Blinded By The Light

Something I learned from my time in Cambodia is that when you live in a destitute economy, you learn to be innovative and to waste nothing.  Impoverished communities, including those here in Central Australia, also share their resources to provide the best benefit to the whole community.  For example, different members of multiple families in Cambodian villages can have user rights of a single vehicle (usually, of course, a motorbike).

In 1992 a French lawmaker supported the fledgling Cambodian government to establish certain traffic laws, many of which are complicated and routinely ignored by police.  Cambodian road laws remain a mystery to me.  As one example, I would often watch police at temporary roadside tables placed near their parked-up expensive, privately-owned SUVs, stopping vehicles on the highway and receiving cash from drivers.  This and various other established practises made little sense to me as an outside observer.

Last year Cambodia, with a population of just over 15 million, reported a total of 1,717 road accident fatalities.  In comparison during the same period, Australia with just over 23 million people, reported over 600,000 accidents with just 250 fatalities.  These figures exclude injury and disability caused by traffic accidents.  The repercussions of surviving a traffic accident in Cambodia are inevitably linked to stories of aggravated financial hardship such as the newspaper report below.

Kandal, 20 December 2010 (IRIN) – Cheng Heng’s wound was minor, but the impact on his family severe.  The 31 year old garment factory worker was riding his motorbike to work when he collided with a bicycle 30km west of the capital, Phnom Penh.
His broken clavicle required surgery, costing US$250, leaving him out of work for almost a month and forcing him into debt.
As the primary breadwinner for his family of 10, contributing half the total income of $300 a month, it will take at least three months to pay off his debts.
Cheng hopes they will manage by working at local factories.  “I didn’t get any help either from NGOs or my factory”, he said.
Cambodia traffic accidents take humanitarian toll

The Cambodian government, claiming concern for the high rate of road deaths, announced in October 2015 that from 1 January 2016, certain traffic laws would begin to be strictly enforced.  Some of these laws included:

  1. All drivers to be in possession of an original (not photocopied) licence.  Cost of obtaining a driver’s licence is US$100, divided into: completion of a form $20; health check $15; driving examination $15 and insurance $50.  For a large proportion of the population who earn less than $100 per month, this is a very expensive requirement.  Insuring a motorbike made from old parts by someone with a few mechanic skills, in a country where insurance pay outs are non existent, with a population who largely don’t even know the meaning of the word, seems absurd.
  2. All drivers to have on their person at all times, the original (not photocopied) “vehicle card”, a proof of ownership.  Drivers not in possession of this card to be fined $15.  In a country where vehicle theft is common, this law makes the on-sell of stolen vehicles so much simpler as thieves merely need demand the vehicle card, knowing the driver is carrying it.  Simultaneously, police require owners to produce their vehicle card when reporting a car theft, adding to the absurdity.
  3. Enforcement of a vehicle tax law requiring both a sticker on the vehicle and possession at all times, of the paperwork.  This again makes vehicles completely open to theft.  Anyone without their original taxation papers to be fined $15.  For many years, vehicles have been imported across the Thai and Cambodian borders, where an import tax is paid to tax collectors, who have then allowed the on-sell of vehicles to ordinary people without tax.  As such, many if not most vehicles in Cambodia have no tax papers attached and are thus considered illegal.  Taxation of motorbikes starts at a minimum of US$400 – extortionately unaffordable to most.  It is also another absurdity for those purchasing $100 motorbikes which have already passed through five or more owners before arriving in Cambodia!

    These untaxed motos were confiscated by rural farmers and can only be retrieved when the owner pays a fine and import tax amounting to far more than the moto is worth. The government are also planning to introduce jail time as part of the punishment for owning an untaxed vehicle.
    These untaxed motos were confiscated by rural farmers and can only be retrieved when the owner pays a fine and import tax amounting to far more than the moto is worth. The government are also planning to introduce jail time as part of the punishment for owning an untaxed vehicle.
  4. Fines for driver and passengers without helmets, of US$3.75 per person.  Helmets cost around $20 each but they do save lives.
  5. If more than two people on a moto, $3.75 fine per person.  Poor in rural areas will be crushed by this law, as motos are the only family vehicle anyone can afford.
  6. If anyone other than the vehicle owner, named on the various documents that must be with the driver at all times, is found driving a vehicle, imprisonment of between six days to one month will be imposed.  This threatens the livelihood of many thousands of people who are reliant on the sharing of a single vehicle.

On 1 January, in towns across Cambodia, the ubiquitous moto taxis who line up at bus stops vying for custom from alighting passengers, all but disappeared completely.  Without the correct paperwork, nor any way of affording it, many were too fearful of facing an extortionate fine which would negate any income earned and force the family into further debt.  The country’s economy must have come to a near standstill as moto taxis are a prominent feature of community life from tiny villages to the cities, serving other enterprises from market sellers to traveling businessmen.  Others who had the correct paperwork, carried it with them but in fear of theft which would render them with no proof that they had ever owned a vehicle.  One doctor I know, driving a fifth-hand moto, purchased some years ago for $120, left it at home and walked to work because he could not afford to purchase the required paperwork, nor to pay the fine if he was caught driving.

