Constructing Cambodia


Gold Tower 42: God knows how much money has been lost by how many investors on this one. Construction started in 2008, and it was reported to be 75% sold a few months later. Then construction stopped. It’s stayed stopped ever since.


De Castle Royal: practically next door to GT42, and at one point seemed doomed to suffer the same fate, but now slated for completion very soon, like this month maybe, though details are hard to come by.

Just two of the top-of the-range condos and gated cities that now dot PP, all aimed at the elite end of the market. Is there a real market for them? It’s sure surreal, looking up at these dream-towers from street level. This post is really a plea to the owner of the blog Constructing Cambodia to keep posting – someone really needs to keep a finger on the pulse.

Child trafficking: Fagin lives!

What's sold, what's bought?

Who sells, what’s bought?

Disturbing story in the Bangkok Post on 29 June titled Young Lives for Sale. It details the results of an investigation into child beggars in Pattaya, the Thai travel destination nearest Cambodia.

When Fil’s mother brought him from Cambodian as a 10-year-old four years ago, her intentions were far from pure — she planned to exploit him as a child beggar around the tourist hotspots of Pattaya.

And she did, until he ran away and joined a gang of street-kids begging and sleeping rough on Pattaya’s Walking Street. Walking Street is not dangerous – it has one of the highest ratios of cops to civilians in Thailand – but it’s for grown-ups.

Anyway, from being a free-lance child beggar Fil graduated to an organised gang, what you might call the corporatised side of the business. He worked 12 hours a day and got to keep none of his earnings, but he had a proper place to sleep and regular meals, so things were looking up. His new bosses took better care of him than his mother had, and he worked hard for them and avoided the cops, because he didn’t want to be sent back to Cambodia.

Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 2.47.08 PMEventually his luck changed and he got picked up by an NGO called the Mirror Foundation (which doesn’t seem to have updated it’s home page since January 2013 – the link is to its projects page). MF has a project called Stop Child Beggars which is trying to investigate and understand the trade in Pattaya. This is what they’ve found:

  • Eighty percent of child beggars in Thailand – not in Pattaya, in all Thailand – are Cambodian. The rest are mostly Burmese and Lao, with very few Thai children.
  • The problem is one of human trafficking, not poverty – meaning children are bought into Thailand in order to make money for others, not because of poverty at home.
  • The children in organised begging gangs are not dong so from fear or coercion – they prefer this life to the alternatives, which are to live rough or to go back to Cambodia.
  • Each child has an adult  watcher and a work area: he can’t go outside it, and no one is allowed to encroach. The watcher, who’s paid 6,000 baht (about $200) a month, collects the day’s earnings each evening and passes them up the chain. The children keep little of what they collect.

The article doesn’t say how much a child beggar typically brings in, but if a gang finds itself with “too many” children (meaning not enough watchers?) they’ll typically rent the excess  out at up to 12,000 baht a month (about $370), meaning that the renter expects to make considerably more than this.

The Mirror Foundation reported their findings to the police and the cops cracked down on the child beggars, but it didn’t work – the police can’t spend all their time picking up kids off the street, and when the pressure went off the kids came back.

There’s much more, but the bottom line is, don’t give money to children begging, not in Pattaya, not anywhere.



Incidentally, and because this is supposed to be a blog about books, I recommend Tim Hallinan’s Bangkok thriller Breathing Water – the link is to the Amazon Kindle page, and there are readers’ reviews. One of the strands is about the begging business.

Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 4.45.10 PM

And since we have a little space left: a video on the subject here; an article from the Pattaya Mail; and a Burmese slant here (I think the Burmese might be the most pitiable, their government being even more useless than the Cambodians).

And  it’s not just Cambodia

(The child in these photos, by the way, is not Fil, they are Cambodian children begging in Pattaya, from Flickr contributor lyndhan).

