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Phnom Penh Perspective:

Christmas in Cambodia

by Bronwyn Sloan

December 2004

You wouldn't think it would catch on, but Cambodians have embraced the idea of Christmas—the bits concerning tinsel, having a good time and Santa at least.

Hotels and supermarkets are decked out in the usual tack found in most of the rest of the world at this time of year, although there is a certain Asian flair to the choice of themes in some places, like the hotel which decided that hanging huge red love hearts emblazoned with the phrase "I love you" was close enough. And why not?

Pencil Supermarket endeavored to prove that all the millions of dollars that big department stores elsewhere put into psychologically influencing customers to overspend at Christmas were useless.

Already packed with shoppers buying presents, Christmas trees and baubles, the store then taunted the more financially challenged and criminal elements by blasting a song entitled "I'm getting nothing for Christmas", sung by a child and lamenting the fact that his father had deemed him evil and unworthy and as such had told him to sod off because he wasn't getting a single thing—all set to a jolly electronic beat which was sure to have customers clamoring for more.

The concept of Santa and confiscation must already be familiar to the Cambodian government as the benevolent personification of the international donors. This year was the same as most in recent times, with the donor Christmas preceded by the usual threats cancel Christmas next year and public humiliation of the nation as a corrupt cesspool which has made little progress since ending three decades of civil war six years ago. This no doubt scares the hell out of any desperately needed potential foreign investor but obviously makes the donors feel better.

How do you stamp out corruption in a country with a system built on it? Is a public servant who pays for his promotion but remains on a salary of 20 dollars a month expected to make a difference? No, he is expected to make a better profit from being higher up the ladder, being a traffic cop on a more lucrative corner, being a paper pusher closer to the top of the pile. The answer to how to change this system would seem to be slowly, and with great difficulty. It's an economic version of evolution versus divine creation. In this case, Darwin would seem to be the favorite to win, with change occurring over generations due to external pressures making these changes more advantageous in the struggle to survive. God may have created the world in a week, but the Cambodian social and economic system is far more complicated than that feat ever was.

But, hey, on the bright side, the war is over. The country seems stable. Maybe the gradual reforms to official revenue raising measures, such as taxation, may now begin to come. Donors certainly have the upper hand here, since the country's economy would collapse without them, and can guide and help Cambodia to achieve the next step in its recovery. But since foreign investment would seem to be a key factor in this, do they really need to be so completely negative so publicly? Like Oliver Twist meets Scrooge, the Cambodian government was grudgingly told by soft loan Santa this year that there was pretty much no reason for it to feel good about itself but that it could have some more for now after being made to stand in the corner wearing a dunce's cap for a month so it realized that it must never stop believing in Christmas, or Santa would give it a good kicking.

The aid fun and frolics did not end there. An international non-government organization which plays with the big boys at the high end of law enforcement and then runs weeping to foreign embassies when it gets hit with a tackle had a special treat for all the boys and girls earlier in December.

It decided that instead of a boring old traditional nativity, it would stage a scale reenactment of the war in Iraq. After finding someone to cast in the role of a powerful and despotic hotel manager, it then invaded, liberating all the people.

But after the despot's friends performed a counter-play which they like to call 'Faluja', the liberated again came under control of the warlord, along with a group of unfortunate audience members who had been rescued from another despot earlier and just happened to be in the shelter at the time.

Despite the dismay of many of the cast at this turnaround, some of the newly re-captured formerly liberated people actually appeared to become angry with the coalition forces and now claimed they never wanted to be liberated in the first place. All they personally were doing was peeling potatoes in the kitchen, they said, and they had never had sex with anyone for money. What is more, they added, they resented the liberation forces invading their kitchen and did not like being called prostitutes.

The members of this splinter cast were promptly labeled insurgents but went to the US Embassy anyway threatening to stage yet another play entitled "Bugger off and leave us Alone". However, since they were quite clearly puppets of the despots, the entire matter was oversimplified and brushed under the carpet but will probably now be dealt with quietly behind closed doors without the bloodshed which would really put the performance on the international map.

The organization, which helps women in already precarious situations make their situation even more precarious, has promised an encore, possibly in time for Easter, with scripts under consideration including Rambo and a revival of an as yet undecided Sam Peckinpah flick.

Only amateur brothel owners with no powerful friends and those who have no idea what they are doing will be auditioned for the next performance, reverting to a tried and true tested formula. However, highly trained, willing and capable members of foreign police forces and other organizations working successfully and without sensationalism in the same area may now be asked to read for the first time in the history of the event on the strong advice of the local Parent Teacher Committee.

Critical reviews of this year's performance were mixed.

"I felt like a parent at a school play," one embassy told reviewers. "The heroes were cute, the costumes were wonderful, and they have obviously been well brought up. But I would have liked a bit more thought to have gone into the script, which started out as simple old good against evil, but I ended up with the feeling that I just wasn't being told all the fact. I really only clapped at the end because it was embarrassing when the heroes started to cry."

The tragedy is that many sex workers are bonded in some way to their employers. They will spend Christmas and perhaps quite a few more to come servicing clients. But nothing was achieved by this raid except to probably heighten security around the dozens of other establishments and thousands of women and children in the same position in the capital alone and to isolate them and paint them and the world they live in as one dimensional and black and white. And still no one has talked to the women.

Is anything achieved by high profile raids, sometimes with journalists in attendance, except putting the lives of the sex workers and law enforcement officers on the line? Do these places close forever? Do the majority of the sex workers leave the profession after being rescued? Unfortunately, no, not often. Their families are as poor, or poorer than ever and they have few or even fewer options. There is no shortage of clients, nor of workers.

To change this climate these people live and operate in will take time and a holistic approach, reducing poverty and giving sex workers rights to choose how they live and what they do. The hard line approach of wiping out prostitution is impractical and patronizing, and the methods being used to fight this war are not working and have never worked in any country throughout history.

Intolerable as it is to enslave any person of any age, and as necessary as it is to somehow offer help and rescue those who have been forced into situations they do not want to be in, to just go in and raid properties on assumptions may actually do more harm than good—for everyone concerned. It certainly rules out the possibility of the workers being allowed to develop relationships with other NGOs that might provide them with counseling or education on HIV prevention if they wanted it, and it distances the world of these women from the outside, rather than opening routes for them to reach out.

But enough. This is all becoming too serious and complicated. Christmas is supposed to be a festive occasion, although for one teenage Cambodian boy at least it will be spent doing cold turkey.

Obsessed with his former girlfriend, he went to a love magician earlier this month and was told he could have a magic elixir which would make her love him forever, but of course it would be expensive. Desperate, and possibly under the influence of an elixir himself, the boy went home, saw his neighbor's motorbike with the key in the ignition, and stole it to pay for the potion.

Unsurprisingly, he was recognized, caught, and thrown into jail. If his girlfriend despised him before, she probably isn't going to be any more impressed now.

Merry Christmas.

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