Like so many guys, within a few days of arriving in Phnom Penh for the first time in my life, I met a lovely girl. We had a few polite conversations at arms’ length and within a week she told me, flanked by her friends, that she loved me. I didn’t take her seriously even when she explained that a key ‘selling point’ was that I was committed to staying in Cambodia, her country that she loved and never wanted to leave.
A few weeks later she returned to her province of Kompong Speu since she was offered a job and good salary as an accountant in a garment factory. She told me the decision depended on me but I insisted it was nothing to do with me. I didn’t see or hear from her for a year. At a point when I had just extricated myself from a complicated relationship with a kleptomanic gambling addict, she emailed me out of the blue to inform me that her auntie in America had sent over a nice gentleman to marry her, an arrangement of which her parents approved. Apparently after a year of insisting that she had a boyfriend in whom she was very much in love, the relations were getting skeptical, and so she contacted me to ask me confirm that I had no interest in her. I figured I should see her in order to make such a decision. As soon as I did I realized that she had matured a lot in a year. The American was sent packing and we had three or four dinner-dates before I realized that the next step ought to be a marriage proposal.
I was familiar enough with conservative Cambodian culture to know that marriage is not to the individual but to the family, so I could only marry a girl who truly came from a decent and honourable family. As soon as I met the parents I could see that they had true integrity; her father was famous and respected throughout the community for being just about the only commune chief to refuse all temptation to enrich himself at his charges expense. As a result, they were a respected but poor family.
Soon after our wedding we let it be known that we wished to invest in some land. My father-in-law was contacted by another community in the same province to let us know that some land was for sale. We had to haggle, but there was no thought of charging me a ‘barang tax’, and we bought just over ten hectares of land for a price of $1000 per hectare. It was a prime roadside plot that was part of a thousand hectare area, the rest being retained by villagers including the village chief, local police and the farmer who sold our plot to us. Four months later we were being inundated with offers to sell, rising to $40,000, but we had plans to clear the land to use it for agriculture. Then land prices suddenly crashed at the same time that our plans to start preparing the land floundered due to inadequate finance.
After a while my wife and I started an agricultural-based business and turned our attention back towards our land. Just at this time my wife received a desperate phone call from the policeman of the community. Over a crazy period of some 48 hours a load of bulldozers accompanied by armed military police had swarmed over the land, destroyed houses, beaten villagers and fenced off 1000 hectares. By the time we got there the blitzkrieg was complete. At the same time on the news a well-known politician was giving speeches about the goal of developing agriculture to enrich the nation with the help of loans from the EU. It soon became apparent that he himself had signed the order to grab the land and hand it over to another politician.
A few weeks later an EU delegation made a visit to the site of our land grab together with a similar site in Koh Kong. They expressed their horror at the inadvertent consequence of their noble “Everything But Arms” trade initiative – land was being stolen from ordinary Cambodians so that ruling party senators could use the EU money to begin sugar plantations, the profits from the EU’s guaranteed minimum buying price being unlikely to benefit many citizens of Cambodia. Altogether the EU delegation estimated that the politician in question had illegally got his hands on 90,000 hectares with the help of this EU money. The European head of the delegation, who was singularly unimpressed with the untruths told to her by both the sugar company and government ministers she spoke to, wrote to me regretting the situation and coined the phrase “blood sugar” to describe the outcome.
Whilst many of the landowners had had their homes and livelihoods destroyed, and had been physically assaulted, I initially told myself that we had only lost land and money. However, the events had a traumatic effect on my family. By this time my father-in-law was very sick with cancer (he has since passed away, a week ago). In those last few months of his life he began to question out loud whether he’d been a fool to have lived a life of honesty and integrity in Cambodia. He felt responsible that he had recommended the land to us because he knew the sellers to be decent people, and he regretted that he had left his family poor due to his fairness whilst other unscrupulous people in positions of power were giving their families a good life. A good man’s spirit was crushed.
He wasn’t the only one. All her life my wife had been a proud Cambodian. She used to get angry at me whenever I made one of my frequent snipes at the society. She says the incident opened her eyes and she immediately saw all the things I’d pointed out to her for years. She came to loathe her homeland. She announced that she was ashamed to be Cambodian and urged me to take her away so that she could gain citizenship of a civilized nation. When I announced to my students that I would be leaving and explained the reasons, the reactions were quite surprising to me. I was expecting the kind of lines I was getting from some expats on K440: ‘Well, the country’s not perfect but look at the progress’, or, ‘I’m sure the government was within its rights; it’s probably your fault’.
Instead, nearly all of them were of one mind in being wearily depressed about the all-pervasive corruption that crushes their spirits too. They told me, ‘We know; if only we could get away like you’. My students are supposed to be the future of Cambodia, the next generation of intelligentsia that will move Cambodia forward. They don’t see that. They see themselves as helpless, impotent to change anything. Their attitudes vary between ‘Can’t beat ‘em, might as well join ‘em’ to ‘I’ll just struggle to take care of myself and my family while keeping my head down’. Looking into their eyes, I saw little signs of hope for the future.
And that is what corruption does. A lot of expats live on the surface of Cambodian society and don’t share the experiences of most Cambodians, so they make light of corruption. It does more than irritate a person who has to hand over a couple of dollars to the traffic cops; corruption corrodes the very soul of a nation. I am convinced that it is corruption, not simply ‘poverty’ that is at the root of the appalling state of health care and education in Cambodia. It takes away hope. I hear people accuse ordinary Cambodians of being lazy and dishonest. They know all too well where hard work and honesty gets them, and contrast that with the way in which the powerful gain their wealth. Corruption is the cancer of Cambodia.
Sources : Phnom Penh Post front pages of 20/5/11 and 23/5/11