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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.

Now this is second microcosm blog to go with the first family one. It is a long blog, so to start it here is a summary of the main goings-on.  Hopefully they will endorse my point about this being a microcosm of Cambodia as a whole, and gives enough interest to you to read on.

  • Land-grabbing by officials and elite, a case still unresolved since 2011.
  • Unmistakable evidence of misuse of Foreign Aid money and resources.
  • New development imposed – new road – that has actually caused far worse problems and health issues, as culverts were not built, trapping water, creating vast mosquito sewage-infested ponds.
  • Foolish Micro-Finance Institution (MFI) loans that have caused hardship and loss of land.
  • Unplanned development that may or may not have official approvals.
  • Unsung heroes and heroines – Grannies who look after children and orphans. They are; were and always will be better than the ruthless commercial orphanages that have proliferated in Cambodia in the last 10 years.

It is like many small streets anywhere in the world. It has a mix of new and old residents; new and old houses, rich and poor, etc. There are more women than men and more children who unlike their wealthier peers elsewhere hooked on phones, even today play out in the street every day, all weathers. 

One common thread throughout this blog is, in a country with no state welfare safety-nets, the sheer pluckiness of folks to survive and to try to get on, regardless of the difficulties.

So why do I write about it?  Surely it is boring?  How can it compare with the goings-on of soap-opera fictions?  Well please judge and ask yourself “Isn’t this typical of Cambodia and its struggles?”

Street 251 extends beyond our 440 metre section, all the way up to the Krousar Thmey orphanage. I will only talk about our section.  There’s ample material there.

Utilities

You will see that we still have a dirt road, haven't been accorded a cement one yet, unlike most similar roads around Takhmau.  Many of those roads are newer and quieter than ours. Some of course have newer big villas belonging to the nouveau riche, but not all of them.  Perhaps I share the blame for upsetting ruling party authorities?  We’ll explain that later.  We do have clean water now brought by the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (a good organization). We also have electricity thanks to Electricity du Cambodge (EdC) that rarely receives plaudits.  We did not have either utility when we moved in here back in 2000.  Our water was from ground-wells tainted with arsenic.  Our house did have an electric supply of sorts.  One neighbour in the next street had a supply from EdC.  He or she, enterprisingly, retailed it to us and to others at four times the EdC price – a widespread practice that still goes on throughout Cambodia.  We were the first in the street to pay for and have both new modern utilities.  More enterprisingly some of our neighbours have a habit of connecting in to our supply-line, as EdC insists on meters far away from our homes. We know by the bills, but there’s not much we can do to stop it. Just cough up. It's not an awful lot and they might be poor.
 
Installed when we bought our house was a hand water-well. It still works. Even today you can just about read on it “UNICEF 1996”, suggesting some naughtiness on the part of the previous owner purloining this equipment, perhaps having his private water-well sunk and funded by an international aid agency.

We’ve never had a landline as neither authorities nor companies found it worthwhile installing one, and of course with today’s mobile coverage, there will not be one. Today I get by fine with a 3G modem.

One of the first things I did at the house was to install a septic tank sewage disposal system and a “French” system of underground soak-away pipes and trenches. We installed rainwater drainage too. Surprisingly both are still novelties today.  Some neighbours still relieve themselves during the night, inviting all the dogs, especially ours, to announce their bodily movements with a canine cacophony of raucous howling.  In the next street, someone has dug combined storm-water/sewage drains and some of our neighbours are trying to connect to it.  I seriously doubt if the pipes are large enough and will be cleaned often enough.  They will block up.  People will revert to old habits.  I can’t get folks at my house to clear fallen leaves from our drains or off the roofing (as I moan about in Microcosm 1.)

Our road is supposed to be a nice new(ish) one. The notice about it, as seen in my Tweet and blog, has outlasted the road! Our Commune Chief took great pride in his announcement, as I did with mine on Twitter. No-one can question the results.  Today our road is far worse than ever for the reasons shown below.

Our new road. The sign even says how much was paid for it, but few neighbours now think that it was a good idea.

