Photo: Foreign Policy Association I don’t like saying that the majority of Americans are ignorant when it comes to foreign policy, but when you read some of the statistics that were listed in a recent article in the magazine named after this very subject, it’s disconsolately hard to deny. Take my mother for example. She is the type of person who believes that President Obama is some kind of Arab/Kenyan/Communist secret agent who is trying to destroy America from the inside out. As I was living with my parents and going to graduate school, I would often come home from class and go off on these long-winded soliloquies in an attempt to talk sense into her. Eventually, though, I just stopped trying and/or caring. During a recent Skype call back home, I told my mother about how I was now on vacation in Thailand, having arrived from Cambodia where I currently live. “Oh, that must have been a really long flight,” she said. “No, mom. It’s about 10 hours by bus from Phnom Penh to Bangkok.” “But isn’t Cambodia next to Brazil?” I don’t know if she was confusing Cambodia and Colombia, or something else entirely. But I quickly steered the conversation to a lighter topic, such as my impending visit to a Bangkok zoo. As I anticipated, the true meaning of my double entendre went over her head. As we approach election day in America, I adhere to this philosophy: a good foreign policy doesn’t really help a candidate, but a bad foreign policy can have the potential to ruin an entire candidacy. FPA released it’s National Opinion Ballot Report recently, which attempts to encapsulate the opinions of cognizant citizens on the topics presented in the Great Decision series. I touched on the Indonesia episode earlier this year. There were some interesting findings, many of which went against the conventional wisdom one would expect Americans to believe. But, then again, the individuals who took part in the survey seemed to be more involved, or at least interested, in foreign policy in general than the average American. The Foreign Policy Association aims to inspire Americans to learn about the world. However, what do foreigners think about America? True, they cannot vote, nor can they have a voice in the American electoral process, but outside opinions should not be dismissed as irrelevant. I am often asked about America’s perception abroad by my friends. So, I decided to conduct a survey of my university students in Cambodia on the upcoming American election and American and international politics in general. University students often hold strong opinions, and can be very ideological. It may offer the possibility of a blunt assessment about what foreigners understand about America. Or, it may just be the opinions of a few random students. But that’s what surveys are for. This was a paper-based survey which the students were instructed to fill out quietly and by themselves. It’s my smallest class (nine students), but also my most advanced. It is an academic writing course, not a political science one. I am only going to publish the results of the study; the analysis can be left up to the reader. Students: 9 Male: 3 Female: 6 Ages 17: 1 18: 5 19: 1 20: 1 25: 1 Question 1: Do you know who Barack Obama is? Yes: 9 No: 0 Question 2: Do you know who Mitt Romney is? Yes: 0 No: 9 Question 3: Do you know about the upcoming elections in the United States? Yes: 8 No: 1 Question 4: Do you know who the Vice President of the United States is? Yes: 1 (student answered incorrectly when the questionnaire said: “If yes, write the name in the blank.”) No: 8 Question 5: Do you believe the United States is friendly with Cambodia? Yes: 7 No: 2 Question 6: Write which country you feel is friendliest with Cambodia. China: 6 votes Russia: 2 votes Vietnam: 1 vote Question 7: Do you think the United States gives Cambodia economic assistance/aid? Yes: 4 No: 5 Question 8: Would you like the United States to provide more economic assistance/aid to Cambodia? Yes: 1 No: 8 Question 9: Do you think the United States is more concerned with peace or power? Peace: 2 Power: 7 Question 10: Write one word that you associate with the United States. Money: 5 Bombs: 1 Guns: 1 Power: 1 Iphone: 1
Not to underestimate the cult of personality which Cambodia’s late King Father Norodom Sihanouk engendered, approximately one million people reminded us of his revered presence in the country by lining the streets from Pochentong International Airport all the way to the Royal Palace on Wednesday as his body was flown in from China
Photo: AFP/Getty It was 1940 and the City of Lights had gone dark. Men of importance of Vichy France were meeting in order to decide how to manage their overseas colonies and protectorates in light of the new global reality — Hitler strolling along the Champs-Élysées as the Nazis occupied Paris. In Indochina, specifically Cambodia, many members of the monarchy had already elucidated the nous n’aimons pas les Français refrain a little too much for Vichy’s liking. But there was a teenage boy, however, several pegs down the totem poll of Cambodia’s royal succession whom the French thought might well tow the Vichy line. His name was Norodom Sihanouk, and the French, thinking he could easily be malleable into their puppet, would not be the last ones to deprecate him. The former King Sihanouk died on Sunday in Beijing. He was 89-years old. Flags were ordered flown at half-staff throughout the country as a period of mourning was set to commence in a country where any special day of the monarch or its family is reason enough to declare a public (and unpaid for workers) holiday. Sihanouk’s legacy is rather mixed. He succeeded in kicking the French out just a decade into his rule. And, as one of the founding members of the non-aligned movement, tried to keep Cambodia neutral during the Cold War. He abdicated the thrown in 1955 in order to become Prime Minister, and his foreign policy thenceforth was a disaster due to a litany of factors. It was a constant balancing act between placating a multitude of actors: