Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

Karma Strikes Again

 

 

Around the middle of May just as I was leaving my house for my nightly bar crawl it started to rain. Most of the day I’d been planning to ride my bicycle the one mile down to the riverside entertainment area. Whenever I figure I’ll be coming home late I’d take my car, a Tico, affectionately referred to as the Little Bugger. It’s really small and exceptionally cute and has a 780cc motor, smaller than some motorbikes. When I expect to go home early I’d take the bike… exercise is always good.

The rain wasn’t hard, but I thought, I’ve got a car, let me be lazy and avoid the rain. I parked it on the river near O’Neil’s bar. I usually wind up there, but till then walk wherever else I plan to go.

About 9 o’clock as one of the staff was leaving, she started to pull her moto out into the traffic, you know how lots of us will start moving before we look closely, besides it was late enough for there to be very little traffic. At that moment, a small model Lexus SUV came barreling down the street driving erratically, going at least 100kph. When the driver, probably drunk, saw the moto pulling out he slammed on the brakes and swerved left to avoid her.

His trajectory was aimed directly for my car which was parked at the curb. His skid marks stretched about 20 meters. He walloped the little bugger right between the doors and the force of the crash lifted the Tico over the curb and dropped it sideways perpendicular to the roadway.

In the next second or so the Lexus smashed into a motorbike about 10 meters further down the street and then hit a tuk-tuk and somehow wound up just inside the park on its side facing the opposite direction from where it came. The tuk-tuk driver, who had been sitting in his vehicle, was pinned underneath the Lexus. There were quite a few people in the park at the time and they quickly pushed the car off of him. In the ensuing confusion, the driver and his passenger hoisted themselves out of the car and took off without anyone to stop them. If someone had just happened to be shooting a video at the time it would’ve been an instant hit.

All this happened at lightning speed. I’d been sitting in the bar, heard the commotion, hesitated a second or two, then went out to discover my Tico had been totaled. By the time I went the few meters further to check on the Lexus, the tuk-tuk driver had already been pulled out. He was sitting up, but in a daze, and died an hour or so later on the way to a hospital in Vietnam. The guy left a wife, who has a heart problem so can’t work, and four kids. Now that’s the definition of a tragedy: good guy that everybody likes, with heavy responsibilities, gets killed in a fluke accident. In a couple of seconds, his family was irrevocably changed.

It’s also a demonstration of the two diametrically opposed sides or meanings of karma. The one side exemplified by the saying, What goes around comes around. Do good and good comes back, do bad and eventually you get your just deserts; if not in this life than surely in the next. The other side of karma reflects cosmic uncertainty, the absolute and utter lack of control we have over our lives. What will be will be. There’s no questioning it. Railing against the gods for the unfairness of life gets you nowhere. Life Is, and while we may and should strive to be exemplary in our lives, ultimately, serendipity rules and there’s nothing we can do except accept whatever vagaries life hands us.

I also played a hand in the poor guys death in that if I hadn’t been lazy my car wouldn’t have been sitting in that very spot and the Lexus might have barreled straight through and landed in the river, certainly a better and fairer outcome. But no, you can’t go there. If my car wasn’t there somebody else’s might’ve been or there might’ve been people walking who would’ve gotten mowed down. Any number of ‘what ifs’ could’ve intruded on circumstances, but you can’t dwell or obsess over them; you can’t change the past.

The two facets of karma can be extended to the conundrum represented by the dual and contradictory existence of both free will and predestination. Everybody has the right to choose, but it’s all been laid out from the beginning of time. The concept is also beautifully expressed by the Rolling Stones song that goes, You don’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need. You don’t get what you want: ultimately it’s beyond our control. If you try sometime: if you exercise your free will for the good, then, You get what you need: the gods provide us with the lessons we need to advance spiritually.

The car was owned by a cop as evidenced by the placard in the window, but one fellow who’d seen the guys exit the car remarked that they looked too young to be cops. I gave my telephone number and such to the police and then waited a couple weeks before I thought I’d better check so I went to them. When I got to the police compound I saw the Tico, the Lexus, the crashed moto and overturned tuk-tuk. A Khmer friend went with me, we inquired and were told not to worry, it would all get straightened out. I also was told that he wouldn’t get his car back until he settled with everybody.

Still no word for a couple more weeks, so I went back to discover the Lexus and other wrecked vehicles gone and my little bugger sitting there all by itself. I was really exercised there for a bit and called our friendly immigration cop to find out what was happening. Meanwhile we had learned that it wasn’t the cop who did the damage, but his son. A meeting was arranged between me and the owner of the Lexus.

Rumors had been circulating that he’d initially offered the family of the deceased tuk-tuk driver $2000. Imagine, the life of a husband and father for such a pittance. So I meet the guy, who it turns out is the head of the local fire department. First he tries to weasel out of responsibility by asserting that my car was parked improperly. No, no, no I say, it was exactly where it was supposed to be parked. Then I hear that his car was taken by his son of his first wife, from his second wife’s house, without permission while he was off in Phnom Penh on official business.

I tell him I should get $1000 since I’d paid more than that just a year earlier. He offers $300. I said you’re joking, yes? Then I get his hard luck story about how he’s had to borrow to pay for all the damages and to fix his car. I originally thought his Lexus was worth a lot but discovered that it’s a 1999 model and worth around $9000. I say I feel sorry for you, but there’s no reason I should suffer because your son wrecked my car. I say, My car was sitting there peacefully, just minding its own business when your son came along to destroy it. I tell him I can’t buy another car for $300 and I have no money in the bank. I wound up lowering my price to $800, figuring getting a grand was a lost cause. Over the next couple weeks, he wore me down and I went to $600, he came up to $500. At that point I said I’d never take less than six and he finally got the message that I was adamant and immovable on that point.

After the money was counted, both he and the immigration cop who’d been negotiating and translating for me, took a picture of both of us holding the money. A good way to guarantee a transaction took place and nobody can claim otherwise. Then the immigration guy said I needed to give some money to the department, suggesting $30. I made a face and said, How about twenty? Okay, he says. Then I say, How much for you? The same? He said ten was okay for him, but I gave him twenty anyway.

I had heard from two people, an expat and the immigration cop that the accident had cost him ten grand, but from a tuk-tuk driver friend I was told the family of the deceased only got $2,800 from him. So where’d the rest of the money go? To the courts to keep his son out of prison? Would he have to pay his own bosses to keep the whole mess quiet? It wasn’t going to cost that much to fix his car in spite of everything. Certainly, by Cambodian law, compensation to victims does not exonerate the perpetrator, it’s not a substitution for serving time for breaking the law, and I told the guy his son should be in prison.

The guy and the town’s government got off easy since somehow the news of the accident never made it to the newspapers. It would have been far different if they’d had to answer questions to the press of how the destroyer got off without incarceration and would’ve exposed the workings of corruption here.

I did have a little sympathy for the cop, he went through plenty of changes himself over actions of his bad boy son. He’s just trying to live his middle class life (on a subsistence salary) and kaboom, he’s had to take on a lot of debt and go through a lot of hassle. Can I blame him for trying to get off cheap? Well, yes I can and do, but wouldn’t a lot of people react like him under the same circumstances? Wouldn’t most people under financial pressure try to minimize their burden if given the chance?

And his son: How many guys do you know who haven’t done crazy things when they were young? I’ve driven quite dangerously in my life, including not so long ago when I first bought a car here. In my case though, I was never under any illusions that if I did cause real damage I’d pay heavily for it. And I never drive the least bit carelessly when I’ve been drinking. The police and their offspring, part of the elite in this country, don’t worry so much about those things because they feel confident they’ll be able to avoid real consequences. They feel impunity is their birthright. It also happens in nearly every country. For instance, a few days after G.W. Bush took office his daughter was busted for underage drinking and let off scot free while hundreds of young people without connections had gone to jail under a new Texas law that Bush promoted that sharply increased penalties for just such transgressions.

