Oh I see! Interview with Weh Yeoh – promoting speech therapy skills in Cambodia.

Weh Yeoh – the objective is not to build an NGO, but to get results. In this interview he describes how he is helping facilitate a local solution to a problem that affects 600,000 Cambodians – those with speech or swallowing difficulties.

Weh Yeoh, is an Australian on a vivid mission in Cambodia and I interviewed him in early 2005.  He was Managing Director, OIC: The Cambodia Project and this comparatively recent NGO start-up is worth paying attention to – not only for the work it is doing – with a focus on training speech therapists, but in the manner it has structured itself to operate.

In reviewing this article in 2019 I remain impressed by Weh’s clarity of thinking and in some ways disruptive viewpoint regarding charitable organisations. The purpose is not to grow these, he says, but to make themselves redundant.

1. First of all, congratulations on starting OIC. These things don’t happen overnight – how did you personally get involved and what motivated you to start this work in Cambodia?
I’ve always been enamoured by the power of local people in poor countries to create change for themselves. In my first year in Cambodia, I worked with CABDICO, a local disability organisation, and I realised how few resources these organisations have. And yet, the best work is being done by these people.

While first working with CABDICO, I met a child named Ling two years ago. He’s an outgoing, intelligent child, in a poor village in rural Cambodia. Ling has cerebral palsy, damage that occurs in a young brain around the time of birth. As
a result, he had problems speaking to the point where his language wasn’t clear at all.

When I met Ling, he was 10 years old and he had never been to school. He couldn’t read or write, or even bathe himself. He couldn’t communicate clearly and was completely dependent on his family.

Those around him labelled him “chqoot” – a Cambodian word meaning “stupid” or even “retarded”. Simply put, without help, Ling’s only way of earning an income would be a life of begging.

Around the same time, I also met Phearom, Ling’s community worker from CABDICO, who visits him at his home every few weeks. As part of our pilot program, we trained Phearom on speech therapy. This training taught her how to treat Ling’s communication problem. It has had a truly life-changing impact on his life.

For the first time, Ling could speak with his family. But Phearom didn’t stop there. She brought Ling’s teachers together to discuss how to get Ling into the classroom. After months of hard work, Ling is now going to school, but not only that, he is coming number two in his class. He dreams of one day becoming an architect. Ling now has a future, because of speech therapy.

Meeting Ling two years ago taught me a valuable lesson. There are children all over Cambodia whose potential is being untapped because of a communication or swallowing problem. Often, all it takes is a little bit of help and a child’s future can be improved dramatically.

That’s why, with the assistance of a small group of dedicated Australian speech therapists lead by Dr Chyrisse Heine, I began the first pilot program in speech therapy in Cambodia with CABDICO, a little over a year ago. The program has now evolved to be OIC: The Cambodia Project. “OIC” refers to that moment when you suddenly understand something that you didn’t before. Oh I see, you would say. My idea was never to start another non-profit organisation when there are so many goodCambodian organisations doing great work. Hence, the project is part of CABDICO’s existing work.

2. Tell me a little bit about speech and swallowing difficulties. What are the various causes for these – and are there cures, or is it more a case of assisting children to live and cope with these difficulties?
There are many causes of communication and swallowing disorders, including intellectual disabilities, brain trauma and strokes. These kinds of problems can affect anyone from a child with autism, to a middle-aged motorbike accident victim, to an elderly person who has had a stroke.

Because of the diversity of these disorders, there is no one “cure” and the goals of treatment are different for every person.
As one famous example of someone with a communication problem, James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader, grew up stuttering. Though he has obviously had a lot of success in overcoming his stutter, he says he still stutters and he doesn’t say he was cured. But he is certainly able to communicate like anyone else.

Obviously, this a less severe example of a communication problem. On the other hand, for someone who has an intellectual disability and can’t speak, success may look like teaching them how to use various communication aids so they can still communicate with others. It really differs from person to person.

With swallowing difficulties, again the range of causes is very diverse. Whether it is a physical problem or a problem with the nervous system, the person’s ability to swallow food or liquid in a way that you and I take for granted is impaired. This means that often, the substance will go into the lungs, and the person is at risk of contracting pneumonia. As a result, they’re 13 times more likely to die young.

