Sunday, March 4, 2012

Cambodia's Sweet Spot

For those who don't read the New York Times, here is an article they published about Kep this weekend.

The author visited Kep last year so the information about Bokor is a bit outdated. You can read more of an update in my recent post.

Although she mentioned the tranquility and the nice boutique hotels and at the same time warning that the crowds will eventually follow, she chose hotels in a price range that are exactly the precursor to mass tourism. $300 a night is definitely for wealthier people. The average individual tourist would be turned off by such hotel rates. Thankfully, there are sites like Trip Advisor that give a wider variety to choose from. But the tourism market tends to follow  backpackers and, ironically, rich people. All inclusive package tour operators get cut-rate hotel rates for the promise of high occupancies.

One thing is clear though. If Kep would be turned into a mass tourism destination like Koh Samui (which it can't for lack of beaches) or Chiangmai in Thailand, this would most certainly spoil and ultimately destroy the rather unique character of this serene beach town. Let's hope it will stay the way it is now for a long time to come.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

What’s in a Title?

My wife reconnected with a long-time friend after about almost 10 years. They simply had lost sight of each other mainly because my wife went to live in the U. S. with me. Now that we settled here permanently as opposed to our previous in-and-out status they just chanced to meet at one of the many weddings taking place all over the country (see previous post). As it happens the friend’s husband had been promoted to 2-star general in the intervening years, and that entails the title ‘His Excellency’, and for his wife ‘Look Chumteauv’.

Excellency in Khmer is translated as Aek O Tom (pronounced Ayodom), which roughly translates into ‘person of high standing’. This title sort of automatically attaches itself to people who have reached a certain level in the government. To my information it starts with Under Secretary of State. Directors of ministerial departments to their chagrin are not beneficiaries of that important honorific.

However, as soon as an officer reaches the rank of one-star general or brigadier general he/she automatically becomes an ‘Excellency’. One has to remember that this title originally derives from a Latin word mean outstanding; the verb ‘excel’ says it succinctly. Now informed people know that there are more than 1,000 generals in the Cambodian Armed Forces. The actual size of the army is for some reason a somewhat mysterious figure but it is estimated to be around 120,000. Given the size of Cambodia and that there is no real threat to Cambodia’s security, this is a somewhat inordinate high number. Theoretically, that puts a general in charge of 1200 men and women. The actual number is higher since there are many generals in staff functions that do not command any soldiers (koan te hean). In comparison to Western armies this would be about the size of a large battalion, which is normally commanded by a colonel.

If relevant reports are to believed many a star was bought; the benefits are clear: better business connections. (So there goes the meaning ‘excellent’.) Military personnel seemingly have a hand in everything. One of the largest brokers of land concessions, for instance, is a major general. He almost exclusively deals in concessions for rubber plantations Vietnamese companies have acquired over the past years. Way back in the late eighties and early nineties, generals virtually controlled their own fiefdoms, which explained the brisk timber business they were conducting at that time. Obviously, this was also the foundation of much of their wealth.

However, many a general is just that – a commanding officer who worked his way up the ranks. Some of them were sent to Hanoi to attend a military academy there, others got promoted out of gratitude for loyal services rendered to the powers that be. The picture is gradually changing as we can see with the PM’s son, Hun Manet, who graduated from West Point and Sandhurst. Nevertheless, are generals ‘Excellencies’? Are they really on the same level as ministers, state secretaries, and ambassadors?

The pay for a regular general is low, the benefits are modest – free housing, driver, car. Sometimes the military units grow their own rice and raise some chickens or even cattle. The Look Chumteauv – the wives – are ferried around in their large SUVs with their own drivers. Of course, since they lead such a hazardous life they also need a body guard. If you look behind the fa├žade though, you will often find a plain woman from the countryside, barely able to read and write. But they are all ‘Excellencies’. An added benefit is that when a general dies he gets awarded an additional star posthumously. Nice, isn’t it. At least the widow get a higher pension, which is around $250 a month for a 2-star general.

Besides the many military personnel you have a multitude of state secretaries that don’t even work in a ministry. These are the advisers to all those important government officials, usually ministers. Some of those officials have close to 200 advisers. Of course, these are all ‘Excellencies’ too; and their wives ‘chumteauvs’. I know one of those advisers to one of the three top officials in Cambodia. He is an adviser in legal matters - without being an attorney, mind you. Otherwise, he is just a very successful businessman who, as it happens, made his money quite legally. He is a nice and friendly guy too, but he needed that title, the award certificate of which is prominently and proudly displayed in his house.

Then, of course, you have the state secretaries who got the job because they switched allegiance or were otherwise deemed helpful for a worthy cause. During one of my recent business dealings I met a couple of those as well – husband and wife. They have no real authority but to the unsuspecting businessperson they act as if they sit at the levers of power and promise you the world – for a fee, as you might surmise. Rest assured, I didn’t fall for it. On the other hand, I also know another state secretary who fulfills his job to a fault; he is often seen on TV handing out food to rural people in distress or the poorer minorities, which in itself might not mean a lot, but I know he is downright honest.

Granted, the title ‘Excellency’ is definitely a stroke to their ego and sometimes valuable as a door-opener for business opportunities. But, by and large, you could just do away with it as with increasing numbers of theses titles they tend to become rather worthless.

A case in point is the proliferation of PhDs for all kinds of so-called ‘very important people’. Read this article the Cambodia Daily published last year. (The publisher of that newspaper is a crusty old dickhead who hasn’t realized that the age of the internet has arrived, so one needs to use other websites to find these articles.)

The psychology behind this is clear. Cambodia has no aristocracy to speak of, so in order to stand out you need something that differentiates you from the rest – a PhD is the title of choice as it signifies you might have money and power but you are a person of brains too, especially if it is so easily available. ( Not only in Cambodia, this goes for practically the rest of the world too.) A medical doctor has something to show for his title – his work as a doctor, so you know this man/woman really did go through the ordeal of obtaining an academic degree. But a PhD in history from some obscure institute that no one has ever heard of? Or even an honorary degree from similar institutions? Don’t these people see how laughable this is? As the article says, you got your big car, big house, now you need something to round off your personality.

A collector of PhDs is the PM. With a title of Samdech Akkak Moha Sena Padey Techo does he really need that? I have always wondered what this really means in translation. Here it is (as taken from the dictionary):
Samdech - nobleman, prince, lord (high honorific title that can be given to people of non-royal birth
                 usually in recognition of great service to the nation); his highness, his majesty
Akkah (Akkeak) - first, foremost, highest, illustrious, excellent, best; top, summit'
Moha (Maha) - Indicative word used only in compound words to mean 'grand,' 'big,' 'awesome,'
                 'superior,' 'numerous' etc.
Sena – servant
Padey – husband (?)
Decho (Deja) means power, authority, etc.

If you are not connected to the government you can always purchase one of the highest civilian titles in the land ‘Oknha’. Although this originally was a title bestowed by the king to high civil servants, this has now also become a manifestation of wealth. It is said that a cool $100,000 will get that title. Roads, schools, and other public institutions may be named after you. Never mind how you got that money. People who were in prison for fraud and later became prominent, successful businessmen got it. Of course, simple people bow deeply when an Oknha approaches them. I guess that’s the least you can expect for $100,000.

I remember a hit entitled: ‘You’re so vain’ I guess it all goes under this heading.

For an overview of royal titles visit: