Friday, July 20, 2007

Cambodia Week 4 - Generals, Ministers, Businessmen and Volunteer Girls and words turning Khmer – a few more days in Phnom Penh

I got to Thursday afternoon and the last few days lost in a blur. Little time to keep journal updated on a daily basis. A constant routine of very early mornings (usually 4 am recently 2am to 3 am) working on policy paper – first draft due at midday on Friday – A range of meeting ranging from those with a 4 star general and later a Minister of Information to mini-meetings – trying to write the paper whilst discussions held in Khmer.

The previous Sunday is a far distant blur to me. Vaguely recall having breakfast and dinner at the Garden Centre but little in between.

Spend a lot of the time during the week discussing how my awkward English terms can be turned into passable Khmer. Has rammed home to me both the power of translation and the severe limitations. Impressed by the number of volunteers working in Cambodia – Two of the young women I have encountered Giedre and Clare are intelligent, committed and sharp.

I think the prospect, eventually, of a FOI or access to information act for Cambodia took a couple of small steps forward this week. Workshop with NGOs advanced awareness and the consultations with key Ministries has at least put the topic on the agenda. Late on Friday afternoon a draft policy paper was doing the rounds of Ministry corridors (hopefully can be read by early next week). The first few days of next week will allow us to catch up with notes and preparation for national workshop on 25th July. The first government sponsored FOI workshop in Cambodia.

Day 23 Monday 9th July.

The meeting shuffle

Monday morning we get to work early only to discover that the two morning meetings have been rescheduled for Wednesday – stuffing up today’s arrangement re cars/interpreter but also now filling up Wednesday with meetings. Only time to really work on paper is early morning. Tend to be too zonked to do this at night.

Monday afternoon we go to the Ministry of National Defense and Ministry of Interior at different ends of town – 15-20 minutes to get between each meeting – no leeway in schedule.

An almost surreal experience. We arrive at Ministry of National Defense. Go up sweeping staircases. Shepherded pass several helmeted armed guards with an increasing larger amount of braid and insignia as we get closer to meeting.

Into large airy room. Double the size of the University Council Room. Long tables like at Peace Accords – could fit 12-15 on each side – with rows of chairs and desks behind – very wide room. The six of us sitting across from 8 generals and colonels plus a civilian Secretary of State. A 4 star general is acting Minister of Defence. Full uniforms and caps. Wish I had been able to take photo. Our request for an appointment had caught them unaware. The timeframes for this project have really accelerated the normal process. All of them had their pocket Cambodian constitutions that they flicked through after reading my briefing notes (translated into Khmer) about how Sections 31,35 and 41 can be read together to establish a constitutional basis to the right to access information… A fairly powerful argument. In particular we are arguing that Article 35 imposes a duty or expectation on citizens to advise the organs of the state –

“Article 35 - Khmer citizens of either sex shall have the right to participate actively in the political, economic, social, and cultural life of the nation. Any suggestions from the people shall be given full consideration by the organs of the State."

A function/duty that requires an ability to access and use government-held information so that the suggestions are informed and more relevant and accurate.

Made it clear that they had lots of information they needed to protect – including actual number of soldiers (controversial issue at moment – army is meant to be demobilising) and under impression that any soldier might be required to release information contrary to their military legislation. Haven’t been able to convince them that all access legislation provides for important defense information – especially related to combat or combat preparedness – to be protected. The issue will come down to whether we can persuade them that 1. The proposed harm test will provide sufficient protection and that 2. they need to start from the principles of the policy.

Hard to convince, in any jurisdiction, those use to blanket restrictions and sweeping use of confidential, secret and top secret classifications that they can function in a slightly more transparent regime. The start is to have Ministries start to think about what information they could release with no or little harm.

At end of meeting we asked for a copy of the legislation they had kept referring to and they told us - they couldn't give to us – FOI off to a good start. Although the next week we were provided with the legislation. Another small step. People keep telling me small steps, small steps.

Given the recent history of Cambodia and the universal nature of defense forces it is not a surprise that the concern is about discipline (the mistaken idea that an access to information act would allow any solider to release information as opposed to authorised Access to Information Officers), adherence to existing legislation and procedures (not yet thinking about if the two FOI and the existing legislation can work together) and reactive (little time to absorb the reasoning of the policy).

The following week I get time to read the entire Defense White Paper and learn about Ghost Soliders, the high number of officers (77% of Defense force), problems of promotion and nepotism, I then come across the section on transparency.

