Monday, January 25, 2010

Film about Cambodia int'l premiere at Sundance

Enemies of the People
Rob Lemkin, Thet Sambath 2009
Categories: World Cinema Documentary Competition, First Feature, Political

A young journalist whose family was killed by the Khmer Rouge befriends the perpetrators of the Killing Fields genocide, evoking shocking revelations. International Premiere

Link to sundance site and photos here. About the film:
Run time: 93 min. | Cambodia, United Kingdom | Language: Khmer with English subtitles | color
The Khmer Rouge slaughtered nearly two million people in the late 1970s. Yet the Killing Fields of Cambodia remain unexplained. Until now. Enter Thet Sambath, an unassuming, yet cunning, investigative journalist who spends a decade of his life gaining the trust of the men and women who perpetrated the massacres. From the foot soldiers who slit throats to Pol Pot's right-hand man, the notorious Brother Number Two, Sambath records shocking testimony never before seen or heard. Having neglected his own family for years, Sambath's work comes at a price. But his is a personal mission. He lost his parents and his siblings in the Killing Fields. Amidst his journey to discover why his family died, we come to understand for the first time the real story of Cambodia's tragedy.

Codirectors Rob Lemkin and Sambath create a watershed account of Cambodian history and a heartfelt quest for closure on one of the world’s darkest episodes.
Film Contact
Rob Lemkin
Phone: +44 7889 441378

Saturday, January 23, 2010

New Siem Reap night market shut down

I've been MIA because I've had a very hectic couple of weeks. First, 2 days in Singapore for a photoshoot for the new Blackberry ads (apparently I am "distinctly bold" like the new phone - it's called the Blackberry Bold.) Then to Phnom Penh to meet with a lovely US customer who wants to be more involved with Bloom, possibly by setting up another sewing workshop, and then an interview with regional Mandarin channel Xinya. The show on Bloom will be broadcast in at least 8 countries which is cool. There will be an English version but the Mandarin one is important because, says the producer, "the notion of NGOs is still in its early phase in East Asia" (although Bloom is not an NGO but a social enterprise; the difference? we don't rely on donations).

So I just got back to Siem Reap on Thursday. While in Phnom Penh I heard news that the new Siem Reap Night Market was shut down. We have 2 stalls there. At first, we were told the market would be shut for just three days and the explanation given was an important person from Phnom Penh was visiting and they did not want that person to know about the market.

Of course, that turned out to be false. The reality is the market never did get official permission to operate.

I had heard about the market only because I help Douk, the handicapped bookseller. The booksellers know everything that goes around town because they move around the town everyday peddling their books. There were no ads about the new night market, and word spread by mouth. As a foreigner, I would never have heard about it if not for Douk. By the time he encouraged me to get a couple of stalls at the market, there were only 6 left - everything had been grabbed by people in the know. At US$400 a stall, I took 4, planning to flip a couple. Later I heard there was a Korean guy who bought "many, many" with the same intention. We wondered how he had learnt about the market.

The rent for each stall is $50 a month and an option was also to rent out for a higher price if the market turns out well. I was lucky because just three days after the market opened, I had people queuing up to buy my stalls. I sold two of them at a 50% profit each. As I expected, the price would go up, because business was so brisk. Indeed just before they shut the market, people were asking - and getting - double what they paid. I had let the stalls go quickly because I am happy to make a small profit.

The lady I sold my stalls to had already 2 stalls of her own, as well as a standalone souvenir shop in one of the p'tair l'wairngs (Khmer terrace houses) around the old market. Her business was so good, in three days, she had decided it was worth expanding. Her nephew had also bought 4 stalls, second-hand, at US$500 each. So I learnt some of the "proper" shop owners had also stalls at the night market which proved to be profitable.

So I was surprised to read that some of the shopkeepers were upset. One, Khoun Naren, manager and co-owner of Cherry Blossom Boutique, which is housed in a p'tair l'wairng too, told the Phnom Penh Post: “It’s not good. It’s difficult for firemen to enter the street. They pay cheap rent while we pay $1,500. We’re working on fighting it.”

