Alex McGrory is given a ticket for running a red light. During Operation Safe Cycle 4,300 tickets were issued in a two week period from 13th-26th August. Copyright George Steptoe 2014

Alex McGrory is given a ticket for running a red light. During Operation Safe Cycle 4,300 tickets were issued in a two week period from 13th-26th August. Copyright George Steptoe 2014

Lieutenant Lamboy is flicking cigar ash from his patrol car window on to a Williamsburg sidewalk. As you look south to La Guardia Playground on 4th Street, his front fender is barely visible, peeking out from the corner of Roebling. It’s a stakeout of sorts, though Lamboy and partner Officer Cirillo have left the engine running. They won’t be waiting long.

The 90th Precinct officers have been detailed to routine bike enforcement and they’ve picked a prime location. Beyond the winos and chess-players of Continental Army Plaza is the cycle lane exit ramp from Williamsburg Bridge. Almost 6,000 cyclists pass through this key commuter artery every 12 hours, according to the DOT’s latest count – an average of one every seven and a half seconds.

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Cyclist bypasses a traffic jam through a cycle lane on West 32nd Street, New York. The volume of cyclists is ballooning whilst injuries have dropped slightly. Copyright Yingqian Chen 2014.

A cyclist bypasses a traffic jam on West 32nd Street, New York. The volume of cyclists is ballooning whilst injuries have dropped slightly. Copyright Yingqian Chen 2014.

Cycling injuries fell by three percent this summer compared to 2013 despite a sustained increase in the volume of bicyclists. 1,214 injuries, including five fatalities, were reported between June 21st and Labor Day this year compared to 1,179 injuries, including two fatalities, in 2013 according to NYPD Motor Vehicle Collisions data, published last week.

Whilst the drop in injuries is modest, it coincides with ballooning cycling popularity: the number of cyclists entering and exiting Manhattan at six key NYC locations averaged 7,340 per 12-hour weekday in 2004. In the decade since, the trickle has grown to a deluge, peaking at an average of 24,408 between 7am and 7pm in August of last year according to the Department of Transport’s (DOT) most recent figures.

Jon Orcutt, former NYC DOT Policy Director, took the news as a sign that the city is becoming progressively more hospitable for New Yorkers on two wheels:

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Afropunk Festival drew a phenomenally stylish crowd to Commodore Barry Park, Fort Greene Brooklyn over the weekend. I went down to take some snaps.

Click on an image below to launch slideshow.

Click an image to launch slideshow.

During the peak of New York’s crack cocaine epidemic the NYPD reported over 4,200 homicides between 1986-88. Amidst the scourge of addiction and violence, New York boxing legend Micky Rosario with his wife Negra were hammering fighters, known locally as “The Gladiators”, into shape.

Working out of the Thomas Jefferson Recreation Center in East Harlem, Micky and Negra sculpted a string of Golden Glove and national champions throughout the 1980s and 90s.

One decorated alumnus is Evelyn “Evy” Rodriguez (age undisclosed: “that’s my ancient Chinese secret”). Born to immigrant Puerto Rican parents at the Metropolitan Hospital, East Harlem, Evy won two successive Golden Glove (statewide) tournaments, 1998-99.

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PIE MASH

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CNRP President Sam Rainsy

CNRP President Sam Rainsy

This interview was originally published in The DiplomatJanuary 10th 2014

These are troubled times in Cambodia. A disputed election last year prompted ongoing protests andopposition boycotts. Emboldened by a surprisingly strong performance in the July 28 polls, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been insistent on calling for an investigation into election irregularities. Strongman ruler Hun Sen has been equally stubborn in resisting them.

Entering 2014, and the protests have spread, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to demand Hun Sen’s resignation. Joining the CNRP were unions, notably from the country’s crucial garment industry, demanding a hike in their minimum wage.

Those protests prompted a government crackdown last week, resulting in a number of deaths and throwing the protests into disarray. Court summons were issued for opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, and Cambodia is on the verge of returning to a police state.

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Rainsy outside Australian Embassy

CNRP Chief Sam Rainsy outside the Australian Embassy at the three day protest earlier this month | © Charlotte Pert 2013: http://www.charlottepert.com

Speaking to the Phnom Penh Post on Tuesday, Sar Kheng, Cambodia’s Minister for the Interior said “my phone remains open” to opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Sam Rainsy should he wish to contact him to resume negotiations. Mr. Rainsy wasted little time. After a ballsy challenge from a journalist to make the call there and then at this morning’s press conference at the CNRP headquarters, Mr. Rainsy was handed a Nokia and gave Sar Kheng a ring.

