The “Audacity of Hope” in Cambodia

Today the Cambodian genocide trial began for the most infamous Cambodian prison camp leader, Kaing Guek Eav ‑ better known as Comrade Duch who ran the S-21 camp also known as  Tuol Sleng. It was at that camp where he is accused of executing 12,380 people in the “killing fields” at Choeng Ek. (Great blog entry here…) It is uncertain exactly how many people perished in this atrocity, but estimates are that anywhere from 12 to 20 thousand people were killed in this camp.

Photo 1. at Choeng Ek also Known as the “Killing Fields”

thailand-sm-200305-0311_2461Source: Chris Montaño

It is reported that there were only 7 survivors of the horrible camp. Among them was a painter named Vann Nath. He is an artist who survived because “Duch” liked his paintings of Pol Pot. After the ordeal, Vann Nath painted his experience and his works are the pictorial testimony of the crimes committed in that dark place. They now hang on the walls of the former prison and are haunting in their depiction of the atrocities committed there.

When I visited the prison, I was riveted by the paintings and their stark, realistic renderings of the things once done where I now stood. As I toured the prison, I could see the terrible conditions ( See Photos 2. and 3.) but it was the paintings that I could not shake from my mind. For me the paintings were like taking an emotional tour of the prison and overwhelming to say the least.

Photos 2. A Torture Table and Painting Depicting its Usethailand-sm-200305-0301_236Source: Chris Montaño

Photo 3. The Stark Prison

thailand-sm-200305-0254_233Source: Chris Montaño

After we toured the prison itself we were taken by minibus to the killing fields where many of the executions were carried out.  The arrival at the killing fields is quite prosaic with a lovely Buddhist temple set amidst some trees. However, as you get closer to the temple you are greeted with a specter that was stunning- there are several floors of the temple encased in glass with skulls neatly situated on platforms of wood. (See Photo 4.) The contrast between the peaceful, countryside place of spiritual reflection is scarred with a reminder of the darkest behavior of humankind and the two juxtaposed against one another created for me a very strong emotional reaction.

Photo 4. The Raw Reality

thailand-sm-200305-0315_250Source: Chris Montaño

Cambodians have left the fields in relatively rustic conditions and as you walk around you can see shards of human bones and clothes. Apparently, they used metal rods to break the necks of prisoners as they deemed bullets to valuable to waste in executions. Of course what slim possessions the executed had left at that point were taken. The tour was a very emotional day for me and my friends and even our Cambodian tour guide broke down into tears as he remembered family members that perished there.

As I reflected upon our day trip to hell (fyi- there is no sarcasm in this choice of words), I thought, “How does a man like Vann Nath go on after this? Where does he find his hope to face the rest of his life? In fact, how does he think about hope at this time?”

I saw real images that day that I wished I never saw. Yet I found that it was the paintings of Vann Nath that came to my mind and I could not avoid. Over dinner, I spoke with a friend that lived in Phnom Pehn about the day and related my thoughts about Vann Nath’s paintings. She informed me that he was local and if I wanted she could inquire into a piece of his work for me to purchase.

I thought about it and asked her to commission a work from Vann Nath. I gave her a single word– hope. “Ask him to paint for me, ‘Hope.'”

We left the next day and later I found out that Vann Nath was willing to take the job. Once complete, my friend rolled up the oil painting and stuck it into a poster tube and sent it along with a friend of hers that traveled to the U.S. The painting was then mailed to me and my family. (See Photo 5.)

Photo 5. Hope by Vann Nath

hope

Source: Chris Montaño

Mr Vann Nath has given my family a great gift in in this work. It hangs on our living room wall and I am reminded of that day I went to that horrible dungeon. But I am also reminded that even amidst the darkest cell of despair, there lies the seeds of hope within. I admire Vann Nath for emerging from that place – almost certainly wounded, yet not distorted or warped by its darkness. He is a hero of mine and I will always remember him for his courage, not only to survive, but to emerge as a an eloquent voice to never forget and never lose hope in dark circumstances.

Is this True? If so, then ya gotta wonder…

Latest news on Sunday afternoon. Politico is stating that President Obama has expedited the exit of GM CEO as a precondition to the aid package to be unveiled tomorrow. (see Politico article here…). If so, then it raises a really interesting question with respect to the other gaping singularity of taxpayer charity once known as the U.S. banking system.

With Secretary of Treasury Geithner saying that we will need a refresher banker bonus retirement act bailout package for banks, (see the Audaucity of hopelessness here…), then will there be reciprocity for those CEOs/leadership cabals that receive aid here too? Or will the “quiet coup” of Simon Johnson related in my prior post prevail and confirm our greatest fears? That the government for the people, of the people and by the people has now become the government for the bankers, of the bankers and by the bankers?