Barefoot Diplomats


Phnom Penh bombed by the KR, 1975

Phnom Penh bombed by the KR, 1975

January 1979. The Vietnamese are closing in on Phnom Penh. A messenger from the Khmer Rouge leadership arrives at the Chinese embassy: the KR army has collapsed, there’s nothing between the Vietnamese and the capital. Prepare to evacuate within four hours. Papers are burnt, food prepared, and at midnight a convoy of diplomats, not only Chinese but the Yugoslavs, Burmese and others (in truth not that many) leaves the city headed for Battambang. Once there a new message from the KR government: the threat has been overstated, please return to Phnom Penh. Most of the embassies decline the invitation, but recognising that his duty is to represent Beijing to his hosts, the ambassador and his staff return to PP  immediately. The date is January 4.

The situation in Phnom Penh continues to worsen. Artillery can be heard in the distance and Vietnamese reconnaissance aircraft are overhead. On January 6 a Chinese Boeing 707 arrives. There are 180 people at the airport pleading for seats, among them Prince Sihanouk, Princess Monique, and some two dozen members of the royal household. The aircraft can safely carry only 150.

Now read on.

That’s just the first five pages of this document, The Collapse of the Pol Pot Regime, January-April 1979. It’s the story of the Chinese embassy as they retreated with the KR into the Cardamom Mountains in the face of PARVN (Peoples Army of the Republic of Vietnam), and was written, I gather, as part of an internal history of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The  Chinese tried to stay with Pol Pot and keep on being an embassy, but in April they crossed the border into Thailand. It’s an extraordinary story – you’ve heard of barefoot doctors, but here’s barefoot diplomats.

Nice blogspot here with photos of Phnom Penh when it fell to the PARVN – this is what the Chinese would have seen as they left the city. The photos used here are from another blog, Travis J Thompson’s Ten Pics a Day – unfortunately I don’t know who took the actual pics, especially that one at the top.

Vietnamese troops enter Phnom Penh, 7 January 1979

Vietnamese troops enter Phnom Penh, 7 January 1979


John Vink Tumbles

Migrants Exodus

Khmer returnee from Thailand at Poipet border post

John Vink is the only (so far as I know) Magnum photographer based in Cambodia. Naturally his photos are very, very good. The link is to his Tumblr account, which is constantly updated.

The illustration above is from a photo-essay about the 200,000 of so Cambodians who have recently returned from Thailand in response to rumours that they were about to be expelled. They face unemployment and starvation, and there’s fear of a rise in theft and general petty crime. Not only the returnees are affected of course, but also all those who depended on their remittances.

On the Thail side, there are signs of a growing realisation that the Cambodians and Burmese workers were actually doing something – Thailand needs them. So possibly they’ll be invited back soon. One hopes.

Power and Political Culture in Cambodia

Power and Political Culture in Cambodia (Trude Jacobsen and Martin Stuart-Fox, National University of Singapore, as a pdf download here) is an examination of how Cambodian culture thinks of power, whence it comes and how it goes. Does this sound like Cambodia?

The client/patron relationship is hierarchical, but obligations are mutual. The patron is the protector, sponsor, and benefactor of the client, and his greater wealth, power, or prestige enable him to help or do favors for the client. The client is usually, but not inevitably, of inferior social class..Benefits a patron might confer include legal representation in court, loans of money, influencing business deals or marriages, and supporting a client’s candidacy for political office or employment. In return, the client is expected to offer his services to his patron as needed.

i-claudius-patrick-stewart_5_l-1-_wide-8964c78b8fc127f2ece9037f297f853db476b3fe-s4-c85It’s actually ancient Rome, according to Wikipedia. (Pictured here is Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard, in the BBC mini-series I Claudius – he comes to a sticky end when he gets too big for his caligulas).

The patron possesses authority – omneach in Khmer or power, komlang. Such a man is a neak thom, “big person”. The first outward sign of his bigness are his wealth, as seen in his conspicuous houses and cars, his country house (apparently a must-have), his being seen at expensive restaurants and up-market nightclubs, and so on – the point being that he must not only be a wealthy man, he must be publicly seen to be such.