He got only his answer machine. Mr. Rainsy declined to leave a message.

But another face-to-face meeting between the two sides, the first since 16th September, looks increasingly likely. If the CNRP are still singing from a familiar hymn sheet – pushing for a third-party observer over an investigation into electoral irregularities, the resignation of the National Election Committee (NEC) and sweeping electoral reform – the key has changed, if almost imperceptibly: these are now “suggestions not conditions” explained Kem Sokha, CNRP co-president.

Mr. Rainsy has consistently rejected out of hand the CPP’s previously held condition that the CNRP takes up their seats in the National Assembly before talks resume. But as part of the “he said, she said” merry-go-round that is contemporary Cambodian politics, CPP Spokesman Cheam Yeap denied yesterday that the government had any such prerequisite for negotiations to take place.

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© Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom 2013

© Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom 2013

Excerpt from collaborative project with Ruom Collective.

In the weeks following the last three-day opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) the coils of razor wire that barricaded most of Phnom Penh’s main traffic arteries could be spotted being put to altogether more innocent uses. Wet clothes hung from several to dry, another became an impromptu stand for an enterprising florist, another a display rack for a grocer’s ladyfinger bananas.

Just days previously the barriers had served as a catalyst for violence, igniting clashes between riot police and protestors during the demonstration. When blockades prevented people getting home, tension escalated and the result was six seriously injured and one man shot dead when government troops opened fire.

During this week’s protests the roadblocks were entirely absent. Mu Sochua told Ruom that this showed that “the local authorities are learning to face the reality that using force is not appropriate at all.” Others may argue that incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen had made a shrewd calculation to avoid the confrontations that had the Kingdom of Wonder briefly flickering on the global news radar…

Read the full story and see more of Ruom‘s superb photography go here.

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© George Steptoe 2013

Spirits were buoyant in the Freedom Park camp the night before the final day of the three-day opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), where about 3,000 protestors from myriad provincial regions were bedding down for the night.

By 10pm a blind sitar player and his backing percussion ensemble clattering pans with wooden spoons had quietened down and the 20 revellers dancing under the light of a lamppost had retired to their cardboard matts. The camp was still abuzz with optimistic chatter: although the CNRP’s efforts to secure an independent investigation into the 28th July election that they claim was mired in widespread fraud have borne little fruit you wouldn’t have been able to tell that here. 71-year-old Yien Chhay who had travelled with five other villagers from Kampot’s corner of the Kingdom was confident that governmental change was imminent.

Photos courtesy of Si Allen (silunariot@gmail.com); Click on an image to launch slideshow.

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Sam Rainsy speaking outside the United Nations Office of the High Comissioner

Sam Rainsy speaking outside the United Nations Office of the High Comissioner | © George Steptoe 2013

A popular Cambodian protest song, first composed a decade ago but with remarkably enduring popularity, uses the allegory of a filthy shirt worn everyday for too long to chastise the festering stasis cultivated under the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Banned for many years, it was performed by a live band in front of 20,000 protestors on the first of a three-day demonstration held by the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) over complaints of electoral cheating at the national elections, now a whole 87 days ago.

CNRP chief Sam Rainsy, dressed as ever in his pristine white pressed shirt, marched from the stage in Freedom Park to the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights some 1600m away flanked by tens of thousands of protestors. He popped inside to deliver a petition of over two million thumbprints demanding an independent investigation into election irregularities, a petition he described afterwards as being “the will of the Cambodian people”.

“We are very grateful to the representative of the UN in Cambodia to have accepted the petition and to act as a [custodian] to keep in safe haven those thumbprints. They told us that they will send the petition to the UN headquarters in New York to ensure their safety” he said.

After the broad ten-point legislative agenda announced at the People’s Congress, today’s demonstration saw the CNRP’s dress code return to a well-worn wardrobe favourite. Gone was any talk of their program of reforms to prevent land-grabbing, deforestation and rights abuses. In its place was a redoubled focus on the opposition’s central complaint: electoral fraud, plain and simple.

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Lifeline

© George Steptoe 2013

With tears streaming down her face, 36-year-old El Sarifat describes how she is “terrified” of losing the modest wooden two-tier home she shares with 13 relatives. She returned to the house that perches on stilts over the Sangkae River, Battambong province last Friday after it was completely submerged by this year’s month-long flooding, which to date has left 134 confirmed dead.

But having weathered the impact of natural forces, Sarifat is now cowering under the threat of having to sell up the family home she’s lived in since 1979 to break free of an already suffocating debt cycle fuelled by multiple loans from micro‐banks and private moneylenders that this latest disaster has rendered unbearable.

