Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Election 2013 Cambodia

According to Cambodia’s National Election Commission the ruling Cambodia People’s Party of Hun Sen has remained in power but with a reduced majority. They took 68 seats in the 123 seat legislature with almost 50% of the vote, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party wound up with 55 seats from 45% of the vote. However, the opposition insists it won 63 seats with a bare majority in the legislature and the controversy will take some time to resolve. There is a continuing big brouhaha over inadequacies in the vote register, which at least in part may be a result of most of government paperwork in Cambodia being done by hand.
Regardless of any irregularities that turn up I believe a narrow win for the CPP just about reflects the will of the people, though that has to be seen in the prism of the opposition suffering some built-in disadvantages. For one, legislators are chosen by proportional representation but within each province, not the country as a whole. The problem there is that the allocation of seats for each province has not changed since 1993 in spite of very large migrations to the cities where people are more likely to vote for the opposition. Secondly, there are nine rural provinces with small populations that receive a single seat each. They tend to vote for the CPP, but with only one seat up for grabs, even a small majority gets the single seat. Finally, changing registration is a difficult process so that many urban migrants remain registered in their home towns and have to return there to vote. As urbanites, they tend to vote for the opposition but since it’s a big and costly hassle for many poor people, many do not make the trip. Having the election date on the 28th of the month also might’ve compounded the problem since many Cambodians get paid on the first and would not have the money to travel home at the end of the month. The latter probably accounts for part of the lowered turnout from the past. This year turnout was 69% as opposed to nearly 90% ten years ago and about 80% five years ago.
The prime minister, in his first post-election speech, in contrast to threats of instability, chaos and civil war if the opposition won, counseled calm and comity and the desire for a peaceful resolution of election disputes. He reverted to his old ways shortly after. A couple months back he asserted that if the opposition won they would tear down all the schools, clinics and other public buildings with his name on them (tear them down before changing their names?)
He seemed to be running scared and for good reason considering the recent Malaysian election in which the ruling party, in power for 57 years since independence, lost the popular vote and only remained in office because of voting districts skewed towards rural voters. Though it may be unethical, immoral and unfair there’s nothing illegal about that. The US Senate is a good case in point since every state gets two senators regardless of population so that Wyoming with about 600,000 people gets the same representation as California with nearly 40 million. The bias towards rural districts is a big part of the reason that Malaysia’s ruling party was able to retain power and the same is true in Japan and a lot of other places. So once again, though unfair allocation of seats may be an example of inadequacies in the democratic process, it’s no less democratic. It depends on how a country chooses to design its voting system.
So even while the controversy rages on, it’s hard to imagine the opposition logistically overcoming the loss of all nine single seat provinces and the built in bias against fast growing urban areas. And regardless of widespread voting irregularities in which many voters’ names did not appear on the voter lists or voters having gone to the polls to discover that someone else had already voted in their name, it’s almost inconceivable that the ultimate outcome of the vote will change. It ain’t gonna happen. It’s akin to the election of George Bush in 2000 by a 5 to 4 vote of the Supreme Court in spite of the fact that Al Gore received a larger national vote overall and clear evidence of fraud, chicanery, voter suppression and bumbling on the part of election officials in Florida, the state that took G Bush over the top. Though the actual vote tally in Florida was very close and even open to interpretation, it was absolutely clear to all impartial observers (without going into tired old details) as well as the biased Supreme Court, that the will of Florida’s voters was to elect Al Gore.
Same is true here in Cambodia. No matter how many individual cases of irregularities are turned up by the National Electoral Commission (which is essentially controlled by the CPP) they are not going to change the final outcome, or lead to a revote. It ain’t gonna happen.
Nonetheless, this year’s vote is historic and game changing and a rude wake-up call to the Prime Minister. No longer does the CPP have the two thirds majority that would allow it to change the constitution at will and no longer can Hun Sen blithely assume that he will remain PM as long as he chooses as opposed to as long as the electorate chooses him. He’s spoken about planning to stay in office for another 20 years and has been grooming his sons to take over from him. Not so certain anymore. Now, if he does wish to remain in office, he’s got to seriously consider the people in his decision-making. He’s been predicting civil war if the opposition wins. In the past he conjured up the specter of civil war if the Khmer Rough tribunal expanded its prosecutions. That totally baffles me: Cambodia is a very peaceful country, there’s absolutely no taste for armed conflict amongst the people. The same is true of America: When the Supreme Court chose G Bush they knew no matter how disgusted or angry a large segment of the population might be, there’d be no armed conflict.