In the first three days of January, despite these immediate changes to the habits of ordinary Cambodians, police announced that they had collected 480 million riel, or US$120,000.  In an economy where the average daily income of those who earn anything at all, is $2.60, these fines and the inability of many thousands of others to engage in their usual income generating endeavours, must have left many families hungry.

Revenue generated from these new laws is to be apportioned in the following way:
70% to the policemen collecting the money;
25% to the Ministry of Interior (governs police and law enforcement departments);
4% to (top-level) government;
1% to the Ministry of Finance (includes the tax department and other economic adminstrative responsibilities).

Social media in Cambodia exploded in protest.  The new laws were described figuratively as the government drinking the blood of their people.  Hun Sen, the Prime Minister, regularly gives lengthy speeches in Khmer on television.  He publicly denounced the dissent, insisting that the laws were correct and necessary, for the good of the people.  His own sister released a statement on her Facebook page to say that she recognised these laws were of no consequence to the rich but would cause a lot of suffering to the poor.  Hun Sen responded that the unrest was not the government’s fault, the government love their people and his sister was confused.  However a few short days later, he announced that the laws had been placed on hold, with plans to reinstate them in March this year.  Should this happen, it is impossible to imagine how Cambodia and her people will continue to survive.

Hun Sen, with a net worth somewhere between US$500 million to $1 billion, is very similar to wealthy leaders in first world nations who incorrectly trust their own ideas about policies affecting their people.  Australia’s current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has an estimated net worth of AU$200 million.  As our Prime Minister he earns AU$500,000 per year plus various generous expenses.  In a country where the average annual salary is in the vicinity of $80,000, he is by any standard, a wealthy man who will not be impacted upon by his own policies in the way that the general population will be, as is the case with many of our politicians.  It becomes imperative that leaders in any country provide realistic representation of the population they serve.  In both Cambodia and Australia, this representation can be dubious as wealthy corporations and other powerful interests wield political influence to benefit the ruling minority.

This week a friend of mine was at  her hairdresser, who she knows well, looking at a $49 dryer.  The hairdresser drew her attention to a $269 dryer, explaining why it was so much better than the cheaper version.  When she said that she couldn’t justify this expense, and that the difference in cost could feed a Cambodian family for months, he replied “oh who cares about that?”.  She was pretty shocked but I felt he was simply being honest, probably more honest than most of us dare to be.  Who of us genuinely cares enough to act on helping the hungry, poor or destitute?  Our politicians certainly don’t lead the way for such causes, in fact I would go so far as to say that they lead the way in encouraging us not to care, or making us believe that enough is being done, or that those in need are undeserving.  As with Hun Sen’s apparent turn around on the traffic laws, it takes a personal impact to make someone care and our actions only ever go so far as our personal aspirations choose.

In the wealthy world, the personal impact of poverty is essentially absent.  Many of us live on what we consider tight budgets.  Most of us work hard to pay off debts such as mortgages, rent and utilities.  Most of us do not consider ourselves wealthy.  There are groups in our society enduring homelessness, unemployment and inability to cover the basic expenses of life without some form of hardship.  Yet there is no Australian street where you will see children or the elderly in rags pushing carts of trash or searching for someone to buy coconuts from a home made bicycle.  We don’t see disabled people busking or begging in order to find their next meal.  There are not endless rows of ramshackle tin or bamboo huts perched precariously on busy roadsides or floating on flowing muddy waters, populated by families with nothing.  The daily sights of a street in Cambodia, and in many countries throughout the world, are crammed with such visions.

It is those visions which, if we stop to understand them, have a personal impact on us.  Many tourists or even expatriates living in a place, do not stop to think about these sights, and so not all who visit the third world will be affected.  It is very easy as a person from the wealthy world, to observe things, even be interested by the sight, and not have anything but a superficial and wealthy-world perspective of what we are seeing.  A classic example of this, is the sight of malnourished children.  They are tiny and super cute, often doing things such as walking and talking, which they seem too small for, adding to their cuteness.  So we can enjoy them and be moved by them, without ever having to think of the place of scarcity and hunger that they come from.  Another example is the regular vision of tourists in Kampong Cham town, who come ashore from their expensive foreign-owned-and-staffed cruise boats to walk along the riverside.  Often stopping to photograph fishing boats or market stalls before returning to their boat to eat and be entertained on deck, looking out over the local activity surrounding them.  Almost none of these tourists contribute to the economy in Kampong Cham, as all of their needs are met onboard.  Such holidays cost many thousands of dollars, and require no interaction whatsoever with the local people or economy.

We can all be blinded by the light of our own privilege.  But this doesn’t necessarily give us the best that life has to offer.  We are trained to see success as a material thing.  I have come to believe that we are very, very wrong, and that our collective privilege has led us to lose sight of what matters most in life.

Being impressed

2 thoughts on “Blinded By The Light

  1. Gobsmacked at the stupidity and greed which formulated the traffic laws. I hope you can keep us up to date with what happens in March.


  2. Those new laws are unbelievable. I can’t imagine the helplessness & hopelessness they are causing to the already stressed population. I totally agree with what you say about the 1st world in general could care less.


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