Google translate and the miracle baby

Mr Sotha

Mr Sothy and I were a perfect match. We misunderstood each other in perfect balance – thanks to some technological randomness from Google translate.

Most people have one or two tuk-tuk stories and in my case I feel the collective of tuk-tuk drivers in Siem Reap make a huge and posotive difference to the visitor’s experience of Cambodia. Recently I met a treasure of a tuk-tuk driver, Mr Sothy, who waited for me patiently while I was processed in the arrivals lounge out at the airport. I was late joining a queue and got beaten to the line by a tour party that had just arrived from Korea. My flight was late as it was and outside Mr Sothy must have waited at least two hours for me, and without complaint. If I was him I’d have been fuming.

To make amends I asked him if he’d be my regular driver over the next three weeks, and over that time our friendship grew, and so did our level of organisation. Each evening we planned the excursions for the next day; trying to streamline the pick-ups and deliveries we each needed to make around town.  Just getting things like photos developed, or getting business cards printed involved trips here and there

MR SOTHY AND ME

That’s Mr Sothy and me. Wonderful driver – this day we were sampling mango smoothies at Blue Pumpkin.

My Khmer is hopeless – I can say thank you, and I know several of the food groups such as chicken, fish or pork – but with languages I’m put in the shade by my wife who can speak in English, Finnish, Cantonese and can get around Italy and France with some of the dignity that cloth-eared tourists like me don’t deserve. For his part, Mr Sothy is still learning English, and on many occasions we’d draw maps in the dust – to explain where we were heading.

Though wait. Mr Sothy had Google translate, and phrase by phrase we were able to work most things out. He proved an amazing detective who helped me find lost friends when I had few if any leads. We both enjoyed such quests.  Google translate really was remarkable.

But one day, Mr Sothy was visibly ill.  “What’s the matter?” I asked his smart phone. He waited for the translation and then spoke back into his Samsung mobile. He showed me the translation which reported bluntly: “I am heavily pregnant and I need to go to hospital.”

Sensing the arrival of a miracle child, I urged Mr Sothy to head to the nearest medical centre a block away.  We drove there. He parked the tuk-tuk and in visible pain entered the small medical unit. A number of patients lay in a ward that opened up to the street.  In a consulting room a small child howled and shrieked: she was getting a needle for some infection – and she wasn’t happy. Her stoic parents held her hands but to little avail.

Presently Mr Sothy was examined and found (to our relief) that there was no baby on the way – but there was severe stomach pain.  The medical staff gave him some medication and had him lie down for 15 minutes.  All the while the small child continued to put up a fight against all medical treatment with her piercing, yowling screams.

Still, in that quarter-hour the tuk-tuk driver felt some relief, and when he stood up once more he was given a prescription of various tablets and capsules. He had no money on him, or not enough, and I felt that in view of his patience at the airport it would be only right for me to pay the medical centre. So we paid up, then bumped our plans back 24 hours and agreed to meet next morning if Mr Sothy felt up to it.

He was in fine health from the next day onward and we treated Google translate with a slice of caution after that. I really enjoyed his company.

How did Google developed translation from Khmer to English?  The work goes back to 2012 – when they employed sheer computational horsepower to the task – comparing Khmer text to English version of the same web pages. Actual translators were not employed. see this backgrounder from the Voice of America – how-google-figured-out khmer-translation  

Click here: for a crash course in Cambodian Motorbike safety.

Got a tuk-tuk story or a Google Translate story? I’d love to hear about it it.

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Is Chinese investment going to swamp Cambodia in debt?

YUAN

Direct foreign investment from China into Cambodia now outstrips that from all other sources combined. Is this a problem?

Right now the biggest national issue that everyone is talking about in Cambodia must surely be the topic of Chinese investment. Due to sizeable land transfers particularly around Sihanoukvlle, and with the instant-high-rise nature of Phnom Penh there is a strong and palpable perception that China is disenfranchising local Khmer people.

