China

China – USA – Cambodia

 

I spent 2 ½ years in Kunming, China back in the mid-nineties. It’s a great city with an equable climate and a fine place to ride a bicycle. We expats, though few in number, had a great time there. It was the only city in China at the time where foreigners were allowed to live anywhere in the city as opposed to being forced to live in foreigner enclaves and paying 5 or 10 times as much rent as locals would for the same accommodation.

A lot of its wonderful aspects were obliterated in just in the five years between 1992 when I first visited and January 1997 when I left. Many thousands of beautiful old street trees were cut down and streets were widened by demolishing whole rows of apartments. All that was to accommodate the ending of rules prohibiting private individuals from owning cars. China is a city planner’s wet dream: It was no big deal to displace thousands of people to make wide boulevards. Sometimes people would object, but they had no power, and still have no power to take part in decisionmaking.

While there I met and married a Chinese woman. One night we were sitting watching an English language news broadcast. International news was often informative, though nothing of course negative about China; local news exclusively showed important people greeting foreign dignitaries, important people giving speeches in front of large audiences and glowing reports on the party’s latest accomplishments. As I understand it, that’s a lot like Cambodia’s TV news, since all of the country’s stations are aligned with the ruling party. Unfortunately for the government, more than half the people of Cambodia now get their news from social media. More on that later.

Getting back to the news that night, the headline story was a shipment of four containers of garbage that was supposed to be recycled scrap paper. The presenter was furious, Why is America sending us its garbage? How dare they? As one who spent a long time working in the recycling field, I could imagine what happened. Scrap paper is is very low value and since it’s mixed people sometimes mistake it for garbage so it’s possible some garbage was mixed in with paper. It’s also possible that an unscrupulous dealer sent garbage to avoid the disposal charges… the containers were from New York where disposal charges would be very high.

This was four containers out of the tens or even hundreds of thousands of containers of recycled paper shipped to China every year; a tiny amount.

The other point to consider about this incident is that everything that happens in China is part of government policy, so when the presenter was asking why America was sending its garbage it was as if it was US government action rather than a private business. A similar thing happened when Liu Xiobao, a Chinese dissident, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: China was angry at Norway and boycotted some of that country’s products for a time. Norway tried to explain that the Nobel committee was an independent organization that they didn’t have any control over, but it was no less an affront to China. When he died in prison recently, most Chinese had no idea who he was because information is so tightly controlled there.

Chinese leaders must be intimately familiar with Orwell’s 1984. In it the main character works for a future Ministry of Truth, changing history books to reflect current government priorities. China recently tried to do the same thing with Cambridge University. They demanded that the University erase every article they didn’t like from their periodical China Quarterly to access in China going all the way back to 1961. Ever the bully, China said it would stop buying the Uni’s textbooks, a very lucrative business, if they didn’t comply. Cambridge initially buckled, but the outcry from academia was so fierce they had to backtrack.

China lives in its own bubble. Everywhere in the world outside of China the Dalai Lama is considered a wise and holy man. They consider him an enemy because he tries to stand up for Tibetan rights. They are trying to erase Tibetan Buddhism from China and he gets in the way. Officially atheist communist China has chosen their own malleable version of the next in line. He’s not welcome in a lot of countries because of China’s threats against them, and when he is allowed to visit they make sure he’s not on a state visit, but only comes as a private citizen.

They are trying to create their own alternate reality and this I find dangerous considering their immense population and power and absence of any role the general population plays in decisionmaking. There’s no feedback or pushback to government policy, such as to the widespread degradation of China’s environment. People have no right to protest or demonstrate, though in fact it is happening more and more: we don’t hear much about because of state control of media.

For a long time people complaining about pollution were considered enemies of the state. On the other hand, when China does want to do right by the environment, as their recent announcement that they were going to totally ban the manufacture and sale of combustion engines at some point, they have the power to make it happen that a democratically elected government like the US doesn’t. There are no lobbyists to ply legislators with favors, nor car or oil companies to object since they are all either owned by government or on a short lease.

Getting back to the intro to this piece, when my Chinese wife got to America and discovered almost everything she was buying was made in China she was very surprised, she had no idea. So even while the US was a big part in enabling China’s rising prosperity, they were badmouthing America at every turn. I’m sure it’s exactly the same today. I’m sure the people there have no idea their country is running a 350 billion dollar a year trade surplus with America.

With Trump shelving trade deals, one of the few things he’s gotten right, China has been forthright in pushing free trade. Well of course, if you’re running a trade surplus from almost the entire world, it makes sense to sound the trade hero. Part of their trade prowess comes from know-how and smarts, but they’re also smart about making it difficult for other countries to sell to them, putting up all kinds of non-tariff barriers and other roadblocks.

America has been boosting the world economy for decades by running large trade deficits, but it’s also uniquely able to do so by having the world’s reserve currency. That allows it to print money with abandon. The US dollars we see floating around the world, and 80% of all dollars are outside the US, have been purchased for that purpose. It’s essentially a no interest loan to the US. The other ways America has to cover the deficit is to sell treasury bonds and (literally) sell the farm; that is, letting foreigners buy property and businesses. Other countries including China are seeking to end America’s hegemony over use of the dollar for world trade, but it’s unlikely to ever be totally superseded. Who could trust China’s Yuan for international payments when they can devalue it at their whim? It has been rising lately, but that can change whenever it suits them. A case in point: When China’s stock market crash happened a couple years back they immediately devalued the currency.

Well, one of the types of businesses they seek to buy are in the information/entertainment field. Information is tightly controlled in China, there’s no facebook, ebay or amazon. If a Chinese firm buys a theater chain or a production company, you can be sure no film depicting China in a negative light will ever be shown. Not long ago I read that China produces about 60 films a year centered on WWII that depict Japanese as evil. Certainly no contemporary or controversial subjects are ever covered.

Even if the Chinese company is privately held, they will do exactly what the party tells them in that regard because it is all powerful. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that every Chinese branded computer sold around the world has a back door that can be hacked by Chinese authorities. The same is true for cars made in China. It would be very easy for China, in a conflict situation with the US, to have all Chinese made cars stop in their tracks or veer wildly off course at a signal from Beijing. I know it sounds like a wacky conspiracy theory.. but…

Capitalism is different, at least how it’s practiced in the US, because in America profits take precedence over any loyalty to country. The way it works in the US, any corporation that tried to act in the interest of workers, society, the environment that impacted on profits, would likely be sued by its stockholders. And they’re all too happy to manufacture in China because of the enforced docility of its workers: no unions or strikes allowed. It matters not to American capitalists that the monster they’ve created may eventually devour them, short-term  profits is the only consideration.

