Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Recently, police and military stormed into a village in Kratie province to put down what was claimed an act of sedition. As it turned out the so-called sedition was simply a pretext. The villagers had a long-standing conflict with a company holding a logging concession in the area. It is a fair assumption, although this will never be confirmed, that the company simply complained to the local authority, which claiming this outlandish pretext asked the Ministry of the Interior to quell an imminent ‘uprising’. The village consists of about 1,000 families, so one can estimate the number of men of fighting age at around 500. A 14-year-old girl was killed in the incident. How stupid do the authorities think the public is? Mind you, in 1993 after the lost elections some quarters in the CPP threatened secession of the eastern provinces from Cambodia. As a result the CPP was rewarded with sharing the government in a unique dual-position coalition.

Here we are looking at a village of 1,000 families. Does anyone in his/her right mind really believe that such a village would secede and form its own country, or what would they have formed? This whole thing is so ludicrous and laughable were it not for the unfortunate victim in this.
Another disturbing case is the killing of an activist in Koh Kong province by a military police officer. The initial hair-raising official reports simply underline the fact that many officials simply don’t see how they make themselves the laughing stock with their way of explaining incidents and their results. The well-known activist Vutthy was entering the property for the purpose of showing two journalists that logging continued unabatedly in protected forests. He was stopped and subsequently shot and killed during the argument that had arisen between the MP and Vutthy. The MP seeing that he killed Vutthy turned the gun, an AK 47, on himself and committed suicide. Later, possibly seeing how ridiculous this all sounded, it was officially established that a policeman who was also on the scene tried to wrestle the gun away from the MP. A shot was accidentally fired, which killed the MP  - so reads the final official version. The policeman was promptly indicted for involuntary manslaughter.

In another incident 13 women who protested in the long-running Boeung Kak dispute were sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison for what in the West would be termed disturbing the peace and trespassing. These women were publicly demanding just and fair compensation for the land they lost. They did this at the site of the development, which of course is now the property of the development company. The court deemed this unlawful entering onto the owner’s property.

True to his micromanagement style of governing Cambodia, the PM issued a directive prohibiting the sale of alcohol for 3 days on the occasion of the commune elections this coming Sunday. He feared alcohol-induced unrest before and after the elections. He surely doesn’t have much confidence in his fellow countrymen and women.

  At the same time, he cautioned the population not to take matters in their own hands in conflicts with companies holding concessions and which sometimes blatantly violate the terms and conditions of those concessions to the detriment of the local population. People should rely on the authorities to resolve those disputes, he declared. This is what they are there for. Needless to say, the only reason people are tired of turning to the authorities is that they aren’t getting any help there, especially if you consider the mindset of particularly local officials who will do about anything to make an extra buck. Additionally, if their logic is like the one in the secession case one can certainly understand villagers for their impatience.

On a more ominous note, I read that the government is preparing a law that will make it illegal to lie on the internet. Now that’s a tall order. No details are available yet but judging from past incidents could this lead to the application of the infamous criminal defamation statute to the internet as well?

Normally someone who is a little more understanding and tolerant of the sometimes errant ways of the government on all levels, I am now sometimes doubting my belief that given time and more experience the people in power will eventually practice better governance. Seeing the examples above and many others like them those doubts may grow bigger over time. A PM who concerns himself with alcohol consumption before and after commune elections ought to maybe rethink his priorities?  And this country is chairing ASEAN this year?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

To Take or Not to Take – A Khmer Husband

This is a very brief attempt at coming up with some insights into the opposite situation of my previous post. In fact, one of my readers was wondering whether I might be able to contribute something to this subject.

Now, I am no psychologist or sociologist so anything written her must be seen in this context. Especially in Cambodia itself, it is rather rare to find a mixed marriage between a Western woman and a Khmer man. If you see them they are mostly older, e. g. in their 50ies or 60ies, probably dating back to the Vietnam War era and its ramifications throughout the region at that time.

The cases I have come across are always of the arranged nature, that is, U. S. Cambodians hire somebody to marry one of their kin back in Cambodia, thus enabling them to immigrate to the U. S. Although there were some crackdowns by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), according to my knowledge the practice goes on unabated.

But supposedly real love unions do indeed appear to happen. My personal opinion of this, of course, still is – just as with the Khmer woman marrying a Westerner – that it is make-believe, that the Khmer man sees this as an opportunity to go overseas to find a purportedly better job and a better life. Love is an intangible concept. Proof of real love is hard to ascertain even by the most enlightened and sharp-thinking people. When love is involved, the chemistry in our minds runs amok anyway. Cambodian facial expressions are often a little hard to read by Westerners; that goes equally for both men and women. Cambodian men are equally as romantic and affectionate as Western men, they just don’t show it openly. Manliness is a highly regarded trait. But Cambodian men know how to woo a woman just as well.

