What a two years it’s been since my last trip to Cambodia’s main port town of Sihanoukville and all I can say it’s a sad sad sight. Whilst the city was never a pretty town nor the cleanest when I last visited, it is easily 10times worse today. Any thought of escaping the dust, noise, and pollution of Phnom Penh is quickly dismissed after a slow 6-hour bus ride, arriving in the town feels like through your walking in a construction site.
The reasons have been well reported and obvious to any traveler, simply Chinese money has proliferated the town. Neon signs in Mandarin far outnumber Khmer or English and busloads of young Chinese men that flock to the cities Casinos and Karoke Parlours (glorified brothels) outnumber the locals 1000 to 1.
Nearly all Western run business have been forced out of leases early with lucky ones paid out and others having corrugated iron walls built around them. One such business I remember was run by an Australian man who had meet a local women in the town during a working visit and stayed after she fell pregnant. Opening a bar on the beach to fund what appeared a dream lifestyle and putting his life savings into the business. The entire beachfront that included his bar has now been covered with fencing and whilst I tried to contact him for a catch up I had no luck.
However, whilst many may think that Sihanoukville is just becoming the playground for the ballooning Chinese middle class looking for some ‘R&R’. The town is actually being groomed for much more, seen as a vital role in Xi Jing Ping’s signature Belt and Road Initiate. With the port providing a key asset for both Chinese military and private shipping vessels.
Speaking to a few in the know locals what was sold by the Cambodian government to the local Cambodian’s was a once in a lifetime opportunity for huge business and infrastructure investment. However, the real-life outcome has resulted in anything but, with Chinese investment creating what is called a ‘closed-loop’ system. Think Chinese companies doing business with other Chinese companies, which then bring in Chinese workers. Chinese tourists, traveling in groups handled by Chinese tourist agencies, wanting to stay at Chinese-run hotels and eat at Chinese restaurants.
Whilst Sihanoukville has always a penchant for vice, during my last trip I wrote about the Australian motorcycle gang ‘The Rebels’ had created a chapter there. Chinese gangs are now running huge racketeering operations in the city, including many Chinese nationals with a long history of criminal activity setting up in Sihanoukville. With regular and blatant flouting of traffic laws and serious crime that cultivated a dead body being dumped on the middle of the road during broad daylight last week, encompassing this frontier attitude.
Of course, all of this is nothing new in South East Asia, think about what the Russians have done to coastal parts of Thailand and Vietnam, America to the Philippines and Australia to Bali. Sihanoukville may well prove as a bellwether both economically and politically for Cambodia as the region shifts further away from traditional undisputed Western dominance.
A few photos from Sihanoukville:
These photos were taken next to the town’s famous Lion Roundabout and the show’s the current state of construction in just two years. The 2019 photo is taken under the billboards on the left-hand side the 2016 photo. It also shows the dust and general construction site feel that the town has become.
Storm approaching the main beach of Sihanoukville
The Phillipines held their Mid-term elections this week with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s allies appearing to have held the top spots as unofficial results come through. The midterms have come at a time when the 74-year-old former mayor is seemingly untouchable, with last year’s spiraling inflation now under control and recent polls showing his approval rating sits at a staggering 81 percent.
However, there have also been widespread reporting of vote buying that have somewhat tarnished the perceived democratic process in the country. With President Rodrigo Duterte’s explaining the practice as necessary in a poor country and stating when you start to give money, as I told (the Commission on Elections), that’s not because I’m buying the vote of the fellow. It’s because I’m giving him money to go to the precinct, cast his vote and go home.
Many commentators are speculating President Rodrigo Duterte is consolidating power in the second half of his six-year term as president. Having recruited for his candidates a potent surrogate in his daughter and Davao City Mayor, Sara Duterte, in what is being seen as a succession play for the 2022 presidential election.
Three Thai activists facing charges of insulting the monarchy have disappeared after reportedly being arrested in Vietnam, months after two exiled critics of the military and monarchy died. Chucheep Chiwasut – known as Uncle Sanam Luang – Siam Theerawut and Kritsana Thapthai were reportedly stopped after crossing over the border from Laos into Vietnam a month ago, reportedly using fake passports.
According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnam handed the dissidents over to Thai authorities on 8 May, but they have not been seen since, and there has been no acknowledgment of their arrest and detention. Thailand’s deputy prime minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, denied the activists were in Thai custody.
Thailand has some of the harshest (and enforced) lese-majesty laws in the world with article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code says anyone who insults the king, queen, heir or regent faces a punishment of up to 15 years in prison. Following a military coup in the country in 2014, many activists who were part of the pro-democracy “red shirt” movement and had voiced anti-monarchist sentiment were forced to flee to Laos, where dozens have been hiding out since.
The Week That Was:
I don’t often report news out of Myanmar (Burma) however the releasing of two Reuters journalists Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29 made my top news of the week. Both men were pardoned in traditional new years celebrations (that saw over 6000 other prisoners pardoned too) after being sentenced to seven years in jail. They had already spent 500 days in jail, convicted under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, which dates back to the time of colonial British rule. The charges carry a maximum 14-year prison sentence. For investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys by security forces and Buddhist civilians in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State during an army crackdown that began in August 2017.
The story can be found here as is definitely worth a read: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/myanmar-rakhine-events/
During the ordeal, both men along with their Reuters colleagues were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in April for international reporting, one of journalism’s most coveted and prestigious honors. Media in Buruma is one of the world’s most strict ranked 174th out of 178 by Reporters Without Borders its 2010 Press Freedom Index, with many journalists having been jailed and/or killed for their work.
The Week Ahead:
I returned home this week, flying back into rural Victoria at 7:35am the cold weather had well and truly arrived in Melbourne. The Air Asia flight home was as good as the flight there and I can highly recommend the carrier for anyone on a budget.
Attempting to reenter the country the Australian Border Force was anything but pleasant. Having to stand for over an hour after a long flight is the last thing anyone wants to do and with no select lane for Australian Passport holders, it was truly a bizarre feeling to have to stand in the open immigration queue. Every other airport I have ever visited has had a dual line for locals and foreigners, if anyone has had this experience please send me an email.
Next weeks news and views will open with my trip to the Koh Rong and the 5 days spent on the island paradise.
Harrison White can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org