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Disgruntled Bert beats a retreat

Disgruntled Bert beats a retreat

T HE last book that Bert Hoak read was entitled "How to Survive the Coming Bad

Times."

"That somehow seems appropriate for Cambodia," he said in his characteristically

booming voice, "because it's going to get bad here and that's the way it should

be. We should stop all aid so Cambodians suffer and so they know who really makes

them suffer."

Slouched in an alarmingly flimsy chair, Bert was surrounded by a swirl of staff and

family members busy packing up the jumble of five years living and working in Cambodia.

The bearded and bear-like New Yorker arrived in mid 1992 as part of the UNTAC election

machine before setting up Bert's Book and Guest house - first stop and briefing centre

for thousands of low budget travelers.

But after investing $60,000 dollars and a whole lot of time and energy, Bert is "outa

here" and heading toward an uncertain future. The outlook for 10 Khmers who

worked for him, not to mention the flock of moto-dop drivers who earned what they

could by ferrying tourists around the city, would seem worse.

But, according to Bert, enough is enough and, in effect, you have to be cruel to

be kind.

"We've propped up a regime which never had any intent of supporting democracy

and human rights and while we took care of the sanitation and medicine, the education,

Hun Sen and Ranariddh cut down trees, introduced gambling and prostitution and stockpiled

weapons.

"The Cambodian people have got to realize that their leaders don't really care

and what it means to have despotic rulers. If we continue to supply aid, they will

never know."

Passionate as he is about the shortcomings of Cambodia's elite, Bert is also highly

critical of the so-called "humanitarians" who, he says, have pursued their

own interests to the detriment of effective change.

"The reality is donors have given Cambodia more than $5 billion in the past

five years, and every dollar we've put in has freed up money for Cambodia's elite

to buy more cognac or another Mercedes. We build roads so people can get to market

and...those roads are destroyed by log trucks...

"Is Cambodia now a better place? No it is not - human rights, pluralism, personal

freedoms, that's all just gone down the drain.

"But you know what? Optimism is commensurate with salaries and the sort of colonial

lifestyle Westerners can enjoy here which they could never enjoy at home.

"After the Easter Sunday grenade attack we circulated a petition condemning

the violence. Out of 6,000 foreign workers we got just 700 signatures and 200 of

them were collected here at Bert's Books. I wonder how much of that pathetic protest

was due to fear of losing salaries, fear of losing a lavish lifestyle and fear of

losing careers."

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