This is starting to get really interesting…

Invisible Hand Award: The Black Swan

Great article on one of the few people that saw “it” coming… Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A genuine “black swan” of a person. Would that his ideas receive serious consideration by policy makers as they seek to craft a policy response to the burned embers that was once the strongest economic system in the world. One key point raised in the article is that it currently appears that the solution to deleveraging is… more leverage. A concern raised on this blog early on in my post entitled, “Fist do no Harm.”

“The center of the problem is that they don’t know the center of the problem,” he says. “They have not yet entertained the idea that what we may be witnessing is a total failure of a way of doing business.”

A voice worth listening to … Here is Mr. Taleb’s home page.

A Kinder, Gentler Coup d’etat – Follow on to Intervention Meme

Will not belabor what has been so eloquently well said in this Atlantic article (which can be read here…) Here is the synopsis paragraph…

The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.

by Simon Johnson

Must reading…

Nothing Personal, Just Business

The Secretary of Treasury has laid out details for the toxic bank assets rescue plan and the markets staged a pretty decent relief rally. From close on Friday, March 20th through close of yesterday, March 24, the S&P500 index was up a little more than 5%. It appears that the market has received the news well.

But not all is well on Wall Street. Wall Street executives are quoted in a Wall Street Journal article as “expressing anger and betrayal at Washington’s latest anti-Wall Street rhetoric.” (no kidding… read it here)

Stunning. Wall Street is feeling angry and betrayed. The recipient of more than $10 trillion (and counting) of taxpayer bailouts, much of which has passed directly through to banks around the world essentially paying the payroll of many of them, is angry and betrayed. At what I ask? Have we not supplied you with a money at every turn? Regardless of irresponsible business practices that led to a near worldwide financial collapse, the U.S. taxpayer has stepped in and jeopardized our currency’s future, the risk of potential inflation, our reputation as the world’s leader of free market economics, our international security, we have bailed you out. We have even recently gave you an arbitrage opportunity within the Secretary of Treasury’s toxic asset bailout plan in the form of asymmetric risk.  So what pray tell could Wall Street executives feel angry and betrayed about?

The article does not delve into any named causes of these aggrieved feelings. However, I suggest that this sense of anger and betrayal stems from the fact that for the first time, Wall Street is accountable for its actions and behaviors to Main Street. Specifically, its about the money, their money in the form of compensation. Is it unreasonable for investors to responsibly review compensation policies in the companies they invest it? Let’s remember that we are professionals and that the U.S. taxpayer is simply doing what the financial services sector has failed to do. We are acting like responsible managers.

Consider this tender Wall Street executive deep within your feelings of anger and betrayal. This is not personal, it’s just business. Yep, business. View this as a “turnaround” investment that requires some active management. From this perspective, Wall Street is getting really very minor oversight yet it is bristling and surly. We loaned you money when you were in deep distress and received a combination of debt and equity and we are merely protecting our investment and exercising our prerogative (actually our fiduciary duty to the taxpayer) as investors to oversee the investment. Very simple.

Many of you have done this for a living let’s not forget. You have have used this same reasoning with executives in companies that you have invested in when you had the “difficult conversation” regarding their performance or compensation — or even their termination.  I know because I have been there too. So as you stew in your anger and betrayal, let’s remember a couple of things:

  • This is not personal, we are merely exercising responsible, fiduciary oversight in our investment.
  • We are investors and loaned your firms money and have equity and need to be respected as such.
  • This may be uncomfortable for you but we have a duty and after all, you did take the money.
  • As a recipient of the money, you are accountable. For your business practices, your compensation and all aspects of your business. Period. No discussion about it. If this is uncomfortable to you, then there are terms laid out for your release from these obligations.
  • We are professionals so let’s not devolve into silly emotional outbursts that are unconstructive. Those emotions are valid, but personal and need to be processed somewhere else besides Wall Street Journal articles and really have no bearing on the oversight function we are now exercising.
  • Demanding trust at this point is asking a bit much. Remember how we got here. In fact, you need to earn our trust all over again with a series of small steps demonstrating that you hear and respect our wishes as investors. Demanding it at this time demonstrates a significant lack of situational awareness .

Please recall that we are ultimately in a free market (or some variant thereof currently.) And even though Wall Street has been bailed out by the U.S. taxpayer, it too must play by free market rules. Part of that is accountability to your investors. It’s not personal, it is just business.