musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for August, 2013

The Road to Smiles

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I’m back in Shan State this week. I arrived in Nyaungshwe yesterday after five days in Mandalay. It’s been a bit rainy at times, but at least I’m not having to endure multiple showers each day like we’ve been getting in Bangkok.

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Every visit to Myanmar yields its share of surprises and changes, and this trip has been no different. The biggest change, even from six months ago when I last visited, is the plethora of cell phones in use. Actually, the condition has gone from a negligible percentage of the populace owning a phone to a whole lot of people owning one. Or at least playing with a mobile device of some sort. Because of recent changes in technology, this means that the current consumers in Myanmar, after doing without for so many years, have skipped several generations of phones. Thus, they aren’t content with having a simple cell phone at this point, they want the latest iThing on the market. The devices, and also the price of SIM cards, has dropped dramatically this year, however the income of most locals has not risen sufficiently to be able to buy all the new gadgets on the market.

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I made my usual first-day treks to Shwe Yan Pyay monastery in Nyaungshwe, where I had a nice chat with the always kind Saya Daw and made plans with one of the monks, Pyin Yaw So Daw, to take him and a few other novices to Kakku and Taunggyi later in the week. In the afternoon I cycled east of town to the village of Tat Ein. I was surprised to see no school in session, but this isn’t the first time they’ve had breaks in the middle of the week.. Some of the kids were hanging out near the classroom and playing games,and when they saw that I had arrived and was bearing scads of photos from our field trip earlier in the year, a crown soon formed.

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The kids told me that two of the teachers had left the school, replaced recently by two new ones. The head monk, U Sandimarr, was nursing a fever, but he still insisted on greeting me, and made time for a short chat. After that I hiked up the hill to the monastery, where I found the group of novice monks had grown from about 30 to 50! Unfortunately. the young monk who acted as my photography assistant last time, Sandartika, has moved on to a different monastery. Once again, this is a fairly common practice, so I wasn’t shocked, just disappointed I couldn’t give him the  photo album I had made for him. But I managed to appoint a new photographer from amongst the throng and you’ll see the results of his photos sometime next month.

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Mandalay Weekend

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My bags are packed, documents are in order, and this weekend I will be back in Mandalay; hunting down Mr. Htoo to see if he’s free for dinner at Aye Myit Tar, making fun of Nyein Htun’s latest hairdo, and catching up with my friends over on 90th Street. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to this trip very much.

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I’ll be in Mandalay for a few days, then off to Shan State, where I’ll teach an English class at the primary school in Tat Ein village, visit the monks at Shway Yan Pyay Kyaung (I promised a couple of them that we’d go to see the ruins in Kakku), and catch up with friends such as Htein Linn and Ma Pu Su. And then I’ll return to Mandalay for a few more days before going back to Bangkok and resuming my daily work routine. A quick trip this time; I won’t even visit Yangon or Bagan.

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Hopefully, I’ll have time for one or two posts while I’m away, but no promises. I plan to be riding bikes — while dodging farm animals of all sizes and vehicles of all types — on the main streets of the city and back roads in the countryside. Rainy season is in full swing, so I’ve got umbrellas and a raincoat packed too. Hey, I was a boy scout, so you can bet that I’m prepared!

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Elmore Leonard’s Last Ride

I was very saddened today to hear about the death of author Elmore Leonard. I was a big Elmore Leonard fan, having read nearly everything he ever wrote, except for a few of his early westerns, a recent short story collection, and the children’s books.

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I have vivid recollections of the first time I ever heard of Elmore Leonard. It was, I’m pretty sure, in 1988, and I was doing a phone interview for a music magazine with Dan Stuart, the leader of the great band Green on Red. When I asked what he was reading lately, Dan mentioned the new Elmore Leonard novel, Freaky Deaky. I had to confess ignorance; who was Elmore Leonard? The name sounded like some old blues musician! Dan Stuart, however, soon set me straight, giving me a quick crash course in the greatness of Elmore. Dan Stuart sounded like he knew what he was talking about — and anyone that can record an album as amazing as Gravity Talks, will always be cool in my opinion — so curiosity got the best of me and the next day I tracked down a copy of Freaky Deaky. I devoured that book in a few short days. It was like a drug; I needed more Elmore! I tracked copies of his older crime fiction novels at used book shops in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami, and then began buying hardcover editions when new novels came out every year afterwards.