Characters

Now despite the “infrastructure” foibles the folks here just get on with life.  They’re a pretty good bunch when all is said and done. Few moan and groan, at least not openly, as that would incur the wrath of local authorities.  (I am the only one who dares.)  I have seen them overcome hardships, whether self-imposed or forced upon them. Some have emerged from dire poverty. All have gone through the same processions of births; marriages, deaths and other family events as everywhere in the world, but in Cambodia are shared most audibly.  There are no secrets behind closed doors in Street 251.

As I explained in Microcosm 1 blog, our house was the biggest and best for several years.  I will update about Mr Big Wig’s really big villa that has eclipsed us and  the other new abodes as we visit the characters and their houses. Here we go.  We turn left out of our house; describe the left-hand side; proceed to the end; turn around and back to describe the other side until we reach our “Supermarket”, then we come back to cover the left-hand side  for the “Coup de Gras” finale.

Mrs Luck Un
Mrs Luck Un’s shop with a delivery. Left foreground was once her main gate until the Loan Shark took back her land at a fraction of the price it was worth. Now a long patch stands idle, overgrown next to us. Now as if to tempt fate, between starting and finishing this blog, Mrs Luck Un and a daughter duly obliged with a “hammer and tongs” verbal joust with throwing of pans from 3.00am to 3.45am this morning. 6 hours later “All is Quiet on the Western Front”.   
Please note the blue house in the distance on the right at the end of our road.

It would be not be politically correct for me to use the name locals use to describe the first neighbour who once owned the largest plot in the street.  I can’t help but admire her.  Few others do.  She’s a widow.  I write about her husband at the end of my blog on the Parting of the Dearly-Departed. “Lady Luck Un” has not been very lucky. She should be called “Mrs Un Lucky” but we follow the Cambodian practice here of placing given names after first family names.  Having said that in Cambodia, often even family names are changed, especially to overcome indiscretions that may be harmful or stand in the way of obtaining a job.  So Mrs Luck Un it is.   

Mrs Luck Un has not been very wise in her financial borrowings.  Like many others, she took advantage of the proliferation of new Micro-Finance Institutions (MFIs).  She borrowed from one, originally to rebuild her house, to pay off another, and another, and so on until finally her options ran out. Then she borrowed from a loan shark. When she failed to pay her back, she lost the last big chunk of her land.  She’s left with her house and a small plot.  She makes do with that and still she tries. She has ventured in to pig-rearing; salad plant-growing, and mushroom cultivation, all to no avail.  Now she runs a little shop or breakfast stall and stays up most of the night making sticky-rice confections for sale.  Her customer arrives without fail at 3.00am on his rickety broken-exhausted motor-cycle and cart contraption. The dogs know him. They don’t mind him.

Now although the MFIs have been the cause of her problems, they have given her one compensation.  One of the MFI employees was such a frequent visitor that he ended up staying there and marrying a daughter.  My wife claimed to be delighted by the lull in street entertainment though I wonder if she and the others miss it. They definitely used to go out to take it all in, occasionally and usually mistakenly trying to join in or break up. Mother and daughter(s) are disposed to have regular screaming arguments. They even drown out the canine cacophonies.  Not so frequent these days but we are still treated to the occasional one for “Old Times Sake”.

Mr Chinese Man

I am not sure if Mr Chinese Man bought his land from Mrs Luck Un or the next house.  Anyway he built a house and started to grow mushrooms.   Then when we returned from the UK earlier this year, I saw out the back door that he had built an entire factory.  So Street 251 is no longer residential but also industrial as well as commercial.  His enterprise is by far and away the main cause of trucks going up and down our [new] road and reducing it to a muddy quagmire.  

The view of Mr Chinese Man’s factory from behind our house. Later I show the other side and one of our new mosquito-breeding ponds.

Once they managed an entire full-sized container truck in and out of our small road.  Needless to say there has never been any public consultation on his development and no say on if the neighbours could approve of it or not.  His factory lets us know what time of the day it is with the “start-work/stop-work sirens”. When work stops, the noisy equipment goes silent and we can hear again our birds, frogs and crickets.

