Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

It was quite a circus on Kampot’s riverside last new year’s with every centimeter of the park strip that wasn’t occupied by parked cars and motorbikes taken up by Khmer picnickers and revelers. They laid out their straw mats on the hard ground and partied up. Some brought their boom boxes, others brought tents for overnight. It’s too bad the park strip is so narrow right at old town, because Khmers love to congregate, they hate being alone and only feel really comfortable when lots of other people are around. So while there were locals picnicking all along the 3 kilometer waterfront it was most crowded where it could least accommodate them.

In the aftermath there was trash all over the place, though actually, the majority was piled around the small inadequate trash bins. Maybe they just don’t have any additional ones they could’ve placed there, but it sure would’ve made a difference in the clean up phase.

The road itself was also jammed with vehicles and people. The absence of usable sidewalks doesn’t impact life and livability in a small city like Kampot with about 50 to 60,000 people the way it does in the capital, because traffic is generally relatively light, but on a holiday like new years, it can get pretty treacherous out there trying to get around.

Kampot has become a prime destination for locals on holiday. They flock to the little burg at every opportunity. Especially from Phnom Penh, since the capital has done and is doing its best to cover every public park and vacant space with buildings. If you don’t live near the river or Olympic stadium, there’s no place to go for respite from the noise and concrete. I just don’t get it: The people who run the country have certainly been to other cities in the region and the world that have wonderful natural parks. Just in our neighborhood, Ho Chi Minh, Bangkok, Rangoon all have beautiful parks. In Cambodia’s cities, there isn’t a single natural park outside of Siem Reap. The country is great at securing riverside space for the people, but after that, zilch, nada, nil.

High season is in full swing with everybody, or nearly everybody enjoying the rush of customers. Still, it doesn’t seem as busy as in the past, though maybe only because new establishments are proliferating. There’s been lots of live music around, not like rainy season when the place was dead. In addition to the old regulars like the Playboys which I mention often, there’s a threesome called the Potshots. Ant and John are on guitars and Hugh on drums make a really tight sound, they’ve literally been playing together for years. Ant and John also play around town as a duo. After a long hiatus, I’ve started to bring my instruments at open mics so the action is welcome.

Potshots is also the name of a paintball park partly owned by Ant. Sounds like great fun, though I personally probably shouldn’t be running around on rough terrain at my age. I can take off on a sprint without a problem, if I’m thinking and careful, but the old bones get brittle and I could easily get sprained if I got too excited and rambunctious while out on the kill.

Speaking of traffic let me unload some pet peeves and proffer a little advice. Here in Kampot car drivers will stop their vehicles wherever they happen to be in the street, even right in the center of a traffic lane. Sure, most times there’s little traffic and plenty of room to get around, but it still seems weird to me. The rule is to always get your vehicle as far as possible off the traffic lanes, cause you never know if the necking down you are causing will in turn result in an accident. That’s especially true on highways where people are driving really fast: get out of the way or you may be in for a rude awakening. Even just a motorbike can cause problems when it’s on the edge of the roadway instead of completely off it. Stopping anywhere you feel like also happens in Phnom Penh, where I saw drivers everywhere double parking, causing minor jams. Cambodia’s cities were not built for the automobile, so as the number of cars in the country ramps up there’ll be gridlock and chaos. The problem will also be exacerbated by the large multistory buildings filling up the center city since they will be drawing large numbers of cars. Even if they provide parking spaces to residents, there’ll still be a lot more traffic.

The government is working on traffic legislation. One proposal is establish a minimum driving age of 18 for cars and 15 for motorbikes. Sounds reasonable enough, but if the moto age restriction is ever enforced here in Kampot there’ll be lots of very disappointed little kiddies who you can see bopping around on their little bikes. I see them as young as 6 or 7 years old. While they may be fully capable in a technical sense of handling their Chalys or what have you, they have almost no sense of safe driving practices and will cut corners, snake around traffic and pull in front of vehicles without thinking, not to mention often drive very fast. And of course it’s very rare to see one wearing a helmet. Personally, I’d be scared to death to have a little kid of mine out in traffic with all the crazies out there doing cowboy tricks on the road.

Also the PM has ordered that drivers of motorbikes with 125cc or less engines be exempt from having a driver’s license. I’m sure everybody who drives one of those little bikes – what we call scooters in the west – was happy to hear that, but what about the need to know the traffic rules? For that there’s no substitute than passing a test.

One of my driving pet peeves is how motorists will stop their cars at night but leave the headlights on, including when they’re facing the wrong direction. It’s very disconcerting when you’re facing bright lights on your side of the road. Didn’t anybody teach them what parking lights, sometimes called running lights are for? You want people to know you’re there, you don’t want to blind them.

And let me reiterate, when you’re out walking at night, especially if you’re going to be on a road that’s not well lit, you need to wear something white or light colored even if you think all black is more stylish, because otherwise you are invisible to drivers until they get very close. I usually drive slowly, but I do get distracted at times and old eyes generally lose some of their night vision so you really want me to see you far in advance, not have to swerve out of the way at the last minute.

A large scale drug crackdown is in force here in Cambodia, maybe sparked or inspired by the Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous assault on small time users and dealers. Summary execution for selling a few nickel bags of meth to fund your addiction? Or just using? No evidence, no trial, no lawyer, no opportunity to claim your innocence? He even bragged about participating in a few extrajudicial murders himself while mayor of Davao in the southern island of Mindanao. The result of 18 years of his tenure as an anti-drugs anti-crime mayor?: Davao has one of the highest murder rates in the country, in a country where violent crime is rife. And all those bloody murders where official numbers show the country has 4 million ‘addicts’, which mysteriously grew from only 1.3 million just a couple years ago. That would be a lot in Cambodia which has 15 million people, but the Philippines has more than 100 million, so at most a minor irritant. Also, rumor has it that Duterte is addicted to prescription pain killers, so if true, a hypocrite besides.

Other countries in the region maintain a mandatory death sentence for relatively small amounts of drugs: In Malaysia and Singapore 15 grams of heroin or 200 grams of pot qualify for the death penalty. Talking to a Malaysian a few years back, he said that traffickers figure if they’re going to die for a small amount, they might as well do large amounts.

With the advanced world moving towards looser, more humanitarian attitudes towards drugs, this type of crack down is an insanely regressive move.

Instead of education and harm reduction, people are getting draconian sentences. A friend knows a woman who was duped by a boyfriend into carrying a kilo of meth and got 27 years. A truck driver who got $100 for moving a ton of marijuana got life in prison. Another woman duped by a boyfriend into importing 2 kilos of cocaine also got life. He kept pressuring her until she gave in. She had no idea what she was transporting. She aroused suspicion by not having any check-in baggage. These are not the big fish, but merely couriers. In a country where murder sometimes only gets 15 to 20 years, a travesty of justice.

The place to start easing up is of course ganja. With nine American states making recreational pot totally legal and another 20 or so making medical weed legal; Uruguay legalizing pot and others loosing up, there’s no reason whatever for going after pot here in Cambodia, especially with the anomaly of ganja being quasi-legal for happy pizzas. Colorado, the first state to make it legal, is getting twice as much in taxes from pot as from alcohol. With surrounding countries on drug killing sprees, it’d be hard for Cambodia to buck the trend, but it would nonetheless be wise to try, since an open attitude would be good for the country and for tourism. It costs a lot of money to nab, prosecute and imprison drug offenders. And it costs society a lot in peace and security when a large scale underground business in contraband flourishes, bringing crime and corruption.

Cambodia is already the easiest place to smoke weed in the region and there are no discernable negative impacts on the country from the drug itself; that is, aside from its illegality. In the same way that Cambo makes it easy and is tolerant of all types of people living here, having a gentle touch with marijuana would only be good for tourism and drawing expats.

The key to minimizing use of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, whatever is education. Tobacco is the perfect example. When I was a kid in the forties and fifties around 70% of adults smoked and lots of kids too, considering I started at 12. Tobacco advertising was everywhere, including on TV and so many adults smoked that it was difficult for them to tell you not to. Camel advertising claimed ‘9 out of 10 doctors prefer Camels’. I once had an old advertising sign from Old Gold cigs that said ‘Not a cough in a carload.’ Filters didn’t come into use until the late 50s. The tobacco companies tried to convince people that their product was harmless decades after everyone knew inherently that it was dangerous. We kids were aware of its dangers back in the fifties: we referred to cigarettes as coffin nails.

Now after many years of research debunking the industry’s obfuscating and clouding the issue of health problems associated with smoking, restricting of advertising and widespread education, the percentage of smokers is down below 20%. Tobacco is so cheap here in Cambo that a lot of expats will smoke here but not when they return to their home countries where it can be very expensive.