(As an aside, it's incredible Cherry Blossom pays $1500 monthly rent for one terrace house - they must have to sell a helluva lot of clothes. I find that really overpriced because it's not even on Pub Street. I was told another upmarket clothing boutique, albeit smaller, on that same street just a few doors away from Cherry Blossom pays only $500 and this guy rented the shop only last year, whereas Cherry Blossom has been in the same house for years. Update 25Jan - I was just told last night rents on Pub Street are now $2500 a month. Incredible.)

The other people who are upset are of course the vendors and owners of two other night markets here in Siem Reap town: the Noon Night Market and the original Angkor Night Market, Siem Reap's first night market. The problem is the new night market is very centrally located, just off Pub Street, which means tourists do not need to make the 5 minute walk across Sivatha Boulevard to the other 2 markets.

While we're at it, I was amazed to read the owner of the Noon Night Market made so much noise about the new night market, because he himself annoyed the original Angkor Night Market when he opened a replica night market on the same street leading to the original.

At that time, vendors in the original Angkor Night Market were upset with the Noon Night Market because after all that advertising and promotion the first market did, tourists were waylaid on the way to the original market and in the confusion, a) believed the Noon Night Market to be the Siem Reap Night Market and b) if they knew there were 2 night markets on that street, they thought there was no need to visit the other (original) one which is further down the street, since Cambodian markets tend to sell almost exactly the same products.

I actually have a shop at the original market, which I signed up for last year. I chose the original Angkor Night Market because I prefer the ambience. It turned out to be a disaster for Bloom though. In short, other vendors came round to copy our ideas then sold the same bags for a third of our prices. I am now deciding what to do with that shop because clearly Bloom, as a social enterprise which believes in fair treatment of workers, cannot compete with the other vendors who pay piece-rate for sewers to make the bags. How fair? Our sewers get a minimum US$70 a month for a 40 hour work week in addition to 28 days paid holidays annually, plus regular bonuses. As I had written in one of my earliest posts, I believe the carrot approach to management is more useful than the stick.

Still, I may keep that stall and sell cheap souvenirs from Thailand and Vietnam which is what most tourists to this country seem to expect. Or I may let it go because in business I've learnt, you win some, you lose some.

I should point out the reason why the new night market is so cheap to rent - there is no storage space. Every single night at 6pm the tents go up and at midnight they come down again. So every single night, vendors have to take their stock from wherever and put up the lights and shelving and what not. By the time we are set up, it is almost 7pm. It is a royal pain in the arse. We keep our stock in the Bloom shop one block away and every night we have to wheel it to the night market. You should see our shop - it's like a warehouse cum retail space. Some nights I think I am insane to have the night market stall. Yet the location is much better than our shop in terms of traffic.

Anyway, back to the fiasco. So the vendors, including me, were given an option: either get your money back on a specific date or join hands in protesting against the shut down. If you take back your money, though, don't expect to get a new stall should we win the protest, said the company. On the other hand, if we stick together and protest, we will get a portion our money back should we lose. I decided to join in the protest because I would not lose too much since I had already made back some money. I thought it was worth the risk.

Before taking on the shop, we had already known the success of the market was contingent on the authorities allowing the company to use the street. The owner reassured us by saying there was no problem. But even if there were, "you lose small money, but I lose big money."

We'll know the results on Monday. I'm chalking this down as another experience and business lesson learned in Cambodia.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Meanwhile, forced evictions continue in Phnom Penh

From which provides a valuable service translating news from Cambodian language dailies. This one is a translation from the Cambodian newspaper Kampuchea Thmey, Vol.8, #2138, 31.12.2009. Excerpt:
“In the morning of 30 December 2009, some armed forces were found deployed since 3:00 a.m. until 12:00 o’clock in the compound of the Sereypheap Market, when the enforcement of warrant began, while all vendors were shouting to protest, raising banners and photos of Samdech Dekchor Hun Sen and of Her Excellency [his wife]. Finally, the protest could just make them cry, as the authorities implemented the warrant by deploying security forces around the area of the market, locked the gates of the market, and totally demolished the market."

