Traffic police to keep 70% of fines

traffic_fines_vireak_maiPhnom Penh Post reports that from January next year traffic fines are to increase five-fold and traffic police will keep 70% of what they collect. Some great discussion of this on Khmer 440, although nobody seems to pick up the fact that the cops are already allowed to keep 50%. Some points made there are worth recording:

  • This policy is a result of the inability of the government to pay decent salaries, which is in turn a result of its inability to collect taxes.
  • There’s a danger of cops imposing illegal fines. Dash cams would be a great idea. (Actually I’m not sure – whenever I’ve been stopped for jumping a red light – which seems to be my only sin – it’s been a fair cop).
  • Somebody asks if there’s going to be a system for tracking number plates so that scofflaws who accelerate away can be traced. I half-recall reading something about traffic cameras being introduced in Phnom Penh, so perhaps it’s already under way.
  • “Every copshop funnels a lot of cash up the chain to the head guy, who then channels part of that directly to CPP.” Very true. And I’d just add that after every Pchum Ben festival, when senior cops have to sponsor events at their home-town monasteries, there’s an outbreak of fine-collecting in Phnom Penh.
  • “All pyramid schemes eventually collapse. How long before the Cambodian pyramid topples?”

And what about seeing this from the other side? Back in 2011 the Post ran a story with some interviews with traffic cops. I almost feel sorry for them. For more read here.

STANDING in the shade along a busy intersection in Phnom Penh, a traffic police officer takes a moment to answer his mobile phone amid the sounds of horn blasts and chatter from his Motorola hand-held radio. On the other end of the line his children eagerly await his voice.

“My family worries about my daily activities, especially because they know I stand in the middle of the street and can get hit,” the officer explains, adding that his kids typically phone twice a day. He cites three police officers from his department who have broken their legs or had their toes crushed after being struck by vehicles, highlighting the inherent danger of enforcing traffic laws in the city. He says the job is becoming more difficult because of the increasing volume of traffic on the streets which, according to The Ministry of Public Works and Transport, grows each year by upwards of 20 percent.

“Some drivers don’t respect the traffic laws. They don’t stop or try to obey checkpoints, particularly one-way roads where people go against the flow. Some drivers hurt us but I try to tell my family not to worry about me,” he says. “If I tell my wife it is a dangerous or risky job she’ll only worry more.”

Hun Sen’s Cambodia

HSCHun Sen’s Cambodia, by Sebastian Strangio (blog here), published by Yale University Press and Silkworm Books, will be available at Monument Books from 27 October. It’s an evocation and explanation of contemporary Cambodia, a country synonymous with its leader, Hun Sen.

The first half traces the history of the country from the end of the Khmer Rouge regime to the present; the second half investigates at the reality of life in and under what the author calls “the mirage on the Mekong.” Presiding over all is strongman-President Hun Sen, who has dominated the last three decades as Sihanouk dominated an earlier age.

Hun Sen was born into a comparatively well—off peasant family, the son of a former monk who left the Sangha to join the anti-French resistance, but the family lost their money and he was forced to become a temple-boy in Phnom Penh. This remains a very common pattern today, so common in fact that it makes me wonder which of my local temples might be sheltering Cambodia’s future leadership at this moment.

Hun-Sen-e1349252427677The young Hun Sen, early 1980s

  Exactly how the young Hun Sen became a communist – if indeed he ever did embrace the cause in any meaningful way – remains extremely murky. Sihanouk’s call for all patriotic Cambodians to join the anti-Lon Nol maquis following his overthrow in 1970 seems to been the catalyst, although nothing is certain. It’s clear, however, that he was a young man of great ability, rising to become a KR commander in the Eastern Zone before the Party’s collapse into self-destructive purges forced him to flee to Vietnam in 1997.

470_ap_hun_sen_091008Hun Sen now (AP photo)

In January 1979, aged just 26, he returned Cambodia’s new Foreign Minister. He impressed visitors with his intelligence, hard work, and uncanny ability to sail with the changing political winds. These abilities, and possibly a certain ruthlessness, enabled him to see off his decidedly less talented colleagues; by 1985 he was Prime Minister, a position he’s held ever since. (Strangio gives a fascinating account of how Pen Sovan, the first post-KR prime minister, tried to resist Vietnamese direction and ended up in a cell in Hanoi; Hun Sen in contrast made himself indispensable).


Cambodia in the mid-1980s was a tangle of patronage networks – the Khmer word is “strings”, conjuring up the not inappropriate image of a bowl of spaghetti. No one was better suited than Hun Sen to bring order to the chaos.

Patronage is deeply rooted in Cambodian culture, and always has been. Gifts are passed down and generate loyalty which then confirms the authority of the giver. The system is, of course, deeply destructive. “Government posts [are] valued according to their potential to generate income, while the power of higher officials depend[s] on their ability to distribute those positions.” The task of making himself the ultimate source of all influence and power was to occupy Hun Sen for the rest of his career, and still continues.