Impunity relieves you of paying for your bad behavior in this life, but karma is forever. The young destroyer will live with his murderous act as long as he lives. He’ll feel privileged that he didn’t have to pay for his crime, but that only applies in this life. He will pay in his conscience, if he has one, for all his days. Maybe he’ll block it out, pretend it never happened. Maybe he’s truly arrogant and thinks that peasant lives don’t mean much anyway. But karma can’t be discounted, the cosmos never forgets.

Getting back to the Stones; If you don’t try sometimes; that is, if you never seek to align your karma, energy and thinking with righteousness and enlightenment, if you always see only ego and advantage over others, if you focus only on the baser aspects of life, you certainly won’t get what you need to move up in consciousness and spirituality. If you succeed economically, you’ll still not be happy inside. You could be like Bill Gates who, in spite of being the world’s richest person, still lied and cheated and used sleazy underhanded methods to amass additional wealth. I’m referring to the several times his company was indicted and fined in both the US and EU for anti-competitive behavior, who promised as part of the settlements to give up his nefarious ways, but who nonetheless reverted as fast as lightning.

No amount of wealth can compensate for lack of a spiritual foundation. I don’t care how much Gates gives away to charitable causes (some of which I heartily disapprove of; such as charter schools, GM crops) he’ll still reincarnate (if you believe in those things) as a peasant farmer with a hardscrabble life or maybe a cockroach; that is, if he doesn’t cop to his sleazeball ways in this life. If you believe in the Christian heaven and hell, he’ll either go straight to hell or spend eons taking remedial courses in empathy and integrity in a kind of half-way house. Think about it: fabulous wealth in one short mortal life in exchange for eternal life? Is there any question?

It isn’t for nothing that one of the most famous verses in the bible is when Jesus says, It’s harder for a rich man to get to heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Rich people never have to rely on faith or serendipity, never have to live in uncertainty. They always have what they want so they never get to experience the workings of cosmic energies and synergies. They never learn to trust in love and faith.

Kampot was hit by another heartbreaking tragedy recently. Two young fellas, 33 and 38, attending the same party, died from taking some type of white powder purchased from a tuk-tuk driver. They’d also been drinking heavily. Two young lives snuffed out from… what? Carelessness? The need to escape, to binge? (one guy was nursing a broken heart). Feeling of invincibility, like it can’t happen to me?

The loss of those lives was totally unnecessary, but they had a choice to make, not like the tuk-tuk driver who’s life was taken by a fluke accident. It’s not for us to understand why these things happen, the laws of karma can not be described or pigeonholed or made to fit into our notions of how things work or are supposed to work. You can never make a direct connection. If there’s any meaning or value in these events it’s only that we’re beholden to be conscious and conscientious in all our actions and strive to be good because you never know when a cosmic zinger may zap you out of this mortal coil. You don’t want to get caught short.

 

 

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Genetically modified food

Frankenfoods

 

 

Every couple of months, or less, a true believer in genetically modified crops posts on my fb feed a meme which asserts (paraphrasing) that anyone who objects to GMOs is an anti-science luddite who would rather see the world starve than embrace a wonderful new technology.

I’ve always been wary of GMOs and my opposition was solidified in 1999 when a study done at Cornell U. was published which showed GM corn pollen to be toxic to monarch butterflies. In that study they dusted GM corn pollen on milkweed leaves – the only plant that monarchs feed on – and in a short time half the insects were dead and the rest had digestive systems that were seriously damaged. The insects fed the milkweed dusted with natural corn pollen suffered no fatalities.

What they were fed was Bt corn, Bt standing for Bacillus thurengiensis, a bacteria which is a natural pesticide. In fact, it’s used by organic farmers to control pests and has been since the 1930s, though the current widespread use of Bt GM crops is lessening its value for organic growing. When Bt is sprayed on a crop, it gets washed off and diluted and has no negative effect on the environment, when it’s part of the plant, the entire plant is toxic to most bugs.

Shortly after the study broke, articles appeared in the NY Times and other mainstream media ‘debunking’ the study. The debunking was based on the fact that there wasn’t that much milkweed growing near GM corn, so it wasn’t an existential threat to the butterflies. Possibly true enough, Bt corn isn’t necessarily a threat to the monarchs, but that’s irrelevant to me. The study merely showed Bt corn pollen to be toxic to the insects.

If you search for ‘GMO butterfly study’ you get an entry for the original Cornell study, back up research from U of Iowa confirming the results, five sites claiming that all types of GMOs really are a threat to the butterflies – counts are down 90% compared to the past – and two which refute that claim saying, as in the original ‘debunking’, there isn’t that much milkweed growing near the crops. What is never debunked is the toxicity to monarchs, that’s not in dispute.

To me that would have been a very loud wake up call to the need for long term studies on mammals. So far there have been no such studies. It’s entirely possible for a natural substance to be benign to one species while toxic to another, but so far we don’t know what effect, if any, that food has on humans. One possible reason no long term studies have been done is that Monsanto, responsible for the majority of GM seeds, takes a dim view of serious studies. Since their seeds are patented, you can’t really do research without their permission. When research is done through other sources and it turns up negative, the company is aggressive in harassing and slandering the researchers. Their profits are at stake and they will do whatever they can get away with to protect that wealth.

The other type of GM crops in widespread use are modified for tolerance to glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. The original idea, I believe, was that less herbicide would be needed, but it’s turned out exactly opposite. Targeted weeds are gaining immunity requiring the application of increasing amounts of herbicides and with that the appearance of superweeds resistant to any amount of glyphosate.

To begin with I find it hard to imagine why anyone would think it’s a good idea to apply massive doses of poison on food crops and agricultural land. Equally pernicious, is the idea of patenting life and giving control of seeds to corporations. In the past farmers would customarily save a portion of a crop to plant next season, makes perfect sense. But GM seeds must be purchased each year and contracts signed agreeing not to save seeds for later planting. This has led to quite a few farmers being sued by Monsanto.

The experience of Percy Scmieser, corn farmer in Saskatchewan, is a case in point of the evils of this system. He never purchased Monsanto seeds or wanted them; always saved his own, still he was sued by Monsanto for using their patented corn. You see, his field was contaminated with GM pollen blown in from neighboring fields. They got him because even after he knew of that contamination he went ahead and planted those seeds anyway. So now it’ll be virtually impossible for any farmer who’s fields aren’t completely isolated form others to grow non GM seeds for more than one season. He initially lost, appealed and the case went on for many years. Last I heard he’d been exonerated. I mean, what’s to stop Monsanto from purposely, secretly contaminating the farms of non-GM buyers? I sure wouldn’t put it past them.

Another fascinating and frightening aspect of GM crops is that when you grow them and natural crops together almost all of the pollinating is done by the GMOs. Ninety percent of Percy’s crop was GM. I’ve read before about the uncanny fertility of GM pollen. If GMOs do turn out to be a problem, there’ll be no natural seeds left in America or any country where GM crops are grown.

GM crops will feed the world, we’re told, but everything I’ve read from skeptics and Wikipedia says GM seeds do not increase yields. The only case mentioned in Wiki, in their very long entry, was Bt cotton in India, but then they said the extra cost of the seeds cancelled out the increased yield.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Wikipedia’s section on this subject. There are a lot of studies saying GMOs are not a problem and of course their use is backed up by the US Food and Drug Administration, so they must be okay, right? Obama’s recent pick to head that agency is a former Monsanto exec… in a long line of industry flacks holding positions of authority in the agency, so I trust them as much as a message from Mars.

 

Many reports say they are substantially the same, which seems to leave some leeway for nasty things to intrude. Substantially but not totally? But how can they be the same when one kills butterflies and the other doesn’t?

Recently an announcement was made that 100 living Nobel laureates came out in favor of modified plants. It was a big deal. The news was everywhere. What wasn’t mentioned is that there are 300 laureates, so 2/3rds declined to sign. Also, very few of them got their prize in a field related to biology. But it’s a good establishment ploy nonetheless: they’re so eager for the public to embrace GM foods, they’ll go to great lengths, like a recent article, reprinted in the Cambodia Daily, which stated that organic food is more dangerous than GMOs. The number one proof of that statement was that a batch of Cliff organic energy bars was found to be contaminated.