For people like this, their ability to swallow may improve, but otherwise, speech therapy works to mitigate some of these risks through altering positioning, or the consistency of food or liquid, for example.

3. You publish a very frightening figure – 600,000 children in Cambodia have speech or swallowing difficulties. Where does that number come from? – health statistics from Cambodia are not always reliable.
As you rightly point out, health data in Cambodia is often poor. However, there are some good statistics about the number of people with disabilities who have communication problems as a percentage of the total population with disabilities in Cambodia. According to the World Health Organisation, at least 15% of people in any country have a disability, which means that 2.1 million out of Cambodia’s 14.3 million people have a disability of some kind. Cambodian official statistics state that 5% of people with disabilities have a speaking impairment, and 20% have a hearing impairment. There is no data on swallowing impairments. Applying these percentages to the 2.1 million people with a disability, we can estimate that there are at least 600,000 Cambodians (including both adults and children) with a communication or swallowing problem.

This figure represents 4% of the population, however it is probably a conservative estimate, given rates of disability are higher in developing countries. In my own country of Australia, the estimate is somewhere between 4 to 8% of the population. In order to address this population, Australia has over 6,000 speech therapists. However, in Cambodia, there are none. There is not one university-trained Cambodian speech therapist.

4. Children with real communication difficulties can be hard work for their families. What is the general story for these children – are they well supported by their families?
Great question. For disability workers, it’s incredibly important to work with the families as well as the children; in fact, it’s just as important as working with the child, given how much more time children spend with their families. I think many families who have children with disabilities can feel overwhelmed and helpless.

They don’t know how to best care for their children. It’s often an incredible relief when they receive support from disability workers, and I think they find it very encouraging to learn how they can best support their children. Many of the families are incredibly patient and supportive, such as Mai’s family, which we’ve written about on our website.

5. Before forming OIC you ran a pilot scheme with local NGO: CABDICO. What did the pilot scheme teach you? How did this modify your approach?
Well, the first thing we learned is that speech therapy really does help. Preliminary research we did earlier in the year showed us that speech therapy increased the number of children who could communicate with their family most of the time from one in five to four in five. That’s a huge jump.

We’re currently undergoing an independent evaluation of our program, and will use these lessons learnt to inform the next stage of our work in Cambodia. It’s important that we use this evidence based approach, because we’re doing something that has never been done before. We want to evaluate the effectiveness of speech therapy in Cambodia, to show that it can help that enormous population of 600,000 people who need it.

6. What are the main objectives of OIC?
We have two goals:

1 – to provide training in speech therapy services across Cambodia
2 – to graduate the first generation of Cambodian speech therapists from a Cambodian university

As you know, we’ve already begun training in speech therapy, and we are in the early stages of discussing with a Cambodian university beginning a speech therapy program.

7. You and the team have a very clear mission not just to work with individual children, but to effectively multiply your skills – by training local Cambodians in speech therapy. How did you arrive at this strategy? Did you work with local Cambodians to develop the strategy?
Since I arrived in Cambodia, the one lesson I’ve learnt the most is that it is Cambodian people who are creating real change in this country for themselves. Our role as foreigners should be to support them as best as possible. My colleagues who have had decades of experience working in disability have told me since day one that the lack of speech therapy is the biggest gap in health and disability services in the country.

My goal is to work our team out of a job. If our long term vision is for delivery of speech therapy services in Cambodia, this means that as foreigners, we cannot be the ones implementing speech therapy. In order to do this, we’ll need to train local Cambodians on speech therapy.

But to take that one step further, it’s even better if Cambodians are training other Cambodians in speech therapy. Our training program will use a train the trainers approach, where we will train local Cambodians to be the trainers. Eventually, we’ll have Cambodians teaching the university course as well. Once the entire teaching team is run by Cambodians, we’ll have a sustainable way to spread this knowledge in Cambodia. Then, we won’t need foreign volunteers to train Cambodians on speech therapy. It will be Cambodians, learning from other Cambodians. We don’t just value Cambodian input – we know it’s absolutely critical to the success of the project.

