Cambodia’s national flower

Fragrant – the scent of the Rumdul trees is a balmy feature of the Cambodian experience.

I grew up in Ontario, Canada, where the flower of the Province is the trilium – a white three-petaled flower.

Sharing this unusual three-petaled characteristic is the flower of the rumdul tree, (or Mitrella mesnyi,) which in 2005 was declared the national flower of Cambodia.

The rumdul is known for its gorgeous, waxy evening fragrance. In ancient Cambodia, women were often compared to the rumdul flower because of its powerful and lovely scent. Seen throughout Cambodia’s parks and in the wild, the rumdul tree grows from 7 to 12 metres high, and its flowers are small, and a creamy yellowish-white, not unlike a Frangipani – but with the distinctive three-petaled beauty.

The tree itself is quite attractive, and while the dark green leaves can hide the flowers, they also hide the clusters of deep purple berries that ripen to become edible, with a distinctive sweet-sour taste.

In February 2013, some 50 Rumdul trees were planted to commemorate those who perished in the killing fields of Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh. I cannot think of a memorial more fitting for spirits who miss their real homeland.

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Cambodia’s balancing act on bicycles

New bicycle!

New bicycle!

Bicycles are the most common form of transport in Cambodia and yet there aren’t enough of them. When the photo above was taken, in late 2005, the boy had been the victim of a cycle theft; a first at Savong’s School. The thief had waited until class was in, and then helped himself to one of the many parked bicycles. The victim was distraught and it was not a good event for the brand new school’s reputation. We made good by promptly replacing the boy’s bicycle with a new one – and we placed the students’ bicycles under guard from then on. None have gone missing since.

But bicycle thefts are common in Cambodia, a signifier of the poverty that still plagues the country, as well as the thirst, especially, for new generation mountain bikes with their virtually puncture-proof tyres and sophisticated Shimano gears. One Facebook friend of mine lost his within 60 seconds after stopping at a roadside stall. He turned around and his Giant bicycle was gone.

As anyone who has ridden one knows, bicycles represent freedom. You can sail a bicycle further than you can comfortably walk, and it is the provision of bicycles that makes the difference for children in poor, remote areas between attending  school and missing out school completely.

Not surprisingly then, a large number of charitable organisations are dedicated to providing bicycles for disadvantaged Cambodian children.These include:

Readers are invited to add others – there are many such initiatives.

The irony is, while we collectively buy new bikes, or gather and recondition used bikes from the west, and send these by container to Cambodia, the Kingdom is probably flooding your market and mine with bicycles made, actually, in Cambodia.

Cambodia is one of the five biggest bicycle exporters

These Cambodian made bicycles are selling fast in Europe where sales have climbed from 200,000 units per annum to more than 600,000 units (estimated) in just three short years. Cambodia is now the second biggest exporter of cycles into Europe now, behind only Taiwan.

Today, several Taiwanese-owned bicycle manufacturers are operating in Cambodia. They include Atlantic Cycle and its subsidiary A&J, who have operated in Cambodia since 2006, as well as relative newcomers Smart Tech (Cambodia) and Worldtec Cycles (Cambodia). The manufacturers are located in Svay Rieng province, near the Vietnamese border enabling components to be imported from Vietnam, and finished product ready for export across the border.

More recently the well regarded manufacturer of Specialized bicycles has also begun assembly in Cambodia.

To put things into perspective, here is the league table of global bicycle exports, as tracked by Daniel Workman, the founder of World’s Top Exports (WTEx) website: a great analysis of world trade patterns. Below are the 15 countries that exported the highest dollar value worth of bicycles during 2013:

  1. China: $3,189,787,000 (34.1% of total bicycle exports)
  2. Taiwan: $1,749,182,000 (18.7%)
  3. Netherlands: $669,720,000 (7.2%)
  4. Germany: $560,742,000 (6.0%)
  5. Cambodia: $437,076,000 (4.7%)
  6. Belgium: $275,488,000 (2.9%)
  7. Italy: $254,054,000 (2.7%)
  8. Spain: $185,760,000 (2.0%)
  9. Portugal: $173,618,000 (1.9%)
  10. Indonesia: $140,457,000 (1.5%)
  11. France: $139,044,000 (1.5%)
  12. Hungary: $137,902,000 (1.5%)
  13. United States: $125,300,000 (1.3%)
  14. Czech Republic: $118,654,000 (1.3%)
  15. Bulgaria: $115,392,000 (1.2%)

That was 2013, and exports have jumped since then.