NGO told to leave town

I first noticed Senhoa on my way to our Vet. Senhoa Nail and Spa was set up by Voice (Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment) as a social enterprise for vulnerable women (I believe the focus is on ethnic Vietnamese women, as many of these women end up in the sex trade due to crushing poverty). The women were trained to provide manicures and pedicures. It was a lovely shop, nicely decorated and just a couple of doors away from the Vet.

I noticed it's been shut for more than a month now and this was what I found. Apparently they were given 24 hours to leave the country:

From the Phnom Penh Post NGO GETS THE BOOT:
"Siem Reap NGO, Voice (Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment) was given 24 hours to quit the Kingdom early this month. They got their departure notice on a Monday afternoon and were gone by Tuesday evening.

Voice’s dramatic exit has caused shockwaves among Siem Reaps’ NGOs, who feared this was part of a purge prompted by the prospective NGO law.

But Voice personnel told 7Days the official reason they had been ordered to leave was because they were not registered.

The Washington-based NGO recently opened the Senhoa Nail Spa Centre in Siem Reap to provide alternative employment for young woman who might otherwise enter the sex trade. The NGO was very active in the Viet-expat arena locally and certainly probed some delicate issues."
I had met a couple of the founders of the NGO, two young women from the US who were ethnic Vietnamese. They had popped in the shop and asked a lot of questions about setting up a social enterprise and I even told them to bring around the jewellery made by the women in their programme (they also taught jewellery making) as I can put them in the shop for them to test the market.

They seemed very sincere, very idealistic and like most Americans I meet, a little brash. I wonder what's the real story behind their sudden departure. I've heard rumours that they had a blog and were critical of the Cambodian government.

Since I also blog, I'd quite like to know what are the limits, or as we say in Singapore, the OB ("out-of-bound") markers. ("The term is adopted from golf, where an out of bounds marker denotes the area beyond which playing is not allowed. However, unlike golf, the OB markers of Singaporean political discourse are not visible. The term "OB markers" was first used in 1991 by the then-Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo to describe the boundaries of acceptable political discourse." From wikipedia)

Not that I expect a clear answer from the Cambodian authorities. I am constantly amazed how similar the government in Cambodia is to that in Singapore - I suspect they've taken more than one leaf out of the Singapore government's management handbook.

Anyway, I sent Senhoa an email a few days ago, partly because I am still keen on carrying their jewellery especially since now I have a shop at the new night market, but also to find out the truth. Maybe now that they are out of the country, they'll be able to speak more openly. I hope they reply.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Social Enterprise hotel in Palawan

"When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse." - environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken.

I have been in touch with Marcus, a young German man, whom I met in Cambodia when I took his Insead class on a tour of Cambodia's social enterprises.

He wrote to me in August to tell me he was volunteering to set up a social enterprise hotel in the small town of Port Barton on the Island of Palawan.

Marcus kept a blog,, for his short stint on the island (Paul Hawken quote and sunset photo both from Marcus's blog). It is interesting how many of the challenges in the Philippines are the same as in Cambodia. Here is an excerpt:
We're trying to get a frenchman living on one of the neighbouring islands on board to help us with the redesign of the hotel. He currently fights his own fight against the tourism development, has the local government and corporations try to evict him from the island to build large scale hotels. There are a million reasons why that is not a good idea (like some species only exists there) and a handful of laws that actually prohibit any development there. But still the process moves along happily. In an email today he described the philippines as "a country where greed and corruption are not part of the system, but are the system." Somehow that seems to fit some of the stuff I am observing.
The people trying to throw the Frenchman off the island are also responsible for logging - there's a surprise. Never content, the rich and powerful always have their fingers in more than one pie.

