Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Choking on Trash

Modern societies produce so much waste that it posed a great challenge for governments at all levels. What to do with all this waste? Western countries created landfills and even hills made up of garbage, trash, or anything that was broken , no longer used , obsolete and discarded - packaging, wrappings, food leftovers, old fridges, what have you.

Finally, in the 80ies and 90ies the green movement was born; scientists warned that our resources are finite; we cannot go on using things and discarding them after a short period of time (planned obsolescence comes to mind). The idea that many things, like packaging, old newspapers could be reused by recycling it made a lot of sense but obviously hadn’t been thought of before. We have to thank the green movement and so-called tree-huggers for the basically simple idea of recycling, whether it is plastic made from fossil fuels, paper and carton made from wood, or iron made from minerals. It also created a new industry that deals with the disposal, recycling, and re-use of waste.

Western Europe has made great strides in that direction. Germany is famous for their trash separation, where people have three trash bins – one for food, one for paper, one for glass. Apart from doing this at home, people deposit bottles, cans, and larger quantities of papers in large containers strategically located in neighborhoods. They even have a waste control police that spot-check home trash bins before collection takes place.  If they find stuff in the wrong bin, you can and will be fined. That may be an extreme and really over the top but it still is for the good of the people.

One cannot expect this kind of ‘awareness’ in Cambodia. Apparently the governments at all levels have seemingly forgotten about this problem. Normally, local administrations would be responsible for this, but given the size of Cambodia, even a national law would be desirable.

What is taking place in Cambodia with regards to their waste is simply intolerable. Yes, all developing countries, and not only them, look and behave in a similar fashion. People simply throw their garbage out the window; in better neighborhoods they have garbage bins, often without lids, and often enough they overflow after just a few days. Garbage collection seems to be according to some haphazard schedule nobody can really divine. Once the collection is over the streets look worse than before the collection - strewn with bits and pieces of trash that fell from the truck, or the trash collectors had missed the truck when they aimed and tossed a bag from farther behind - a feast for rats and some neighborhood dogs that scavenge trash for edible leftovers.

Roadside vendors simply put their trash on a heap next to their stall and burn it before they close. Burning is the preferred method in the countryside too. But before that happens it accumulates along the roads or behind houses for a while, smelling, rotting away, and attracting rats and other vermin. Even the cows forage the trash. Outside the provincial capitals there is no garbage collection whatsoever. Consequently, it will look like this in some places.
After a 'concert' in a small town

Along Hun Sen Beach on a good day

After a picnic along a highway

After a picnic along a highway

People simply don’t think about the health hazards that come with such open trash sites besides the environmental concerns.

My house is located right on a river about 800 m from the open sea – in between two fishing villages. The river bank is covered by mangroves, which are protected; it would really be a beautiful and serene area. But what the local people do to it is simply shameless. The many fishing boats discard their plastic cups, water bottles over board, which then wash up in the mangroves during high tide. In low tide that trash is scattered all over the riverbank. The dirt roads in the villages are also constantly covered with discarded plastic bags.

Plastic bags are the bane of Cambodia and one of the major causes of this environmental evil. Even for the smallest item shops put it in a plastic bag. They even serve cold drinks in them. Once people are finished with that they simply toss it out the car window, for instance. The other day at the restaurants in Pich Nil (halfway point to Sihanoukville) I observed a lady getting out of their Camry with such plastic bag in her hand.  A trash can was right next to it. That lady just dropped it at her foot. What was she thinking?

When I asked my former caretaker at my house what he does with our trash he told me he put it in the river, weighted down with some rocks. I asked if he ever thought about the environment. He just looked blankly back at me. But from then on he started burning it, plastic bottles and all. Personally, I am still wondering what to do with used batteries.

I had forgotten to instruct my new caretaker, and she promptly threw it into the woods near our house. Fortunately, we saw this and gave appropriate instructions. Of course, she didn’t know any better having lived in one of the nearby villages all her life. The irony of all this is that the town has an environment officer who lives in that same village. He complained about the new coal fired power plant near Sihanoukville (which is right on the beach with a long pier jutting into the ocean so that the cargo vessels delivering the coal can unload it). Perhaps he should look closer to home first.