Nevertheless, if a Western woman does fall in love with a Khmer man, the question is whether she realized what the nature and character of Cambodian men are. Even among the very young men, girls hold a lower social position than boys do. Traditions are very slow to change and the 30 years since the Khmer Rouge certainly weren’t long enough to whittle away at the most prevalent characteristics of the  man -woman relationship. The woman is there to take care of her husband, to bear him children, to raise the children, and manage the household. This is the underlying concept any Cambodian man holds of the role of women in society. Nevertheless, Khmer women have a strong position in a marriage, in other words, men are prepared to accept that they traditionally manage the family finances, especially if they are in business. They have no reservations to marry a well-educated woman either. That woman guarantees higher social prestige and most likely higher financial gain through better positions in government or business.

But we can’t change nature and only women can bear children. Cambodia does not have a social system that would allow the women to just take some time out or that even the husband share in the caring for the child the first three years, like in some European countries. More well-to-do couples will hire a nanny, but with less well-off parents the mother will just have to stay home. I would imagine Western women of marrying age these days would have a problem with that mindset in general.

A successful or even rich Cambodian man, or son of such parents, will not want to emigrate to another country. The man knows it will be hard to adapt to Western culture, its different concepts and ideals, the way people do business, etc. There is no economic incentive for him to leave. If the Western woman is fine with living in Cambodia, as many Western men are with their Cambodian wives, there should be no initial problems. The wedding ceremony in itself is a one-of-a-lifetime experience. If she adapts to the Cambodian ways more or less completely, they may be fine for some time. But people can’t wipe out their cultural background that is more or less 180° diametrically opposed to the one they have chosen to live in. So eventually, some problems will arise. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the man expects the wife to bend to his way. Once a baby is there, the woman always runs the risk of the man looking for his physical needs elsewhere, as short-lived as it may be. What about the economic conditions they live in? Making ends meet is hard, and who is the breadwinner anyway? The same problems couples face in the West they will face here with the added complication of diverse cultural backgrounds.

Mostly, though, I believe that the man wants leave the country. But he takes a lot of that country with him. Even if he is well educated in Cambodia, this will not count for much in the West. He will have to get a job to help support the wife and himself. From my experience, that job will not be a top shelf position. He might feel inferior to his wife, which is a sure-fire source of conflict. (That applies to some Khmer marriages too. I know a Khmer/Khmer marriage, where the wife made more than the husband does. He promptly emigrated to New Zealand to work at his uncle’s bakery there to save enough money and come back to start a business here. Well, he is still saving after 3 years.)

The clash of cultures of the man and his host country and of which his wife is an integral part will certainly make life somewhat difficult. It may be as mundane as greeting each other. Khmer people don’t say ‘Good morning’. They just arrive at the breakfast table, sit down without saying a word and start digging in. Don’t expect too many ‘Thank yous’ or ‘Pleases’ either.  A good night-kiss is practically unknown. They just turn over and fall asleep unless of course he has different things on his mind. Or the woman might find he has gone out without letting her know when and where he went, or when he would be back. He just leaves and shows up again as he pleases. Do not expect any great communication about this either. In today’s world with mobile phones in everyone’s pocket, this has become a lot easier. It still is a little disconcerting, though, isn’t it?

In situations of conflict, both men and women ideally discuss their views in a sober fashion and are not supposed to let this escalate into an argument. Imagine a fight (as in argument) between a Western couple. I have never heard that voices were not raised. If the woman yells at the Khmer man, he loses face. He can’t have that, we know that much, right? Depending on his temperament, he might become violent or just walk off, leaving the house and have a drink with his friends. When he comes back he might by sulky or, if drunk, somewhat belligerent. I know this is a stark generalization, but I can only warn Western women, ‘Beware.’

Normally, the Khmer man tells his wife how this situation is supposed to be – end of story. The Western women I know will not put up with that, for sure.

Psychology and whatever this entails, e. g. anger management, is also generally a fuzzy concept or even completely unknown in Cambodia. There are a number of psychologists but you don’t hear a lot about psychological problems here. If someone behaves erratically, he/she must be crazy. Although I do attribute our Western love affair with psychology and/or psychiatry to a certain degree of degeneration, the more or less complete absence of these in the general population in Cambodia makes it very hard for mixed couples to understand each other completely and resolve conflicts in an ideally neutral manner.

Therefore, as in my post on Khmer women marrying a Westerner, I can only repeat it here for Western women. Usually, marriages or in general unions of such a nature aren’t a good mix. I think I made my case, but of course, it is up to the individual to find out for herself.

Some time ago, I posted this on my blog. http://ethnomed.org/culture/cambodian/cambodian-marriage
It will certainly help understand the complexity of such a marriage. The same site also explores the stigma of psychological problems in Cambodia.