I believe everybody has a right to their own poison; it’s your choice. The only important point on that score is to know your poison. Some people justify their addiction saying they like it and don’t care if they don’t live as long. Unfortunately for them it’s not that simple. If you could enjoy your habit for three or four decades and then die nice and quickly, that’d be one thing, but generally when your cells turn cancerous you die a slow and terribly painful death, wasting away to nothing. That could happen when you are in your fifties or sixties when you still might have had decades of good living to go. When I was in my teens and people warned me about smoking, I would haughtily declare that I was going to enjoy life now and wasn’t worried about the future and as long as I lived to the year 2000 (when I’d be 59) I’d be happy. Well the year 2000 is long gone and I’m still having a great time and getting a kick out of life.

It took an extreme effort to quit 35 years ago, and it’s certainly made all the difference. I quit by overdoing it, sometimes called immersion therapy. Most of the time I smoked it was cheap, harsh, unfiltered, roll-your-own cigs. When that was combined with smoking pot for the last 14 years I smoked tobacco, it got so I was coughing all the time. Smoking both at the same time is much worse than either one individually. I couldn’t attend meetings or such without disrupting them.

I’d known from past experience that there were times I was so sick I positively could not take a single hit, so I purposely made myself sick. I smoked one after another non-stop of that cheap tobacco. When I finished the package, I started rolling the butts and then the butts of the butts until I felt so bad the thought of a single puff was so repulsive, I stopped. That was 35 years ago and I haven’t had a hit since, except for mistakenly smoking mixed joints.

The point being, whatever the addiction, tobacco, drugs, alcohol, gambling, it’s the individual’s responsibility, with whatever education, guidance or rehab efforts the state can provide. In that scenario, the damage and cost to the society and individual is far less than the kind of repression that happens now.

Besides, the whole anti-drug thing is stinkingly hypocritical. In Singapore, you can kill yourself with tobacco or alcohol, you can eat yourself to death, you can gamble away your family’s future in the local casinos, but if you smoke a joint you get locked away. A couple years back a Singaporean couple returning from a vacation in Australia were drug tested and since they’d smoked pot in Oz and pot lasts 30 days in your system they spent two years in prison for their terrible transgressions.

 

Standard
Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

Five Rooms a Day

 

 

According to a friend, five new hotel rooms are opening every day in Kampot. He himself was responsible for two days. Other people I know are doing the same, so the little burg is on a roll. It’s December and lots of people are around, a far cry from September and October when the town was deserted. Still the question is whether the boom is on track or ahead of itself, expanding more rapidly than the trade warrants. It’s still all cool, all groovy and mostly on the side of improvement, rather than downhill sliding.

There’s a new $2 billion plus development announced for south of town with villas, condos, a marina… you know top-of-the-line, except a little research shows the outfit proposing it is a telephone number and not much else. Still, a ghastly prospect, but the comfortable class need homes too, don’t they? Wouldn’t want them to sleep on the street.

Right near by, about 10 km from town is the new $18 million passenger port under construction. According to the Asian Development Bank which is funding it, it’ll serve about 1000 passengers a day between Kampot and Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island, other ports in Cambodia – Koh Rong, Sihanoukville, Koh Kong – and Thai islands. In 2014 Phu Quoc had 128,000 international tourists and while I couldn’t find the numbers, I’m sure the vast majority arrived by plane. Maybe 100 per day currently arrive by ferry, so not much to justify that big port. However, Vietnam is predicting a tripling of tourist arrivals by 2020, which seems quite fanciful to me, but anyway lets triple that number to 300. Maybe also just having the port there will be an attraction and that by itself will add a few hundred more travelers. Any kind of sea travel will be more expensive than other modes, but it ought to be a fun trip taking the boat to Snooky. Still looks like a boondoggle to me, but I’ve been wrong before, so we shall see.

As part of the trend towards ‘big ideas’ a large and interestingly done night market is soon to open north of town past the new bridge. It’ll have more than 100 merchandise booths and 60 food booths on a long piece of land that reaches all the way to the river. It’s done well, looks good, so might be successful, though it seems out of place there all by itself. It’s very close to my place which is on a road perpendicular to river road so once they repair my road there may be some bit of traffic going by. When I first moved in 9 years ago – 9 years in the same rental house! – the road was a backwater with wetlands, including two large lotus ponds, dominating. Now almost all the water features have gone and it’s nowhere near as pleasant, however being a one block road, it’s never likely to have really busy. Thankfully so because I’ve created a wonderful garden there over the years and can’t move even if I wanted… though the world being as crazy as it is, it’s folly to plan too far ahead.

In addition the Kampot nurses school which backs up to my place has just constructed a large three story structure which replaced grand old eucalyptus trees. In place of those tall trees swaying in the breeze I now see lots of classrooms overlooking my place.

The cruise boats are still not running since the temporary halt was ordered after 4 people died on a severely overcrowded vessel about a month ago. They’re still trying to work out some new safety rules, I guess. That’s sort of how things happen in Cambo. Everything is loose, freewheeling and unregulated until a problem surfaces that requires government intervention.

In a similar case, a longtime and well-liked Phnom Penh expat met an untimely death as part of a Mekong boat cruise because of lax safety rules. The way they work it there when there are several boats needing to dock they stack them up side by side and you jump from one to the other to get off. Unfortunately the gap, evidently, was too wide and he fell in. Contrary to my first impression he wasn’t a drinker, so that wasn’t a factor in his death, though I’m sure most people do have a few beers as part of a cruise. That event probably won’t bring changes to the rules, but a few more might shake the government dragon into action.

Another serious nighttime accident has happened on the riverside in the vicinity of Bokor Mt. Lodge stemming from speeding, drunkenness, both or just plain negligence. It was the fourth one in two years. As I understand it, a large car pulling out into traffic was hit by a motorbike, giving the bike rider a cracked skull with some of his brains hanging out of it. The guy in the car probably pulled out without looking first or if he had looked the biker must’ve been coming along too fast to stop in time. And of course no helmet. While I noticed almost everyone wearing a helmet in Phnom Penh last time I was there, here it’s only about 20 or 30% that do.

Part of the problem is the ease of speeding at night, especially from the south where there is no congestion and clear sailing for more than a kilometer, at which time you hit a lot of congestion in a small area. Once you are going fast it’s hard to slow down, even if you are aware of the danger, but also there’re a lot of people who run through town like a bullet with cars sometimes going more than 100 kph and motorbikes as fast as they will go. River road is planned to be a major road from Kep past the new port and through to Teuk Chhou upstream near the dam. In it’s new parts it’s wide, but right in town it bottlenecks. Western city planners would tackle the problem with ‘traffic calming’ concepts. In this case one solution would be rumble strips on the road like the one’s used to denote schools. That’s one way to get people to slow down. Speed bumps could be a problem, since if you’re not aware of them and you are going very fast, there could be a serious result. As the number of businesses increases on the strip, along with increased congestion, more casualties are certain.

Traffic calming is also needed to tamp down on early evening cruising by young people. Eighty percent of the traffic on riverside at that time is just youth going back and forth with a lot of speeding and dicey moves for showing off. At one point they actually blocked off part of the road to prevent cruising, but it caused more hassles than it solved.

Madi Bar on the river was closed for renovations last August but the new owner of the building didn’t want it there so it was closed permanently. It was the place to go on Thursday nights for live music and dancing for more than 5 years and is sorely missed by this old boogie-woogie man. Chiet, the owner and lead singer for the Kampot Playboys will probably do something similar at his new place, Orchid G.H. on what we call guest house street since there’re about 8 on a short stretch of road.

Karma Traders, a new guest house north of town past the railroad tracks, attracts 50 to 100 people on music nights… just opened and crowded already. Moi Tiet near the river gets a lot of people on its music nights. Now that it’s high season, there are lots of people around so a lot more exciting than back in the rainy months when the place was often dead. Billabong GH has a Sunday afternoon session with music at 5 pm. They’ve got a pool so good fun on a lazy Sunday. A small Sunday afternoon market with music from several people was held at the Pond GH. Lots of people showed up, tots to geezers, and a good time was had by all.

We had quite a bit of rain here in mid-December, so much on one day that it felt just like September. What a contrast to last year, when it hardly rained in November and then almost nothing till May. Last year was an El Nino year, a warming of the Pacific meaning we tend to get dry weather. Now we are in a mild La Nina, a cooling of the Pacific so plenty of moisture is about right. We get some rain every month including December, but 100 mm in three days was a bit much. Nice thing about the rain now is that it keeps the temperatures way down.

There are rumblings out of the government that they’re working on a new law related to alcohol consumption. Supposedly it’ll take in the questions of drinking age, taxes and advertising.