Of course, there could have been a better location but that stretch of beach north of the Sokha and Tela depots with their piers had begun to be industrialized before with a paper mill and another oil depot. That power plant has been operational since July/August, producing 60 MWH. Amazingly, I have yet to see black or grey smoke belching from the pretty tall chimney. They must have installed some pretty filters. Could it be that they did have some good planners at work?

Between Sihanoukville and the Sokha oil depot there is a nice stretch of beach right alongside the road. It’s called Hun Sen Beach. You should see it after a holiday. The grass is practically covered in plastic bags and empty Styrofoam containers.  I am wondering how the prime minister can give his name to such an eyesore. If it weren’t for all that trash, this could become one more attraction for Sihanoukville, provided the people in charge will somehow manage to have the road repaired in such a way that it won’t be full of potholes after each rainy season. To their credit, they built a small park at the beginning of that beach, which looks sort of clean practically all the time. Maybe people did learn to use the trash cans they put there.

Mankind wasn’t born as environmentalists. But this is 2014 – the age of blazing communication streams, information spreading around the world in seconds, where Cambodian TV commercials show clean and modern neighborhoods. Even the soap operas show villages devoid of any obvious trash.  

When I see all this I am wondering why this does not sink into the Khmer consciousness. Don’t they want to make a better life for themselves that also includes a healthy and sustainable environment – not only a better material life with cars? 70% or so still live in rural areas where education is sketchy and it all has to do with education. Sometimes I think that the Khmer mind has undergone a severe change during and after the Pol Pot years. It did not use to be like this before the Pol Pot era according to accounts from people who lived then. Environmental education should be made part of the school curriculum. Although tangible progress will be some time in coming; after all, the parents ought to be the first ones to be educated. But Cambodia has to make a start unless the country does not want to submerge in trash.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Only in Cambodia

Although this term is supposed to apply to the U. S. in this case I guess it only applies to this country. The press reported a recent incident that really makes your hair stand up on end.
A senior provincial police officer was speeding along a highway in a full-size SUV at considerable speed. He hit a light motorbike with 3 people on it seriously wounding them. Local police came to the scene trying to investigate. The police officer told them to wait until he had changed his tire as it was obviously damaged because of the collision. He had also given the police a business card with his name. But to the local police’s surprise when he was finished he just got into his SUV and sped away. The injured motorbike riders were taken to the main hospital in Phnom Penh, where all three had to have one leg above the knee amputated. A short while later one of them succumbed to his injuries and died.

Now the local police instead of pursuing this right away just said they will go after the driver and arrest him. One would expect them to act immediately. After all, this has become a crime the minute he left the scene of the accident – a slight variation of a classical hit-and-run. But here comes the clincher: they will wait until after the Khmer New Year celebrations from Apr. 14 to 16.

How dumb can the police be? Sure, it was a fellow police officer but only in Cambodia can a thing like this happen. He was of a higher rank so they first kow-towed to him, and then let them repair his car and gave him an opportunity to flee. To add insult to injury they would then let him celebrate New Year first before they would come and arrest him. So clearly, these celebrations are more important than the life of people and giving them justice. This is an intolerable disgrace.

Something is very wrong in Cambodia. It is all too apparent that the higher-ups can break the law with impunity. One almost expects this in a country like this. Wherever you look in the world, it is always the developing countries where lawlessness and corruption are rampant. Obviously, the attitude and behavior of the so-called elite and political leadership has influenced the entire administrative and executive body of the country. I had always been inclined to think that over time the development of the country would also translate into a more just system, in which the concept of rule of law and intellectual maturity would eventually take hold. Looking back about 8 years I can’t help but come to a different conclusion. I am getting the feeling the country is on a downward slope as far as personal characters go. The attitude towards traffic rules and accidents is but one sign of this. Progress is only achieved in material ways, and actually only for a very small section of the people. It may be an over-simplification but that perceived degradation might be caused by the prevalent impunity with which the powers-that-be commit transgressions of the law and with the general population thinking why should I care when nobody else does.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Warranty Cambodian Style

This is something that I haven’t come across in my long-time experience in Cambodia. I guess this is simply because I was never in the situation where I needed to get something fixed that I recently bought. But with the building of the hotel and buying quite a bit of appliances and furniture for the rooms I was faced with this issue far too many times in my opinion.