Another concern for island life is of course marine life. Marcus writes:
"Dynamite fishing in the last decade, now cyanide fishing. I would like to work with the local community and tourism businesses to set up a "no-take marine reserve", i.e., a zone where any form of fishing is not allowed and, better yet, access is controlled. This would reserve some space for corals and marine life to exist, which would benefit tourism and the fishermen alike (so called spill over effects). I'll try to talk to a dive operator (the last one in town, all the others are gone because the diving sites have been destroyed) tomorrow. She has tried this effort before, but hopefully with another hotel saying that we need a no-take zone, plus educational efforts in the community, we might be successful in a year or so."
It was funny to read how the locals try to befriend a foreigner the moment they can. Marcus made the mistake of giving his phone number to a teenager and one day received 12 missed calls from him. Another time he found this note on his bag when he left it at a check in counter at a shopping centre:

He writes: "As much as I would like to believe that the security guard would like to be my friend because of my character, style, and because he whole heartedly agrees with my views about how to protect the environment in this country, I somehow don’t think that’s the case. Probably more some joke like the one I experienced earlier. Or he’s trying to get money. Of which foreigners, as we all know, have endless supplies." LOL.

New Bloom Milk box wallets

Check out Bloom's new recycled milk box wallets. Kamhut designed these a few months ago and they've been a hit! We buy the cartons from our resident rubbish collector and we pay him more per kg than what rice costs, so it's good money for him, and we get to do our part by recycling the boxes into practical wallets. Everything we do we try to follow the Bloom Motto: "Help the Poor, Help the Planet".  We're selling these original, handmade wallets for USD5. They are not laminated with plastic so don't get them soaking wet. 

Plastic is a problem. Some customers like our ricebags to be laminated because it makes them waterproof and last longer. But the plastic is not biodegradable because Cambodia does not make them. We can import, but I try not to because of the carbon footprint. I will see if we can find clean, used plastic as an option. I see websites saying the plastic they use are "Re-purposed", but I suspect that's a deceptive way of describing plastic that is new, just used for a different purpose (i.e., covering bags instead of books, for example).  I hate the double-speak. For instance, there are sites that say the ricebags are covered with "vinyl". Why not just say what it is: "plastic". It's not even correct to call it vinyl, since plastic known as vinyl is really PVC.

Anyway, there are customers who are very strict about using plastic. Amnesty, for instance, insisted on non-laminated bags when they ordered from us. But many customers think the plastic makes sense because if the bags last longer then they are less disposable, which is a good thing I guess since the whole point is to make things that are less disposable. What do you think? Please give me feedback ok? 

We have already made bags with fused plastic bags, thereby reusing the plastic bags we find all over Cambodia, so I'll try that with the ricebags. Plastic bags drive me crazy in this country, as well as customers (always, always, Asian, but also two Spanish women) who ask me for a plastic carrier to put their just-purchased recycled rice bag. These people are just so used to having plastic bags, they don't stop to think about it. For goodness sakes', you just bought a bag, you want a bag to bag your bag? We don't give out plastic bags in our shop - I am sorry but you just have to carry your bag out with you and if you bought our recycled accessories, wear them out. Come on, is it such a big deal? Or maybe I should start making recycled newspaper bags for you to bag your bag. But you know what's going to happen - you'll throw it away when you're packing your luggage for home.

One last point. This is the first time I have stamped our website on our product photos. There are no copyright laws in Cambodia, so I know our designs and ideas will be all over the country once it gets out. But that's ok. We just have to keep innovating and leading the way, that's all! 

Saturday, January 02, 2010

The middle-aged brain and how to make it better

Interesting NYT article "How to Train the Aging Brain". So prejudiced employers listen up - you're just doing yourselves a disservice by not hiring those above 40.

- "Recently, researchers have found even more positive news. The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can." (See, young friends, I'm not cynical - I'm just old.)

- “There’s a place for information,” Dr. Taylor says. “We need to know stuff. But we need to move beyond that and challenge our perception of the world. If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections.” (Go on, go out and start arguments at the pub - most people are too polite but I'm going to challenge old people - after all, it's for their (and my) own good! LOL)

Such stretching is exactly what scientists say best keeps a brain in tune: get out of the comfort zone to push and nourish your brain. Do anything from learning a foreign language to taking a different route to work. (I'm going to try to learn French in 2010)"

(By the way, the diagram is NOT from the venerable NYT. Pic of the young brain (haha) from

Ushering in the new year in Siem Reap

New Year's eve was spent in town for the first time since we moved to Cambodia. Alan and I are not party animals and have always spent NYE at home with beer, wine and the dogs. We play loud music and have our own party. That night, however, after dinner at For Life restaurant, we bumped into Sharon and Don, the parents of Matt, the American owner of the Giddy Gecko. That's Matt, Sharon and me. Don is not pictured cos he took the photo, and Alan was cropped out because he does not like being on my blog!

