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Alnwickdote No 17: What goes around, comes around!


Sharks Fin Soup on open sale in Phnom Penh's popular St 63, November 2015. I kg dried Sharks Fin is on display for $180 at O'Russey Market.  I have tweeted to @WWF

Two things happened recently that took me back to 1998 and my first year in Cambodia.  One was this advertisement for Sharks Fin Soup.  The other was my inability to track down a prominent Cambodian NGO leader.  She has been off yet again on an overseas trip, another 5-star conference.  Is this not a recurring same old story of high-living Lords and Ladies of Poverty?

Back in 1998, in my early days, before I upset folks in the development inner-circle, I was often invited to join social events.  Exceptionally, I attended one, an evening reception of the elite, to celebrate a new grant we had won.  By chance, it was the first time in weeks I had met my Boss from his numerous jaunts overseas and around the country.  My current NGO friend seems to be of the same ilk.  Last week she was too busy to meet me, once again holed up at a local workshop, just like the week before at a “networking” group, held of course in 5 luxury star hotels. What you do not have is them as bosses attending to their NGO, supervising the work or actually engaging with their supposed beneficiaries.  I recall after I was appointed to one job, I learned that my predecessor had managed to full up four days of her week, every week “networking”. Now this was and remains possible with the proliferation of seminars, workshops; conferences; receptions that aid capitals like Phnom Penh host and have to offer.  You would be amazed how many are listed as "credentials" in CVs by job applicants!

The 1998 reception led to my foray in to a literary art-form.  No doubt most of you will conclude that it is one that I should leave to others!  So if you excuse that, here goes:

Cambodian waitresses - first jobs, away from home first time too
We must, we must….

"We must meet to talk. We must!" suggested one Excellency to another during a chance encounter while proffering his pink envelopes* at the wedding of another Excellency's daughter.  "The EU has given us a small grant.  We can get back on to our old teaching project."  And so arrangements were made to meet for a "working dinner" at one of Phnom Penh's riverside restaurants, much favoured by the elite.

The five serious men forsook the splendid riverside view offered from the open balcony for the intimate privacy of an internal air-conditioned dining area. 

"We must talk business, private business, we must", but of course the food and drink had to be ordered first.

"We must start as soon as possible, we must!" it was quickly agreed, "Our children have much to learn!  They have to learn about Cambodia's history, how poor we are, and how deprived we are!" A bottle of red wine, some beers and a modest array of starters, free snacks - cashew nuts, pickled vegetables and  prawns - arrived.

"We must teach them about our proud Khmer culture, we must!" one said, eyeing the pretty young waitress in her short black skirt.  The girl was just one of many who passed through that restaurant's doors, recruited from rural poverty, having paid a bond up-front of several months' pay, and now "available" for additional services... at a price naturally.

"Yes, and we must teach them about women's rights, we must!" laughed another, noticing his friend's studious attention to the girl.  The first dish arrived.  I do not know for sure what it was.  The Cambodian Government had in theory placed a ban on wildlife, the favourite food of many elite; sun bear, tortoise, deer, etc.  But of course it could be obtained, discretely…at a price…. naturally.

"And we must teach them about the environment, we must!" spurted another, coughing, to prevent swallowing a small bone, spitting out the offensive morsel together with the contents of his lungs on the floor next to the table.  Spitting, such a common habit, but just one way of transmitting tuberculosis, still a major killer in Cambodia, naturally.

"And we must teach them about health, we must!" chipped in another, as the main course, Shark's Fin Soup, arrived, one of the most expensive items on the menu at $7 per bowl, more than the cost of a month's food for most Cambodians. Sharks Fin Soup is also supposed to be off the menu.

"Yes and we must teach children about social skills, about modesty and moderation, we must! " added the fifth guest, pouring out the red wine from the second bottle… beckoning to the clock, "and look time is getting on!  We must go soon." 

They hurriedly finished their meal, leaving the host to pay the bill, giving "au revoir" smiles to the waitress, and making their way on to the next rendezvous.   They were heading to a reception being given by an Embassy to mark its country's national day.

"Yes, and we must teach children about honesty and respect, we must, we must!"  Concluded the satisfied host, it was a good evening's work, "connecting" with the authorities, paying the $150 bill, and collecting the receipt for the hospitality, courtesy one way or another… of the EU!

*  Pink envelope – used to invite people to weddings who should return it with money or gifts.

One more new young waitress in Cambodia.
They seldom last long or they grow up quick!
Now a few weeks later, I returned to the same restaurant as an under-cover human rights investigator to talk to the waitresses about how they had ended up there and what services they were expected to perform.  "Mine host" welcomed me, remembering me from the earlier encounter, not suspecting my ulterior purposes.  I had deliberately picked an early time, when it would be quiet, and the girls could talk before they would be running around. (Waiter or waitress in Khmer is “table-runner!”)