Don’t even begin to think it works like in your country. The way it works here is like this. The store will issue an invoice stating that there is a warranty of 3, 6, 12 months, although the 12 months is almost unheard of. Usually, it is only 3 months. If they are a little more precise they will say that the warranty covers only labor charges for repairing the defective item. Any spare parts needed you will have to pay extra. Under no circumstances will they take the item back and exchange it.

With smaller appliances this is not so difficult as you can take them back to the store easily and most of the time it is only a minor repair anyway. But when it comes to installed air conditioning units or water heaters it is a different story. I wrote about the reliability of technicians/contractors already. When they finally come, they usually need to take the unit down and back to the store. Then it might take a day or two if they can fix it there. If not they need to send it to a specialist, and that is always located in Phnom Penh. If you are in another town, like us in Sihanoukville, the repair time might stretch to over  a week. If you happen to run a hotel  you practically can’t rent that one room, even if it has fan. Western people simply expect an a/c in a 3-star hotel.

The same thing happened to us with a water heater. We installed water heater tanks that are not visible in the bathroom; we bought those in Phnom Penh. When one of them broke down they asked us to ship it back. Can you imagine what that meant? Uninstalling it from above the room and shipping it to Phnom Penh, or alternatively, have a technician come here at our expense.

We ended up buying another one locally and had it installed in no time at all. We simply didn’t know they were available here. Cambodian hotels usually use those flow-through water heaters. We then had the defective one repaired on one of our next visits to Phnom Penh. Of course, the defective part we paid separately - $25.

I have never had so many new appliances break down after only a short time.  The reason for that may be, at least that’s what I think, that Cambodian importers buy second-grade or even third-grade merchandise so they can be competitive. Traditionally, they also work on very slim margins so there are no funds for warranties. A second reason is that Cambodian importers are usually not authorized agents/importers for a brand. They buy it from a trading company in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, or China. The ironic thing is that most products nowadays are made in China in the first place, even the ones sold in the U. S. or Europe. But those importers have on-site agents for quality control and usually very stringent purchase agreements. So Cambodia has to practice a make-do warranty policy, which is coupled with one thing I have also observed over my long time here. People in general do not take responsibility for anything. They simply will not admit to a mistake; they might lose face too, and that is something they can’t stomach. So when you buy something here in Cambodia you better keep this in mind.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Parliamentary Boycott and Is It Working?

It’s been almost 9 months since the election here in Cambodia and 7 months since the constituting session of the Assembly. As we all know the opposition party is continuing to boycott the parliament stating that the election was rigged and therefore they cannot recognize the results. If they were to take their seats this would be tantamount to recognition of the election results.

Constitutional scholars are not in agreement on the interpretation of the constitution with respect to this boycott and whether the two sessions held so far, and during which laws were passed, were legal under the constitution. They are not even agreeing about the article that says the assembly consists of at least 120 members. As in all such cases a lot has to do with semantics. The binding text is in Khmer, which unfortunately after many years of studying I still can’t read, so consequently I am not sure what the original text says. The English translation simply uses the word ‘comprises’. I am not a legal scholar, of course, but from my education and experience in the West, both Europe and the U.S., this would signify and give only the total members of the assembly to be elected. This is independent of the actual sitting members at any one time. Sometimes laws are passed with a tiny fraction of the elected members present.

 If an elected member does not take the oath of office for whatever reason this would amount to an intrinsic resignation (or would it?). Under normal circumstances the next candidate in line on the party’s list moves up to take that seat. If no other candidate is available because the entire party boycotts the assembly, this would normally result in a new election.

However, the constitution also states that the Assembly cannot be dissolved before the end of the mandate unless the government was voted out twice within a 12-month period. What does that exactly mean? Western democracies have a vote of confidence. If the prime minister loses it, a new election is called. This ‘voting out’ could be construed as a vote of confidence. But for this to be held one needs the opposition present. So the prime minister and his government cannot be ‘voted out’. Consequently, the National Assembly cannot be dissolved. The next question then is whether the current Assembly is legal under the constitution or not.