Can you imagine a drinking age of 21 in Cambodia? Sometimes laws should be aspirational, but really, it makes no sense to have laws that are unrealistic and unenforceable, not to mention stupid. Like in America where at 18 you can join the army and be sent off to war to kill people and blow things up, dance buck naked in a strip bar and stick your pussy right in a guy’s face, be a star athlete making millions of dollars, but you can’t have a beer until you’re 21. You can be inundated with a barrage of ads on TV extolling the virtues of drinking – Wow look at all those happy people drinking beer! – but you can only watch from the sidelines and long for the day you’re old enough to drink. By preventing, or trying to prevent, young people from drinking, you only encourage them to binge whenever they have the chance.

Increasing taxes on alcoholic beverages seems like a good idea, but it too has many pitfalls. First it falls most heavily on the poorest people. There are a lot of dangers and problems associated with drinking, but it’s as old as civilization because it’s also an elixir that eases the tensions in life, helps you forget your troubles and loosens you up to enjoy yourself and have a good time. Sure, it has to be done in moderation lest it damages you physically. You also have to be wary of addiction, but increasing the price only makes poor people who need it to keep their psychological balance poorer and sometimes causes them to turn to very cheap unregulated homemade alcohol like the tainted rice wine that recently killed 15 people and hospitalized another 100 in a provincial village.

The other factor mitigating against raising taxes on alcohol is tourism and the expat community. People come to Cambodia for many reasons but it sure helps that beer is so cheap, especially since restaurant food here is a bit more expensive than our neighbors. How many places will you find a mug of beer for a dollar and even less during happy hours?

It makes a difference to this expat – and I’m sure many others – that I can go out nearly every night and have a few beers without breaking the bank. A lot of our social life – mine for sure – revolves around the bars. I spend most of my days by myself so I greatly look forward to hanging out at night and shooting the shit with friends and travelers. The contrast to how my life would be back in the states couldn’t be more stark since there I’d be spending five or six nights at home drinking by myself being bored silly, like I am now when I stay home even though it’s only once or twice a week.

The third part of the proposed new legislation is advertising. While I consider beery delights close to essential to a good life, it’s never something that should be encouraged. People don’t need to be convinced by slick advertising to drink. If anything the opposite should be true, public service ads should be warning of drinking to excess. Alcohol advertising is especially pernicious here since it’s practically ubiquitous. Everywhere you go there are large, ultra-tacky, ugly as sin, lighted beer signs. In places where bars are concentrated that’s all you see. In bar strips in Thailand, every one has unique and sometimes artistic signage, in Cambo, crap, because all you see is beer advertising, there’s no art whatever. Bar owners do it because the signs are free, but they don’t do much to advertise the bar because the bar’s name is actually very small. After you provide the art, a sign of equal size only costs fifty dollars. It’s good to know what beer the place has on tap, but that can easily be done without a big ugly sign.

The other thing that needs to go are pull tab cans. Once again drinking should not in any way be encouraged, but also those tabs are a nuisance and are sharp enough to cut easily. They’re also not often recycled. They don’t weigh much but hundreds of millions start to add up. They were banned in Oregon in 1973 because people were getting their feet cut up walking on the beach. Just before Cambodia beer was introduced five years ago the government announced a ban on them, but Cambo beer had started with them and it was new, and I’m sure the Khmer owner is an influential man, so the government folded and now there’re lots of beers doing the same thing. Education is key to minimizing damage from alcohol, but it’d be somewhat futile if people are bombarded with seductive advertising at the same time.

On a political front, Kem Sokha, second in command but de facto leader of the opposition since Sam Rainsy is in exile, was pardoned by the PM in a surprise move. Five members of  Ad hoc, an advocacy group now in prison are also supposed to be pardoned. Their imprisonment is widely perceived to be politically motivated.

The PM generally has strategic motives behind these moves, but it’s hard to figure why he’d do this now, though he can always find a reason to throw Sokha back in the slammer, if he wants. His jailing and the others is based on the accusation of bribing his former mistress with $500 to deny the affair. The reasoning was that she needed the money since she was unable to work while so much bad energy was afoot.

For the investigation they brought in the Anti-corruption Unit as well as the police. Meanwhile the ACU had no interest in investigating a $500,000 bribe given to the Health minister by a bed net supplier. The ACU has succeeded in going after corruption in many instances, but impunity for certain of the well connected is clearly its failing. With elections coming up there could be turmoil, but regardless of the bad omens I’m hoping for calm and acceptance of the results whatever the outcome. I know, wishful thinking.

 

Standard
Kampot, Cambodia

Kampot Writers and Readers Festival

 

The second annual writers festival was a great success with lots of people coming from all over Cambodia and sometimes beyond to take part. Similar to the first one at least 500 people showed up and filled the town’s hotels and guest houses.

There were a couple dozen venues and nearly 90 separate events which included music, dance and art as well as writing. Highlights included the opening ceremony at the Kampot Traditional Arts School where the local governor, diplomats and important figures spoke, Nerd Night at the Fish Market upscale restaurant where the house was packed with nerdy talkers and listeners and closing night music at the streetside stage in front of KAMA, Kampot Arts and Music Association, where Julien Poulson, main organizer of the event holds sway.

The evening program at the stage began with the Bokor Mountain Magic Band which after a shaky start showed some solid chops, a really tight sound. Their lead singer, good as her voice was, had some fine dance moves, I was very impressed.

That was followed by Carlos Andres Gomez, a master storyteller, who ad libbed a beautiful message taken from disparate keywords from the audience.  He prompted the audience for the first word; creative came up. Last word was moist. An audience member came up with one theme: living in Cambodia, a second theme was Donald Trump. Difficult as that may sound, it took him less than 30 seconds to start to weave a tale about all of us being together here in Cambo and how we’re creating a new life in our adopted homeland, etc. I forgot how he got Trump in there, but it really worked. His message was so inspirational that at one point he called for people to come forward near the stage and quite a few did. He wasn’t even intending for them to do that, he was just riffing on his story.  Gomez could clean up as a cult leader, live high off the hog, I hope he’s never tempted.

The Kampot Playboys finished the night and as usual filled the dance floor, which as it happened wasn’t in the best condition. While many of our streets have been upgraded recently, it was a sordid mess in front of the stage with the road partly broken up into gravel and due to an unfortunately timed and smallish but significant rain, there was a nice big puddle right in the center of the dancing area. Didn’t stop people from showing their stuff and having a good time.

A highlight for me was the presence of Kingdom beer. It hadn’t been around Kampot for quite a long time, but they brought some down for the festival to try to get the ball rolling again. The good part was they didn’t want to haul any back so they sold off everything they had left for a dollar. What a treat, excellent beer.

Unfortunately the festival didn’t seem to be as organized as last time. It is a big and very complicated event, so some slack is in order. But still, no big beautiful schedule, only a simple one printed on white paper and Thursday’s wasn’t even ready on time. Also in many cases there was no or not much description of what was taking place. And timing was way off at times

I had a very disappointing Saturday night. I saw Nerd Night on the schedule with no accompanying details, but figured it had to be right for me. I got there half hour after it was supposed to start, but absolutely nothing was happening so I headed down to the Mad Monkey where a band I wanted to hear was playing. I hadn’t been there before so I thought it was a good opportunity to check the place out. It’s a backpacker haunt so not a place I would normally go. I got there, but no band. I wandered back to the heart of town and did a few ordinary things. There were quite a few people drinking beer at KAMA later that night so it wasn’t a total loss. It was only the next day that I found out that Nerd Night at the Fish Market didn’t get started until the time it was supposed to end and it was packed and a really good time was had by all… so not pleased about that.

The highlight for me personally was a session entitled ‘Writers on Acid’ involving myself and two other writers. I was surprised by the title they had bestowed upon the session, though having partaken plenty in the distant past, it wasn’t totally out of place. All three of us had asked to be on the agenda for quite some time, but our requests had gotten lost in the confusion and disorganization so staff compensated by lumping us all together. Which turned out fine, all together we got 18 to 20 people to attend; it might have been mighty sparse doing it separately.

In addition to myself, there was Todd Fahey who’s written a novel titled ‘Wisdom’s Maw’. It describes the part the CIA had in the early days of the spread of LSD. He’s done his homework and describes in novel form the participation of Aldous Huxley and lots of other memorable icons in the CIA program called MK Ultra which was intended to find drugs they could use to control people’s minds. He transitions from Huxley to the beats to the hippies to tell the long story. It was good.

Also there was James Newman who’s written a series of books that take place in a moderately dystopian near future in ‘Fun City’, a tawdry place on the order of Pattaya or Angeles City. It goes noir in lots of directions, makes you smile and is worthy of a read.

