Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Any Change in Sihanoukville?

It has been a few months now since a new city governor, or mayor as we would call him, and a new police chief were appointed. The new police chief vowed to clean up the city and rid it of undesirable elements and criminals, in particular mentioning Russian crooks. He had one notorious Russian criminal arrested and swiftly deported. This man had become very close to some local officials and even courts. How else could he have avoided legal repercussions here for so long. This was a headline grabbing action and gratefully acknowledged by the few other people, mostly other Russians that had been affected by that so-called oligarch’s activities. The police chief also promised to clamp down on the traffic police’s illegal stopping of hapless foreign tourists to shake them down for a few dollars. They usually found an excuse for pulling them over, but many times they had no cause for that and then just asked them for their international driver license. After many complaints from hotels and their guests, not to mention foreign expats, he told a meeting of business owners that he would put an end to this. This was also duly reported in the press.

Unfortunately, this did not seem to have trickled down to the traffic cops on the streets because they happily kept on pulling over tourists, even demanding as much as $25. This was already in the rainy season when there aren’t as many tourists in town, so they did have a need to bolster their meager incomes accordingly.

Lately, however, there appears to be a larger traffic police presence on the streets, pulling over mostly motorbikes for minor infractions like not wearing a helmet. The writer could not observe any predilection towards foreigners. Should the complaints finally render some results?

The job of the traffic police is enforcing traffic laws, right? Not so in Cambodia. Their job is to collect as many fines as they can from motorists, both local and foreign, to make a decent living. One could call that soft corruption. A society needs a police force but they must be paid enough to support them and their families. With $50 to $100 a month this is hardly possible. Consequently, one mustn’t really wonder at the audacity with which some of the traffic cops collect their additional incomes.

There is a new traffic law going into effect this year, to be fully enforced in January 2016. They introduced stiffer fines for traffic infractions in order to combat the haphazard driving style encountered on the roads on a daily basis. The most ludicrous feature of the new law will be that traffic cops can retain up to 70% of all fines for themselves. That’s the brightest idea in this respect that I have ever come across in my entire life, most of it living in several foreign countries.  The people who came up with this idea need to be awarded the medal of stupidity. While we are on the subject, enforcing rigorous schooling and testing for driver licenses would be a good start to fight the high rate of road accidents and fatalities.

As regards the undesirable elements the immigration police have been cracking down on illegals. One would not believe that such a problem exists in Cambodia at all. But not surprisingly, Cambodia attracts a good number of poor foreigners, or foreigners that have run out of money for various reasons like drug use, etc. and, of course, low-lives that seek refuge in any easily accessible country. These people then have no money to extend their visa so they simply stay on in the hope of not being caught. That went well up to now as the government wasn’t interested in foreigners at all unless they broke a law. Now with the work permits being enforced the immigration police is part of that and in the process weeds out people who overstay their visas. A few days ago I was subject to such an inspection twice – one at my house outside Sihanoukville and one at my business, which means they move from house to house where foreigners live and check on them. They stated they will do their rounds every three months.
On another front, bag snatching in the dark is a popular sport of younger thugs riding on their motorbikes, coming on to an unsuspecting mostly female tourist from behind and ripping the hand bag off their shoulders. Sometimes the bag doesn’t come off easily resulting in the mugger dragging the victim along the road for sometimes up to 100 m. One can imagine what scrapes and wounds these people sustain, let alone the mental anguish they go through in the aftermath. If one thought that the new police chief would ensure a larger presence of the police on the streets after, say, 5 pm, would be greatly mistaken. Police routinely abandon their posts when it starts raining, during lunch time, and after dark. Only sometimes do they install check-points and conduct weapon searches. Reports of rape and other violent crimes among the local population have not decreased either, at least judging from newspaper and internet reports. So has anything improved? I have my doubts. There are no tangible results that anyone can see. However, when this one senator published some questionable documents on Facebook and was promptly arrested for it, the police were reputedly put on alert. One can only surmise the government expected that young restless opposition party followers would take to the streets to vent their anger at this. Consequently, they had no time for any other police business, or so it seemed.

Sihanoukville is one the main tourist destinations in Cambodia. As opposed to the early 2000s tourists now travel to Cambodia not only as an extension to Thailand but as a full destination visiting Phnom  Penh, Siem Reap, Kampot and Sihanoukville at least. Unfortunately, Sihanoukville still has a rather negative reputation among foreign tourists. This is mostly because they see it as one of the dirtiest cities in Cambodia. Trash is strewn all over the place, the beach is dirty and unkempt, sewage still flows into the ocean, beggars populate the beach walkways, even going into restaurants, the streets are flooded after a downpour and the stench of rotten food permeates many places.

The previous governor made a small effort once to clean the beach, which indeed helped a short while, but after the various New Year celebrations it all looked like before. One particular eyesore is the street directly at Ochheuteal Beach – Mithona Street. The many beachside restaurants' rear faces this street and as is the habit of 95% of all Cambodians they just deposit their trash behind their restaurant. This makes for a very beautiful sight, of course. There is a trash removal service, but it you don’t deposit your trash curbside it doesn’t get picked up. Another very appealing feature is the restaurants’ restrooms. They are in a state that no normal Western people would dare use it. And where does all the waste flow. Although there is a sewage pipe running along behind the restaurants it still flowed into the ocean in at least 3 to 4 locations. They put up a septic tank at one end but that quickly overflowed in the rainy season, again producing this intolerable stench.

It is quite ironic that the government put up a sign at one of the entrances to Ochheuteal saying, ‘Sihanoukville – the Most Beautiful Bay’. The bay certainly is beautiful – the beach is far from it.

Otres 1 and 2, very popular destinations, probably outdoing Occheuteal in a couple of years is no better. The roads along the beach are still unpaved and full of potholes – dusty in the dry season, and muddy in the wet season. I am not sure whether there is any trash removal, I know for sure though there is none at Otres 2. At least they all got city water and electricity there now.

This  all says nothing about other primary infrastructure deficiencies, such as good drainage, a working sewage system, proper construction of roadways that last past the next rainy season, directing the flow of truck traffic , cleaning up shanty towns (of course, with alternative housing available).

The new governor promised a complete overhaul of the entire area, designating the southern part of the province for tourist development. Apart from the extensive construction of new hotels and condominium building, any progress on those vital issues that affect foreign, especially Western, tourists, does not seem to have materialized into actions besides the good intentions the powers-that-be formulated. Those formulations have been plentiful in the past. Seeing as where we stand now the past 5 years haven’t resulted in any great strides toward an improvement of the secondary infrastructure.

Just yesterday, however, there was report on the news that the national government issued an ordinance that would fine businesses up to $250 if they just dumped their trash at the curb instead of putting it into plastic bags or appropriate containers. Private citizens would be fined up to $2.50 if they just dropped their trash on the street or any public place. Let’s wait whether this will be enforced. I for one will believe it when I see it.

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