Defending the Kingdom of Cambodia 2006 Security Development and International Co-operation : Defense Policy of the Kingdom of Cambodia 2006 pages 87-88

“Good governance, the Royal Government’s fundamental objective, needs transparency. All strategic objectives written in the Defense White Paper depend completely on the strengthening of transparency for implementation. Another main support for transparency is a military law system. The need for further strengthening laws as described in chapter 4 not only aligns with international norms but it is also necessary for every soldier. “

Then off to the Ministry of Interior. Classical French colonial architecture – large verandas – open hall ways to allow breeze and air circulation. Met by cameras (digital and video) to record our arrival. Secretary of State well informed and sounded fairly relaxed with the concept of allowing a little more access specially if a clearer set of guidelines put in place.

For each meeting my presentation more focused – then in the meetings last week - on the concerns and issues for each Ministry. Interpreter excellent – simultaneous interpretation. Yet gets hard to concentrate when – apart from my questions/comments the meetings tend to be replays of each other.

In spare time during Monday got ready for the two seminars on Tuesday – I think I did that on Sunday as well. But just can’t recall.

The consultancy is being undertaken at a much faster pace and intensity than I expected, intended or am prepared for in terms of capacity and energy. Little time for reflection or time just to contemplate before having to make decisions. Countless decisions being made on the run – whether it be hiring extra translators, content of draft or response to any problems. However progress being made and slowly becoming a joint work product.

Tuesday 10th July Day 24

Civil Society Seminar in the morning started at 8.30 to about 30-40 representatives from NGOs. I do a 30-40 minute presentation. An hour or so of questions.

Afternoon session with donors. No chance to work on policy during the day. Deadline fast approaching.

Go downstairs for tea with computer – a sad commentary on this consultancy life. Having a MacBook as my preferred dining companion. Do a bit and then join Jun for a meal. Japanese agronomist – here for 5 weeks – already been here for 2 weeks. Has 2 soccer keen boys (10 and 12) at home. He is studying rice yields and climate change. Works in the field each day. Tends to be stuffed when he returns to the Goldiana. His English is halting but accessible.

Wednesday 11th July Day 25

Up very early about 3am. Get a lot done. Full crowd at breakfast. Suppose to be 8 am start but local consultant so wrapped up in translating does not arrive till almost 8.30. After that we tend to be out of sync all day. He has been up since 4 am translating. We are only surviving by burning the candle at both ends.

Meeting in morning with Ministry of Justice. Female under-secretary of state, judge – trained in Russia. Courts and laws a complete mixture. A lot of staff trained in various countries including Japan. So laws are often Khmer/French (Penal Code) or Khmer/Japanese etc. Cambodia has project to put Civil verdicts and cases online and then eventually their legislation.

Afternoon meeting is at the Ministry of Information. Meet Minister. He was jailed by Hun Sen late 1980s for forming an opposition party. When released from jail went to work with Hun Sen. – now Information Minister. Meeting went well, the Minister was well informed and detailed the operations of the Press Law (which has a mini-FOI process for journalists that hasn’t worked). Ministry of Information in a run down compound – from French colonial times – most signs in Khmer and French. One building - large old Cambodian style (curved roof, sweeping rafters) has completely collapsed at one end but staff are still using offices at the other end. Compound overgrown, everything looks neglected. Yet where we meet has been set up almost as a broadcast area, met by several tv cameras, photographers that cover opening part of meeting.

Wednesday night have dinner and work at Garden Center with my normal companion - computer.

Thursday 12th July Day 26

Up at 2am to work on policy till 6 am. Enjoyable breakfast with the usual suspects except Denise the teacher/artist from LA. I arrange for Giedre and Elise ----, my 15 year old daughter who is in London on the way home (long way) from a 5 month student exchange just outside Madrid --- to try and catch up in London after Giedre’s return. Although only about a 30 hour overlap in their time together in London. I think they would enjoy meeting each other.

Drafting Team leader wants 8 o’clock meeting to go over schedule of national workshop to be held on 25th of July– now being opened by MoNASRI’s minister. I spend a lot of the meeting – that is conducted mostly in Khmer – working on policy paper, stopping occasionally to answer questions. Meeting goes for about 90 minutes – manage to finish last section of paper. Local consultant begs me to stop so he can complete translation. So paper has new deadline – ie today. Use spare time to catch up with journal and finally think about the policy paper and the progress of the project to date.