China exploits its workers even more than western capitalists. The immense wealth they’ve accumulated has come at the expense of their environment and workers. A few years back Beijing demanded that the US embassy there stop reporting pm 2.5 pollution levels: pm 2.5 refers to particulate matter of less than 2.5 microns. It’s a very dangerous pollutant and Beijing’s air was 10 or 20 times acceptable levels according to the World Health Organization. The US refused, saying their embassy was sovereign territory and they wanted their employees to know what kind of air they were breathing. Similar situations happen in America where the use of toxic chemicals is hidden from the public, except it generally isn’t a crime to research and report on those things.

They also mercilessly exploit their workers. Chinese have the right to live anywhere, but the only place they can send their kids to school or enjoy any other social benefits is where they were born. Since there are few jobs in the countryside, they’re forced to leave their children with relatives and migrate to the cities to work. They often live in migrant enclaves and are looked down upon and discriminated against. The cities like it that way since they get workers for their factories, but don’t have the expense of educating their children.

The upshot of China becoming wealthy is that they’re throwing their weight around and buying friendship, or shall we say, greasing the wheels of friendship. China currently has ongoing territorial conflicts with eight of its neighbors. The most prominent dispute involves the South China Sea: they are claiming waters practically within sight of other countries that are as much as 1000 miles from their territory. One of the countries bordering the South China Sea is the Philippines. That country’s previous president took the dispute to the International Court of Justice, which ruled against the Chinese claim, saying it had no validity whatever. China, needless to say, totally ignored the ruling and continued construction on disputed islands. The Philippines’ current president decided China was too big to fight and maybe if they didn’t press their claim, they could beg some money out of the big bully.

Cambodia is the perfect example of benefiting financially from political backing. Asean is a case in point. No motion critical of China will come out of that body because Cambodia will deny the necessary consensus for passing it. In exchange, China’s investments in Cambodia are the largest of any nation. They also make lots of donations like city buses and military equipment and have provided $2b of infrastructure loans. It isn’t all China, however: when the PM wanted to borrow $800m dollars to build a light rail line to the airport he went to Japan for the loan.

Other countries have found Chinese investment to be a mixed blessing. Sri Lanka in particular is regretting China’s help. There’s a $2b Chinese funded airport that stands empty that the country can’t make the loan payments on. There’s an $8b port that’s going broke because the country’s plans were too grandiose. China offered to forgive the debt on the port in exchange for a 99 year lease on it and about 10,000 hectares of land surrounding it to use for an industrial park. The deal isn’t sitting well with the people.

What China doesn’t do is buy Cambodia’s exports. The US buys 22%, Europe 40%, China 4%.  The PM has been on an anti-American vendetta lately. Some of his angry rhetoric against the US goes back to Nixon’s secret bombing campaign and America’s support for Pol Pot in the UN long after he was driven from power (but let’s not mention that China also backed Pol Pot in the UN). I believe his complaints are justified, except that’s 20, 30, 40 years ago and not really relevant for today. Lately it’s been because US funded media outlets VOA and Radio Free Asia often broadcast news unfavorable to the ruling party. Holding the powerful to account is one of the primary functions of a free press, so of course it’s often going to come up negative in a place where corruption and impunity are so widespread.

Anti-American anti-western tirades could well backfire. If the US and EU stopped buying Cambo exports because of the country’s backsliding on democratic values and half a million garment workers were out of work as a result, there’d certainly be grave anger and unrest to deal with. The West will probably not do that for concern of driving Cambodia even closer to China.

And further, a recent study showed the Cambodian people have a more favorable opinion of America than China. Embracing China at the expense of the west is a dangerous path though at this point the people’s opinions aren’t going to account for much since it currently seems like there’ll be no opposition party to contest the next election. With Rainsy exiled and Sokha facing 30 years in prison on treason charges no other opposition figure will step up to lead the party, it’d be like a death wish. At this point it seems like he’s determined to remain in power no matter what. He can eliminate the opposition party, but not opposition. Nowadays a majority of Cambodians get their news from social media and it would be very difficult to put that cat back in the box now that they have gotten used to the internet.

There might well be dark times ahead and the big question for us Cambo expats is whether turmoil or unrest will affect our lives. Finally, let me say 2500 words is nowhere near enough to cover this topic, but it’ll have to do for now.

 

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Kampot, Cambodia

Safe and Sound

A while back a guy at the bar came out squarely against the concept of ‘better safe than sorry’. He wanted experience, excitement, adventure, but I don’t think that’s what that adage really means. In no way does it preclude an active, interesting life. It’s more like when you go rock climbing or mountaineering, for instance, you know what you’re getting into and come prepared for survival, for difficulties. You can’t cover every exigency but you study your turf and understand the possible challenges.

I’m the type of person who’s always almost painfully aware of rules of safety and the dangers around us. That doesn’t mean I always follow the better safe concept. For instance, I rarely wear seat belts, though the importance of doing that was impressed upon me long ago.

I met a woman while riding Amtrak across the US who had recently spent 2 months in the hospital from a serious road accident. She was coming home after a short highway trip. She stopped a few miles from her turnoff to pick something up. When she got back in the car she figured it was such a short distance it wasn’t important to wear her seat belt, though previously she had always been religious about hooking it up and…  Kaboom.

A good part of the reason why we live in Cambodia is the lackadaisical way rules are enforced here. Back in the western world everything is regimented and ordered: There are big consequences for getting caught trying to get around the rules, like in Oregon a hefty fine of about $100 for not wearing a seat belt or having a child in a car seat. Still, even if I don’t follow them, I can see the benefits. Yes, it’s illegal to smoke in the bars, but as long as nobody complains, why make a big deal of it? If anybody’s getting hurt, which in fact they are from second hand smoke, it’s their choice to be there. The ban is good even if it isn’t enforced because it constantly reminds smokers of the danger of what they’re doing to themselves and others.

We may avoid doing the safe thing if it’s a lot of hassle or costs very much, especially if we think the odds are remote. But regardless of low probability we could be making decisions that can severely impact others. Maybe we are lazy, disinterested or sometimes unaware. If our actions or inactions lead to someone getting seriously injured… well that’s a karma nobody wants to take on.

Some years ago I was in a popular expat bar in Phnom Penh, hanging out, talking when I leaned back, I should say rocked back, in one of those cheap wicker bar stools (you know, one of the really uncomfortable kind) when I lost control; it tipped over backward and speedily sent me hurtling towards the concrete floor. In a flash of time – it probably took less than a second to go all the way down – I decided to turn my head rather than have the back of it hit the floor first and instead bounced off of the concrete with my nose. It was broken and it hurt for more than a week.