Three reasons why Cambodia is the hot nation for bicycles

Why all this action? The answer is based on three things: cheap labour, anti-dumping moves against Chinese and Vietnamese manufacturers, and zero-tariffs for Cambodian sourced bikes into EU.

It is most probably the anti-dumping sentiment in Europe that kick started the growth of Cambodian cycle manufacturing. In Europe there was a concerted response to Chinese and Vietnamese made bikes that were flooding the market and threatening to damage, if not destroy the local bicycle manufacturing industry. Some manufacturers got round this by simply moving. their assembly factories from Vietnam to Cambodia

Besides labour costs in Cambodia are significantly lower than in neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand, which has also seen an out-migration of cycle manufacturing. With factory workers earning little more than $US65.00 for a 6 day week of full-time work, and the promise of fast-track approval by Government to remove any business red-tape, Cambodia has become attractive as an assembly point for bicycle manufacturers.

But here’s the clincher. Where bicycles from China or Taiwan or Thailand attract a 14% tariff in the lucrative EU market, Cambodian bicycles attract zero tariff.

The zero tariff goes back to an UNCTAD (United Nations Conference for Trade And Development) initiative, adopted by the EU, to encourage economic development amongst the world’s poorest nations (the so-called GSP List) by cutting tariffs.

According to the website of UNCTAD the scheme helps foster growth and job creation in developing countries. But according to the UNCTAD website the brakes may be coming on. Europe is likely to apply “cumulation” criteria to all bicycle imports. Put simply, if the parts are made in wealthier countries, and all Cambodia does is assemble these into bicycles, then the free tariff ride may be over.

Will the local cycle industry be big enough and resilient enough if this happens? And will the factory workers – whose conditions have been overshadowed by the garment workers case – get more than a living wage?

And does it make any sense to export bikes to a country that accounts for 5% of global cycle exports?

The answers, as usual in this complicated country, are not simple. The outcomes seldom fair.

How safe is Cambodia’s airline?

Below average. The air safety infrastructure lets the ratings down.

Below average. The air safety infrastructure lets the ratings down.

You can find everything on the web, and recently a friend of mine, Dennis Weng, and I were discussing airline safety. He’s a statistician and we were discussing international standards. The conversation led me to the Airline Ratings Website which posts a safety rating out of 7 for every significant airline in the world. Cambodia Angkor Air gets a…er…3 out of 7.

Admittedly the audit was updated as far back as 2009, almost 6 years ago, so things have doubtless improved. What really pulls the safety rating downward is the poor Cambodian infrastructure. Should a plane go down there is inadequate air accident investigation resource, and as it stands, a weak air navigation network and emergency response at the airports.

Still things could be worse. In 2004 I flew out of Phnom Penh airport. They had an amnesty bin in which travellers could drop pocket knives or other items deemed unfit for air travel. Right there is the perspex container I saw it: an old hand grenade, found apparently by an American hippie tourist who thought it would make a great souvenir.

Imagine sitting on a plane next to that guy!

The 7 star safety assessment criteria for all airlines is as follows

Is the airline IOSA certified? If yes two stars are awarded; if not, no star is given.
What is IOSA Certification? The IATA* Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) certification audit is an internationally recognised and accepted evaluation system designed to assess the operational management and control systems of an airline. IOSA uses internationally recognised audit principles and is designed to conduct audits in a standardised and consistent manner. Airlines are re evaluated every two years. Registering for IOSA certification and auditing is not mandatory therefore an airline that does not have IOSA certification may have either failed the IOSA audit or alternatively chosen not to participate. *IATA (International Air Transport Association)

Is the airline on the European Union (EU) Blacklist? If no a full star is awarded; if yes then no star is given.
What is the EU Blacklist? A list of airlines banned from flying into European airspace due to safety concerns arising from alleged poor aircraft maintenance and/or regulatory oversight. Airlines banned by the EU may have a flawless safety record however the potential risk towards passenger safety is deemed by the EU as too high and a ban is put in place

Has the airline maintained a fatality free record for the past 10 years? If yes the airline are awarded a full star; if not then no star is given.
A fatality is deemed as the death of crew and/or passengers whilst on board the aircraft due to an accident. If deaths occurred through acts of terrorism or highjackings they have not been included. If an airline suffered a fatal accident through no fault of their own such as a runway incursion on the active runway (an incident where an unauthorized aircraft, vehicle or person is on a runway) this has also not been included.