If you've not been to the Giddy gecko, you must! It's just behind Cambodia Soup Kitchen and opposite Real.Khmer.Cook on route to The Lane. South of Pub Street is known as"the Alley" and North of it is a new street called "the Lane". I prefer the Lane because Pub Street and the Alley are full of tourists and the Lane's much nicer for a quieter evening. The Lane's other residents include Miss Wong's, a classy joint owned by New Zealander Dean and "The Rock" a disco popular with Cambodians - and of course, our favourite little restaurant "For Life", where the mom does all the Khmer cooking. New bars have opened up on the Lane, one called M.I.A. bar and Pub Street's Khmer Idea restaurant has expanded to the Lane as well.

Apart from Matt being a fascinating character (he's worked in Afghanistan, Singapore and other far-flung places), The Giddy Gecko the only place in town that has shisha, also known as hookahs, you know, that bong-like thing which is really a water pipe you smoke from. We were lucky to get there at 10pm cos the place started to fill up and we even had to share tables.  This was the reason why:

A live band was due to start playing at 11pm. But there was a lot of faffing about and the music did not start till closer to midnight, making a few of us wanting to shout: "Give us something we can dance to already!" This is the first time I've seen a live band since moving to Cambodia so it was something of a treat. I am not sure who the band was, as I did not catch the introduction - not even sure there was one. But I think they were Cambojam, a well-known Western band with a female singer. They were professional musicians - you can tell they've played with each other for a while - everyone was so comfortable and in tune with the others. They're not short of cash either: think we spotted a Fender Stratocaster and a Lowden. I thought the drummer was really good, as was the rhythm guitarist, but the sound system (or the repertoire) failed the singer. When they started playing I told Alan, what's the bet U2 will be among the songs? I was right (It was "With or without you"). It just seemed like that sort of band. But they were good musicians, just that many of the songs were not my favourites. But then I am a weirdo. I like bluegrass, and most bands are jazz/blues types.

Nonetheless they brought in the crowds and after mid-night it got really crowded. Many Cambodians started filing in as well and Thyda and Nara told me they was there till after 1am, as were we, but we failed to see each other among the crowds.

Party at "The Lane" - all the bars were doing brisk business selling plastic cups of draft beer for US$1 to the revellers. The Lane was less noisy than Pub Street, and as I said, the live band was a treat. But if "Boom Boom Boom" and drunk tourists is your kind of thing, the place to be was Pub Street.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Singaporean indie film to be shot in Cambodia

From the Singapore Independent Films blog. Project to be shot in 2010:
Name of Project: For I've Loved

Brief Description of Project: An intimate story set amidst the epic Angkor temples, “For I’ve Loved” is about love lost and love found. Marie-Faith, young hopeful and optimistic, has had a whirlwind romance with Harold, the older gentleman who has swept her off her feet with his charm and wit. Now married, they are on honeymoon in Cambodia. But things do not go as planned and the honeymoon ends in tragedy. Over the years, Marie-Faith returns alone to Cambodia to come to terms with what happened.

Project Tagline: Can true love happen twice?

Exit the Khmer Rouge; enter the Khmer Riche

It's enough to make you puke. Sorry in advance Andrew Marshall and the Sydney Morning Herald for posting the entire article. I'm doing this because everyone should read this, as well as the Guardian's April 2008 article Country for Sale


Written by Andrew Marshall
Good Weekend Magazine for the Sydney Morning Herald
Sunday 12/12/09

They live in one of the poorest countries on earth, yet they drive flash cars, dwell in mansions and scorn their impoverished brethren. Andrew Marshall meets the rich sons and daughters of Cambodia elite.

“I’m going to drive a little fast now. Is that Okay?” There is one place in Cambodia where you can hold a cold beer in one hand and a warm Kalashnikov in the other, and Victor is driving me there. We’re powering along Phnom Penh’s airport road with Oasis on his Merc’s sound system and enough guns in the boot to sink a Somali pirate boat. Victor is rich and life is sweet. His father is commander of the Cambodian infantry. He has a place reserved for him at L’Ecole Speciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr, France’s answer to Duntroon. And, in his passenger seat, there is a thin, silent man with a Chinese handgun: his bodyguard.

