Saturday, August 27, 2011

Free the bears!

“How we treat our animals reflects how we treat each other”.

So Ghandi got there before me, but I've always
believed that how we care for fellow creatures is a good indication of how civilized we are (or are not) as a society.

On this measure, Cambodia had a head start through its buddhist heritage, with a sense of respect for other living creatures.

But these days, few Cambodians fear being reincarnated as a dung beetle, and when they hear me insisting on just veggies with my rice they often quiz me. My view - that it is cruel and unnecessary to kill animals to eat them - is met with uncomprehending stares: “But cow intestine taste so good!”. I learned to say “You know, like monk?”, and somehow it makes sense. (It’s a bit like when I go for an evening stroll and friends press me to hop on the back of their moto to get there quicker – explaining that I like to walk confirms me as a crazy barrang, but somehow “You know, for sport?” does the trick).

My sense is that Cambodians have become much more practical in their relationships with animals, with compassion (squeemishness if you like) now repressed from a young age. Basically, if a beast is useful to them in some way it will not be mistreated – not because cruelty is wrong, just because it makes sense in order to continue the benefit.

Thus water buffalo are well tended given their usefulness for plowing rice fields and pulling carts – but only as long as they work or reproduce. Pigs are well fed as they grow and breed, but are imprisoned and later killed (or transported in a tiny bamboo cage for someone else to do the dirty work). Dogs are tolerated as they help deter unwanted visitors (both real and imagined), but they live outside, scavenge food, menace visiting white men, and are routinely beaten.

The same goes for wild animals – they are valued only in as much as they provide a material benefit. Once the national animal, the kouprey (grey ox) was killed for meat. It is now extinct. Elephants were only useful if tamed, and again are now rare. The main hope for survival of dolphins in the Mekong is if locals can make money from them through tourism.

Cambodia still has a richly abundant animal life, and is home to 14 globally endangered species, including the Asiatic black (moon) bear, Malaysian (sun) bear, Asian elephant, Indochinese tiger and the Pileated gibbon.

Take the bears: these impressive creatures are threatened because until recently their value has been seen here only as a commodity to sell for public entertainment or private pets, for meat (paw stew anyone?), or - even harder to stomach - for farmers to cage them, insert metal catheters into their gall bladders, and sell their bile as dubious ‘medicine’.

Thankfully there is now a sanctuary for bears (along with elephants, snakes, parrots, minor birds and decidedly scary tigers) at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, 40km south of Phnom Penh. As a leaving present for Katja we both volunteered to be ‘bear keepers’ for a day. What a fantastic experience!

We made up the feed (green beans, biscuits and jam mashed up in a bamboo pole and stuffed with morning glory leaves), and got to hide them in the enclosures to give the bears a stimulating search for food. A real effort has been made to create an interesting environment in the enclosures, not only with forest and plants, but even pools and hammocks!

We then got right up close to the mix of sun and moon bears, learning their different ages and personalities. They’re beautiful and look so cuddly - though I wouldn’t get too near as they have serious claws! We were fortunate to see a baby, which was of course adorable - but we also loved the dark black adults with the distinctive ‘v’ marking, and an older, more orangey female. Thanks to the sanctuary, these wonderful creatures will be safe from cruel practices, and a release programme begins soon in Cambodia’s western Cardomom mountains, working carefully with the local communities.

I thought it was great, and there were plenty of Cambodian visitors enjoying it too. But I couldn’t help thinking that the reasons I cherish the bears - for their beauty, but also what I see as the intrinsic importance of preserving the country’s natural fauna - may not be shared by many others here. Rather, I think they are valued more because of pressure from foreign aid organizations, or as western visitors like us pay good money to see them. Put bluntly, they are only in the sanctuary as they are worth more there than for pets, meat or bile.

