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"Your mission is over. You go!"

The fine levied on me for overstaying my visa Cambodia
"Your mission is over. You go!"

Those were not the words anyone would want said to them after 20 years of service, half an entire working professional career in Cambodia, but those were the final words in impeccable English delivered by the grim-faced Immigration Official, a senior uniformed and well-decorated Police Chief, at Phnom Penh Airport on 23 February 2018.  I had to pay my fine of US$220 to him for the privilege too.  That is more than a week's of my UK state pension, the source of income that enables me to continue to give voluntary support to causes in Cambodia.

For a Covid19 sequel to this blog scroll down below to updates – November 2020.

Also if you'd like background music to go with the read, click for Kim Wilde "Cambodia".

"Your mission is over. You go!" says a lot more than just those few literal words. It tells you how certain government officials regard foreigners and especially foreigners in foreign NGOs. It says something too about Cambodia's current politics that is accentuating those perceptions.

For almost all of my 20 years, foreigners like me were welcomed; even afforded at times undeserved special status because of what we brought with us – foreign aid money; expertise and services that were lacking or far beyond the reach of much of the population.

"Your mission is over. You go!" Those six words make it clear that instead in 2018 NGO-type foreigners are only to be tolerated at best, or no longer tolerated – to be controlled or expelled – depending on what they do; how they behave, and most of all how they relate to the powers-that-be.

Cambodia's usual tactic when dealing with foreigners, is to “test the water”, to take a calculated action, to see the reaction, and to proceed from there. Really our fate, my fate, can be traced back to when the Cambodian Government cancelled its periodic review meetings with its foreign aid donors in 2011. That forum is where they got together to review progress on reforms according to the bench-marks set at the previous one. Invariably targets weren't reached. Ministers did not like “losing face” by being taken to task in public, even though perversely the outcome was always the same – pledges of even more assistance and money, rarely less no matter how far they fell short.

China had by then emerged as the donor giving most aid and significantly without pre-conditions; firm commitments or obligations to “fancy” Western notions of human rights. The die was cast.

Although the ruling CPP party had never really relinquished power during UNTAC or after losing the 1993 national election, it had gone along with those fancy notions as the country needed all the external assistance it could attract. Besides there was money to be made; riches to be tapped, by and for the ruling elites and their families to consolidate their hold over the economy.

All that came to an abrupt end in 2013, repeated in 2017, in two elections. The votes of the Cambodian people did far more than any benchmark set by the powerful rich donors. Voters not only held the governing party to account but gave it the nastiest of shocks. Indeed if the polls had been truly free and fair, the Opposition would have won. It had been obvious for some time to some of us Cambodia-watchers, but studiously ignored by many in the Diplomatic Corps, that Cambodia's mirage of democracy was fading completely.

31 January 2018 marked exactly 20 years to the day I landed in Phnom Penh to pass time while waiting for funding for a job offer in Haiti to come through. (It was also the day my latest visa would expire.) I saw a job advert in the Cambodia Daily, applied one day; interviewed for it the next and started immediately. Haiti was spared my presence. My main job for four years was to promote human rights; good governance, and democracy training – including free and fair elections. So I am one of those guilty as interfering Westerners of planting the seeds fomenting a colour revolution that has imprisoned Opposition leader Kem Sokha.

The Good Governance and Democracy training 1998-2002 for government officials, all ministries, all provinces, all senior ranks up to Director-General. They included Provincial Governors and National Police and Gendarmerie (Judicial/Military) Chiefs. This pre-digital faded photograph is from 1999 of organizing participatory group sessions. The backcoth reads:
 "Seminar on Principles of Management and Good Governance".

Fomenting a colour revolution” to topple the government is the twist the ruling party has put on the simple working of democracy, that governments can be voted in to AND out-of-office. There is no cunning plan inspired by Western experts. It was standard training we all gave; for which I raised US$ 3,912,063, and attended overwhelmingly by ruling party officials. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Sar Kheng presided over many of the sessions. I was his personal guest many times – in Prey Veng first, then Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and most memorably in Pailin as the first Westerner in an official capacity after the Khmer Rouge ceded. Single-handedly I went against most of my NGO colleagues to support the government in the establishment and training of commune clerks when Commune Councils were created in 2002.