“His name is Klar,” says Victor. “It means tiger.”

Victor is only 21, but when reach our destination—a firing range run by the Cambodian special forces—the soldier at the gate salutes.

Devastated by decades of civil war, Cambodia remains one of the world’s poorest nations. A third of its 13 million people live on less than a dollar a day and about 8 out of every 100 children die before the age of five. But Victor—real name Meas Sophearith—was raised in a different Cambodia, where power and billions of dollars in wealth are concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite. This elite prefers to conceal the size and sources of their money—illegal logging, smuggling, land-grabbing—but their children just like to spend it. The Khmer Rouge are dead; the Khmer Riche now rule Cambodia.

I first met Victor at a fancy Phnom Penh restaurant called CafĂ© Metro. Outside, Porsches, Bentleys and Humvees fight for parking spaces. The son of a powerful general, Victor has his future mapped out for him. He went to school in Versailles, speaks French and English, and now studies politics at the University of Oklahoma. “My mother wanted us to get a foreign education so we could come back and control the country,” he says. The shooting range is where Victor and his friends go to relax. “I’ve grown up with guns and soldiers all around me,” he says, laying out a private arsenal on a table: two automatic assault rifles, two Glock pistols, one sniper’s rifle, one iPhone.

Victor and his generation are Cambodia’s future. Will they use their education and wealth to lift their less fortunate compatriots out of poverty? Or will they simply continue their parents’ fevered pursuit of money and power? Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID), which gave almost $US30 million of its taxpayers’ money to the country in the last fiscal year, offered one answer in June, when it announced the closure of its Cambodia office by 2011. The official reason? “It was felt UK aid could have a larger impact … where there are greater numbers of poor people and fewer international donors,” said a DFID statement. But the development agency might also have tired of throwing money at a nation where so much poverty can be blamed on a grasping political elite—and their luxury-loving children. (Australia clearly has not: it has allocated $61.4 million in development assistance to Cambodia for 2009-10.)

Depressingly, the Khmer Riche Kids sometimes seem indistinguishable from the old colonial ruling class. They were educated overseas—partly because their families’ wealth made them targets for kidnapping gangs—and often speak better English than Khmer. They carry US dollars – only poor people pay with Cambodian riel – and live in newly built neoclassical mansions so large that the city’s old French architecture looks like Lego by comparison. And their connection to the Cambodian masses is almost non-existent.

Sophy, 22, is the daughter of a Deputy Prime Minister. Rich, doll-like and self-obsessed, she could be the Paris Hilton of Cambodia. She imports party shoes from Singapore, brands them “Sophy & Sina” (Sina is her sister-in-law), hen displays them in her own multistory boutique. It has six staff, no customers and a slogan: “It’s all aboutme.” Sophy’s name is spelled out in sparkling stones on the back of her car, a Merc so pimped up that I have to ask her what make it is. “It’s a Sophy!” she replies.

We meet at her hair salon, where she is prepping a model for a fashion shoot for a magazine she is starting up with her brother Sopheary, 28, and their cousin Noh Sar, 26,. All three were educated abroad and prefer to speak English together. Sopheary, who studied in New York state, seems both amused and slightly embarrassed by his wealth and privilege. “What can you do?” he asks. “Your parents give you all these things. You can’t say no. If someone gives you cake, you eat it.”

Talk to Sopheary and his friends, and Cambodia’s tragic history seems very far away. The genocidal Khmer Rouge blew up banks and outlawed money before being driven from power in 1979. Later came the 1991 Paris Accords, and the plunder of Cambodia’s rich natural resources—forests, fisheries, land –began in earnest. Cambodia’s official economy largely depend on garment, exports, but there is a much larger shadow economy in which only the ruthless and the well-connected survived and prosper. “If you’re doing business, you have to know someone high up, so he has your back,” says Victor.