Together we talked about psychedelics in general, the effects on us and our books. While I’m still incredulous, Todd says he actually wrote while tripping. I had some good ideas while tripping, but getting them onto paper – last time for me was 44 years ago, so being before computers, paper was it – would’ve been an unimaginable task.

While I’m on the subject it must be time for me to plug my own books. Mine weren’t written on acid, but it certainly laid the background for both my novel Y3K and my memoir A Hitchhiker’s Tao. Y3K takes place in the waning months of 2999. It’s primarily a look back from then to the environmental breakdown – which I refer to as Entropy Gaia – that’s about to befall our planet and the Ecotopia that the people who are left create out of the ashes. It includes a faithful description of my five years living in a commune in the mountains of southwest Oregon, updated to the future of course, and an exploration of mysticism, the belief that all things are connected and all are represented in the cosmic mind, the repository of all knowledge, past and future. The experience of acid is the closest most of us will come to feeling that connection.

My memoir, A Hitchchiker’s Tao; subtitled Thumbing Your Way to Enlightenment, covers the same topics as Y3K except themed on my extensive hitching experience. Between 1968 and 1980 I did 60,000 to 70,000 miles on the road and about half that was without money. I was out on my thumb for weeks at a time, including in very cold weather where I might not have made it if not for the generosity of strangers. I wouldn’t hitch without money today if I had a choice, but I know I can stick out my thumb and go anywhere I need to strictly on cosmic largesse… well okay, in America at least. Either way, with or without money, that’s what it’s all about; when you’re hitching you are at the mercy of the cosmos. It might take one minute for the next ride or a whole day. You have to learn to deal with uncertainty and have faith that it all works out. Y3K and A Hitchhiker’s Tao are available as ebooks.

There’s rumblings in the community about how the festival was conducted with many people feeling that it needs to be a community effort with a lot more transparency. While it was a remarkable achievement under any circumstances a lot of people were left unhappy about the procedure and determined to change it for next year.

Meanwhile Kampot has become the go-to place for expats and Cambodians when they want to escape the big Penh. Last September on Pchum Bun holiday Kampot saw its worst traffic jam since the new bridge was built in 2010. Traffic was backed up for about 300 meters in town heading for the bridge and all the way to the traffic circle on the Sihanoukville side. Kampot traffic police, never having had the challenge before, stood dumbfounded while vehicles locked up at the traffic circle. It took maybe an hour to get through the jam. Along the road from the big city vehicles were moving but there was hardly a break for many kilometers.

This all created a very crowded riverside and the problem was duplicated at the water festival though the jam wasn’t nearly as bad. A very unfortunate trend has taken over the riverside which likely started with the Fish Market restaurant.  It’s the only private property on the river in the middle of 3 kilometers of riverside promenade. The owner of the restaurant set up the front of his place with car and moto parking in such a way that pedestrians now have to go out into the street to get through. There should’ve been a requirement to maintain a place for people to walk.

There are now half dozen cruise and/or restaurant boats parked on the river, most of them garishly lit. They bring visual pollution and block the view for people who want to sit on the river and take in the peaceful aspects of the water. These boats draw a lot of people and maybe with the example of the Fish Market, many people are parking their cars in the promenade transforming a park in to a parking lot. In addition to seriously detracting from the walking experience, having big vehicles in the park damages the pavement and tree roots.

The area just south of the old bridge was the first section of the park to be improved and was done with very low curbs. In most of the later sections the curbs are very high preventing anyone from driving into the park.

There’s talk of forcing the boats down river where it’s much less crowded, but that probably won’t happen soon. Meanwhile people are furiously building new boats to take advantage of the boom in visitors, so it may be impossible to see the river soon with the coming of high season and lots more boats.

The above was written before a tragic accident happened on a tour boat that became grounded. Because of the holiday and influx of visitors the boats have regularly been overcrowded like the one that went down was: it had 80 people on it when it was only built for 50. They were on a nighttime ‘firefly’ cruise and on their return with a very low tide the boat hit a sandbank which tipped it over a bit causing some people to fall into the water. After that lots of people panicked and jumped in the river. Four people wound up dying. The government is banning all cruises for a few days until they draw up some safety rules.

Went to my first air guitar competition. I hadn’t thought much of the idea, but friends were going and it was held at The Pond where my bday party was held, so I stopped by. It was great fun, I had no idea, laughed my ass off. I was too shy to participate this time, but next time I’ll be practicing my air chops and be ready to sweep the competition.

A band called G. C. Riders came to town from their base in S-ville. They said they’d only been together a month, but it sounded like they’d been making music together forever. And what a disparate crew. Vocalist and rhythm guitar is from Australia, drummer from Estonia, bass from Indonesia and lead from Denmark. They started out with Hendrix’s Watchtower: I marveled at the lead guitar’s abilities, I dare say, practically as good as Hendrix himself. The others were all pretty good, but I thought him the exceptional one until the bass player did a 10 minute solo doing tricks on the axe like I’ve never seen before: he used all ten fingers playing it like a harp. Highly recommended.

The Bugger II saga is hopefully over; that is, the hassle of driving a car you think might blow up at any moment. It was more than 5 months from the time it was totaled till just recently when I finally got the second one working properly. I was a big hassle at times riding the bicycle home in the late hours. Now that the car is in working order I won’t be doing that very often. In some ways I’ll miss it: it’s not that big a deal, only about a mile. I don’t even mind getting wet and I can always use the exercise. But there are two exceptions, the first is the Kampot dogs of midnight. No matter how many times you do it and how well prepared you are with rocks to throw at them, there’s always a tension and nervousness involved in running the dog gauntlet, especially since a friend was bitten recently.

The other problem is the last 60 meters to my house. Almost all the way home the road is fine, you can go fast to try to outrun the dogs and when you’re moving, the bicycle light is bright. However when you have a roadway that’s mud intermixed with mud puddles and you’ve been drinking and there’s no moon and your light is barely working because you are moving very slowly, well disaster for sure. Last time I did it I fell down in the mud and dislodged my chain in the process and had to walk through a small pond to get to my house. Once that road is upgraded I’ll ride the bike again sometimes, I promise.  You do get lazy when you have a car, but I promise I’m going back to the bike on occasion. Besides, rainy season is almost over, it won’t be as bad as the road dries up.

 

Standard
Election 2016, Hillary Clinton, Trump

Taking Stock

 

The unthinkable has happened. A racist, misogynist, blowhard with no experience and a very thin skin is America’s next president. There are a lot of reasons why this has taken place, but first all we should recognize that Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 million and votes are still being counted. Not only that but voter suppression laws passed by 17 Republican states undoubtedly cost Clinton many more possible votes. In Wisconsin, for instance, Trump won by 17,000 votes, but a study has shown that the state’s strict voter ID law prevented 300,000 people from voting. Since the whole idea is to suppress the Democratic vote, it’s virtually certain she would’ve won the state. The polls saying she was going to win were correct.

Then there’s the manipulation of voting machines. As stated previously, many American states have privatized their elections. They give contracts to private companies to provide the machines and count the votes. Most of those companies are owned by Republicans, they leave no paper trail and the source code is proprietary. The courts have thus ruled that the people have no right to see the code, so those companies can do whatever they want. The first case of that type of election fraud happened in the first senate race of Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska about 20 years ago. He was behind in all the polls, but won a landslide victory in the election. He even won in black precincts that had never voted Republican before and I guarantee you never would. Only later it turned out that Hagel was part owner of the company that ran the election. Analysis of voting stats from Pennsylvania in this election shows that Clinton won 7% fewer votes in precincts that used machines compared to those that used paper ballots, enough to swing the election in her favor. Now add Michigan which is still too close to call. It wouldn’t have taken much there in the way of election fraud to make it close rather than in Clinton’s pocket. With the above three states she would’ve carried the electoral college.

The are other tactics Republicans have used to steal elections. Many states work to prevent voting by sharply reducing the number of places to obtain ID and reducing the number of precincts. Much of that came as a result of the conservative Supreme Court gutting the 50-year-old voting rights act. Under that act states with a history of suppressing minority voting had to get approval to change voting rules. Now they’re free to suppress all they want.

Another favorite ploy of the right is to provide inadequate numbers of voting machines in likely Democratic precincts. Many times in the same county voters in suburban areas likely to vote Republican are in and out in 15 or 20 minutes while voters in inner city or student precincts have to wait for many hours to vote. Ohio was famous for that in the 2004 election of Bush vs. Kerry when some people waited as much as 8 hours to vote.