the U.S. and his communist neighbors, most notably China and Vietnam. U.S. bombing raids during the Vietnam War would routinely target communist fighters who had traversed the border. This resulted in a massive American bombardment of Cambodia. In 1970, an American-backed coup forced Sihanouk to flee to China. However, with even higher suspicions of the Vietnamese communists, Sihanouk soon found himself allying with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Some historians have mistakenly taken this as Sihanouk’s support for the Khmer Rouge, but his “alliance” with them was mainly out of self-interests and necessity. When the Khmer Rouge drove out the Vietnamese in 1975, Sihanouk, who had since re-adopted the title of King, returned home but was virtually a prisoner in his own palace. Against a backdrop of absurd communist dictates, the Khmer Rouge systematically destroyed the country and its culture in only four years until the Vietnamese sent them running to the Thai border. The Vietnamese installed a former Khmer Rouge military commander, Hun Sen, as Prime Minister. He still holds that title today, with only a brief spell out of power since then. With age, Sihanouk became increasingly frail and always sought out the quality medical care available in China. He abdicated a second time in 2004 which allowed his son to claim the thrown. Despite vowing months ago to die in Cambodia, he ultimately was unable to keep his promise. In Cambodia, those who can afford to leave the country for healthcare do so without question. Tonight, as I write this post from a cafe adjacent and across from the Royal Palace, I can see hundreds of mourners outside paying their respects; a huge portrait of Sihanouk is lit up in the center of the Palace. He is remembered fondly amongst the older generation who recall him expelling the French from the country. Independence Monument, a center of activity in the capital of Phnom Penh, was erected to celebrate that achievement. It stands, appropriately, on the intersection of Norodom Boulevard and Sihanouk Boulevard. Sihanouk’s body will lie in state for three months after which his remains will be cremated and put into a solid golden urn in the Royal Palace.
Independent radio host Mam Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly inciting a secession movement. Photo: Reuters Over the past weeks and months, in the shadows of other, more prominent global events, and with the world’s attention focused on other places, Cambodia has ceased being a democracy. If that statement sounds exaggerated, allow me to recap some of the more infamous shenanigans which have turned this former war torn nation into a modern day banana republic. Last January, just as I was arriving in Cambodia, I observed hundreds of people in a very poor district in the capital city of Phnom Penh being kicked out of their homes without compensation. At the time, I wrote this for Dissent Magazine: Approximately seventy people sat outside the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh last week in the sweltering heat because, quite frankly, they had nowhere else to go. They were members of some 300 families who were forcibly evicted from their homes in Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila district on January 3. Their homes were bulldozed to make way for corporate development. Land grabbing has been a hallmark of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration over the years. In July, a major Russian rubber corporation, Casotim, seeking to exploit a potential wealthy stretch of land in Kratie province, became embroiled in a dispute with local villagers. Shortly after, police raided the commune, resulting in the shooting death of a 14-year old girl; witnesses say the young girl was cowering in her house when she was shot. One man who is an outspoken critic of this practice is Mam Sonando, an independent radio host. He was arrested in the days following the police raid in Kratie and was charged with inciting a secessionist rebellion against Hun Sen’s government. On Monday, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Mr. Sonando is currently 70-years old and reportedly suffers from a number of medical problems. International condemnation of the farcical conviction was swift. Amnesty International called it “shocking and baseless,” adding that no evidence was produced against Mr. Sonando at his trial. The U.S. embassy released its typical bland statement about “being concerned” but did call for the activist’s immediate release. On a related topic, the issue of logging has led to some gruesome ends for two environmental activists. I covered the death of Chut Wutty for The Diplomat Magazine in April and May. He was shot in Koh Kong Province after he refused to hand over his camera’s memory stick to a military policeman. The policeman than allegedly killed himself, and the whole thing was to be investigated. To this point, nothing has been done except to attempt to sweep the whole bloody affair under the carpet. Then, just last month, another journalist who highlighted the government’s corruption and negligence with respect to the logging issue was found hacked to death with an axe and stuffed into the trunk of his car. In his last article, Hang Serei Oudom of the Vorakchun Khmer Daily newspaper had “accused the son of a military police commander of smuggling logs in military-plated vehicles and extorting money from people who were legally transporting wood.” When activists and journalists who call out the political and economic leaders of a country are either thrown in prison or murdered, that is not democracy. Readers might react unsurprised if this were a story about Iran, North Korea, or perhaps some South American countries where outspoken individuals have a proclivity for simply disappearing. Now, you won’t be shocked the next time this happens in Cambodia. Did I mention that I’m writing this post from my apartment in Phnom Penh? If you don’t hear from me in awhile, perhaps you should assume the worst.