Returning to Ghandi’s point, I feel the moral relativism about animals is now also applied to people here. I often feel colleagues at my hospital care for other humans no better or worse than other animals. If they treat them well it is because it is better for themselves to do so. Is it going too far to suggest that that nurses tend patients because they are told to, and because they risk reprimand if they don’t, but not through compassion to relieve the suffering of fellow beings?

So I think the bear sanctuary has an importance beyond preserving wildlife, giving really important hope for this country: if future generations see animals now being treated with compassion, just maybe it will encourage them to care for each other in the same way too.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Preah Vihear is our temple!

Temples I have now seen many, but never before have I been led through the ruins with an armed guard. Holding my hand.

Preah Vihear is undoubtedly an important and impressive historical monument. Unusually for low-lying Cambodia, this temple is imposingly perched high on the Damrack mountains which form the border between present day Cambodia and Thailand.

The elevated setting makes access tricky: from the Cambodia side there is not yet a proper road, with diggers and cement mixers still busily building a route up the steep slope. In stark contrast, the wealthier (or more organized?) Thais had long ago built a tarmac access road. But to no avail: as the battered blue and white sign at the entrance proclaims "Preah Vihear is our temple". The Thai road stops abruptly just short of the hill, and visiters can go no further - the border has now been closed to Thais.

Our taxi only took us the foot of the mountain on the Cambodian side, where we transferred to a motorbike, who skillfully maneuvered us up the increasingly steep and treacherous slope. We had to get off and walk at one point, but overall it was an impressive effort!

The mountain is so high it was shrouded in mist – another rare experience for lowland Cambodia. This added a mysterious, atmospheric feel, as it swirled around the ancient Hindu ruins. It also meant that the temple unfolded gradually, each of the five sections progressively taking shape as we climbed.

I call them ruins, though it at least seemed little damaged from the Khmer Rouge period – or indeed little restored since. However, the soldiers took me by the hand (literally) and pointed out new bullet holes and smashed sections of ancient friezes, clear evidence of the conflict earlier this year. It was really saddening to see this happening to a UNESCO world heritage site even now, in 2011.

It was similarly depressing – if hardly surprising – to see the clumsy nationalist rhetoric on signs around the temple: “I have pride to be born as Khmer”. What nonsense! You can’t be proud (or ashamed) over something over which you had no control. It like saying you’re proud to possess opposable thumbs or have an inward-pointing tummy button.

A truer description of what it was really like came from speaking to an old soldier. He showed me where, just a few weeks earlier, he had sheltered from missiles. No bravado here: “I was really scared” was all he said.

None of this could take away from the beauty of the place though. We admired the intricate (and highly phallic) carvings, enjoyed banging our chests with the soldiers in the ‘’echo chamber”, and amused ourselves by haggling over how much we should pay for our ‘tour’.

Fortunately the only fighting now seems to be among the semi-wild dogs who lurk around the shabby military tents and bunkers. And the news from Thailand is positive: with a new prime minister elected, it is hoped people can get back to admiring this temple for its charm and history.

To brighten our mood further, as we started our decent the cloud cover lifted, revealing a fantastic panorama of dark green forest and lowland rice fields across both Cambodia and Thailand below.

As we stood admiring the landscape, I realized there was another view right in front of me, one which summed up my mixed feelings about the whole visit: leaning against the ancient wall was a peace offering of quietly smoking incense sticks; next to them was propped a rifle. Let's hope the incense wins out.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree

I was shocked – horrified – baffled – on my arrival at the hospital this morning. Unbelievably, we seemed to have been attacked by vandals. It was not a pretty sight.

Fires still smoldered around the flagpole, and the shop under the tamarind tree, the social centre of the hospital, had not only been destroyed, but virtually all evidence of its existence removed.

Touring the wards there was more damage: one of our alcohol dispensers at the entrance to obstetrics had disappeared, blue dye had been smeared around the lab, and the bins outside paediatrics had been upturned and the contents strewn everywhere.