So I sarcastically commented in a friend’s pro frankenfood post how great it was to ingest large amounts of agrichemicals. He came back with Stick to the subject, this is about GMOs. Even after multiple pro GMO posts, he along with another pro-frankenfood friend, didn’t seem to realize that a large proportion of GM seeds sold today were modified with a tolerance for Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Sure, a batch of Cliff bars is contaminated and that outweighs millions of kilos of poisons applied to the land.

Since Vermont’s mandatory GM labeling law, America’s first, is about to take effect, the US congress is rushing through a labeling law to supersede it. It was designed by the industry: instead of merely printing on the label what it is, which would be so simple, the consumer will be provided with the options of a computer code or free 800 number so they can check with each purchase. Monsanto and its ilk own the government so that even though vast majorities of Americans want to know what’s in their food, industry and their flacks try to obstruct that goal.

As far as I can tell, GM crops add absolutely nothing to agriculture but come at a high price in terms of potential damage to the land, to us human guinea pigs, and the loss of control over the seed stock to a private corporation that has no other allegiance but to profit and no compunction whatever in using any and every means at its disposal to protect those profits.

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Phnom Penh, Uncategorized

Phnom Penh Traffic

 

 

The Cambodia Daily recently featured an article about the capital’s worsening traffic. A few years ago, or so it seemed, I marveled at how it only took 20 minutes to get to the airport from the river: it is, after all, only 9 kilometers. Today, more than an hour.

Phnom Penh’s traffic will never reach the astounding levels of Bangkok in 1993 when I lived there. It was before the first skytrain so all trips had to taken at street level. Traffic was so bad you never started a trip across town after 3pm unless you had no choice since it routinely took up to 4 hours to go as little as 10 kilometers. I’d regularly get off a bus a mile from my destination and make it there faster walking. A couple of times, when I had time to kill, I’d hang out and watch while traffic would come to a dead stop for nearly an hour, while cars and buses would be idling and continuously spewing out their exhausts.

There’s no such thing as a megacity the size of Bangkok with 12 million people without terrible traffic woes and overcrowded transit services, but a large part of Bangkok’s problems are the result of poor, actually nonexistent, planning. There are areas in the heart of the Sukumvit district loaded with high rise apartment buildings which are served only by narrow streets or alleys. Most often there’s only one exit to the main thoroughfare and there’re no connections between parallel streets. The amount of space devoted to streets in the city is half that of most cities. Mass transit systems are fabulously expensive to build, but because of the lack of street space in BKK, far more important. Residents of the city who are able to structure their lives close to mass transit get around fine, everybody else still has to contend with horrendous traffic jams.

Traffic in Singapore is not much of a problem, but it’s a special case. For one, it’s only got about 5 million people, an order of magnitude less difficult than a megacity. As an authoritarian government, it was able to wipe out large swaths of older (historic, in fact) areas with narrow streets in favor of very wide streets. Mostly, it uses taxation to severely limit the number of people who can afford to drive. You have to pay $75,000 to buy a permit to own a vehicle. Even in a relatively wealthy country that amount would preclude most people from car ownership. They’ve provided a fine mass transit system as a compensation, but still it’s unfair to design a society so only the rich can do something as pedestrian as owning a car. Also a reasonable urban population of 5m makes it possible with good planning and generous expenditures on infrastructure to run smoothly.

Megacities can never function smoothly, but a city of less than 2 million, such as Phnom Penh, did not need to get so bad. There are several reasons for the traffic slowdown in Phnom Penh; some are generic to growing cities, some self-inflicted. Among them are population growth and the expansion of the city’s area that almost inevitably accompanies that growth. Increase in income, which invariably results in increasing numbers of vehicles. Public policy which exacerbates the problem with poor planning.  Ignorance of or flouting of the basic rules of the road that hampers traffic flow combined with lack of enforcement of those rules. Lack of resources to build necessary infrastructure to ameliorate the situation is always a problem. Usurpment of public sidewalks requiring pedestrians to be out on the street dodging traffic also impedes flow.

Cities provide opportunity, that’s why they draw people in. That’s especially true of developing world cities since the countryside alternative has little opportunity and leaves people there in dire financial straits. That’s why Thais flocked to Bangkok in spite of the daily grind of spending so many hours stuck in traffic. And they still do in spite of the difficulty of living there… it may not be as bad as the 1990s, but still a hassle.

Income has been growing very fast in Cambodia, one of the ten fastest growing economies in the world in the last decade. Thus the surge in car and motorbike registrations. A private vehicle is especially important in a city like Phnom Penh with its nearly absent public transportation system. Without restricting car ownership like Singapore does, there’s nothing that can be done about increasing numbers of vehicles, though a comprehensive public bus system would help.

Expanding population not only increases the number of trips taken proportionally to the expansion but also makes the length of the average trip longer. So, for instance, a doubling of urban population probably triples the number of kilometers traveled. While roads in the outskirts of the city can be designed wide enough to carry substantial traffic, it’s extremely expensive to widen streets to accommodate the additional traffic in a built up city, especially one as dense as Phnom Penh.

Taking the above two together, the city is in a bind before any possible action is taken to ameliorate the problem. Unfortunately, many actions taken by the government have seriously worsened traffic, though in some cases they actually thought they were improving the situation. The prime example is the trading of inner city public buildings which in many cases were old and inefficient for new buildings on the city’s outskirts. They thought that placing them at a distance would reduce congestion, whereas exactly the opposite is true.

Before you had small buildings in low density, campus like settings in or close to the heart of the city. Most people who had business to do in those places lived relatively close. Now with those facilities far from the center, 90% have to travel farther, adding lots of kilometers to the city’s traffic. Public servants have had many complaints about the additional time and cost involved in getting to work. It also turned business with the government into a hardship for many since the absence of public transportation has meant high transportation costs for those who don’t own vehicles.

As campuses many had large areas of pervious surfaces; that is, places where rain could be absorbed into the ground rather than sent to the city’s overloaded drainage system.  Every hard rain now causes flooding and traffic chaos because many of those areas are now high density, with no onsite drainage. There was on street parking by those campuses, easing the parking burden. Much of the new development has brought increased traffic in more congested spaces. So a lose-lose situation.

Park spaces are oases of calm and allow for unimpeded traffic flow on their borders. Thus the multiple negative impacts of the recent filling in of 16 hectares of wetlands in the Olympic stadium grounds. First of course is the loss of water storage and the likelihood of increased flooding. The wetlands formerly drained the entire stadium area, now all that goes to an inadequate drainage system. A former green, calm and cooling spot is being replaced by a large, dense development that’ll attract thousands of vehicles a day into one of the most crowded parts of the city.

High density development is fine. Actually, in cases where the transportation infrastructure exists to accommodate that density, it’s a good idea. If there was a mass transit stop there, then sure, great idea (although never at the expense of a public green space).

The city is doing what it can to speed the flow of traffic with the construction of flyovers. They eliminate points of congestion, but can only go so far. It’s a great feeling speeding over cross traffic, but then you’re stuck in the same jam as soon as you descend to street level a minute later. The only way to move large numbers of vehicles in an urban environment is with freeways, limited access highways, but they are fabulously expensive and would be highly destructive of the city’s fabric. One measure that could be undertaken and should be a priority is a freeway circling the city that would allow vehicles passing through the urban area that don’t have business within it to bypass the congested inner city. It still would be far too expensive for the government’s current finances, but at least one should be in the planning process and land acquisition begin.

One very important proposal that came out of the above mentioned article was train service to the airport. The track already exists except for the last little distance to the airport itself. The trip from the train station on Monivong to the airport would take as little as 10 to 15 minutes and interim stops along the way would remove a lot of vehicles from the streets. However, even with existing track and right-of-way, it still would cost $180 million. Infrastructure for a modern city, whether road or rail oriented, is never cheap but essential if the city wants to avoid extreme traffic like Bangkok.