The closer you get to Hun Sen, Cambodia’s autocratic Prime Minister, the better connected you are. Hun Sen staged a bloody coup d’etat in 1997 and has kept an iron grip on power ever since. Opponents have been silenced while loyalists have grown rich. This includes ministers, a handful of tycoons and generals. Cambodians are often driven from their land by soldiers or military police. Formerly a French possession, Cambodia has been colonized all over again, this time by its own greedy elite.

But the Khmer Riche have a problem. “None of them can answer a simple question: where does all your money come from?” says a Western journalist in Phnom Penh. Ask Cambodian ministers how they got so rich on a meager government salary, and they will reply, “My wife is good at business.”

When I ask Noh Sar, whose father is a senior customs official, why he is so wealthy, he gives me a slight variation: “My mother works a lot.”

Victor’s mother is also good at business, according to “Country for Sale,” an investigation into the elite published by the London-based corruption watchdog Global Witness in February 2009. “She is a key player in RCAF [Royal Cambodian Armed Forces] patronage politics, holding a fearsome reputation among her husband’s subordinates on account of her frequent demands for money,” says the report. “RCAF sources have told Global Witness that military officers sometimes bribe [her] in order to increase the chances of her “close connections” to a major timber smuggler.

It is only in the past few years that the children of Cambodian’s elite have grown confident enough to show off their family’s wealth. “If you want people to respect you in Cambodia, you must have a good car, good diamonds, a good cell phone,” explains Ouch Vichet, 28, better known as Richard. “It’s an I’m-richer-than-you competition.” Richard is quite a competitor: he drives a $US150,000 Cadillac Escalade and wears a $US2,500 Hermes watch and a $US13,000 2.5-carat diamond ring. He doesn’t have a bodyguard, although some friends keep them as status symbols.

Richard was sent to New Zealand to be educated after a gang tired to abduct his brother. He is a short, affable man with an impish grin. In a city where the elite have a tribal suspicion of outsiders, he is refreshingly candid about his wealth. “My money is from my parents,” he says, and then breaks it down. They gave him a villa, half a million US dollars, and a 400-hectar rubber plantation that will generate income for the rest of Richard’s life. His parents-in-law gave him $US100,000 in cash and another villa, worth $200,000, which he sold and invested in real estate. Richard also runs a busy Phnom Penh nightclub called Emerald – his parents made their first fortune in gems – which provides him with “pocket money”. A party of rich kids can spend $US2,000 on drinks in a single night, more than an average Cambodian earns in 3 years.

His parents’ second, much larger, fortune comes from real estate. A few years ago they bought about five hectares of land just outside Phnom Penh for $US14 a square metre, then sold it for $US120 a square metre two years later, making more than $US5 million in profit. “Where else can you make profits like that?” grins Richard. “It’s crazy money.” He has a daughter called Emerald and a son called Benz. (His other Benz is a GL450.) They all live with his parents in a newly built mansion.

Yet Richard’s house is modest by the operatic standards of Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kuok precinct, part of which was once a notorious red-light district. A taxi driver shows me the neighborhood – it’s like a “homes of the stars” tour in Beverly Hills, except that Tuol Kuok’s backstreets are piled with rubbish. My driver points out giant mansion after mansion, and tells me who lives there. Hun Sen’s son, Hun Sen’s daughter, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Labour. A Deputy PM—Sophy and Sopheary’s dad. A four-mansion compound with lots of razor wire, and a gate guarded by special forces soldiers – Victor’s family.

Tuol Kuok’s houses are well-guarded for a reason: until there was real estate to invest in, many wealthy Cambodians kept their money at home in bricks of cash. “We don’t trust banks,” says Richard. “The old generation kept their money under the bed. The new generation keep it in safes in their houses.” Victor says his family also stays away from banks, but for a slightly different reason. “If you put your money in a bank, everyone will know how much you have,” he explains.

I had also heard that rich Cambodians had repatriated hundreds of millions of dirty dollars from Singapore banks after a post-September 11 shake up of global banking, and that his money had helped fuel the land speculation.