Property and real estate are the leading forms of foreign investment. In part because the effort going into starting an actual new business (such as a clothes or bicycle factory,) is still harder work in Cambodia than in most of its Asian neighbors. The World Bank puts Cambodia 138th on their Ease of Business Index – with neighboring Vietnam 69th and Thailand 27th by comparison. Cambodia lacks clear business laws and is penalised for the level of paperwork required.

So a big hotel is simpler. Sold as a property development – on a land concession made simple by the Government – the advent of Chinese-built hotels, run for Chinese tourists, with minimal wages going to local Khmer staff (who work 12 hour shifts) and with profits going straight back to China is a highly visible form of direct foreign investment that is hardly leading to a wealthier populace.

The Government has already overturned morality based laws (gambling for money is illegal in Cambodia but has been legalised for visitors to the little-Macau Chinese casinos of Sihanoukville.) So much for sovereignty.

Land concessions are also a big part of the perceived problem. Human Rights Watchdog LICADHO estimate that 2 million hectares of land have been made available for developers, local and foreign, but often at the cost to local land owners who have been kicked off their farms.Dispossessed, (as the ABC of Australia reported of farmers who lost their land to a Sofitel development in March 2016) protestors were shot and wounded by armed forces on behalf of the hotel group.

Here is a map detail land concessions across Cambodia. Concession awarded to Chinese interests are marked in red, local interests are in blue while Vietnamese interests are in green.  Source map is bigger, clearer and interactive. Click here.

CAMBODIAN LAND CONCESSIONS

But is Chinese money exposing Cambodia to a future of debt-laden servitude? Right now Cambodia’s foreign debt as a proportion of GDP is relatively modest, though climbing quickly. There are two prices to be paid though.  One is the social debt – the idea that Cambodians are becoming, and will remain, in a cheap labour economy.

Then there is the fiscal debt. Here Cambodia needs to watch itself. The question is: who owns the infrastructure. Historically this has always been the business of Government, but China has the capital and human resource to come in and extend the sea port, put in hydro schemes and develop the currently struggling road network – then the ‘rates’ must surely get paid to the country that funded these things.

This from the Hong Kong Trade Development Council website: August 2018.

At the end of last month, Cambodia’s Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MPWT) announced that work had been completed on 2,000 kilometres of new roads, seven major bridges and a container terminal servicing the Phnom Penh Autonomous Port. All these initiatives had largely been backed by the Chinese mainland, with funding provided from within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

In an article published by the Phnom Penh Post, on March 27th, 2018, journalist Robin Spiess noted that China’s financing and investment of the Belt & Road projects in Cambodia could lead to a significant rise in public debt, and even take it to ‘distress’ levels.

According to a policy paper released by the Center for Global Development, Cambodia will likely see a significant rise in debt to China as a result of the Belt and Road Initiative. At the end of 2016, Cambodia’s total public and publicly guaranteed debt was $6.5 billion, a relatively low percent of the country’s $20 billion GDP. About half of that $6.5 billion debt was owed to China, according to the report.

Miguel Chanco, lead Southeast Asia analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), noted that the report was accurate regarding the risks to Cambodia, but also said any prediction of future debt levels was complicated by the overall lack of transparency of BRI projects.

“Our estimates put the country’s public debt stock at around 35 percent of GDP, which is well below the median for Asean and emerging markets at large,” Chanco said. “Having said that, I am concerned about the lack of transparency in many of China’s projects in Cambodia, as it makes it difficult to determine the latter’s overall sovereign debt commitments.”

Publicly declared projects at the end of 2016 were predicted to leave Cambodia indebted to China by an additional $3.5 billion though this figure might well be much higher.

One example is China’s proposal to develop over two million kilometers of national expressways [in Cambodia] by 2040”, which is a broad-brush swoop of a figure to begin with, and given the geo-technical engineering risks of building on a flat, sand-based terrain could easily blow out beyond the estimated cost of around $26 billion. A blow-out could leave the Kingdom significantly more in debt to China.

