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Phnom Penh Perspective:

A matter of perspective

by Bronwyn Sloan

May 2005

It's all a matter of perspective, really; that and not losing perspective. But how do you stay sure that your perspective is the correct one?

This seemed to be a key point this month, as the heat reached its unbearable peak and then finally gave way to soaking rain, in Phnom Penh at least, that pushed the humidity levels up so high that the air was almost drinkable.

Is this what pushed the villagers in one town south of the capital to beat a serial dognapper to death? The estranged husband of a dog meat vendor had become known as the King of Dog Thieves in the area, and no one's pet was safe. But he had been arrested nearly a dozen times and released because the charges were too small to hold him in jail.

But it was only after it became clear that he had split up with his wife, who had tired of him spending his ill-gotten gains on wine, women and song, that his pooch purloining proved too much for his neighbors. Dogs were still going missing, and the guy had no financial reason to be stealing them any more. He was killing canines for fun and funding his frolics. Something, inside someone, snapped, and that perspective got the upper hand. The dogs couldn't get him, but their owners surely did.

Police don't know who it was. They don't really care. "There were too many of them in the mob to say which one did it," one officer said. "Even his parents were sick of him."

Speaking to Cambodian police, however, is in general not a good way to either achieve nor maintain perspective. Any foreigner who has been pulled over and held to ransom by traffic police in the capital knows that blame is directly proportional to perceptions of wealth in 99.9 percent cases and has little to do with guilt or culpability. So they may have sympathy with the driver who fled the scene of a recent accident before running nearly a kilometer, scaling a seven-meter tree and refusing to come down for eight hours until police were finally forced to commandeer a passing pickup truck and climbed it to persuade him to come down.

But not the police, who were not only furious with this breech of accepted protocol, but also felt the need to again publicly state the correct procedure to follow in the event of an encounter with traffic police. "When you are involved in a traffic accident, you should stay and negotiate compensation. You should not run away and climb a tree," a senior officer said sternly.

Foreigners were not exempt. Talkin' To A Stranger was forced to move after years in the same place. The lease was up. Foreigners had been seen frequenting the premises (it being a restaurant selling Western style food and all). The owners felt perfectly justified in refusing to do any maintenance one last time and demanding an extra $300 or so a month for the privilege of taking out a five year lease on said unmaintained premises, leaking roof and all. "Fix it yourself" was mistakenly taken as "fix it yourself or don't renew the lease", which would be reasonable, but in fact was just "fix it yourself, you have no right to move". So just days later and with the help of the aid of a security company to handle the ensuing tantrum, one of the capital's most successful venues is on the move and ready to expand its business in new premises, and one of the formerly luckiest landlords in the capital is about to realize how difficult it is to rent poorly maintained property well off the main strip and with a reputation for making long term leasing a risky business to foreigners at foreigner rents unless you strike gold and find a restaurant business that can bring customers to it wherever it is located.

A friend saw the nasty side of perspectives as well, when she found herself and her child flung to the ground from the back of a moto in front of the National Assembly near Kantha Bopha hospital at 8am, the latest victim in the capital's alarming spate of bag snatchings as she took the kid to school. This time it was not successful and both escaped with a few cuts and bruises, but the timing ­ waiting until she had her hands full with a young child ­ was particularly cynical, and was nothing to do with the proximity of the attempted robbery to the children's hospital. Of course, from a thief's perspective, it is perfect timing. The moral of that story is, never let your guard down, don't carry anything in any type of bag you can't afford to lose, and don't wear a bag around your neck or on your back because they will pull the bag no matter how unlikely it is to come if it looks tempting, and people have been seriously

injured when they have been yanked off the backs of bikes at speed. The theory, it seems, is that unconscious people can't fight back, and once on the ground, the victim is the one at a disadvantage. Bag snatchers in Cambodia usually work in pairs and on motos; one to drive, and one to handle the robbery.

Gunfire on the river again, too, and a steep rise in armed robberies in the triangle bordered by the Cambodiana Hotel, the Royal Palace and Wat Ounalom. A small triangle in a city apparently crawling with off duty police looking for jobs in the security business, but an insurmountable hurdle for the authorities, apparently. These are the same authorities that thought that switching off the electricity to this, the main tourist area of town, would go unnoticed when the power supply ran short, however, and were shocked, and, to their credit, moved to respond at the sound of public outcry, but it is a perspective that remains a little removed from those working in the service industry who like tourists to keep safe, and prefer not to be robbed themselves.

But just when it all seem too much, there was rain. The rain put everything back into a little bit of perspective. The first day the heavens finally opened, sitting on the back of a moto as we sailed at dangerous speeds past the Any Giftshop, Bohr's Books and the Hang Im laundry (businesses that obviously have a different perspective on appropriate names than myself or a great sense of humor), the entire city seemed to heave one collective sigh of relief.

The rain will probably come too late for some villagers near Oudong in Kompong Speu, who said this month they would rather have floods than the drought they have been suffering, and saw no way back without one after going without rain for more than a year.

Verifying this with the village chief was a problem.

"He doesn't care," one old lady said. However, he duly dragged himself away from a card game, albeit reluctantly, and came to speak with us, sparking an odd argument.

"We are all going to die without serious rain and help. We have lost two cows, two crops, and now our new seedlings. We have to buy in water. No one cares, but we are going to die without rain and help," the old lady said.

"No you are not, don't over-react," the village chief said.

"Don't tell me when I am going to die and when I am not. I know," the old lady rounded on him. She was certainly old enough to have lived through the Khmer Rouge, and she wasn't about to take lip from a young whippersnapper. Still he stubbornly refused to believe her, despite the parched land and her rather convincing argument. Wells in the area to 28 meters deep were dry, her husband chipped in, and they were yet to see an NGO. They didn't think the authorities had even reported their problem. Someone was making good money tanking in drinking water and they were a long way from anywhere their disaster would be noticed.

This the village chief could not or would not answer. Probably not because he was making the money, but no doubt he was doing ok and the card game was a more appealing option to shuffle back to. The old woman was convinced that this was their last season. They were coming at this drought from different perspectives, that was for sure, and that was all there was too it. Hopefully it has rained there, just 60 kilometers from the capital in a place of dry rice paddies and abject poverty. Or someone has come to their aid.

Its all a question of perspective really. Phnom Penh is a good place to lose all touch with reality, as long as it is all kept in perspective.

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