Bad Officials

The number of headlines in the newspapers that allege illegal and immoral activity on the part of officials here is amazing. These are three headlines I cut out of newspapers today. In case there’s any doubt, the Supreme Court headline is about officials grabbing poor people’s land. There seems to be something in Cambodian culture that encourages elected and appointed officials to see themselves as above the law and presented with an opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of the common people. Of course it’s not all officials, but headlines like these are a daily occurrence, pointing out the misdeeds of ministers, the police, the military–anybody with authority.

The Chinese are coming…

There was an article in the international press today about US governments taking measures to prevent farmland in the United States from being owned and controlled by foreign governments and entities. The US is probably taking those steps because of China’s aggressive policy of buying not just the crops from other countries but their natural resources and the land itself.

Cambodia is experience a devastating invasion by China and Chinese nationals. Every day there are articles in the papers about land values increasing beyond the reach of locals; neighborhoods and whole towns being changed by the influx of Chinese business people and tourists; the rates of crime going up because of Chinese gangs and criminal activities; etc.

This is all backed up by personal stories of the people we encounter in our mission work, people who have been negatively affected and displaced by the Chinese.

Notice how every sign now has Chinese characters. It has become so common and so blatant that the Cambodian government has now ruled that all signs, first of all, must HAVE Khmer lettering (some were only in Chinese), and secondly, that the Khmer letters must be approximately twice the size of the Chinese characters.

This is a view from the hilltop where the Catholic church center is located in Sihanoukville. In previous years this view was of trees. Now they are gone. Basically all of the buildings visible here have sprung up since our retreat a year ago.

In going to Sihanoukville for the priests retreat, the Chinese presence and influence was most obvious: • On the bus ride to Sihanoukville, the passengers across the aisle were speaking Mandarin. • We have too many priests for the rooms at the church center so in previous years the overflow stayed at the Salesian Priests training hotel twenty minutes away. Because of the increased traffic and congestion from construction, it now takes an hour to get to that site so our priests stayed in hotels–new and probably Chinese-owned–near the center. • The Salesians had a restaurant and gelato shop in central Sihanoukville. This year the rent was raised from $400 a month to almost $4,000 as the Chinese buy up everything in sight. The Salesians closed their shops where they had trained local youth. • The local people have been moved far outside the city, away from their jobs, as the Chinese buy up apartments and neighborhoods and raise the rents. • During the retreat I went to buy a Coke at a shop near the church. The shop is new and no one in the shop spoke English or Khmer, only Mandarin Chinese. • A local English newspaper is now producing a Chinese-language insert. • Construction is occurring everywhere and causing shortages of water and electricity. • The construction doesn’t benefit the locals. The construction companies are Chinese and they bring in their own workers. All the salaries, etc., go back to China. And the list goes on and on.

China now owns Cambodia and the government doesn’t complain because China gives them $600,000,000 a year no strings attached. (You can guess which pockets that goes into.) In return Cambodia supports China in international disputes, such as concerning the islands in the South China Sea.

Things don’t look good….

The headline “NGO says 60% of three to five-year-olds not schooled” is an indication of the poor state of Cambodian education. Cambodia has made significant progress over the last twenty years in reducing the number of eligible children not in school, but this week Save the Children published its global report on education with some terrible statistics for Cambodia: [1] 22.5% of children of primary and secondary school age are out of school; [2] 60% of pre-school and kindergarten-age children are not receiving any formal education; and [3] only 0.3% of the Ministry of Education’s budget was allocated for early childhood education.

Seat of Government

This is a typical municipal building–maybe the equivalent of a county courthouse in the United States–located in Kampong Thom Province. There isn’t too much to these structures, just two closed offices, one on each side, and an open meeting area in between. This municipal building might be unusual because there’s a car parked there.


One of my favorite sayings that guides my reactions to people and events is “Never attribute to ill will what can be explained by stupidity.” Many things in Cambodia can be explained by corruption, greed, malfeasance, theft, the desire for power, etc. Other things are the result of the failure of thinking or common sense, or maybe their absence.

Look at this STOP sign (yellow circle). That fact that no one in living memory has stopped at a STOP sign in Cambodia is another story. Here we are talking about the sign’s location. Most STOP signs are located 3 to 6 feet from the intersecting street where you are required to stop. The intersecting street (red circle) in this picture is probably close to a tenth of a mile ahead. Notice how small the car is in the red circle. It’s hardly identifiable as a car because of the distance. Some road crew without a clue about traffic signage, traffic law, etc., separated this sign from the intersection it controls. That’s incompetence.

Disappearing Forests

This is original growth forest in Preah Vihear Province, part of 1500 hectares kept as a nature preserve. It is beautiful mountainous woodlands with magnificent trees.

This is the devastation less than 20 miles away where the original forests have been cut, the wood sold off (probably illegally and probably with a government connection), and small farmers have taken over.

I don’t know if it’s better or worse, but another area has been cut and replanted in rubber trees–usually in concessions owned by Cambodian tycoons/ministers or Chinese or Vietnamese companies. You can notice the small cups attached to the right side of each tree to catch the rubber as it flows out.

It’s not climate change…

For the past week Cambodia has been experiencing major power cuts, more than the usual shortages. Actually the past four or five years in Phnom Penh have been relatively good after the Cambodian government erected power transmission lines and started buying electricity from Vietnam. It was good enough that at DDP we got rid of our generator because we weren’t using it any more.

All of a sudden, though, the government instituted six-hour rolling blackouts, starting after breakfast and ending at lunch time, or starting at lunch time and going to supper time. The following day the schedule switches so a morning blackout today means an afternoon blackout tomorrow.

The government has been quick to blame it on climate change. 60% of Cambodia’s electricity is hydropower and now at the end of the dry season there is little water in the reservoirs. Yes, the lack of rain has made the problem worse but the problem is caused by the government, not by climate change.

Look at the map. Thailand is our neighbor to the west. Laos is to the north. Vietnam is to the east. We’re all part of the same little peninsula. We have much of the same terrain, the same weather. But Thailand has electricity. Laos has electricity. Vietnam has electricity. What’s the difference? The government.

The governments in the other countries know how to plan and implement. They see people moving to the cities. They see cities growing higher and higher with skyscrapers demanding more electricity. They see the lifestyle increasing, especially the demand for air conditioning. And they plan for it.

The government of Cambodia is incompetent in many ways and this is an obvious example. The prime minister loves to let everyone know that he is the longest serving leader in Southeast Asia, more than three decades. These electricity problems arose since he took power. Guess who should take responsibility for the sad situation we find ourselves in now?