Next to Mr Chinese Man on our side of 251 are quieter original modest neighbours, all just ordinary folks.  Then we come you to the end of the road, before a right turning and a corner with small exit road.  There’s a new blue house as was to be noted in Mrs Luck Un's picture above.  Now this area used to be a natural drainage pond, part of a channel that disappeared in to what were (and still are to some extent) natural floodwater plains of the Tonle Bassac tributary that runs parallel with the Mekong.  Numerous trucks with earth filled it in and the house was built.  So the storm water builds up now until it floods the road, and then it remains stagnant for the benefit of breeding mosquitoes. Just on the other side of that plot, where another factory-type building has been erected, is an even more impressive stagnant water catchment. I sent the pictures to the UK Government to help it decide how much new money to give to the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, Malaria and TB. (Something to the effect of right hand doesn't know what the left one is doing! Why there is growing drug resistance, etc)

The even more impressive trapped water, sufficient to ensure mosquitoes can breed happily throughout the dry season. One technical reason for water not soaking away through the natural alluvial sandy soils, is the infill brought in from far away, used to raise road and plot-levels, is a different finer clay composition. In the rains, it runs off and provides a lining to retain water. I have to remove it from our drains. It also makes the dirt roads slippery and lethal, many accidents, unlike the laterite surface that should be on top still.

Mrs Gold Teeth

So now we turn back our way and on the left-hand side, we come to Mrs “Gold Teeth” named for obvious reasons.  She has a traditional Khmer house, modest, but then she lost most of her frontage when the Commune Chief insisted she give it back for our new road.  She occasionally has her bouts with Lady Luck Un and can hold her own.  I had one encounter, or near one, that has left its mark over 17 years by the way she always greets me or doesn’t greet me.  (Go to my first blog to read when her school-age daughter acquired a new boy-friend.) 

Not long after moving in to our house, one evening while I was eating my dinner and watching TV, Gold Teeth breezed in to our lounge, sat down and started talking to me in Khmer.  There was no knock on the door, and not one of the customary greetings that most Cambodians do most politely.  I indicated to her that I was eating and watching TV but she carried on regardless.  I called my colleague on the phone, an interpreter, told him what was going on, and passed the phone to her. She was shocked by whatever he said, got up, went out and has never spoken to me since.  But I do get the Gold Teeth shrug, and mischievously when I walk by I reciprocate. This is how it goes.  On first glance at each other, the eyes must roll. Next the chin must stick out, then the head must jerk back for the jaw to stick out as far as it can go, with mouth and lips firmly clenched. Finally the head must turn abruptly away in the opposite direction.  Now as you can pass her from either direction, you can spring a nice surprise, so she has had to develop two Gold Teeth shrugs, the left one and the right one. She can easily switch from one to the next, do both if you turn back for a second helping.  I am quite good at the Gold Teeth shrug but she is still the maestro.


Gold Teeth’s husband died recently.  Her family mounted the ceremony marquee outside our house, with accompanying generator and loudspeakers, blocking the road and our entrance, without one word of notice!  We let that pass for the sake of her long-suffering husband who was quite different from her in stature and loquaciousness. Their son is our local Tuk Tuk driver. He's disabled; a nice lad, who has taken more after his father thankfully, .

Our Tuk Tuk man at another neighbour’s house (not his) to do a job. This is one of the last typically Khmer-style houses,  of traditional construction and materials + stilts in Street 251.  Concrete and piles now rule.

Next to Gold Teeth we have various new neighbours. Their houses run back in to a new side road with a couple of shops.  The children are great.  We play the Pied Piper game.  They’ve always followed me over the years calling “Barang” but they have given up begging “Som Loi” as it was a hopeless cause. These days they like to “high-five” with me.  I pretend it hurts.  That gives them never-ending pleasure as does their eternal trying out of their English skills.  “What’s yer name?” I always answer “Pain in the bum, bum!” So this Pied Piper has his “bum bum” chorus to see him along his way.

Little Old Lady

LOL in her hey-day. LOL is Lady Old lady, short for “Little old lady that lived in a shoe, so many children she didn’t know what to do”. It’s a nursery rhyme my Mother reminded me of when she first met LOL. She is sat left at the front, hosting a party to fund-raise, not long before being kicked off the plot.