The quiet did not last long.  I noticed that a young Western lady had been watching us for some time.  She came over to our table. “You disgusting dirty old man, you should not be with these young girls!” And out she stormed.  Nobody seemed fazed, so we carried on.  We did establish that a well-organized trafficking operation existed.

The following week, I was invited to give an induction talk to some new volunteers from the United Kingdom, through VSO, the same agency that arranged for me to go to Malawi.  Guess who was there?  After my talk I asked the Country Director for a private chat.  He was not surprised by my story.  Apparently I was not the only one singled out by said lady for such advice. Her tour of duty, he told me, had already been ended. She was about to leave Cambodia but he wanted to keep an eye on her. 

That restaurant has now closed.  Today there is far more choice for the elite, especially in an array of 5-star hotels,  Most of these do a roaring trade in conferences; workshops, and receptions for the Lords and Ladies of Poverty.  If you can sit through interminable intensely-boring “Powerpoint” presentations, you know where to go to for a free lunch or dinner!

A quick search of Trip Advisor produces as the No 1 Luxury hotel in Newcastle-upon-Tyne the Staybridge - I will wager that they host very few gatherings of charities and local authorities!  So why do taxpayers have to fork out such luxury treatment in Phnom Penh? "Sofitel" seems to be the favoured choice, for now.

Readers of this blog may also be interested in this one.

Post-script - the three Grandfathers - Wisdom?

Around the same time as "We must, we must!" my organisation - a human rights one I remind you portending to be based on best international standards - had three elderly men as its top most-revered teachers.  They were called the three grandfathers. They certainly lived up to the Guru (Khmer "Kruu") title.  Out of 100 staff, we only had one eminent woman teacher, Mrs Meng Ho Leang.

One day, I heard one of the senior gentlemen pontificating at staff meetings that I did not usually attend. The conversation was in English, not the usual Khmer, meaning we were intended to overhear it. Thanks to New York University, we had received an excellent intern, a young lady whose parents were Cambodians who had escaped the Khmer Rouge regime. They ended up in Lowell, Massachussets with their own Cambodian restaurant. Saraan was a bright educated confident young woman who had been brought up to speak Khmer well.  She was an inspiration to our usually docile female staff, who conformed to traditional norms, despite the gender training we conducted.

My ears perked up when I heard laughter and "Hee, hee hee - they will never learn. Here we learn only from old men, not from women and definitely not from young women!"

How many years will it take to dispel such nonsense?

A tribute to Ken Cramer a late wise observer of Phnom Penh's scene: one of his perceptive blogs:

I have added this blog because what he talked about resonates with part of my blog above and does highlight the contradictions.  I talk more about them in this blog too. Also worth visiting is Ken's interview with a fellow long-time Phnom Penh watcher.  I talk about his demise in this blog.

Creepy Motivations

A Child Fruit-Seller like the Flower-Girls described below.
One evening last year I was relaxing over a beer after a late dinner at a bar & grill on the riverfront here in Phnom Penh. It was about 10:30 or 11:00PM. At the bar sat a 50-something Western tourist and a Vietnamese taxi girl chatting and laughing together. Four young tourists strolled in and sat at a table near the open front of the restaurant - two couples, 20-somethings I think. I was sitting at the near end of the bar between the two groups and after a short while noticed that the tourists at the table seemed to be grumbling about the guy at the bar. They were leaning in together, speaking in low raspy tones, shooting occasional sharp glances and other pointed little gestures in his direction.

Distracting their attention momentarily, a pair of tiny 'flower girls' wandered in from the street - perhaps 8 or 9 years old, barely tall enough to see over the tables, ragged but clean and laden with doughnut-shaped flower rings and broad Cambodian smiles. They approached the tourists and began their sales chant, pleading "flower, 1500 riel, 1500 riel, flower, OK?, mam, OK?" The tourist women were immediately captivated by the little girls. "They're so cute," one of the women commented, stroking the girl's cheek. "How old are you?...What's your name?" they queried in cutsy sing-song tones. The girls leaned into the women, giggled, batted their eyes and repeated their sales chant. The couples inspected the flowers and gently bargained them down to 1000 riel each (25 cents), eventually buying a couple of the flower rings.

