Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Opportunists and Conspiracy theorists

My staff members at the Bloom guesthouse told me banana sellers in Phnom Penh took advantage of the tragedy in Phnom Penh and raised the prices of bananas in the city. Cambodians offer bananas and light incense (3 or 5 sticks, different from the 2 sticks that the Chinese offer) and candles to pray for the dead. Everyone bought bananas, even in Siem Reap, to pray that those who died in the stampede will go to heaven.

So these banana sellers in Phnom Penh were selling a bunch of bananas for 15,000riels or even 30,000riels (US$7.50). The normal price is 1500riels ($0.40) or 2500riels. Even in Siem Reap, the price went up, to 5,000 (US$1.25) or 7,000 riels per bunch.

Kagna's sister-in-law, who is a fruit seller in Psar Leu market here in Siem Reap said, "Why these people like this?" She believes "do good, get good" so will not raise her prices from the usual 2500 riels. Everyone is disgusted with the opportunistic merchants. But even at those prices, the bananas were sold out in the city.

Cambodians are finding it hard to understand how so many people can die in such a short time. In just 6 hours, more than 300 people died (latest reports put the figure closer to 400). Kagna says even in Pol Pot's time, not so many people died in such a short time (I don't know if this is true). She said Prime Minister Hun Sen "cry and cry" on TV and that during the six hours, he was exhorting the people on the bridge "don't run, don't run." She said he was beamed live on TV and they broadcast his message on loudhailers around the bridge.

Some theories have emerged. Some say it is because it is the year of the Tiger and tigers like meat and blood, so it is a year for disaster (err...not a very good theory if you ask me).

Others say it was caused by agents who are opposed to the government so that the Cambodian people will blame the government for its ineptitude (err...also not a very good theory, in my view, because the people who shouted must have been amongst the crowd, so risked their lives as well. Unless people think these "secret agents" had a way of escaping after causing the panic). But the government has said it will find and punish those responsible for shouting that the bridge was about to collapse.

Another theory is the panic was caused by Cambodian "hooligans" who like to play a game. The game involves linking arms and moving the human chain altogether forwards and then backwards. People will then fall, causing laughter and cries. Usually the youth do this on the streets during the Water Festival.
But maybe the simplest explanation is the right one. Occam's Razor is a principle that recommends selecting the competing hypothesis that makes the fewest new assumptions.

Cambodians are not the only ones to have experienced a stampede. This study found a total of 215 human stampede events were reported from 1980 to 2007, resulting in 7069 deaths and at least 14,078 injuries.

There are many things that can cause a stampede. When the Brooklyn Bridge just opened, a woman tripped, which contributed to fears that the bridge would collapse. "As she lost her footing another woman screamed, and the throng behind crowded forward so rapidly that those at the top of the steps were pushed over and fell in a heap." (abstract found in the New York Times.)

In 2005, 1000 people died in the Baghdad Bridge Stampede . There were rumours of a suicide bomber. Interior Minister Bayan Baqir Solagh said that one person "pointed a finger at another person saying that he was carrying explosives...and that led to the panic".

In 1989, 96 people --all fans of Liverpool F.C.-- died in the Hillsborough disaster. In 2007, 3 people died and 30 were injured in Chongqing, China, when a supermarket offered 20% discount on cooking oil. And in 1896, 1389 people were killed in a crush as people tried to get presents during the Coronation of Russian Tsar Nicholas II. (All these records can be found on

So I don't think the stampede was caused by enemies of the state. We still do not know what caused it, but it could be as simple as a one person suggesting the bridge could collapse. If enough people hear and believe him, that would be enough to cause a panic.

For me, the important thing is that the authorities learn from this tragedy. Stampede can be prevented by more organised crowd control, barriers and preventing extreme density of people.

This interesting Slate article, on "How not to get trampled at [Obama's] Inauguration" tells you the warning signs of an imminent crowd crush and what to do in such a situation. Here are some pointers:

1. There needs to be communication - with barriers, signs, or loudhailers. "Crowds are rarely belligerent, but they can become deadly if, for example, there's no way to announce that someone has fallen down and everyone must take a step back."