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IMG_5860 copyCambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has a fondness for flexing his military muscle and this morning’s riot police presence at a Cambodian Grassroots People’s Assembly (CGPA) was a veritable rippling bicep laid bare in the baking October Phnom Penh sun. The combined troops, numbering into the thousands, outmanned the CGPA – a collective of community interest groups including labour, forestry and fisheries – by a ratio of about three to one.

The Ministry of Interior declared the meeting illegal because the conglomerate is unregistered. The announcement didn’t stop them, but when the CGPA arrived at their intended locale, Freedom Park – the only site in the Cambodian capital where peaceful protest is permitted – they found it had been annexed by hordes of riot police running drills in anticipation of the nationwide opposition party protest scheduled for 23rd-25th October. Whether an extraordinarily coincidental timetabling clash or brazenly pugnacious disdain, the statement of intent was obvious.

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This post is for Blog Action Day 2013.House Underwater

The 2013 floods in Cambodia have so far claimed 122 lives, affected 1.5 million people and displaced 70,000 families. But in addition to the misery of loss of livestock, destruction of crops and property, the monetary woes wrought by an acute vulnerability to financial shocks can leave lasting damage long after water levels have receded for Cambodia’s agrarian poor, often propelling households irretrievably into debt.

Human rights protection and the promotion of economic development are closely intertwined: the rights to life, food, water, health and self-determination. As is now part of an established global trend, it’s the world’s poorest that are hit disproportionately hard by the effects of climate change. Cambodia is ranked in the top ten most vulnerable nations and although floods are part and parcel of the seasonal cycle here, Cambodia is increasingly susceptible to unseasonably heavy monsoons and an unfortunate combination of factors has made this year’s floods particularly devastating.

200 displaced families wait to receive care packages, Nraeu commune, Battambang Province

200 displaced families wait to receive care packages, Nraeu commune, Battambang Province

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Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 11.00.30

If the relentless pile-driving and angle-grinding that starts everyday at 5.30am on the site opposite my flat (but might as well be in the kitchen) is anything to go by, Phnom Penh is a city undergoing radical transformation. Although it doesn’t look as though my particular construction adversaries will be finished for the next decade or two, seeing as they clock off at 10.00am having comprehensively buzz-sawed the morning into oblivion, elsewhere developments and degradation of the Cambodian capital are breakneck. Potholes two feet deep blossom like mushrooms, if a flash flood’s not blocking your passage then a military police barricade probably will, and if you actually make it home a candle-lit dinner’s less romantic than it sounds if your area’s been hit with a blackout.

Urban Voice, which launched last week, is a neat user-generated map-based visualisation of everything that goes down in PP from potholes to protests. It’s based on the popular Ushahidi crowd-sourcing platform developed in Kenya to monitor election violence and inspired by seeclickfix, the neighbourhood issue communications site in the US. The resulting interactive maps are impressive. Not to mention they look pretty cool too.

20130821_soklida_road-condition_a1_vs1r

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IMG_5268

One of the greatest threats to the French colonial rule of Cambodia came in 1925 when Stung Treng, an ex-monk, gathered a sizeable peasant protest movement with a talking frog. To the present day, Cambodians remain deeply superstitious.

Today’s “People’s Congress” held by the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) in Freedom Park, Phnom Penh fell in the middle of Pchum Ben, the traditional festival of the dead during which Khmer people return to their place of birth to offer food to feed the ghosts of their ancestors.

The open air conference, attended by 10,000 supporters, was billed as a consultative policy-forming exercise and when Yokosal, a CNRP student representative took his turn on the microphone he had a colourful explanation for a recent gaffe from Hen Samrin, third-in-command of the incumbent Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and leader of the National Assembly.

The current political deadlock revolves around alleged electoral fraud and the number of seats that CNRP chief Sam Rainsy believes his party were cheated out of. Mr. Samrin’s almost Freudian slip was to misquote the number of CPP MPs, giving a figure of 58 rather than the 68 CPP lawmakers who assumed their positions in a half-empty National Assembly on 27th September.

It was obvious to Yokosal that the spirit of the great King Ronodam Cheyvoroman VII was due the credit for Samrin’s blunder but less clear was whether the ancient ruler was up to more mischief when Rainsy took the stage.

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Mu Sochua at Boueng Kak earlier this year. Photo: Charlotte Pert ©

Mu Sochua at Boueng Kak earlier this year. Photo: Charlotte Pert ©

Mu Sochua, Cambodia’s highest-ranking female opposition politician has written an impassioned response to my previous blog post.