Worse still was the scene in the new xray room, only open a few weeks as part of our state of the art surgery unit. Someone had taken to the walls with black paint, daubing every surface possible, including the shiny new sink and once-sparkling white tiles.

It was a scene of devastation, and my heart sank.

Perhaps worst of all, the staff appeared to have been scared away by the attack, with no more than half a dozen to be found in the entire hospital. What a disaster!

This crime spree was all the more shocking as I don’t consider Cambodia to have much of a problem with vandalism, or any other criminal activity.

Although, of course, there has been one almighty crime here, which dwarfs even hospital vandalism: the Khmer Rouge regime committed unspeakable atrocities during their reign of terror from 1975-1979, and it is only this year that the first person was held criminally responsible for their part in it (that was Comrade Duch, who led the infamous S21 prison and torture centre). Four more senior leaders are just beginning their defence in front of the snappily-titled 'Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea'.

As it happens, I had just finished reading the latest of Shamini Flint’s southeast Asia-based crime novels, and this one is set in Cambodia, against these trials.

Flint’s tale takes this backdrop to showcase her likeable detective, the portly, white-sneaker wearing, chain-smoking, curry and beer loving Inspector Singh. There are some telling descriptions of Cambodia, and a plot which skips along nicely despite the dark background. Singh struggles to understand or work with his Cambodia counterpart, Colonel Menhay – a difficult relationship which echoes many of the joys and frustrations I have felt in working in this beautiful, beguiling country.

Thinking of such frustrations reminided me of the crime spree at my hospital - it was time to start some detective work of my own.

After gently interrogating a couple of nurses it appeared that the staff weren’t scared of a ferocious felon as much as taking a ‘well-earned break’’ whilst the Director was at a training day.

In the absence of the normal handyman, a random bloke from the pharmacy had decided to try his hand with the petrol strimmer, burning his mini-mountains of clippings and plastic bags, and starting various grass fires around the flagpole. He had also, he explained proudly, seen off the wild dogs who had been upsetting the bins.

The blue stains also turned out to be staff-inflicted - apparently something to do with malaria testing (my Khmer language didn’t get me any further than that),

Then the man who used to run the shop appeared, looking decidedly unhappy. It transpired he had been made to leave, but by the hospital rather than any vicious vandal. It seemed this was ‘because of the new surgery ward’ – I think as he used the previous building to store his goods and to sleep in when his shop flooded.

My fears of a crazy criminal were fading, but there was still a scene of devastation in the new xray room. Bang on cue the radiographer appeared – not in fury or despair, but rather with an unexpected grin on his face. “You like new paint room Mr Oly?” he beamed. “Need black, no light for develop film”.

My jaw dropped – he had done that to his own room! In fact, they’d all done it: perhaps there weren’t even any crimes to speak of, nor any destructive delinquent (or at least, only the staff themselves).

Though there was still one unresolved issue - what happened to the santizer in obstetrics? On interrogation the midwives shrugged and tutted a lot, wringing their unwashed hands, but there were no witnesses, no clues.

So the absent alcohol gel remains a mystery. Perhaps we will be needing the services of Inspector Singh here after all…

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Let's talk about sex!

A young western guy comes to Cambodia looking for kicks, and – along with drugs and guns – he gets them from hooking up with a pretty local girl in Phnom Penh’s infamous Heart of Darkness nightclub.

Then it starts to go wrong. He falls for her, asks her to stop selling sex; she demands money, asks him to stay in Cambodia and get married.

This, I hasten to add, is not about me! Rather, it’s the plot of the recent film Same Same But Different. The girl’s later revelation that she has HIV certainly complicates matters, but the depiction of Cambodia as a destination for sex tourism is undeniable.

So what’s the problem?

Well, much of the debate is the same about the sex trade in any country. When it comes to child abuse or slavery these are clearly terrible crimes.