2. You also need space around you, and the article suggests no more than four people per square meter. "Otherwise, if someone jostles you, you won't have room to stick a foot out to stabilize yourself. If you fall, other people may trip over you, creating a pileup. Meanwhile, the rest of the crowd will continue to surge forward, unaware of your situation, and the pressure will build."

3. If you do feel like you are being touched on all four sides, you need to move to the margins. Try to move sideways. "After that, the last opportunity to escape may be when you feel shock waves travel through the crowd. This happens when people at the back push forward, but the people at the front have no where to go. If you feel the crowd sway like this, you are in serious danger. Wait until the crowd stops moving and then inch your way sideways and backward, zigzagging to safety. Just as you might swim back to shore in the ocean, try to navigate during the pause between waves."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Almost 400 dead at Water Festival stampede

Very sad day for Cambodians. As if their lives are not hard enough, the rare chance ordinary Khmers - many from the countryside who come to Phnom Penh to watch the annual boat race - had a chance to rejoice and celebrate, they met with tragedy. The Guardian reported a policeman saying most of those killed were not people from Phnom Penh, but from the provinces who wanted to walk on the new Rainbow Bridge over the Tonle Sap, close to the festivities. 

Fortunately none of the Bloom women was on the bridge but they were seriously depressed today when I spoke to them on the phone. I told them to take the day off. (I live in Siem Reap, so am far from the tragedy but our workshop is in Phnom Penh). Later I heard Kamhut's father and brother were injured on a bus going home from Phnom Penh to her province in Kampong Thom. The bus had got into an accident. Four million people were in Phnom Penh for the weekend celebrations but the organisers had only expected 2. Phnom Penh has about 1.5 million residents. 

I called Kamhut and as usual she sounded happy and cheery but when I told her to take as much time away from work as she needs and to call me if she needs anything, she started crying. Kamhut is only 23. We are all hoping her family will be ok.

We don't yet know what caused the panic. The New York Daily News reported that a witness has said the stampede started when 10 people in the crowd fainted, causing others around them to panic. In an earlier Guardian article, a doctor said the two major causes of death were suffocation and electrocution.

Sean Ngu, an Australian who was visiting family and friends in Cambodia, told the BBC. "There were too many people on the bridge and then both ends were pushing. This caused a sudden panic. The pushing caused those in the middle to fall to the ground, then [get] crushed. Panic started and at least 50 people jumped in the river. People tried to climb on to the bridge, grabbing and pulling [electric] cables which came loose and electrical shock caused more deaths."

It also seems the police did not handle the situation well. CNN reported a Phnom Penh Post journalist as saying police began firing water cannons onto a bridge to an island in the center of a river in an effort to get them to continue moving across the bridge. "That just caused complete and utter panic," he told CNN in a telephone interview. A friend who has lived in Phnom Penh for many years told me that by the end of the Water Festival celebrations (when the tragedy happened), many policemen are drunk and so security can be lax.

I watched the news on Cambodian TV and took these images off Bayon TV. You can see the human crush.

It was reported that two-thirds of the dead were women. The injured were laid down on the streets.

Those who were injured were taken to Calmette Hospital. The hospital could not cope, so people were laid down on the floor.

The dead were covered with white sheets at the hospital.

From another Cambodian news channel. The police were at the site today. You can see crowds at the scene.

This is the bridge.

Strewn with slippers.

Interview with the man in charge

Bayon TV organised a donation drive for the victims. They were taking phone calls from donors and you can see this man on the right holding out a USD20 note to donate.

The Cambodian government has said it would compensate 5 million rielsm or USD1250 to the families of each of the dead and 1 million riels each to those injured. This man is announcing who donated and how much and thanking them. People were donating whatever they could. There were many for 20,000 riels, or just USD5, and from as far away as Banteay Manchey.

I want to donate too and will have a collection box for victims at the Bloom shop.  But how can I ensure whatever money me and my team and our friends raise do reach the victims? It sounds cynical but I am adamant the money we contribute does not do go to somebody's retirement fund. 

The only thing I can think about is to find victims myself and hand the money over. So this is the plan. First we collect the money, then I will get the Bloom team in Phnom Penh to ask around so they find people in their provinces who were affected by the tragedy and we give them the money ourselves--directly. It may be a long shot, but maybe not, because people in the provinces are tightly-knit. I'm sure we will manage to find the right people to give the money to. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Would you kill your mother?