Except for the airport train, mass transit for Phnom Penh is on fantasy level. Without someone throwing billions of dollars at the government, it ain’t gonna happen. Meanwhile it makes no sense to even talk about mass transit until the city has a functioning bus system. That’s something that could’ve happened long ago and while every urban bus system in my knowledge needs public subsidies, it wouldn’t be all that much and should’ve been a priority all along.

A bus loaded to capacity takes up less street space than the number of motorbikes needed to transport the same number of people. The government has been trying for years to get someone to build a bus system and then operate it at no charge to the city… never happen. There are three bus lines now when the city needs twenty. There are supposed to be 10 more by the end of the year. Whatever the cost, it doesn’t equal the benefits that’d accrue. Unfortunately, even with new bus lines, traffic wouldn’t change much, it’s just growing too fast. It would however, keep the situation from deteriorating even faster.

The next transportation priority after the airport train would be to build a modern bus terminal next to the train station. That way people could zip into town from the airport and have buses on hand to complete their journeys to their destinations around the country. Now it’s just chaos with separate bus stations all over town. A single bus terminal would be a boon to travelers since you’d have many competing companies in the same place. That’d be especially beneficial in having many different schedules; that is, buses leaving to your destination much more often. When I was at the central bus terminal in Kuala Lumpur, vendors were discounting tickets in competition for my last minute seat.

All advanced cities today are building bike lanes and other facilities to make biking easier and more enjoyable. Something like half of all trips in Amsterdam are on bicycle, by any standard a better idea than trying to accommodate all movement on motorized vehicles. Bicycles are nearly silent, pollution free and provide a healthy alternative transportation mode.

It’d be very difficult in most parts of the city to make special places for bicycles. Other places it’d not be that difficult; the park strips, the river would be relatively easy places to start. Norodom Boulevard has very wide sidewalks which could easily accommodate separated bike paths. I ride bicycle every day in Kampot, but I would never consider doing that in the capital, except maybe on Sunday morning when there’s hardly any traffic.

Sidewalks are another essential ingredient to improving traffic flow. Having pedestrians dodging vehicles and competing for street space with them is a terrible idea: it’s dangerous and uncomfortable for pedestrians and impedes flow. A friend took his Khmer wife to Europe for a holiday where she greatly enjoyed walking. She was eager to walk when she got back to Phnom Penh but quickly soured on the idea in the face of the many barriers to enjoyable walking here. Blocking sidewalks, usurping them for private use was not allowed before the Khmer Rouge. It was only later under the Vietnamese occupation that the practice became widespread.

It’s now so entrenched, it’ll be very difficult to change. Still even when the city does go through lengths to make walking comfortable, as in the remodeling of Street 130, there’s no enforcement of the rules and it quickly regresses back to the old form. People liked the new system, but within a short time owners were blocking the sidewalks again with the police either not caring or incompetent. What gets me the most is the inability of the government to keep the sidewalks on Sisowath clear. I could hardly believe it last time I was there. I saw a car parked on the sidewalk totally blocking it and another car perpendicular on the curb with no space in between: people had no choice but to be out in the middle of a busy traffic lane. It’s uncivilized and totally out of place in a city that has pretensions of modernity.

As final note on sidewalks: Before the KR, in addition to sidewalks being totally clear, they were built as a unit on one level. Even if they were clear today, it’d still often be a hassle using them since you’re constantly going up and down and some are built at relatively steep angles. In other words, construction is totally uncoordinated and at the whim of the property owner. It can’t be that difficult to make rules for sidewalk construction. It’s the baby stroller or hand truck rule: If it’s inconvenient for them it’s improperly designed.

One additional factor that makes walking inconvenient is the confusion in Cambodia between curb cuts and driveways. Curb cuts are for intersections between streets and require two changes in grade. A driveway keeps the sidewalk at the same level: there’s a relatively steep rise between the street and sidewalk for vehicles, that in fact slows them down while crossing the sidewalk, a good thing. What should be driveways are turned into curb cuts which speeds vehicles and discomforts pedestrians.

Finally, getting drivers to learn and obey basic rules of right-of-way is no-brainer. When you are making a right turn and you have someone cutting the corner making a left and he/she gets right in your path, it becomes an absurd situation.

Phnom Penh is in a bind trafficwise. Everything the city might do to improve the situation, within its financial constraints, will be outweighed by growth of population and wealth and the densifying effects of the city’s push to develop every possible vacant space. Nothing suggested here will solve the traffic problem, it can only get worse. At best these suggestions will only keep congestion from getting even that much worse… still a good thing.

 

 

 

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia, renewable energy

Blazing Hot

 

 

Kampot’s feeling the heat. It’s been relentless: As I write this in the second week of May it’s 32C – 90F – at 7pm, at 1pm it was 38C, 100F . We even have a bit of an advantage in Kampot. Since our temperatures are moderated by being near a large body of water we don’t get as hot as the interior. Even so the sweat drips off of you; at times I can’t even keep my glasses on, they slide down my nose. It really takes it out of you, like merely trying to breathe after you’ve been out there in the sun walking or on bicycle. It bears down, saps your energy, makes all physical activity an effort. All that said it doesn’t matter all that much to me personally, I don’t let it affect my daily life. I don’t purposely wait until the heat of the day to go riding around town, but I wouldn’t hesitate if necessary, though I must admit, I don’t feel much like hiking in the mountains when the temperature’s really hot. For really strenuous activity it makes sense to let it cool off a little first.

 

Anyway, we all better get used to it, because the heat is only going to keep on breaking records. Every country in SE Asia (except Thailand which came close) has experienced its all time national heat record this hot season. In Cambodia it was 42.7 C in Preah Vihear. What’s more, large swaths of the area are seeing severe drought and not surprisingly, very high temperatures are a characteristic of drought, which means plants dry out that much faster.

 

This has not been good for my garden. Even drought tolerant plants, those who can survive for long periods of arid, sweltering days, really don’t like it. A cactus that can manage just fine at 40°C without rain for months, would much rather it be 25 with a little rain once or twice a week. For those plants not designed to deal with that kind of weather, they get really stressed, it’s a real chore trying to keep them irrigated and happy. Moreover, the only good times to water – early morning, late afternoon – the water pressure has been so low it sometimes comes out of my hoses as a limp trickle. It’d be okay at midnight if I could see what I was watering and wasn’t stumbling around because I’d smoked and drunk to my limit by then. I have four hoses for my little space to minimize having to drag them around.

 

Even under the best conditions I have so many plants, mostly in pots, it takes nearly an hour to get to everybody. When the pressure is low and the temperatures are through the roof, all I can do is keep them alive in a holding pattern. And besides all that, they much prefer rainwater, not only because it contains no chlorine residues and such but also because they are more thoroughly irrigated by the drip, drip, drip than a big dose all at once.

 

The only respite we had recently was 12mm of rain we received on two days in early May. Before that the last rain was end of February and minus a few scattered sprinkles, you have to go back to early December for any substantial precipitation. Now, in the middle of May clouds are building up and looking like they want to rain, and some places nearby actually have seen some precipitation, but not Kampot. The government has been bringing tanker trucks to supply water to some areas around town that’ve gone dead, dusty, dry.

 

Finally, starting on May 15 we’re beginning to get some ‘real’ rain – 25mm – with predictions of rain every day for a while. Phew! What a relief. And on the 16th a deluge; 80mm – more than 3 inches – in less than an hour. The government now says the drought is over and normal rains have begun. As deadline approaches a big storm predicted to dump 250mm in six days is headed our way.

 

In drought, one of the most likely and difficult outcomes of global warming, Cambodia (like my home state of Oregon in the US) has the ability to get through it easier than many places in the world. One great advantage is a relatively small population which puts less pressure on limited resources. Secondly we have a relatively wet environment to begin with – when it does rain, it really comes down. Both the above factors have limited the overuse of groundwater. Densely populated places and especially the arid ones will be in for rough times when the heavens stop dropping their loads. In many parts of India, for instance, groundwater is being mined so extensively that water tables in many places are receding by a meter or more a year, requiring ever deeper wells. In other words a lot more is being taken out than is being naturally replenished even in the best of times.

