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.

Where there’s smoke…there’s TB. Cambodia joins the fight against smoking.

A problem for health authorities is that cigarettes are priced so cheaply, even the poorest sector can get hooked on smoking.

A problem for health authorities is that cigarettes are priced so cheaply, even the poorest sector can get hooked on smoking. It doesn’t help that a leading Senator is importing cheap cigarettes.

A recent factoid caught my eye the other day –  the value of cigarette imports to Cambodia. Cigarettes  are, by value, one of the leading imports to this nation. What an extremely  unfortunate  thing to trade  in exchange for the hard labour that goes into producing rice,  Cambodia’s leading export crop.

In 1999 one researcher reported that the very poor spend a 2-3 times greater fraction of their income on tobacco relative to the rich. In urban areas, a poor Cambodian might spend in excess of 7% of their income on tobacco, as opposed to 2% or less spent by the affluent. A secondary analysis of the 1999 Socioeconomic Survey of Cambodia indicated that the annual cash expenditure of Cambodian smokers on cigarettes was about $US69.44 million. This annual expenditure on cigarettes is enough to buy 274,304 tons of quality rice, 1,388,382 bicycles, or construct 27,778 wooden houses.

Alarming figures! And that’s without counting the health costs associated with smoking. By 2011 the annual spend on tobacco was just this side of $US100 million.

The Ministry of health in Cambodia  has set objectives to reduce the percentage  of smokers  who are,  overwhelmingly,  males. in 2011  a thorough survey estimated that 42% of males aged 18+ a tobacco users.  Of these males,  20% began smoking before the age of 15.

Tobacco usage amongst females, as we see in other parts of Asia,  is relatively low – in the single digits –  and,  in Cambodia,  often reflected in tobacco chewing rather than smoking.  Tobacco chewing  this often seen as a mild stimulant that eases period cramps.

In total  there are 2 million tobacco users in Cambodia.

In many countries  smoking is not an option for the very poor,  due to the prohibitive cost of cigarettes. However  price is not a barrier in Cambodia, and mainstream cigarette brands  are available for less than $.40c for a pack of 20.  (In 2011 the average price per pack of 20 was 20 cents.) So without a serious barrier, the demographic group most likely to be smoking in Cambodia are poor, rural males.

Cigarette tax  seems to be most obvious way of curbing the number of smokers in Cambodia. Some  90% of the population agree that smoking is bad for once health, and a similar figure support the idea of a tobacco tax. Would it work? When the National Institute of statistics conducted its adult tobacco survey in 2011the fieldworkers were instructed to take note  of cigarette packs of the users they interviewed. Some 95%  of these packs for the seal of existing government taxes –  evidence that  black-market cigarettes are less well is distributed and some had feared. So a tax hike would be realistic.

Any  visitor to Cambodia  will have noticed the big billboards promoting cigarettes as glamorous –  real Marlboro Man stuff! There is widespread public support  for banning such advertising.

Change usually has to come from the top – the very top. For  what it’s worth, Prime Minister Hun Sen, a lifelong smoker himself,  recently announced that he had quit. Perhaps that clears the air  for a more concerted public policy  to prevent young Cambodian males in particular to take up cigarettes.

That seems unlikely. Oknha Ly Yong Phat, a CPP Senator, and previously an economic adviser to the Prime Minister is President of LYP Group that imports high nicotine cigarettes from Indonesia, Hero brand and Jet.

Free state education? Correction or corruption?

Free state education? Correction or corruption?

The widespread practice of teachers demanding fees to top-up their State School salaries has been under attack recently, as this Cambodia Daily article demonstrates. But low teacher salaries are part of the problem.  Good article

More about Savong’s School – Siem Reap, Cambodia.

100 RIEL

Cambodia’s Curse – a timely book by a top level journalist


January 2013 and Cambodia is in a political crisis. I’ve stayed clear of the demonstrations in Phnom Penh which have been in part a protest about unjust wages paid by the fashion industry sweatshops in Cambodia, but to a larger extent have reflected a bottled-up anger in the face of too many years of Government corruption under the governance of Hun Sen, the Prime Minister.

Joel Brinkley is no stranger to Cambodia’s situation having first reported on the desperate refugee crisis in 1980, bought to the world’s attention by the landmark movie The Killing Fields.

San Francisco Chronicle, April 16, 2011
“As a young reporter, Brinkley won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for his coverage of the Cambodian refugee crisis. Returning to the region 30 years later, Brinkley – now a professor of journalism at Stanford – chose his subject well…[he] admirably…demonstrates that Hun Sen’s administration has been a disaster for many Cambodians.”

In his more recent book, Cambodia’s Curse, Brinkley traces the emergence of post-Pol Pot Cambodia and he is frankly aghast at what he sees. It takes very little scratching to uncover corruption and an abuse of power at every turn – whether it is in land development (and displacement of farmers,) or the unreliable justice system where the rich and powerful can, it seems at will, circumvent justice through connections or simple exchanges of money.

The broad picture leaves Brinkley pessimistic, and he spends much of the book tracing why the situation is so bad; drawing on cultural and historical strands in an attempt to explain the deep-seated and systemic corruption. The book also serves as a powerful, and easily readable recent history of Cambodia.

Joel Brinkley is careful in his quest to build his argument. He has been a professor of journalism at Stanford University since 2006 after a 23-year career with The New York Times. There, he served as a reporter, editor and Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent. At Stanford, Brinkley writes an op-ed column on foreign policy that appears in about 50 newspapers and Websites in the United States and around the world.