Is the airline FAA endorsed? If yes a full star is awarded; if not, no star is given.
What is FAA endorsement? In the United States, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has a list that bans countries (not airlines) from flying into American Airspace. The ban arises from a deemed inability to adhere to international aviation standards for aircraft operations and maintenance. According to the FAA Web site, “those that do not meet these international standards cannot initiate new service and are restricted to current levels of any existing service to the United States while corrective actions are underway.” An airline or airlines from a prohibited country may have a flawless safety record however the potential risk to safety is deemed too high by the FAA to allow operations in American airspace.

Does the country of airline origin meet all 8 ICAO safety parameters? If yes TWO stars are awarded to the airline. However, if the one criteria that is below the average is so by less than 15 per cent it is considered a pass. If 5 to 7 of the criteria are met one star is awarded. If the country only meets up to four criteria no star is given.
What is ICAO and what are the 8 parameters? The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was created to promote the safe and orderly development of international civil aviation throughout the world. It sets standards and regulations necessary for aviation safety, security, efficiency and regularity, as well as for aviation environmental protection. The 8 ICAO audit parameters that pertain to safety are; Legislation, Organization, Licensing, Operations, Airworthiness, Accident Investigation, Air Navigation Service and Aerodromes. For more information on a particular country visit: http://www.icao.int/safety/Pages/USOAP-Results.aspx.

Has the airline’s fleet been grounded by the country’s governing aviation safety authority due to safety concerns? If yes an additional star will be taken off the total for five years from the time of grounding

Does the airline operate only Russian built aircraft? If yes an additional star will be taken off the total.
– See more at: http://www.airlineratings.com/safety_rating_per_airline.php?l=C#sthash.AUhiB4NW.dpuf

In Cambodia – social hierarchy is important

Hierarchies are everywhere in Cambodia. Everybody has their place in a complex social pecking order.

Hierarchies are everywhere in Cambodia. Everybody has their place in a complex social pecking order.

Cambodians have a very strong sense of hierarchy within society. Parents are superior to children, teachers to students and managers to subordinates. Even in the way the Khmer language is structured: the various pronouns recognise the relationship between two people in conversation.And, as ever-faithful Wikipedia points out, there are rich traces of hierarchical or social classifications in everyday language.

The Khmer language reflects a somewhat different classification of Khmer society based on a more traditional model and characterized by differing linguistic usages (see Languages, this ch.). This classification divided Cambodian society into three broad categories: royalty and nobility, clergy, and laity. The Khmer language had—and to a lesser extent still has—partially different lexicons for each of these groups. For example, nham (to eat) was used when speaking of oneself or to those on a lower social level; pisa (to eat) was used when speaking politely of someone else; chhan (to eat) was used of Buddhist clergy, and saoy (to eat) was used of royalty.

You can see hierarchical behaviors in everyday scenes. Monks can be seen walking in rank order, highest in front and most junior at the rear.

A feature of social hierarchy in Cambodia is the “patron-client” relationship in which wealth and power trump poverty and dependence. You see this expressed on a grand scale (the Prime Minister’s patronage/power versus the public) but also on an everyday level where a village elder who is both typically older and wealthier than the people under his patronage, may have many people obligated to him in return for this or that favour.  That’s the essence of the hierarchical relationship: it isn’t held together by overt power so much as by nuanced reciprocity. This from Dr Judy Ledgerwood in her paper: Understanding Cambodia: Social Hierarchy, Patron-Client Relationships and Power.

Both sides provide goods and services to the other. The patron possesses superior power and influence and uses them to assist his clients. The clients in return provide smaller services and loyalty over an extended period of time. The relationship is complementary, with both sides benefiting. The client is protected and assured a minimum level of subsistence. The patron in turn has followers, who serve to increase his power.

The relationship between the patron and the client is a personal one. The clients are not united as a group; rather they are linked to the patron by personal obligation. This then works in a pyramid fashion, midlevel patrons know someone higher and they in turn know someone higher – up the social ladder. The only way to get something that is beyond your capacity is to attach yourself to a superior.

