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The Northumbrian Abroad

Well, here we are! I succumbed.  Rather than blogging on other people's sites, I have decided to have my own.  Why?  Well like most of us, I think I have something to say and some folks out there may be interested.  I quite often find especially with larger media, that they tend to want things expressed in their own way, imposing a kind of censorship.  Well this is the pure unadultered me!  As a person who comes from a distinct part of the world, betwixt the warring English and Scots, I think we have our special characteristics.  Those stand us in good stead when plodding around the world.  So I like to compare and contrast situations at home or in the past but within living memory, with those encountered in the developing world.  My blogs delve in to some intricate details.
My "Alnwickdotes" are of course anecdotes, usually lighter stories of things that have happened over the years.  Please go to the link below for a quick-list. Most still have a development connection.  Over time, I will write up more of them, as well as blog on any subject in my areas of interest trending on social media.  I explain the term Alnwickdote in No 1 in the series. One clue is Alnwick may be the "most mispronounced place-name in the UK".

My life journey briefly has taken me far in to the distance from Northumberland (and back)  to Leicester; Kingston-upon-Thames, Exeter, Dorchester, Saint Helena Island, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Malawi, Rwanda and Cambodia plus many stops on the way. You can access my latest CV here.

I must warn you, and maybe apologize in advance? I do tend to rant; rave, groan and moan, perhaps a North-Eastern attribute, but then who would not want to associate with the High Level Ranters?  (For the uninitiated, this great band was called after one of the 5 Bridges now 7 that grace the River Tyne in Newcastle, made famous by the Nice.) Their equally talented and humorous peers, the band Lindisfarne, are more famous - lads I met in Kingston before they were rich and famous! (The Fog on the Thames was all wors!).

Actually, as my blogs show, there is not so much difference between life in cities like Newcastle and Phnom Penh, despite the passage of time and distance.  Listen to my chum Chris Minko and his great Cambodian girl singers in Sin City. Just Like Eric Burdon and the Animals "We gotta get out of this place"?

You can go to my Google Drive for some of my Classic Photographs - this is a work-in-progress that I started in August 2017.



The background picture is of Longhoughton Quarry Pond.  I see it every day when I crank up the computer!  When we grew up, the pond was small but a constant source of fascination with the fishes, frogs, and newts. Apart from a few fishermen, few people seem to go to enjoy its beauty*.  Maybe that is because one thing has not changed.  There may be still explosive charges to extract the stone.  Many years later when in Malawi, Africa, I recalled instantly those days.  Young Pioneers.......

* PS - Well that was until Vera visited! (A TV detective show set in and around #northumberland
 




June 2015 - update: Vera is back in Craster and at our childhood playground haunt of the Rumbling Kern. By chance we were at the Jolly Fisherman same time but missed the new famous Craster Kipper Beer kipper - thanks Cheers! and @alnwickgazette

One follower of my Twitter Account @LowrieJohn asked me about my banner picture.  It was till April 2017 Dunstanburgh Castle just North of Craster, my photo taken of course from the best vantage point and all-weather retreat of the Jolly Fisherman.  Here's the clearer close-up promised:








Where are we in the world?

Thanks to Tim Peake and the International Space Station we can show you - next to Bonnie Scotland (South of) but a distinctive different if related mob... to use the cute Australian Aboriginal word for kin






 And finally for the record:


Please note that I subscribe to freedom of information over the internet subject to reasonable conditions such as those set by Creative Commons.  I would appreciate it if you would act and honour such undertakings similarly, for knowledge to spread as widely as possible and to those who have most difficulty in accessing it.




A Guide to my Alnwickdotes (Anecdotes)

About Me

The inaugural AGM of the new local NGO for indigenous people in Mondulkiri, Cambodia. I am a bit too centre-stage for my liking, but they like it!

I am of course a long-time worker in international community development and human rights, but have come a long way from my Northumbrian origins.

UK: Should Human Rights Matter More than Trade?


