La Residence

FRIDAY evening at La Residence, an opulent French restaurant on 214th Street where a dinner for two costs a month’s wages for most people, Phnom Penh’s elite are gathering for a party. Everyone is smiling and happy, perfectly at ease amid the marble and chandeliers as they sit down for a meal of foie gras, wagu beef and lobster with fine wine and brandy. Their children, dressed in princess ball-gowns and little suits with bow-ties, run up and down the corridors and spiral staircase without a care in the world.

On the other side of town, down by the Old Market, children exactly the same age are playing in the garbage: They use a blue plastic water barrel, cut in half, as a rocking chair and chase each other with plastic bottles. They are dressed in rags, some of the younger ones are naked, and none have any shoes. Their parents are nowhere to be seen. Their dinner tonight, if they have any, will be rice and vegetables and maybe a scrap of fish from a roadside food vendor.

Saturday morning, the imposing wooden gates to La Residence are firmly closed. Across the street two young men are asleep on the pavement, one on a bed of filthy blankets, the other inside their garbage collection cart. The stench of sweat and urine is palpable. Yet to the young families who live in the “exclusive serviced apartment” complex adjacent to La Residence, the sleeping garbage collectors are invisible. As their parents climb into their luxury SUVs to go shopping, the teenage residents of The Maline slope across the road for breakfast in Brown’s café. Surgically attached to their iPhones and Beats headphones, they are barely distinguishable from kids in California.

Across town, near the Russian Embassy, hundreds of families are crammed into tiny dark and rundown apartments in what is known simply as The Building (see photo above). The Building was constructed in the early 1960s, part of Prince Sihanouk’s plan to provide ordinary working class families in Phnom Penh with decent, affordable housing. It was abandoned when the Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated the urban population in 1975 but was gradually reoccupied by squatters as people moved back to the city in the 1980s. It was the same story in the old Cantonese temple and the Providence Church around 80th Street on Sisowath Quay. Both these buildings somehow survived the destruction of the Khmer Rouge era but could not regain their former function. They were both occupied by squatters after 1979 and crudely divided into family dwellings. There are about 20 families still living in Providence Church.

The residents of The Building and the Providence Church, like the vast majority of working class families in Phnom Penh, have been completely left behind by the rapid development of the city over the last decade or so. Even the relatively comfortable residents of the Sok Hok Street merchant district have seen little real change. The shops, restaurants and apartment buildings are still basically the same as when I lived in Phnom Pehn in 2004-05. Further south however, in what used to be known as the Foreigner District of Boeung Keng Kong, the change has been remarkable. It was always a relatively upscale area, home to Embassy staff and NGO workers, but today it is dominated by new luxury apartment, hotel and gym complexes, high-end shops selling everything from imported cosmetics to artisanal Parisian bread, as well as exclusive schools and kindergartens for the children of the elite. Every school day, around four o’clock, you can see long lines of luxury SUVs and trucks blocking the road outside the school entrances waiting to collect the privileged offspring. The drivers are completely oblivious to or simply don’t care about the ever-growing traffic jams they are causing.

Just about everyone I talked to on this visit to Phnom Penh agreed that the only people in Cambodia to benefit from economic development, and in particular the massive inflows of money from China, have been the elite; the extended family of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the leaders of the Cambodian People’s Party, plus high ranking military and police officers. For everyone else, the cost of living keeps on going up while the possibility of getting a decent, well-paid job or even just enough to support your family, remains as elusive as ever.  There has never been much social mobility in Cambodia but in the past the opportunities for the enrichment of elite were limited and the gap between rich and poor was not so wide or so obvious: Today, the elite flaunt their extreme wealth in the faces of poor: No longer content with luxury SUVs (which first appeared in the UNTAC era) some members of the elite are now being chauffeured around in Rolls Royce and Bentley limousines with vanity plates brazenly signifying their wealth and good fortune.

Ordinary people in Phnom Penh are increasingly angry, frustrated, and openly critical of the government. Protests by garment workers have forced the government and employers to raise the basic wage but even with overtime most garment factory workers still only earn around US$200 per month. Victims of land grabs have taken to the streets in protest and staged legal challenges to the illegal appropriation of their property. The League for Democracy Party, led by Khem Veasna, calls for a complete reform of the political system so that so ordinary people can reclaim ownership of the country through genuine democracy. The Grassroots Democracy Party, founded by political analyst Kem Ley in 2015, likewise sought to struggle for genuine representation by focusing on commune elections rather than the national political stage which is completely controlled by the CCP.

Given the history of political violence in Cambodia, the response to this growing chorus of criticism was perhaps inevitable. On 10 July 2016, Kem Ley was gunned down at a petrol station café while he was having breakfast. Just a few days before, he had been quoted in interviews about a new Global Witness report which detailed the extreme personal wealth of Hun Sen’s family. If the murder was designed to quell the opposition, it did not work. The assassination was widely condemned and even moderate voices such as political analyst Kim Sok accused the government of supressing evidence in Kem Ley murder, specifically the CCTV footage from the petrol station that was seized by police and never made public. In response, Hun Sen filed a lawsuit against Kim Sok accusing him of defamation and incitement and on Friday 17 February, Kim Sok was promptly arrested. The following week, another vocal government critic, land activist Tep Vanny, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for her role in a protest that occurred four years ago.

At the same time, the legislature passed new amendments that could effectively cripple the main national opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). The amendments allow the government to dissolve any political party deemed to be a threat to national security – without a clear definition of what might constitute such a threat. The amendment also barred anyone convicted of a crime from serving as a party president or deputy president, a clear reference to Sam Rainsy, who has been living in France since 2015 to avoid arrest and who was forced to step down as president of the CNRP prior to the passage of the bill in order to protect the party.

Hun Sen appears determined to consolidate absolute power prior to the national elections scheduled for next year and ensure that the election results go the right way. He even threatened military action if somehow the CCP did not win. “Some individuals dared to claim that in 2018 we would be crushed because we wouldn’t recognize the election results,” he said during a speech at the National Institute of Education in Phnom Penh on 22 February. “They predicted that in 2018 they could win, and if we don’t hand over power to them, they will crush us. How can this happen if the troops are in my hands?”

Despite the seeming impossibility of toppling Hun Sen, the people of Cambodia will continue to voice their opposition in any way they can. As one of my friends said, “we know the 2018 elections will be rigged but we will vote any way. It is the only thing we can do.”

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