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So yeah, I became a big fan. In fact, I would say that reading Elmore Leonard was my inspiration for discovering other crime fiction authors too; everything from the old classic writers such as Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, to Florida legends like John D. MacDonald and James W. Hall, and the new generation of greats such as Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Ed McBain, John Sandford, Michael Connelly … and well, you get the idea. I became a crime fiction fanatic. Thanks to Elmore Leonard. And a tip of the hat — and guitar — to Dan Stuart too!

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After reading most of his crime fiction I also began reading some of the old westerns that Elmore Leonard wrote early in his career. I would never consider myself a fan of cowboy stories or westerns, but Elmore made these stories riveting. And really, they weren’t actually that much different than his crime novels, utilizing crisp dialogue and oddball characters to create very atmospheric settings and action-packed tales. Even his short stories were cool. About the only book I haven’t liked was his recent novel, Djibouti. But hey, the guy was 87, and reportedly working on a new novel, at the time of his death, so you gotta give him a little slack for any recent novels that weren’t up to par. Other than that slight blip, his other novels are classics of the genre. Actually, two genres. Another great writer who is going to be missed very much.

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Jason Isbell’s Triumph

It’s not too soon to be talking about Best Albums of the Year, and one of the contenders for that claim is Jason Isbell’s new album, Southeastern. Isbell is a former member of the acclaimed band Drive-By Truckers, but he left to pursue a solo career about six years ago. On his previous three albums, including the excellent concert recording, Live From Alabama, Isbell shared billing with his band, the 400 Unit, but he is using only his name on this new album. Isbell is an articulate, passionate songwriter, who writes melodic songs that stick in the head. One review I read likened him to a cross between author Raymond Carver and music legend Neil Young. Hmm … not a bad comparison.

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The new album is a continuation of the “thinking man’s southern rock” style of music that he — and also the Drive-By Truckers, who have continued making excellent albums even without Isbell, thanks to having another great songwriter, Patterson Hood in the band— excels at making, but on Southeastern Isbell has sharpened and elevated his craft to an even higher level. The new songs take on a more personal and reflective tone, reflecting some of the changes in Isbell’s own life in the past year or so. I think this is clearly Isbell’s best album yet. There are fewer rockers on the new album, favoring slower songs and ballads, but that doesn’t make the new compositions any less potent. This is powerful, moving music. In addition to that excellent album, here are the other goodies — both old and classic and new and intriguing — that are making me smile lately.

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Terry Edwards – Birth of the Scapegoats

John Fogerty – Wrote a Song For Everyone

Irma Thomas – A Woman’s Viewpoint: The Essential 1970s Recordings

Various – Yellow Pills: Prefill

The Rail Band – Bell Epoque 1: Soundiata

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Slaid Cleaves – Still Fighting the War

Passion Pit – Gossamer

Bobby Whitlock – Where There’s a Will There’s a Way

Solomon Burke – Proud Mary: The Bell Sessions

World Party – Arkeology

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Guy Clark – My Favorite Picture of You

Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record

Jonathan Edwards – Jonathan Edwards

The Three O’Clock – The Hidden World Revealed

Johnny Marr – The Messenger

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Various Artists – Cult Cargo: Grand Bahama Goombay

Bob Mould – Silver Age

Jules Shear – Sayin’ Hello to the Folks

Various Artists – Eccentric Soul: Prix Label

Talking Heads – The Name of This Band is Talking Heads

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Various – Kenya Special

The Strokes – Comedown Machine

The Budos Band – The Budos Band

Jim Boggia – Fidelity is the Enemy

Etta James – Who’s Blue? Rare Chess Recordings

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The Mavericks – In Time

George Jackson – What Would Your Mama Say?

Babyface Willette – Stop & Listen

Canned Heat – The Very Best of

Gene Clark – No Other

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Various Artists – Twin Cities Funk & Soul

The Primitives – The Best of

Kelly Hogan & the Pine Vally Cosmonauts – Beneath the Country Underdog

Dean & Britta – L’Avventura

Robert Cray – Live at the BBC

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Head East – Live

Andy Kim – How’d We Ever Get This Way/Rainbow Ride

Bobby Bland – Greatest Hits Vol. Two: The ABC-Dunhill/MCA Recordings

Donny Hathaway – Live

Owsley – The Hard Way

 

Birds in the Room, Birds in the Head

You can’t help but wake up when it sounds like your roof is falling in. Well, the sound wasn’t quite that loud, but it DID sound like something very heavy hadn’t fallen through the ceiling of my apartment one morning last month. It was about seven in the morning and as I lay in bed, I struggled to open my eyes to find out what had happened. It didn’t take me long to see the cause of the noise: a bird was flying around my apartment.

