Cambodia’s Crackdown on Opposition Signals End of ‘Culture of Dialogue’

World Politics Review, The Editors, June 16, 2016

Since late May, Kem Sokha, vice president of Cambodia’s opposition party, has remained in the party headquarters to avoid arrest over charges that he procured a prostitute. The case is the latest in what the European Union has condemned as a campaign of “judicial harassment” against the opposition. In an email interview, Stuart White, the national news editor at the Phnom Penh Post, discusses Cambodia’s current crackdown on the opposition and the prospects for reform.

Welcome to Cambodian politics
ហ្នឹងហើយនយោបាយខ្មែរ ប្រសិនបើបរទេសវិញ ឱនលំទោនឱ្យញ័រ។
Cambodia human rights advocates arrive at an appeals court, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, June 13, 2016
(AP photo by Heng Sinith).

WPR: What is driving the current crackdown on Cambodia’s opposition, and what explains Prime Minister Hun Sen’s decision to end the truce represented by the “culture of dialogue”?

Stuart White: Some analysts have suggested that the situation currently facing the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is just the latest iteration of the cycle of crackdowns and concessions that have been a hallmark of the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) since the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. However, this latest crackdown does appear to be particularly wide-ranging, having also swept up NGO staffers, and even an election official.

Whether it represents the abandonment of the so-called culture of dialogue between the two parties depends on whether you believe that culture ever actually came into effect. It seemed from the outset that both sides had fundamentally different understandings of what “dialogue” entailed.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, himself currently in exile to avoid politically motivated charges, appeared to believe that the new culture signaled an era of CPP openness to constructive criticism and incremental reform. Hun Sen, on the other hand, appeared to believe that it meant an end to criticism altogether. When opposition members, including the party’s currently embattled vice president, Kem Sokha, failed to stop publicly airing their long-standing grievances with the government, Hun Sen seemingly gave up on the culture altogether.

WPR: Has the opposition made any gains on its core demands since the disputed 2013 elections, and what impact has its decision to enter parliament, as well as the recent crackdown, had on its political support?

White: The opposition has gained little ground in terms of enacting the sort of legislation it called for in 2013, though Cambodian parliamentary rules make it very difficult to achieve much as a minority party.

Ironically, the CPP has co-opted one of the opposition’s most politically popular ideas, namely its call for a $250 minimum monthly salary for all government employees. The idea was widely popular when the CNRP campaigned for it in 2013. The CPP, however, has since been bumping up civil servants’ pay unilaterally, and taking the credit publicly. Earlier this year, Kem Sokha tried to cast the government’s reappropriation of opposition ideas as a measure of his party’s influence, and was promptly denounced by Hun Sen for “deceiving citizens.”

The opposition was also promised a permit to start its own TV station as part of the post-election deal, a big step in a country where broadcast media is almost entirely aligned with the ruling party. However, efforts to start the station have been stalled repeatedly, most recently by local officials’ refusal to issue the party a permit to build an antenna. Authorities said the decision was based on concerns of nearby residents, who feared its emissions would impact their health, although medical consensus says they won’t. But locals later said the health fears had first been drummed up by a CPP village official.

The opposition did manage to secure the reform of the National Election Committee, which had long been seen as an instrument of the CPP, but even that victory has proved to be tenuous. One CNRP appointee to the committee was recently summoned to court over years-old charges, and one of the body’s apolitical staffers with a background in human rights has been arrested as part of the ongoing case against Kem Sokha.

It remains to be seen whether those who voted for the CNRP in the last election will withdraw their support after its rocky record in parliament. Given Cambodia’s longstanding tradition of personality-driven politics, it’s even debatable how much the party’s performance will impact voters’ opinions.

WPR: Has Hun Sen instituted any of the reforms he called necessary following the CPP’s relative loss of electoral support in 2013, and has the CPP shored up its political base since then?

White: Rather than institute painful reforms, the CPP has seemingly gone in the opposite direction, passing a handful of deeply unpopular laws—on NGOs, unions and telecommunications, for instance—all of which, critics say, give the government undue powers to stifle dissent.

However, a recent Cabinet reshuffle was seen by some as an effort to put more modern, reform-minded ministers in charge of key sectors, particularly foreign affairs, public works and land management. The government’s approach to tackling corruption, however, is still less than vigorous, and the country’s main anti-corruption body is currently spearheading the action against Kem Sokha.

To rebuild popular support, Hun Sen has given out a handful of what he has called “gifts” to everyday people, for instance by taking unilateral action to cancel the concession for an unpopular toll road, among other things.

Aside from that, the party appears to have returned to its old strategy of touting its twin pillars of peace and development, though the peace element is increasingly irrelevant to a growing population of young people who grew up long after the country’s years of war.

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PM dimisses Rainsy’s repudiation of Manet rumour

Sam Rainsy talks with CNRP party members in Cambodia from the United States via video stream earlier this week. Photo supplied

Meas Sokchea and Ananth Baliga, The Phnom Penh Post
Fri, 17 June 2016

Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday rejected opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s attempt to condemn rumours concerning the parentage of the premier’s son, Hun Manet, calling the self-exiled leader a fugitive “convict”.

Speaking to Fresh News, Hun Sen said Rainsy’s letter, which he sent two days ago, was to be ignored and that he had no intention to speak with the opposition leader. “I do not have time and it is not necessary to talk with a convict who is escaping from the net of the law abroad,” Hun Sen said.