Looking at the stool closely, it was clearly unstable with the legs all tilted backwards, enough so it didn’t take very much to go over. Not long later I was back at the bar and a friend tried to sit on it and, without any prompting from me, said, This stool is really unstable. It was an accident waiting to happen. Right after the event I wanted to take the stool outside and destroy it so it couldn’t hurt anyone else. Instead the owner just moved it aside temporarily and later it found its way back to the bar. It’s not hard to imagine someone else getting a serious concussion or cracked skull or even dying from a fall like that. Did he really want to be responsible for a serious injury over a cheap lousy $25 bar stool? Yes, I was drinking and a bit unstable myself, but drinking is what you do in a bar, so bar owners need to be aware of the risks involved and be doubly sure not to keep dangerous things around.

In this case there was a silver lining. My nose had been pointing left from a previous break. That latest break had it pointing in the right direction. It isn’t straight, mind you, but a least it’s pointing straight ahead.

More recently, a few years back there was an outdoor bar-restaurant here in Kampot, that was at times, very successful. The problem there was that the pathway to the toilet was very rough, with lots of places to stub a toe. In my case that meant diving head first into a concrete wall. Ouch, that sure hurt. It also drew lots of blood and evil looking scrapes. Fortunately I have a very hard head, so the damage was strictly on the surface, except for a raging headache. Yeah sure, I had drunk my quota and wasn’t entirely focused on where my feet were going, but again, drinking is what you do in a bar and many people get sloppy while drinking. And further, no matter how loopy I might’ve been, I would’ve never crashed if the pathway was a smooth surface. Yes, I’d made it to that pisser many times previously, but still, it was an accident waiting to happen.

In the first case the danger was very clear and easy to remediate, just get rid of the damn stool, the latter case was not so clear cut since it would’ve taken time and effort to make that path right so it’s understandable why the owner might not see the safety improvement as critical and even if he did, try to avoid correcting it since that was going to be a hassle. All I can say is, Be aware, you don’t want your negligence or indifference to be the cause of someone’s injury.

Dangerous plants. Another of my pet kvetches is nasty plants, or say plants that are very unfriendly if you get too close. The most iffy one you see around a lot is a member of the euphorbia family with the popular name of crown of thorns. It’s not a plant you want to have situated where people are moving close by, because if you get too close, or drunkenly fall into one, you’ll feel like a pincushion. It’s stems are covered with very sharp 2 cm long thorns. They are very popular in Kampot, you see them everywhere because they have two saving attributes: They are always in flower and they are practically indestructible; leave it without water for months and it’ll be stressed, but still alive and holding on.

One of the nicest plants around is bougainvillea. Mature plants can cover a whole building with beautiful flowers. The city of Kampot likes it so much they encourage property owners to plant lots of them. But, like the crown of thorns, it’s not one you want to get too close to since it also is covered with sharp thorns, though they’re not as treacherous as the euphorbia’s. I’ve seen them in places where you had to duck to avoid them… they need to be kept trimmed.

Defensive driving. It’s one of those musts for avoiding damage to oneself and others. I was driving my car in Phnom Penh some years ago when a car pulled in front of me, actually I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I was somehow offended and felt aggressive so I drove very close behind – I’ll show him –  and made a quick stop when he did… which caused a moto driver to almost hit me from behind. Now did I really want someone else to pay for my bad attitude? It wasn’t the first time I let my ego cause danger to others.

Meanwhile the little kiddies, some as young as six, are out in full force roaming the streets of Kampot in their little motorbikes weaving around traffic like pros, cutting you off and forcing quick stops and just generally treating driving around town as if it was a carnival ride.

I was going through a narrow spot with room enough for only my Tico and there’s a ten-year-old driving right at me forcing me to brake, he then does a deft fancy maneuver around me. In the first place, cars have the right-of-way over motorbikes in Cambodia, he should’ve let me pass. He can’t have had much experience at his age, yet he acts like he owns the road. Well, one time he’ll be a little too challenging, be a little too sure of himself, get a little too close and the other person might not have the time to respond before that young child becomes toast.

Kids should be on bicycles, it’s much healthier. Everybody should for short trips, it’s not only healthier but it’s quieter and doesn’t use fossil fuels or create pollution. Sure you can also get hurt on a bicycle, but they don’t go very fast and generally are less dangerous.

Rule by the rich. Last fall in the middle of a full remodel Madi bar was shut down by the owner of the building who bought out the lease. Madi had been an institution for at least 5 years with live music every Thursday drawing crowds. It was a fun, relaxed place and since it was owned by a Cambodian, it drew a mixed crew. It was a perfect place for music: few people lived on the block so there were few people to complain about it being loud. Even now, a year later most of the block is curiously vacant. But for the rich guy it was too funky. No matter how cool they may look, or friendly they may act, they like their upscaleness. They want a clean, trendy middle class look.  He couldn’t even deal with beautiful mature Areca palms, codeiums and other very large venerable plants that nearly formed a green canopy over the entrance: it was too messy, all had to go.

I sorely miss the bar. It was great to have a place to dance in old town, now the only dance venues are outside of town on the river. The worst was seeing that greenery go, it was sad, dispiriting and as far as I’m concerned, totally unnecessary.

Part of Kampot’s cache, its allure is in its funkiness. To me lack of perfection is perfection. While I can appreciate hip, beautiful, trendy design, I much prefer the realism of laidbackness, you know, the essence of Cambodia, the reason why we live here. Do we really want the middle class look to take over our town?

So I recently see him in a bar in another building he owns, enjoying the scene while, rumor has it, he’s plotting the bar’s removal and upgrading for a better clientele. Good vibes are evidently not enough. It’s also an institution and has been around for six years. In that case the owner of the bar won’t have a problem finding a new place. It probably won’t have the benefit of being on the riverside as his present place is, but his customers will certainly follow him wherever he goes. Not same for the former Madi bar’s owner since it’s very difficult to site a live music bar in old town, he’s been trying to no avail. Money rules.

I know I’ve beat the dead horse of lousy bar design repeatedly, but reasons to comment keep on battering me. Kampot has a new roof top bar: nice spot, good vibes, well attended, atrociously designed bar. It has no overhang, standard issue bar stools with the upper cross member too high for comfort – your knees are up around your chin (exaggerating slightly) – and the lower one unreachable unless you’re very tall. And there’s no rail or foot rest to compensate so your legs (my legs) start to go numb after a beer or two of hanging with no place to put them, after that I get antsy and want to move on. I may suffer and put up with it if I’m having a good time, but my back and legs will be complaining big time. If you’re young you can deal with being uncomfortable for a long time, but I no longer have that gift.