None of this nor the rest of my work in Cambodia over 20 years counted one iota when it came to renewing or extending my visa this year.

"Your mission is over. You go!"

Most of the US$ 15 million in all I raised over those 20 years went for “Livelihood Improvement” or poverty alleviation projects through three international development NGOs I headed, all three of whom I “localised” under Cambodian management. That should be the goal of all external NGOs even though some don't do it or don't do it as soon as they should. We pioneered the self-help group (SHG) concept of development where poor people determine their own problems, priorities and solutions. In all we formed over 800 SHGs across 7 Northern provinces and one Central one, including my current at-risk indigenous people's provinces of Mondulkiri and Ratanakkiri. My records tally up 22,962 families, 123,995 family-members, all poor vulnerable and displaced or living with disability.

He is a very brave Police Chief to declare "Your mission is over. You go!" We have not taken all Cambodians out of poverty, some like indigenous people whose traditional lands are being confiscated, are now falling in to it.

No it isn't, my mission is not yet over I replied. I am still working with Cambodian NGOs; they still want my help.”  My voice faded away.  I could see it was a waste of time. The official didn't look up from his pad of receipts now ready for his next victim.  Instead his colleague, a lady also with almost perfect English asked Why did you not go to our Immigration for a new visa?” I did, I asked for the new retirement visa, but at the last minute they told me I must leave the country first, then come back”So why did your NGO not go to renew this visa? “I went myself, three times to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They said the NGO must obtain a tax certificate clearance from the Ministry of Finance. One has not been obtained in time.

May I please ask a question? This fine of $10 per day for overstaying, it's the same regardless of circumstances? In my case I tried my best to obtain a new or extended visa.

You have overstayed, you should have gone.!” My Cambodian wife of 18 years wanted to have her say. I stopped her Just give him his money, please!

That was not quite the finale. Apparently “my” copy of the fine receipt is the one for the Immigration Official to clear my passport so that we can depart.  She wanted to keep it. Now that did anger me.  Without it I had no proof of payment.  They only took payment in cash US$, you would think an odd thing in this day and age?  Even with a receipt there is no guarantee that the money will end up in government coffers; without the receipt the entire transaction may never have occurred.  My wife managed to persuade them to let me keep it.

"Your mission is over. You go!" So we went. There was not one of the famous smiles Cambodians are known for to bid us on our way from the Kingdom of Wonder.  No wonder.

This blog has had so far 1,161 viewings since posted on 25 February 2018. 

Postscripts

1.  Now we are back in the UK. In the last few weeks, the UK Embassy in Phnom Penh has been heavily touting Cambodia as a place to do business, to trade with after the UK leaves the European Community. I can imagine many investors arriving in Phnom Penh, welcomed enthusiastically with their money, in the exact same way as we were as NGOs with foreign aid money. But what is being done for them not to suffer the same fate once their usefulness is deemed no longer needed?  Somehow I think no off-putting warnings are being given.

2. The months have passed by and needless to say none of the authorities, despite promises at the time, have ever come back to me. So now in active retirement when returning to Cambodia with my wife, I have to pay full visa charges in the same way as people who have never contributed to the country. Some people suggest I should apply for Cambodian citizenship or it should be requested on my behalf. The problem is that people like me, because of not giving in to paying informal fees to government officials, are far from in favour. Furthermore, let me be clear, I have never given in to anyone "on-the-take".  From my first NGO paid job in Cambodia in 1998 (Cambodian Institute of Human Rights) to my last one ending in 2016 (Nomad RSI), I encountered senior people taking money that they were not entitled to, depriving the intended beneficiaries of benefits intended for them. In both cases by the way I was not paid money owed to me. Despite pretensions otherwise, top people within relevant organisations and authorities, inside and outside of Cambodia, chose not to take appropriate action. This is why a major element of my post-retirement #foreignaid career is to promote much better ethical policies including the principle of holding perpetrators and lax management and oversight to account.

Update November 2020

Your Mission is Over – Get out, Stay Out!