Just read this shocking article in India's
"Maariyamma is likely to be killed by her children because they cannot afford her. They will give her a loving oil bath. Several glasses of coconut water. A mouthful of mud. Perhaps a poison injection. She is just one of many old parents in Tamil Nadu dying in this way. But no one blinks at these ritual murders." [...]
"When 65-year-old Maariyamma suspected this might happen to her too, she moved out of her son’s house two years ago. “I’m not well enough to live on my own, but it is better than being killed by them,” she says. Amazingly, there is no bitterness in her voice. Or anger. “They’re struggling hard to take care of their own children,” says Maariyamma, of her sons." [...]
“When the milk is being poured, the nose is held tight,” says [farmer] Dorairaj. This ‘milk treatment’ is often preceded by starvation. The household stops serving the parent solid food. “When milk is poured uninterruptedly into the mouth, it goes into the respiratory track. A starving person cannot withstand even a moment’s suffocation,” says 60-year-old Paul Raj, coordinator of a district elders’ welfare association."
Incredibly tragic. It is so common that the practice even has a name - thalaikoothal in Tamil.

As an Asian who grew up with the concept of filial piety, I find this very shocking. In Singapore, we are taught from young that our parents sacrifice to bring us up. So when they are old, it is our turn, as children, to take care of them. Singapore even has a Maintenance of Parents Act, enacted in 1995. It is a legal requirement for adult children to look after their parents, and some parents have indeed sued their children for "parent support".

But Singapore is a rich country. We do not face the same problems as the very poor in India, where according to government statistics, more than 17,500 farmers killed themselves between 2002 and 2006 every year. (Read more on wikipedia). (I wonder if thalaikoothal happens in desperately poor parts of Cambodia at all?)

One way of looking at thalaikoothal is it's mercy killing. As one Doctor Death told the Telheka reporter: “I am not killing anybody who may have a longer life. It is done only in the last and final stage of one’s life. Why should they suffer in poverty?”

So there is no debate about euthanasia in the Virudhunagar district in Tamil Nadu, the way there is in our countries, where poverty is not a reason to kill your parents or loved ones. I googled to find other cultures that kill the aged among them and found this:
Aged people who have outlived their usefulness and whose life is a burden both to themselves and their relatives are put to death by stabbing or strangulation. This is customarily done at the request of the individual concerned, but not always so. Aged people who are a hindrance on the trail are abandoned.
—Antoon A. Leenaars, on the Labrador Inuit, in Suicide in Canada (1916) Quoted in wikipedia/wiki/Inuit).
I was once told American Indians pinch the noses of babies when they want them to stop crying. The babies soon learn crying makes them suffocate. The Indians do this because the babies' cries alerted animals or enemies to their presence. I am reminded of this story as I think about how sometimes people do things that seem strange to us, but they do it because they have to survive.

Sambo the elephant may be evicted from her Wat Phnom home

Very sad news. My friend Mariam Arthur has been working hard to find Sambo the elephant (the only one in Phnom Penh) a permanent home. The 50 year old elephant survived the war, Khmer Rouge, only to face yet another challenge. There does not seem to be a place for him in the modern city that is Phnom Penh. Elephants live till a hundred so Sambo will need a place to stay for the next 50 years.

Sambo's owner Sinsorn was told on the 11 November that Sambo must leave Wat Phnom and never return because people complain Sambo disrupts traffic.

Mariam feels the best place for Sambo is the Royal Palace. Sambo needs a safe place to sleep at night. I was horrified to read this from Mariam: "Not only is this instability bad for her health, she is susceptible to nighttime raids by men trying to cut pieces of her for their magic power."

Mariam has written to various Cambodian authorities. On Nov 12, she received a rejection letter from the Royal Palace. (To see all correspondence, please visit this facebook page.)

The most urgent thing now is food for Sambo. "Sambo's only source of income for food was by giving rides at Wat Phnom. Therefore, after she finishes today's food supply, she will no longer have any food," Mariam writes.