Another element of poor design is bars that are too tall which nonetheless have standard size stools. There are two recently built venues with that problem. Being relatively short, I feel like a little kid who can barely see over the bar top… again exaggerating… but still. If you’re building a bar, it’s design shouldn’t come off the top of your head, it should be based on real criteria and logic.

Finally, a word about crappers. I was at a friend’s new bar-restaurant, took a piss and tried to flush the toilet; didn’t work though it was only a month old. Three points to make on this. One; I assume almost all toilets sold in Cambodia are made in China, which doesn’t always mean poor quality, but often does. Still, to crap out after only one month? Most of course will work for quite a while before they start giving you shit. If you install one in your house and flush it maybe ten times a day, it could work fine for years, but if it’s in a bar and gets used 10 times an hour it won’t be long before it gives you hassles and headaches. Two; in Cambodia, with rare exceptions, men are going to make up 60% to 90% of a bar’s customer base. Three; if you also install a urinal, which needs far less maintenance, your flusher will work a lot longer before it starts giving you shit. It’s obviously best to have the urinal in its own space, but even if you don’t have the room and have to place it in the same room as the toilet, you’re still going to be far better off.

 

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Elections 2017 – Cambodia, UK, France

On June 4 Cambodia held a general election for commune leaders and councilors. Cambodia holds elections on two levels only, communes and the national legislature, which will take place next year. Everything in between; province and city leaders are all appointed by the ruling party.

The entire country is divided into 1646 communes, both urban and rural. In America we’d call them neighborhoods except here they have a lot more responsibility. That’s where people go to get ID cards and official papers stamped, for instance, so they do have an impact on people close to home. However, they don’t have a lot of power and over the commune leader’s head is a representative of the ruling party. They also don’t have much in the way of funding, being dependent on the central government for any public project.

In the election just passed the ruling CPP Cambodian People’s Party won 1158 communes, the opposition CNRP Cambodian National Rescue Party won 487. One commune was captured by a minor party. This was a loss for the ruling party from the last commune election when they won all but about 30 communes.

The actual vote in Cambodia was much closer with the CPP getting 51% and the CNRP getting 44%, the rest going to minor parties. The opposition does better in Phnom Penh where communes have more people than in rural areas. Those vote totals aren’t much different than the last general election in 2013, still it marks a real challenge to the ruling party’s control. Also some of the contests ran on local issues so might not reflect exactly on the people’s mood as a whole.

Several points stand out, the most remarkable being an astounding turnout of 86%. This is all the more exceptional considering that registration closed last October and many people had to return to their home towns to vote. And since the government created a new voter list for this election, everybody had to register anew. It was also the first time people were allowed to vote where they work, but not everybody was able to change their place of registration.

In contrast Oregon has one of the best turnouts in America. They make it very easy to vote. All voting is by mail, there’s no waiting in line to vote. You can register the day of the election. Every time you go to the Dept of Motor Vehicles they ask you if you want to register. With all that they still can’t beat Cambodia at 86%. The Cambodian people are committed to and passionate about the democratic system.

With some few exceptions the election was considered free and fair, for Cambodia a real achievement. However, while the election itself went off smoothly and peacefully, election observers consider the election to be tainted by pre-election media control and threats of violence on the part of the CPP. The PM went off into his usual threats of civil war and chaos if he doesn’t get reelected. Some of it is pure politics, the scare factor. Teresa May’s approach in the UKs election was similar… You must stay with us for stability and strength or else you’ll get a dangerous man like Jeremy Corbyn.

Some of it you have to take at face value. He has threatened to ‘eliminate’ 100 or 200 people if they try to run a revolution on him. His Defense Minister threatened to ‘smash the teeth’ of anybody who doesn’t accept the result in next year’s general election.

Okay, I got that, but what if he actually loses in a free and fair election? He and his crew actually believe that mayhem will follow the loss of the CPP. After 30 years in power would he graciously accept defeat?

He wants the legitimacy of elections and risks economic chaos if he stages a coup against a duly elected government. At least for a while, there would be sanctions, international pressure and general opprobrium. He’d wreck the very stability he runs on. The CPP has greatly increased prosperity over their long reign and people see great improvement in infrastructure and other facets of government, but displacement, land-grabbing, and widespread impunity and corruption are rankling to the masses.

Sometimes no matter how good a political situation might be, after 30 years people get tired and want to try something new. Also there are storm clouds on the economic horizon. Overbuilding of structures tailored for the upper classes in the capital will cause a general crash in property values, at least in the short term. Cambodians are heavily indebted to microfinance institutions, some 88% of rural Cambodians have borrowed from them. With interest rates so high many can only afford to pay interest and never pay the loans off. Any economic slowdown would cause many to default. I also think dependency on loans from China for many projects puts the country in a tenuous position.

The opposition on the other hand stuck to the issues, corruption, decentralization, money for communes. They have to be nice, otherwise the courts will come after them with a vengeance. But what about the people? There were some for sure who heard the CPPs message and felt pressured to vote for ‘stability’, but clearly most people said, meh, I’ll vote for who I want. A lot of people, in this case 44%, weren’t going to be cowed no matter how serious the threat. When popular activist Kem Lay was gunned down last year in suspicious circumstances mourners were told there could be no march. People defied the authorities and 200,000 showed up. They take their rights seriously.

The big election next year will be the test of how far democracy is allowed to go. Jailing and harassment of the opposition might achieve its goals in the short run but will only strengthen the people’s resolve and resentment of the ruling party’s ham-handed tendencies. It’ll be fascinating to watch.

Meanwhile, elections in the UK have created a miasmic morass of uncertainty and confusion. First there was PM David Cameron pandering to his right wing by holding a referendum on the UK leaving or remaining in the EU. It was a vote he was sure was going to be for staying, but instead went for Brexit. Personally, I think it’s dangerous to base such a momentous decision on a single plebiscite: it should’ve required two votes, especially since the vote was close, 52-48.

A lot of people on all sides of the political spectrum are angry at the status quo. Neoliberal policies born in the Thatcher/Reagan era have transferred wealth and power from the 99% to the 1%. The last time inequality was as extreme in the US was in 1929 and we all know how that turned out.

The same goes for the UK. Cosmopolitans and youth in the cities, as well as Scotland and N Ireland voted to stay. It was small town and rural voters who carried the referendum, people nostalgic for a long past past.

Teresa May who took over as Conservative PM when Cameron resigned after the Brexit vote saw an opportunity a couple months back when polls showed her riding high and called for a special election. She had said she wouldn’t call an election ahead of the one scheduled in the regular sequence of things, but couldn’t resist when polls showed her gaining 100 seats in Parliament.