Joseph Mussomeli was US Ambassador to Cambodia 2005-8.

This is a sequel to my blog above. It is best to be familiar with that to see the context.

First of all I admit this title is a little unfair. It grabs attention to lead to some reasonable points but I must acknowledge that Cambodia authorities are fully justified in wanting to keep #Covid19 out of the country. Cambodia simply does not have the means to tackle outbreaks like those that have scourged UK, USA, Spain and many other countries.

My question is whether its actions are proportionate and fair, not only in the case of my Cambodian wife and myself, but of others?

First of all and as has been widely-covered in the world's media, draconian emergency measures, restricting essential freedoms, were adopted despite the fact that so far Cambodia has had very low incidences of Covid 19.

Secondly Cambodia imposed severe measures in effect virtually closing its borders. One of the country's main economic stays, the tourist industry, was dealt a severe blow. Most airlines cancelled flights but then a few have resumed as evidence has grown that so far Cambodia has escaped the worst of the infection. In order to maintain that welcome status regulations were introduced requiring travellers there to obtain prior “Fit-to-Fly” Covid-free health certificates. Then after arrival they were tested again and quarantined. If the results were negative, they were released the next day free to quarantine at home for another 14 days with a third test on day 13 to show all is well, If just one person on the flight proved positive, then all would stay in compulsory quarantine for the full period. In several cases the 13 day tests proved positive extending quarantine until further tests proved negative.

In November stricter measures, quarantine in approved centres only for the full 14 days, were applied regardless of the two negative tests. For foreigners like me it means staying in a Ministry of Health approved hotel room at a cost of US$60 a day plus $30 for meals. That is a minimum of $1,260, more if the stay goes beyond 14 days, and of course the tests have to be paid for at $100 each. The Cambodian wife could stay free in government facilities but of course they are primitive and that would be grossly unfair to her, to be completely on her own with strangers for the first time in her entire life. So an extra $20 is charged for the hotel room for her and another $30 for meals.

Now the money is not the main issue although I have to say I think that there's more than a touch of “never let a good crisis go to waste” at play.

It is well known that Covid19 and coping with its consequences does affect people both physically and mentally even if they have not caught the virus. We have had to live with the risks of it since March including two lock-downs. However here in the UK we are allowed out for essential exercise and daily tasks like cooking our food helps to pass time. Cambodia's compulsory quarantine means being holed-up in a single room for the duration.

My question about the proportionality of Cambodia response is why we cannot be afforded the same treatment as government officials and international visitors with 'A' and 'B' visas as well as private businessmen who can be exempted if suitably sponsored? In fact no similar allowance is legislated for “Civil Society”, local NGOs, who are supported voluntarily by people like me. This omission might not be accidental.*

The fact is we have our own home in Takhmau in private walled and gated grounds. The commune chief lives along the same road and the commune police post is nearby. We've put up with 10 weeks of home isolation in UK, so why can we not be trusted to do two more in Cambodia?

I appreciate that some casual travellers have broken their own quarantine requirements – but not responsible people like us who have witnessed Covid 19 and its lethal effects.

Then if you examine cases of Covid19 being imported, it is the exempted elite most responsible, isn't it? The Hungarian Foreign Minister's visit resulted in widespread concern including Prime Minister Hun Sen quarantining at home for 14 days. Despite a positive contact with a known sufferer, he didn't have to go in to a compulsory quarantine centre.

The fact is authorities have to weigh up the relative risks, costs and benefits of restrictions. The more stringent they are, the greater is their effect on suppressing the virus but the more dire it is on economic and social well-being. I wonder if Cambodia authorities have taken in to account studies such as those in the Lancet? Certainly we would expect the World Health Organisation to be advising them. I do not think that there has been much community engagement.


For most years from 1998 to 2018 I had ''B' Visas as Country Director of Three International NGOs. 
For a few years I had an 'E' visa when working for local NGOs.

