Parallel U
pt. II

Number 26–Hot Times

The political season is heating up. Elections are happening here at the end of July and the stakes are rising. A municipal court judge was assassinated yesterday and just a couple of weeks back a prominent member of one of the two main political parties, that are in fact in a ruling coalition, got hit. And what a marvelously feeble attempt at making it look like a robbery. Seems two guys ride up on a motorbike – it’s broad daylight – where a group of men had just left a restaurant, and inquire of them the identity of the intended target, who immediately gets offed. The culprits run back to their bike, but one, prompted by the other, then runs back and grabs the guy’s cell phone. Uh-huh.

About twenty people were killed in political violence tied to the last elections in February. The stakes are much higher now. Those were commune elections for officials on the lowest local level. This is for control of parliament. The problem, or one problem anyway, is it’s not at all certain that PM Hun Sen would actually give up the office if turned down by the voters. He’s been awfully determined in the past. Originally installed by the Vietnamese near the beginning of their occupation, he refused to step down after being narrowly defeated in the country’s UN sponsored election in 1992.

He said share power and make me second prime minister or there’ll be rebellion. In 1997 a hundred of his political enemies were killed, some would say preemptively, in conjunction with a supposed coup attempt, during which time many would admit was very chaotic and confused. It is very difficult therefore to divorce the most recent killings from the politics of intimidation, or completely escape a mild sense of foreboding. (Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I’ll be back in the states again this summer and miss the fun.) Khmers are either totally laid back or the slightest excuse for revenge has to be answered with an ultimate response.

Along with a strong leftist orientation, the PM’s been very pragmatic about maintaining an open competitive marketplace. Of all countries I’ve visited, Cambodia is probably the easiest place for expatriates to settle in. There are none of the visa hassles one encounters in every other country in the region, and no official paperwork is necessary to take up permanent residency. There are also no restrictions on business ownership, and so restaurants and nightclubs with distinctively cool Western vibes proliferate.

As was the case in my ex-cafe in China, most other countries require local ownership, necessitating at least a local partner. This makes things much more complicated and frequently leads to misunderstandings and rip-offs, not to mention often dilutes the vibe into faux Western. Considering how little it costs to set up a storefront imbibery, it’s definitely a buyer’s market. Considering how little it costs to run one, it doesn’t take a whole lot of business to keep one afloat.

I’m teaching afternoons in non-air-conditioned classrooms. Parallel U. has the misfortune of being the first private university in Cambodia, established in 1997. In this case it really is a ‘private’ institution – owned and operated by a guy who’s not yet thirty years old. At anyrate, the old campus which the boss is trying to replace is quite funky, junky, old style.

To me, the worst facet of non-air-con is the noise. Let me sweat. Isn’t that why we take saunas? Open up the pores, wash out the passages, sweat out the toxins, good for you. So what if I have to take six or seven showers a day. But the noise? By the time you have to talk over the street noise and the chattering students.... well it’s a good thing my voice carries. At anyrate, it’s really quiet in the afternoon, I barely have to raise my voice. However, after the sun goes down and the temperature begins to ease off a bit and everybody is home from work a really thick cacophony breaks out and I practically have to bellow at times to reach my students.

Not only are there many knots of adults gabbing on the sidewalks and gaggles of kids screaming playfully, but one can also hear the melded sounds of dozens of TV’s and stereos and ever-present ice cream vendor melodies – let’s see, there’s happy birthday, the Lambada and another I can’t place. One mustn’t forget that building design that provides great ventilation also allows easy passage for sound. It’s especially fascinating, by eight o’clock or so, when motorized traffic becomes negligible, to be enveloped in people sounds.

Unfortunately, most Khmers are too frightened to stay out late and enjoy the dark so the city is largely shuttered and quiet by ten. Of course that doesn’t stop us Westerners from cruising and carousing until the little hours. And it’s always warm. No bundling up right after dark as in Portland which has only a handful of warm nights a year. Here you can sweat 24 hours a day, all but a few days a year.

Which brings up a serious thermometer problem. When I first got here I bought a digital clock with what I assumed was an accurate thermometer. It seemed close enough back in the cool season, but in the thick of hot season it felt counterintuitively low – based on past experience and logic – so I went and bought an old style alcohol one which reads about 8 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the digital and seems way too high; at least in the morning, but not necessarily in the afternoon. So I’m in a quandary... How can I give an accurate weather report other than to say, ‘it’s hot’.

It’s heating up in Iraq also. A week ago I predicted that it would take about two weeks before Iraqis began throwing stones at US troops, but it only took a week for the first incident to happen. Also, in the world according to Rummy, the Iraqi people can have any government they like as long as it meets his approval; no fundamentalists allowed. Strange that, considering he’s working in a fundamentalist regime, albeit of a different stripe.

And even stranger that the great majority of Americans love the job the bushman is doing. If I ever questioned the intelligence and/or reasoning power of the American body politic, that’s nothing to what I’m feeling now. However I do see some logic in it all. We know dubya believes he’s been called upon to do God’s work, why else would he go through all the trouble to steal the election? When a true believer presides at the seat of world power, it has to be because God put him there so whatever comes to his mind must be God’s will and reflect His Greater Purpose – he says his prayers at night before he goes to sleep, doesn’t he?

That said he probably feels that he will be instrumental in bringing about Armageddon and the Second Coming. And most astoundingly, it’s probably true. By disdaining any thought of protecting the earth from multiple environmental crises, by rejecting out of hand any meaningful transition from a fossil fuel based world economy, by fostering chaos and instability through lots of regime changes – Afghanistan, Iraq and whoever is next – or standing by a regime, Israel in it’s occupation of Palestine, which is a totally fundamentalist undertaking, which through its brutality and unmitigated unfairness unquestionably invokes anger, hatred and the burning desire for revenge – he will certainly be setting the stage for the big battle on the plains of Megiddo. As a long time predictor of doomsday, I say, ‘BRING IT ON’.