Coming out fighting, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) MP-elect said that her party demanded “the resignation of all NEC [the National Election Committee, accused by the CNRP of collusion in widespread electoral fraud] members before we restart the negotiations.”

Sochua accused the “international community” of duplicity on account of its endorsement of Hun Sen’s government despite the death of a protestor at the hands of riot police during a three-day protest last month, levelling the accusation that “the international community lies through its teeth.”

Sochua suggested that there are factions within the CNRP’s support with an appetite for a violent uprising: “there are those who want us to start a war and take up arms”, but maintained the CNRP’s stance of peaceful protest.

Sochua fleshed out some of the details of the Sam Rainsy’s briefly touted strategy of industrial action, stating that 800,000 signatories would be required before a national labour strike could take place. The MP-elect also made the claim that the party finances of  the incumbent Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen “are withering”.

Undeterred by the fact that Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) took their seats in the National Assembly, Sochua stated it is “no longer business as usual” and defended the CNRP’s resolution to stay the course of a parliamentary boycott.

“Power is at Freedom Park [where today's consultative CNRP "People's Congress" is currently underway]” where Sochua hopes the CNRP can “build more force” before returning to the negotiation table.

Here is Sochua’s response in full:

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IMG_4694

 

It’s been a tumultuous few weeks for Cambodia and a fruitless spell of attrition for the exasperated Sam Rainsy and his opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). For a party whose electoral slogan was “Do” (or “change”), a marginalised position partly of their own making means they have little to point to by way of progress.

Vigorous and ceaseless CNRP complaints of endemic electoral cheating on the part of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) were contemptuously ignored when the National Election Committee threw its weight behind official results 8th September that put the CNRP’s tally at 55 of 123 seats- eight short of the narrow majority that Mr Rainsy believes his party is due.

Expediently late, the NEC has since admitted that over a quarter of a million duplicate names were found on the electoral register (Mr. Rainsy maintains that 10 times that number were unfairly disenfranchised) but the probability of an independent probe involving an international third party now looks painfully slim.

King Norodom Sihamoni’s efforts to get the duelling factions to play nice by orchestrating a meeting between Hun Sen (the incumbent Prime Minister) and Mr. Rainsy 14th September ended after less than half an hour. Not even the most cursory of pleasantries were exchanged between the two men for whom personal animosity runs deep. Subsequent negotiations have amounted to nought.

The three-day protest that began in earnest the very next day remained non-violent in Freedom Park but clashes between protestors and riot police 5km to the south left one dead and at least six seriously injured. Reports surfaced of journalists having been assaulted by masked thugs. If Mr. Rainsy anticipated this to be the crackdown that might galvanise an intervention he had no such luck- the episode passed with barely a flicker of opprobrium from the international community.

The King initially refused to be drawn on whether he would give his royal stamp of approval to the new government. But the brief ‘will he, won’t he?’ saga evaporated with an air of leaden inevitability when the nominal leader presided over the 68 CPP lawmakers taking their seats in a half empty National Assembly on 27th September. In so doing, Hun Sen and his cohort comprehensively brushed aside the CNRP’s boycott of the house and their demands for an electoral investigation without so much as batting an eyelid.

So where does all this leave the CNRP? I wrote here in late August that Mr. Rainsy had backed himself into a tactical corner by adopting a zero sum approach of victory or die that has predictably yielded no blood from the immovable stone that is Hun Sen. Now Mr. Rainsy is climbing the walls in a scramble for options.

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A CNRP supporter is brought to tears by the proceedings

A CNRP supporter is brought to tears by the proceedings

Monday’s much-anticipated opposition Cambodian National Rescure Party (CNRP) rally in Freedom Park, Phnom Penh, involved a surreal allegorical pantomime in which a handbag, symbolising Cambodia’s stolen votes, is snatched by a small suited girl (read Hun Sen) only to be victoriously returned to its pretty owner.

When Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha took to the stage, the theatrics didn’t let up. They continued attempts to hold the government to ransom by calling for mass protests unless an independent investigatory committee into alleged widespread electoral fraud at the national elections on the 28th July could be established. Both insisted that if this condition was met, CNRP victory was assured: “congratulations”, Kem Sokha said, “we won”.

The extent to which life will come to imitate this performing art remains to be seen: negotiations between the CNRP and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party have broken down over the involvement of the National Election Committee (NEC) in any electoral investigation board. The CNRP are adamant that the NEC are as guilty as the CPP in orchestrating massive voting fraud.

(l-r) Kem Sokha, Sam Rainsy, and Choulong Somora (Mr. Rainsy's wife)

(l-r) Kem Sokha, Sam Rainsy, and Choulong Somora (Mr. Rainsy’s wife)

For the first time, Mr. Sokha threatened to sue the NEC for “stealing the votes of Cambodia” and forging public documents. He pledged to file an official complaint through the courts, adding: “they are criminals.”