A still from this video capturing the live-fire shooting by Cambodian Security Forces on demonstrators. GR or GRK as worn on uniforms is the acronym for Royal Gendarmerie. You can see a report by VoA.  VoA broadcasts to the domestic audiences have been curtailed  because  many independent radio stations have been forced to cease airing in 2017.

In July 2005 armed police killed a young unarmed Brazilian outside Stockwell train station in London.

In January 2014 armed military police killed 5 young unarmed Cambodians near a factory in Veng Sreng Street, Phnom Penh.

The London tragedy led to several investigations, the standard type of enquiry by the Coroner required in the UK after a sudden death and two special ones to assess the appropriateness of the Police actions.  The story and aftermath was well-covered by media, including conclusions that commanding officers were at fault. The case was considered by several courts and compensation was paid to the victim’s family. Questions were asked in the UK Parliament.  Lessons were learned even if inevitably some residual doubts remain to this day about the tragedy.

The Cambodian tragedy led to one investigation by the Ministry of Interior and a single report that concluded the killings were “not the fault of the heavily-armed military police” but “illegal demonstrations led by the [Opposition] Cambodia National Rescue Party a premeditated, provocative act intended to topple the legal government by inciting anarchy, violence and clashes with competent authorities”.  The committee met in secret with no appeals.  No evidence was released indicating that any of the 5 killed had directly confronted the armed military police in a crowd apparently throwing stones at them. The Gendarmerie resorted to live-fire in response. The only court action was against 13 unionists and workers convicted of intentional violence and causing property damage” on the same day. The body of one of the five killed has never been found.

Domestic and international human rights organisations including the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights called for more investigation in the interests of justice and to deter impunity. Their calls and those of the victims of families have never been heeded.

Cambodia has similar Police arrangements to France with two operational forces; a National Police and a Gendarmerie with military and judicial police functions. The Gendarmerie is part of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. The National Police are under the Ministry of Interior but often work together on domestic operations as do the armed forces. (They should only be deployed in declared national emergencies.)  Today both police forces remain under the same commanding officers.

The United Kingdom since 2014 has continued to cultivate good relations with Cambodia with a heavy emphasis on promoting trade, even often dispatching special trade envoy Lord David Puttnam to help it to re-brand its image from its conflict-ridden past.  Cambodia is lined up to be one of the first to agree to a post-BREXIT trade deal. One senior Foreign Office official has confirmed that “Human rights are no longer a top priority.”

Since the 2014 Cambodian tragedy, no more worker or political demonstrations have been brooked; the rights of trade unions and civil society have been severely curtailed by legislation, and the Opposition CNRP party has been dissolved despite gaining 46% of the vote in elections this year.

Surely the United Kingdom, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, needs to be more than “dismayed” about Cambodia?  Should it not give a lead to the world and insist that human rights really do matter more than trade?  After all aren’t human rights supposed to be “inviolable”?

John Lowrie is a human resources officer by profession. He has been an aid and development worker since 1985, working in five developing countries, and Cambodia since 1998 where he has been country representative of three international NGOs and formal adviser to seven local development and human rights organizations.

Please go to this report for the heartfelt pleas of the family of the missing boy four years on:

Comment:

What I thought was one of our most inspiring achievements in 2013 was to secure funding that equipped for the first time Human Rights Defenders with Smartphones. This enabled them not only to communicate better with each other but by video-capture to document irrefutable evidence of human rights violations. Some of these phones may have been used to capture the scenes on Veng Srentg Street. This achievement was thwarted as authorities later kitted out security officials in unmarked uniforms and black-visored helmets to avoid recognition, probably because the Gendarmes in Veng Sreng Street were clearly identified and someone must have given them orders and permission to use live ammunition.  The new policy of deploying unmarked “district guards” does not conform to international standards where agents of the state are supposed to be clearly identifiable for accountability purposes. 