Meanwhile estimates of the national debt to 2020 is less fuzzy.

The EIU forecasted a rapid rise in Cambodia’s external debt in the next few years, according to Chanco. “We expect the country’s total foreign debt stock to rise to $17 billion by 2020,” he said.

Right now Chinese investment hasn’t pushed Cambodian debt prospects over the brink, unless you factor in the very real human rights costs. But in pure money terms Cambodia is going for the quick and easy path to economic growth.  It has a long wayto go however, before it becomes an economy – like that of Singapore – where business is easy to conduct and where locals are not in underpaid jobs. Current policy is growing the economy, but it is a recipe for dissatisfaction and a real sense of disenfranchisement.

I write these blogs as an observer of changing Cambodia. I’ve been involved in a small NGO since 2004 back when the tallest building in Phnom Penh was 8 storeys high. I hope expats, volunteers and others in the Cambodian community find these reports useful.  I try to compile hard data from credible sources.

Meanwhile: China and the US square-off in dispute over recent history.  Click here.

 

Revision exercise? China and USA argue over recent Cambodian history

During the years of the Vietnam War, and for some time afterwards I used to view the Voice of America (VoA) news services with deep suspicion. It was propaganda. In recent years my respect for their service as an independent and fair news provider has climbed.  I really think they’re offering a much needed service, especially since the Phnom Penh Post has been degutted to become, shamefully,  little more than a government mouthpiece. The VoA keeps its eye on stories that matter.

Today 11/01/2019 I saw a piece on their website that caught my eye. It concerned the current tit for tat between the US and China over who did, or didn’t drive the fall of Sihanouk at the hands of Lon Nol and the subsequent rise of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Says the VoA in their report:

The online skirmish began when the U.S. Embassy posted a statement on its Facebook page, Jan. 30, saying the Khmer Rouge “ignorantly depended on a superpower,” an apparent reference to China. The embassy later issued comments claiming Washington was not involved in the coup led by Lon Nol that ousted Sihanouk.

The inference is that China was boots and all involved in supporting Pol Pot and that US attitudes had little to do with the events that led, ultimately to the awful genocide.

China has responded said the VoA:

In response, the Chinese Embassy posted a statement on its Facebook page, Feb. 1, mocking the idea that the coup “was not related to the U.S., but the CIA.”

The truth is China and the USA were both instrumental in events. One history of Chairman Mao, I read, said even the Chinese viewed Pol Pot  as dangerously extreme, or even crazy. I need to check my references on that one – but the picture was clear: any backing by China was arms length, but included supply of landmines.

But the USA already had blood on its hands with Kissinger’s vast and illegal bombing campaign in Cambodia’s north east.  The closest the current embassy comes to acknowledging that is to state:

“The United States has addressed its war legacy by long-standing and substantial efforts for humanitarian de-mining and removing unexploded ordnance (UXO), including the removal of hundreds of thousands of Chinese-made mines, which have injured and killed people for decades,” she said in an email.

Even then, in reviewing its war legacy, the US takes a snipe at who made many (or most) of the 4-10 million landmines said to be laid in Cambodia. Journalists and commentators lay the blame for laying these landmines on several forces during Cambodia’s decades-long war: by the Cambodian army, the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge, the non-communist fighters and US forces.

cambodialandmine

Around 50% of all landmine fields have been cleared. Since Since 1979, more than 64,000 people have been killed or injured by landmines in Cambodia – 15,000 from Battambang province and 5,000 from Rattanak Mondul. (Al Jazeera)

In any case, the USA blotted its reputation by suddenly pulling out of landmine removal in late 2017.  “Well just have to raise the money ($2million annually) by going elsewhere,” said Hun Sen at the time.  To that date, the US had sent $132 in removing unexploded mines and bombs.