 

I’m also reminded of a picture I once saw taken in California’s San Joaquin Valley. It included a gauge which showed that the land had subsided by five or six meters. Essentially, with the groundwater removed the land had sunk and consequently it can no longer hold as much water as in the past. It was permanently damaged. At any rate, no matter the severity of drought here in Cambo, there should always be water down there; it should never go completely dry as will happen in many places. It may not be enough to flood rice paddies, but at least there’ll be something.

 

Meanwhile, world heat records are being broken with regularity and by jaw-dropping amounts. Each of the last twelve months has been the hottest ever recorded for its month and March was the hottest on record for any month based on divergence from the norm. Not just that, but the temperature was nearly .2°C above the next hottest. Those kinds of records are usually broken by .01°. In the recent Paris climate meeting it was decided that the previous goal of keeping warming to 2°C was too much, the world couldn’t handle it, that 1.5° was a safer, more urgent goal. Well, March did it. It was supposed to a goal for a decade or two in the future, but it’s already here.

 

One factor in the warming is called positive feedback loops. For instance, snow and ice are white and reflect most of the sun’s rays back into the atmosphere. When it melts and either dark water or rock is exposed, most is absorbed and thus further pushes the warming process. And since the Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet, the loss of ice is accelerating the changes. Last February the Iditarod sled dog race which starts in Anchorage Alaska, which is at 62°N, was unable to start without bringing in many truckloads of snow… first time ever.

 

As for making the changes in time to make a difference, the Paris conference had no binding commitments, only loose goals that the countries could follow if they wanted. So even while industrial powerhouse Germany on May 12 this year received 90% of its power from renewables – sun, wind, hydro and biomass – and Portugal recently went 4 1/2 days solely on renewable energy, many nations, including Cambodia, are pushing ahead with coal power. Sounds like a planetary death wish.

 

Trump, who might well be the next US president, has called climate change a hoax, and Clinton, the likely alternative (I’m still praying for Bernie) is a strong promoter of fracking. The fracking industry pushes the idea that natural gas, because it releases a lot less greenhouse gases than coal, is a good transition from the present to a fossil free future. Unfortunately, studies have shown that lots of methane is accidentally released in the fracking process. Methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as CO2, but on a 20 year basis it’s 87 times more potent as a greenhouse gas, and even on a 100 year basis is still 30 times more potent.

 

If the TPP – Trans Pacific Partnership, covering 12 countries on the Pacific rim –  and TTIP – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the US and EU – were enacted, countries could no longer control the process. Industry would be given free reign to pollute and despoil to their heart’s content – all thanks to Obama and his corporate backers. And if a country refused to allow fracking it could be sued for lost potential profits by the industry.

 

Mr. O, who I like as a person, has reneged on almost every campaign promise he made that had to do with protecting the environment and the proletariat. In his first campaign he promised to renegotiate NAFTA, the trade pact between US, Canada and Mexico. He made no attempt to make good on that promise and instead has promoted the above trade pacts which NGOs refer to as NAFTA on steroids.

 

If I believed in conspiracy theories, I’d think he was the Manchurian Candidate. Remember, the movie was about a perfect candidate groomed by a foreign power to win an American election so they could use him to subvert the government to their own ends. For a long time I thought, if Obama’s the Man, who would be his controller? The CIA and Goldman Sachs would be a good starting point.

 

At any rate back here in Kampot we’re in the throes of low season and most places on most nights are pretty quiet. A few have shut down for a month or two. A long time owner of a restaurant on Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay that caters almost exclusively to tourists has said that in ten years of operation June was always his slowest month and we’re not even there yet. There’s a bit of an uptick in July and August, a mini-high season caused by people in the north who have their vacations in their summertime, but then we’re back in the depths in the rainy season in September and October.

 

It isn’t just the travelers who’ve disappeared. When you think about it and look around you also realize that lots of expats have also left for extended periods. It’s a time for many to go back to their home countries and take care of business when the weather is warm. For others, the rain or snow birds, they divide their time between Cambo and the West. Last time I was back in the states, I was there for 5 weeks and thought it was way too long. It was good to say hello to everybody, but my life and home is in Cambo.

 

An $80 million passenger boat terminal is being built with loans from the Asian Development Bank on the east side of Kampot river (actually it’s called a bay) about 6 kilometers south of town. In the process they’ve uglified the area by widening the shoreline road and clearing mangroves over a long stretch of it.

 

A year or two ago they built what myself and many others thought was going to be a passenger port for direct access to Phu Quoc across the river from town between the two bridges. It’s about right for boats with capacities of around 20 or so passengers. I do see boats there on occasion but it definitely hasn’t got an immigration post. The island is closer to Kampot than Ha Tien, the nearest Viet town, so it would certainly make sense to have direct boats going there. I’m guessing that port was built for about 100,000 to 200,000 dollars.

 

Now step back for a second and think about what kind of boats would need an 80 million dollar terminal. Ocean liners? The Queen Elizabeth? For little old Kampot? Ships carrying thousands of upper crust passengers docking in Kampot? All those pretentious people descending on our grungy, plebian little burg at one time? Maybe I’m missing something, but it sure looks like a gargantuan boondoggle to me.

 

On a very positive note, one of the businesspeople in town recently announced he was going to sell biodegradable take home packaging. Within a couple days and in spite of higher costs than petrochemical based plastics, more than 30 expat business owners signed on to the concept. I’ve also heard a similar movement is afoot in Phnom Penh. Most people don’t realize it but corn and other crops can be used to produce single-use cups and containers that are indistinguishable from the plastics we are now using, except, when tossed on the ground, they’ll literally melt into the environment in a few months instead of hanging around being a toxic hazard for thousands of years.

 

For sure a few dozen expat owned businesses using biodegradable packing isn’t going to make much of a dent in the mountains of non-bio plastics now being used and discarded here, but you have to start somewhere and who knows, maybe the idea will catch on and the government will step in to ban the evil stuff.

 

I’ve thought about what it would take to do my shopping in the local market without accepting plastic, but what would you do with meats? I doubt if waxed butcher paper would ever be economically feasible here. Banana leaves? Also seems like a hassle compared to plastic. I have a cloth bag to put the whole purchase in, but some type of container is going to be necessary for each separate item.

 

The current practice of many locals and some expats is to burn them along with yard waste. Bad idea. The noxious smell that burning plastic gives off is a clear indicator that it’s toxic to breathe in. Landfilling isn’t great either but far superior to burning. The burning of organic material isn’t that bad environmentally, though breathing lots of smoke of any kind is not benign. Most importantly, all burning exacerbates global warming. At any rate it’s much better to compost organics, especially here in the tropics where heavy rains leach most nutrients out of the soil.

 

Farmers burn crop waste because they think it improves the soil. The ash that’s leftover from burning does give a quick boost of potassium and phosphorus to the soil, but all the nitrogen and organic matter that could improve the soil’s tilth goes up in smoke. Burning is quick and easy and people like to watch a good fire, but it’s not the best way to go.

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Bernie Sanders, Economics, Hillary Clinton, US Politics

Democratic Party Death Wish

 

 

The Democratic party is trying it’s best to become irrelevant by trying to rig the primary process to nominate the choice of the establishment rather than the choice of the people. This is an extension of a process that’s been pervasive and long-lasting. A recent study showed that the majority’s desires had nothing to do with legislative outcomes.

 

Single-payer health care is the prime example. Several prominent Democrats in Colorado are working to defeat a single-payer ballot measure there. Who are they working for? Who do they represent? For years now polls have consistently shown that single-payer is favored by about 90% of Democrats and close to 60% of the population as a whole, and yet Clinton says it’s impossible! can never happen! as she mimics an aide to Obama in 2008 who called it ‘pie in the sky’. The fact that 90% of their constituency want it, the people who voted them in office, seems to have no bearing on their position.