There are other reasons both legitimate and illegitimate that Trump is president-elect. To finish up the illegitimate, The Republicans have a long history of dishonest, unethical harassment and obstruction, especially of the Clintons. In the nineties Bill Clinton was impeached over lying about a blow job, a question he should never have been asked. It all started over the Repubs hiring a special prosecutor over a small-time failed real estate development called Whitewater in which the Clintons lost $90,000. With no mandate to expand the inquiry he came upon Bill’s dallying in the White House. Clinton was acquitted in the Senate with the help of a few honest Republicans.

Contrast that with G.W. Bush who lied to justify a war of aggression leading to the deaths of thousands of US troops and about one million Iraqis, not to mention displacing millions, he approved torture which against US and international law and is a reprehensible act under any and all circumstances, and the army under his tenure used depleted uranium bombs in Iraq which have left a legacy of babies being born deformed to this day. That’s what impeachment is for: egregious acts, not consensual blow jobs.

That has carried on to Hillary’s time. Republicans held eight hearings on Bengazi where five Americans were killed. In spite of all those hearings she was never indicted or found guilty of anything. Republican leaders made it clear they were using those hearings as a political tool to hurt and harass her. And then there’s her emails. Emails, emails, emails, over and over and over. Finally 10 days before the election, FBI director Comey, a Republican stupidly put in office by Obama, announced he was opening another investigation of emails pertaining to Clinton. Except in this case they weren’t sent by her or received by her and he didn’t even know what was in them when he made the announcement. In fact they were emails between disgraced ex-congressman Anthony Weiner and his ex-wife, a confidante of Clinton. They had nothing to do with her, but that tipped the balance nonetheless. Hermann Goering, Hitler’s information minister was famously quoted as saying if you tell a lie often enough the people will believe you, and that’s exactly what happened.

On the other hand she was a flawed, tainted candidate from the start. It doesn’t matter that many of the attacks against her were unfair and unjustified. It doesn’t matter that many of those attacks involved lies and distortions, she has a long, difficult history and those defamations were going to stick. Besides, she was the quintessential establishment candidate when many people were desperate for change. She earned $12 million giving one hour speeches at $200,000+ a pop to the banksters and elite. She represented the failed policies of neoliberalism that for 30 years had driven down the lifestyles of the bottom 60% to 70% of Americans. She was strongly in favor of pending trade deals until forced to change her stance because of Sanders and Trump. She’s a military interventionist. She waffled and changed and was inconsistent in her politics.

On the other hand she was fine on social issues: abortion rights, gay rights, civil rights, health care, Medicare, Social Security, all the things the common people depend on for quality of life, and which will be trashed by Trump. Not to mention she’s not a racist.

In some ways, just thinking strategically, it’s better that Trump won. If she had won after Trump saying the vote was rigged and he wouldn’t accept the result if he didn’t win and his frequent calls to violence and second amendmenters to take up arms, there would’ve been terrible unrest and probable violence. The Repubs would’ve tried to make her life unbearable, harassing and obstructing and screaming bloody murder non-stop. The Republican house would’ve impeached her on the flimsiest of excuses. The macabre political circus would’ve been unending.

Now we have all Republicans all the time. They’ve got control of everything. The only leverage that the Dems have is the filibuster in the Senate. Thankfully, Senator Warren is a fighting firebrand who won’t give an inch. Add Bernie and a few others and they’ll be able to hold back some of the worst that the Repubs have to offer. Otherwise they’ll have no-one to blame when their regressive and sometimes catastrophic policies are brought to bear.

Take their obsession with Obamacare: The house voted more than fifty times in the last session of congress to repeal it: It was an empty gesture since it was certain even if it made it through the Senate, Obama would veto it. In six years time of threatening to end it, they’ve never come up with an alternative. That’s because Obamacare is the conservative alternative. It was designed by the Heritage Institute, a far right think tank. Obama was too timid to do health care properly with a single payer system that polls say is favored by about 70% of the people, because he feared the power of the insurance and pharma industries was so strong he’d never get it passed. So what happens if they now stick to their promise and repeal it? 22 million people lose their insurance; it’s poor quality, but it’s something.

Paul Ryan, speaker of the house wants to privatize Medicare, which he can now try to do with all seats of power in Repub hands. This is a program that’s liked by almost everyone who’s on it. It regularly is approved by 80 to 90% of seniors. Even Tea Party seniors love their single-payer, socialized Medicare: There’s a famous picture that floated around the lefty internet of an old guy at a Tea Party protest who was holding a sign that said, ‘Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare’. In place of an exceedingly simple system where everybody is automatically covered, he’ll give people a voucher so they can go buy coverage from hated,  despised, insurance companies. That’ll go over with a resounding thud and one thing is guaranteed, geezers vote.

Trump is going to bring good jobs back to the rust belt. How’s he going to do that? Well, he’ll slap a 45% tariff on goods from China and 35% on goods from Mexico. I absolutely agree that China is screwing America on trade. The deficit this year is $360 billion. That’s a lot of jobs shipped overseas. Most establishment economists say that China’s currency is now not being manipulated, I don’t agree. Just last year when their stock markets were crashing, they immediately devalued the Yuan. When they let it float on the international markets, I’ll accept that. They can do other things to reduce its value, but at least it won’t be direct manipulation.

Since most of the consumer goods sold in the US are produced in China the immediate effect of Trump’s 45% tariff would be a steep rise in the cost of living. Sure, before too long other countries – like Cambodia in areas where it’s competitive – would begin to take up the slack, but the Chinese industrial powerhouse is so vast it’d take years for others to ramp up production. Yes, manufacturers would return to America but the jobs wouldn’t be the high paying jobs of the past, that was from unionization, which conservatives have worked very hard to suppress. They’d pay $10 or $12 an hour and their goods would still be more expensive than those now being imported from China. Inflation would be rampant and all but the 1% would suffer.

He wants a new simplified tax system, which is code for the rich paying a lot less and the middle paying more. The 1%, .1%, .01% are already doing so well, they literally have too much, they are distorting the system, damaging the economy. The cuts he proposes will have absolutely no effect on creating jobs. The deficit will increase by $700 billion a year. Tax cuts and huge deficits are a Republican compulsion. Carter left Reagan a balanced budget, he cut taxes massively and tripled the national debt. Clinton left Bush a nearly balanced budget; he cut taxes and also massively increased the deficit. The current deficit is very small compared to when Obama took office, but Trump will be sure load to it up again. Republicans actually like deficits because then can then claim there is no money for social programs.

Well how do we think the Trumpster will do in the big hot seat? He’s got an awfully thin skin and takes every criticism personally, but everyplace he goes in the US and the free world where people have the right to protest, they will, and loudly and forcefully. The insults and anger displayed towards him will be unending. He has upended the fundamental belief in an America where all people are respected and all try to coexist in harmony. Considering the US is now about 35% minority and those Americans are now feeling a virulent, vitriolic hostility towards themselves, they will fight back, and they’ll fight back alongside those many other Americans who value inclusiveness, empathy, tolerance and diversity. She won the popular vote. She was the people’s choice. She represents the values of the American people much closer than Trump does.

He’s going to be president, but he’s going to hate it.

To be continued.

 

 

 

Standard
Kampot, Cambodia, US Politics

Dreary October in Kampot

 

 

It’s been a dreary October so far with rain every day for almost three weeks. Some people are getting that old cabin fever feeling, except it’s so warm, getting out and wet seems no big deal. It’s not like when you were a kid and purposely went out to wade and splash in the heaviest rain, but once you’re out there caught in a torrent, What the hell? Of course having lived in western Oregon where it’s cloudy and/or rainy and cold – well, cool anyway – for at least six months a year and worked outdoors for much of that time, I barely notice the rain. Paradoxically, while it’s warm enough to not mind the rain, it’s generally cool compared to other seasons, so quite comfortable, even if humidity is very high.

Since I’ve become Kampot’s official, unofficial weatherman, I’ve taken on the burden of reporting from the web and keeping track of local stats. To that end I have a simple five dollar plastic rain gauge to measure precipitation. It can’t go wrong, not like one digital gauge I had which read way off. I’ve got a weather station with indoor and outdoor temperature and humidity and barometer. In order to get an accurate outdoor temp I have what’s called a Stevenson box. It’s a wood box with louvers on all sides to allow air to flow through. It’s painted white to reflect all sunlight and has a small roof over it to prevent direct overhead sun and it’s 1.3 meters off the ground to prevent radiant heat from the ground affecting the reading. I caught a lot of flack for my (incorrect) readings before I got the Stevenson.

I generally use Weather Underground website for predictions, not because it’s necessarily more correct, but because it’s easier to use and the site goes into technical details about big storms and such, not that I understand all that much about the science, but it’s just

kinda interesting to get a glimpse of the deeper aspects of the game. It’s easy enough to get an accurate anemometer – wind gauge – but I’m lazy about getting it high enough to get a proper reading.