Why the war of words today?  It appears that the USA is trying to remind the China-leaning Hun Sen Government that they are the good guys here and that it is unwise to put 100% faith in China.  But the words may prove a cheap shot in a losing battle. If you follow the flow of money, then the US has very little to do with Cambodia relative to China. Phnom Penh is mushrooming with Chinese cash and large tracts of Sihanoukville are basically Chinese.  Moral arguments are not effective with this government: especially when they are flawed, revisionist or simply too cheap.

Link to the Voice of America

Landmine clearing organisations:

Landmine Monitor – relevant figures on mine clearance in Cambodia.  Click here.

Mine clearance is undertaken mainly by the national operator, CMAC, and two international mine action NGOs, The HALO Trust and MAG. A national NGO, Cambodian Self-help Demining (CSHD), has been active since 2011.

More discussion. Is China’s investment going to choke Cambodia? click here.

 

 

Cambodian Pop -celebrates a rural idyll

YouTube is a great place to explore the musical cultures of different countries. And the music videos tell a lot about the Zeitgeist of the nation. I remain fascinated at the way Cambodian music continues to balance the urban glam against the romantic version of the rural idyll – a simpler wholesome life for which Cambodia pines.

In its dreams.

Cambodia’s upswing in education spending to 2018

Savong Teaching

My friend Savong loves teaching. Here he is in full flight. His school, like those of other NGOs has helped pick up the slack created by government under-spending.

Investing enough in Cambodia’s future? I don’t think so. Until recently Cambodia’s state investment in education has languished. As a percentage of government expenditure, Cambodia spent until recently less than 12% of their total budget. This was ranked 140th in the world – but even then, the figure disguised the fact that the government income and expenditure in Cambodia was not all that high in any case. Education was getting a small slice of a small pie. Since early in the new millennium the numbers have improved slowly.

  • 2010   13.1%
  • 2007   12.4%
  • 2004   10.1%*
    *  Figures from World Data Atlas

Raw percentages are a blunt measure of course. In Singapore the percentage is around 20%, while in Japan, with its relatively ageing population and its excellent existing education infrastructure, the percentage is close to 10%.  Neither nation faces the steep challenges as faced by Cambodia in the past decade, however Cambodia, for a few years, has spent more on its military than it has on schools and teachers.

But that is changing. The education strategic plan, or ESP ratified in 2014 by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) set out an aggressive boost in education spending, taking the figure north of 20% this year, up to 23.1% in 2017 and towards 26% in 2018.

EDUCATION BUDGET MOEYS

Government plans and budgets are notoriously subject to changes and reality checks. The world economy is flat-lining in 2016, yet the MoEYS strategic development plan has inserted an optimistic growth in GDP of 7.4% for this year, and on this basis projected to increase spending from half a billion US dollars this year – 2016 – to three-quarters of a billion in 2018.

These figures need scrutinising. Where will the dollars go?  Do they keep pace with numbers of enrolments and the laudable plans to introduce upgraded science labs and computer labs – or boosts to teacher training?

Yet the intentions are great, and certainly have flagged the nation’s recognition that it has a burgeoning young population who need investing in.

For more education facts and figures – click here.

 

 

 

 

 

In Cambodia, on a Galaxy not so far away

CAMBO CHARTSMART

One pair of figures from the Asia Foundation study into mobile and internet in Cambodia, sums up the growth of smart-phone usage. In two years smart-phones doubled in market share, and if anything that growth is accelerating. By the end of this year more than half of all mobiles will be smart-phones.

Below we see who is getting the business: Samsung, for now, has half the smart-phone market, spearheaded with its Galaxy phones.

CAMBOCHART1

According to the report smart-phones are becoming increasingly a preferred source of news, weather and information.

Cambodia may have made a late start, but most of the country have skipped landline technology, PC computing and have jumped straight into the possibilities of 4G. A process that took the west at least 5 decades.

For more mobile phone facts and figures – click here.