The late Dear Leader on the cover of the menu at Pyongyang Restaurant.Photo: Vimeo I step through the doors of the packed out Pyongyang restaurant on Monivong Boulevard in Phnom Penh and catch the eye of a very beautiful young Korean waitress. She traverses the crowded dining room and comes over to me with a bright smile on her face. “Table for two?” she asks, seeing my friend behind me. Despite my propensity to act cool in uncomfortable situations, I utterly fail on this night. I stutter initially, taken aback by her English, give her several nods of the head accompanied by my boyish grin and fall into line behind her not saying a word. North Korea. The name of the country alone usually elicits a shake of the head from most Westerners. This is not due to the people of North Korea, however. This is due, naturally, to the autocratic – and at many times, bizarre acting – political leadership of this isolated nation. To be fair, I am not in North Korea. I am in a North Korean government-run and operated chain restaurant in the Cambodian capital, one of several located across Southeast Asia. The restaurant offers a variety of dog meat dishes and soups, and is heavy on oxtail as well. Each meal comes with a hefty side portion of steamed rice, a paradox of sorts for an eatery named after a country which suffers from calamitous food shortages. However, the food is the last reason I chose to patronize the establishment. The natural curiosity to interact with North Korean citizens and perhaps gain insight into their attitudes and beliefs was too good of an opportunity to pass up because of misplaced Western apprehension. The waitress, her name was Ru Mun Ok according to her name tag, smiled at my friend and I throughout the night as we pillaged our way through two plates of barbeque chicken and kimchi dumplings surrounded by mostly South Korean diners. After we finished eating, and after we finished watching some truly remarkable stage performances including traditional Korean dance and music routines, I called her over. “Where in North Korea are you from?” I asked. “Pyongyang,” she responded. “Have you ever seen an American in the restaurant before?” “No,” was the one-word reply. “Do you know who owns the restaurant?” “My boss,” she said, pointing to the corner of the dining room. “Why did you come to Cambodia?” “Internship,” she answered. At this point, I did not really see a point in continuing a discussion into anything serious about her fatherland, so I simply thanked her for the meal and asked for the check. One gets the sense that there is something strange going on in the restaurant. Rumors abound that the women (there were no male wait staff that I observed) are not permitted to leave the grounds unaccompanied by a chaperon of sorts. Others have asserted that the restaurant is used as a front for a money laundering scheme. Whether that is true I don’t know. North Korea is such a misunderstood and confusing place that it’s not a stretch to think that no one really knows what is going on. It is a fundamental concept of international relations that country X never knows the intentions of country Y. This is true even of allies, to say nothing of a country which was lumped into the “axis of evil” by the U.S. government. Perceptions, intentions, and miscommunications: these are all too common factors in the West’s dealing with the North Korean regime. But in a country that is so shrouded in secrecy and mystery, it makes the job of international negotiators and diplomats that much harder. Thus, gaining an accurate understanding on the “Hermit Kingdom” has been a virtually impossible task for Western governments, which in turn leads to even more mistrust. As stated before, most of the patrons are South Koreans, and they have no trepidation about running up on stage and singing Korean karaoke with the North Korean women. This is not surprising as many South Koreans favor reunification with the North. I was hoping to break down some of the stigmas and stereotypes of North Koreans myself as an American. Unfortunately, Ms. Ru Mun Ok was a bit too tight-lipped for my questions. Should this come as a surprise? Maybe not.