 Moreover, with a personal bodyguard of 10,000 men, and control of the armed services, the PM could take the government by force any time he wished, there’d be no contest whatever. Nothing can challenge his dominance. No amount of demonstrating on the part of the opposition or claims of fraud is going to move him out of his position. And if he did stage a government takeover, there would be economic chaos as the result of international sanctions and opprobrium. His greatest accomplishment, a strong, stable, growing economy, would be in shambles.
And yet he seems to crave legitimacy, else how to interpret his bowing to international pressure and pardoning Sam Rainsy just before the election? And in the latest shift of tone, he has agreed to allow an independent inquiry into vote irregularities that would include the opposition and NGOs and the UN as observers, something he strongly resisted previously.
If I could vote, I’d find it very difficult to choose between the two. On the one hand you have a relatively benign strongman who’s done a lot for the country in regards to stability and growth, but who’s been around way too long. Anyone in office for 28 years as he has been becomes full of themselves and starts to believe they are invincible and infallible. They start to say and do things which they couldn’t if they felt threatened with losing power at the ballot box. Being in office that long also inevitably brings endemic corruption, even if it’s not the financial kind. As the opposition points out there are 200 under secretaries and deputy secretaries of state - a great patronage boondoggle - and hundreds of official advisors. Cambodia has 2000 generals in its armed forces, compared to 500 in the US military with 2000 times the budget. Patronage makes great friends and allies for the government, but it’s generally an unmitigated waste.
Alternatively, you have a fresh face that could begin to tackle corruption and be more responsive to the public but who also is a hot-headed bigot. Here is an example of his extremism; when campaigning amongst people displaced by the filling and eventual development of a large lake near the heart of Phnom Penh, he called the officials who approved it criminals and said they should go to jail for their actions. Personally, I think the filling of that lake was one of the worst decisions ever made by the CPP government, a crime against livability and good planning, but a newly elected leader can’t put people from previous governments in prison for making decisions they don’t like. And a reasonable person can’t even threaten to do that.
Furthermore, the good things he has said about reforming the government have been completely overshadowed in my mind by his racist anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. He’s even gone as far as demanding that Angkor Wat be taken back from the Vietnamese. Here’s how he arrived at that astounding deduction. Sok Kong, richest man in Cambodia, owner of the largest chain of gas stations and a lot more, has the concession to collect admission fees and do maintenance at the temples. He has lived in Cambodia for decades, but he is of Vietnamese descent, which evidently makes him an object of hatred and derision, not to mention idiotic rhetoric. Rainsy regularly uses a derogatory term for the Vietnamese who make up about 5% of Cambodia’s population and as far as I can tell after 12 years here, cause no trouble whatever, at least no more than any other ethnic group living here.
Here’s one example of the result of such racist rhetoric: The people who trashed two police cars in Phnom Penh because they were angry about not finding their names in the vote register also attacked and beat unconscious a man they thought was Vietnamese; turned out he wasn’t. In another incident a fifty-year-old man of Vietnamese descent, who was born in Cambodia, has lived his whole life here and holds a Cambodian ID card, was prevented from voting by a crowd spewing hatred.
Now those are small incidents so maybe there’s no cause for alarm, nonetheless, racially based violence is the last thing this country needs. It’s totally uncalled for and unnecessary and wouldn’t happen at all if the fires of prejudice were not stoked by Sam Rainsy. Khmer hold longstanding grudges towards their large and powerful neighbors - Thailand and Vietnam - on both sides, but have no problem relating to those people on an individual basis. They dislike them in theory, but relate easily as human beings.
On a personal level, Rainsy wants to tighten up on immigration, which might, as he goes after the Vietnamese, spill over into restrictions on people like myself. If they enacted rules similar to Thailand or Philippines, I couldn’t live here since I don’t have sufficient income.
Based on his personal vote count, Sam Rainsy at one time demanded that Hun Sen stand down and promised mass demonstrations if he didn’t. Once again, the likelihood of the PM vacating his post is down around absolute zero, but if Rainsy should persist in his threats of large protests, there well could be violence and bloodshed. The latest word suggests he is backing down from his threats of large protests and that the people who would be out there on the streets are shying away from participating based on the real possibility of violence. The Cambodian police are not averse to using force to break up unwanted demonstrations, but thankfully, fatalities to date have been extremely rare. Hopefully reason and commonsense will prevail and Sam Rainsy will stop fighting a losing battle and accept an important role as leader of the opposition.
Latest news before posting this: The government is massing tanks, armored personal carriers and other military equipment in the outskirts of Phnom Penh ‘to protect the country’ in case of widespread demonstrations threatened by the opposition. The CNRP has been wrangling with the CPP over a committee investigating election irregularities. The CPP is allowing some level of investigation but not enough to satisfy the opposition. Meanwhile, large numbers of garment workers opted to stay home right after the elections, rather than return to work, in fear of violence and chaos, but are slowly returning to their jobs. While events are still unfolding, there can be no doubt who will run the country for the next 5 years.