First question: how did this bird get inside? I don’t keep any pet birds, so it wasn’t like something had sneaked out of its cage and was taking a joy ride. A quick investigation revealed the entry point where the bird burglar had broken in; a fairly large rip in a screen window in my bedroom. The second question: how was I going to get this bird out? I live in a corner apartment and have large sliding windows in both rooms, so I went and opened all those windows as wide as they could go, and waited for Mr. Bird to realize he had an exit plan. Thankfully, his instincts were quick and accurate and he soon flew away. What a way to start the morning!

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I’m not sure if this bird incident inspired me in the choice of new book to read, but a couple of weeks later I picked up Pigeon English, the debut novel by Stephen Kelman. This novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2011 and garnered all sorts of rave reviews in the process. Emma Donoghue, the author of the bestselling Room, said: “This boy’s love letter to the world made me laugh and tremble all the way through.” Another author, Clare Morrall, called it “a powerful and impressive novel …. utterly convincing and deeply moving.” I would agree with those comments. The novel is funny and disturbing, sad and joyous. The main character is Harrison Opoku, known as Harri, an 11-year old boy who has recently moved from Ghana to London with his mother and older sister. The novel, narrated by Harri, details his acclimation to a foreign country, dealing with bullies and violence at school, discovering girls, and trying to play detective to find out who killed one of his young classmates.

Kelman’s use of dialogue, particularly teenage slang, is brilliant. Some of the slang is baffling at first, but once you get accustomed to it all, you find it mesmerizing. All these things aside, there is a disturbing religious thread that runs through the story. The “pigeon” in the title is an actual bird that Harri befriends. Unlike the bird that flew into my place, Harri is able to “communicate” with his bird, or at least come to some sort of understanding and develop a relationship. This pigeon, however, ends up being some sort of metaphor for God, the bird even promising Harri that “Everything’s going to be alright.”

For me, such simplistic reassurances and promises of an afterlife only ruin what could have been a truly great novel. As it stands, this is still a funny and gripping read. There are passages in the book that may bring tears to your eyes, and certainly parts that will make you laugh out loud. It’s just a shame that damn pigeon had to ruin the vibe.

Religious Massacre

By now everyone has read about the latest violence in Egypt. Yesterday’s “clearance” by security forces in Cairo resulted in the deaths of several hundred — some estimates say as much as 2,000 — protesters. But buried in the back pages of yesterday’s news — on Page 10 of the Bangkok Post — was a short article detailing the deaths of 44 people at a house of worship. Think about that; 44 people shot dead while they were praying. Didn’t you hear about this slaughter? If it had been 44 Christians killed while praying in a Baptist Church in the US this would have been front page news, and subject to non-stop coverage on all TV stations. The populace would have been outraged. Even here in Thailand, if this had happened at a Buddhist temple it would have sent the country into a state of shock.

But instead, this horrific act occurred at a mosque in Nigeria, so it’s relegated to the pack pages. Not of much significance. It was only a bunch of poor black Muslims, so it obviously wasn’t that important to the international media, right? Hey, I’m not sticking up for Islam. The fact is, those religious fanatics scare the piss out of me. But something tells me that the low level of coverage about incidents like this says a lot about the state of the world today, and the underlying reasons for the surge in violence and hatred.

The really odd thing about this mosque attack in Nigeria was that it was reportedly perpetrated by “suspected Islamic militants wearing army fatigues.” This group, known as Boko Haram, has also attacked Christians outside churches, along with teachers, students, and government and military targets, so they are obviously equal opportunity thugs. What, no gays and lesbians targeted either? Maybe that’s next on their list.

Honestly, I don’t know what to make of all this. Part of me, says; go ahead and let all these religious idiots just kill one another. Maybe when all is said and done it will benefit the rest of us. But the fact that such religious fanaticism only breeds more violence and intolerance makes me very angry and frustrated. Why does religion always turn people into intolerant, superstitious fools?

But as much as I find the behavior and attitude of Muslims to be most disturbing, you can’t help but look at things from their perspective. They have been kicked around for years and continue to be vilified and condemned by the Western world, while the “morally superior” Catholics, Jews, and Born-Again Christians are forgiven, if not encouraged, for their own bizarre behavior.

Short of a few well-organized purges, is there any way to stop this spiraling insanity?