But why shouldn’t a women (or man) be free to sell her body if she chooses to? Indeed, why shouldn’t a man be free to buy sex, as long as it’s between consenting adults? And by making all or parts of it illegal, don’t we just drive the inevitable (the oldest profession) underground, away from lawful taxpaying and towards organized crime?

Yet where is the freedom for poor, young women with nowhere else to go? And isn’t there something not just distasteful but wrong about the rich and powerful being allowed to buy even the bodies of the poor and powerless? Shouldn’t the most vulnerable be protected, from both abuse and diseases such as HIV? Below the belt it may be, but the clincher for me is the old chestnut: would you be happy if your mum / sister / daughter were a prostitute? Of course not.

The approach here in Cambodia, as with most things, is ultra-liberal. Anything goes, if you have money you can buy it, which is why sex tourists swill around downtown Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.

Whilst many of the punters are westerners, it is worth noting there are plenty of Asian sex tourists too. And Cambodian men, who by day lecture me about the importance of marriage and traditional values, by night find it totally acceptable to pay for sex in euphemistically named ‘karaoke bars’.

Prostitution is one thing, but what about longer-term relationships between Cambodians and westerners?

Part of me really welcomes these: the cultural exchange, the overcoming of national boundaries, the romance of love beyond borders. Last month I went to the wedding of a young American volunteer with her Cambodian boyfriend, and it was great. I really admired how they stuck with it despite opposition from friends, families, employers and the police (who even tried to evict all the westerners from the village the night before the ceremony, until a call was made to a suitably well-connected acquaintance).

Even with the more common older white man / younger Cambodian woman match, I know a number of very honorable men who have come to Cambodia and genuinely fallen in love with beautiful but also smart and articulate Cambodian women – what’s not to like?

But there are doubts – most such couplings are older, richer, uglier white men with younger, poorer, prettier Cambodian girls. Isn’t this somehow distasteful? Though is it any worse than if they were both western? Or both men? Or a rich woman and a poor guy (that happens too, though less obviously and probably much less often).

Perhaps it is because, bluntly, the relationships often amount to long-term prostitution – the girl gets money (a house, a passport, an income) and the man gets the girl. I confess that my heart sinks at the sight of shuffling ‘sexpats’ and their bored, compromised escorts.

But maybe they settled for the best they can get? Or even feel they made a good catch? And – tellingly – if I were a 60 year old single bloke I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t be tempted to enjoy the company of a stunning Cambodian beauty less than half my age – can you blame me?

So what about volunteers? What are our rights and responsibilities here? Interestingly, a straw poll showed a significant gender split.

Female volunteers seem to be pretty clear that their male counterparts should be very careful about ‘dating’ Cambodian girls. A casual affair for a volunteer may be ruinous for a local girl’s reputation, not to mention relationships at work and the reputation of our organization. And they are generally downbeat about the chances of romance with Cambodian men, who they see as having rather too ‘traditional’ views about the place of a women.

Male volunteers responded rather differently. We’re here to play as well as work, and Cambodian girls can be both stunningly beautiful and irresistibly playful. We’re not here to put our lives on hold – and in fact what better way to learn more about the culture, the language, the ‘real Cambodia’ than to date a native? Those from other Asian countries such as India and the Philippines may be particularly likely to slip into the karaoke bar culture – it may be distasteful to western women, but they can hardly be accused of going against the local values! Meanwhile, younger western volunteers laugh that the girls are just bitter because of their own slim pickings.

So where does that leave us?

As always it all comes down to role-modeling. Put simply, if our sexual behaviour is abusive, insensitive, destructive then it’s bad. If it’s loving, sensitive and productive then it’s good.

If in doubt, we would do well to remember the apocryphal story of the American visitor giving a welcome address in Khmer, who proudly stated he had come “to help the Cambodian people”. Unfortunately he mixed up the verb to help (chooi) with that for fuck (choi).

Let’s talk about, let’s enjoy sex. But let’s not forget we’re here to help.