Sunday, July 8, 2007

Cambodia Week 3

Week 3 – A crescendo of work, people and politics

A week that started quietly but just gradually built up into an intense round of experiences, ups and downs and little time to reflect on my island home so far away. Far away in terms of flight hours, culture, interaction and landscape. Most days steamy, with a tropical downpour that pours down for about 20-40 minutes.

Worked on the Saturday at PACT. The Tuk Tuk drivers despair of ever seeing one of my crumpled US dollars. Have almost worked my way through the menus of the Goldiana and my 2 favourite near by eating places the Khmer Surim and the Garden Centre – contrasts in food, light, feel and clientele.

Sunday is a relatively quiet day I work on Law 609 Comparative Administrative Law so I can email off the adjusted course outline so students can decide whether they want to remain enrolled. Esther emails about our new dog Sophie’s lame efforts at dog training.

Monday up at 4am to email off Law 609 material and answer emails from my two virtual teams for the project. A Formal Team that consists of an expert from India, a senior World Bank official, Article 19’s key person on FOI – Toby Mendel and Al Roberts from the US. My informal team - friends and contacts who I can bounce much more undeveloped ideas off – consists of an archivist from Botswana, Paul Hubbard (UTAS graduate now Fulbright scholar – doing a summer internship in Washington DC), a friend working for UNDP in Fiji, an official from NZ Ombudsman office and Weibing (postgraduate student). Later in week I hire Weibing to undertake some research for project.

Monday morning starts the process of bringing my various breakfast companions together. By week’s end we are a very interactive and friendly breakfast club. But this morning I dine with Imelda (age possibly post 50s – Irish descent but born in London but can’t tolerate living there), who has crammed several lifetimes of experiences in PNG, South Pacific, Australia and now Cambodia. Every day like a rose she unfurls that little more – and another layer of stories and wild experiences are added.

Jeff, a retired farmer from Moree (12,000 hectares) and who now works in Cambodia and Bangladesh as an agricultural consultant (has an ag-sci degree). Big, partially deaf, so speaks loudly and the type of no nonsense farmer who doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind. Pops by table to give me details of a reliable travel agent who can get me to Angkor Wat if I get a 2 day window.

Today is the first day for us (local consultant and myself) to be based at the Ministry. We are given the large meeting room to sit in. Nothing else but a large table and twenty empty chairs (plastic wraps still on some). Spend morning working whilst local consultant tries to translate my writing into Khmer. Spend remainder of day organising workshops for the following week.

Eat at the local food place – still the only European who eats there.

In the far end of the Ministry car park – within the walled compound – I notice a car with flat tires and a clothes rack next to it. Closer inspection shows a family living in car. I assume the father may work as a cleaner within ministry. Later in week I noticed on the building site next door that as each storey completed the family of the workers move in and live in the completed sections – explains to me the large number of children around site late at night.

Notice a few school age kids in the rundown areas who clearly do not attend school.

On outskirts of slum area (where demonstrations held about land clearance on Friday and Saturday) are cart pushers who look like they sleep in and/or under their carts during the day.


Up around 5 am work on policy paper. Have breakfast with Imelda and John from New Zealand (who in spare time is a pilot and building an ultralight aircraft in NZ) working on agricultural financing in Cambodia including looking at micro-financing with AusAID. Would love to have Lance here to listening to some of these people and to see applied economics – political economy in action.

After breakfast get some feedback from my informal group on part of the paper. Go to PACT (the NGO supporting us) to do printing, chaseup next week’s meetings, arrange cars etc. Finally my local consultant can sign his contract (after working for 7 days and payment still a week or so away).

Saw a truckload of monks and an old black and white (a la Blues Brothers) police car. Someone at breakfast pointed out that since new road laws the amount of corrupt activity by police has increased.

Get back to Hotel Goldiana and chill out for an hour or so. Go exploring the neighbourhood (large double block). Eat at Khmer Surim again, Joined by Denise an American artist , mural painter , about 50, glasses, blonde tied back hair, has been to Cambodia several times, she also travels regularly to Korea. Has invested in several rental properties in LA, teaches in Long Reach. Had a sculpture exhibition last week – contemporary. She is working on a mural project with young art students. Very bright. Teaches me the polite form of bowing and the Cambodian for thankyou. The bowing lesson reaps enormous dividends over next few days.


Meeting at 8.30 at Ministry with Drafting team lasts all morning.


Breakfast was a linking up of various long termers I had met at hotel and introducing them to each other. I was dressed in my suit because leaving at 7.30 for the VIP meetings.

So at table, at various times was Imelda, Jeff (from Tamworth), Marco (a Dutch Engineer working with Mekong River Commission on flood prevention/control) Denise the mural artist from LA and Giedre from Lithuania – blonde, tall, speaks Russian, Spanish and flawless English, graduate in Russian politics,

Picked up at 7.30 (Marko concerned with quality of my tie). Met the interpreter.

Each meeting was conducted much the same – formal greetings (in Senate, Assembly, Council of Ministers), sitting across the table from each other. A formal opening by our side, a response, then my turn to brief, then questions and usually one of our team doing the last sales pitch then formal goodbyes.

Venues very different. National Assembly building in new parliament – meeting room lavish, one of the most beautiful tables I have seen in my travels. Lots of cars with blacked out windows entering and exiting the National Assembly compound.

The Senate is some distance away from the national assembly in a large compound, beautiful landscapes. Probably a large French influence.

The Council of Ministers (last 2 meetings) is based in the Russian Friendship Building. Probably built early Vietnamese occupation but feels more like Stalin’s Russia. Very run down building. Being replaced by a new $8 million US building (Chinese Aid) being built next door – will be massive – just looking at foundations. Series of minor officials at all meetings.