Cambodia Rolls RoyceRolls Royce dealership, Phnom Penh

Modern Cambodia has unquestionably benefitted from Hun Sen’s subtle approach to the age-old role of patronage boss. The country has an open market, a democratic constitution, and a vibrant civil society. Guns have just about disappeared off the streets (the average Cambodian runs a far lesser risk of being shot than does the average American), the press is freer than in many other countries in the region, foreign investment is booming, and the tourism and garment industries are diversifying employment opportunities.

cam-photo-front5Striking garment workers (photo by John Vink, Magnum)

If only the reality were so bright and shiny. Strangio gives Hun Sen his due – in 2004 one in two Cambodian’s lived in poverty, by 2011 the figure had dropped to one in five and falling – but as he makes clear, the commitment to Western ideas of the liberal society is both limited and pragmatic. Partly this is because Hun Sen has seen that the West’s talk of the virtues of freedom is hypocritical – these were the countries that kept Pol Pot in the United Nations and isolated Cambodia through the 1980s for their own cynical purposes. And partly, of course, they can’t afford to hand over the keys to the patronage machine.

power-to-the-peopleForcible eviction at Borei  Keila (Asiapundits)

And so it continues: land seizures in the provinces, “slum” clearances in the capital, unionists and other opponents shot dead or jailed, media taken over and controlled by those the elite can trust, a compliant judiciary, etc etc. Even the CNRP opposition offers no more than a change of faces, and Sam Rainsy’s racist Khmer chauvinism hardly seems like something to long for. Strangio’s book makes depressing reading.

Cambodian National Rescue Party2013 election (

And yet, for all this, he ends on a note of hope. Cambodia has not stood still for the last thirty years. A new generation has grown up, one more educated, more exposed to outside values, less willing to accept patronage politics and a society of inequality. The results were seen in the 2013 elections, when the CPP lost a massive number of seats, obviously to its own surprise. Cambodia is changing, but Hun Sen is not. We live in interesting times.

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





The Playground

The PlaygroundABOUT

Kindle single, $1.99. (Kindle Singles are short pieces of non-fiction – journalism, really, the kind that used to appear in the better newspapers way back and then went out of fashion for some reason).

The author is Terrence McCoy – “Terrence M. McCoy is the Gordon Grey Fellow of International Journalism at Columbia University. He contributes frequently to the Atlantic, Washington Monthly, and Salon, and is currently a staff writer for Village Voice Media at the New Times in Miami. He served in the United States Peace Corps in Cambodia between 2009 and 2011.” And speaks Khmer. See also a good You Tube video here. And while we’re not quite on the subject, I dare you to read this and not feel afraid.


We’ve heard of China’s buying sprees. That it’s plowed billions of dollars into some of the poorest nations in the world. But the story we don’t know is what this money means for the people there. In Cambodia, the cost has been devastating. More than 700,000 people have lost their homes — others their lives — while China buys the former killing fields for resorts, hotels, and exclusive residences. And as this country of genocide descends into another era of chaos and violence, some whisper it’s the second coming of Pol Pot. 
But one woman has fought back. In this fast-paced narrative, Terrence McCoy follows Vanny Tep’s quest to save Cambodia from China’s money. Leading a small, fiery group of women, Vanny has sparked a grassroots movement from one of the most daunting slums in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Her battles are against the Cambodian government, Chinese companies, and a male-dominated society. Powerful and profound, “The Playground” takes us across Cambodia to discover the true meaning of a global Chinatown.


Let me say up front that I found the author’s style a bit irritating at first. It’s self-consciously Fine Writing in that way they teach in journalism schools – “Cicadas called rae buzzed like thousands of pencil sharpeners…” Wouldn’t “cicadas buzzed like pencil sharpeners” have done?

But McCoy has a good story to tell. In the first few pages he’s off to visit a remote coastal settlement in Koh Kong called, informally, China Town. Why China Town? The road – the dirt track – to China Town is guarded by the Cambodian army: why are the soldiers here instead of pointing their AKs at the Thais or the Vietnamese on the borders? And why is McCoy’s moto driver passing him off as a French tourist?

There’s a beach. There are Chinese engineers. There are five star hotels under construction, golf courses and villas and tourists in the offing, the smell of money in the air. And poverty and land-grabbing and the threat of violence. Terminal violence, the kind that leaves no traces.

My advice to Mr McCoy, at this point, is to read more Hemingway. When you have a story that sells itself, you don’t have to spice it up with adjectives.

There’s a longish section dealing with the general picture of the Chinese presence in Southeast Asia, and it comes down to this: China outspends America and asks no questions and attaches no strings. Even Australia, though it hosts US bases, knows that China is its largest trading partner. And though everyone can see this elephant, nobody knows quite how big it is or what it plans to do next. And while China attaches no conditions to its investment in terms of human rights, there are very definite expectations of what the recipients will do when required.

The hero of this story is Vanny Tep, once a fashion model, now a political activist. I won’t tell any more, as The Playground is pretty short anyway.


Highly recommended, despite the chasing after style. This is one of the major social evils of Cambodia today, and the more light it sees, the better.