So much older then I’m younger than that now

Kingston University Lecture Theatre
There’s no mistaking Kingston University’s Penrhyn Road building.  Its outward appearance is much as it was in our days of the 1970s.  You see the same main entrance; foyer; refectory, door-ways to corridors and stair-ways that are intact down to the exact same unpolished brass rails.

Cambodia:Turning the Clock Back


The Kampong Chhnang disabled people at the inaugural AGM of their own NGO in 2009. Their elected Governing Council took the stage ready for new advocacy initiatives as well as livelihood improvement activities.

Cambodia: Turning the Clock Back”

For the second time in 40 years a Cambodian regime is determined to turn the clock back.

Like the infamous Khmer Rouge regime, present rulers want to revert to a previous simpler existence, even if less extreme than the Utopian dream Pol Pot yearned for.

“Backpacker Tourism can be a Force for Good.” Says Aid & Development Worker


As appeared in Backpacker South East Asia and Ethical Tourism from 2 October 2017. Among many points I wanted to make, the most significant one is to go out just before Saint Helena Island's new regular air service begins on 14 October. As I re-tweeted to perhaps the island's best tourism advocates, who are entirely self-funded "Ability of Saints to come; go and stay [financially] is just as important as tourist dollars." So far this has not been built in to air-fare pricing policies.  Without it, eventually, it will fundamentally change the make-up, charcater and culture of the island, as  the ratio of locals to outsiders shifts, exactly as we have seen wherever places rely mainly on tourism. (My most popular blog about Saint Helena is here, and a summary of other postings here.)

 “Backpacker Tourism can be a Force for Good.” Says Aid & Development Worker

The rough amateurish sign read:

“The Middle of Somewhere”*


It was fixed haphazardly, not intended to last long. “Word-of-mouth” would suffice instead. Backpackers would find it no problem. So they did. Job done!

Dancing to the party's tune?

Foreword to this blog:

The main story in this blog was written in August 2017, and then as if I had yet again tempted fate, certain things came to pass.  Therefore I have added an update regarding the arrest of Opposition Leader Kem Sokha; a surprising exchange I have had with his daughters, and my response to a strange piece in the Khmer Times.


Cambodians love dancing in formation, but will they dance to the ruling party's tune in 2018?

Problem of understanding how modern rebellions come about is the reporting of them”

So coined Peter Beaumont of the Guardian in 2011. His article helps to explain the onslaught on media in Cambodia today. The ruling party thinks if no reporting, no rebellion!  Let's examine the context starting with a personal digression.

A lot of things happen to me over a beer. Back in 1997 one Saturday afternoon, overlooking Lake Malawi with the mountains of Tanzania and Mozambique in distant view, my quiet beer was abruptly disturbed by an enormous explosion. Buildings around me were obliterated. If it was not for the only solitary brick construction - a small toilet block - protecting me, I may well have suffered the same fate.

Cambodia Microcosm 2 – the Neighbourhood


Street 251 springs in to life early every day; indeed it never is quiet. The boy with the hand-cart is a recycler. He goes through rubbish that has been dumped and to collect or buy from neighbours.

Good Morning Takhmau  - 11 July 2017, 6.20 am

Welcome to Street 251, Takhmau – Kampong Samnanh Sangkhat.   It’s a small road.  We have lived here for 17 years.  It is the place where I have lived longest in my life, for more than last third of my 42 year career in human resources management; overseas development, and human rights.

Cambodia Microcosm 1 – the Family




The Wife’s Family Photograph 2004
Back Row Left to right:  Cousin, Oldest Brother, My Wife, her late Mother (RIP), "Bad Boy" Father
Front Row: Enterprising Brother; Quiet One, Errant One.

A recent blog explained why I have had to accept that sometimes your best is not good enough. But I keep on trying regardless.

Usually I refer to policy matters and aspects of Cambodian Society at the macro-level in the hope of helping to influence change for the better.

Equally though it applies at the micro-level, at home and in the neighbourhood, both being exact microcosms of Cambodia, its wider society, with its intoxicating mix of blessings and ills.

