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 Cambodian Primary School droupout rate – 39% don’t complete primary school


Here’s another sad statistic that reflects on the underinvestment in education for young Cambodians. For every hundred who start primary school, 39 do not complete their studies at primary school according to the latest available figures. “Oh but we’re a poor country,” might be the argument of the government – but poorer than Myanmar or Laos? The fact is, Cambodia spends a smaller percentage of the annual government expenditure on education than does its neighboring nations.

The result: 4 in ten do not make it to middle or high school.

Reasons include:

  1. Insufficient provision of primary schools especially in remote regions.
  2. Distance and transport. Many children live too far away from school and do not have transport.
  3. Financial – the fact that state schools charge money to attend. This is extremely widespread, and penalises the poor.
  4. Children required to work on farms to help the family income.
  5. Sickness. Child health is still far from ideal in Cambodia.

During the 2013 election the Government announced a 20% lift in education budget (a move I’d rate as a shift from totally inadequate to merely inadequate,) but the Government has not released any plans or policies to indicate where the additional money will be spent.

The annual education spend works out to around $50 per child in Cambodia up to age 18.

For more education statistics click here.

Listen: a clue to Social standing in Cambodia


The photo above is taken at Bakong temple, just up the road from Savong’s School. This community is a rural one and if you imagined you were taking this photo, then 2kms directly behind you is the village of Rolous (pronounced Roo Loo) and, as it turns out, the home village of a friend of mine in New Zealand.  When I first mentioned the location of Savong’s School to Man Hau, I said: “You probably won’t know it – it’s a small village.”  When I mentioned Bakong his eyes lit up! “I grew up there,” he said.

Last time I visited Man Hau we talked a little about the history of the village and I learned something I did not expect to hear: about the variety of very distinct dialects spoken throughout Cambodia. Growing up, Man Hau recalled, the people of Siem Reap would always comment about the “country cousins” of Rolous. “They could tell immediately when you opened your mouth,” Man Hau said.

When he was young, in the years before Pol Pot, Man Hau won a scholarship to study in Phnom Penh and he said the snobbery was even more profound. At home, he remembers, everyone knew him as the boy who had made the grade and was due to study in the city. Local boy makes good. But as the only country kid in his university classes, studying economics, he was mocked for his accent and never allowed to forget that he was a poor country cousin. His clothes were disparaged. His simple footwear held up as a bad example.  (Today Man Hau Liev holds a PhD.)

Another Cambodian I know recalls a saying used by city dwellers to described country people in a tone used by city slickers the world over: “Those country types would drown in tap water.”

Thinking back on these anecdotes I recalled a conversation I had with a boy supported by Savong, currently studying at university. He had told me that his family was so poor that others in his village would look down on his family.

His village is Bakong. These subtle layers of class distinction are invisible to westerners, but to locals the story is quite different. Their ears are attuned to dialects and to the subtle put-downs that are inflicted on the poor, and in particular on the rural poor. Perhaps this explains the delight when one of our scholarship students told me how she was coming top of her class at university: ahead of the city kids.

Working conditions in Cambodia. 90% don’t get paid leave.


In the Cambodian economy there is a gorilla in the room – the question of fair pay and fair working conditions. A new survey says that 90% of paid workers don’t even get annual leave.

One thing we’ve always tried to do at Savong School is to act as a fair employer. For sure, nobody is going to get rich on our salaries – but there are other elements of fairness including paid sick leave and annual leave so that our staff continue to get paid regardless of whether it is holidays or whether they fall ill (or are in bereavement for a family member.)

Quite apart from whether these practices are required by law (technically they are in Cambodia, but a report released today suggests that 90% of workers receive neither form of leave) it just seems a mark of simple respect.  For that reason we also provide a token bonus gift each October for the Pchum Ben holidays –  a sign that we support Cambodian tradition, but also that we understand how those in employment are often expected to contribute to others (family, monks) during this period.

The report in the Phnom Penh Post below makes disappointing reading.

This report from the Phnom Penh Post – December 2nd.

Only about 10 per cent of Cambodia’s workforce is being granted paid annual leave, a report released last week says.

Under the 1997 Labour Law, workers who work a standard 48-hour week are entitled to 18 days of paid annual leave, in addition to one day off per week.

But according to the Cambodia Labour Force 2012 report, released on Thursday by the International Labour Organization and the Ministry of Planning’s National Institute of Statistics, 90 per cent of regular employees are not being given any paid annual leave – a figure that is similar when it comes to paid sick leave.

“According to the responses … only 9.5 per cent of them were allowed any annual paid leave and only 10.4 per cent had provision for paid sick leave,” the report says.

These figures relate only to the 46 per cent of the workforce considered “employees”, rather than those who are self-employed (33 per cent) or contributors to a family business (20 per cent).

Ou Tepphallin, vice-president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers’ Federation, said the beer promotion sector was one in which only workers at a select few companies were given annual leave.

