Foreign Policy Blogs

Wretched Refuse of Cambodia’s Teeming Shore


After three months of national mourning, Cambodia’s late King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s body will be cremated this upcoming Monday in a ceremony that could only be fit for a king.  As is the case whenever Cambodia draws international attention, the capital city of Phnom Penh is spit shined and polished in an attempt to live up to its local moniker as “the charming city.”

As per the government’s unofficial policy whenever one of these extravagant ceremonies takes place, the homeless and the beggars are rounded up and taken to another part of the city away from the flash bulbs of the scores of foreign correspondents in town to cover the precession.

“My alley has become a homeless camp due to the police sweeps that keep them out of sight and off the main street,” laments long-time expat Johnny Phillips, an owner of a non-profit in Phnom Penh.

Heavily armed security personnel roam the streets with loaded M-16’s. Why you might ask? It’s a very good — and disturbing — question.

There seems to be a paradox of sorts in this country. Khmers are expected and demanded to love their king. However, it would seem that many of the hundreds of thousands packing the capital coming to pay their respects are not welcome.

Many of the government’s policies have served to enrich the political elite whilst maintaining a system in which 30% of the population lives on $1.25 per day, according to the World Bank. Then, the government acts to remove this embarrassing stain on the country whenever the world’s eyes are fixed on Cambodia. It’s like putting a band-aid on a broken jaw.

“I just heard a commotion [outside]…police are loading a street vendor’s monster ice cooler and popcorn rack onto a truck in the dark. Confiscated,” wrote another source on the ground. “That’s the entire earthly possessions of some poor Khmer… is this the true sense of yin and yang?”

Incidentally, the Arab Spring’s origins can be traced to one fruit vendor self-immolating after having his cart confiscated.

So while Khmers begin to say their final farewell to their late King Father this weekend, a quick tour around town can offer a true taste of the real Cambodia.

Photo: KI-Media

  • a foreinger in phnom penh

    I live near the crematory, street 178. Yesterday evening, after a walk on the riverside, I was refused access to the crematory, even while I was explaining to several policemen I lived there. Today my partner came over from Preah Vihear province to pay his respects to the king. He too, was denied access, even when I came over with my lease contract. Finally, after calling a policeman he knew, we were on our way. But thousands of Cambodians are not allowed to have access. Fitting for a king ? Or is this president Hun Sen’s new policy ?


Tim LaRocco
Tim LaRocco

Tim LaRocco is an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Southeast Asia based journalist and his articles have appeared in a variety of political affairs publications. He is also the author of "Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain" (Lambert, 2013). Tim splits his time between Long Island, New York and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Twitter: @TheRealMrTim.