The Weather Underground Kampot page frequently says ‘station offline’ anywhere from 1 hour to 70 hours. In fact, we do have a station here but it’s inoperable, so where then do they get their information from? I assume Phu Quoc since it has the closest functioning station, but being an island, the weather, especially temperature and wind speed, is going to be much different than Kampot which is about 9 kilometers inland. Large bodies of water moderate temperature. When it’s hot, Phu Quoc will be a little cooler than Kampot, which will be a little cooler than inland. When it’s cool the opposite happens, locations on or near water will be a little warmer.

Every year is strange or different or exceptional when it comes to weather: no two years can ever be the same. Still, this year so far has been an odd one. There was an exceptional drought until May when we got 300mm. June and July were relatively light, but August was very heavy at 378mm until the 22nd when a 2 week very hot dry spell began. Then September came in at the lowest since May. Very odd. October is charging back. On October 17 we received nearly 90mm in less than 2 hours and more than 100 overall that day. It was a record, at least since I got my rain gauge three years ago. October’s on track to be the heaviest month.

I’m currently trying to manifest a couple more rain gauges to place around town since other people sometimes report much heavier rains than I do, but since they don’t have regulation gauges, it’s all anecdotal and impossible to confirm. Better yet would be to have personal weather stations hooked up to Weather Underground’s international network. For a ‘mere’ $450 – the cost of a semi-professional Davis weather station – Someone here could put Kampot on the weather map.

There is great confusion as to Cambodian climate, even official publications sometimes get our climate all wrong. I have a map put out by a government agency which has a graph that shows August as the rainiest month nationwide with September half as much and October almost nothing, when in fact the latter two are generally the heaviest months. In Phnom Penh and other points north it’s October which is the heaviest month. Even here in Kampot, different websites have diverse statistics. Like one says August is heaviest and another October.

It’s hard to pin down variables by month with so many differing numbers but annually, they’re relatively consistent. Phnom Penh receives about 1.4 meters of rain a year, most areas in the north a bit less. Kep gets 2.2 meters, Kampot 2.4 meters. Sihanoukville gets 3.5 meters and Koh Kong beats all with 3.8 meters a year… soggy town.

I’ve become the go-to guy for predictions since I’ve become Stan the Weatherman, but I’m not a meteorologist, I just report what I see or read. However you don’t need a weatherman to know that stormy conditions are ahead around the region and the world.

Thailand’s king has died after years of spending most of his time in the hospital. Next in line, the crown prince has said he wants to wait a year before he takes up his responsibilities (he’s too busy being a royal playboy and ass). As opposed to Bhumipol who was revered, Vajiralongkorn is widely reviled, hardly anybody likes him, but because of Thailand’s very strict Lese Majeste law it’s not possible to comment in public. Criticizing anyone in the royal family is an easy 15 year sentence and the current military government has been very zealous in finding and prosecuting offenders. If I were in Thailand, having made the above comments, I might be in for rough times.

Many people I talk to here are concerned about or are predicting unrest. The generals seem to have the situation under control, but intense anger remains in the opposition camp over having their consistent electoral wins hijacked by the military, which is backed by the Bangkok elite. The opposition reds fought hard: they haven’t gone away and neither have their grievances, though the elite is starting to catch on to the need to serve the whole population. For instance, a loyalist interviewed on radio, when referring to Taksin’s low cost health care for villagers, said, It’s a bitter pill but we have to swallow it, referring to the need to adopt the same policy. The guy was in agony over having to match Taksin’s generosity to the peasantry: it was no longer politically possible to ignore the wider people’s needs.

The military got its new constitution passed, partly because no campaigning against it was allowed. It gives the military virtual veto power over legislation and it included an electoral system which makes it hard for a single party to win a majority. Taksin was the first and only leader to receive an absolute majority in the history of Thai elections and he or his party did it multiple times. Many expats who’ve spent time in Thailand despise Taksin and insist that he only won by buying votes, but I don’t buy it. He might’ve been the country’s richest person, but the Bangkok establishment aren’t exactly paupers either. What’s more, buying votes is a long Thai tradition. When I lived there, it was common knowledge that all the parties did it.

Repression only works so long, especially with a people so used to demonstrating and voicing their opinions. And with no king to calm things down, to prevent conflagration and confrontation, there may be some fireworks ahead on our western border.

As a lifetime lefty, I give Taksin a lot of credit for thinking about the masses. People who hate him say he only did it to gain power, that he really didn’t care. That may be true but regardless, he’s the first one to take their needs into account. Taksin haters should hate the ruling class; i.e., themselves, for being so stupid and clueless that it never occurred to them to think about the needs of the proletariat and the electoral advantage that would give them.

Taksin on the other hand was thoroughly corrupt: he had a special law enacted to allow him to sell his billion dollar telecom empire without paying taxes. He was also a mass murderer. The focus now is on Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines for extrajudicial killing of ‘drug dealers’ but Taksin wrote the playbook on that one. 2500 people were killed in the first few months of his administration. Say what you will about the awfulness of drugs and the need to suppress their use and distribution if you believe that’s appropriate, but when 2500 people die without benefit of a fair trial and the ability to defend themselves, you can be absolutely certain that somewhere between 5% and 20% were either innocent or guilty of crimes so insignificant they would at most net a short stint in jail or rehab in an advanced country. So then, how many good guys is it okay to kill for every 100 bad guys removed from society? Is there a point at which the sacrifice of good guys goes too far? What’s acceptable? One innocent for every 100 guilty? Ten for every 100? Twenty?  Is any number acceptable?

When Obama cautioned Duterte about his killing spree, the latter told Obama to butt out, said the Philippines wasn’t America’s colony anymore and called him what’s variously translated as a son of a bitch or son of a whore. In another tirade he told Obama to go to hell. He also said he didn’t care if 3 million died. Wow, only Hitler could claim a bigger genocide than that. The country’s drug office estimates there are 1.8 million addicts in the Philippines, not even 2% of the population. All that spilled blood for 2%.

Duterte toned down his murderous rhetoric very quickly after the head of the International Criminal Court suggested she was going to look into the situation there. Suddenly he didn’t know anything about it. Mass murder is a crime against humanity. Brought to trial he would likely spend the rest of his life in prison, and deserve every minute of it.

When a government spokesperson was asked, What about alcohol and gambling? He could only muster a blank stare. As if alcohol doesn’t cause more problems than illegal drugs. Besides it’s the illegality of drugs which causes most of the problems associated with them. If they were legal they’d cost a lot less and people who need them wouldn’t have to commit illegal acts to get their fixes. There’d be no gangs and mafia to run the trade. Gambling has destroyed many lives, turned many families into paupers. How about arresting people for being fat, obesity takes years off your lifespan.

America has its own Duterte, aka, Trump. And he could easily have become US president if he weren’t so much a boor, buffoon and serial abuser. I know I’m making an assumption here in the third week of October, but the composite polls have Hillary with a 96% chance of winning. She was at less than 60% chance about a month ago, but his awful first debate performance followed by his grossly inappropriate bragging about sexual abuse started the dive. The only other presidential candidate in the history of polling to achieve Trump’s abysmal approval ratings is Clinton, though she fares just a bit better, so if he were just halfway plausible presidential material he could’ve had it. Now with him whining about the election being rigged by the media and vote stealing by Hillary, thus firing up his base with barely veiled calls for violence, there could easily be turmoil after the election. Democrats were angry enough after Bush stole the 2000 election but liberals aren’t the type to take up arms.

Fact is, Hillary did steal primary elections: In the Massachusetts primary every precinct with hand counted ballots went for Bernie, every precinct with machines that can be manipulated went for her. In a state with more than 7000 precincts, astronomical odds. Anyway in a close race, she would’ve needed those thieving skills, because of the Repugs long history of election theft. The first Repug to steal an election was Chuck Hagel, senator from Nebraska. Leading up to the election the Dem was ahead in all the polls and was ahead in exit polls on election day. But he won in a landslide, even winning by a large margin in the state’s few African-American precincts, which had never voted Repug before. After the election it turned out he was part owner of the company that ran the election. Many elections in the US have been outsourced to the private sector. All the companies who run elections are owned by Repugs. Their machines leave no paper trail and the software code is proprietary so the people aren’t allowed to see how the machines work or if anything is amiss. A perfect scam and the decider of many recent elections.

As for the accusation of media bias, that’s rich coming from a candidate that was showered with free time during the primaries. ABCs nightly newscast devoted 82 minutes to Trump in 2015, while giving only 20 seconds to Sanders, even though Sanders drew more people to his events than any other candidate on either side. The CEO remarked that Trump might be bad for the country but he was great for the company’s bottom line, so he was happy to pump up Trump on prime time.