The CPP maintains that it won the election, their members took the oath and the King opened the 5th mandate of the National Assembly, thereby legitimizing the composure of the assembly even without the opposition party’s members having taken their oath or being present. Here the interpretation becomes a little abstract. At the time during the constituting session and the oath was administered the opposition members-elect did not show up. But the ruling party’s members all took their oath. The majority of the members are, therefore, legitimate. The Assembly as such would appear to be fully functional.

As mentioned above the opposition party’s members not only did not show up they even refused to take their oath at a later time. This is tantamount to an abandonment of the election results of each of their districts. The conclusion from this is that the candidate who won the district changes from the original winner (CNRP) to the loser, in all of those cases (at least to my knowledge) a CPP member. So the prime minister’s contention to fill the seats with their own party’s candidates is not entirely without merit. In my view the CNRP really runs this risk if they continue with their current strategy.  So what we have here on the surface is a functional parliament, 55 members-elect abandoned their seats, in fact resigned. In any other democracy this would automatically lead to a new election. It is a rather unique situation due to the incomplete article in the constitution. The authors should have included the vote of confidence. De facto, no matter how you look at it from a legal standpoint, the current government is a care-taker government, and this may last another four and a half years. The opposition does not gain one inch of ground or achieve anything of their political agenda by holding on to their intransigent stance.

Now the other question is whether the election was valid. Neutral observers say it was flawed. First, the opposition party was not given enough media campaign opportunities. Most media in Cambodia are controlled, at least indirectly, by the ruling party. (It is, therefore, all the more surprising that the CNRP did win 55 seats, up from a meager 24 plus 1 in the past election.) Second, voter registrations were really dubious. Third, many voters were barred from voting to begin with, either by not having been registered, or after being registered subsequently being dropped from the voting list. Sometimes, reports say voters were even turned away more or less forcibly from polling stations. Nevertheless, major governments, among them France and Australia, recognized the elections by congratulating the prime minister for his victory. That in itself is not legally binding, of course, but it goes to show that the international support the CNRP is so loudly clamoring for is just not there. Others, like the U. S., did not officially recognize the election but they deal with the results as if it were legitimate; for instance, they did not recall their ambassador, even temporarily. The opposition claims it is not business as usual any more, but after 7 months one cannot but say it is. Bottom line: even if it was flawed and partially rigged, the election must be considered valid. In comparison, a prime example was the 2000 U. S. presidential election. People are still arguing about the legality of the result. But in the end the results stood and political life went on. Though the circumstances are different here the fact remains that the government is in place and continues with their business .

Whatever goes through their heads, it should have become clear to the CNRP leadership that this boycott is counterproductive. The previous King was able to resolve a similar situation before but the present King is not inclined to involve himself. So it is up to the parties to resolve this on their own. Obstinacy is never a good bargaining tool. Taking their seats has more advantages and will probably pave the way for an outright victory in the next election than holding mass demonstrations which in the end might backfire with the population. One can lose a lot of credibility threatening things and then not following through with them.  A large part of Phnom Penh’s population thinks of them more as a nuisance than anything else. Cambodia is no Middle Eastern country, nor is it the Ukraine. Events there cannot be duplicated here. The stakes and the circumstances there were vastly different. Cambodia has not geostrategic or political value to Western powers. And the Chinese are firmly on the CPP’s side.

The boycott may come to end within the next few days, according to the latest news. They finally found a compromise about holding an earlier election, though most likely in the same year in order to comply with the constitution. Not much gain for the CRNP. Another issue was the composition of the Election Committee. That seems to have been a breakthrough and a point for the CNRP. But the fact remains that the boycott was not really effective. They didn’t force the ruling party into major concessions and changes. Business has gone on as usual. From his original demand for Hun Sen to step down and for sweeping changes nothing much is left.  So was it worth it? Given the results and considering the demonstrations and the strikes that were surely somewhat inspired by the demonstrations, the cost was too high in both human and material loss.