For the children, the wealth comes with one big condition: they must do what Mum and Dad tell them. “I wanted to go to art school but my parents wouldn’t let me,” says Sopheary. Most kids dutifully join the family business—Richard translated for his father during overseas gem-buying trips. For some, that business is politics. Concept like nepotism and conflict of interest don’t count for much in Cambodia. Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh—whose giant house resembles an airport departure hall, one with its own jet-ski lake – gave a ministry position to his wife and made his daughter his chief of cabinet. Cambodia’s ambassadors to Britain and Japan are brothers, and their boss is also their father: Foreign Minister Hor Namhong. He says he hired his sons on merit. “It’s not nepotism,” he insists.

Their parents also expect them to marry young—men in their 20’s, women in their teens—and strategically, meaning to someone from a rich and influential family. These marriages are often arranged. “It’s like medieval times in France,” complains Victor, still a bachelor. This means that many high-society Cambodians soon find themselves trapped in loveless unions; affairs are common. Sophy was married off at 17 to the son of the rich and powerful Interior Minister.

The web of marriages binds together Cambodia’s political and business elite and ensures the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s stranglehold on power. At the centre of the web sits Prime Minister Hun Sen. His three sons and two daughters are all married to the children of senior ruling party politicians or, in the case of his son Hun Manit, to the daughter of the late national police chief. Now in his 30’s, Hun Manit is being groomed to succeed his father. He graduated from West Point, the US military academy, in 1999, amid protests by members of the US Congress over his father’s human rights record. In July, Global Witness urged the British Government to revoke the visa of the Cambodian Prime Minister, who visited Bristol University to watch Hun Manit receive a doctorate in economics.

Senior Khmer Rouge figures such as Comrade Duch, the mass-murdering commandant of Tuol Sleng prison, are currently on trial at a United Nations-based tribunal in Phnom Penh. The Khmer Riche, on the other hand, remain above the law. Victor displays a military VIP sticker on the front dash of his Mercedes. “It means the police cannot touch me,” he says. Richard is an advisor to a military police commander, which also effectively grants him legal immunity.

Many of his generations abuse such privileges. Last August Hun Chea, a nephew of the Prime Minister, hit a motorcyclist with his Cadillac, ripping off the man’s leg and arm. Hun Chea tried to drive off but couldn’t because the accident had shredded a tyre. Military police arrived, removed the car’s license plates and, according to “The Phnom Penh Post”, told Hun Chea: “Don’t worry. It wasn’t your mistake.” Hun Chea walked away. The motorcyclist bled to death on the road.

Hun Sen has yet another bad-boy nephew, the widely feared and mega-wealthy Hun To (“Little Hun”). In 2006 a newspaper editor filed a lawsuit against Hun To for alleged death threats, then fled overseas to seek asylum with the United Nations’ help. Hun To was also once spotted sitting in his luxury speedboat, its sound system cranked up high, being towed around Phnom Penh by a Humvee. A few weeks before, Victor had been in Los Angeles, where he test-drove Hun To’s latest acquisition before it was put in a Cambodia-bound shipping container: a $US500,000 Mercedes McLaren SLR supercar.” He has already built a special garage for it,” says Victor.

Victor will not – dare not—criticize Hun To. But he is critical of Cambodian society. “From top to bottom, everyone is corrupt,” he says. He hopes to one day set up a foundation to help poor Cambodians send their children to study overseas. “We want to change things, but we’ll have to wait until our parents retire,” he says.

But older generation shows no sign of retiring – not when there’s so much cake left to eat. In January, foreign donors pledged $US1 billion to Cambodia, its biggest aid package yet. The Government relies on foreign aid for almost half its budget. It could break this reliance by exploiting its reserves of oil, gas and minerals: the International Monetary Fund estimates Cambodia’s annual oil revenues alone could reach $US1.7 billion by 2021. Could, but probably won’t. Why? Because the same elite who cut down the trees and sold off the land are now poised to extract the oil and minerals, with the help of their children.

Some Hun Sen loyalists have already been allocated exploratory mining licences. One of them is General Meas Sophea, the army chief. He recently hired a temp to act as his foreign liaison officer. The temp is his son. His son’s name is Victor.

Via Click on link to see all the photos, including Sophy, Cambodia's Paris Hilton.


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