All told, I’m happy about the preliminary results which keep the CPP in control but give a lot more power to the opposition CNRP. In order for the legislature to conduct business there needs to be a 2/3 quorum, which the CPP no longer has, so Rainsy will have some leverage in enacting legislation he cares about and the PM will have to learn to compromise. Legislation reforming the National Electoral Commission to make it fairer and more representative would certainly be high on Sam Rainsy’s priority list and that would greatly enhance his chances in the next election in 2018. Hopefully before then he will tone down his bigotry or maybe another untainted leader will appear to lead the opposition.

Friday, August 9, 2013


After finishing my article about local beers in the June issue of Bayon I realized there was lots more beer tasting to do since I hadn’t touched on the dark beers and stouts. And since I made such a point of the superior quality of bottles over cans, I also thought I ought to see if I could taste the difference.
One thing I realized in the process of writing the last beer article was that downing a brew is different than drinking for the purpose of critiquing it. While some beers will impress you right off, whether positively or negatively, in most cases you don’t have clear thoughts about what you’re drinking unless you’re concentrating on thinking about describing it.
Further, I thought I should try to be a little more scientific about the tasting and rating by setting up a blind taste experiment. Three of us participated, two blind tasting, the third did the pouring so knew what he was drinking. The blind tasting is important because we all have prejudices which affect our choices. That is similar to how people in medical experiments who receive placebos think they’re getting better.
The first experiment was with five stouts; ABC, Black Panther, City Black, Guinness and Angkor Extra Stout. The last two were in bottles, the rest in cans. Black Panther and City are cheap beers in the $.50 retail category, the other three cost over twice that amount. All are 8% beers except for Guinness which is 6.5%. There are actually quite a few varieties of Guinness circulating in both cans and bottles - awhile back I came across a can that was only 4.5% alcohol which seemed very strange to me. At any rate, I only saw the 6.5% bottle when I went out buying so that’s what we tasted.
As it turns out, somewhat to my surprise, all three of us were in substantial agreement with only minor differences. We all placed ABC and City in the top two spots with ABC rated highest by two of us and City by the third. I wrote ‘bright and bubbly’ for ABC, my pick for first, ‘good but lighter than (ABC) for City my second choice. The other blind taster wrote ‘nutty, alcohol taste, full body, hoppy, lingering after taste’ for ABC. For City he wrote, ‘not impressed, caramel notes, sour, sweetish; but in the end after tasting all five he picked City as his first choice. All three of us placed Guinness at number 4, practically a shock considering its worldwide popularity. I wrote, ‘not great, a little bitter’. The other blind taster sniffed all five glasses before tasting any and correctly picked out Guinness by its smell. He wrote, ‘nutty, semi-heavy, fruity, not much aftertaste’. Myself and the pourer placed Angkor at number 3 and Black Panther at number 5. My fellow blind taster placed them just opposite. For Angkor (which I imagined I would choose as number 1 before the tasting began) I wrote ‘thin but good taste’, the other blind taster put ‘soapy, light, bitter, not much after taste’. For BP I wrote subtle, thin, not much to it. The other wrote ‘sour, light body, (thin).
After touting City lager in the last beer article, it was quite gratifying to see City Black rate so highly in the blind test. I had my doubts, considering how cheap and obscure City beer is and how quite a few people have trashed it, but at least in this case my taste buds came through. They are two different beers so one doesn’t necessarily carry over to the other, but still…
As for non-stout dark beers there are only two that are produced regionally: Kingdom Dark and Lao Dark. Both are lagers, Kingdom is 5%, Lao is 6.5%. The tasting came after drinking the five stouts, which meant I was already climbing way up the tipsy scale. The pourer had shorted himself on quantity – not sure why – so the remaining two of us drank about two mugs worth of stout – equivalent in alcohol content to three average beers – in a relatively short time. That might have been a mistake. The drunker you get the less discerning your palette – at a certain point you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the worst beer and the best.
First to come up was Kingdom, which I correctly identified, though of course I didn’t know that till later. It’s got that expensive-ingredient craft-beer taste, which I like, besides I’m very familiar with it. I wrote ‘bright, light, sweet’. My fellow blind taster wrote ‘sweet bubble gum, light weight body, slight caramel, bright in mouth’. For Lao he wrote, ‘first (choice) at first sip, light, heavier body than (Kingdom)’, (after further tasting) he wrote ‘still number 1’. I wrote ‘thicker’. The other two guys chose Lao over Kingdom, I preferred the later. In hindsight, just for comparison’s sake, I should’ve picked up a bottle of an expensive imported dark like Leffe. I’ve drunk Leffe a few times and it never impressed me as worth several times the cost of a cheap beer, but, as remarked above, you don’t really know a beer until you drink it for the purpose of describing and rating it.