News break: somebody threw a monkey wrench into the works as now obviously the election is not early enough. Kem Sokha seems to have objected. The two leaders stand in their own way and they play politics for politics sake. This is typical Sam Rainsy. One day he says this, the next day it is no longer good. First they have an agreement, now they don’t. I am no fan of the CPP, but with an opposition like this how can you ever reach a compromise?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Daily Insanity

I don’t want this to be a rant but it will probably come like one anyway. I am talking about Cambodian truck and overland coach (Capitol, Rith Mony, Mekong, etc.) drivers. It is a well-known fact that Cambodians in general don’t have a clue that traffic rules and regulations actually help. They were not passed to deprive people of their cherished freedom. They were passed to make it safer for everybody. People who just comply with the most basic of the rules will or would survive even the most chaotic traffic conditions. I understand there are even worse places than Cambodia, e. g. India, Egypt, and others. Traffic fatalities prove the point. They have been on the rise every year for the past decade or so.

But the worst are the truck and bus drivers. They pass without regard to whether or not the road ahead is clear, or whether there is a curve about 100 m ahead. It appears as if they don’t want to lose the speed they are traveling at at that given moment, perhaps they are afraid it will take a bit until they reach that speed again once they had to brake down. How do those head-on collisions happen? Let’s say a passenger car is going at 100 km/h on a clear stretch of road; there is a slight curve ahead and, whoa, going into that curve they are all of sudden faced with a bus or truck coming their way passing another large vehicle. The good thing, of course, is that the truck can still flash his lights to tell you, ‘Hey, careful I am coming.’ I have seen at least three accidents like this myself. The result: the people in the passenger car are smashed to pulp; the truck veers off the highway and ends up in a ditch. If the driver survives with only a few scratches, chances are that he will take off and vanish in the bushes.

I drive from my little town about 20 km from  Sihanoukville to the hotel almost every day. That road is very narrow going through villages along the road; they are really nothing more than an accumulation of wooden shacks. But whole families with kids and dogs live there and it actually quite crowded in certain places. If that road is 10 m wide it is big. It seems to be a hobby for those drivers to go through these villages at the highest speed possible. Something is in their way? Honk, honk! They just stare straight ahead shutting out the world left and right of them. If they are fully loaded with, say, cement, they can’t go fast, but if they are empty, breakneck speed is the motto. The road in some places is a little hilly. They come barreling downhill like there is no tomorrow, sometimes with a trailer at that. Sure enough, they are on the phone at the same time with only one hand on the steering wheel. If there ever were an obstacle and they had to brake down, that trailer truck would jackknife and any oncoming motorbike and its rider would be history.

Observing this really makes one wonder whether something is wrong genetically with Cambodian people. The minute they get on a motorbike or into a car/truck they seemingly change into a different personality. Does anybody have another explanation for this?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Cambodian Staff

My experience with staff has so far been limited to help in the house and the workers on the rubber plantation. The latter usually don’t pose a problem. Once a year they want a raise, which we had been able to give them every year.  This year they have been awfully quiet about this subject as a large plantation nearby laid off 3,000 workers. Their trees had reached the non-productive stage and were cut down. Until the new saplings produce it will be six to seven years.  Although there are a lot of new plantations in other provinces, most notably in Kompong Thom, Preah Vihear, and Rattanakiri, most of them don’t produce yet, and most people don’t really want to relocate. So they seem to be happy to have a job at all.

The Prime Minister once exhorted workers not to go abroad to find work but stay here. The rubber plantations needed all the hands they could get. This sure is a bit out of touch with reality.  Most wages in Thailand, Korea, and Malaysia are usually around $500 a month whereas on a plantation here they make about $150.

My caretaker at the house who had been with me for 4 years turned out to be a gambler. We never found out until one day the GPS unit on my boat went missing. He said he didn’t notice it initially; only when he hosed it down one day did he see it was gone. We were abroad at that time but he had our kids’ phone numbers. He did not find it necessary to call them. Neither did he call the police which would have been the normal thing even in Cambodia. We are well-known in our little town, and the mayor of the village, or the chief of Sangkat would have ordered an investigation. The whole thing sounded really fishy to us. We decided to let him go. He was a pretty good worker and could do almost everything and sometimes had really good ideas. But he tended to lose things, e. g. tools, break them or generally did not take care of anything. It is really frustrating when you have to tell him all the time what needs to be done.