Next is vacant plot with a big gate and then we used to meet “the Little Old Lady who Lived in a Shoe” or LOL for short.  We called her that before LOL became a social media handle.  Her little wooden grass house was straight opposite our gate. I wrote of her in articles against dubious commercial orphanages about the traditional role grannies play in looking after children and orphans. They’re unsung heroines.  LOL is no more. First she was kicked off her land for a water scheme. Then she died.  I wonder what happened to the many children she looked after. Today the plot is empty.  That is probably my fault too.  It was to be developed to sink a water bore-hole. There were no consultations at all.

One day there arrived a drilling rig; JCB, a bull-dozer and trucks. They made one almighty roar and mess. So I complained to the Phnom Penh Water Supply Company. Whether it was because of that or they found that the ground water was contaminated by arsenic, the operation ceased and the company was as good as its word.  They restored our road with a top layer of new laterite, the only time we have had a good road. It didn’t last long due to Mr. Chinese Man’s trucks. 

Ominously perhaps the well-head is still there.
             


The green and yellow barrel is the exact same spot as where the welcoming ladies were lined up alongside our Little Old Lady.  It was all the way back in 2008. Please read my article “Drill Baby Drill”.

Mr Big Wig

The next neighbour is Mr Big Wig, the owner of the one substantial expensive new villa and the first to have eclipsed ours.  He doesn’t like me at all. He is a senior government official and a friend of the Commune Chief.  His late wife didn’t like either my wife or me.  They used to fall out.  My wife objected to the rubbish they dumped on to LOL’s vacant plot. Mrs Gold Teeth does the same.  The Takhmau garbage truck doesn’t come our way.  Mr Big Wig for years had a Toyota or Lexus Land-Cruiser SUV marked with “donation from....to a certain ministry....” Then that notice was painted over.  He has since bought a nice new one. There’s a hint of a Gold Teeth shrug in him.

Mr Big Wig’s villa can just about be seen through the trees from our boundary wall. This wall is clearly in line with his marked by the white pillar confirming we could not have switched our boundary.

Next, we have three longtime neighbours, modest abodes, one new one before we reach the end of the row to turn back towards our house.  One used to operate a noodle shop. It didn’t do so well and as it was low-lying like most original houses, the floods put paid to that enterprise. It is also in my my Tweet above with four pictures of our road, top right. Clear evidence of floods and harm caused by the new road and damage to natural drainage even in modest rains.  The house on the left is now the poorest in the street.

Sunny Jim

We therefore come to our supermarket on the corner, fairly recently acquired and rebuilt.  I will not dwell on it here but these small shops are the way many people work their way out of poverty. Next and no way will you miss him is Sunny Jim or Mr Congenial.  He has our street’s karaoke parlour of sorts and with the next neighbour, they operate our entertainment and sports complex, currently boule, cards, and volleyball. Sunny Jim is ever-present, always friendly and smiling.  I have never known him go out to work.  Instead of going out to work he is the street’s self-appointed supervisor.

Sunny Jim is an inveterate supervisor. I am surprised his talents have not been tapped. He doesn’t miss a trick. It doesn’t matter what goes on in the street – broken-down motor-cycle; family celebration, whatever, Sunny Jim will be there to offer his services. He’s good at telling them what to do and when they’re not doing it right.  Sunny Jim must be doing something right that the rest of us aren’t. He seems not to have aged in 17 years. He can take his ale too unlike most Cambodian men. He always offers a beer if he has one, and if he hasn't one to hand, he's good at relieving you of some cash to get some from our Supermarket.

You can just about see Sunny Jim doing some supervising despite the shot in to sun.  His house and entertainment centre is on the right and the big building at the end is our Supermarket.  You can see why I couldn’t walk through our new road to take the view from the other side.
Mrs Border Marker

Finally we come to Mrs Border Marker, another land-selling neighbour, on her own terms not those of a loan shark. We now have several new neighbours as a result, including the latest one who has built two large condo-style/shop-front dwellings on a tiny plot. You can see them in the header photo. One is blue and lived-in. The other is still being finished.  New neighbours are all fine folks.