Spend afternoon winding down, catching up with paperwork and electronic filing. Local consultant has mishap and loses about 2 hours of translating. His back ups hadn’t worked for some reason.

Catch up with Denise who is off to another art opening. Also see Giedre and we talk for a while. Have dinner with Jun the agronomist and we talk about Japanese history and culture (my studies from 20 years ago paying off) impress him by having read all Misihma Yukio’s works. He gives me a beautiful, in his faltering English, account of Buddhist belief in reincarnation and how deeply ingrain it is in the Japanese. Short power failure. This is a richer neighbourhood so power failures less frequent and of shorter duration then compared to other parts of Phnom Penh. Spent a while during the day on MSN to Elise, Lance and Esther. Esther snowed under as 1 eBay buyer buys several books as we chat.

Also generated extensive series of discussions with my virtual expert group on Fees and FOI. Very extensive contributions by everyone – included Paul Hubbard who started the discussion with me in the network.

When this consultancy finishes will try to do a summary of the key points from these discussions.

I spend some time outside with the geckos contemplating the night skyline of Phnom Penh.

Friday 13th July Day 27

Up about 4 am. Decide I should at least add a short executive summary (dot point) to policy paper. Also need to check that I have specifically mentioned an exemption for defense matters that are in the public interest. Defense called yesterday wanting early copies of the draft. Keep on imaging generals turning up at my door wanting to know “you want access to what!”

Jeff is leaving tomorrow (farmer/consultant from Tamworth – originally Moree), a banking consultant joins us from Bangladesh. Imelda worried re passport and visa. Joined later by John and Giedre. Giedre and I spend about 20 minutes chatting after the others have left. Her mum runs a small restaurant near Latvian border – her father worked for an oil company. Their home business also has a 200 year old windmill and 3 new wind turbines – they sell power to the power grid. We have a discussion about the interrelationship between NGOS and civil service and rates of power. Local consultant late again so I work on executive summary in lobby. Denise talks to me about one of the 17 journalists who resigned from a French-Khmer newspaper here. Arrange to meet Denise and her French friend sometime on Saturday.

Spend morning tidying up, printing out the printable English version of the policy paper and doing this journal whilst waiting for the translation to be completed. The power outrage in local consultant’s neighbourhood was over an hour so has thrown him way behind his schedule.

Finally get the English and Khmer versions of the policy paper to Ministry by 3.30 pm. – 3 hours late. No Khmer executive summary Spend rest of afternoon tidying up files.

Catch my first Tuk Tuk to the Hotel Cambodiana. About 40 attend Aaron’s talk. Aaron presenting PACT’s clean business campaign. Talk to doctor – in country for 14 years started as a VSO volunteer (UK equivalent to Volunteers Aboard), became increasingly disillusioned with the corruption in the UN , then other NGOs – believes the legal system is corrupt from the top down – many lawyer friends and he services the prison. Argues that everyone from witnesses to judges are open to payment. 80% of population have no birth records so in prosecution cases for underage sex etc – the age of the victim simply changes depending whether you pay or not. After killing fields only 10 lawyers or so left in country. So majority of judges still are not legally trained. If they are trained could be trained anywhere – France, Russia, Vietnam, Japan, US and to a lesser degree UK and Australia.

Sit next to Claire at the dinner, a volunteer at PACT, originally from Chicago, studied on West Coast and worked there, now enrolled in law school at Boston. Been in Cambodia 3 months heading to law school in a month. Short, dark hair, very interesting person – sharp mind. We have a long discussion with the CEO Asia-Pacific Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS a former British and Australian (since 1995). Clarie is also doing food reviews (not paid but free food), will get some recommendations from here.

At end of night Regional Director for PACT – runs me through a major debrief of project – SWOT analysis, looking at project from several perspectives. An interesting and educative experience especially late at night – we head out along a corridor of bright yellow/gold tube lighting which could be from any sci-fi set of the 70s or a Jane Fonda movie of the 1960s – imagine a long star trek corridor that every 3 metres has a strip of this lighting up walls and across roof – and runs for about 30-40 metres. Meanwhile in the bar next door someone is murdering a Tom Jones song at full throttle.

Come back to a vigorous discussion on email from the Virtual Team about whether the policy paper should decrease/cut mention of NGOs and push positive development argument – keep the rights focus and one member in the middle. I am also in the middle keen to push both rights and pro-development aspects.

Just another Friday night in Phnom Penh.

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