Where does this social stratification come from? It is thought that it originates more than 1000 years ago in the Hindu caste system, though it has been tempered by the more egalitarian Buddhist philosophy. But herein lies a spiritual dimension to the patron-client relationship. There is an inference that success and power in life reflects one’s spiritual attainment and that you are my patron not simply because you are powerful, but because you are spiritually more blessed having shown great piety in your life.

Again, one can see this linkage, quite overtly in the political theatre – and it’s not unique to Cambodia – where powerful leaders invoke religious devoutness in their various ceremonies. But the charade kind of works! A good patron must do as a good Buddhist – and be generous of spirit, and grant favours to the less fortunate. In a sense there is some social control here to ensure a measure of fairness in an otherwise unequal relationship.

But the social acceptance and institutionalization of hierarchy has a dark side as well. As my patron, you might expect me to show my humility (when asking you for a favour,) by granting you an offering. Fair enough? Though at what point does this constitute simply a bribe?

And in an increasingly complex society who are my Patrons? One hundred years ago it might have been easier to answer this. My village elder perhaps. Or the head monk at my monastery.  But today a villager must also pay respect to the village elder, the local police, quite possibly the local political part organisation, not to mention the bank.

Meanwhile these patrons are bound less by religious values, and more by the desire for more power, or greater wealth. The old rules may apply, but the game has changed.

Foreigners are often greeted with a long list of questions as Khmer try to ascertain your place in the hierarchy. Are you the President of your company? Or a low level employee? Are you a friend of the Government and the Minister in charge?

I recall Savong telling me of an incident that occurred 3 years ago. A policeman was trying to bribe him, and he wanted Savong to meet him at Police HQ, Bakong to “sort out a little matter.” According to the Policeman the District Governor was “most displeased” with Savong’s School because it wasn’t registered. (Actually it was, and Savong had the papers.)

The Policeman phrased his story as a Patron. Look, he had contacts with the Governor’s office, and for a small consideration (of several hundred dollars) he could sort this matter out.

“Why don’t we sort this matter out right now?” replied Savong cheerily. “I have the Governor himself on speed-dial.”

And he did, because he’d had genial dealings with the Governor a few months earlier. He picked up his phone.

As soon as Savong began dialling, the panicky Policeman back-pedalled and said there was no need to call and that there had been a terrible misunderstanding. No money was required, there had simply been a mix-up.

When he first told me the story I saw it as a naked example of corruption and bribery. Clear and simple. But now I see the exchange as a much more nuanced exchange, where a young cop wasn’t simply asking for a bribe – he was trying to create a dependency relationship; he was trying to elevate himself, power-wise, up above my friend.

This is one game that any NGO leader needs to be good at playing. A few years earlier the outcome of that meeting could have been quite different.

Foreigners can help Cambodia by cleaning up their investments

Homeless land grab victims seek redress from the ANZ.

Homeless land grab victims seek redress from the ANZ. Photo: Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily

One of the biggest social problems in Cambodia today is the relentless issue of land concessions to foreign (and some local,) owned companies who present the Government with grand plans of turning subsistence farm holdings into consolidated wealth-producing fields of rubber, palm-oil production or similar. It will create jobs, they promise. It will be sustainable. There will be minimal social cost. In fact local villagers will be better off!

Yeah right. A recent study by international watchdog organisation Rights & Resources Initiative found that practically all concessions end up in social failure, with villagers displaced, often with no compensation. Nearly three-quarters of a million Cambodians have been affected in this manner.

For more on the R&RI report, see this piece in the Phnom Penh Post, dated December 8th, 2014.The report says the Cambodia experience matches the global pattern of land grabbing by corporates.

The majority of the disputes evolved at the initial stages when companies set project proposals into action without input from locals.

“Second, risks can be reduced by maintaining strong environmental standards,” the report says, as environmental regulations were the most common source of noncompliance related fines and lawsuits.

Additionally, without strong relations with the community, even well-intentioned relocations or compensation fail.

However, evictees from the Borei Keila community – who had been promised relocation housing in 2003, but found themselves abandoned – said the problem is lack of accountability.

“If the company and the government officials especially had respected and implemented the contracted agreement, our people would have gotten more benefits from this project,” said Chhay Kim Horn, a representative. “It is the authorities and the company together that left us disappointed.

