Insidious Power Play

The way that Cambodians name their children can be really amusing to a westerner.  One family of five children I know are named Danay, Danneth, Panneth, Panna and Dany.  The girls are “D” and the boys are “P”.  When I met them I was seeing them everyday and it took me a month, first to hear the names, then be able to say the names, and finally remember which child owned which name!  Coming up with aliases for the people I write about is becoming increasingly more difficult as I try to keep my aliases “western-friendly”!  The Executive Director of Phter Koma needs an alias for this story so I’ll call him Chaz.

The beginning of this post is not about Chaz though, but my hilarious mate Chom.  He’s a young, goofy, kind hearted, intelligent, fun guy who would do anything for anyone.  He has a pregnant wife and a 3yo child and he works hard to support them as best as possible, often lamenting that he cannot do more due to his circumstances.  His parents died from two different types of cancer within six months of each other when Chom was 12 years old.  Within the space of a single year his life transformed significantly for the worse.  He was the youngest son of a doctor with loving parents, seven older siblings and plenty of hope for his future.  A year later he was an impoverished orphan being brought up by older siblings who had to struggle to find his school fees.  They tried to place him in an orphanage to guarantee regular school attendance but because he had grown siblings, no orphanage would accept him.  His education was limited and he left school at a young age to work as a security guard.  He realised early on that English fluency could improve his chances and so he spent as much time as he could with English tourists and bought himself a Khmer-English dictionary.  Self-taught English seems to be a very common theme throughout the poor world.  The widowed teacher I know in East Timor told a very similar story of how she taught herself English (speaking with soldiers, not tourists).  Now, some years later, Chom continues to practise his English with tourists but also on his mobile phone.  I often catch him lying in the back of his tuk tuk waiting on customers, listening to his English app.

Before I left Cambodia in October Chom wanted to take me on a holiday to visit his wife’s family.  Unfortunately we ran out of time and it didn’t happen.  Today it’s happening – Chom, his wife, their son, myself and two expat friends are heading 120km away on his tuk tuk for a couple of nights!  I’ll write more about it when we get back.  From 3yo Microphone, to the 40-and-over expats, there is a lot of excitement about this Khmer-French-Australian mini holiday.

Two days ago I took my laptop to a local restaurant to do some lesson planning.  Upon arrival there was one other customer, a well dressed Khmer man, sitting at a table, who ignored my arrival and presence with an air of arrogance.  I sat down and texted Chom to let him know where I was, as we had some trip planning to do together.  A few moments later he arrived and sat with me.  He was trying to call a specific hotel where we want to stay tonight but we couldn’t find the correct number.  While he was on the first call I heard a noise from nearby which made me turn my head.  The Khmer man sitting near us was looking at Chom’s back and “ssshhh”ing him.  He then looked at me, “ssshh”ed and pointed to Chom, by way of instructing me to tell Chom to be quiet.  Shocked at his arrogant attitude, I looked away again.  Chom had not heard him and didn’t change his volume, which was perfectly acceptable.  We then found another number for him to call.

When he hung up from the second call the man addressed him in Khmer.  The only parts of his sentence that I understood were the informal name he gave Chom, which translates loosely to “young brother”, and something to do with “outside”.  I was looking at him wondering if he really just told Chom to go outside when he turned his attention to me, saying “you need to be quiet or go outside”.  An exchange ensued where I disagreed, noting that he was in a restaurant with seven other tables which could just as easily have customers making much more noise than two normal-volumed people, and that if he needed quiet he should find himself an office.  He argued back that we were not being polite, speaking and making phone calls in his presence.  I pointed out that we were customers in a restaurant and this was not his office.  It was brief and ended unresolved.  I was infuriated with the attitude of this obviously wealthy man speaking to Chom in such a belittling way.  Chom turned away and stared out of the window, before saying to me in almost a whisper, “shall we go outside?”.  I replied in a normal volume “No, I am not going outside, I am sitting here”.  I then tried to get a conversation moving but Chom sat staring out of the window, answering me quietly but obviously feeling very uncomfortable.  Within about ten minutes the man organised to get the bill (also speaking poorly to the wait staff), a car pulled up and he and his leather briefcase were chauffeured away.  He did not look at or acknowledge us as he left, but a few moments later his car drove back past the restaurant and his driver slowed down, staring in at us, in what appeared to me as a gesture of possible intimidation.

As soon as he left, we relaxed and Chom said “the Cambodians with money, they treat other Cambodian people like we are animals”.  I joked “We should have told him, if you give us $10,000 we’ll go outside”, to which Chom replied “I am a poor man but even if he gives $1 million I would not take it because I don’t want corruption money”.  The man has been dubbed Mister Corruption Upstart.  Hopefully we will never see him again!

Moving onto Chaz now, recently I have been working closely with him on various Phter Koma projects and come to know him.  He is from an impoverished rural background and also lost his parents as a child.  When he was young Chaz met a foreigner who returned to Europe and sought assistance for Chaz, sponsoring him to attend university which would otherwise have been beyond his means.  He is a kind, hard working and ethical young man who talks openly about the lucky chance he had which changed his life.

Yesterday Chaz and I took one of the Phter Koma kids to an appointment in Phnom Penh.  I went with them because Chaz had to submit some reports to two different Ministroy offices while he was in the city, so I agreed to look after the teenage girl while he was doing that.  We brought the midday bus home again, arriving late afternoon.  On our way to PP we were talking and Chaz said almost the same thing as Chom had said the previous day, that “rich Cambodians, they treat their own people who have no money, like they are animals”.  I asked Chaz if he had ever felt directly affected by the corruption he mentioned during this conversation.  He gave me the example of being unwell in hospital and his parents needing to have money in their pocket to pay the nurses “because unless they get the pay, they will just walk around and not give me the treatment”.  I explained that in Australia behaviour such as this was not tolerated and nurses seeking favours from patients could lose their jobs and even face criminal charges.  Chaz said “yes, in your country the people are much nicer”.  I argued this, saying that in my country we do not have the history of terror and twisted corruption that Cambodia faced for many decades, and this allowed us to establish systems which protect our people and ensure that corruption, which we do have, is not able to take hold the way it has in Cambodia.

My understanding of Cambodian history is that the people have been tyrranised for so long that this tyranny is well entrenched, currently in the form of a Communist government so focussed on looking after itself that it promotes corruption in order to remain powerful.  The Khmer Rouge were much the same when they came to power in 1975, although they were far more psychotic in their behavior towards the populace.  I’ll write more about that another time as the history of that era in Cambodia is unbelievable.

All of this in the same week as Korea’s “nut rage” court case.  The daughter of an airline owner, enraged that staff in the First Class cabin of her flight served her nuts in a bag instead of a bowl, insisted on the plane, taxiing towards take-off, return to the terminal so that the attendant serving her could be removed from the flight.  She has thankfully been made to answer to her behaviour in a criminal court in which the judge stated he did not believe she was particularly repentant and thus ordered a one year jail sentence.  Her father was in the same court in the year 2000 facing charges of tax evasion.

Corruption, power, wealth and arrogance.  They love to hang out together.  In the developing world it seems to be so much more visible and conspicuous than in the lucky countries where we have protective systems in place.

One thought on “Insidious Power Play

  1. Wow! your first experience of a Cambodian who behaves like that isn’t it? Poor Chom, he would be intimidated. Thank goodness you were there. The stories go on.


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