8. In terms of mainstream teaching, the styles of teaching differ quite widely when you compare Khmer and Western approaches. Have you in the team discovered differences between the Australian approach and the way locals operate?
What we’ve noticed in our training sessions is that the Western inclination is to start from a fairly academic, theoretical perspective, while Cambodians prefer very practical approaches. We’ve had to make sure we adapt so that they can take away the practical skills they need to immediately improve their ability to deliver speech therapy. It’s interesting too to see how speech therapy changes dependent on the culture and context.

As one example, there is an Australian list of the 50 first words a child learns to say. This list cannot just be translated into Cambodian, as words like “water buffalo” are on the Cambodian list but not on the Australian one. Again, this goes back to how important it is to have Cambodians involved in every aspect of the project. Taking an Australian speech therapy resource or program and transplanting it in Cambodia is not going to work.

9. How much of a support network does OIC enjoy in Phnom Penh? Do other NGOs contribute in the overall dialogue – or are you mostly head down working on your own program?
The key to our success is in working with Cambodian organisations that already work in this field. We don’t implement services; we train people at organisations that are already providing services. This means strong relationships with others, including non-profit organisations, hospitals, and government departments, is essential. They have the disability workers, the relationships in the community, and the knowledge of Cambodia. Up to two years ago, all they were missing is knowledge of speech therapy.

We want to build on the great work these organisations are doing, rather than create another NGO.

10. How can speech therapists (or speech pathologists) reading this best assist you and your work at OIC. For example if I was a speech therapist wishing to volunteer, what would be a suitable and realistic time frame?
There are a whole range of ways that speech therapists can get involved. We need help with training, curriculum, research, resources and fundraising just to name a few areas. Though I’m not a speech therapist myself (I originally trained as a physiotherapist a long time ago), I’ve come to appreciate just how generous speech therapists are with their time and energy. We’ve already benefitted from the generosity of speech therapists all over the world, and this is just the beginning. Depending on their availability, we’d welcome speech therapists interested in volunteering from home or in Cambodia. We’d love them to get in touch via our website.

11. Weh – your work and approach are remarkable. When did you realise that foreign service was your calling?
Though I really appreciate the compliment, I don’t consider anything that I do to be particularly remarkable. What is more remarkable is to see what Cambodian people can do for other Cambodians.

I spent six months of my life, in 2006, volunteering in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam. It was disastrous. I was a young, naive 24 year old with good intentions but no clue of what I was doing. One year later, I went back to Australia and started working with a great little organisation that helped people with disabilities. More importantly, I went back to university to study International Development, to try and work out how to do this thing – “helping people in poor countries” better. I learnt a huge amount that I didn’t know when volunteering in the orphanage. Since coming to Cambodia, I’ve realised that there are so many challenges to overcome here. And yet, colleagues of mine, like Phearom, have shown me what they are capable of doing with very little resources, very little pay but a lot of energy and passion. What Phearom has been able to achieve with Ling is simply remarkable.

There is a pervasive myth that it is foreigners like myself who are creating change in poor countries. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. I tried to be the person making the change while volunteering in the orphanage. That didn’t work. Studying development and working in Cambodia has taught me that my role is to support those people making the change, like my Cambodian colleague, Phearom.

Once this became clear to me, there was no other way to work anymore. OIC’s approach builds very much upon this philosophy, giving Cambodians the tools and resources to help other Cambodians.

12. OIC Cambodia Project. The name suggests a finite lifespan for the organisation. At what point do you say, right, mission accomplished?
We absolutely want there to be a finite lifespan for the organisation. When there is speech therapy knowledge within the country, and when Cambodians are able to train other Cambodians on speech therapy, we are no longer needed. I can’t wait for that day, when every one of the 600,000 people who need access to these services will be able to access them – and from Cambodian speech therapists, who understand their language and culture.

And who knows, then it might be time for OIC: The Laos Project!

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.

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.