“Not only do [most] not get annual leave … they have to work seven days per week without getting a holiday,” she said yesterday. “If they want to take time off, their salary will be cut.”

Tepphallin said that some workers did not even know what the Labour Law was and would benefit from more regular government inspections.

Sat Sakmoth, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour, and In Khemara, director of the ministry’s inspection department, could not be reached.

Dave Welsh, country manager for labour-rights group Solidarity Center, said that for industries other than the garment sector – which is responsible for more than 85 per cent of Cambodia’s exports – the report’s statistics “are not surprising”.

“Outside of the garment sector, unless you’re working for an international hotel, workers and their [bosses] are probably not aware of it [the Labour Law requirement],” he said. “But it is a violation of the law.”

Within the garment sector, compliance is much greater, Welsh added.

The report surveyed 9,600 households across the country.

“By industry, the largest proportion of the employed population was engaged in agriculture, at 33.3 per cent, followed by 17.5 per cent in wholesale and retail trade and 17.4 in manufacturing,” it says.

See also: How much do workers get paid in Cambodia?

A joke about Cambodian prison that got too close for comfort.


Today I enjoyed a Facebook exchange with one of the students we support in Cambodia. He’d posted a photo with his friends and I replied by saying that they looked like a group of gangsters. We riffed on the idea, with announcements that the police were coming and…as our joke continued, the manhunt ended with ME being arrested and put behind bars. I asked if he would visit me in my “new home” but he said – tellingly – that it was not safe to do so. Ha ha!

Not safe? The exchange got me thinking about the awful prisons in Cambodia where – for example – the Siem Reap jail is so overcrowded that there is not room for every inmate to sleep at the same time. This is despite a major upgrade in 2010. They have double their planned occupancy thanks I think to a rise in enforceable ‘crimes’ (no number plate on your motorbike? can’t pay the fine?), the war on drugs (drugs offences are up sharply,) as well as the high level of police corruption. In nine years I’ve twice encountered Cambodian friends who were locked up for non-crimes (a minor traffic accident) and they were told that only money could “sort out this mess.” In one case the money was several thousand dollars – 10 months salary of a middle-level bank worker. Question for readers: do you resist corruption and let a Cambodian acquaintance rot in prison?

Of particular sadness however is the question of youth incarceration. In Cambodia young people – vagrants – are “swept off the street” quite often and locked up without access to justice. As one social justice organisation THIS LIFE CAMBODIA says on their website:

Cambodia does not have a juvenile justice system. Children aged 14-18 are tried in the adult criminal justice system and are subsequently detained and imprisoned in adult prisons. Approximately 95 children are held in Siem Reap prison where numerous issues threaten their rights, despite Cambodian and international laws to the contrary.

Putting aside youth incarceration, there’s the problem facing families who have a family member locked-up in jail. We know that many are simply innocent and victims of corruption, and the others at the very least have little access to a fair, transparent and just system unless they have the wealth, the connections and the knowledge to get the best from the system: an unlikely prospect.

How do their families cope? THIS LIFE CAMBODIA points out that one cannot even visit a prison without being expected to pay bribes to underpaid prison guards at several points. The affordability of basic justice is out of reach for many.

There are also children of prisoners – infants who have no other carers. Here’s a carefully written watchdog report on what they face: and it makes grim reading. Click here.

The story is not a pretty one, and I’m not surprised my student friend didn’t want to come close to prison – even in jest.

Added detail February 2019. Early this year, some 6 years after writing the main article, I went to visit a friend in jail and I took the boy in this article, Moeuncheat, along for the experience, along with Australian supporter Romayne.  Both knew the inmate and both were pleasantly surprised by the relaxed atmosphere of Siem Reap prison, and by the joyful response of the person we were visiting.

See also: Free, free at last. A precious shared moment in Cambodia.

By the way – if you find my blogs thoughtful,  interesting or entertaining, don’t forget to hit the follow button! I love to write and I’d love your company.

Pepsi and Coca-Cola, the new blood sugar

Coke has pledged to use only ethical sugar – so they’ll be under strict watch in Cambodia where farmers have been unlawfully evicted to make way for large sugar companies.

Land of the Blind


About a year ago we were reminded in a blog by David Pred of IDI, “Before you reach for that Tate and Lyle sugar packet to sweeten your coffee, you might want to think twice.  While most Tate and Lyle sugar packets carry the Fair Trade label, Cambodian farmers who were displaced and dispossessed by their suppliers say that if you are buying this product, you are buying their blood.” Now, you can officially say the same about Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

The blood sugar campaign continued after hundreds of farmers in Cambodia were forcibly evicted to make way for agro-industrial sugar cane plantations, run by key Pepsi and Coke suppliers. Thanks to the ongoing activism of these farmers, supported by Oxfam and other civil society organizations, these corporations were finally called out for the atrocities occurring within their supply chain.

In Cambodia, sugar provides a major industry with exports at…

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