The good thing is Trump is destroying the Repug party, pitting the know-nothings against the batshit crazies. Some Repugs think it’ll take a decade for the party to recover. Democrats will also be in turmoil after putting in office a person in the top job who’s widely reviled and despised. If you think Obama’s divided the country and brought gridlock to congress, she’ll be a lightning rod of anger, vitriol and discontent. The Dems could’ve had someone who was loved and respected across the board, but they chose old-style status quo politics, just what supporters of both Bernie and Trump were railing against. Being a corporate whore, she’ll be bad for the country, but still far superior to Trump. At least she’s presidential material; he’s an upchuck of mental diarrhea.

There are a lot of reasons to dislike her and her politics, but if there was one reason, if there was only one reason to vote for her it’s the supreme court. Justices are appointed for life. Considering the present make up of the court and that two of the oldest members are liberals, if she gets in there’ll be a 5 to 4 majority of liberals. If Trump were to win it’d be 7 to 2 or 6 to 3 conservative and the country would be set back at least a generation.

 

Standard
Cambodia Politics and Development

Birthdays Party and Kampot Double Bubble.

 

 

Last August 22 was my 75th birthday. Now that’s a very big round number and quite an accomplishment, if I must say so, and called for an appropriate celebration. As it happens, it was also Helen’s 22nd birthday, so why not combine the two? Where else but Cambodia, or say Kampot, could two people of vastly different ages hold a joint birthday party? In fact, we share some of the same friends and it worked out fine. I would’ve been a bit concerned about turnout if I were holding it by myself, but doing it together made it a great success.

Part of the magic of living in the Cambo/Kampot expat bubble is we get to be ourselves. We’re not confined or categorized by attitudes found back in our home countries. We’re already a diverse amalgam of people from around the world and age makes much less difference in such a milieu. I only realize how old I am when I see a picture of myself in a younger crowd. Amongst a diverse group, I don’t feel any different from those around me. Everyone my age might not react the same, but whether it’s good karma or good choices (really, the two are inseparable) I still feel young (relatively) and energetic, even if my stamina doesn’t hold up as well as it used to.

A few years back while visiting the states, old friends said I never looked so good. If so, more than a decade in Cambodia had to be part of the reason for that – it’s now nearly 15 years since I first came to here to live. Having a pension, albeit paltry, also has something to do with it since I don’t face the stress of working and making a living. While hard work and accomplishment are essential to health for a young person, the harder you push when you’re my age, the younger you die.

Part of being healthy comes from living in Cambodia with its low cost and open and friendly atmosphere that provides the background to the community we’ve formed. However, we’re in a special place, an almost insular community where we spend most of our time with each other rather than relating to the larger Khmer population. Sometimes I hear people lament that disconnect. I also feel it at times, but I’m so grateful for what we’ve created I don’t consider it a great deficiency. It’s not difficult to be part of the local culture with local friends if you’ve a mind to it, but you can also be quite separate, relating only to fellow expats and the locals we deal with on a daily basis in stores, restaurants, etc.

Cambodia lets us be ourselves and because there are no restrictions on who can live here; that is, there is no income requirement or onerous paperwork to fill out: we only need to pay the $300 per year to keep our visas current. Because of that openness we also get diversity in incomes; it’s possible to come here with very little money and get by on doing bar work for ten dollars per shift plus tips. Some of those people may have a little stash, but they still work to prolong their stays as well as be out relating and talking and usually having fun.

Every other country in the region and almost everywhere else in the world requires a lot more effort and hassle and sometimes a substantial income to maintain residency. The Philippines a while back announced it was going to simplify and make retirement visas easier to get to attract more geezers. In addition to the paperwork requirements, you ‘only’ needed to have $25,000 in the bank and a certain regular income, meaning I couldn’t possibly qualify. The country is very poor; in many ways an economic basket case which has forced 10% of its population to go overseas to work. It’s overcrowded stemming from the overbearing influence of the Catholic church and the leftovers of Spanish machismo with every man thinking he needs 10 kids to prove his virility. What? You can stick it in, come in one minute, knock her up and that makes you a man? The country has 100 million people, but it’s mostly mountainous and so has minimal arable land relative to that population and has to import a large portion of its food.

In that context how would they lose if they let me live there with my pension of ‘only’ $700 per month? Per capita income in the Philippines is about $3000 per year in US dollars, that’s $250 per month, a bit more than one-third of my pension. I would bring in absolutely free money to bolster the economy, yet it’s not good enough. There’s a fellow here in Kampot who, after living there 30 years, was forced out of the country stemming from visa hassles. The same is true of Thailand: there are lots of people in Cambodia who are refugees from the Thai visa grind.

Contrast that with Kampot here in Cambo. Per capita income in Cambodia is $1160. According to the town’s immigration police there were about 600 expats living in Kampot as of about 9 months ago. That’s roughly 1% of the population and while quite a few are working, the number who are retired, buying land or starting businesses, easily means we make up about 10% of the economy. That is a big reason why Kampot is prospering. While expat presence has boosted the Cambodian economy as a whole, most for sure is concentrated in the major population centers and tourist spots.

That freedom has also brought in loads of big time money. There’s no need to have local partners and no restrictions on repatriating profits. Having the USD which is used in about 85% of all transactions also makes investing more secure and stable. As a result money is pouring in to the country to the effect that Phnom Penh is about to face a crash in condo and commercial development from vast oversupply. If all the condos under construction or for which permits have been obtained come to fruition, supply will increase by more than 1000% in just a couple of years, an impossible scenario considering sales are already falling quite precipitously. Fueling booms is something governments all over the world do with regularity and without the slightest cognizance that booms inevitably result in busts and the aftermath is usually worse for most people. That is certainly true for the many locals working in construction.

An economic downturn would not auger well for the government in the run up to the 2017 commune elections and the 2018 general. While the CPP is besieging the opposition with prosecutions the Cambodia Daily refers to as ‘widely believed to be politically motivated’, it really seems that it’s the CPP itself which feels under threat. When a couple dozen activists started wearing black in their demonstrations against the jailing of NGO Ad Hoc representatives, the authorities have harassed them at every turn. They’re a small group of people with a grievance against the state who wear black t-shirts as a matter of solidarity and yet the authorities consider them a danger. We will not allow a color revolution they say, but really, there’s no possible way Hun Sen will relinquish power except if he abides by an electoral loss and there’s no certainty of that.

He is invincible militarily, nobody could challenge him on that score. But the more the government attempts to quash demonstrations and control the news, the more likely it is that people will vote for the opposition. Control of all broadcast TV stations and almost all radio and newspapers means very little in the age of social media. The government recently displayed a show of force by having 5 helicopters hovering over opposition headquarters while three gunboats were stationed in back of the office which sits on the Bassac river while many vehicles loaded with militarily equipped soldiers drove by in front. The government insisted that it was all a routine exercise, a widely scoffed at notion. There’s no one with political consciousness who wasn’t informed about that incident from social media.

When the opposition planned a small convoy to deliver (what I considered to be meaningless and futile) messages to 13 foreign embassies asking for assistance, the government, in order to try to prevent it, closed down one of the city’s most important thoroughfares leaving many thousands of people to stew in a massive traffic jam. No one believed that shutting down the boulevard was necessary for public order and all knew the genesis of the morass.

Activist Kem Ley’s murder brought out close to 200,000 mourners for the funeral procession, yet the event wasn’t covered in a single TV station. There has not been nor is there likely to be an independent investigation, which only reinforces the public’s belief that the government was behind it. In the midst of all that suppression of news and free speech rights for the general population, we expats live in a bubble with two daily newspapers who are quite courageous at times in their reporting. The PM has expressed dislike and annoyance with them but evidently feels their importance to the expat community outweighs his discomfort. Besides their news doesn’t reach very far into the population as a whole.

After alienating so many people with land grabs and displacement and testing their credulity with statements which few believe, who’s going to be left to vote for the ruling party besides those who work for the government?

One big problem the ruling party has is the Khmer people’s visceral hatred of the Vietnamese. The CPP is on the right side of the argument in that they treat the Viets just like any other people (partly because Vietnam put the PM in power during their occupation after deposing Pol Pot) whereas the opposition CNRP unabashedly appeals to the people’s baser instincts. The animosity goes very deep. When Vietnam booted out the Khmer Rouge, the king immediately aligned himself with Pol Pot to try to drive out the ‘invaders’. After nearly two million people died at the hands of a genocidal dictator, he was still backed by the US and China, both countries still smarting from defeat on the battlefield by Vietnam. The two powers kept Pol Pot in his seat at the UN for more than a decade after he was deposed, an eternally disgraceful act.