When he was gone, a few people from the nearby villages showed up and asked about him. He owed them money; $40 here, $50 there. He also played cards, bet on all kinds of things, and as one can imagine, he usually lost. So it probably is not a stretch to believe that he used the GPS unit to guarantee some of his gambling debts. The best thing about this is that only the head unit without the transducer was taken. The cables, the mount was still there. It would have been sort of hard to dismantle all this and would have required some expert knowledge. He clearly didn’t have this. Still, I was left with damage worth $600. You can’t get these things easily in Cambodia so I have them shipped in from the U.S.

The next caretaker I hired seemed decent enough. He worked as guard at the power plant nearby and wanted to have an easier job. He was recommended by an acquaintance of ours, actually he was his son-in-law. So next thing we know is that he didn’t show up but his aunt did to look after things. Of course, she wouldn’t be any help launching my boat – which is a job for two at my place. The guy did occasionally show up at night to sleep there but he had a wife and kid so most nights, especially when we were not there, he wouldn’t be at the house altogether. We needed to let him go after two weeks – all without hard feelings.
Then we had an elderly couple who came by after we had the previous guy ask around. They looked ok and seemed to need a job pretty badly. They said only two people. When they started work, all of a sudden there were three. They took care of their granddaughter.  Well, we were in need of someone to look after the house in our absence so we let this slide. It worked out ok for a while. When we started the hotel we thought we could use the wife to help out as maid. She liked the job and the different surroundings so she started working there full-time. Now the real nature of the husband came to the fore. He was and is a lush. One time I even had to climb over the wall because he was drunk and fast asleep and didn’t hear my honking or shouting. He promised it wouldn’t happen again. Of course, alcoholics can’t keep a promise. Sure enough, next time we were gone for a couple days, he was not there when we got back. He was out ‘buying food’. We needed to let him go. What good is a caretaker for if he doesn’t take care things?

I described the work ethics of contractors in my previous post. As for the hotel staff I thought it would be fairly easy to find people willing and ready to work, given that there still are many young people without job. Not so. We needed staff with a basic knowledge of English, and preferably some experience in the hotel/restaurant business. To my surprise there weren’t many around in Sihanoukville it seems. We hung out a ‘for hire’ sign. The bartender was the first we hired, a young girl barely 20 years old but with a thorough knowledge of cocktails. The bartender knew a woman who could cook some Western food, so she was put on the payroll next. In short order we were nevertheless able to fill our available jobs, including the front office manager who really did a good job of selling himself.

I can’t really complain about the hotel staff except for the bartender. One day she simply didn’t show up and didn’t call either. The cook lives next to her so she asked would she come in this afternoon. Ah, she was feeling sick and would come a little later. Well, again she didn’t call or anything. She simply didn’t show up. But she was there the next day. This happened twice and we were getting ready to fire her when she resigned on her own, apologizing, and saying she would just like to work as a temp to fill in when the other staff had their day off. She was also afraid ghosts in the evening – a pretty common phenomenon among Khmer people. So far our hotel is pretty quiet in the evenings as we don’t serve dinner, and the guests go out to eat and usually don’t come back until 9 pm or later.  Since that change we haven’t had a problem.
The front office manager is a dud. He is still working for us so I won’t go into any details here.  

The main problem I found with Cambodian staff is their general lack of knowledge and their obvious  inability to think logically. Of course, these are all unskilled laborers with little schooling. Some are even completely illiterate. I really can’t hold it against them, but it is kind of frustrating when running a business. I can only imagine what factories with hundreds of workers go through. But then, if it weren’t like this from where would the West get their cheap clothes – H&M, Walmart, etc., come to mind. Basically, the West is just exploiting countries like Cambodia to meet their growth and profit goals. All the nice words about labor standards and minimum wage are merely lip service to appease those pesky human rights proponents. Adidas, H&M apparently didn’t pay attention to the minimum wage issue until the strikes turned violent and left one dead recently.

To be honest, the tourist and hotel business basically falls into the same category. Where else can you offer rooms for $15 or $20 a night if not in countries like Cambodia where people make $120 a month. I would gladly pay higher wages if the market would allow it. I would have to raise room rates but would price myself out of the market with that. Although there are only a handful of hotels in the same category in town,  I am sure they would have enough capacity to absorb my guests without a problem.  Now why can I survive, and hopefully I will? The key to success is offering a different standard from what’s available already.  But that is a subject for another post.