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Phnom Penh Perspective:


by Bronwyn Sloan

August 2005

A fatal shooting in the Heart of Darkness this month finally caused authorities to close the once famous and now plain infamous Phnom Penh nightclub for a decent interval while security issues were sorted out. The biggest mystery, besides who officially pulled the trigger, is why it took a death after so many near misses to result in action.

Many expatriates had long ago begun leaving the Heart off their circuit because of a prevailing atmosphere of antagonism and simmering tension inside its once friendly doors, despite the fact it is located just a stone's throw from Phnom Penh Municipal Police Headquarters. There had been numerous incidents involving violence, and most worryingly, firearms, which had narrowly missed causing fatalities before, but it seemed nothing could be done to stop it until the situation was pushed beyond the limits and, finally, a young Cambodian man was shot through the back at point blank range and died where he lay on the dance floor.

Rubbing shoulders in the small club for the past few years, the children of the rich, friends of the elite, backpacker crowds who could not be aware of whose feet they were treading on or whose girlfriend they were chatting to, sex workers who spent precious dollars to bribe their way past the security in the hopes of snaring a wealthy client; all of these disparate groups in close proximity culminated in nights of gunshots into the air, through windows, into the street, flesh wounds, the odd aggravated assault, and now, murder.

Somehow, the Heart retained its listing in some of the most prestigious travel guides despite steadily gaining a reputation in the region as one of the more dangerous late night haunts for the unwary and even specific mentions in some embassy briefings as a security risk. Even now, the Heart era may not quite have ended, but hopefully someone's death has finally made the powers that be realize something needs to be done.

Statistically, Thailand remains a far more dangerous country for foreigners to travel in than Cambodia, despite this country's rising crime rates and insane traffic. However one incident in Cambodia eats up far more headline space around the world, and has a far greater impact on tourism across the board. Even if neither the authorities nor the management of the Heart can concede this, they must see that it was tragic for even one person to lose his life in a dark corner of a nightclub gone to seed that night, but that in a way it was lucky there were no more bodies on the floor once the crowd had fled and the doors had been bolted.

A culture of impunity lies at the root of this tragedy, but it is not necessarily a culture related purely to the blood of unimaginable wealth and power, as certain corners so often try to point out. Instead, perhaps it comes out of a natural arrogance and lack of consideration for others that some might say is inevitable in a post-war nation where more than half the population are under 18, cosseted by families who spend their days battling for a middle class foothold in the skin deep success of modern Phnom Penh, where land cruisers jostle for road space beside Mercedes Benz, Lexus and Prados and yet most people live on less than a dollar a day—the same amount as a liter of petrol now costs. Power over just one person is still power, even if there are millions still above more powerful than yourself.

Almost all of today's parents in the kingdom lost precious relatives under the Khmer Rouge regime. They teach their children to reach out and seize the day, and their children are secure in the knowledge that their parents will do anything in their power to protect them. Their parents know that money is the key to providing that power.

But these families are also subject to the stresses of an economy running at an inflation rate of seven percent, with almost no secondary industry and no sign of the much needed foreign investment arriving to thrust Cambodia out of dependence on foreign aid and into its own, in control of its own economic destiny and policy.

Then there is the all-pervasive Asian concept of face. Smoke and mirrors work, appearances matter. Cambodians call the young generation of suave youngsters in designer labels and hairstyles straight from Thailand "Jeurn La'or", or directly translated, Nice Feet. No one seems to know if this phrase originated from their penchant for expensive shoes, for nightclub dancing, or simply because their activities mean they have to be fast runners to avoid the law. What is clear is that this sector of the middle class is the materialistic new generation, born out of Cambodia's strange modern historical mingling of genocidal ultra-Maoism, stoic communism under the Vietnamese-backed government which forced the Khmer Rouge to flee in 1979 before taking the helm itself, and the heady civil war days that welcomed the huge per diems of UNTAC which followed.

For instance, this month, I hired a young assistant to help me translate the local newspapers in search of stories. He was not particularly rich, nor powerful. Just a simple middle-class lad with aspirations, but those aspirations seemed healthy enough when all he saw me as was a stepping-stone to a career in journalism.