Teaching quality in Cambodia – its not just local standards that need lifting


Who are the foreigners who choose to teach these children in Cambodia?

My attention was drawn to an advertisement placed in a Facebook page, the very helpful and convivial Expats and locals living in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which serves as a bulletin-board for the expat community who call Siem Reap home. Here you’ll find furnishing for sale, advice on Visa applications, what’s on at your favourite local bar and commentary and generally warm, realistic conversation about life in this bustling tourist town.

The advertisement was from a back-packer who wondered aloud whether there was an NGO that would provide food and accommodation in exchange for her teaching English. I must admit, I was somewhat taken aback: you want to rock up on your world adventure and get subsidised by local charitable organisations?

The fact is, the Cambodian education system has a very uneasy relationship with western teachers – who are at best a mixed bag of talents, ranging from the truly excellent down to the back-packers who bring zero experience into the Cambodian classroom.

There are two strata of foreign teachers. There are those who come to Cambodia to take up paid employment as teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL). Most of these teachers end up in Phnom Penh, where families are richer and can afford to send their children to Language Schools. These vary in quality – from bucket-shops that pay foreigners $US5.00 per hour, right through to top class schools that offer a salary of $30,000 or more: enormous by local standards.

I read one account of the ESL scene which was quite dispiriting – suggesting that among ESL teachers the good ones (those who are not in Cambodia for sex, drugs, holidays or ‘finding themselves’,) are in the distinct minority, and even among those there is a split between those who have become jaded and those who will become jaded and quit.

The blog struck me as extremely cynical, a little too world-weary in tone, but what surprised me were the comments: that basically said the author was right on the money – that anyone unqualified foreigner could get a teaching job within a few days of arrival because so many ESL places don’t have any standards in place – and that the name of the game is, in fact, money. The blogger describes backpackers as the most despised form of ESL teacher because they are willing to accept really low pay, and make it possible for the language schools to make staggering profits.

The second strand of the conversation revolves around NGOs, institutions that include the one I’m attached to, Savong’s School, but also many dozens of schools offering free education to the poor. Ten years ago we were in-fact active in trying to attract back-packers who might lend even a day or two to share their time and to help the students practice their English. Anyone was better than no-one.

Over time the standards of volunteer teachers has been raised, though not as high as we’d like things to go. For one thing, expectations have risen, and local teachers want to share their classroom with people who inspire – not people who need carrying.

Likewise, the framework for NGO schools has become more demanding. MOEYS expects schools to work to a set syllabus, and there’s no place for a foreigner to stand in front of the classroom just making stuff up.

Finally, there’s a real sense that local teachers are focusing more on lifting their skills in the classroom – to be professional in their approach and become better teachers than they themselves experienced.

For the ESL scene, I think an accreditation scheme is needed, and paid foreigners ought to provide proof of their teacher qualifications. Likewise, the ESL industry needs to become more transparent. The same as in many countries; the ESL sector is the wild-west.

For the NGO scene, (which is far from immune to criticism,) I see a different story emerging because there’s a shift from relying on foreign teachers towards greater reliance on Khmer staff. This is a good thing, but it brings with it a pressing challenge: to attract high calibre trainers of teachers.

Backpackers need not apply.

Cambodia – opinion poll captures cautious public mood.

I have long been a fan of public opinion polls because they bring an often ignored voice – that of the public – to the attention of those in power. A wise government need not necessarily be a slave to public opinion, the best decisions may be considered to be unpopular at the time, but it should always heed the sentiment of the public.

Having enjoyed a history of tight media controls, (the television broadcasters fundamentally ignore politics in favour of game shows and pop music,) Cambodia’s Hun Sen government is now operating in a much more openly informed environment. The press, namely the Phnom Penh Post, as well is Cambodia daily, have been active champions for journalistic freedom. Add to that, the Voice of America which, perhaps unlike the VOA the 1960s and 70s, which was very much a propaganda mechanism for the United States, is respected these days for bringing fair reportage to the Cambodian public.