Back in 1998, my first home in Cambodia was near Wat Langka, Phnom Penh.  One day I came home and a boy was beating his sister. Their mother and older sister, both well-educated, were unperturbed and laughed when I remonstrated. I had to let the incident pass due to not speaking the Khmer language.

Your best is not good enough!




Sometimes, your best is simply not good enough, no matter how hard you try.  Nowhere is that more apparent than in the world of aid and development. Old chum Nate Rabe discovered that. Thankfully he seems to be doing fine in his post-Aid life. So let this be a warning, especially to those bright young people earnestly pursuing international development studies; with the wanderlust to travel overseas as a rite of passage; to discover themselves, and Yes, even to put the world to rights.

Elections Fervour, Fear Cambodia v UK




Voters who do not turn out at elections often reason “It won’t make any difference, which party to vote for or not at all*”. This is not the case in Cambodia where the ruling party’s strategy makes it clear where benefits will go to, or be forfeited by the way a vote is cast. This picture shows the quality of a publicly-funded road
A key test of a healthy democracy? Read on.

Foreword to this blog December 2017

Firstly you will no longer see Opposition CNRP signs anywhere. They were removed once the Cambodia Supreme Court announced the dissolution of the party.  It is very clear that holding on to power matters more than anything else, yet some kind of election again as in 1998, is still wanted by the ruling party (for international legitimacy) and by many in the international community too- intricately entwined with it (to maintain business-as-usual). That is bound to mean even more manipulation of electoral processes, and even more skewed interpretation of standards to determine if elections are free, fair and credible. The criteria set out in this blog is the basis of how such judgments should be made.

Original blog:

Part Two  (14 June 2017]

Predicting elections is for the foolhardy as Opinion Pollsters are learning.  I can’t claim to be any better.  Like most people, I did not foresee the UK election shock result with the governing Conservative Party losing its majority. Nor did most of us foresee the 2013 Cambodian election where the Opposition CNRP Party almost wrestled power.

Election fever, fear and fervour!


Fascinating to be able to watch at close-hand two elections – one in Cambodia and the other in the UK. Now we know that they are very different, so you can't make true comparisons, but they do give rise to interesting and valid observations on electoral processes.

One major distinction is clear. For the ruling party in one country the election was wanted and called, whereas for the other, it is not welcome, at least while there's any risk of losing.

It's a strange world.

Observations to go with the great breast-milk debate

Cambodian Mother and Child from Bunong ethnic minority in Mondulkiri
UNICEF and Child-Care experts united to persuade Cambodian authorities to outlaw poor Cambodian mothers from selling their breastmilk.  The issue has gone global and viral.  See for example this BBC report. Here is my tweet, not well-received by the experts.

Count your blessings!



Cambodian Children singing about Hurricane Katrina in Kampong Chhnang 2009 at a "Disaster Preparedness" Event

Heather George was as adept with her children as she was with her old piano at producing tuneful renditions for morning assemblies at Country School, Saint Helena. I always remember one song and it came to mind thanks to Santil Phin in Cambodia. Count your blessings, one by one. Please tune in to it.

Santil Phin is right.

Cambodia coffee: grounds for optimism?


December 2017 Preface to original blog

Three months away from Takhmau and we have five more new modern large coffee shops, taking us to over 20.  Inevitably two of the old ones have now closed. Even the traditional attractions (pretty girls) no longer seem to be working. Some of the new ones are quiet, fewer staff, less menu choice.  Much less talk too, more peering in to small screens. First coffee conquered the world, now it's conquering Takhmau!

Inspirations, lasting impressions



The humble Salmon - what a remarkable journey it makes with sheer dogged determination to return to where it was hatched, to spawn and die. 
Photographer Mike Smith similarly persisted. It took two years to capture this Northumbrian image at Hexham Bridge.




Very often people ask me “What keeps you going?”  There is no doubt that work in the “Aid and Development” industry is a struggle and frustrating. Just ask Nate!