Parallel U
pt. II

Number 38–Crunch Time

Lately we’ve been experiencing blackouts nearly every day, often twice a day for as much as 4 to 5 hours total. In addition to being an inconvenience in real time, it’s also a bad sign for the future. After all, this is cool season. While we have had a few days in the mid eighties (30C = 86F) recently, more seasonably cool weather with lows around 70F have returned – some mornings I still feel the need to wear a shirt, even a long sleeve shirt. Cool season is also relatively dry so that one shower per day usually suffices.

In April when the temperature goes up to the mid nineties and all the city’s air conditioners are running full bore, electricity will become a sometime luxury. For myself, that’s not terribly important except for my computer shutting down in the middle of a sentence or fumbling around in the dark lighting candles. For the many new structures being built without natural ventilation – we are in a building boom – and thus very difficult to inhabit without air con, there will be difficult times.

The office buildings, schools and high end residences that will be affected can easily buy generators. In fact almost all major buildings already have the ability to make their own power. The problem lies in that nearly all of Cambodia’s electricity, both publicly and privately produced, is diesel based, so equally vulnerable when shortages arise. There are hydropower plants on the drawing boards, but they won’t come on line for years at best.

Cambodia is actually ideally positioned for a biofuels economy and there is a bit of mumbling in that regard. It has a relatively small population and surplus land in a fertile low land country with ground water just below the surface. There’ve been droughts and food shortages in parts of the country recently but that’s mostly because peasant farmers can’t afford pumps or the relatively small cost of drilling wells down a mere 4 or 5 meters.

Whereas biofuels could never suffice in fuel gluttonous America – corn acreage devoted to ethanol production would have to double in order to produce just 15% of America’s fuel needs; an impossible scenario – Cambodia’s energy footprint is so light it could easily produce a meaningful part of its needs through biofuels. Imagine 30 people stuffed into a minivan or 10 crammed into a 3-wheel taxi powered by a 150cc motorbike and you get the picture.

Sugar cane, which could be widely grown here, is a more efficient producer of ethanol than corn. Oil palm plantations, for possible production of biodiesel, have begun to appear. The country’s great surplus of very cheap labor would make growing those fuels easy. In America, with it’s highly mechanized industrial farming practices, it actually requires more energy to produce ethanol than it provides – a net energy drain. It’s only because of subsidies that it can compete at the gas pump.

Unfortunately, Cambodia is so far behind in everything having to do with industrialization, there’s little likelihood that substantial biofuel production could begin before serious disruption of supplies starts happening in a few years.

In a more optimistic vein, there’s been a lot of buzz lately about Cambodia going into organic food production. The country is ideally poised for organics because, by default, so little of its land has been poisoned by petrochemicals. Its national traumas and resultant poverty have kept it from adopting modern industrial farming methods. Also, most of its cropland is rice paddy and because it’s underwater for so much of its growing time, it just naturally requires few toxic chemicals.

By the way, in case you hadn’t heard – and you wouldn’t if you depend on America’s traditional media – just a few days ago (January 9, 2006) new research on genetically modified food was released showing disastrous results to the offspring of pregnant rats. Fifty-six percent of the offspring of rats fed gmo soybeans died within three weeks compared to a nine percent mortality rate for those that ate untainted soy.

Living in Cambodia, I don’t eat a lot of packaged food. When I do require a candy bar, cookie or what have you, I avoid American brands like the plague? that they are. Almost all processed foods in the states contain gmo soy or corn or canola oil. Monsanto, the major producer of frankenfoods, has done a wonderful job of suppressing negative research on its nasties and been successful in contaminating most of the countryside. It’s nearly impossible in many parts of America to grow natural foods because of toxic gmo pollen blowing in from nearby fields.

Back to negative trends, Cambodia is in a deeply regressive and disturbing trend towards suppressing basic democratic freedoms. It all looks and feels quite peaceful and newspapers, at least those catering to the expat community, have not been affected. It all started with the anti-Thai riots of three years ago when demonstrators became all fired up over an alleged slight to national pride by a young Thai actress. Control was totally lost and a couple thousand students went on a rampage which resulted in $50 million in damages to Thai businesses and the Thai embassy.

Since then it’s been hard to get a permit to demonstrate for anything unless it’s clearly benign and pro government. Some demos have taken place anyway while others have been somewhat violently repressed. The worst trend has been the jailing of opposition leaders under defamation charges which should really be civic suits.

It’s also true that some of the accusations made by the political opposition have been over-the-top. Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition has been in exile for more than a year over accusations that Hun Sen has been selling Cambodian land to Vietnam. While anything is possible in our topsy-turvy world, this is ridiculous on its face.

Though he prides himself on being a strongman in politics, the PM is not a dictator in the accepted sense of the word. While his actions are not totally benign and I’m sure he’s benefited financially from his two decades in power, you don’t get the idea that it’s all about him. He gives the impression that he has the best interests of Cambodia at heart, whether or not it actually turns out that way.

But selling land to Vietnam? If not, in truth, a ridiculous accusation, a ridiculous accusation to make knowing how the PM would react. The other outlandish claim made by Sam Rainsy is that the PM bribed Prince Ranariddh, leader of one of Cambodia’s three major political parties, with $30 million to get him to join in the current coalition government. You don’t say those kinds of things without the ability to back it up with concrete evidence unless you also have a private army to protect yourself. You might need that private army even with the evidence.

No matter how benign a leader, the longer he/she stays in power the more likely, it seems, that he/she will feel the need to abuse that power. The last few elections have been won by Hun Sen’s party in internationally certified elections. He is unquestionably more legitimate than the Bush. It’s only Cambodia’s two-thirds requirement to form a government that forced him to join a coalition. So why bother with a few rabble rousers? Why jeopardize the country’s reputation and stability by repressing dissent? He’s got a firm grip on power, so why get all riled up over weak opponents no matter how caustic their charges? Power corrupts is the only plausible answer.

The international community has reacted strongly against these arrests of political opponents and does have some leverage since it provides about 60% of Cambodia’s budget. We will see.

I spent nearly three years in China under a much more repressive government. It doesn’t have a great impact on the daily life of an expat, so I don’t expect this problem to alter my comfort level at living here. However, that was before the internet. I wouldn’t consider living in China now and being denied access to legitimate newspapers and media or having my web browsing tracked for visiting forbidden sites or my emails parsed and censored for using words like democracy or human rights. There is nothing of the sort here in Cambodia.

If I were invested in Cambodia as several friends are who own property here I would be a bit more concerned. I can’t think of any place I’d rather be, but if necessary, I’m sure I could find someplace compatible with my lifestyle and income.