Mrs Border Marker (Mrs BM) is the cause of my woes with the Commune Chief and the Provincial Land Ministry Boys.  When we bought our plot in 2000, between her land and ours, there was a small track, barely-used but it was there. I rendered our outside walls along it to preserve them.  In fact another Little Old Lady, LOL2, lived in a tiny grass house that could be reached by that track or from the other side and an entrance there.

As the track was not used often, Mrs BM decided to encroach on it by extending her plot to our boundary wall.  I photographed her new fencing to block it off. She even managed to sell one plot that enclosed “her” new acquisition.  Later the land on the far side around LOL2 was sold, a house was built there, and the entrance that was there was duly no more.  LOL2 wasn’t perturbed. She did not go out much and to come and go she could still wander through Mrs BM’s own land.
This is the disputed track, overgrown and seldom-used at the time, to the left of our boundary wall. The wooden post and barbed wire was the original border marker. The barbed wire was extended to our wall by Mrs BM and was there for many years. This photographic evidence was provided.

The issue first arose in 2011 but was quiet  until the peace was shattered again in 2014 –  two events together by remarkable coincidence.  First the Land Ministry Cadastral boys came again to measure up our land. “On the orders of Prime Minister Hun Sen” they insisted, no less.  Then we heard that the owner of the vacant plot behind us around LOL2 wanted to develop it.  Like many land-owners, he wanted to divide it up in to small plots, then to sell them on for a handsome profit.  I warn you here that there is much more to this story that I cannot reveal here.  Suffice to say that he had one slight problem.  There was no access, no road to it.  Mrs BM and the land-owner at the other side had seen to that. The Ministry boys then added a new twist: “PM Hun Sen wants the land back for a new 5 metre-wide road”. That was to be wider than our main road.  Mrs BM had been quick off-the-mark. She told the Ministry boys that we had taken the track, not her!  That was despite remaining physical evidence of where the track was and that our clearly old original boundary wall was exactly in line with Mr Big Wig’s boundary wall.  I told them “Sorry, no can do but I am happy to meet the Prime Minister to see how we can help him!”  My wife was summoned to the Commune Office, made to pay “Tea Money” and a $30 fee (no receipt) for a search of old land records stored in Phnom Penh.

The planned cut in our land for a new road, not only to be taken without compensation but we would have to incur the cost of the works including a new boundary wall – you can see that it is no longer in line with Mr Big Wig’s. It shows 3 metres from Mrs BM and 2 metres from us, but they demanded 3 metres from us.

To our surprise, the search confirmed that indeed our border was correct; our wall had not been moved.  It was Mrs BM who had to give back her ill-gotten gains and compensate the neighbour who’d paid her for some of it. In the event the Ministry boys took closer to 3 metres from her, not the 2 they wanted from her and twice the 1 metre of the original track!

Then the Ministry Boys came to us again: “You have to give 3 metres  (x 67) of your land at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen in the name of local development.”  I replied “We do not want to sell it as my wife may have relatives who need land in future, but if the Prime Minister personally insists, we can sell it to him at the appropriate market price, plus you build a new wall; and replace the fruit trees and chicken-house.  The wife was summoned again to the Commune Office where they tried another tack. They offered her a new land certificate.  She could sign for it straightaway and take it.  She said that she must check it first with me. Folks have a habit of asking her to sign or thumbprint things that she shouldn’t, as mentioned in Microcosm 1.  I had to go to the office to inspect it and the new plan for our street. Well you know what they showed – our land cut - as appears in the photograph I took.

Therefore I raised formal objections against the plan and questioning the legality of the way they were employing duress, all in writing to the Commune Office; the Provincial Land Ministry Office, and for good measure with the both the Ministry's HQ in Phnom Penh and the Prime Minister's office as their plans were being put to us in his name.  I told them that I was sharing full details with NGO colleagues and the Media.  Minister HE Im Chhun Lim got my letter. I knew how to reach him as I had worked directly with him for 3 years when he was Secretary of State at the Ministry of Interior. I took my letter, written in both English and Khmer, direct to his office and he was there to receive it.  He declined to see me, understandably, but sent his regards. I did ask him for a full hydro-logical survey as part of construction approvals, but there again, that is not even done in Phnom Penh!  In Cambodia, there's always a way to get round these things anyway.