As witnessed in the 2013 elections, the voice of the people themselves – using social media such as Facebook – has emerged as a potent voice in the political mix. The swell of support for the opposition clearly rocked the government. It is perhaps little wonder that this government is now actively gathering of intelligence from the Internet: identifying “troublemakers” in an effort to maintain some kind of control public opinion.

But here’s the thing: the public in any nation tends to have a good common sense understanding of whether the nation is heading in the right or wrong direction.

Right now, 59% of Cambodians feel their nation is heading in the wrong direction.

This is the finding of a significant survey, diligently conducted face-to-face, (I don’t envy the fieldwork design that must have gone into this study,) of 1000 citizens aged 18+.

The news is not all bad for the government, not at all. There is a general sentiment that the public considers the growth of the economy and the development of infrastructure to be good things for the nation. But they sound warning bells – highlighting corruption, deforestation and economic inequities as being causes for real concern.

From my perspective, as a researcher, and as an observer of Cambodia, the The Asia Foundation poll seems to be eminently fair. The Asia Foundation is a watchdog organisation, and for sure, they have an agenda –  “to assess attitudes and priorities of the voting public that may contribute to or constrain democratic reforms,’ but this hasn’t hindered the from asking balanced, non-leading questions, and enabling the public to voice their opinions in their own words.

This from Germany’s public news broadcaster DW.

Survey shows Cambodians increasingly concerned about country’s direction

Despite rapid economic growth, more Cambodians than at any time since 2004 feel their country is moving in the wrong direction, a new poll found. Corruption, deforestation, and economic issues top the list of concerns.

The nationwide survey, published by The Asia Foundation on Wednesday, December 10, shows that while 32 percent of respondents feel Cambodia is heading in a positive direction, a majority (59 percent) believes things in the Southeast Asian nation are going the wrong way.

Conducted between May 19 and June 9, and titled Democracy in Cambodia – 2014: A Survey of the Cambodian Electorate, the public opinion poll cites corruption (19 percent), deforestation, and economic issues (26 percent) as the main reasons for the increase in pessimism. The tangible results of infrastructure (27 percent) and economic growth (21 percent) are cited by those who believe the country is going in the right direction.

The representative survey is the organization’s third on democracy in Cambodia, a follow-up to polls conducted in 2000 and 2003 and is based on 1,000 face-to-face interviews with Cambodian citizens aged 18 and older in 23 provinces (excluding Kep) and the capital Phnom Penh.

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Lack of transparency, lack of trust, lack of justice – in Cambodia’s justice system


Journalist Kevin Doyle based in Phnom Penh has written a blistering piece for the BBC which was published today.

The story revolves around the murder of a young woman, a mother of  are 10-year-old,  who was shot in cold blood by her jealous boyfriend  a policeman.  Witnesses saw him. But he has not been brought to justice.

Earlier this year, karaoke parlour singer, Sam Yin, 29, was shot dead by a police officer.

He escaped – but then resurfaced in August as a free man. He had reached a deal, it was reported, with the court, which closed the case after he paid $1,500 (£960) to Sam Yin’s relatives.

“I heard about the compensation, but I can’t confirm it,” Takeo province’s deputy police chief Suon Phon said in September.

Officers could only be dispatched to apprehend the suspected killer when the court issued an arrest warrant, the deputy police chief said, adding this week that he has yet to receive one.

“I don’t know what happened because everything has been done at the provincial court.”

In Cambodia, a small cash payment is often the most people can hope for when the rich and powerful are involved – and cases such as Sam Yin are far from unique.

The story then springboards onto the wider question of the justice system in Cambodia, and how it is far from transparent. As Doyle notes:

Anti-corruption monitor Transparency International reported in 2013 that Cambodia’s judiciary “was perceived to be the most corrupt institution out of 12 public institutions reviewed”.

Police officers fared no better. Bribery of officers was “widespread across the country,” Transparency reported, noting that 65% of respondents reported paying a police office a bribe in the previous 12 months.

In a 24 September statement to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, UN human rights envoy to Cambodia Surya Subedi said the list of impunity cases was “long and growing”.

“Little has been done to bring perpetrators to justice,” he said.

Kevin Doyle’s article is well worth a read.  Click here: BBC report on corruption.