Now in my case had I not taken up the Cambodia Government's new provision of an 'E'-retirement visa in 2018, I would have still had a 'B' one today and therefore exempt from the current restrictions. This visa was added to encourage people like me to stay on in Cambodia after retirement to continue to contribute economically and socially. I am rare, perhaps unique, in “localising” three international NGOs, handing over to local people, the ultimate objective of all Foreign Aid. I still give voluntary support to them and occasionally inspect on behalf of donors.

For more Tweets search @lowriejohn quarantine.

So far (as at July 2021) Cambodia authorities have not responded to my representations directly to ministers, via the Cambodia Embassy in London, or via Twitter postings.*

One more factor has inhibited our return to Cambodia. Airports and Airlines are desperate for their business to recover. London Heathrow has now added Covid19 rapid testing. Where we live and having to travel to London the day before our flight, there is a very high risk of not getting standard 24 hour test results back in time before embarking on the journey. Not travelling, not staying in the hotel booked, or being unable to board flights at that late juncture would be a heavy financial loss that is not covered by travel insurance. We cannot get an answer from Cambodian authorities or the airlines if the Heathrow test is acceptable.**

It does not help too that within the UK despite now hundreds of thousands of Covid tests daily, it does not allow travellers to use NHS testing facilities. Even though my wife and I could go to a nearby walk-in facility and obtain results straightaway, this is not allowed. I would argue this should be allowed in order to confirm that both of us are Covid-free before we leave home to travel to London.

If we are committed to not importing the virus in to Cambodia then she too – and every other arriving passenger - should be tested. There should be no exceptions.

* One factor that Cambodian officials in reality may weigh is that in my case I have not only resisted paying informal fees over the years to them (corruption) but I also work mainly with NGOs promoting human rights and equitable development often critical to them. They do not appear to respect that throughout I have always adopted “constructive engagement” as well as strict political neutrality. As I say in my earlier blog above, the contribution to the country and funding raised of over US$ 15 million does not count once we have outlived our usefulness to them.

** A colleague arriving at Phnom Penh airport yesterday (19 November 2020) has confirmed that the test "has to be a RT-PCR test not the rapid one" and it must be stamped and signed by an appropriate medical authority.

The UK connection - why it matters.

I have asked the UK Embassy to assist us.  Most people would expect it to take an active interest in  the Heathrow Covid-tests being accepted by Cambodia as this would re-open up exchanges between the countries.

At one time UK Ambassadors would also speak up for their citizens.  Above I have set out how much money I raised for Cambodia and projects that I managed, many of which were conducted with "constructive engagement" with the government.  Eight of those projects were directly funded by the UK, total US$ 2,642,904 (one co-funded with Denmark).  In addition I won funding from other UK donor, the largest of which was the Princess Diana Memorial Fund US$ 356,906.  Now while the truth is the impact of such projects fades over time, the fact is two of my NGOs localised are still in business and for even the one that isn't, there are "beneficiaries" still continuing the work.  I blog about one Kosal here but there are others. We try when in Cambodia to spend time with them and help with fundraising. I am also still on the Board of Directors of another local NGO.

Why all this should matter is often set out in my "Foreign Aid" advocacy.  I think that a glaring mistake is  not have post-project inspections and evaluations, i.e. one year or more after the books have closed. Invariably there are end-project evaluations and once they're done, that's it, everyone moves on.  This is well known by those who seek to take advantage and profit - see one story here. I have seen too many project initiatives unravel and the good undone. This is less likely to happen if people like me stay around.



Although the UK dropped its development country programme in Cambodia with the closure of its small DfID office, it continued direct support via the Embassy and in particular through major UN agencies and institutions like the World Bank and EU..  Indeed it has been one of largest and quickest donors to respond to the Covid19 crisis with extra funding for relief and research as well as for the World Health Organisation. Cambodia and UK are also working towards a post=BREXIT trade deal.

Update 3 March 2018

I wrote by the UK's Royal Mail on 26 February to H.E. Dr. Soeung Rathchavy the Cambodian Ambassador to the UK to ask her if she would kindly ask her ministry to review my case; the policies and how they have been interpreted and applied.

