Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Back in Cambodia

So here I am, back in Cambodia. This time I'm working for a slightly more rag-tag organization, without the resources to handle my visas, so I had to shift for myself. As a result, I recently paid my very first bribe.

Let me hasten to say that this was a process utterly devoid of finesse. Do not for a second imagine me casting keen glances at stony faced interlocutors, engaging in any kind of savvy negotiations, or taking any audacious risks. Instead of conjuring "Sash in post-World War II Berlin traversing the treacherous zone borders using his wit and guile," think of "Sash learning an unfamiliar filing procedure at the DMV."

Here's how it went down. After disembarking from my plane, I shuffled through all the usual lines. I handed  over my passport and paperwork, and made my way to the cashier as directed. But instead of shuffling along to await my visa, I paused at the counter for an awkward moment, trying to figure out to whom I ought to address my grease payment. You could hardly imagine a less debonair figure dabbling in the less-than-pristine waters of Cambodian officialdom. I even briefly entertained the notion of clearing my throat, as in: "Ahem. Can someone please tell me whom I should bribe?"

But, as I say, this game does not require a light touch. The paper shufflers behind the window, keen-nosed for lucre, spotted me straight away; the same people who had processed and returned my documents without deigning to notice me or return my greetings one minute suddenly showed uncharacteristic solicitude. Anyway, I imagined that I detected a certain heightened energy in the ranks, a straightening of backs and turning of heads, as I cast about for a sticky palm.

I eventually addressed the whole passel of officials, asking nonchalantly "Is it possible to get a six-month visa here?" Sure now what I was after, the immigration officials jockeyed openly for my business, talking over each other and trying to catch my eye.

Eventually, one of them won out. The bureaucrat started answering, "Yes, it is possible. You can---"---but before he could finish, a man in an olive-green military uniform emerged from an office behind the counter and stood behind my bureaucrat, who immediately said "You can talk to him." The uniformed man was the captain in charge of the immigration office at the airport. His inferiors all deferred to him as he led me to a different desk.

From there it was entirely straightforward: the captain very politely named his price, which was exactly the same price I had been offered on my first trip to Cambodia, and promised to deliver my passport and visa on such and such a day. I turned over my passport, and received it back in due course, exactly as promised, personally hand delivered by the captain.

As you can see, this particular area of Cambodian corruption is no cloak-and-dagger affair. No surreptitious swaps, no deft conman shuffles. No cynical, cigar-chomping camaraderie. No winking, no shit-eating grins, no talk of backs being scratched. No party lines, no inside connections, no circumlocutions. Nothing that resembled any of the bribes I've seen in the movies, or on shows like The Wire. Just a quick, public transaction with a uniformed officer who identified himself by name using an official document, charged me what appears to be a standard fee, and delivered the goods in a timely fashion.

In other words, this particular bribe was essentially indistinguishable from a legitimate fee. I asked at the immigration office how to get a visa, and an immigration officer handled it for me. In fact, I would point out that when I asked how to get a business visa, nobody mentioned what I happen to know is the actual procedure. Anyone who hadn't done the research wouldn't even realize he had paid a bribe, if he could overlook the suspiciously personalized service. It was predictable, efficient, and relatively transparent, just like a good bureaucratic procedure ought to be. It's just that the procedure that exists on paper and the procedure that happens in practice are totally different from each other---especially with regard to who keeps the fee.

Of course, maybe this is just a rationalization. Maybe I sullied myself with bad karma by participating in such a sordid business. If omens are any indication, I must have displeased some deity, because the airport lost both of my suitcases.

1 comment:

lee said...

Sash - Every day that Alex parked her moto outside the convenience store near my house, she paid the police officer a few thousand riel. Bribery in Cambodia seems to be like tipping here - just an extra cost that you expect to pay. It works. It's a problem in the way that alcohol can be a problem - when appropriate, no harm no foul - a little vodka at dinner is just wonderful - but when you need alcohol just to get up in the morning, you run into problems. For its part, Western actors who are combating corruption in Cambodia (not that I know anything about their work) probably cast their net too wide. They deamonize all corruption and make the problem unsolvable. Perhaps a better, more efficient, more realistic strategy that is more attuned to the norms and expectations of Cambodian life would be to stigmatize the harmful corruption - in the legal system, among politicians, between business and the government.