While published in 2011, and therefore quite up to date, it would be interesting to hear Brinkley’s take on events since the 2013 elections in which:

  • For the first time in recent electoral history massive 50,000 person anti-Government protests took place and anti-Government sentiment was overtly expressed.
  • Hun Sen’s majority was significantly diminished. Independent reports raise flags about the clean-ness of the elections with more votes in doubt (voters disallowed, double voting and other problems) than the margin of victory.

These have helped fuel a much more vocal anti-Government sentiment since the elections, and the response by the Government, to openly fire (and kill) protesters has brought international condemnation.

Brinkley, for his part, is not fully convinced that international assistance for Cambodia is all that effective. He isn’t impressed with UN driven aid to Cambodia (much aid money goes unaccounted,) and his feeling is that it props up a bad Government rather than contributes to social justice.

Well worth reading and reflecting on.

For more about social justice and the growth of the Cambodian economy – click here.

And two other book reviews that may be of interest to you: Destination Cambodia, a Travel Writer’s take on modern Cambodia and A History of Cambodia by David Chandler.

The impact of school fees on poor families in Cambodia.

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Free education? In Cambodia it is supposed to be free – but widespread charging of ‘fees’ is hurting attendance of poor rural children. Many call it corruption.


A key philosophy of Savong is that all schooling provided by his organisation should be free of charge. This is to ensure that the poorest families can still gain a good education for the children. In fact the question of school fees is a vexed one in Cambodia. In short the education system is supposed to be free, but the State system is under-resourced and the practice of charging students fees for attendance is practically universal. Some critics term this fee as an out and out bribe; while others see the fees as simply a realistic way for schools to meet their basic running costs. Without this levy schools would simply have to close.

This blog has posted recent figures which demonstrate that the Cambodian government devotes a very skinny slice of its annual spend towards education, and the Ministry is on record as saying it relies on the NGO and private sector to help Cambodia reach its education goals. Between the ‘free education’ rhetoric the Government is really saying that others will have to pay for schooling – don’t rely on the Government. So while the Ministry said in 2008, following international criticism, that charging of informal levies was illegal – the practice is found in every region of Cambodia and primary as well as secondary school level.

How much do these informal fees cost? A 2007 report by the Cambodian NGO Education Partnership (NEP) suggested that education costs for each child averaged $108 annually, or 9 percent of the average annual income of each family. Clearly in a nation where having four or five children is very common, the education costs become very significant.

The NEP study found that these fees were the main reason given for children not attending school, and that a quarter of parents were unaware that their children had a right to free education.

The problem is particularly challenging for poor families, and a study (conducted by Mark Bray for the World Bank in 2001,) looked at the same issues in neighbouring nations and found that the poorest 20% devoted a much greater slice of the annual income to education costs.

Thus in Thailand the cost to the average family of their children’s education was 16% of household income, while this represented 47% of the household income of the poorest quintile. In Vietnam education cost the average family 12% of their annual household income, while education costs represented 22% of the annual income of the poorest quintile.

Where do these informal fees go? Do they go toward running costs or do they go into the pockets of poorly paid state school teachers?

Judging by Government policy, and the recent declaration that secondary school teachers would receive a pay rise, it appears that the Government is carrying out a policy it first announced three years earlier – to stamp out corruption (or informal fees) by raising teacher salaries.  In other words it appears the Government accepts that most of these fees have indeed been going into the pockets of teachers.

But there’s a fine line between teaching staff doing their best but levying students in order to keep teaching on an otherwise low salary (justifiable fees?) versus out and out corruption where teachers accept bribes in order to fatten their income in exchange for tweaking exam results for those willing to pay over some cash. (Unjustified corruption.)

In a 2005 study that examined how corruption touches everyday life ( Nissen, C. (2005) Living under the Rule of Corruption: An Analysis of Everyday Forms of Corrupt Practices in Cambodia. Phnom Penh: Centre for Social Development0 the author found almost a third of families expected to have to basically pay off teachers, head masters, and ministry staff for good scores in examinations, good records in attendance, and school admissions and transfers.

The public resent this and Nissen’s report highlights how the public actually feels the most unease about their teachers being a part of the corruption culture.

So long as the Ministry under-supports the education sector, thereby making fees a practical necessity, two bad outcomes will occur.

  1. The poor will lose their right to a good free education.
  2. The door is open for further more serious corruption.

This is one of the serious issues facing the education sector in Cambodia.

Election irregularities in Cambodia – here’s the report.


What kind of nation is this young Cambodian going to experience as an adult? In 2005 one foreign critic said there were three main problems to be addressed: “Corruption, corruption and corruption.” A new report of the 2013 elections comes to similar conclusions.

While Thailand is getting a lot of media attention over its political upheavals – neighbouring Cambodia has also been in political turmoil since the recent General Elections which saw the return of the Hun Sen Government – albeit chastened with a sharply reduced majority.

At least that was the official result, but the opposition Sam Rainsy party continues to orchestrate protests and demands for a rerun, and this time a fair election.

Are they exaggerating? Well here is the report conducted by a multi-party watchdog group. Their verdict: that there were irregularities (disallowed votes, duplicate voting etc) that in total add up to more than the electoral majority of the Hun Sen Government. In other words there is the probability that thanks to these misdemeanors and irregularities the outcome may have been different.

The Joint-Report on the Conduct of the 2013 Cambodian Elections authored by The Electoral Reform Alliance (ERA) appears well researched and quite independent.

A blog I wrote just after election day. Was it over-optimistic?