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.