After admiring their purchase, the tourist women quickly fell back to talking about the guy at the bar, now a bit louder but still difficult to understand over the usual pub din, "blah, blah, sex...blah, blah, older than ...blah, blah, disgusting..." Meanwhile, the males at the table had begun bargaining with a Vietnamese shoeshine boy who was about 12 years old. The boy wanted $1 to shine their shoes. They were only willing to pay 50 cents (the 'right price' is 12 cents, but I am not saying anything). They struck a deal. The boy took the shoes outside where he squatted next to a puddle in the street for a little water to clean the mud from the soles.
Shoe-Shine Boy in Takhmau

As I was watching the boy work, my attention was jarred back into the bar by a loudly-spoken "CREEPY!" echoing across the room. The guy at the bar had his hand on the taxi girl's knee and one of the tourist women was glaring at him intently, talking loudly to her friend, her face turning red with anger. As she spoke, her volume progressively increased so that everybody in the bar could hear, "...CREEPY ...sick ...HER FATHER ...police ...children ...SEX tourist ...ped..." The guy at the bar ignored them, or didn't hear them, and carried on. Continuing to talk amongst themselves, the people at the table seemed to get more and more agitated. Finally they called over the bartender, pointed at the guy at the bar and made some sort of demand. The only words I heard clearly were, "sick old bastard," "police" and "sex tourist." The bartender shrugged and looked like he was trying to explain something to them. Abruptly, the tourists stood up, threw a twenty on the table and left in a huff, forgetting the flowers in their haste.

These young tourists, particularly the women, were absolutely blinded by disgust for what they saw - an 'old white man' with a 'young Asian girl' in an apparently sexual relationship. They completely missed the plight of the 8 year old flower girls, working 10-hours shifts, late into night, hawking 1000 riel flowers for some unknown flower girl pimp. They did not think to ask why an 8 year old is working at 10:30PM. Or why an 8 year old is working at all. Or who is controlling these children. Or where the money is going. Or whether they were indentured servants or abused or even slaves as they might very well be. In fact, these tourists happily contributed to the plight of these child laborers, buying their trinkets (and bargaining them down 12 cents,) ignoring their situation and sending them on their way into the night.

Nor did they raise any questions about the 12-year-old shoeshine boy, who is probably an illegal immigrant living on the street, not going to school, not getting enough to eat, perhaps sniffing glue to pass the time and assuage his hunger, and certainly paying tribute to a street gang for the privilege of shining shoes in a tourist area. Where will these children be after 5 or 10 years working the street for pennies? These tourists didn't think to ask, let alone do something about it. They were preoccupied with sex. They were blinded by revulsion and rage at the sight of a middle aged man with a much younger woman.

In fact, I've known this particular taxi girl for more than 4 years. I've never used her sexual services but I have played pool with her at the bar dozens of times, we've had drinks together a few times and we occasionally share a plate of noodles on the street at the end of the evening. She is at least 25 years old, divorced and has a three year old daughter. She's not particularly young looking for a Vietnamese girl, but to the unaccustomed eye she may look younger. She works as a prostitute because she needs to support herself and her child, because it's what she knows, and because she has no other options if she wants to make that kind of money**. And these tourists preferred to try to 'save' this adult woman from the 'old man,' and perhaps from herself as well, rather than give one thought to the 8 year olds that sold them the pretty flowers or the 12 year old that shined their shoes so well.

One has to wonder about the motivation of many of these westerners who seem so focused on the SEA sex scene. If asked, these people would probably say that they are against the exploitation of women and children, or trafficking, or pedophilia, or slavery, or some such worthy ideal. Yet when confronted with actual cases of child exploitation and even slavery, they ignore it in favor of the 'creepy' sexual practices of consenting adults. Some might say that it can be blamed, at least in part, on their ignorance, though IMO it shouldn't take too much thinking to realize that there is something seriously amiss about 8 year olds hawking flowers in tourist bars in the middle of the night. No, it's not ignorance. It is their fixation on sex and the sexual behavior of others that distracts them from the real problems of real people. Yes, of course there is exploitation and other horrible things going on in the SEA sex business. But the focus on sex is so intense for many (if not most) of these western do-gooders, it is to the exclusion of real abuses and exploitation, and to the reasons that all of these people end up in these difficult and exploitive situations.

** Although there is always a lively debate about "sex-work" whether per se it is exploitative of women or not as the "Oldest profession in the world" there are some studies that highlight the issues.  One of these by Heidi Hoefinger in Cambodia explains that for some women like the one described above it is a logical choice. Indeed if you talk to many "Ladies-of-the-night" they tell you that for them it's a better choice than long hours in a garment factory. This way they spend time with their children in the day-time. It also pays a lot more.  

As a human rights worker, my view is that if women (not girls or even boys) enter and stay in the profession voluntarily; are not stigmatised, or exploited by pimps and policemen, then they do fulfill a service in society.  In Cambodia. the challenge is stop people being duped or forced to do such work. 


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