Jeremy Corbyn her opponent was widely derided in the press and by his own Labour MPs who, being staunchly centrist and pro-business, wanted nothing to do with his leftist populist message. However rank and file Labour party members voted for him as leader by an overwhelming majority: this was seen by the establishment as a death knell for the party’s chances in the next election.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to the vote. The more people saw of May, the less they liked her, for Corbyn the exact opposite happened. Instead of a blowout in favor of the Tories, they lost seats and their parliamentary majority. It was a disaster for the party and a big dose of uncertainty going forward for the nation. The electorate was much less divided this time compared to the last election and both major parties gained a lot of votes. Conservatives went from 37% to 44%, Labour went from 30% to 41%.

As in the Brexit vote, young voters were extremely one side in their preference for Labour. All May could offer was her ‘Strong’ leadership along with austerity, hardship and feed-the-rich tax policies, whereas Corbyn talked about free college tuition, taxing the wealthy, nationalization of the railways and more national holidays. As to the last, the UK has only 5 national holidays, less than any other EU country. More time off to enjoy life was his message… imagine that.

Free tuition was also one of Bernie Sanders’ campaign planks. As in the US his opponents talked about that as if it were some impossible pie-in-the-sky populism, so lets look at that more closely.

I don’t know the details regarding the UK, so I’ll stick to US as an example. Bernie’s free tuition proposal for all public higher education would cost $69 billion per year based on the current number of students. American corporations have more than 2 trillion dollars stashed overseas to avoid paying taxes on it. If they were good corporate citizens (bwahahahaha, have you ever heard such a thing?) brought the money back and paid the 35% corporate income tax rate, that would amount to about $700 billion or enough to pay for the program for 10 years. Wealthy Americans have $20 trillion dollars in assets, if you tax that wealth at 1% you’d raise almost 3 times as much as the annual cost of the program. Just the 10 richest Americans could pay for the program for 5 years and each still have tens of billions to play with.

The program would actually cost more since a lot more people would be able to afford an education, but it would still be a pittance compared to the excessive wealth strewn about in the elite. And really, is it better for society to have the superwealthy wallow in their riches or educate everyone who wants? Cost is not the problem, our priorities are.

Corbyn represented a clash with the establishment and spoke to simple truths. He’s the real thing and youth especially knew it and responded.

Meanwhile May having lost her parliamentary majority has got a hell of a problem on her hands. She gets first crack at forming a new government, but she needs the help of a smaller party. Unfortunately, the only potential partner is a far right party in N. Ireland, but it’s not a good match. She may not be able to form a stable government, which job would then fall to Corbyn.

The other great point of confusion brought about by her loss is the beginning of Brexit negotiations. She campaigned on the idea of a hard Brexit, a complete break with the EU, but many Brits, maybe a majority would prefer a soft Brexit. If they had the option to vote again they might even decide to stay.

I think the Brexit vote will ultimately turn out for the best. The UK has always tried to stymie European cooperation and integration and frequently tried to exempt itself from EU wide policies. Brexit will be a grand experiment. It’s all in flux now, but if the exit goes through, I predict within 5 or 10 years they’ll be asking to join again. With more humility and respect for the whole project the next time.

Finally, France has a new president. Emmanuel Macron came from nowhere one year ago with a new party to sweep the presidential field and elect a majority in parliament. Once again the old-guard centrist parties were vanquished in favor of a totally new voice. In this case he’s decidedly centrist, but with a youthful twist. Not only that Macron himself, at 39, is the youngest French president in modern times, but the youth vote carried him to victory. And even in his very short time in office he’s shown himself to be a strong forceful leader.

His major goal is the reform of labor laws that discourage hiring and firing. In past attempts unions came out in force to thwart that goal but with a new mandate and control of government there’s nothing to stop change now. I have great sympathy for the working class but in this case it protects people who are already working while discriminating against those who aren’t. It also protects underperformers while leaving the young out in the dust. The only mitigating factor in today’s cutthroat world would be a generous safety net to cushion job losses and insecurity.

It is heartening that in all three contests mentioned it was the youth who were forward looking and progressive, the voice and direction of the future, giving hope that politics can change.

As a final note I’d like to bring up a voting system variously called preference, ranked choice or instant runoff, a system currently used in Ireland and Australia. France just held 4 votes in one month. Both the presidential and legislative elections required runoffs for contests in which no candidate achieved a majority. By the fourth vote, voter fatigue pushed turnout down to 40%.

Instant runoff guarantees a majority on the first ballot. The voter chooses candidates by ranking their preference, first, second, third. If there’s no majority winner, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their second choice votes are divided up among the remaining candidates. This happens until a candidate gets a majority. For instance, if I were voting in the UK under that system, I’d always vote Green first. It doesn’t matter that I know the Green candidate has no chance of winning because my second choice would be Labour. If the Conservative (or another party candidate) won a majority in the first round, then it didn’t matter who I voted for. If another party didn’t win there’s still a chance my second choice might win.

Instant runoff eliminates the spoiler role minor party candidates play in electing the voter’s worst choice, like the way that votes for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000 helped elect GW Bush. There are lots of reasons why Gore lost the presidency, but the Green party vote for Nader was undoubtedly one of them. With preference voting the Dems and Greens would work together instead of slamming each other.

 

 

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Climate change, Kampot, Cambodia

Climate Change – Kampot – Cambodia

 

The debate over climate change rages among the commoners but within the near-consensus of the scientific community the question has long been settled. 97% of climate scientists are in agreement on the matter, most of the remaining 3% are in the employ of the extractive fossil industry. In the eyes of the deniersphere, that hotbed of alternative facts, the 97% have created a hoax to further their own careers. These people, who’ve spent eight years in rigorous study to earn their doctorates, who’ve immersed their lives in science and the scientific method somehow all decided independently (or maybe they have a secret network) to essentially go back on all the principles they studied so hard to learn and just lie, make things up to create cushy jobs for themselves. Baloney, absurd, ridiculous, doesn’t pass the smell test, a non-sequiter. Meanwhile, they have no problem trusting the tiny part of the scientific community that’s being paid to spread industry propaganda.

In the above regard the ultimate crime is owned by Exxon, as they knew back in the late 1970s that, according to their own researchers, build up of CO2 in the atmosphere was going to be a problem. The bosses didn’t take kindly to that information as acting on it would eliminate their profit base so they spent some $30 million in the next couple of decades funding climate denial. The company is now being sued by some 14 attorneys general because of the damage that misinformation has done.

What does a warming climate mean for Cambodia? The Super El Nino of last year is an indicator of some of the changes we can expect. The El Nino phenomenon is caused by a warming of tropical Pacific waters and that brings us drought; super refers to ocean temps that were much warmer than typical El Nino warm. Last year brought water shortages in many places, a delay in planting crops and the highest temp ever recorded in Cambodia, 41.7C or 107F. Subsequent to El Nino we had a neutral or very mild La Nina that brought us ample rain, but it’s very weak and we may be headed right back into another difficult El Nino. The oceans are warming, which might have cancelled out the preferred, otherwise more likely La Nina conditions.

