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Could the End of Cambodia’s Opposition Be a Good Thing?

Cambodian politics is incredibly personalist as in Norodom Sihanouk, Son Ngoc Thanh, Lon Nol, Son Sann, Hun Sen, Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha. Many smaller parties are just vehicles for political figures.

A closer look at the implications of the ongoing government crackdown in the Southeast Asian state ahead of upcoming polls.

The Diplomat, by David Hutt, September 8, 2017

Is the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s largest opposition party, going to fight the latest crackdown on its members, or will it simply admit defeat and allow itself to be dissolved? That is the question we Cambodia-watchers are now asking after Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s president, was arrested in the early hours of August 3 at his Phnom Penh home and accused of treason. Days later, he was officially charged, despite claims that his parliamentary immunity was infringed. He could face between 15 and 30 years in jail.
Kem Sokha’s arrest comes as an English-language newspaper in Cambodia was closed on Monday because of taxation, radio stations carrying U.S.-funded news outlet’s programs were shuttered last week, and an U.S. State Department-funded democracy-promoting organization was ordered to cease operations, and its staff expelled from the country, last month. Throughout all of this, accusations of U.S. or foreign interference, or outright conspiracy, have been used to justify the closures.

Kem Sokha took over leadership of the CNRP in February after exiled Sam Rainsy stepped down to avoid the party’s dissolution. That month, the government rushed amendments through parliament that gave it powers to close any political party for vague reasons, one being if the party leader holds a criminal conviction. (Sam Rainsy has many defamation charges to his name.)  Now, after Kem Sokha’s arrest, the CNRP’s dissolution is looking likely. Moreover, there are noises that the party might not fight it this time, which would require imposing a new party leader soon, despite a general election only ten months away.

“There is no point for anyone to assume the leadership role when they know they will be placed in prison or forced to be a puppet just to have a meaningless opposition to legitimize the upcoming election,” Kem Monovithya, Kem Sokha’s daughter and the CNRP’s deputy public affairs officer, told the Phnom Penh Post (now the only independent English-language newspaper left in Cambodia after this week’s closure of the Cambodia Daily).

Pol Ham, one of the CNRP’s deputy presidents, was also quoted by the Post as saying the party won’t publicly protest Kem Sokha’s arrest. He added, what could have been with tongue-in-cheek, “it is good if they dissolve the party since I also want to retire… I want to go to the pagoda since I am old now.” Mu Sochua, another deputy president, said that if the party doesn’t appoint a new leader then it could be dissolved “any day.”

People who have read my column might know that I have regularly criticized the CNRP. Amongst other things, I’ve admonished it for embracing anti-Vietnamese bigotry for the sake of votes; for failing to come up with meaningful policies in its manifestos; and its leader not being brave enough to stand up to the government, now ruled by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) under Prime Minister Hun Sen for decades.

But the CNRP is now in a position that no-one would envy. On Tuesday, the government’s mouthpiece, Fresh News, a media outlet, claimed that several other CNRP politicians were on a government blacklist and could soon be arrested in connection to Kem Sokha’s treason charge. This list included Pol Ham and Kem Sokha’s daughters. Interestingly enough, all but one (I believe) are from the Human Rights Party, the party Kem Sokha formed in 2007 that joined with the Sam Rainsy Party in 2012 to create the CNRP. Might dividing the CNRP between these two camps, which have long been factional, be a goal?

So what happens if the CNRP is dissolved? Certainly, it would be a death knell to whatever remnants of democracy Cambodia has left. The opposition, then, might hope that its immolation would be enough to force the international community into action. Charles Santiago, chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, was on the spot when he said in a statement: “If members of the international community, including and especially donors, fail to speak up and take action now, they risk ending up complicit in Cambodia’s descent into outright dictatorship.”

The international community has been rather verbose in its criticism of the recent crackdown on media, NGOs, and the opposition, unlike its copy-and-paste statements issued in the past. However, the question is whether it will go any further than just well-meaning statements. As I pointed out elsewhere: “If Washington does opt to impose some sort of sanctions, [the] government would no doubt point to them as proof that its claim of American interference was founded.”

