Both of these young women are Cambodian. One is 23yo from current day peasant roots and the other, now a generation or two removed from her peasant roots, 17yo from an established ruling class family. Juxtaposed, these photographs demonstrate my point that poverty is not necessarily a visible thing. So often I have encountered elegant young people holding themselves confidently only to learn that they live in a shack in an urban slum or remote village. My first revelation of this phenomenon came during a home visit to a TB client in Kampong Cham five years ago. As we sat on a wooden slat platform at the front door of the patient’s little bamboo hut her brother appeared in only a pair of black shorts and made his way to the large concrete tub of water at the front corner of the house. With a plastic handled pot he doused himself in water, shook it off and went back inside. Moments later he reappeared in a pair of black trousers, a crisp white shirt and shining black shoes, boarded a moto and drove out onto the busy highway. He would not have looked a step out of place on Threadneedle St in London or on Wall Street in Manhattan.
Ruling class connections in the post-Khmer Rouge system are steeped in corruption, intimidation and serious human rights violations. Many of the ruling class started their careers in the Khmer Rouge. They have rights above and beyond those of everyday Cambodians and are considered superior simply because of the power they wield. Criminal Cambodians from the ruling class are often dual citizens in another, wealthy country. Whilst none of my Cambodian friends, regardless of qualifications, experience, character or ability, have the capacity to obtain a visa to visit or live in Australia, the case is completely different for anyone with money.
Drug dealers, people connected to events of violent intimidation and who have gone unpunished for crimes including killings, live in comfort in Australia whilst maintaining their Cambodian connections, where their income is generated and their power in the top echelons is maintained. That is not to say that any Cambodian living in Australia is from such a background, which is in fact unlikely to be the case when you analyse the numbers. With 80% of the population living in abject poverty, there’s 20% of 15 million people who do not. A small percentage of those are truly wealthy and only a small but powerful minority within the wealthy subgroup belong to the ruling class. There are wealthy Cambodians who have “struck it lucky” by owning land in the right location, or who have family who escaped to a wealthy country during the genocide or subsequent civil unrest, and various other possible scenarios.
A very common feature of life in Phnom Penh is the lack of traffic rules and plethora of traffic violations. Another common feature is the sense of superiority and entitlement that many with money and/or perceived power have and the very commonly reported tactics of intimidation used when control needs to be exerted in the absence of any real legal protections.
One example is when a friend once asked a colleague discretely not to spit in the clinical area, and that night received a phone call from her husband suggesting “if you want to feel safe in this town you won’t speak with my wife about that again”! The combination of class-based superiority and lawlessness is the likely reason that drivers of expensive cars exert the most rights on the streets. It’s only a couple of months since the nephew of a friend was killed when his moto was hit by a car traveling at high speed, which drove away into oblivion. Last night as I was writing this blog a friend messaged me to say our colleague’s 18yo brother was killed in a traffic accident. The biggest killer in Cambodia is traffic accidents, many of which involve scenes of appalling carnage.
Another example is the recent killing of a young man accused of stealing a car. In fact he bought the car and had made a $3,000 down payment. But the seller had a better offer and rented the car out. The buyer located the car and took it back. With connections to the police, the wealthy seller reported the car as stolen. Police, on nothing but instruction from a powerful ruling class, located the man and shot him dead with ten bullets. Again, it’s not written about in any mainstream newspaper but a link to the story is here: Police Officer Held Over Prey Veng Shooting.
Due to her outstanding academic results the young peasant woman in the picture on the left won a scholarship to a prestigious international university. By day she studied and by night she apparently worked to send money home to her mother. In the face of this challenging schedule and despite sharing her studies with privileged kids whose parents afford the school fee and don’t need their children to do anything but focus on their studies, she was first in her class four years in a row. She was due to graduate in three months.
The young woman on the right is the daughter of a governor who wields significant power. She was apparently born in Australia.
Two days ago the lives of these two women collided. Literally. One, allegedly upset with her boyfriend, drove her Range Rover through the streets at speed described as “like she was on a race car track”. She rammed into the other’s motorbike, thrusting her against a wall and killing her outright. She drove on without stopping. There are few CCTV cameras in Cambodia and this is one reason that dangerous driving and hit and run accidents almost always go unpunished. The driver could safely assume that she was going to get away with it. She and two friends allegedly abandoned the car after fleeing the accident scene. It was reportedly found in a garage.
Unbeknownst to her at the time, a very rare, recently installed CCTV camera caught the whole scene on video in explicit detail. The video soon made its way to social media and quickly went viral. The license plate number was magnified for all to read.
A chief of police is quoted as saying “We conducted an investigation into this case after the story went viral. After identifying the driver of the car, police will question that person and send the case to court.” After it became obvious that her identity could not be kept secret, her father confessed that his daughter was driving the car, but one report claimed this confession came some hours into a police interview. Another report states he only turned himself in after the Prime Minister ordered the driver to come forward. Such orders are rare in the multiple stories of other hit and runs which are barely acknowledged and appear to have little to no police attention.
By way of reparation to her grieving family the driver’s father offered US$5,000. Five thousand dollars for the violent death of a promising young life. Five thousand dollars from the pocket of a multi-millionaire with a young daughter of his own, driving a Range Rover at age 17**. The victim’s mother has rejected the offer, asking instead, following Buddhist tradition, for the killer to “bow down and say sorry to her corpse”. A ruling class bowing down to a peasant? Unlikely! My guess is that she will be charged, money will pass hands between her family and justice officials and she will make her way back to Australia for a life of relative anonymity, in freedom and comfort. It’s just a repeat of others who have gone before her. Given the Australian government’s complicity with the Cambodian government, I don’t see any repercussions at all for her coming from that angle.
**As at 29 March the case has finally made its way to some English news sites. The family representative is now saying that the $5,000 was purely to cover funeral costs.
The story does not appear so far in any mainstream media. Protection of the ruling class is well established but for the emerging revolutionary power of social media which is giving Cambodia’s youth a voice. You only need to see how other Communist countries have addressed this issue to know where that’s probably headed.
The expression in the eyes of young mothers as we review their children’s chronic malnutrition and they tell me that they understand vegetables and meat are important but they have no money, is a new image ingrained into my memory. There is a foreigner currently in Phnom Penh who is trying to feed as many people as he can. My friend encountered him at a specific market in the city and she recently introduced herself, offering to show him some of Phnom Penh’s community life. The other day he went with her to a specific community where she quotes him as saying “Oh my god, how the people can live like this?” before arranging with her to make an en-masse food pack delivery to multiple families. The excitement as she described to me, her ability to help her fellow Cambodians thanks to meeting someone with the resources she doesn’t have, was heartwarming.
A friend often tells me “I don’t like to hear foreigners say that they love Cambodia, if they love it they don’t know the reality”. I get this point but the other side of the coin is that amongst the visible inequality, injustice and suffering, you find good facing evil, courage facing power, and principles facing corruption.