Being near the sea Kampot will never get as warm as the interior, though still plenty hot enough, but we also have other climate change problems to deal with. Rising seas being the number 1. There’s been a lot of glacial melt feeding the oceans and water expands as it warms and we sit very close to sea level. Sea level rise is already happening: In the Mekong delta salt water has intruded up to 100 kms inland, rendering rice cultivation impossible in those areas. It’ll probably be a long time before the sea rises to permanently flood our town, but regular flooding events might not be uncommon and require sea walls and other defenses to save our little burg.

Climate Change doesn’t preclude extremes of cold. Every time it’s cold somewhere, deniers will say, Global warming my ass, it was really cold here yesterday. Almost every day of the year there’ll be some places that are exceptionally cold as well as hot, but what we are seeing now is about 10 record highs for every record low.

In the process of debating the issue, I’ve done quite a bit of research.

The first graph shows rise in global temps from 1880 to the present.

multigraph

This chart is from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s for November, not the whole year. I didn’t realize that at first, but now that the Trump administration has scrubbed the site of any mention of climate change, the annual one is no longer available. The annual one would be very similar, except it would be more evened out. The last 40 years would be the same, showing a relentless climb, but notice the highest high is much further from the average than the lowest low. If you separated out the first 100 years you’d see a normal up and down pattern.

This next graph shows global temperatures and CO2 on the top two lines.

800px-vostok_petit_data-svg

As you can see they track very closely. When one is up, the other is up and vice versa. It doesn’t matter in this context which came first, they go together. It also is of no import what triggered those changes, though I’d certainly be interested to know. When the earth is in a deep ice age the CO2 ranges around 180 to 200. There’s a lot less vegetation, so less CO2. I was quite surprised to see that most of the last 400,000 years have been much colder than we’re used to. If we hadn’t pumped so much CO2 in the atmosphere, based on looking at the past, we might well have been slated for much colder times. I expect we’ll skip the next ice age until the earth regains its balance. Just speculation, I’m not a scientist.

It’s not changes in the sun’s intensity that have caused global warming. Solar intensity has been declining of late even as temperatures have been rising.

tvstsi

In the last 10,000 years or so, the time we know of as civilization, CO2 has ranged between 260 and 280 ppm and temperatures have been in that Cinderella range of not too hot or too cold. Sure, during that period there were very cold times, mini ice ages, if you will, and droughts and very hot times, but temps did not stray very far from average.

Since the industrial revolution CO2 has risen to 400ppm, way above the top line in the graph. There’s no possible, plausible natural way for that to have happened in such a short time frame absent the burning of fossil fuel producing greenhouse gases.

The last time CO2 was that high was at least 800,000 years ago, some sources say up to 20m years, and at that time the temperature was 3C higher. Most of the recent extra greenhouse-caused heat has gone into the oceans. They act as a giant heat sink absorbing vast amounts of CO2 so it should take quite a long time to reach that 3C threshold. So far temps have risen only less than 1 degree and already climate extremes are playing havoc with the earth’s natural systems. Even the relatively small amount of rising water temps has had devastating effects. A very large portion of the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia has bleached and died from rising temperatures and that’s being replicated in many reefs around the world. We are still pumping billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere and there seems no end to how high CO2 levels will go. Countries are giving themselves decades to clean up their acts when we’ve already hit the danger zone.

Rising sea temperatures intensify tropical storms. Last year a tropical storm in very warm waters off the coast of Mexico intensified from a category 1 storm with 125kph winds to a superstorm of 360kph winds in just 24 hours, breaking all records for wind speed and speed of intensification. It was a small storm and luckily hit off a remote, sparsely inhabited coast so damage was minimal.

If temps in every part of the planet rose proportionally, GW would be relatively easy to handle, but what it really does is accentuate the extremes of droughts and floods. As temps rise air holds increasing amounts of water so when it does rain we can expect more intense rain events. Higher temps also means increasing evaporation so the land dries out faster.

What I don’t get is why anyone would think burning lots of coal is a good idea even if CO2 were not problem. What is it about pollution and land degradation that makes them so giddy? A friend said, We’ve got 500 years of coal and cheap electricity, why bother with renewables?

Do they get a rush when they see pics of smog in Beijing? That smog is one reason why coal is cheap, since a large part of the cost of burning coal is externalized; for instance, the cost of treating people with respiratory problems caused by pollution from coal burning is not included in the cost of the coal; everybody else – governments, individuals – pays it, so in the end result, it’s not actually cheap.

Even if burning coal did not create a greenhouse gas, there are lots of other reasons why it’s a terrible idea. For one, the oceans absorb a lot of CO2, turning the water more acidic, which then plays havoc with shellfish who are having difficulty making their shells in that acidic water. Are we willing to give up shellfish for the sake of cheap energy from fossil fuels?

Every stage of the use of coal to generate electricity is an environmental challenge.

And now with the widespread use of fracking to extract gas and oil, they’re not much better than the coal alternative since large amounts of methane is released in the process. Methane is 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 on a twenty year timetable. It’s not as prevalent as CO2, and it doesn’t last as long, but the warming of the arctic where temps have risen much faster than in temperate and tropical regions has the potential to create a methane bomb since very large amounts are locked up in permafrost and ice. Also very often fracking pollutes ground water: it’s being permanently destroyed (at least for thousands of years) for the sake of profits today, is that a worthy, intelligent trade-off?

Nonetheless, coal is still the worst. Formerly coal was produced in deep mines – still is in places like China. They were terrible for the worker’s health, but a least they didn’t impact the surface. Today all new mines in the western world are either open pit or mountain top removal. If you’re in the Australian outback where the land is desert scrub and nobody cares much about it and it’s far from any place where people live, then as ugly as the mine may be and as destructive as it is to the landscape, not much fuss is made about it and nobody has to witness the scars upon it.

That’s how it’s done in the American west, but in Appalachia in the east coal is extracted via mountain top removal. What they do is take a mountain covered with trees, strip it bare then use dynamite to blow off its top. They then push the remaining debris into the nearby streambed polluting the stream with heavy metals and destroying it for at least hundreds of generations. What’s left after the coal has been removed is a moonscape. Sure, if the miners took the time to save the topsoil so it could be replaced after they finished their extraction and kept the rocky debris out of the streambed it could regenerate in a few generations, but of course they don’t since that would cost a lot of money and the coal would no longer be cheap.

