Travel

Parallel U
pt. I
2001-02

Number 11–Politics

A few weeks before I arrived in Cambodia, Thai newspapers carried a story about Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen closing down all of the country's Karaoke Bars and Discos. With three days notice he threw 50,000 people out of work and shut down thousands of legitimate businesses. Sex, drugs, criminals, hotbeds of violence, he railed.

Great fun for the men he's quoted as saying, but a terrible life for the girls who serve them. But then he was asked why he didn't also close down the brothels. Local matter, he responded. Yeah, uh huh. Influential as the better classes who frequented the OK bars might be, his constituency is among the common folk, and closing them would possibly have created ten times the uproar. In reality the bar girls are much better off than their compatriots in the brothels. They get to pick and choose who they put out for, do it a couple or so times a week and make a lot more money compared to the pittance received by the house girls after mamasan gets her share, besides having to hit the sheets many times a day.

Many places did shut down, many others merely painted out the OK in their marquees and continued as restaurants. Certainly, none of the pick-up sex bars oriented to Western men felt any heat.

Digression is required; the question of AIDS was posed to me. While one should never be blasÚ about something as serious as HIV, I can't help feeling a good part of the current hype about safe sex is a Jerry Falwell, General Motors, Golden Arches rightwing, corporate conspiracy to keep people celibate and frustrated so they can allay their horniness with SUV's and greasy burgers and essentially stay fat (I hope and pray my well rounded readers out there will forgive me for using the F word) and dedicated consumers.

What I'm ranting about is the total misconception about how and how often HIV is transmitted between low-risk hetero partners. Listen to the hype and you'd think that unprotected sex with an infected partner is a guarantee of infection. Nothing farther from the truth.

More than ten years ago researchers were curious to understand why some people were infected through unprotected sex but not others. The result was a study of hetero couples, in which one partner was infected, who had condomless sex over an extended period. There were about 50 couples in which the woman was infected, 230 in which the man was HIV+. In only one case did the virus move from woman to man and that couple was said to be an extreme case because they did it very often and frenetically with unbridled passion (you know, fucked their brains out). On the other side of the coin, one-third of the women became infected. Mind you, these infection rates are for unprotected sex over an extended period of time.

The difference obviously is that women are much more sensitive and subject to tearing and abrasion, which provides avenues for the virus to enter. So why are hetero transmission rates so high in some parts of the world? Because other venereal diseases are involved – they provide the entry points. It also turned out, according to another contemporary study, that young women under 25 produce less juices, which makes them less lubricated and more vulnerable. In other words, if a man does not engage in high risk behavior – doesn't take it in the bum or shoot up with dirty needles – and doesn't have any signs of VD, it's extremely unlikely that he's HIV+. The conclusion; get laid more often and stop obsessing about HIV.

Latest research, 2004, showed that men with foreskins are far more likely to contract the disease than circumsized men. I surmise that having a gland, that produces a secretion, smegma, also lets the virus in.

Back to Hun Sen; many people feel that the real impetus for his closure order was that two of his nephews were involved in fatal shootouts at OK bars within just a few days. Coming after nearly thirty years of violence, death and destruction the country was awash in guns until recently. When I first arrived I kept seeing checkpoints where young men on motorbikes were being stopped and frisked. Shakedown I thought, but no, checking for guns. Ten years ago, one heard gunshots all night; a few years ago robberies at gunpoint were rife, but except for the wealthy and privileged who still like to shoot em up, the country has really settled down. The PM recently had a sculpture of a handgun with its barrel tied in a knot placed in one of the city's most prominent spots. However if you really feel the need to fire off a few rounds there's a firing range outside of town that offers AK-47's and Howitzers as well as more mundane arms.

The PM talks a good talk about liberal democracy, and I actually believe he's committed to taking the country in that direction, eventually. It's just that, for now, he really likes playing strongman and has pretty much decided that he wants to spend another 10 years in his post. He was originally put into office by the Vietnamese who, in an act of pure mercy, invaded the country in 1979 for the purpose of driving Pol Pot out of office.

However, in the eyes of many Cambodians they overstayed their welcome, hanging around for 12 years. They are not fond of the Vietnamese, notwithstanding the aforementioned good deed and in fact maintain that a large chunk of present day Vietnam, which includes the Mekong Delta and the city of Saigon, is rightfully theirs. One of Phnom Penh's major boulevards is named after the area. Even so, in spite of a large number of Vietnamese living here, violence towards them is very rare – the Khmer are very accepting, it seems, of everyone.

During the occupation, the US, in one of the most craven political acts ever, supported Pol Pot's ongoing insurgency. We of course were still in a fit of pique at the humiliation of losing to the Viet Cong. Together with China – which also felt humiliated at how quickly they were forced to retreat from their invasion of VN in response to its invasion of Cambodia – we insured that Pol Pot, second worst mass murderer in modern history – latest estimate, 1.5 million dead, 20% of its then population – kept his seat at the UN and the country destabilized.

China has never been friendly to VN, and still, it seems, hasn't forgotten that the Vietnamese were able to drive them out a thousand years ago after a thousand years under their control.

Back to Hun Sen; when the Vietnamese withdrew the UN held an election – 92% turnout – which Hun Sen lost, but only by a small margin. At that point he said make me second prime minister – contradiction in terms there – or there will be civil war. The country had little choice. Everything did not go smoothly with two prime ministers, as you can well imagine, and besides, Prince Ranariddh, first PM, was not doing a great job. So in 1997, Hun Sen, being certain that the prince was about to stage a coup to boot him out of office, went pre-emptively, kicked out the prince and, very conveniently, one hundred of his political opponents were offed in the ensuing little upheaval.

But wouldn't you know it, an election was held the next year in which he won. Sure there was some intimidation and a few murders here and there, but the election was certified by the international community and notwithstanding much protest on the part of the opposition he was firmly, democratically, in place. Pol Pot died in 1998, the last of the Khmer Rouge holdouts gave up, and shortly after that the entire country became safe, relatively speaking, for the first time in 30 years.

And again, last month, his Cambodian People's Party won big in the local elections. Until last month, there was only one elected body for the entire country – all local officials from provincial governors on down had been appointed by the CPP. Yes, there was some intimidation and twenty murders of opposition candidates but on the other hand more than 3000 local officials – about 30% of the total – were elected from the opposition. The PM's party won control of all but 20 of the 1620 local councils but at least now they have to contend with opposing voices. The CPP has its politics down; it's got the countryside, which has 80% of the population, organized down to cells of ten families each.

But here's the really interesting part, they're called commune councils – obviously Americans would use the word community – and they cover the entire country, both urban and rural. Phnom Penh, for instance, has 76 communes. They will have no money because Cambodia has no money, but at least they will have a voice.

This is almost exactly what I proposed for Oregon 25 years ago, which I called Community Election Districts. I had a bill submitted to the Oregon legislature, which actually got a hearing in the senate, but was seriously shot down by all the powers. Community elections? Urban neighborhoods and rural communities actually have the right to use the ballot to elect their leaders? Sure couldn't let that happen; imagine, communities with a legitimate voice.adly iná#