Blink and you missed it. Barack Obama made a whirlwind tour of the region earlier in the week, spending a half-day in Bangkok, about six hours in Yangon, and the better part of two days at an ASEAN summit meeting in Phnom Penh. Hillary Clinton also put in an appearance at each location, but then had to fly off to the crazy lands — The Middle East — in an attempt to pacify the Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, and possibly other aggrieved nationalities. Does that woman ever get any sleep?
It would be an understatement to say that Obama’s visits to Thailand and Myanmar were met with great excitement — and approval — from the populace in each country. People in Asia really like him. And it doesn’t hurt that he has a great smile. Obama himself appeared to be delighted by the warm reception, and looked like he was enjoying the visits. Thai Prime Minister Yingluck “I Love Democracy” Shinawatra couldn’t keep from beaming in every photo that I saw, looking like a schoolgirl getting to meet a famous pop star. And then there were several photos of Obama in Yangon, hugging and kissing Aung San Suu Kyi … uh, rather fervently. The Lady appeared a bit taken back from such an overt display of affection from Barry, but hey, it’ll certainly sell more newspapers in Yangon and give the fellows in the teashops something to talk about. And it sure beats having some creepy overweight dude, wearing a snorkel and flippers and carrying a bible, showing up on your doorstep late one night, dripping lake water and asking to spend the night. That’s one incident — and in case you missed it, yes, it really happened — that I’d love to know more details about.
Obama made visits to such sacred sites as Wat Pho in Bangkok and Shwedagon in Yangon, but by contrast, once he arrived in Phnom Penh he didn’t stop for any temple tours, but headed straight to the ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting, where serious business was discussed. The tone was set when Obama greeted Hun Sen — Cambodia’s Prime-Minister-for-Life and don’t you dare think otherwise — with a firm handshake, absent of any back slapping or pleasantries. Even if it was “Give a Thug a Hug” week, I don’t think Obama would have lowered himself to embrace Hun Sen. And good for him. Hun Sen is one of the creepiest “leaders” in the region and it’s about time people started standing up to him. By all accounts, the meeting with Hun Sen was “tense,” Obama giving the old Khmer Rouge foot soldier a dressing down on the subject of land seizures, human rights, freedom of speech, and other such sticky issues that the Cambodian government brushes under the bamboo mat. Despite the millions of dollars in foreign aid money that floods into Cambodia each year — it reportedly receives the highest percentage of any country in Asia — poverty in the country is still rampant and infrastructure well behind that of Thailand. It’s the same old broken record: the rich get richer … and they drive SUVs and get away with…
On another Cambodian note, I’ve been flooded with phone calls from friends there this week. The subject of Hun Sen and/or Obama never came up, however. Nowadays, my Cambodian friends have more important things to worry about; like paying school tuition, paying hospital bills, and affording to eat. I talked to three of the Tri brothers, and also Chamrong in Siem Reap. His wife just gave birth to their first child, a boy, but the baby was born one month premature, necessitating a multi-week stay in the hospital for mother and child. Rong took off from his job at the airport for over a full week to help take care of them. Happily, they are all home now and Rong is back at work. Another friend, So Pengthai has also had to help his wife and children recuperate from various illnesses. Blame it on the rainy season, which thankfully, now appears to have run its course.
Yet another Cambodian friend from Siem Reap, Chiet, has been calling me almost every day … from Thailand! He’s working in another province as a welder, trying to earn some extra money, Hell, trying to earn any money at all. He’s had a problem finding steady work this year in Siem Reap, so somehow he got hooked up with a job broker that brought him to Thailand. I don’t think he has legal working papers, which makes him one of thousands (perhaps the number runs into five or six figures … or more?) of Cambodians and Burmese who are working in Thailand without proper documents. Not exactly slave labor, but don’t think these people are getting paid a fair wage either. Whatever the case, Chiet is working every day of the week — no days off — and is quite tired, but in pretty good spirits overall. There is another Cambodian working with him, but the rest of the workers, I gather, are Thai. He’s obviously lonely, being away from friends and family, so I’m one of his few daily social contacts, albeit one that’s on the phone. If I can figure out exactly where he’s working — trying to get him to distinguish Sakhon from Nakorn and Pathom from Phanom and other similar words is a difficult task — I may visit him next month. He plans to work here until mid-April, the annual Khmer — and Thai — water festival period, before going back to Siem Reap. In the meantime, we talk each night, which is helping to improve my rusty Khmer skills; word and phrases I haven’t used in years are coming back to me. We joke about eating grilled dog for dinner, plus he’s learning some Thai words too, which he is thrilled to impress me with. I only hope he doesn’t fall into any bad habits — drinking and drugs come to mind — during his exhausting labor stint in a different country. It ain’t an easy life for people like him.