Just to show how far the opposition will go in milking the Viet issue, Kem Sokha, second in command of the CNRP said back in the last campaign that Cambodia had to take back Angkor Wat from the Vietnamese. What? Had they invaded again? It turns out he was referring to Sok Keng having the concession to collect fees at the archeological park. He’s the owner of the Sokimex gas station chain and purported to be the richest man in Cambodia. He was born here and spent his whole life here but he’s an ethnic Vietnamese, which evidently makes him evil in Kem Sokha’s eyes and a campaign issue.

Would an opposition victory tackle corruption? Possibly, at least in the beginning. Corruption is inevitable and inherent in a government that has been in power for a long as the current one. The more secure they feel the less they are responsive to the electorate, so it’s a testimony to the ruling party’s late feeling of vulnerability that the PM has taken many steps recently to appeal to the common people, such as the recent act of waving the need for driver’s licenses for small motorbikes.

The ruling party has set up its Anti Corruption Unit and prosecuted quite a few people, but they are very selective and stick mostly to those out of favor with the party. The head of the unit recently gave important jobs to two of his sons… nepotism and corruption, anyone?

To do it right, just about everybody in government who owns a luxury vehicle should be targeted, because unless they are independently wealthy they didn’t obtain the money through their official salaries… and why would someone with means want to work for subsistence government wages? One big new Lexus SUV costs $225,000. In contrast, there’s a very high average of 50 students per primary school teacher here. They earn about $1500 per year, so one Lexus is equal to salaries of 150 teachers for one year. There’s a shortage of classrooms in rural Cambodia. One classroom can be built and furnished for about $25,000, so one big car is equal to 9 classrooms. Everywhere in Cambodia you see lots of fat cat cars owned by people associated with government.

At a certain point it all boils over in people’s minds. I doubt very much that protests will be involved in any possible transition since the ruling party has vowed to crack down hard. There’s not much threat of violence either, though there’s likely to be unrest and scattered skirmishes. Cambodians have a long history of demonstrating and speaking their minds. Repression will hold them back, but that will only increase their resolve. As result, it seems increasingly likely the PM will lose the next election; that is, if it’s done honestly.

Where does it all leave us who live in our comfortable little bubbles? Will we be impacted if there’s turmoil in the streets? Will we still be able to enjoy the good times in our own parallel universe? The ruling party reminds everybody that Cambo is a sovereign country and doesn’t need to bend to the will of anyone outside, but 20% of the country’s budget comes from the international community and it would be a heavy blow if that were withdrawn. If there’s excessive violence toward demonstrators, the country could be put under sanctions, also a heavy blow to the it’s prosperity. People tend not to invest in times of unrest, so combined with a real estate bubble that’s in the process of bursting, the flow of foreign money may dry up, and expats who’ve already invested in property may see their values drop.

For myself, I’m stuck, I’m not going anywhere unless some unforeseen and drastic event forces me out. I live an idyllic life and have just about everything I could reasonably ask for. Absent that unavoidable event, or some compelling reason to go elsewhere, and considering my age of 75, I expect to die here in Kampot enjoying the expat double bubble.

Talked to a guy at a bar a while back who said since he’d left his old life he’d spent 5 years in 20 countries. When he got to Cambodia he immediately felt at ease, and hadn’t stopped smiling since he’d arrived in Kampot three days earlier.

 

 

 

Standard
Economics

EU Takes a Bite Out of Apple

 

Apple was recently hit with an order by the European Commission to pay back taxes of 13 billion Euro to the Irish government for anti-competitive behavior. Ireland gave Apple specific legislation that allowed it to escape from paying taxes on its European sales. The EU, probably unique in the world, prohibits race-to-the-bottom economics. The EU countries cannot play off each other to offer special subsidies or considerations to lure industry, excepting only through corporate tax rates, which I’ll get to later.

The Boeing company’s move of its headquarters from Seattle to Chicago some years ago is a race-to-the-bottom case in point. Though the company had been located in Seattle practically since the beginning of the air flight industry, for whatever reason, the CEO and board of directors decided the company had to move. Maybe they were put out by the reputation Seattle gained for the first anti-capitalist, anti-globalization protests in 1998. Maybe it was too new-agey for their corporate mindset; whatever. Did they consider that many of their employees had lived there for a long time, maybe their whole lives? That they had homes, friends, community there? Okay, the decision was made by a small clique of honchos, for good or ill. So then did they get out their maps and do their research to look for the best location for their business and employees? Did they weigh all the disadvantages and benefits before deciding on Chicago?

No, they started a bidding war to see which city would give them the best tax breaks and special advantages. Chicago is a fine city, though it doesn’t have the glamour of the coasts, but it, like most American cities today has huge problems, not least of which stem from budget woes. Chicago paid dearly in subsidies and as a result schools and other programs important to the citizens of Chicago were diverted to the deep pockets of a very wealthy corporation. Boeing was not hurting, wasn’t having financial problems, they just wanted to milk the city for whatever few dollars they could extort. Yes, Chicago got the prestige of being the headquarters city and quite a few new jobs, but not the tax revenue to help solve its myriad problems.

The same happens here in Cambodia. Manufacturers wanting to locate here get tax holidays of up to ten years. So one of the world’s poorest countries – GDP is now a bit over $1000 per year – provides special breaks for garment factories so they can sell their products a little cheaper to wealthy people in the West. Meanwhile, just like in the American example, the money to pay for the infrastructure necessary to accommodate the influx of workers has to come from elsewhere. There are reasons why companies would want to set up in Cambodia. The only reason why subsidies are needed is because everybody else is doing them, racing to the bottom.

Back to Apple. This gets complicated, but basically what these multinationals do is create a separate corporation that holds their intellectual property, so every time an Apple product is sold in Europe a fee is paid to that corporation, except it is an entity on paper only; it has no employees or physical presence. All the work collecting and holding the money, which amounted to 13 billion Euro in ten years, was done by Apple employees where the taxes should’ve been paid. Besides, most of the creativity behind the intellectual property was actually done in the US.

Apple CEO Tim Cook was livid about the prospect of paying those back taxes and the Irish government backed Apple up saying they didn’t want the money. So here’s a little perspective: Apple is the world’s most valuable corporation based on market valuation, more than $600 billion. The company has $230b stashed in tax havens outside the US, because under US law, they have to pay taxes on those profits when they’re brought back. On the Irish side, 13b Euro is the annual cost of the country’s health care system, about 10% of its GDP, and it is still suffering from austerity brought about by the crash of 2007 and the bailing out of too-big-to-fail banksters. So, to Apple that amount of money is pocket change, to Ireland, a lot of money.

Ireland believes it has to have a very low corporate tax rate – 12.5% – to encourage industry to locate there. Corporate tax rates is the one place where EU countries are allowed to compete, where race-to-the-bottom is allowed. As a result, many multinationals have set up offices there. However, there are several other EU states that also have that low tax rate and others not much above that. So why aren’t Apple and the others going to Slovakia, for instance? Well, Ireland has a highly skilled, English speaking population and companies would locate there regardless of the tax rate, though maybe not if it was really high.

Those low tax rates brought in an surge of investment and jobs but turned out to be a mixed blessing at best. The country was booming which attracted large numbers of immigrants which then fueled a housing boom where small flats in Dublin were selling at astronomical rates which then inevitably went bust in a resounding crash when the world economy tanked. Mainstream economists will tell you that the boom and bust cycle is inevitable, but that’s bullshit. When booms are happening lots of people are raking in the cash and the policy makers and the majority of investors think it’ll go on forever so they naturally push it hard when any right thinking person in power should want to slow it down, should want to keep the excessive growth in perspective because the aftermath for the great majority is worse then the benefits of the upswing, which usually go to the few.

If Ireland had pursued a moderate tax policy and relied on its natural advantages to grow steadily and prudently they would’ve been able to provide jobs for their people rather than growing so fast they were importing large numbers of immigrant workers. But they couldn’t do that because it goes against the grain of growth-at-all-costs modern economics. It was a costly mistake for the country, but they were merely following the dictates of the elite consensus which directs countries to bow and genuflect before their corporate masters.

So kudos to the EU. It’s certainly about time somebody started reining in these lawless corporations whose greed knows no bounds. If Apple acted like a good citizen and wanted the best for the country and people of the US or Ireland or wherever they have their facilities, that’d be one thing, but we know they have no conscience and feel no kinship or responsibility to the nations that provide the infrastructure and educational systems that helps them thrive. They only care about money and we know they’ll use whatever nasty or underhanded means at their disposal to amass more and they’ll never have enough no matter how rich they become.

Standard