Parallel U
pt. II

Number 39–Crunch Update

We’re still on reduced rations of electricity, usually twice a day, as much as four to five hours total. Every time it goes off in the evening you hear a chorus of ‘oohs’. Alternatively when it comes back on it’s ‘ahhs’. In day time the contrast is not great enough to evoke a verbal response.

One of the least enjoyable aspects of the blackouts are the private generators that kick in to take up the slack, though admittedly I have an extremely low tolerance of that type of noise. I won’t hardly use a fan, even sometimes when I’m dripping sweat, because of the constant drone, though in that case I also dislike being forcibly blown at.

If it’s hot enough to get sweaty, then it’s not a great imposition to take a cold shower, otherwise I can wait till the juice comes back on. It is a little disconcerting to have my computer shut off in the middle of a sentence; I’ve got it set for automatic saves every minute so I don’t lose very much. Depending on candles at night is no biggie; kind of nice actually. No TV so no worries about missing my favorite program. I’ve got a portable radio so I don’t have to miss my BBC. Even with a small fridge and hot water for showers, I still pay only about $6 per month.

Eighty percent of Cambodians don’t even have access to public electricity and most of those that do, outside of Phnom Penh, pay exorbitant rates of about 50 cents/kwh – that’s six or seven times what Oregonians pay. Here in the capital it’s more like 20 cents/kwh. In the countryside you see a lot of battery exchange shops. People use car batteries to run a couple of lights, a radio, a TV and when the battery runs down, they haul it down to exchange it for a fresh one.

At any rate, we’re told the problem is that two power stations are down for repairs and should be fixed soon and the country’s one hydropower plant has run out of water. By summer we should have two new privately financed generators in operation, not to mention enough rain to turn the hydro back on, so our power problems should be over at least temporarily. Cambodia is on a growth trajectory with lots of new buildings appearing - along with their air conditioners - and is becoming the new tourism hot spot in Southeast Asia, so energy production will probably just barely keep up with demand.

On the political front, the news is quite cheery. All of the personalities who were in jail or exile stemming from criminal defamation charges have been set free. All apologized to the Prime Minister for their defamatory statements; all the while insisting that they really weren’t apologizing and saying they were going to continue their work as before.

Sam Rainsy, leader of the political party that bears his name, left the country quite abruptly a year ago in lieu of his parliamentary immunity being lifted and charges filed. This related to his accusation that Hun Sen was behind the 1998 grenade attack on an opposition political rally that killed several people and injured many others. He insists that he really didn’t flee the country, he just had lots of work to do in France.

And, of course, the Prime Minister swears that international pressure had nothing to do with him releasing all the accused. He further is suggesting that defamation be decriminalized. Even so, civil defamation can just as easily be used to stifle and pretty much wipe out a political opposition, as Singapore is famous for. That country has virtually no opposition politics – I think only one opposition MP – because the first time anyone speaks out they are taken to court and bankrupted.

Today in Cambodia the biggest flashpoint of civic unrest is land-grabbing. One of Pol Pot’s enduring legacies was his abolition of private property and torching of the records. When you then add the large numbers of whole families who were wiped out, along with their property claims, you are left with a very murky ownership regime. They are currently working on registering all property in the country but that won’t be finished for several years.

As I understand it real estate law bestows ownership to anyone who lives on a piece of land for a minimum number of years. However, now that peace reigns here, land is becoming valuable and public officials and other elite are turning up with land titles and evicting large numbers of ‘squatters’ in many parts of the country. Hundreds of displaced peasants from several different regions have been camping out in a park in front of the National Assembly building for months now hoping for help in getting their land back. In fact, the Prime Minister has railed against land-grabbing but seems unable to do a whole lot about it.

Corruption and related everyday-type low-life behavior such as land-grabbing are so in-your-face here it’s easy to look down on it as inherent in developing countries. But is there any country that’s totally free of corruption? Switzerland? Sweden? I can’t say. Official malfeasance there, if it does exist, is bound to be far more subtle. Nevertheless, considering the advanced nature of those societies, one would think they had graduated to higher planes.

In the US, corruption, political and corporate, has become endemic. America, lecturer to the world about the wonders of democracy, has sunk so low that it’s not even possible to expect honest elections there. It’s gotten so bad that it’s no longer even ironic that the people who do the most righteous religious spouting are behind the most egregious thefts. As the bushman would say, ‘when you’ve got god on your side, you can do no wrong’.