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Phnom Penh Perspective:

Police, pooches, psychotherapy

by Bronwyn Sloan

June 2005

Bow ties and flowing taffeta ­ could this be the dress code of a high society ball or beauty contest? No. This is the pet department of Lucky Supermarket. Phnom Penh, once the wild west of the East, now appears to be going bourgeois, at least as for pooches. What is the world coming to?

Could the same people who once streaked the skies with tracer fire whenever thunder growled and rain clouds gathered be the new consumer market for dresses and dinner suits for dogs? How this city has changed since peace erupted!

As designer pet wear poked its way quietly into the city's ever-growing number of supermarkets, City Hall announced it was considering hiring more police.

In the new Phnom Penh, ammunition is too expensive to waste shooting into the air, and police close in on the sound of a gunshot. This does not seem to have cramped the style of a new wave of robbers who have made waving a gun in people's faces or simply snatching their bags a new art form, operating in ever greater numbers, aided by continued power outages perhaps meant to create a sense of nostalgia amongst the city's long-term residents who might be homesick for a war. So it was with some relief the announcement was received that new police might be hired, or old ones given more powers.

Perhaps these police are meant to curb this new menace, or at least stake out trouble spots such as the Heart of Darkness, which again made the papers this month by hosting another vicious and unprovoked attack on a foreign woman ("security didn't see a thing," a manager told the papers, adding that despite the fact that everyone else swore blind that the man was a regular and had promptly returned to the scene, he was a stranger to the people who continued to serve him, and anyway, there were just too many customers to notice every serious assault that happened on the dance floor.)

But no, there was no mention of that. These are City Hall police, and their job is much more serious ­ they are to be entrusted with keeping the grass safe from crapping canines, so joggers can stride the streets in expensive footwear without fear, and the Tai Chi hoards that flock to the city's parks each morning can stretch for the skies without staring first at the floor. They are the Dog Poo Squad.

Last Water Festival, an incredulous old man from some remote corner of the kingdom was overheard in a standoff with the city's now infamous Grass Police ­ the guys who stop people walking on the expensive imported Thai grass that was such an expensive and integral part of the Phnom Penh beautification campaign.

"You can't be serious? You mean I can't walk on this? Where I come from, we feed it to cows," the man screamed as he was confronted by uniformed men with whistles, serious expressions and a knowledge that dead grass would lead to their certain dismissal. "What do you city people do with your time? Why do you worship animal food?" the old man ranted as the men shrilly whistled for backup.

He was right. The gap between city and country, rich and poor, is growing by the day. But the rise in robberies and violence like what is being increasingly seen on the streets of the capital, the rise in the use of yama, or yaba ­ these may just be harbingers of worse to come for Cambodia as some of the rich (and not all, by any means, but some) grow ever more arrogant and profligate, and some of the poor, dehumanized by decades of war and yearning more and more to taste the money they see passing them by each day in the form of land cruisers and St Bernard dogs in bow ties, reach for weapons.

It has to be said. The law seems fairly even when it is boiled down at present—impunity for all. A rich boy who pulled up at a club in a $100,000 vehicle can beat the hell out of a woman for dancing on his "sister's" feet in a crowded nightclub and get away with it. But so can a bunch of guys sharing a K-54 who stage armed robberies opposite Psar Kandal night after night while underpaid and under-resourced police watch. Just don't, whatever you do, step on the grass or let your dog shit on City Hall property. Burn down Thai businesses, but don't touch a blade of that imported Thai grass.

This move to middle class values is largely skin deep and is perhaps encouraged by "nice people" who have grown up in nice places and sincerely believe that a few words and some group therapy are worth much more than a gun ­ the sort of people whose dinner party invitations are always accepted, albeit with dread.

Perhaps this applies to the new program one NGO is running to try to curb Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) troops from excessive drinking. It might be argued that this ancient bonding ritual is as much a part of the armed forces throughout the centuries as wars and weaponry. But it also leads to unprotected sex, the sensible squad point out, and therefore the spread of AIDS. So since Srap Sol apparently robs men of the ability to don a condom, Plan B is being deployed and the armed forces are being educated not to drink in the first place through group therapy and sports days in the hope that all their peers lying and saying they don't like a drink, combined with watching their performance on the sports field slump in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol ingested, will lead to a more sober army. Having witnessed a few police and military sessions, the phrase pissing into the wind comes to mind, but what would I know? I am not a social worker. At the very worst, there are going to be some fitter drunks around.

Speaking of middle class values, it appears that some foreigners also become a higher middle class here than they would be at home. After hearing that I had sacked my housekeeper for a range of reasons including thieving and attempting to shag other staff while they were all supposed to be working, and had given up trying to find a new one and decided to do the job myself, I was summoned to the office of one older foreign woman who seems to believe she has some toehold in my life for a lecture.

"You don't have home help." This was a statement, not a question.
"I don't believe you can cope. That's tremendous pressure. I know a good therapist," she said, with barely a breath between each totally unrelated phrase of nonsense.

Having pointed out that this would only raise my stress levels, as the therapist's husband and I don't get on, he owes me money and the therapist demands huge fees due to her high demand in a capital apparently teeming with expats who think nervous breakdowns are linked to their maids, I was met with what was supposed to be a sympathetic stare, but seemed more a cross between ice and steel to me.

"Very well, but it isn't…normal," she said. What? Do expatriates lose the ability to do what everyone in the west except the very elite do for themselves upon contact with Cambodian soil? I would much rather do the washing than spend hours tiptoeing around managing someone who doesn't want to work and is more interested in what cash she can skim than dusting something. THAT is stress. That I don't need. However, so perverse is this concept, it has, according to this woman at least, become a hot topic at the sort of cocktail parties I don't go to. Perhaps a course of role play and sporting events over dry martinis might be more beneficial to at least one slice of society than getting a bunch of soldiers together over ABC and rice wine and telling them not to drink. At least prostitutes are largely grown regionally, unlike fine French Champaign and imported mixers, and the money has more of a chance of staying in the local economy. My former housemaid is probably desperately trying to get into those very military circles as I write…Victory in the three-legged sack race has taken on a whole new meaning

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