Although the case may not have been caught up in the current crackdowns on foreigners in Cambodia, it is hard not to make some connection - see for example this latest report in the Phnom Penh Post about new joint action by the Ministies of Interior and Labour.  The "tone" for Westerners working in NGOs was set by the Prime Minister and his often repeated references to spies. (The INGO that sponsored me last year, that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted must provide a tax certificate, is a US not-for-profit.)

I sent an email on 8 March with attachments to the Cambodian Embassy requesting confirmation of receipt of my formal letter posted on 3 March.

If there is a reply either to my formal letter or the follow-up email I will post it here.

21 April 2018 - Still no reply from the Cambodian Embassy or Foreign Ministry.

Update 25 May 2018

I re-entered Cambodia through the "Visa on Arrival" without any difficulty taking no more than 10 minutes, as it is clearly a money-making venture not one to check the suitability/eligibility of visitors. In terms of time and effort it is a much easier more efficient process than for free visas via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but now we await to see if I can obtain a "retirement" visa extension without any hassle. Note the details in the receipt!

8 June 2018

My application for the retirement visa has gone in, via an agent, a three month single-entry extension for US$78. Initially all that was required were copies of my UK pension status - I had my letter from the UK's Department of Work and Pensions - and income, copies of my state and private pensions.  If OK, I will hear within two weeks.  They did warn me that once issued with the retirement visa I cannot change back.

11 June 2018


Visa approved in just a week.  The old adage "Time is money" applies. All-in-all paying up and doing it this way is far less trouble than obtaining a free one via MoFaC! They even gave me my supporting documents back, unlike MoFaC that requires a full set every time you apply.  For the record I could have obtained a 6 month multiple one for $158 and one year $288.  My Cambodian wife's multiple-entry UK one, she can visit and stay up to 6 months a year, now costs £798 or about US 1060.


For the record

Written representations to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Co-operation

I wrote two letters to the Minister and made three visits (32 kilometre round-trips) as well as talking on the telephone to try to obtain a 22 day visa extension. This was after the Ministry of Interior Immigration Office gave me a definitive decision finally on 28 January that it would not allow me to apply for a “retirement visa” until  after departing from Cambodia and returning. Even then they warned that an application on re-entry, for one month, may not be long enough to approve one as the policy and situation is “evolving”. If that is the case, then my only choice would be the standard business visa plus extensions requiring me to apply for a work permit etc.,....even though I am not working or in receipt of a salary in Cambodia!

After the second letter, again MoFaC, asked me to contact CCi. Finally they replied on 20th February, too late, they “visited MoFA and assured them we are aware and looking into it.  However, our tax exposure will probably be minimal, if anything, as we are most likely exempt due to size and revenues.” So MoFaC can say that it gave the NGO the opportunity to provide the tax certificate, but it chose not to do so. CCi also seems to think that my advice is incorrect that they may not have to pay tax on their employee's salary (that is above the level levying its payment) as well as ensuring that their Landlords pay tax on the property rentals - NGOs are supposed to deduct the tax to make sure that it is paid.

It should be noted that the tax certificate issued by the Ministry of Interior has only in 2017 been added as a formality for visa approvals. I had not heard of this new requirement.





My favourite Twitter reply:

Now this tweet was not sent in relation to this blog but it might have been, and in the interests of freedom of expression that I support, here it is:


By the way for my policy on responses and uses of my online content please see my Home Page and comment about "Creative Commons".

4 comments:

  1. Did you have a chance to leave before your visa expired, or did they have it during that time? We have started a discussion about it on CEO:

    https://cambodiaexpatsonline.com/general-chatter/your-mission-over-you-british-aid-worker-gets-told-immigration-t18518.html

    ReplyDelete
  2. I did have my passport; I could have left by the expiry date (at more expense than the fine as I would have to return to travel out with my wife on our booked flights) but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs remained open to to 20th February to issuing the visa extension if the tax certificate was obtained from Ministry of Finance. I am trying to find out still if that would have been possible in the two weeks we were given.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Very flattered to have received this message:

    "I have just finished reading your blog. WOW! I am so, so sorry, and my eyes welled and I feel quite hurt. I thank you for all you have done for the country of my birth, and I am sorry the way this country decided to pay back to you."

    ReplyDelete