If you have been touched by Sambo in some way, as I have (I attended her 50th birthday party and was moved to tears by the gentle animal), please consider giving Sambo money for food until she and her owner/caretaker Sinsorn is able to find a way to earn money for food. You can contact Mariam at

If you doubt Sinsorn's love for Sambo, please read this touching story of how Sinsorn met Sambo as a child and man and elephant were reunited after the war. There seems to be genuine affection between the two. You can read it here at (I have just been informed by the editor of Southeast Asia Globe that the blogger i originally credited had plagiarised Grzegorz Ostrega's original story for the Globe. Shame on you somanorodom. You give all bloggers a bad name and shame on me for assuming you are a blogger like me, writing things from your heart.)

If you have any good ideas on how to help Sambo, please do let me know.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do

Just read this excellent article criticising voluntourism, "Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do" by the UK's Observer newspaper, republished in the Guardian.

"Insiders call them guilt trips. All those teenagers heading off on gap years, fired up with enthusiasm. Those middle-aged professionals spending a small fortune to give something back to society. And those new retirees determined to spend their downtime spreading a little happiness.

"Now the flipside of these well-intentioned dreams has been laid bare in an incendiary report by South African and British academics which focuses on "Aids orphan tourism" in southern Africa, but challenges many cherished beliefs.

"The study reveals that short-term volunteer projects can do more harm than good. Wealthy tourists prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs, especially when they pay to volunteer; hard-pressed institutions waste time looking after them and money upgrading facilities; and abused or abandoned children form emotional attachments to the visitors, who increase their trauma by disappearing back home. "The more I delved into it, the more disturbing I found it," said Amy Norman, one of the researchers."
The article notes, in Cambodia, orphanages are proliferating - the numbers have increased by 65% in just 3 years. And an official study found just a quarter of children in these so-called orphanages have actually lost both parents. As I wrote here and here, why would people work when they can get money for free? Many of the charities in Cambodia are run by entrepreneurs, out to make money from other people's misery. And there is a lot of money to be made, as long as there are kind but unthinking people who think simply donating money or even their time, makes a positive difference.

"The desire to engage with the world is laudable, as is the desire to volunteer," the Observer article concludes. "But we need to tread more carefully. Unless we have time and transferable skills, we might do better to travel, trade and spend money in developing countries. The rapid growth of "voluntourism" is like the rapid growth of the aid industry: salving our own consciences without fully examining the consequences for the people we seek to help. All too often, our heartfelt efforts to help only make matters worse."

This is why I set Bloom up as a social enterprise - a business with social aims - and not an NGO. If people need jobs, give them jobs, not handouts. Why is it so many Westerners are quick to note this in developed countries, telling me handouts have failed the aborigines in Australia, or the first nations in Canada, criticising the welfare system and welfare mentality, but yet persist in doing the very same thing in developing countries? Why is it so many tourists tell me they'd rather buy a book from a handicapped man than to give him money, a donation, because they respect him for working rather than begging, yet would rather support a charity that gives handouts, than to support a socially-minded business which is trying, just like the handicapped man, to be self-reliant?

(Is it because people do not trust businesses and prefer to place their trust in a charity, where the very name "NGO" or "charity" or "orphanage" is meant to dignify the organisation and its practices? People should realise a name is but a name and just as there are good and bad businesses, there are good and bad charities.)

At the very high level, let's not kid ourselves, foreign aid operates as foreign policy. Handouts in exchange for business concessions, or access to prized industries. Why do you think China "donates" almost a billion dollars to this country? And this September essay in points out "Former National Security Advisor in the Clinton White House and failed nominee to head the CIA, Anthony “Tony” Lake is now Executive Director of the United Nations Children Fund, UNICEF." The writer makes an interesting claim: "From CIA to UNICEF? The charge that every person who has headed a major western aid agency has an intelligence background has been proven time and time again." One day I will try to find out if this is true.

Unless we get involved in politics, there is little ordinary people like you and me can do about how our government spends its money, how much and how it allocates foreign aid. But, as individuals, we *can* do something about the way our money affects other people. We can and should be more careful in how we spend our money. We should be more thoughtful.