Moreover, any sanctions on Cambodia would set an uncomfortable precedent for the United States or the European Union. However bad Cambodia is getting, it is not as bad as conditions in Vietnam, which doesn’t even pretend to hold elections, or Thailand, which has been governed by a military junta for three years. And then there’s trade. The EU is currently negotiating a free-trade agreement with Vietnam, for example. If Cambodia is sanctioned by Europe because of politics, then surely the EU-Vietnam FTA is a no-go.

An alternative, if the CNRP is dissolved, would be its members to form another party. The problem with this, though, is that the CNRP’s support relies a great deal on the figures of Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, even when they are jailed or exiled, since Cambodian politics is incredibly personalist. Without them, considering no other opposition figure garners so much public popularity, support would no doubt diminish. One other possibility is that all opposition political parties boycott the next election, which has been rumored. This is unlikely, considering that many of the smaller parties are just vehicles for political figures.

But what about if the CNRP sucks it up and decides to try to carry on for the next ten months until the general election? Whoever takes over as the party’s leader, as Kem Monovithya said, might also be imprisoned. Maybe, then, it would need to go through several leaders. Also, it would need to remain silent for ten months. No protests; no rallies; no public speaking. Members of the CNRP in Kampong Chhnang province have already been banned this week from meeting. The provincial police chief said he would “not allow” the party to “discuss politics”, as the Post reported. But would ten months of figurative hibernation lose the party support? Some, perhaps. But as Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy at Occidental College in Los Angeles, told me this week:

The opposition sustained a lot of abuse prior to the national election of 2013 and especially the commune elections of 2017 and still came back like a zombie, ready to receive votes. This apparently is quite worrisome for the ruling party. They run against a walking dead party and still barely win. Could it be that people actually want change?

But could a walking-dead party effectively compete against the ruling CPP in July 2018? Who knows? But the fact that the CNRP made solid gains in June’s commune election, which the CPP won, could be an indication that support is growing. Plus, people tend to vote differently in commune elections than general elections, which likely works in the CNRP’s favor.

Still, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated this week that he wants to remain in power for another decade to “maintain stability”. On top of that, the government is opening its checkbook. Days before Kem Sokha’s arrest, the prime minister promised another rise in the minimum wage of garment workers, many of whom have been loyal to the CNRP for years, as well as state pensions by 2019 and employer-covered health insurance by next year, the Cambodia Daily reported at the time.

The government has also promised numerous other social policies, which would certainly siphon some support away from the opposition, which typically promises such reforms. As I argued last year in the Diplomat, the government is well-heeled at Janus-faced politics:

In 2018, the electorate might be tempted to stick with mild reform that is visible rather than genuine change that might not be possible, given that Cambodia has never known a peaceful transfer of power between political parties and the CPP has already threatened it might not allow one to take place. Over the course of the next two years, the CNRP’s leaders will face graver tasks than just staying out of prison if they want to take power in 2018.

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China Announces Support for Cambodia’s Crackdown

Chinese President Xi Jinping, front row third right, waves with leaders attending the Belt and Road Forum as they pose for a group photo at the Yanqi Lake venue on the outskirt of Beijing, China, Monday, May 15, 2017. They are, front row from left, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Xi, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and second row from third left to right, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, Pool)

Hul Reaksmey VOA Khmer 09 September 2017

The United States, European Union, Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom have all condemned the crackdown in Cambodia ahead of next year’s elections.

PHNOM PENH —As Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon called on embassies this week not to interfere with Cambodia’s internal affairs over the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha, China announced its support for Cambodia’s crackdown on the opposition.

Following a meeting between Wang Jiarui, vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body to Beijing, and National Assembly President Heng Samrin on Thursday, San Sarana, a spokesman for Samrin, told reporters that Wang had praised Prime Minister Hun Sen for the arrest.