 

Pie in the sky is what the pharmas and health insurance companies get in the present system… medication that costs a few dollars in a place like India can cost hundreds of dollars in the US. Here’s an outrageous example that doesn’t even involve prescription meds. Here in Cambo I have a toe fungus problem about 10 months a year from the heat and humidity. In the US a tiny 1.5 gram tube costs a minimum 6 dollars. Here in Cambodia I can get a 10 gram tube made in Malaysia for 65 cents, that’s about 80 times less. A 20 gram tube made in India costs 50 cents, or about 200 times less. Not patented, not prescription, just a total, unconscionable rip-off.

 

The current for-profit health care system takes 17% of US GDP and even with Obamacare still leaves millions uncovered and millions more under covered. Even with Obamacare the largest number of bankruptcies are caused by medical bills and the largest percentage of those were people who had insurance, but couldn’t make the co-pays.

 

The next most costly health care system in the developed world takes about 11% of GDP. In that system all people are covered and they have better outcomes than the US. So tell me again why single-payer is impossible. Impossible for Hillary to support because she gets her money from the industries that don’t want it.

 

When confronted by the $24 million dollars in speaking fees she earned from the corporate elite between 2013 and 2015 she insisted that that had no effect on her politics. At first I thought that seemed absurd, who could believe that? But then on further reflection, I realized she’s right: That’s the way she thinks, that money was immaterial.

 

Why is it the Demo party establishment is so wedded to Hillary as the nominee that they will game and rig the system and steal votes in several states? For instance, in the Massachusetts primary every single precinct that used paper ballots went for Bernie, every single one that had machines went for Hillary. Now tell me how that could be a coincidence in a state with thousands of precincts.

 

It’d be one thing if she was well liked and popular, but she’s looked on unfavorably by 55% of the population and for whatever reason, reasonable or otherwise, a lot of people hate her. Her policies and politics don’t represent the heart of the party or the populace as a whole and yet they’ve done everything in their power to stifle and squash Sanders, the one candidate who does represent the people. Sanders is the one candidate with a net favorability and beats Trump by a larger percentage than Hillary. Lately Trump is beating Clinton in the polls.

 

The Democratic National Committee started out trying to harm Sanders by scheduling few debates and having them at times when people were not likely to watch. That served their purpose in maximizing Hillary’s votes in the early southern contests when many people hadn’t heard much of him yet. Large numbers of superdelegates picked her before most states had even voted and some said they’d vote for her even after the state they represent had voted for Bernie.

 

She represents the old, the past of the two party system that has no interest in what the people want. Bernie consistently has gotten the majority of the youth vote, in some cases up to 85% of under 30 votes have gone for him. He represents the future. In open primaries where independents, who now make up 44% of the electorate, are allowed to choose which party primary they want to vote in, he consistently wins. Hillary likes closed primaries where only Dems can vote, but they are now only 29% of the population. No candidate can win without the independent vote.

 

It’s still time for the Demo establishment to come to its senses, but I fear they’d rather go down with Hillary than actually represent and serve the people.

 

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development

Corruption and Other Indexes Rank Cambodia

 

There are four indexes I’ll be looking at in this article. World Happiness, Press Freedom, Ease of Doing Business and Corruption Perception. In all cases except one, Cambodia does poorly both on a world level and a local level. Government spokespeople always insist that the international community is treating Cambodia unfairly. Although it’s pretty much guaranteed that all governments will respond likewise, I do have some sympathy for the government’s position. In all cases, these indexes are based on impersonal and sometimes arbitrary guidelines which don’t represent feelings and reality on the ground.

The one where we are ahead on a regional level is Press Freedom. In 2014 only Indonesia and Thailand were ahead, but not by much. Considering the military coup in Thailand and it’s heavy repression of the press, it’s certain to be well below Cambodia for the 2015 survey. Strangely enough, in spite of besting nearly all of our neighbors, we still came in at 144 out of 180 countries surveyed. In fact, we’ve only gone downhill over the past decade since Cambodia’s rank in 2008 was 85, and may continue to do so, considering recent government actions.

We have recently seen murder of journalists. Internet speech is being repressed; for example, a student was jailed for 18 months for advocating a color revolution, which by its nature is a peaceful changeover. There are frequently ham-handed attempts by local officials to prevent perfectly legal gatherings: Cambodia’s UN representative for human rights was recently stopped from meeting indigenous leaders who are fighting against land grabs. Local commune police intervened supposedly because they didn’t have a permit for the meeting, but no permits are needed in such a case. Needless to say those regressive actions only further alienate common people.

On the other hand there are a few points in Cambodia’s favor. One is that the English press is allowed to operate unhindered. Another is that demonstrations happen almost on a daily basis, though often against the wishes of the government. The ones it likes don’t seem to need prior approval, but if it embarrasses the government or puts it in a bad light, they will do what they can to prevent or hamper their progress. It doesn’t seem to stop the protesters, they keep coming right back. Once again, the more the authorities intervene, the more they are disliked. Moreover, today without total control of the internet such as China’s Great Firewall, it’s near impossible for the government to prevent people hearing the news on social media.

Another interesting index is the UN’s World Happiness Report. Once again we are way down near the bottom at 140 out of 156 countries. As you would expect from a survey created by the elite establishment, three of the six factors that make up the index heavily favor developed economies. The first is per capita income. Well, certainly, people who are hungry or see no possibility of improvement in their futures are not going to be especially happy, but as most expats living in Cambodia can attest, most people here seem happier than the people back in our home countries. Moreover, given the extreme inequality present in the US today, the country’s high per capita income belies the fact that the majority are struggling to cover basic expenses and debts.

The second is social services. This one makes sense since it is comforting and reassuring knowing society is there to back you up in times of difficulty. Everybody can appreciate the feeling of security that comes with living in a benevolent society, but sometimes people who live day-to-day in uncertainty and depend on the largess of chance and serendipity, are more content, adaptable and trusting than those who are largely cared for.

The third is healthy life expectancy. Sure it’s great to be healthy in your dotage, but you’ll hardly be happy if you don’t have adequate money for the necessities of life. Or if you live in a social setting in which you feel isolated or without many friends.

The next three categories; freedom to make life choices, generosity and trust or the absence of corruption in daily life, were based on interviews. Cambodia comes out very well on the first two: amazingly, third in the world on freedom to make life choices and around number 20 in generosity. We’re obviously pretty low in the corruption category. The two where Cambo did well were clearly not enough to bring us out of the cellar.

But lets look a little closer. Haiti is a few rungs above Cambodia. It’s a country where a large number of people are still in temporary accommodations from the earthquake of 5 years ago. Instead of bringing in reconstruction teams after the quake, the UN brought in peacekeepers since of course those black Haitians couldn’t be trusted on their own. Some of the peacekeepers were from Nepal, a country where people casually spread their shit around; they especially like to do their dumps in streams. This resulted in 7000 Haitians dying of cholera and 200,000 being sickened in a population of only about 8 million. The UN of course refused to compensate for the malfeasance of its peacekeepers.

Raw sewage runs on the streets of the capital. This is in part because their politics is in total disarray so that little of importance or necessity gets done. In the last election there was a 20% turnout. The people have given up on politics because the person they want to run the country, who they’ve elected twice by very wide margins, is radical priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Unfortunately, he didn’t meet the standards of the conservative US establishment so America was instrumental in deposing him both times. Now I haven’t been to Haiti, so maybe Haitians really are a happy people in spite of their sorry condition, but compared to Cambodia? I don’t believe it.

How about Vietnam up at 96. Now we all know the Vietnamese are a strong, capable, industrious, take no prisoners type of people and have much to be admired in many ways, but you probably won’t find more than 1 out of 100 people who’ve been to both who would consider them happier than Cambodians.

