Sheltered by a building under construction, in the heart of bustling Phnom Penh, stand the brand-new premises of Confluences ; on the first floor, in an office where the darkness provides some welcome cool, its founder, Soreasmey Ke Bin, grants me the pleasure of an interview. The career of this French-Cambodian man is a perfect illustration of the ways in which tradition and modernity in Cambodia are intertwined. How about stepping outside to find out about the co-founder of the local FrenchTech ? What if a walk around the delights of the capital could help us understand the story of this man…
Tuol Sleng, the story’s history
Starting this profile with a reference to the macabre museum dedicated to the genocide orchestrated by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 undoubtedly helps us to understand Soreasmey’s origins ; a politically active family in Cambodia, a father who soon leaves for France and decides to stay there when Pol Pot comes to power, a romantic encounter in the lecture theatres of the Sorbonne and eventually, several years later, in Lyon, the little Soreasmey is born. While in Cambodia, the violent dictatorship has transformed a former high school into a state prison and a major torture site, recalling some of the darkest days in modern times, “Baptiste” tackles the French education system with the strength of dual nationality which is charged with meaning. Nurtured by paternal nostalgia for a country he doesn’t yet know, horrified by the recent political past of the country of his ancestors, he develops a form of patriotism which leads him to aspire to a military career.
The Royal Palace and the “King’s baggage”
His father had pursued his activism thousands of kilometres away before joining resistance movements in Thailand at the end of the 70s and returning to the country “in the King’s baggage”. From 1993, the young man regularly visits him in Cambodia and manages to arrange work placements in the “homeland” during management studies at the French University of Lyon III. Military service which is still compulsory is a good test and demonstrates to him that an overdose of authority will never appeal to his adventurous nature. To hell with the army, he takes off to join his father in Cambodia in 2001, with only a one-way ticket and steely determination. The desire to reconnect with his roots and find his place in a country where everything seems possible is too strong. Baptiste turns back into Soreasmey.
Encounter in Phsar Thmey, the central market
Arriving in a new country without a career plan, or professional contacts, however, represents an ordeal as difficult as finding one’s way through the stalls of Phnom Penh central market, donated by France in the 1930s. Luckily, the market is the perfect place for encounters and exchanges and following several weeks of efforts, Soreasmey gets to know a French-Cambodian man who wants to set up an IT company. Frankly, he doesn’t know much about the industry, but he needs a job so why not bluff a bit? He makes up some fake Cambodian contacts and shows off his (relative) knowledge of the market; the ruse works, and through sheer strength of will, doors start to open to his partner and himself. “A bonne volonté ne manque faculté” / “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”, says the French proverb!” Soreasmey seems to have packed it up in his luggage to translate it into Khmer…
Networking on Diamond Island
Fifteen good years follow, filled with encounters and networking, the creation of SMEs – KhmerDev, AnatiTrading, AD’communication… – and consultancy missions, in a city undergoing cultural and urban upheaval. By now, Soreasmey can swim like a fish in the Tonlé Sap and he has made the land of his ancestors his own. Tired of being a minority stakeholder in the companies he supports, in 2014 he decides to set up Confluences, a company specialising in international business development which centres around four pillars: consultancy, incubator, trading and logistics. If we were to sum-up this four-headed hydra, we would mention advice on “market access”, hosting services to businesses, start-up incubation and distribution in the construction industry. Not far from its premises, Diamond Island has a wealth of mind-boggling building projects. The latest one? A life-size reproduction of the Arc de Triomphe surrounded by two rows of vaguely Haussmanian buildings. A Chinese building project which surely could have done with Soreasmey’s expertise…
Franco-Cambodian commitment to Wat Phnom
Soreasmey blends into Phnom Penh, becoming its mirror image; the dichotomy between modernity and tradition suits him down to the ground! His involvement in the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie Française au Cambodge as Deputy Chairman, represents the link he makes on a daily basis between his adopted country and the country of his birth. The same could be said of Anvaya, a non-profit organisation bringing together returnees, of which he is founder and President, or his role as co-founder of FrenchTech Cambodia which provides a perfect illustration of his commitment to local innovation and entrepreneurship. Soreasmey has become a hyperactive expert on the Cambodian market, passionate about the fusion of two cultures, of HIS two cultures towards which he nurtures barely concealed affection. Can we detect some of the Buddhist wisdom that emanates from Wat Phnom, one of the oldest pagodas in Phnom Penh ?
Final detour at Aroma
During the week I spent in this captivating capital, I had the opportunity to meet Mansour, the owner of a small Lebanese restaurant called Aroma, a stone’s throw from the Royal Palace. It was a lively place and I found there the ambiance of the Parisian terraces, their warmth and cultural mix. This kind man told me his story, which began with the war in Lebanon, continued in immigration poverty on the benches of the Parisian metro, embarked on learning catering and concluded peacefully in this delicious little restaurant where French accents mingle with the Khmer of the passers-by and the waiters. I never found out whether Soreasmey and Mansour knew each other but, with a few differences, they tell the same story : two adventurers who were given nothing but who were able, through life’s ups and downs, to find a simple pleasure, that of knowing how to obtain the best from both cultures. If only it could be that way throughout the world !