“China wanted to offer its support to Samdech Hun Sen for arresting Kem Sokha, as Cambodia’s internal security will be guaranteed,” he said.

The meeting between Wang and Samrin came a day after Cambodia warned western diplomatic missions against making public statements opposing the charges against Sokha, who was arrested in a pre-dawn raid on Sunday and later charged with espionage in a case widely seen as politically motivated.

The charges stem from a public speech Sokha gave in Australia several years ago in which he claimed to have received advice on grassroots campaigning to defeat the Hun Sen regime at the ballot box from the United States and Canada.

“Kem Sokha confessed clearly in the video that the United States has told him what to do from the beginning. He talked about his links with the U.S. since 1993. He stepped down from politics when they told him to do so. He took the model from Yugoslavia when the U.S. told him to do so. That explained all the strikes, violence, demonstrations… in 2013 and 2014,” Prak Sokhon said in the letter.

A series of strikes and mass demonstrations marked the period following Cambodia’s 2013 election, which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party won amid credible allegations of widespread voter fraud and intimidation. The protests and strikes were crushed by paratroopers, military police, and regime thugs in January 2014, leaving at least five dead and dozens seriously injured.

The United States, European Union, Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom have all condemned the crackdown in Cambodia ahead of next year’s elections, which has also included the forced closure of more than a dozen radio stations broadcasting critical coverage of the regime, the expulsion of the U.S.-funded election monitoring group the National Democratic Institute, and the closure of the Cambodia Daily newspaper.

San Sarana on Thursday confirmed what many analysts have been predicting for some time: Cambodia’s increasing dependence on China.

“China will cooperate and assist Cambodia in all scenarios. China will be behind us to support Cambodia when the country faces any obstacles. Cambodia’s success is China’s success, and any obstacles that happen to Cambodia also happen to China,” he said.

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Trump Attacks the Press, Cambodia Winds Up Collateral Damage

Earth: Trump is elected by the American electoral system that’s been in place since before January 1789 (the first U.S. presidential election held on January 7, 1789). The United States respects human rights and uphelds the rule of law (Cambodia has none). The U.S. has had new leader (President) every four year or eight the most, except Franklin D. Roosevelt (Cambodia has Hun Sen ruled since 1979).

It’s doubtful the U.S. president gives much thought to Cambodia, but his hostility to the U.S. press and any form of opposition has a powerful impact in Phnom Penh nonetheless.

The Daily Beast, by Eric Pape, September 8, 2017

Donald Trump has a lot to answer for in Cambodia, a country he rarely thinks about, if ever. But the hard-edged government of Hun Sen knows a green light for oppression when it sees one, and it’s now engaged in a multi-pronged crackdown on the free press and the political opposition.

In the last few weeks, authorities in Phnom Penh have shuttered the U.S. State Department-funded National Democratic Institute, triggered the closure of the highly respected and non-partisan English-language Cambodia Daily (where I worked early in my career), and ordered the silencing of nearly 20 radio stations unless they stopped broadcasting programming critical of the government.

Without such media, far fewer Cambodians will be able to access critical or objective journalism in the run-up to the July 2018 parliamentary elections, making the possibility of free and fair voting increasingly elusive. That is part of reason the Daily’s final issue focused on its persecution by tax authorities and an effort to decapitate the political opposition under the cover headline: “Descent into Outright Dictatorship.”

Government spokesmen in Phnom Penh repeatedly cite U.S. President Trump’s criticism of U.S. media, as well as the move to exclude some from the White House, as a justification for clamping down on media messengers in Cambodia.

And, after a CNN report cited a nonprofit group that worked against sex trafficking in Cambodia, in early August the government ordered the organization to be shut down for allegedly exaggerating the problem.

Speaking of “an insult which can’t be tolerated,” Hun Sen went full-Trump. “CNN deserves the rantings of President Donald Trump,” he said at a graduation ceremony for law students. “His rantings are right. I would like to send a message to the president that your attack on CNN is right. American media is very bad.”