He will also have bunn sak, social status. This is shown through his possession of government and/or royal titles, a house near the house of the prime minister, his association with other persons of high status (including foreigners, who apparently are as good as a Rolex at a public event), and his immunity to the law. The highest neak thom can shoot someone dead in the presence of witnesses without fear of consequences, although this does test the extent of his bunn sak and should only be done if the outcome is assured.

The parking lots of the more expensive karaoke places, hotels and nightclubs in Phnom Penh are littered with shiny new Lexus, Mercedes and Audi four wheel drives sporting all manner of decoration stuffed toys, curtains, undercarriage lights in different colours but no license plates, because the owner of the car is so important that he or she does not have to conform to laws which apply to others. … Patrons at some popular Cambodian nightclubs are not permitted to sit in the upper gallery unless they are neak thom (and) Places usually frequented by a foreign clientele reserve space for neak thom (where) security personnel maintain an invisible barrier excluding other patrons.

The third quality of a neak thom is baramei, meaning charismatic powers of persuasion – Cambodians admire the ability to sway others through words alone. Sihanouk had it, Pol Pot had it, and Hun Sen has it. Paradoxically, the man who possesses baramei will be silent at social gatherings, because self-control is also admired, but when he speaks, all others fall silent.

Newsletter525_Narayana_clip_image002Whence comes greatness? Wealth and social rank and charisma are the result of bunn, the merit accumulated in previous lives through virtuous deeds. Since bunn, and not some accident of birth created the neak thom, he therefore has a moral right to his wealth and power. Some individuals possess so much power than bunn alone  can’t explain it – they must have inherited it, in a very personal sense, through the workings of reincarnation. Thus Sihanouk was thought to be the reincarnation of Jayavarman VII, and there’s a rumour that Hun Sen in a previous life was the legendary hero Sdech Kan. If reincarnation isn’t enough to explain the power of the powerful, there’s also magic – Hun Sen is also said to own a store of powerful koan kroach amulets, preserved fetuses that protect their owner from harm.

Bunn derives from anupheap, understanding, so that the man of power is also a man of wisdom, and wisdom derives from dhammapul, the laws of nature, so that the powerful hold power by virtue of the same forces that make apples fall down instead of up and cause winter to be cooler than summer. The powerful man will therefore see any challenge to his power as an attack on the natural order: Sam Rainsey is not just a political opponent, but an evil man to boot.

Power is expressed through khsae, strings of client/patron connections. The village farmer will have his village patron, who will have his patron in the district town, who will have his in the capital, who will be the client of a neak thom at the highest level. The traffic cop will share cash from motodop fines with his captain, the millionaire contractor will share a cut with the officials who put the contract for that road or bridge his way. In return the patron will protect his client from the law to the best of his ability, assist his children (or those of sub-clients) with employment, and attend weddings and other occasions where the presence of a great patron will increase the standing of the client among his own circle.

17821_07_NeakPean_bigthumbDonors talk about strengthening the institutions of the State in Cambodia. Forget it. Patron/client relations take the place of the State. In the early 19th century the Cambodians rebelled against the Vietnamese, not because of national feeling, but because the Vietnamese wanted to reform the tax collection in a way that undermined the client-patron relationship. Today the Cambodian elite resist the pressure of Western aid donors for greater transparency for the same reason. The flow of goods and services in a patronage-based system is through the client-patron tie, not the State.

All in all, a pretty depressing outlook. Here’s the nub of the concluding paragraph of the paper, in which the authors explain why Cambodians keep on voting for the status quo:

In the privacy of the voting booth people are free to register their displeasure with the CPP. But they won’t. And the reason they won’t is not because they cannot envisage better government or a more just society, nor because they have been duped and coerced into submission, but because of how they understand the nature of power. Cambodians accept that the well-oiled patronage network of the CPP that now extends throughout Cambodian society cannot be challenged. The ‘strings’ are too many and too strong. Moreover they converge on men … recognised as neak thom, whose personal claims to power rest solidly on a moral order … conceived as a law of nature. At the apex stands Hun Sen, who has risen in status from one among a number of neak thom to ‘bong thom’, ‘big brother’ to all Cambodians.


 The Bong of Bongs