Cambodia's Christmas carol: A tale of three Scrooges

Fewer holidays are disempowering and not the answer to the country’s problems
Cambodia's Christmas carol: A tale of three Scrooges

Cambodians pose for pictures around a Christmas tree in Aeon Mall in Phnom Penh. More people in the Buddhist country are demanding time off to celebrate the festive season. (Photo: AFP)

In the haughty expat bars of Phnom Penh, a common complaint is being heard: Too many Cambodians, in this overwhelmingly Buddhist country, are celebrating Christmas with enough trees, tinsel, sleigh bells and baubles to make Santa Claus proud.

It’s become a passion, growing each year since Westerners began returning here as a 30-year civil war finally came to end. As a result, Cambodians would like more time off to celebrate the festive season.

Then there’s New Year, known here as International New Year. It also commands a strong following among ordinary Cambodians. After all, much of their daily lives is defined more by the Western calendar rather than the traditional Khmer almanac.

But it’s an irritation for the local Scrooges who are every bit as miserly as the notorious, selfish old goat Ebenezer Scrooge from the Charles Dickens novella A Christmas Carol.

In Cambodia the three Scrooges are the Western, Chinese and Khmer Riche, the highly industrious capitalist classes who have prospered off foreign aid, cheap loans and investment and to whom the idea of further time off to mark an essentially Western custom is close to heresy.

Cambodia does have more public holidays than almost anywhere else. Locals can each year take off up to 28 days, which are dedicated to all sorts of customs ranging from the country’s Buddhist past to the start of the ploughing season.

The United Nations also shares pride of place ever since the early 1990s when a two-year UN occupation shepherded in a 25-year experiment with democracy.

As a result, causes the UN holds dear, such as International Women’s Days and International Human Rights Day, are also treated as holidays. Added into the mix are annual holidays for ethnic Chinese, Muslims, Hindu and Judeo-Christians.

And over the last three decades, Western celebrations have been entrenched by bands of charities and NGOs with much the same gusto as deployed by the French missionaries who began preaching Christ across Indochina about 150 years ago.

But the three Scrooges, who enjoy a fabulous wealth that locals cannot start to fathom, have felt they never had it so bad with so many holidays being dished out among the poor.

Earning a pittance

Cambodians, by and large, earn a pittance. Their lives are a far cry from the rich and politically connected Khmer Riche, nor do they enjoy the luxuries considered bare essentials by Chardonnay-sipping Western expats or the recently arrived Chinese mercantile class.

Ordinary Cambodians who have a job are lucky to make US$200 a month working six days a week producing brand-name garments for Levis-Strauss or The Gap. Those serving in the expensive bars and restaurants of the fashionable districts of capital Phnom Penh might make US$100 more.

The World Bank now has three poverty lines: US$3.20 a day for lower-income countries, US$5.50 a day for middle-income countries and a whopping US$1.90 a day for the bottom of the international social heap.

That’s just institutional semantics in countries where most people live below the bottom line and a bottle of clean water is worth a day’s pay.

Meanwhile, Cambodia now boasts more than a handful of billionaires, including plantation and media baron Ly Yong Phat and casino mogul Chen Lip Keong.

Chen made all his money (US$6.3 billion, according to Forbes) from Naga Casino, which enjoys exclusive gaming rights in the capital. But he’s not even Cambodian. Chen is from Malaysia where he is hailed as something of a hero, even described as an “accidental billionaire” who dislikes gambling.

And then there are the politically connected Khmer families who can count their millions by the hundreds and have prospered off the back of Chinese real estate companies and Western largesse.

That’s why holidays matter

The reality for cash-strapped Cambodians is that holidays are a form of empowerment. “Time is free and you have plenty of it,” is a well-known Khmer saying.

For many Cambodians holidays are a chance to make extra money. If not, they return to the family village — and enjoy what little they have.

That is all the more important since Prime Minister Hun Sen banned the political opposition and returned Cambodia to a one-party state under his absolute control at last year’s widely derided election.

Access to information has been gazumped by the closure of the independent press, while the economy is worsening with the United States imposing sanctions and the European Union threatening to withdraw trade preferences in response to the tactics used ahead of the poll.

But for captains of industry who complain about the costs of business and too many holidays, the three Scrooges are now having their way. In a one-party state, leaders can do whatever they like, just like Brunei, which banned Christmas in 2015.

And so the authoritarian leaders of Cambodia are dispensing with six holidays. From 2020 the number of public holidays will be slashed to 22. In making this announcement, Hun Sen compared Cambodia with Singapore, which has just 11 public holidays.

“If we don’t do this, all businesses would run away from us,” he said, forgetting to mention that the average Singaporean enjoys a monthly income of about US$4,500.

The problem is, of course, that fewer holidays are unlikely to mean much compared with the potential crunch emanating from sanctions that will rattle the business models drawn-up by the three Scrooges, who have left an indelible mark on this country.

Corruption aplenty and an unbridgeable wealth gap inspire people to retaliate by taking time off whenever they can, and that includes celebrating Christmas.

Cambodian children like bright lights, presents and Santa Claus, while adults are happy to wish each other peace and goodwill. All age groups can take satisfaction in knowing that the end of the International Year is near and maybe, just maybe, next year will be better than the last.

It’s a brave Scrooge who would deny them this hope, and they appear to have done just that. Unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, who mended his ways after visits from the ghosts of Christmas past, the local Scrooges are unlikely to change.

Luke Hunt is a senior opinion writer for ucanews. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews..

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