Then there’s transporting the fossil fuel. Oil and gas go in pipelines, notorious for leaking. In addition, oil pipelines in cold areas need to be heated to keep the oil flowing. Coal is usually moved in huge coal trains or shipped around the world. All movement of fossil fuels requires lots of energy.

Then the burning of fossil fuels, but especially coal, produces other pollutants besides CO2. And finally, after you burn coal you still have mountains of toxic coal ash to deal with.

Fortunately, in an amazingly short time wind and solar have become competitive in cost and in the US they make up the majority of new energy sources. Unfortunately, the forces of regression in the US are trying to make solar more expensive: in Nevada, for instance, the Republican state legislature wants to penalize people who install solar (Wanna guess who’s financing their campaigns?). Still, the movement’s unstoppable. Economically, in many parts of the world, it no longer makes sense to build new fossil fuel facilities.

Deniers complain about the cost: Converting is too expensive, it’s not worth it, they say. We can’t afford it. Not worth spending the money to have a clean environment? It definitely wouldn’t be cheap. One trillion dollars a year for a decade would still leave much of the US dependent on fossil fuels, but the country would be a long ways towards a clean environment and provide millions of jobs that can’t be outsourced. One trillion dollars is only about 7% of GDP.

Cambodia is trying to get most of its electricity from hydropower, which is good in theory except when the dams reduce fish populations. Cambodians get 80% of their protein from fish. A government spokesman once said, The people will be happy to have cheap electricity, but I’d bet they’d rather have fish to catch and eat. The other major problem with depending on hydro is drought. In the hottest months, when electricity is needed most, there’s insufficient water to generate much power.

It’s the Chinese who are financing and building coal power plants here. It’s really not the thing to do in today’s world, but they come ‘free’. In quotes because the Chinese drive hard bargains. Most such contracts to build and operate power plants (and not just the Chinese) include clauses that guarantee the builder a certain minimum profit, whether the plant is used or not. We’ll have to pay for that power even if we don’t want it.

The people in government love coal, but Cambodia has great potential for solar and hopefully someone will step up to produce large-scale solar power here. We do have a company in Cambodia – Star8 – that produces solar buses and tuk-tuks. For not much more cost than a motorbike and trailer, you can get a tuk-tuk that’ll go thirty kms on a day’s sunshine, 80 kms when the batteries are fully charged. They are very quiet compared to combustion engines and very simply designed. The only complexity being the electronic controls.

The new Coca-Cola plant in Phnom Penh gets 1/3 of its energy from the sun.

The future is in renewables.

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development

Birthdays Party and Kampot Double Bubble.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Kampot, Cambodia, Uncategorized

Bugger II – Kampot

 

The Tico saga continues. After receiving payment for the destruction of my little bugger at the hands of the cop’s drunken son, I had to think about what to do with the wreck. Back in the day when I had tools and the constitution to work on vehicles I would’ve parted it out and saved every tiny thing of any value, not just the almost new tires and good motor, but lights, wires, steering wheel, brakes, suspension, just about everything. But today, after just 30 seconds of bending over an engine my back starts to hurt.

So in order to save it, I’d’ve had to pay a mechanic to do the work and have the parts hauled over to my house, possibly to sit there for a long time gathering dust and rust. Besides I needed the $170 I got for the wreck to help pay for another car, which had to be a Tico since it’s the only car I can afford. There was nothing available in Kampot aside from a guy who specializes in fixing and sprucing them up and then charging a very pretty penny for them, certainly more than I could afford.

My only alternative seemed to be Phnom Penh where a website had three available. Moving around the capital can be a big hassle and it’s never a good idea to buy an old untested car and immediately take a road trip with it, so I hesitated. Then a friend noticed a new entry on the website for one located in Sihanoukville. It was advertised for $800 and looked identical to mine, same color, everything. I hadn’t been there in more than a decade, though it’s only 100k, and was curious, besides it’s a far simpler place to do things so I had to look at it.

And I had to buy it even though it had a serious motor problem. I was told it had had motor work done, but as the seller remarked, Khmer mechanics sometimes leave worse problems than they solve. But I’d been without a car for more than two months and though I’d been able to get around fairly well on my bicycle, and really appreciate the exercise, I was really hankering to get four wheels again… especially going home late at night with snarly dogs barking at my feet. I also needed it to carry stuff for my garden. I couldn’t see myself returning to Kampot empty-handed, so to speak.

The deciding factor was it being a virtual clone of the first bugger and that it’s in better shape than the first in several ways. Also, amazingly, the odometer had stopped working at almost exactly the same place as the first one, 202,000k. It made the journey back from Snookyville just fine and not long later I took it to my mechanic for some smallish problems and an estimate on the motor: he hears the motor and says it’ll probably cost $300. What? I remark figuratively, it’s a tiny 3 cylinder, 783cc motor that I can practically carry around even with my decrepit back. Yes, he says, but it costs the same to rebuild it as it does to rebuild a 4 cylinder 2200 Toyota. I was hoping for maybe a hundred or so for the repair. The motor doesn’t smoke and sounds good generally except for a piston slap problem at high revs, so if I were still in the trade, I’m sure I could do it cheaply.

Right off the bat, even as I was paying for the new one, I wished I’d saved the wreck. Not only did it have a good motor and a set of almost new tires – I bought two new ones for $75 just for the ride home from Sihanoukville – but the only body problem the new one has, except for the plastic bumpers and a grill held together with wire, is a hood that needs painting. In spite of the totalist nature of the wreck of the first, it had a perfect hood.

It’s also the nature of not having much money. The money not received for the wreck plus the cost of parting it out, would’ve set me back another month or two in the quest for a new car, so a double bind.

Barring another unexpected smashup, I’ll probably have it till I die or can no longer drive: I am 75 after all and I believe in doing whatever it takes to keep one running. I wrote an article back in March 2014 titled, An Old Car is Like a Wife. Once I get one, I’m virtually married to it. Whatever she needs, I give it to her, begrudging or otherwise. Getting a new one only sets you up for more unforeseen problems, Why not stick with what you know and have already learned about and dealt with? That attitude isn’t possible anymore in the states unless you can do the work yourself since $80 per hour for shop time makes even smallish jobs hellishly expensive. Here shop time is about $30 per day – though admittedly the quality is not always the same – and you can afford the money to try to make it all work right.

Unfortunately, my credit line is maxed out so it’ll take a few months before I can save the money to get the motor done and it’ll require lots of prayers and a feather light touch to keep it from blowing up before then.

