Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hairline cracks

So I guess honeymoon’s over, huh?” I heard my husband said a week ago.

Hmmm…it only takes 8 months but still, it isn’t the worst record so far. It was much shorter in Ethiopia. For me, it was about one month. In Afghanistan, it was about a year and Timor Leste, it never really stopped. The 10 months that I was there had been more or less a bliss, right until the end and if I could, I wanted to go back for more.

The honeymoon period I’m referring to is the length of time taken for reality to set in, you know, all the novelty of being in a new country where everything seems new, exciting and exotic until one day, you realize that things aren’t that rosy after all.

What is the deal breaker for Cambodia? Yesterday morning while waiting for my ride to work, I read on the front page of the Cambodia Daily of a crime so heartless and cruel that it made my stomach churned. Just a day ago, I passed by Wat Lanka, a temple close to my apartment and saw some sort of big ceremony. At first glance, I thought it was just another religious ceremony that the locals are so fond of, but quickly deduced that it was a funeral judging from the sombre mood and the pre-dominantly white attire worn by those in attendance.

It was then revealed on the paper that the funeral was for three children, savagely killed at their home last Sunday. Apparently, two armed men had carried out the triple murder, but not before torturing them first, forcing one of the victims to call her mother home to witness the crime and then finishing them off by smashing their skulls with steel pipes.

According to the local police, “This is a case of revenge.” The father of the two victims is a prominent figure in Cambodia. He is the Director of the Royal Academy for Judicial Professionals. Last week, he was put on the spotlight when rumours circulated that students were paying between USD20 – 30,000 to be eligible for a position in the courts upon graduation. It is not clear how this is related to the crime in terms of motive.

This is not the first time I’ve read incidents and crimes motivated by revenge in Cambodia. A popular method is splashing acid on the targeted person. I’ve also heard that it costs USD300 to hire a hit man to get rid of someone. Apparently a few years ago, it was much less, only USD100. Over the last 8 months, I’ve read fatal incidents involving gunshot in broad daylight in the middle of busy streets. Most of these crimes are committed by jealous spouses, over land dispute or injured egos.

I could easily ignore this kind of news before but not this time. Anyone who could have the heart to orchestrate the murder of three innocent children, whether for revenge or not, is beyond my comprehension. And if it was indeed out of personal revenge, I am now thinking twice before voicing out my opinion in case I unconsciously step on anyone’s toes.

I know someone who is in the midst of firing a local staff for gross misconduct. I must admit that after reading this news, I felt a bit uncomfortable, afraid for the person’s safety. The thought of being over-paranoid did come across my mind but then again, being relatively new to the country, I wasn’t sure whether the fear was as unfounded as I thought. I also question whether I would have reserved the same amount of respect and esteem for the person if he were to compromise his integrity and principles for fear of reprisal.

I talked to a colleague of mine who has been living in this country for 7 years and is married to a Cambodian. She told me never to take the typical smiles and hospitality of Cambodians for granted. Beneath the amiable facade, there is a sort of hidden sinister side often triggered by jealousy and loss of pride/face. She didn’t think that anything will happen to my friend but losing face (as a consequence of being fired) is a greater wrath than losing a job, particularly if the person’s incompetency is made known to others. According to her, Cambodians in general do not welcome criticism, more so in public, and do not like to be held responsible for any wrong doing. She warned me that when dealing with Cambodians, diplomacy, politeness and discretion must be strictly observed.

Strangely enough, these characteristics are very similar to those in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Timor Leste but the truth is, I haven’t felt as worried as I do now. I think it has a lot to do with appearance. I went to Afghanistan with a clear understanding and expectation of the culture. I knew that it would be potentially a dangerous work place and hence, I was mindful of the possibility of being harmed. Since Afghans are extremely conservative and proud, I was prepared to face any unpleasant reaction from those who might not approve of my views, particularly when it concerned human rights. Besides, the real threats often came from the Taliban, their sympathizers and warlords out of political or religious motivation.

Ethiopians are equally proud people and it is difficult to gain their trust. They too are warm, friendly and hospitable people. However, they usually display their dislikes for someone by ignoring or snubbing them. The Timorese whom I had come across were more ready and eager to express their intentions and hence, more transparent and easier to read.

What has made it more difficult for me in light of this new revelation is how long it took me to look beyond the appearances and I almost wish that I didn’t. I think it’s also important for me to clarify here that it would be completely unfair and wrong for me to generalise all Cambodians and the other nationalities mentioned above. It’s equally important to acknowledge that high crime rates are manifestation of low and weak law enforcement.

About a year ago, my husband and I were discussing about where we would like to settle down eventually. He prefers somewhere along the Mediterranean Sea while I prefer the Indian Ocean. Wherever it may be, we both know that unless we are able to look beyond idealism and accept the fallibilities of governments, societies and people, we will not be happy anywhere. I spent most part of my time in Ethiopia by loathing the country and being utterly unhappy. It wasn’t until towards the end of my stay that I began to live and start to see the positive side of things. Once I was able to open up my heart, there was room for other things apart from anger and bitterness and that was how  I made my peace and thankfully, it was not too late.

So, I think it’s important for us to learn to embrace life as it is; all the imperfections and perfections that come with it. Above all, not to allow our lives to be over powered by irrational fear which is ultimately the most debilitating of all diseases. It prevents you from living. A wall doesn’t cease to be a wall despite all its hairline cracks.

In the mean time, I will also remember my Mother’s advice to me when I first left home.  “Do not harm others but do not allow others to harm you as well.” What she meant was (mostly referring to my initial naiveté) while I should not hurt others, I should be weary of others who might and hence should be wise enough not to present any opportunity for others to endanger my life.


  1. I think it is the western styled education that makes us believe in being open about everything we expect ppl. to be as frank as we are . But it is the asian culture to be secretive and furtive in our actions. We are multi layered and harder to read. For me, I prefer this than a 'bare my soul' kind, no mystery to a person. The the brutal killing..... where did they learn it form I wonder?

  2. Recently, there was a case in Malaysia where illegal loan sharks kidnapped a 3 year old boy and drowned him in the river, probably as a warning to members of the boy's family that their loan had not been fully paid.

    The police are baffled at the cruelty of the act as normally, these loan sharks would sent someone in the dead of night to splash red paint on a defaulter's property to serve as a warning but not murder.

  3. Ms. Kong Piang,

    as attractive as it sounds to be mysterious, it can be as equally dangerous. I don't subscribe to the extreme mentality of baring one's soul (as seen on Oprah, Dr. Phil, Jerry Springer, realities show et al) or bragging the accomplishment one has, but I also dislike pretention and hypocricy. I prefer honesty and being real.

    I think there is a line to be drawn between being "mysterious", hypocritical, private and discrete.

    Here's something to ponder over:

    Two women. One's a prostitute and the other, a beautiful, educated but manipulative woman. The second woman has a habit of seducing rich men so that she can benefit from the men financially and status wise. Who's a bigger whore?

  4. Whatmeworry,

    this makes me sick and hopefully, it'll be a lesson for those thinking to borrow money from loan sharks since we can't rely on our law enforcement officer to crack down crime.