Cambodia, in fact, has plenty of “American” media. The government-ordered radio closures have mostly hit stations that broadcast U.S.-funded programming like Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, both of which are based in Washington, D.C.

And then there is—was—The Cambodia Daily, whose final issue detailed the story behind a seemingly arbitrary $6.3 million tax bill they were given just one month to pay. Both founder Bernard Krisher, and his daughter Deborah, who bought the paper in the spring for a symbolic sum, are American.

Prominent exiled opposition figure Sam Rainsy said in a phone interview with The Daily Beast that President Trump’s tone, priorities, actions, and inaction are facilitating a “striking authoritarian drift” in Cambodia and elsewhere.

“Dictators around the world feel encouraged,” Rainsy said from Paris.

“Hun Sen is benefitting from the eclipse of America, the loss of influence of the U.S. under Donald Trump; its lack of interest in human rights in far-away countries,” he said.

The implications are direct for Rainsy, who spent more than two decades building up a popular opposition movement in his homeland under the decreasingly watchful eye of the United States and an international community whose priorities often seem to be shifting elsewhere. Little changed in Cambodia when Rainsy faced politically motivated charges of defamation that risked sending him to prison for two years.

And when the ruling party passed a law allowing the government to shut down any political party whose leader has been convicted of a crime, Rainsy decided to give up the leadership of the Cambodian National Rescue Party early this year to save the opposition movement and allow it to run in local elections in June.

That led Kem Sokha, another longtime political opponent of Hun Sen, to take the reins of the party, and lead it to a surprisingly strong showing in local elections in June—setting the stage for what many observers expected to be a hard-fought national election next summer.

Rainsy, meanwhile, is stuck overseas, banned from returning to Cambodia, with authorities warning airlines against flying him into the country on a commercial flight because it could lead to bloodshed.

Such threats carry great weight in Cambodia, especially when they emanate from Hun Sen’s inner circle, but also because of the many skeletons in the country’s history. Once Southeast Asia’s oasis of peace, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger launched a secret (and illegal) bombing campaign in Cambodia in the late 1960s to stop Vietnamese fighters from escaping carpet-bombing on their own soil by fleeing to a safe haven in Cambodia.

And so began the destabilization that helped facilitate the rise of the Khmer Rouge, an ultra-radical Maoist group with a particularly strong nationalist streak and a growing hatred of its former patron, Vietnam.

As the U.S. abandoned a failing war in Southeast Asia in 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia. Their leadership—simultaneously incompetent, cruel, and stunningly paranoid—engaged what has become known as the Khmer Rouge genocide in which 1.8 million Cambodians died of starvation, disease, and executions in less than four years.

Hun Sen was one of the Khmer Rouge’s young commanders—at least until a wave of internal purges convinced him to flee to neighboring Vietnam where the government developed an appreciation for him. After Hanoi’s leadership overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979, they eventually installed Hun Sen as Cambodia’s minister of Foreign Affairs at a time when all major decisions emanated from Hanoi. In 1987, as the Vietnam occupation ended, Hun Sen became prime minister of a shaken country that remained reliant on its neighbor to the east.

And there Hun Sen has stayed, even as efforts to bring an end to decades of strife and confrontation resulted in a sprawling United Nations-driven peace process that began in 1991. Vietnam, the U.S., France, and other relevant foreign powers committed to the process.

What followed was a massive and costly international nation-building effort. Billions of dollars in aid were pumped into one of the poorest, most troubled countries in the world—on the condition that it become a multi-party democracy with a functioning state of law. In those circumstances, a free press was crucial. One of the main international guarantors of that whole process has long been the United States both despite and because of its complicated history in the region.

In the 32 years since he first became prime minister, Hun Sen, now 65, has learned to cater when necessary to the language of pluralistic democracy, although his autocratic tendencies have surfaced repeatedly, especially in the run-up to elections. But over the years a strong international reaction, especially when the U.S. enforced economic consequences, has convinced him repeatedly to back down, or at least to tone down.