For another example, Israel, astoundingly, flabbergastingly, is right near the top at number 11. Now here’s a country where its 20% Arab population are second class citizens living under ‘Old South’ type segregation if not total apartheid. For instance, according to Wikipedia, Arab schools receive far less per capita state funding than Jewish schools and there is a shortage of thousands of teachers and classrooms in Arab schools but not in Jewish schools. Israel keeps 4.5 million Palestinians under a brutal occupation in the West Bank and 1.8 million Gazans in what many refer to as an open air prison in which only enough food is allowed in to keep them alive but still hungry – around half the children in Gaza are malnourished. In a recent survey, 57% of Israelis want to expel, drive out, deport the 4.5 million Arabs in the West Bank to another country so they can steal their land and have it to themselves. Now tell me, can a people be truly happy when they are treating millions of fellow human beings in their midst like shit? Impossible.

As a happiness index, this survey falls very short, but thinking about it, it would make sense as a well-being index. While well-being – income, social services, long lifespan – might often indicate happiness (Denmark is number 1) our experience in Cambodia makes a mockery of this index as an indicator of happiness.

In the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index Cambodia comes out 135 out of 189 countries surveyed. This index measures regulations and policies that affect the ability to start a business. Of the 10 sub indices used, which include things like construction permits, export procedures, paying taxes, registering property, the only one that seems dodgy in Cambodia is enforcing contracts. Otherwise I don’t see why Cambo would rate so poorly. Once again, real life and facts on the ground, seem at odds with these arbitrary and impersonal statistics.

For one thing, Cambodia over the last decade has had one of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies. How would that be likely or possible in a place where it’s so difficult to start a business? Is it so desirable here that entrepreneurs would go through lots of hoops just to open a business here? For another, whatever relevance this index might have to medium or large businesses, it certainly doesn’t apply to small ones. Here in Kampot you can have a small establishment in operation before you even have a permit, though you wouldn’t be able to stay in business very long without obtaining the proper paperwork.

Finally there’s Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index. In 2014, not all that surprisingly, Cambodia ranked 156 out of 175 countries, worst of the Asean countries. As they explain in their intro and methodology, corruption is by its nature secretive and hard to measure so the best they can do is gauge perceptions. And the index only refers to dealings with the government, but there’s lot of corruption that doesn’t involve day-to-day interaction with the government.

Yes we all know that Cambodia is thoroughly corrupt: examples abound. An NGO recently announced that traffic jams of luxury vehicles in Phnom Penh made it difficult to raise money for Cambodia. If you add up the number of vehicles who either sport those elongated license plates, which represent a connection to the national legislature, or display government placards in their windshields, somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of all luxury vehicles are owned by government associated people. (BTW, a new Lexus SUV costs more than $200,000.)

Everybody knows, down to the lowliest peasant farmer, that the vast majority of those vehicles were not purchased with legitimate money since there’s no one in government, including the PM himself, who could afford even a Camry on their official incomes. Of course there may be some independently wealthy individuals in government, but why would they bother working for $300 or $400 per month if they’ve got tons of money in the bank? Altruism? Dedication to serving the Cambodian people?

Some time back the PM said that public servants should be proud of their vehicles. Maybe so, but they should at least hide their government connections instead of blatantly advertising their corruption.

One of the ways governments stay in power is through patronage. When you provide lots of jobs for your friends you create a loyal following. That probably accounts for Cambodia having 2000 generals in its military, four times as many as the US, with a military budget that is 200 times smaller.

If you want to secure a hard title for a property in Kampot, it’ll cost you a minimum of $1000 over the listed price, even for a property that’s worth only $5000 or $6000. If you complain about the excessive cost, whoever you’re negotiating with will say he has several people to share with. One of them undoubtedly is the bong tum, the head of the department, who lives in a four story castle-like villa.

Many parents have to pay as much as $3 per day to the teacher to send a child to school. When the immigration department came to check my passport, they asked for a tip. Okay, I thought, for a few dollars they’ll be my ‘friend’. Changes are afoot though, even if haltingly. The new traffic law which gives the police a share of traffic fines and the offender a receipt is a start towards more honesty.

The Anti-Corruption Unit, the ACU, regularly finds malfeasance amongst government officials, but they’re usually cases which are flagrant and always of people who’re not in favor with the administration. For instance, the minister responsible for purchasing bed nets was fingered by the NGO who pays for them for taking a half million dollars in bribes from the company that got the contract. Somehow, through an extremely convoluted explanation, the ACU determined that was not really corruption and declined to pursue charges against him, in spite of being a perfect, blatant, in-your-face, example of it.

On the other hand if you’re an opposition figure targeted by the government, the ACU will use the flimsiest excuse to investigate. The current example being Kem Sokha, second in leadership of the opposition CNRP. His phone was tapped and a conversation he had with a mistress was published. The ACU dove in and opened his file to see if he really had the money to buy the things he promised her. The ACU holds personal financial reports from each government official, but they are kept secret until there’s a reason to delve into them. So an illegal wiretap prompts an ACU search into his records over an affair, which is embarrassing, but totally his business. BTW, a ‘student’ group, all of which refuse to name their institutions, has been dogging Sokha over this issue. They’ve been allowed to march without permits, whereas people with legitimate grievances against the government are routinely prevented from marching.

The government’s actions against the opposition aren’t particularly surprising and definitely not unusual in politics, not in the region or the world. Who can forget Bill Clinton being impeached after getting trapped into lying about a blow job?

One notable thing can be said about corruption in Cambodia: it doesn’t seem to be hold back progress or be a detriment to government functioning. In contrast, take Brazil, for instance. A while back many people died there in a nightclub fire. News reports pointed out that the club was operating without a permit. There was actually a good reason it didn’t have one: a fellow interviewed on BBC said that it sometimes takes 5 years to get a permit, so most businesspeople don’t bother since nightclubs often don’t last that long.

And talking about corruption, it’s more than just interactions between citizens and government. Sometimes it takes a grand scale, like the current 1MDB (Malaysia Development Berhad) scandal in Malaysia. The corporation was created and is chaired by the prime minister Najib Razak. Trouble came to light after the corporation was found to be $11 billion in debt. In an investigation undertaken by the Wall Street Journal it was discovered that about $700 million – $681m in one transaction – was transferred from 1MDB to Razak’s private account. Later investigations have brought that figure up close to one billion. When confronted he claimed it was a gift from the Saudi royal family for campaign expenses(?) a claim disputed by the Saudi family itself.

And look at America, land of the free, home of the brave, bastion of free-world democracy where elections are regularly stolen. We just had a perfect example in the recent Massachusetts Democratic primary. All the precincts which had paper ballots that could be checked went for Sanders, all those with easily-tampered-with machines went for Clinton. I daresay, Cambodia’s elections are more honest than in many US states.

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia, Uncategorized

Pot-pourri

 

Down Home Entrepreneuring
In the last couple years there’s been a spate of expats opening businesses serving niche markets for the expat crowd. Some are firmly established and mainstreaming by stocking the local markets. Others you might characterize as itinerant, or maybe you’d say makeshift, operating from small carts they park around the old market.

The most visible is Kampot Krisp Company run by Warren, which is doing hand made potato chips (I know you Brits say crisps, but think how hard it is to say that, and what’s more, Do French fries really look like chips?) seasoned with Kampot pepper and sea salt. They’re sometimes a bit too salty for my taste and could be a little thicker, but otherwise excellent quality and as good as any chips on the market. They’ve also got a cool commercial level package. Jean-Baptiste’s Kampot Delights is producing and distributing to the markets a pure, natural peanut butter that contains only peanuts, palm sugar and salt. He started out with only peanuts and salt, adding the palm sugar later. I was disappointed by the superfluous sugar, but I still buy it. Next time you buy commercial peanut butter, take a look first at the frightening list of ingredients. By the way, I just discovered the way to keep natural PB from separating is to keep it in the fridge… after all these years.

Both the above have a list of ingredients, but here in Cambo you can get away without including it, at least for now. So you have Helen doing several varieties of cookies – chocolate chip, oatmeal, cinnamon and lots more – without telling us what’s in them. With her cookies I don’t mind, since I doubt if she includes anything I wouldn’t approve of.