I found out the Singapore government has a policy for every school-going child to go on at least one overseas "mission" by the time he or she leaves secondary school. It is called CIP, or Community Involvement Programme, and there is big money to be made. There are travel companies, or agents, that charge the schools a lot of money (but since the money is there, and paid for by the government--taxpayers, really--who care?) to organise voluntourism trips. These agents in Singapore then outsource the organising of the Cambodian trip to Cambodia-based groups, which then get a little of the money.

My Singaporean expat friends and I know well that, in general, these trips benefit more the Singapore students than they do the Cambodian ones. I say "in general", because now and again, a particular Cambodian person will benefit much, from sponsored studies to his or her family being sponsored financially for a while. A village could also have a bonanza if the students come up with enough cash for a bridge, toilets, or road. However, in general and in most cases, flying in and out of a country, staying just 4 or 5 days, spending half a day with this group, one day with another organisation, leaves no long term benefit for the NGO or the people they help.

I was disturbed when I first learnt in 2006 about the international schools in Singapore where students have to raise funds to pay for their volunteer trip. They raise about SGD$2000, each, for their trip to build houses and paint schools and what not. I had thought at the time - that's a lot of money in Cambodia. Would not that US$1300 or US$1400, or whatever the exchange rate is now, create more benefit for the Cambodian villagers if they had hired Cambodian workers to build the structures? That creates jobs, a sense of purpose and usefulness, and more than that - Cambodian men and women are probably far better at construction than kids at an international school and can do the job more efficiently and maybe even spend the money more efficiently, if you can ensure accountability (please don't tell me that's a big "if" - I know of many success cases from my friends Deborah Groves' NGO Helping Hands and Dale Edmond's NGO riverkidsproject.)

When I pointed this out to the head of a Cambodia-based NGO, one of the beneficiaries of this "outreach" programme, she said to me, it is for the students as much as the Khmers. She remembers how one troubled American teenager who came to Cambodia to build houses for the poor went away a changed person. She says these trips have lasting impact on the volunteers. I suppose the ultimate hope is that some of these students may remember enough of the trip to one day make policies that would help the world's poor.

I certainly hope so. I have to make clear I am not against all NGOs because I have seen how some have made a positive impact in the country (I mentioned my favourite 2 earlier). What I'd just like is for people to pay more attention to how they help other people - to be more selective and creative in how they contribute they time and efforts.

Because at the end of the day, I have seen how simple voluntourism can have lasting, negative, consequences for Cambodia: through creating false charities, keeping the country's people poor, promoting corruption, creating more performers and actors and snakeoil salesmen than skilled workers, subsidising the charity with your free labour and money, and creating a false economy with propped up jobs, with salaries so inflated by donations they would never compete or survive in the real world.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Singapore in company with Rwanda and Cambodia

I just read this post on which described how Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister and Law Minister K Shanmugam, speaking at Columbia University, said that the Singapore media is more trusted by Singaporeans than the US media is by Americans.

He mentioned this in response to the 2010 Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders which ranked Singapore 136th out of 178 countries.

If you look at the Gallup Poll , the one quoted by Mr Shanmugam, Singapore is in good company. Other top-ranking countries whose people believe the media include Rwanda (86% of the people trusts the media - or so they said and/or so it was reported), Philippines (75%), Cambodia (72%), Niger (72%), Botswana and Tanzania (69%, the same as Singapore). Who wouldn't want to be in this elite group?

Monday, November 08, 2010

Caning for overstaying tourist visa in Singapore

Just read this on wsj online: US man faces caning in Singapore for overstaying.

"Kamari Kenyada Charlton, 37 years old, a U.S. citizen born in the Bahamas, has been charged by the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority of Singapore for overstaying his three-month tourist visa by 169 days. He has been in custody since Sept. 1, when he was arrested at Singapore's Changi Airport trying to leave the country."

In Cambodia, you are charged US$5 a day for every day you overstay, no questions asked.

Singapore sometimes slaps on a fine but when and why we do not know. "A relative of Mr. Kamari's wife who overstayed in Singapore for 194 days, but settled the issue by paying a fine of 500 Singaporean dollars (US$382). Mr. Kamari's lawyer, M. Ravi, said he plans to take the case to Singapore's High Court on grounds of discrimination, contending Mr. Kamari faces different treatment."

At least Cambodia is consistent.


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