In the Trump era, however, there are growing indications that Hun Sen feels he can be what he always wanted to be: a despot.

The official justifications for the government offensive on media and nonprofits was bureaucratic. Cambodia’s Department of Taxation and Ministry of Information went after them for supposed tax-, contract- and permit-violations.

But Hun Sen himself triggered that process when in early August he asked his cabinet to investigate the tax status of media companies and nonprofit entities that he has roundly attacked in the past.

And the pseudo-bureaucratic justifications for those closures were stripped away just after midnight on Sept. 3 when a far larger repressive strategy kicked in. More than 100 well-armed police swarmed the home of opposition leader Sokha and took him away, dazed, in handcuffs.

Hun Sen’s pliant courts have charged Sokha with treason and conspiring with a foreign country, the United States. Hun Sen explained that Sokha’s actions were so serious that he had to take action. But the evidence so far presented against the opposition leader, according to media close to the government, are based on an edited 2014 video of a speech Sokha made in Australia. In that talk, Sokha said that experts in various parts of the world, including American academia, were advising him, and he suggested that he was learning how to lead a peaceful people power revolution of the sort that Hun Sen is obsessed with preventing.

Due to the gravity of the charges brought against him Sokha could face 15 to 30 years in prison.

Hun Sen has long used his control of all major government, judicial, and military institutions to divide his opponents before elections, whether through tempting job offers, payoffs, threats, criminal charges, or more extreme measures.

But the breadth of this pre-election mobilization stands out. Hun Sen is suggesting that other opposition figures may face prosecution, and if an opposition party tries to protect its leader, he has said, it will be eliminated.

Beyond the campaign calendar, why is this crackdown so much broader and more blatant than those that came before it?

“It is a new world with Donald Trump,” explained Rainsy, who from exile is hoping to convince the international community, especially European nations, to mobilize renewed pressure to free Sokha, save the opposition party, and get Cambodia back toward the democratic path.

“The U.S. is very weak,” says Rainsy, and that is a big problem for countries like Cambodia. “Before the United States acted as a brake for dictators, but the U.S. is no longer playing its role.”

Even before Sokha’s arrest, the United Nations Human Rights chief, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad, was highlighting the link between Trump’s repeated attacks against some of the U.S.’ most prestigious media, like The New York Times and The Washington Post and events in Cambodia.

“The demonization of the press [in the U.S.] is poisonous because it has consequences elsewhere,” Ra’ad said in comments at an Aug. 30 news conference in Geneva. He also spoke of the danger that Trump’s comments could incite violence against journalists—and not just in United States.

During Hun Sen’s years in power, countless journalists have been threatened with prosecution by the courts, not to mention anonymous and not-so-anonymous death threats. A dozen journalists are known to have been murdered, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The idea that a president of the United States would actively speak against the freedom of the press, a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution and something American presidents have promoted for generations amounts to “a stunning turnaround,” Ra’ad noted.

Hun Sen hoped for a such a turnaround when, in the run-up to Trump’s 2016 election victory, he called the American businessman “very talented” and said, “I really want him to win.” The Cambodian strongman foresaw better relations between the U.S. and Russia, Cambodia’s former patron state, and less American pressure over human rights abroad.

He may not have foreseen the massive decrease in U.S. aid that Trump has ordered, however. The U.S. plans to reduce assistance to Cambodia from $78.3 million this year to just $21.5 million next year. Or perhaps Hun Sen just figured a decline in conditional aid and investment from Western countries is being more than replaced by the rising influence of China in the region. Beijing doesn’t care about the free press or respect for multi-party democracy, and with Hun Sen repeatedly sticking his finger in the eye of the U.S. in Southeast Asia, China keeps rewarding him with ever-growing foreign investment.

So Hun Sen is surfing the rise of China, and the declining interest of the U.S., regardless of its past commitments. “Hun Sen knows he can do what he wants,” Rainsy said. “Donald Trump doesn’t care about countries like Cambodia.”

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