You can also sell foodstuffs without proper kitchen inspections, also at least for now. Good thing since our major Khmer bakery has dingy walls that haven’t been painted in decades… an American inspector would have a heart attack. But lucky for us they’re producing a whole wheat baguette. Meanwhile our French bakery, which bakes some exceptional pastries, has no whole wheat breads available. They partly make up for the deficiency by having thick breads with loads of pumpkin and sesame seeds. If you’re like me and think that white bread, even the best made, is still a bit deficient, then we now have Patrick, a Belgian baker doing multigrain light and dark breads which he sells from the back of a three wheel truck that he parks near the front of the old market.

We’ve also got Kampot cider and though it’s actually made in Sihanoukville, it probably sounds a lot better to say Kampot cider. It’s strong and good tasting and I’d sometimes pay the extra price over beer except that it’s more than 7% alcohol, which only means I get drunk faster and have to go home earlier: as you can imagine, not my preferred outcome.

Then we have Evo who’s got a drinks cart identical to the ones that locals use that he sells cocktails from which he parks on the curb at the far end of the market and sometimes other locations. He provides those really short stools for his customers to sit on. James has a falafel, kebab joint on the old bridge road. He rents sidewalk space and does everything from a food cart, though it’s somewhat upscale.

On the river at the end of the strip closest to the old bridge we have Chen’s place, though he calls it Milly’s after his dog. Though he’s not an expat I’m including him here because he started out with a tiny hole-in-the-wall 6 seat, outdoor bar, which was later expanded, he hires mostly expats and often vies for the busiest bar in town. He plays music from the nineties on up which I like to listen to as a break from the tunes I’ve listened to all my life. He mostly has a younger crowd, but I’m almost always seeing people I know there.

Just across the street there’s a blank wall on a full block vacant lot. One of the most popular cane juice spots in town is on the corner. It’s been around for a long time, but starting a year or two ago a line of Khmer food stalls selling packaged noodle soups, fruit shakes, fried meat and fish balls, fried rice and such has sprung up. About 10 stalls up is Diego’s Italian restaurant. The décor is down home funky – weathered wooden bench seating, for instance – but the food is excellent, prices are very reasonable and most nights people are hanging around waiting for a seat.

There are also quite a few expats around town working in the bars or in their own establishments. As opposed to Phnom Penh where expats working at bars is unusual, people coming to visit from there are taken aback at the sight of that happening here. And the thing about it is locals and expats working side by side earn the same money, most often $10 per shift. It’s good money for Khmer, just barely doable for expats, many of whom are working to supplement their income or bank account rather than depending on it for their entire sustenance. For some it’s a means to stretch out their time here. Others are working just to get out and meet people. Still, as mentioned a few months back, it’s possible to rent small but livable spaces for as little as $40 month, and with beer at most places $1 per can, it’s still an easy life. It’s important to note that land prices and rentals are rising fast but if you are around for a while you can still pick up on good deals.

There are also lots of new restaurants and bars opening, including a Brass Monkey to add to our Monkey Republic and Mad Monkey. Okay, where’s the Monkey Business? The old standards are doing good: Rusty Keyhole and Wunderbar always have customers.

Fish Market
The Fish Market, which sits on stilts on the river across from the old market, is finally open. It’s been practically two years in the making, with long gaps of inactivity at the site. Whatever the cost, and it certainly wasn’t cheap, it’s been well worth the wait: it’s stunning, gorgeous, beautifully done. It was taken largely back to the original building finished in the 1920s, which required removing the previous total uglification remodel all the way down to the structure. That remodel made it into two stories with a blank windowless front.

After a period of vacancy it became Alaska disco in about 2008. It was extremely loud, even when I had my regulation ear plugs in, and beers were $3. It was very popular for a while in spite of those costly beers. Most customers – 80 to 90% – were young Khmer guys who’d nurse a single beer for hours. After about a year or so the business died and the customers moved over to Dragon Club across the river which is still going.

The finished Fish Market included recreating the three part rounded roof, which should be good for the acoustics. In addition to the restaurant, in which many of the meals are reasonably priced, it’ll provide a venue for live music. It’ll start with local acts, but in time national and international bands will be booked. It’s a big space and will be good for at least 100 people to dance on a beautiful, smooth tile floor, perfect for cool moves, as opposed to bouncing and jumping around. I’ll even bring out my dancing shoes. They aren’t ideal, since that requires leather soles, but still workable.

I Love Kampot River
The fourth annual I Love Kampot River event was held on Sunday March 13. A tent and stage was set up for the festivities and Monday was for the river clean-up in which hundreds of school kids are taken out on fishing boats to clean up the river bank. It’ll certainly make a difference in the long run to have local kids thinking about keeping the place tidy. Those kinds of changes, unfortunately, do not come overnight. The event included music by the Kampot Playboys, a band I’ve heard a hundred times but never tire of. Every time is so dynamic, driving, energetic, it just sweeps you up into it’s rhythm. The event also included a fashion show of kids wearing clothes made from recycled materials.

I’m often struck by how sharp and well-behaved most of our expat and mixed kids are. They seem so much more together than the typical cranky, demanding, often-spoiled-brats in the West. And it’s a pleasure to have events where beer is served and kids can roam freely. Back in Oregon beer can only be served or drunk behind a fence, lest the kiddies be exposed to the evils of beer drinking.

Unfortunately a sound problem kept the event from starting on time and caused the truncation of the show since the city required the music be over by 9pm. This I find to be baffling since 9 is very early to stop a show, besides the proliferation of weddings that are much louder and often go to practically midnight.

The only discordant note of the day was that beer was sold in non-biodegradable plastic cups. Almost all plastic today is made of petroleum based materials, which, though they lose their integrity relatively quickly, nonetheless hang around polluting the environment for millennia. That’s another one of those externalized costs. You sell them cheap today and let generations to come pay the costs of the environmental degradation they cause. Plastics can be made just as easily from plant based materials like corn or hemp and would cost no more than petroleum based plastics if the latter had to pay their externalized costs. You can toss biodegradable plastics on the ground and in a couple of months they have melted into the environment, with no ill effects whatever.

The Southern Train Line
After lamenting the absence of passenger train service on the southern line between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville in last month’s article it was recently announced that service is to begin on April 9, just in time for the Khmer New Year’s holiday. Freight trains have been running since 2013, so the absence of passenger service didn’t make sense. The trip will take about 8 1/2 hours and cost $7 with two stops in Takeo and Kampot, the only 2 intermediate stations ready for service. One reason it will take so long (as the rumor mill has it) is because the ballast, the rock foundation of the track, was poorly constructed so that speeds are limited to 30 to 40 kph, though it was intended to be an 80 kph line. The other reason is unsafe road crossings that add two hours to running time. Still, in spite of the extra time, trains are far superior in comfort and offer a much better view of the countryside – countryside as opposed to roadside businesses and trash – so the service is certain to be popular. They also have a charter service where you can rent a whole train.

Police Are Out in Force
I spoke too quickly last month about the police not staking out city locations for their checkpoints. They’re now all over the place at all times of the day and up to 11pm. They now get 70% of the fine so they are diligent about upholding the law and you get a receipt. I just recently paid a 25,000 riel – $6.25 – fine for not wearing my seatbelt.

Drunken Moto Cowboys.
Recently a friend almost killed himself driving drunk. Had he been successful, so to speak, he would’ve been the 7th person I’ve known since I came here 14 years ago who had done just that. Another friend came within a whisker of dying. He and a friend had been out cruising the bars in Phnom Penh on his big bike. They got back to the guest house alright, but the friend insisted on going back out with him driving. Not long later he had killed himself and put my friend in the hospital for three months. Aside from the obvious message of Don’t Drive Drunk, don’t drive like a teenage cowboy trying to show off, act like an adult and drive as slowly and as safely as you can muster. Finally, get a decent helmet. In the recent case the friend had a cheap helmet that (probably) saved his life, but it wasn’t good enough to avoid brain damage and a brain operation.

 

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