In 2011 the World Bank imposed a freeze on all new lending to Cambodia, reported Cambodia Daily,  in protest at the government’s forced eviction of some 3,000 families from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood. Now three years later those residents are still urging the World Bank to keep the freeze in place because they still seek adequate compensation.

Increasingly, investor activists are joining the dots between where their investment dollars are going, and what these dollars are being used for. In Australia the ANZ Bank came under fire this year, back in April, when they were publicly shamed for pouring investor dollars into locally owned Phnom Penh Sugar – without ensuring that displaced villagers would be compensated (they accepted a paper promise but did not undertake further due-diligence) nor that adequate health and safety standards would be implemented. The Oxfam report which uncovered these failed promises was scathing of the ANZ for its hands-off approach on ethical issues – despite glowing mission statements advertised by the bank.

Australia’s ABC report is well worth viewing. Click here.

A year earlier, following intense scrutiny by Oxfam and watchdog Global Witness, Deutsche Bank of Germany divested of itself holdings in Vietnamese owned Hoang Anh Gia Lai Group a huge corporate in the rubber industry.

Here’s a quote from the German broadcaster DW’s report 03.12.2013:

In the report titled “Rubber Barons,” HAGL was accused of numerous rights abuses in relation to tens of thousands of hectares of land the Cambodian and Laotian governments have granted it.

Global Witness’ report assessed the environmental and social effects of HAGL’s rubber plantations in Cambodia and Laos. It stated that the company was flouting the law when it came to protecting the land rights of indigenous people, was illegally clearing forest, and held tracts of Cambodian land nearly five times greater than the 10,000 hectare legal limit.

“Families affected are impoverished, face food and water shortages, and get little or no compensation,” Global Witness said at the time. “Indigenous minority peoples’ spirit forests and burial grounds have been destroyed. When they resist, communities face violence, arrest and detention, often at the hands of armed security forces that are on the investors’ payroll.”

There are several failures here. On the frontline, the big corporates are acting as rapaciously as untethered giants did, I’m thinking of the United Fruit Company, a century earlier. They are in it for the quick dollar.

Second is the blind-eye being turned by authorities. The Hun Sen government wants growth at any price, and appears unwilling to enforce its own laws. There is a 10,000 ha land limit enshrined in law – but numerous corporates exceed this; even locally owned corporates. Then there are the issues of social justice to which the Government appears oblivious.  In fact, as dispossessed people protest their situation, the police have been called in to jail these protestors.

But third – and just as culpable – are the investors, the big banks or managed funds, and the mom and pop investors, who bankroll these operations.

Deutsche Bank never gave reasons for its divestment in HAGL, but it is pretty obvious they had been shamed by the difference between their ethical promise and their actual actions. First world investors need to connect these dots more often.

Three challenges Cambodia faces in 2015

Flagging a problem. Is the wealth gap growing in Cambodia?

Every nation has its issues, and as we saw in Ferguson USA, it can take one incident to ignite a season of protest and turmoil. The powder mix of racism was already there – but one spark set everything off.

I read a lot about Cambodia and think about the risks it faces. Here are three issues brewing.

Land grabs.  According to the monitoring group Global Witness around 700,000 Cambodians have already been negatively affected by land grabs and, since 2003, at least 400,000 people have been forced off their land, usually without consultation or compensation. Land is being taken by big corporations with the blessing of Government – for rubber or palm oil plantations – and the issue is the number one public concern. Strong-arm responses by the police to legal protests are adding to the incendiary mix. What for 2015?

Climate and Environment. An independent study of the risk faced by nations due to natural causes placed Cambodia as 8th most vulnerable in terms of exposure to, and the response resources available. Given the unstable patterns of the world climate – an extended season of drought, or of the opposite extreme  – would put the rural communities in peril, physically and economically. The potential for a drought problem is particularly compounded by hydro developments upstream from Cambodia.

Health. This month’s outbreak of HIV within one community, 100+ people diagnosed, was all about dirty needles and, it appears, the re-use of these by an unregistered doctor. He has been arrested on murder charges – which implies that he knowingly and wantonly infected his patients (a case difficult prove.) But we have to ask ourselves, why was the community using an unregistered doctor to begin with? The fact is, basic health care has a long way to go, with a third of Cambodians without access to clean drinking water. Over the past few years Cambodia has skirted disaster – avoiding widespread outbreaks of chicken flu, for example. But the risks of a pandemic are still a concern

How do you see it?