It soon transpired that these aspirations were not healthy at all. Offered a position at a local English-language daily newspaper, he turned from exemplary employee to nightmare in a Jeckal and Hyde display that was frightening in its speed. After quitting on the spot when told I would not enter into a bidding war with his new employers, he demanded not only his wages for work completed, but hundreds of dollars in severance for three weeks work, for no apparent reason except he could see no option for a foreign female except to give it to him. And he demanded it now.

For a 20-something boy such as this, already blessed with an education and suddenly imbued with a position he saw as pure power even if it was only a cadetship with a local newspaper, Phnom Penh is an oyster that can be opened just as well with an axe as a penknife. On his way to the top, he needed to step on his recent past to show his new power.  

"Pay me now, or you will be sorry," he said. "You have money. Don't lie to me."

Like most places of employment in Cambodia, everyone's pay comes through at the end of the month, so in fact cash is fairly tight when someone stops without notice before the end of the month. But in some sections of the community in Cambodia, raised on memories of the Khmer Rouge, of war, of murders and assaults gone virtually unpunished, threats and intimidation seem not only acceptable, but the proper way to conduct business. Thwarted by someone else's cash flow problems, the boy stormed out in a hail of verbal threats, before proceeding to text an endless stream of sinister SMS messages from his own mobile number.

The almost obligatory "I know where you live" and "I am outside your gate" messages soon gave way to threats of police being brought to the door accompanied by photographers in his pay, who would sell images of my arrest to local newspapers if I did not comply with his demands for cash. He was, as far as he was concerned, in the big league job wise now, and power does not so much corrupt when your understanding of the world is still so limited—it just reinforces the belief that immortality is at your fingertips and blurs your vision as surely as rose colored glasses made to your dad's prescription. Toddlers are terrible because they are still learning where their boundaries are. In modern Cambodia, for foreigners and Khmers alike, boundaries are sometimes whatever benchmark you set yourself.

After the third threat to have me arrested in an hour ("If you do not pay up now, I cannot guarantee…"), I did something I hate doing and went to the police myself, who were, surprisingly, incredibly fair and helpful and facilitated a meeting with the boy so he could produce arguments for why he suddenly felt he was entitled to so much more than what he had initially accepted as a generous salary, and, failing that, thumbprint a restraining order admitting he was satisfied that he had been paid the agreed amount and in turn would stop harassing me.

Still, after all that, with the law on my side and no excuse for his behavior besides rapacious greed and a certainty that blackmail and extortion were the heavenly ordained rewards for success in journalism, he arrived at the meeting with a fully uniformed soldier from the province in tow. The young lion had brought hired muscle with him in a final attempt to push his point in a final raspberry to accepted Western journalistic ethics. The hired muscle, however, was an older man with a more grounded understanding of his place in the world. He graciously accepted an offer of a cold coconut drink, and the boy was offered an inkpad so he could place his print on an official form keeping he and whatever goons he knows with access to an instamatic from my door. He finally conceded defeat with the roll of his opposable thumb in red ink. He accepted what he was owed and no more and gave an undertaking that, should he feel the urge again, he would find someone else to blackmail.

The good news for the lad was that the newspaper which had hired him as a precursor to the entire episode felt there was insufficient evidence to say he had not learned his lesson, that he may have been misled by a cultural barrier, that he had not behaved that way under the command of older and more powerful (and sensible) Cambodian journalists before, and so may have the capacity to learn to do things in a less aggressive way. He continues to work there, but his private photographers and uniformed friends have dropped out of my life again. Perhaps he did learn consequences. Or perhaps his allies are just out there somewhere awaiting orders, sharpening their teeth on more compliant prey for the time being.

Corruption, extortion, ethics; however concrete these concepts may seem in the politics of the modern world, they are all in the eye of the beholder. Do as I advocate, not as I do is an easy option. The irony of a self-proclaimed champion of the small people backing a youth who has just reveled in a microcosm of exactly the same excesses and impunities it opposes is palpable, but just another of the collection of contradictions that is Cambodia. 

"I have never encountered so many people who have been threatened with death over such tiny things in any other place," a private security expert told me last week. Advocates for a trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders say one of their driving beliefs for the importance of making the country revisit at least the tiny period between 1975-79, when the genocidal regime killed most of its nearly two million victims, is to teach Cambodia's future generations that there is such a thing as accountability in this lifetime. Maybe they have a point

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