Had to postpone 1 till tomorrow with Chairman of Administrative Reform Council. (This turns out to be a very interesting experience)

Had meetings with several people including:

Chairman of NA 5th Commission H.E. Son Chhay, MP
Chairman of Senate 5th Commission H.E. Mrs. Ty Borasy, Senator
H.E. Sam Sophal Vice-Chair of Legal and Judicial Council

All meetings went well in particular the last meeting. Exhausted at the end of the day.

Got another series of talks with key departments and 1 deputy
Prime Minister on Monday. The Defense Department meeting will be with 2 secretaries of state, 3 secretary-generals and a couple more. The Ministry has just announced its member for our team – a General. Then 2 briefing workshops on Tuesday (civil society and donors, international institutions).

So falling behind on draft production - but I think the meetings are
gathering a good set of inputs and concerns and paving the way for the policy paper to the Council of Ministers.

Had lunch at the Sweet Restaurant just around corner from PACT – first time I have seen cigarettes on a menu. Have noticed few Cambodians smoke (or smoke a lot). Told very expensive 50 cents US for 1 cigarette.

Have dinner by myself at Khmer Surim and an apple crumble at Garden Centre. Have an epiphany about how to respond to some of the concerns raised during the Senate meeting.

In bed by 10pm.


Up at 4 am. Send out plea for help with policy to my informal network and hire Weibing to work on rough draft of one section.

The full breakfast crew - Imelda, Jeff (from Tamworth), Marco (the Dutch Engineer) Denise the mural artist from LA and Giedre and John (the banker from New Zealand) share the table at some stage. Giedre doing a policy/planning paper for a network of 27 groups. Working as a volunteer in the area of child prostitution.

Check about my visa extension later at PACT but forgot to bring 2 photos. Must do on Monday. Around 10 we head off for our meeting with Secretary General for Council for Administrative Reform.

Several advisors present. We receive a very long lecture on the 10-15 reasons why Cambodia doesn’t need an FOI Act anytime in foreseeable future if at all. Receive a history lesson about the Khmer Rouge and aftermath.

Go back to PACT work on minutes and plan for workshops on Tuesday. Have lunch at the Japanese Restaurant near work.

One of my companions had 8 brothers and 1 sister. Lost 3 brothers, sister and mother to the Killing Fields. He is No. 1 son, father is now an 88 year old monk. He makes food for his father each day. His remaining brothers have done very well, youngest is ambassador to Japan, another has 3 PhDs, the others all have Phds.

Have dinner in hotel restaurant work on draft of section 3 over my green chicken curry. Get a rough draft to send to Charmaine and Paul in my informal network. Watch Cats play Essendon, - so up late but worth it. talk to Lance on MSN – finishing his room – the family and Amy down with flu. Esther has week off.

Paul comes back with a revised version of a draft – “a bit of a hack”. In truth by some rearranging and a few well chosen words he has transformed it. So with a Cats victory and a great draft of a section of the policy paper I am very happy.


Up early working on drafts of various sections and trying to get a powerpoint presentation together for the two seminars on Tuesday. Monday is completely filled with meetings with various ministries and 1 Deputy Prime Minister so will have no other time to get ready.

Normal crew at breakfast, Marco off to work in Indonesia for 7 days. Geidre into her last week.

Go back to room and work solidly throughout morning. Entrapped by the breakfast girls - Imelda, Denise and Giedre to join them for lunch at the Garden Centre. Lasted 3 hours (needed the break and their company). Then back to work.

Later that night I have a long briefing over dinner with the World Bank senior official who is part of formal virtual team. He is fairly critical (not of paper but of timeframe and process that is being used).

Reflections on last 3 weeks

Seems like an eternity since I was freezing at Salamanca Market and said goodbye to Esther on the corner of Salamanca Place.


Still on track but high potential for it to stall or fall over.
Optimistic will produce a draft Policy Paper. The meetings next week and the National Workshop the week after will be critical tests.

Project has been much more complex, more critical and more dependent on a couple of people than I had contemplated. Certainly my role has extended from simply being a consultant working to a team. Support from PACT has been critical.

The Public Service in Cambodia

Everything I had read prior to my trip has been confirmed. To say that it lacks capacity is a gross understatement. Reactive and poor resources (of all kinds including intellectual – drained off by Council of Ministers , NGOS or private sector). Standards and capacity several grades below the internationally supported NGOS. Extremely politicisied to most levels.

Legal System

A complex amalgam of Cambodian (Buddhist), monarchy, French, German – various shades of Communist and now influence of major donors like USA.


Plays out at all levels. National versus donor. Factions, changing alliances, operation of family links and obligations, patronage politics practiced to an art form. History a big influence even prior to Year 0 but especially since.

Cambodians I work with

• Middle class and upper class
• Friendly
• Wicked sense of humour
• Impact of Killing Fields
• Hard working
• The importance of and strength of networks


Signs of it everywhere but less than I expected or experienced by others who visited a few years back. Occasional beggar but mostly I have not been out of main city area.

Lots of activity buildings, stalls, small businesses, growing middle class. On one of the boulevards motorbikes on sale in front of each shop for several blocks.

Corruption major, but largely unseen, hand on almost everything from building permits, traffic to positions in public service (many brought).


The numbers 500,000+ stagger me. The hotel has several families staying here who are going through the process of adoption (a number of Italian families). Some very strong moral and development arguments here but the sheer joy and love of the adopting families hard to ignore.

Hotel is Kid Safe as are Tuk Tuk drivers in the area – to prevent child prostitutes or abuse of young children. Hard to comprehend the level of child prostitution outline by Giedre – partly triggered by levels of poverty, orphans and corruption (known areas where it takes place ie like near Russian Market).

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