My greatest disappointment regarding beers in Cambo is the dearth of dark beers and the total absence of ales, not to mention bitters, porters and other oddball varieties. I’m not sure why it’s so easy to produce stouts and seemingly insurmountable to brew ales, but I can’t wait for the day that some brave local brewmaster takes on that task. In fact, we do have an unusual homebrew here in Kampot: Angus at CafĂ© Espresso is brewing an 8% alcohol ginger beer. It’s not always consistent, but still ranges from good to excellent. Back in my commune days one of the guys put together a few kegs of homebrew. You buy a ready-made can of malted barley flavored with hops with yeast included, toss in an equal amount of sugar, fill the keg with water and keep warm and in a few days you have green beer ready to bottle. It was excellent. However, there were times when we couldn’t wait to let it age properly and guzzled it down green. Wow was it bad tasting, but it sure got you blasted when it didn’t also make you barf it all back up. At one point he flavored his beer with local indigenous herbs. It tasted great and I wonder why nobody has thought of producing herbal flavored beer commercially.
The next day I set up an experiment involving three sets of bottles/cans to see if we could discern the difference. That involved Angkor, Heineken and Cambodia. First up was Angkor, which I thought sure was Heineken. I also got the bottle/can thing wrong. My fellow blind taster got the bottle/can difference correctly and described Angkor bottle as ‘full body, smooth, balanced, and the can as tinny, bright, sour. As for Heineken, which I thought was Angkor, I couldn’t even guess regarding the bottle/can difference. Once again the other blind taster got it correctly. For the can he wrote, ‘tingly tongue, sweetish, heavy for a lager’. For the bottle he wrote, ‘skunky, non-descript’. He was right on about the skunky smell, though I doubt if I would’ve noticed without him mentioning it. Still, anyone who’s ever been within a mile of a skunk that’s let loose knows that smell intimately. If you happen to be in close proximity when it does its thing, you have to throw your clothes away because there’s nothing you can do to get the stink out.
The third set was Cambodia, or was supposed to be. Somehow between the time I dropped off the beers to be sampled the day before at the friend’s place and tasting time the next day the Cambo can had mysteriously disappeared. Well not so mysteriously, it obviously had been mistakenly imbibed. So what was the poor pourer to do after searching in the fridge high and low? He decided on double blind testing us by pouring a Ganzberg in place of the Cambo can. By then I’d gotten everything wrong – though of course I didn’t know it yet – and continued my losing streak by mistaking the Cambo bottle for a can. The other taster got the bottle thing wrong, his first mistake. Neither of us caught the Ganzberg substitution. Most surprisingly, both the other guys chose Angkor first for taste and Ganzberg second. I was totally flustered by then and couldn’t even choose which beer I liked best.
Compared to the first day when everything, or almost everything, was consistent and clear and we were in substantial agreement, the second tasting day was largely confused and out of sorts, although I’m obviously saying that because I simply was useless at telling the bottle/can difference. The other blind taster got everything right except for the double blind substitution, which nobody could be expected to get. If there actually had been a choice between Cambo bottle and can he might have also gotten that right. There’s a good reason why good quality beers are always put in bottles, not cans, in spite of the extra cost, but I sure couldn’t tell by tasting.
Aluminum reacts with food compared to glass which doesn’t so there must be a subtle difference. In fact I should buy bottles instead of cans out of principle because, regarding food, I never cook out of aluminum pots and am very reluctant to eat cheap, down-home local fare because the food sits in aluminum pots all day. My aversion is helped by the knowledge that they use massive amounts of salt, sugar and MSG, though, except for that, it usually doesn’t taste all that bad.
The blind tasting was edifying and fun and I’ll have to do it again sometime, meanwhile a couple of comments on Kingdom, still my favorite local beer. Whatever financial problems they might’ve been experiencing (if any) have been mitigated somewhat by Brunty ciders leasing one of their bottling lines. For at least a year they’ve got an extra income stream. If Brunty’s is successful, they’ll set up their own plant. So far, they say they’re doing well. I tried a strawberry; it was good but had an unpleasant aftertaste.
One complaint/suggestion I have for Kingdom has to do with the graphic arts on the bottle. The artwork, the animal drawings, are very nicely done but so indistinct I can’t tell what animal it is without my glasses on, and then still not easily. Considering most beers are consumed at night and many of those in dimly lit venues, that’s surely a deficiency. Sharp and clear is what is what all marketing and product design needs to be. Ditto for the writing on the back. The font is so small I can’t possibly read it without glasses even in bright light, though I can read a newspaper under those conditions, though not easily.