Arms race in reverse. How CMAC is clearing weapons from Cambodia

CMAC getting rid of 11,000 rifles.

Search and destroy. 11,000 remnants of civil strife 30+ years ago. CMAC is quietly ridding Cambodia of a stockpile of potential trouble. (Photo from CNE Cambodia News.)

Decades have passed since the final shots were fired between the Khmer Rouge soldiers and other Khmer, with some of the last battles taking place in Kampong Kdei, East of Siem Reap. A friend of mine has a house there that boasts bullet holes from the Khmer Rouge.

But in all the upheaval of the Pol Pot years and after, troops were armed mostly with Chinese rifles, though I would not be surprised if some Russian armaments and perhaps a smattering of US firearms were included in the mix – carry-overs from the Vietnam war.

Since the conflicts most attention has been paid to landmine clearance, and this work has been chiefly co-ordinated by the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) which is  Cambodia’s leading de-mining organization,.

CMAC currently has 1,715 staff across Cambodia,  according to the CMAC website, and over recent years they have supplemented their anti-mine activity with the repossession of firearms with the objective of destroying these to promote peace in Cambodia.

On March 1st CMAC Director Heng Ratana (picture above) announced that the Cambodian Mine Action Center will transfer and deliver light weaponry collected from more than 11,000 people for destruction. The weapons are a mix of war remnants discovered in the ground, military firearms and homemade rifles, reports the CNE Cambodian News English service. (Follow them!)

Cambodia must be riddled with these remnants of war.  I recall seeing two or three Chinese rifles hanging in the local policeman’s office near our school in Bakong. In 2016 the law was modified to ensure that police could only carry guns while on duty: but not when they are off-duty.

While firearms are for most people illegal to possess armaments are still permitted for higher ranking officers in the military, even outside ‘office hours.’

In 2016 The Phnom Penh Post reported:

The early 1990s saw countless guns fall into civilian hands as the civil war wound down. Since 1998, the government has embarked on a gun amnesty and confiscation drive that it claims has seen hundreds of thousands of weapons taken off the streets.

But while overall recorded gun crime was down this year (2016) compared with 2014, the number of those killed with firearms went up, according to official figures.

Click here for a story about road safety.

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Its murder! Recent crime figures in Cambodia

An outline of murder figures

In comparing intentional homicide rates we find Cambodia is about as safe as living in…Idaho.

Fifteen years ago if you told friends you were going to Cambodia, they’d be quick to point out that it was a dangerous nation – on account of the landmines. But these days, with most of the minefields rendered safe, the three areas of fear are health, road safety and crime.

I thought I’d look up some reasonably recent figures (most crime data are 5 years old) and compare these figures to those in the USA.

First of all – perceptions. A global survey asked citizens in each country how serious the crime rates are and whether they believe crime is “High” in their country.  Put it this way, in Venezuela (2014) 97% felt crime rates were high in their country.  By contrast, 56% of USA citizens surveyed felt that crime was high in America. (39% in Canada.)  Meanwhile 38% of Cambodians felt that crime is High in Cambodia. And the lowest fear of serious crime? Japan and Singapore each boasted a mere 13% of respondents feeling that crime is High in their respective countries.

That was perception.  How about reality?   What is the intentional homicide rate per 100,000 people in various countries?  Again, let’s go to the top of the table: the Central Americas and Caribbean nations don’t look too safe.  Honduras (2016) delivered 57 intentional murder victims per 100,000 people, Jamaica came in 5th with 47 victims of intentional homicide (2016 figures) per 100,000 people.

So how does trigger-happy America compare?  The US has 5.3 intentional homicides per 100,000 people (2016) which is about the same as Cuba (4.99 per 100,000, 2016), and Thailand (3.2 per 100,000, 2016.)

Cambodia’s figures are, unfortunately older (2011) and at that stage the intentional homicide rate was 1.84 per 100,000. That’s about the same as Idaho and Maine.

Compare that to the UK (1.2 per 100,000) Australia (0.94 per 100,000, 2010) or Hong Kong which almost makes the bottom of the table (0.38 per 100,000) but is pipped by Monaco where, according to 2015 figures, zero homicides took places.

By the way these figures are look-uppable on Wikipedia Site where they quote United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime figures. Note these figures are at some variance compared to those published on NationMaster website which compares different nations on a wide range of issues.  I trust the UN figures more – but the definitions may account for this.  The UN cites intentional homicides per 100,000.  NationMaster reports “murders per 100,000.”

For a real crime story in Siem Reap:  Big Trouble at Killing Fields Pagoda

 

 

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.

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.