 

Mandalay makes list of Friendliest Cities in the World

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I read an article online today that listed the results from Conde Nast Traveler’s annual Reader’s Choice Awards. One of the categories ranked the Top 20 Most Friendly cities in the world, along with a list of the 20 Most Unfriendly cities. To my delight, Mandalay was ranked number eight on the Friendliest list. Congratulations Mandalayians! Or should that be Mandalayites?

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I tried to get more information about these awards, but unfortunately Conde Nast Traveler has a VERY annoying website that makes surfing their pages exasperating and trying to cull information a most trying task. I assume there are separate lists for “Best” cities, and perhaps “Most Interesting” or “Most Exciting City,” maybe even “Wildest Nightlife” and on and on. But this particular list was ranking the cities on a friendly scale, so whatever the criteria was, Mandalay must have impressed the magazine’s readers enough to place as high as it did.

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Although delighted by Mandalay’s ranking, I was nevertheless surprised that the city would be recognized so favorably. For example, if you polled the tourists visiting Myanmar (and those numbers, while climbing, are still not nearly as high as the number of tourists visiting Thailand or even Cambodia or Vietnam) I doubt Mandalay would be the favorite destination of many travelers, at least not in terms of the having the most exciting places to see, or the most scenic landscapes, or the best of anything. To be honest, most of Mandalay is fairly nondescript if not just plain ugly. It’s crowded and dusty and the traffic is just ridiculous. On the surface, you certainly wouldn’t call it lovely or charming.

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But venture off the chaotic main roads, away from the noisy downtown markets and generic tourist quarters and you’ll find shady, tree-lined lanes, quaint old Colonial-era buildings, quiet monasteries of all sizes, red-robed monks making rounds around fascinating little neighborhoods, and plenty of friendly inquisitive local who will stop and chat with you. Yes, there’s no doubt it was these lovely people that earned Mandalay its high ranking.

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When I first visited Myanmar about eight years ago, Mandalay didn’t make much of an impression on me. Like most tourists, I tried to cram in too many activities in a short span of time and ended up not seeing enough of the city or absorbing the atmosphere properly. The famous “Road to Mandalay” was not as scenic as hyped. It was only after I slowed down, spending more time riding my bike around the edges of town, dropping into teashops, visiting monasteries and meeting monks, and talking to locals, that the “Mandalay Magic” finally rubbed off on me. And now I’m hooked.

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And I’m very excited that I’m going back to Myanmar at end of this month, where I’ll be spending most of my time once again in Mandalay. I don’t have ambitious plans to see any particular sights, but instead look forward to hooking with friends like Mr. Htoo and Ko Soe Moe, cycling down to U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street and checking in with Ko Maw Hsi, Zin Ko and rest of the kids, and meeting Khin Nwe Lwin for dinner one night. And of course I’ll eat most of my meals at Aye Myit Tar, drop by the Minthiha teashop a few times for morning noodle binges, have a vegetarian meal and see Tun Zaw Win at Marie Min’s, stop by the MBOA orphanage and say “mingalaba” to Ko Ko Oo and his staff, maybe pay my respects at Par Par Lay’s house, and who knows what else? That’s the beauty of riding my bike around Mandalay, venturing down back roads and taking wrong turns; there is always something new to see and people to meet. I can’t wait!

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Par Par Lay Passes Away

More sad news from Mandalay today: legendary comedian Par Par Lay, a member of the famed Moustache Brothers troupe, has passed away at the age of 67. One obituary I read listed the cause of death as kidney disease and yet another blamed prostate cancer. Whatever the real cause, one thing is for certain: Par Par Lay passed away far too soon. His energy, sense of humor, vitality, and perseverance will be missed by both the citizens of Myanmar and foreign tourists who had the chance to see Par Par Lay perform.

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Par Par Lay was both an entertainer and a political activist, not afraid to poke fun at the ruling military junta of Myanmar during their years in power. In fact, making jokes about the generals landed Par Par Lay a stretch in jail (one of several incarcerations he endured) after an Independence Day performance in 1996. Whatever the exact joke was, it ruffled enough feathers to earn Par Par Lay a seven-year sentence, later commuted to five years. After his release in 2001, he re-formed the Moustache Brothers “A-nyeint Troupe” with his younger brother Lu Maw and cousin Lu Zaw. Barred from making public performances by the government, the trio cleverly started giving “demonstrations” of traditional Burmese dances and songs at their home in Mandalay. Their singing and dancing performances were spiced by Lu Maw’s comedic spiel in English, along with some bold political opinions thrown in for good measure. The Moustache Brothers’ performances started drawing crowds of tourists, thanks to write-ups in guidebooks such as Lonely Planet and daily newspapers such as the New York Times. They even warranted a mention in the film About a Boy.