Do! small

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Mr. Rainsy whips up the crowd at a rally in Kandal Province yesterday

Mr. Rainsy whips up the crowd at a rally in Kandal Province yesterday

All was going as planned for the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) at a rally in the Yak Temple of Somrong Thom in Kandal province yesterday morning. But from amongst the spirited crowd of 2000-2500 people, a farmer in his 30s from Svay Kien district threw the opposition leadership an uncomfortable curveball.

A healthy turnout and an ecstatic reception will have helped allay any lingering CNRP concerns of a growing despondence at the current stalemate between the opposition and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) over negotiations to establish an investigatory committee into alleged electoral fraud at the national elections on the 28th July.

But during the question and answer session that followed cries from Mr. Rainsy to “rise up and mobilise” in Freedom Park, Phnom Penh on Monday at a mass “meeting” as it’s been delicately termed, the villager, who didn’t reveal his name, shouted into the microphone:

“I want to bring this message to our excellences Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha [first and second in command respectively]. When there’s a mass protest, I will join. But if you don’t do what you’ve promised when our leader becomes Prime Minister, we’re not afraid to vote to bring you down. If you can do as you said you would, my whole family will always support you.”

Laughter ensued from the crowd but the sentiment may have struck deep. Not least because of the use of the definite term “when”. From the moment the preliminary results were announced a month ago, Mr. Rainsy has declared a victory that a great many of his supporters now earnestly expect.

A frenzied crowd expects.

A frenzied crowd expects.

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A document apparently “leaked” from the Office of the Council of Ministers, titled “Cyber War Room” that allegedly lists the government’s online activists

A document apparently leaked from the Office of the Council of Ministers, titled “Cyber War Room” that allegedly lists the government’s online activists (I’ve redacted the names and phone numbers; highlights not mine)

Rarely do occurrences genuinely merit that exhausted literary phrase, Orwellian. But if a document apparently leaked from the Cambodian government’s Office of the Council of Ministers (OCM) is to be believed, then the story of the Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) “Cyber War Room” may well have a legitimate claim to the term.

A photo of the document (pictured above), sent to me and published online by “I Love Cambodia Hot News” (a wildly popular pro-opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party Facebook page) on August 4th is titled “Cyber War Room”. According to the anonymous source who claimed to have leaked the photo, and who spoke via a third party, the list is a group of agents headed up by Hun Manet (son of Hun Sen, the incumbent Prime Minister) who have been enlisted by the government to set up ghost Facebook accounts, spread misinformation and faked documents to undermine the viability of the social media network as a tool for dissent.

As recently as the last national elections in 2008, public criticism of the de facto autocratic government was all but non-existent. Now social media is transforming the political culture: in the 2013 national elections on the 28th July, the opposing Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) struck an unexpected and historic blow to the CPP at the ballot box, largely carried by a connected and informed urban youth movement that is increasingly outspoken. Both sides are now claiming victory amidst opposition allegations of widespread electoral fraud and the country is in deadlock.

Given the state’s virtual monopoly on media outlets, a burgeoning number of Cambodia’s disproportionately young population (after as much as a quarter of the population died during the Khmer Rouge era) consume their news via social media. Government figures show that between 2010 and 2012 internet usage leapt from one to nearly 20%. But Facebook, with nearly a million users, isn’t the sole reserve of dissenters and the site has fast become a fierce psychological battleground for both sides of the political divide. Everyday the social network is ablaze with claims and counter-claims, politically charged spats amongst the league of super users (some with as many as 200,000 followers), and virulently circulating rumours.

The validity of the document and the existence of a CPP “Cyber War” strategy has, unsurprisingly, been difficult to verify. I emailed the CPP to check whether the “leaked” document was indeed from the OCM. No response. None of the people on the list I contacted via Facebook have yet responded. All of the people on the list I was able to call were busy at the time. Maybe they were all at the same Thursday afternoon barbecue. I didn’t hear back from any of them.

The public Facebook accounts of several of the people listed are innocuously typical. Others, including Hun Manet and Chea Chheng (highlighted in the red box, not by me) are openly CPP activists. There’s not in itself anything wrong with this: in Cambodia, you are after all free to support Hun Sen and his 27 years of incumbency should you so choose.

But I did track down one of Cambodia’s social media celebrities, Phe Sovannarith, who has over 160,000 followers. His name doesn’t appear on the “Cyber War Room” list but his online activity over the last month has entailed some truly bizarre twists.

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