Meanwhile, I got it just in time for very rainy weather, even bordering on deluge occasionally. We’ve only had a few hours of sun in two weeks. Starting on the 7th of August until the 21st as I write this it’s rained every day with two days of 70 and 77mm. Except for those two extreme days, it’s been in an odd pattern of raining hard for short periods five or ten times a day. I don’t remember such an unusual pattern (of course, there’s lots I don’t remember). At the same time that we on the coast have been hit hard, just 20 km inland, they’re in a drought. Unfortunately we don’t have a functioning weather station in Kampot so all predictions are made from a distance, so to speak. Though I’m an anti-TV freak, this is one time when an American style TV weather report would come in handy, you know; high pressure ridge, low stationary front, stuff like that.

Even though I did fine without a car for two months and really appreciate the exercise and would do fine again without one, I’ve gotten lazy: Especially if I think I’ll be coming home late I figure I’ll be better off with four wheels. Once I’ve had my fill of brew, two wheels can get a bit dicey. I always drive slowly and carefully at night and never get that drunk and there’s hardly anybody on the road, so it’s hard to find someone to hit, even if you had a mind to it.

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Kampot has been really slow this month, hardly any tourists passing through. The summertime mini-high season has barely been felt. People keep opening up new venues in spite of it all. If they can survive through the rainy season, they’ve got it made.

Wunderbar, a mainstay on the riverside for about 5 years, has closed for good. They’ll be missed by many. Madi Bar has been closed for renovations for two months now and is expected to open again in October… it promises to be greatly improved. For years it was the place to go on Thursday nights, a gathering of the tribes and a place to catch the Kampot Playboys. It’s been sorely missed by this old dancing fool. And without a car for the previous two months I wasn’t able to get across the river to Banyan Tree, the other place to catch the Playboys. I did however get my new wheels just in time for its 1st anniversary party; must’ve been at least 150 people dancing and having fun long into the night. It’s a very pleasant spot on the river and the rain held off for the duration… it’s mostly not under cover.

As for the Playboys, I’ve now heard them about 100 times and every time is so good, it’s like the first time. I can’t think of any band anywhere that I’d want to hear so often, but with the charismatic Chiet on guitar and vocals, a driving rhythm that won’t let you be still, and a crew so tight after playing together for years, you just gotta love ‘em even if all the vocals are in Khmer and you can’t understand a word.

Kampot now has a laundry-café, you know, have a drink or light meal while you do your laundry. Myself, I can’t think of a less attractive way to spend an hour or two, not only having to do my own laundry when it’s already so cheap to have it done.. and ironed, but the idea of all that whirring and chugging in the background while you’re hanging out, chillin’? I do however see people there and I wish them luck.

Several floating restaurants have set up on the river, some garishly lit up. They’re not supposed to set up permanently. Some are cruise boats that return around sunset and turn into bars or eateries. One just moves every day a short distance on the river and then returns next evening. The overly bright ones are a drag on the river’s ambiance and all together if there are too many it’ll degrade the experience. There may be a conflict with the authorities at some point, especially if a lot more turn up in high season.

There’s a boutique hotel just opened up. It’s appropriately called Kampot Boutique Hotel. The building is very classy and beautifully designed, I was impressed right from the beginning. There are people who come here who like and can afford creature comforts so they should do well. However it’s part of a syndrome which probably won’t end well. There’s a old saying: If you find the perfect place, don’t stay because it won’t be perfect anymore. As soon as a place gets ‘discovered’ it gets inundated with seekers of that ‘ideal’ spot.

The prime minister came to visit in early August and got the message from the citizenry – I’m not sure of the circumstances – that they wanted the old bridge reopened. As if by magic, within a few days, after about a year and a half of being closed off, it’s now open to pedestrians and two-wheelers. The closing had caused extra and unnecessary congestion on the new bridge and forced a circuitous route of at least an extra kilometer for many, so it’s a very welcome change.

Until 2010 it was our only bridge and carried all manner of vehicles except the really large ones. After the new one opened, it was progressively closed off to trucks and then cars. At a certain point the heavy metal plates that had reinforced the roadway were removed because they were curling at the ends and creating hazards. That then created a new hazard: There were rusted channels a half meter long or so and just wide enough for a moto tire to get caught in. After that happened a few times, it was completely sealed off… for no apparent reason, since a simple direction from the PM had it reopened in three days. A lot of people, probably including the local authorities, think it’s structurally unsound and it’s certainly not a place you’d want to see used by heavy vehicles, but bikes and motos could never be a problem and if the bridge were to fail under that miniscule load, it’d be easy to detect way ahead of time.

 

The above situation leads to a question of when Cambodia’s democracy (whatever there is of it) will graduate to letting people choose their mayors and governors. We now have commune elections on the lowest level of government – there are about 1700 in Cambodia – and national elections for parliament, but nothing in between. Because of that disconnect, local officials, who are all appointed by the ruling party, have little incentive to listen to their constituents and free reign to carry out their pet projects without question or challenge. For a word from the PM and a very small effort we have something the people have wanted for a long time. By the above I don’t mean to imply that our local government hasn’t done a pretty good job overall, just that a little citizen input would always make a difference.

We expats live in Cambo because of the opportunities it affords us, the low cost, the lifestyle of easy and minimal rules, and for many the great friends we’ve made. In parallel we complain about the corruption and inefficiencies of life, but I never lose sight of the fact that in many ways the US is just as corrupt and unfair.

For instance, the recent murder of Kem Ley, highly respected and loved by a large segment of the population, cast a shadow over the country. His funeral march, in a great outpouring of grief, stretched for 4 kilometers. The local government insisted it could only be a motorcade with no pedestrians, but overwhelming numbers, probably in the hundreds of thousands, overruled the rulers and the march went on without incident. However, one of the greatest events of the year wasn’t covered by any of Cambodia’s TV stations. They all had lame excuses, like it was Sunday so nobody was working, or trivial things too trivial for me to even remember.

All the TV stations in Cambodia are owned by or aligned with the ruling party so they had no interest in covering the event. In the agreement in 2014 that ended the opposition’s boycott of parliament, they were granted a TV license, which they are still trying to get together. But really, with smart phones and social media, TV has far less sway than in the past. Moreover, the little people of this country knew Kem Ley was someone they could trust to speak out. The PM insisted he had nothing to do with his murder saying he had nothing to gain, which is at least partially true since just about everybody in the country who isn’t a diehard CPP supporter has assumed that he or someone in the party was behind it. Still, an important and independent (he also criticized the opposition at times) voice was silenced and fear was generated in others who are called to speak out.

How’s that stack up with the US? The head of one of America’s broadcast TV channels said that Trump might be bad for America but he was good for their profits: The result was they gave him 82 minutes of free air time on their nightly newscast in 2015. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, who drew more people to his rallies than any other candidate on either side was given 20 seconds. Is that any different than Cambodia?

 

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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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