Since then, nothing at all has happened in 3 years.  Things are probably in abeyance until certain folks sense an opportunity to strike again.  In theory our land dispute should be recorded as one of 300 still outstanding in Cambodia.  Grudges are still held in some quarters, hence why I must take some of the blame for our poor road, but most neighbours are pleased to see me confront authoritiesThere are occasional local development meetings but my wife is never invited, deliberately.  I see the letters going to other neighbours who then tell us about them and what is said.  Officials “allude” to me. On one occasion when neighbours wanted me to join them in some celebration, to drink a few beers, the Commune Chief blocked our path.  I am aware of the legal powers of Commune Chiefs in Law and that is not one of them.  However I am not keen on these celebrations any way, as the men get too drunk too quickly on spiked rice wine, so he did me a favour. And we still give money to the Commune Funeral Fund.


From Street to Commune and District: "A Thorn-in-the-Flesh"

Our small street is just one of many in the commune and in the district sometimes called Takhmau Municipality or City where some officials dislike me even more than our Commune Chief.  I have campaigned publicly against their felling of magnificent riverside trees taken down to make manicured parks, that are then not maintained properly. Those trees had held the riverbanks intact; the banks collapsed the following first rainy season. So authorities tlined them with.......concrete. They think concrete does a better job than nature. Their concrete failed within 3 years, and they’re having to do it again with deep piling. Nature, once again, will have the last word.

Two pictures tell all. I need to dig out old pre-digital negatives for pictures of the trees before they came down. I made representations to authorities and to the Canadian donor supporting Takhmau Municipality to be “Green”. I also put them in touch with an international expert on the subject of riverbanks and sediment flows. As I say in the blog, money is made only once if you cut down trees.  With concrete you can make more in the process; do it more often, and daft donors will keep paying up, as they are incapable of looking back three years.


Conclusion

So here we come to the end of this second blog.  I trust that you will agree that it is indeed an accurate portrayal of the ills and blessings of Cambodia.



Good evening, Street 215, another day nearly over. What will tomorrow bring?


Why I have written and published these two blogs – Microcosms 1 and 2

In every culture there is pressure to keep things within the family.  In Cambodia that is extended to certain “things MUST be kept within the family”.  In my first organisation in Cambodia, the Cambodian leader took it further to warn staff members that they must keep things within their Cambodian family.  He told them not to co-operate closely with my two foreign colleagues and me trying to save the organisation and their jobs. “Who puts the rice on your plate?” he warned.  He was wrong on that point and only he was to blame for the crisis that ensued when his Cambodian Finance Manager told donors about systematic fraud.  Yet they believed him and they lost their jobs.

The work that people like me do is tough.  It is especially tough in 2017.  We want to make life better for others, especially the weak and the vulnerable. We always try to do that in co-operation with whoever can help bring change about. In fact we actually spend more time trying to raise money from donors to do it than we devote directly to the activities bringing change. Inevitably we confront officialdom and vested interests.  They seldom welcome change.  They usually oppose it.  They feel threatened by it and respond with threats of their own.  More fearless colleagues than me have paid the ultimate price, with their lives, for this work.

In any job, if it is rewarding, challenging, and hard work, what do you want to do at the end of the working day? You want to relax, to unwind, at home and to go out and about in restaurants, pubs, whatever is your choice.

These blogs tell you that very often, too often, when I return home after work, my work not only continues but is even more intensive. I have lived this way long enough. I am now in my waning years, freed of the commitments of full-time work. However it is clear that I will still have the same pressures at home and in the neighbourhood as long as I am around.

So I must soldier on.  I have absolutely no doubt that but for me, my wife would have lost our house and home before now.  Others, within the family, the immediate one or the wider Cambodian one, feel that they have an entitlement to some or all of it and that she must make the sacrifice for them.  They will probably succeed eventually.  All I can do is to try to put it off as long as possible. And to hope that we can bring about the changes needed. It is wrong, plain wrong!

                                                                                                         John Lowrie   12 July 2017


Quick Link to Microcosm 1

Update 21 August 2017


Today's assault on our little road.  No consultations.  Now a big row as the trucks have damaged some of the frontages.  However, money talks, impunity wins!


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