had extramarital affairs, even had children with their lovers. They were sort of living in a polygamous state. Mind you, this was not only limited to more affluent men, or older men who sought the companionship of a younger woman, but it was pretty common across the board. Men who couldn’t afford a mistress or steady girl friend seem to frequent prostitutes. Prostitution is legal and because of poverty rampant. All those prostitutes could not make a living from tourists alone. After all, not every tourist comes to Cambodia for cheap sex.

But this way of living seems to be a time-honored tradition going back at least to the time of independence of the country. Certainly, it was common during Sihanouk’s time, as many older men told me.

The current government, ostensibly at the urging of the prime minister’s wife, went even so far as to outlaw philandering and ban certain songs alluding to adultery. They have embarked on a clean morals campaign. As this is Cambodia, there is an ironic twist to this whole story, as the prime minister is known to have had a mistress of his own, to whom he wrote love poems and seemed to have fallen for completely. That poor girl, who was a quite famous actress and singer in Cambodia, however, met with an untimely death when unknown assailants who haven’t been found to this day gunned her down. Needless to say that rumors started flying implicating people in high places, and many Cambodians weren’t surprised that this case turned cold after a while.

In about 10 middle to upper-middle class families in Cambodia I know personally there is not one husband who hasn’t gone through at least two or three wives, all of them with 2 or more children. Sometimes, they don’t even bother to support their own children but leave the wives to fend for themselves after they have gone on to the next, mostly younger new wife.

This seems to have carried over to overseas Khmer as well, at least to the ones that fled Cambodia in or around 1980, which would make them around 65 to 70 now.

I know one such family in the U. S. The husband was politically active in the anti-Communist anti-Vietnam coalition after Vietnam invaded Cambodia; another ironic twist here, since that coalition included the Khmer Rouge as well. He feared incarceration and fled with his wife and 3 sons to Thailand where he ended up spending 4 years in a refugee camp. He was then allowed to live in the U. S. under the UNHCR relocation program.

When they arrived in the U. S. he told his sons, the oldest of whom was just 15 then, ‘Now I have given you freedom, the rest you must do yourselves.’

As it happens he also had a second wife with whom he had already had 2 children in Cambodia at the time of his flight. He managed to get them out shortly after the 1993 election and proceeded to have two more daughters with her.

Once this part of his family was in the U. S. he left his first wife to go and live with the second. It appears they were all common law marriages without any official documentation, so no messy divorces were gone through. The wives being rather na├»ve wouldn’t have known how to go about it anyway. Both wives cannot speak English even after 25 years of living there.

But even though he went to live with his second wife he still sired another son with his first wife in the U. S. Sometimes, one cannot but wonder what these people are thinking.

Then in 1996 he went back to Cambodia for a visit and apparently met a nice young attractive woman, whom he promptly impregnated and altogether had 2 children over the next 3 years. He never returned to the U. S.

Normally, there wouldn’t have been any love lost between the two wives in the U. S. but they sort of built a bond springing from their common plight and became friends, helping each other out as best as they could.

Eventually, the husband, a heavy smoker, died in his native country, leaving behind 10 children, most of whom he had not supported for most of their lives. The first wife to this day maintains that the third wife in Cambodia poisoned him, which is generally not unheard of throughout the world in such relationships. But here this can only be called bad-mouthing a hated rival.

It turns out, though, that at least 7 of his children managed to build good lives for themselves, finding employment in various positions from warehouse manager for a huge multi-national to postal clerk with the U. S. postal service – normal middle class positions. All of them own their own houses. Since he died more or less penniless his children in Cambodia live more or less in poverty. One son in U. S. apparently got in with the wrong crowd and got involved in drugs. After several minor incidents and arrests he finally got caught one time too many and the severity of the three-strike laws in the U. S. sent him to prison for 9 years, which he is serving right now. As in many of those sad cases this young man is leaving 4 little children of his own without a father, not that he would have been an ideal role model. When he gets out he will be 34, if he serves the full time.

All the sons in the U. S. are still with their wives. Is this because of the strict divorce laws in the U. S. protecting women and children, or is it because of their own free will? One of them once said only half-jokingly, ‘Sometimes I would sure like to try out something new, but my wife won’t let me.’

Well, from all appearances, back in Cambodia men don’t seem to have any compunction about trying out something new. But then, they don’t have to fear court orders of alimony, child support, visitation rights, etc. As a matter of routine, wives hardly every get any alimony and no child support. They are lucky if the property is divided equitably.

It seems like women’s rights have a long way to go in Cambodia, and Cambodian men seem to need a drastic change in their attitude towards women. But who are Westerners to judge?

Note: This is a description of personal impressions and does not imply, intend to convey, or judge attitudes, otherwise regarded as immoral or lax, or define them as a trait in Khmer people.