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I saw several Moustache Brothers performances over the years and would even stop by their house in the afternoon on occasion to buy t-shirts or take Lu Maw some books he had requested. The “brothers” and their wives (along with sundry other relatives who were always hanging out at the house) were always very hospitable, inviting me in for tea and conversation. One time they entrusted me with a DVD of a benefit performance they had given in Mandalay for victims of Cyclone Nargis, asking me to send copies to various websites and newspapers.

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But what I remember most about Par Par Lay was his big smile, a grin that could look either mischievous or joyful. Whether he was playing bongos, crooning a traditional Burmese tune, or dancing with wild abandon, Par Par Lay always looked like he was having a great time.

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As popular as Par Par Lay and the Moustache Brothers became with tourists in recent years, it couldn’t rival the fame that they enjoyed with natives of Myanmar. Par Par Lay was a huge star, both before and after his arrests. Even Burmese people working in Thailand knew that face. I’ll never forget the time in Bangkok when I had just hopped off a motorcycle taxi one night. As I was paying the driver, another motorcycle slowly passed us and the driver turned his head and stared at me with this look that conveyed both total surprise and sheer joy. “Par Par Lay!” he shouted. I thought; Huh? And then it dawned on me: this guy had noticed the Moustache Brothers t-shirt I was wearing and had been overjoyed to see Par Par Lay’s familiar face grinning back at him. I couldn’t help but laugh.

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Damn, Par Par Lay is going to be missed by a lot of people.

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Cambodia Rocks

The national elections in Cambodia were held last week and it came as no surprise that Prime Minister For Life (or so he keeps hoping) Hun Sen and his CPP thugs — uh, I mean, party — won re-election once again. Actually, the big surprise was that their margin of victory was much less than expected, giving the rival CNRP (Cambodia National Rescue Party) more seats in the National Assembly. The latest tally that I read gave CPP 55 percent of the seats, a sharp drop from the 73 percent that they won (Bought? Stole?) in the last election in 2008.

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The big pre-election drama was the return of Sam Rainsy, a longtime nemesis of Hun Sen and now the head of the CNRP, who had been living in exile in France the past couple of years. But a week before the election, Hun Sen apparently paid attention to veiled threats from the likes of the United States, who were calling for “free and fair elections,” and arranged for Sam Rainsy to be pardoned for a “crime” that was dubious in the first place. But that was a case of too little too late, and with only a week to campaign — and not even being eligible to vote himself — there wasn’t a whole lot that Rainsy and his supporters could do. Or so it seemed. The fact that they did galvanize and inspire a lot of people — many of them disgruntled and disgusted by years of intimidation, terror, and corruption by Hun Sen and his minions — was actually quite impressive.

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Before the election I asked one Cambodian friend living in Phnom Penh what he thought about it all.

“Of course I will vote. My opinion is I really would like this country that I live in to have the real democracy. And I think it is fair for the other party to have a chance for a try. I hope things would change a bit, even if we could not do much, but at least something.”

 

Another friend, this one living in Siem Reap, sent me an e-mail the day after the election.”

“The election in my country was very bad. Too much corruption and cheating from CPP. I feel ashamed to all people in the world about what my leader did. The reputation of Cambodian is gone because of him.”

So, the elections may be over, but there is definitely a defiant feeling lingering in the air and the whole situation feels very unsettled. It’s too early to predict that there will be marches and demonstrations or people will take to the streets and occupy public squares in Phnom Penh. If there was an Arab Spring could we be in store for a Khmer Summer?  

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One encouraging sign, in addition to the decrease in votes for Hun Sen and CPP, is the growing number of young people who are voting and taking to social media to express their opinions. Cambodians used to strike me a very timid bunch, afraid of challenging authority and not daring to voice their opinions. Perhaps that’s a legacy from the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, which, if you’ll remember, wasn’t such a long time ago. But there is a new generation, those under the age of 30, who were born after the end of the Khmer Rouge era, and they don’t seem to share the same submissive and fearful traits that their parents did.

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This new generation wants change. They are tired of waiting. They are tired of being poor. They are tired of seeing Hun Sen and his buddies driving around town in their fucking SUVs and throwing lavish parties and wedding receptions, and then jetting off for shopping sprees in other countries. These people want a share of that pie too, instead of the meager crumbs that have been randomly tossed to them for the past three decades.

 A change is gonna come, baby, and with any amount of luck we may not have to wait five more years. Hun Sen, your days are numbered.

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