Rainsy had sent the prime minister the letter calling the rumours that Manet was not Hun Sen’s legitimate son “immoral behaviour”, and saying he shared in the suffering caused to the family.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, however, alleged that Rainsy’s letter in fact insulted the premier, given that he had misspelled the prime minister’s honorific, “samdech”.

He added that Rainsy’s letter was only an attempt to get leniency in his own legal battles. “Rainsy is using it to excuse him from the actions of the court.”

In May, the CNRP terminated the membership of overseas activist Yorng Noy, who also goes by Brady Young, for making the same accusations about Manet on social media.

Yesterday Young, in a video on Facebook, offered to return to Cambodia to face action for his comments, but only on the condition that jailed activists be released.

Siphan dismissed the suggestion yesterday, calling it a “mockery” of the Cambodian court system.

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Gov’t seeks input on new rice standards

Rice is harvested from a field using a small harvest machine in Tbong Khmum province earlier this year. Heng Chivoan

Cheng Sokhorng, The Phnom Penh Post
Thu, 16 June 2016

The Institute of Standards of Cambodia (ISC) is soliciting feedback from local stakeholders as it prepares to launch two new standards for the rice industry, the country’s most important agricultural sector.

The ISC is giving the public until June 30 to comment on its proposed national standards for the production and trade of two premium rice varieties – phka rumduol and phka chansensar – Chheng Uddara, director of the ISC’s standards development, training and consultancy department, said yesterday.

“We want to give one last chance to those who want to alter, add or reject any point in the draft standards of these two rice varieties,” he said.

He said that specifications were developed for the two rice varieties because of their high local and international demand.

“The standard provides a clearer identify on the rice and will help support quality assurance and promote exports,” he said, adding that the draft standards would be adopted in July if no amendments were required.

The draft standards identify each variety’s distinct characteristics, including its unique shape, texture, scent and cooking properties.

They also set requirements for hygiene, packaging and trademarks.

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Remittances may worsen Kingdom's wealth divide: study

A man receives money from a Wing agent after concluding a transaction at a Phnom Penh branch yesterday afternoon. Hong Menea

Jack Davies, The Phnom Penh Post
Thu, 16 June 2016

Phnom Penh’s population nearly doubled in the first decade of the 21st century, in large part thanks to workers streaming into the capital in hopes of sending money back home to their families in the provinces.

While such remittances are frequently cited as a key contributor to rural development, a study released last week suggests that this remittance culture may in fact be exacerbating Cambodia’s already dramatic wealth divide.

Published in Migration Studies, Dr Laurie Parsons’ Mobile inequality: Remittances and social network centrality in Cambodian migrant livelihoods examines the burden that sending remittances home had on migrant labourer communities living on Phnom Penh’s periphery.

Parsons found that the prospects of labourers from poorer homes were significantly lower than their peers, as they were expected to send home larger remittances to support their families.

From a sample of 50 migrant labourers, Parsons found the mean monthly salary was $131, with average monthly remittances at $42 a month. However, he also found remittances demanded by relatives back home can frequently be much higher.

“Every month I can send only $70 or $80, which isn’t enough for the people back home,” one respondent told researchers.

Parsons found that migrants who sent home more than 10 per cent of their income each month were unlikely to “achieve urban advancement”, which he defined as having notably improved their income or moved into a more “prestigious” job.

Meanwhile, remittances in Cambodia are big business. Franchette Cardona, marketing director of Wing, one of Cambodia’s largest money transfer providers, said in an email yesterday that Wing alone facilitates the transfer of roughly $2 billion from Phnom Penh to the provinces each year.

Dr Chivoin Peou, a Cambodian sociologist who has examined rural-urban migration, said yesterday that while he did not see the remittance economy as exacerbating inequality, there is nonetheless a divide among those who move to the capital.

“Those who are under the pressure to come to the city, they come because their family is in debt, so whatever they earn is to pay off the debt, and that gives them quite a bleak prospect in terms of what their future holds because everything they earn goes to pay off the debt,” he said. “But those who come with no debt pressure have more freedom with what to do because they have money.”

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Conservationists caution road through sanctury may harm birds

Cambodia’s critically endangered national bird, the giant ibis, pictured in the remote Western Siem Pang forest in Stung Treng province. Eleanor Briggs

Kong Meta and Igor Kossov, The Phnom Penh Post
Wed, 15 June 2016

Conservationists have warned a new road could threaten endangered bird species in Stung Treng’s Siem Pang wildlife sanctuary.

Country program manager Bou Vorsak said BirdLife International had worked with Forestry Administration officials in the area for over a decade to protect endangered species, and the 65,000-hectare area had been officially declared a wildlife sanctuary last month.

The designation would make encroachment by economic land concessions less likely, Vorsak said. However, he said a road being built by army engineers through the sanctuary would draw houses and shops, leading to further development and habitat loss.

Svay Rieng province department of rural development director Minh Sichay said construction of the road to the Laos border began in January last year and that 137 kilometres of the 224-kilometre stretch had been completed.

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NGO calls on PM to crack down on officials involved in timber trade

People inspect the damage to a ruined bridge last week in Kampot province after an overloaded logging truck tried to pass over it. National Police

Mech Dara, The Phnom Penh Post
Thu, 16 June 2016

The director of an anti-illegal logging NGO has called for Prime Minister Hun Sen to clamp down on timber smuggling to Vietnam by state officials, which has allegedly continued despite a much-trumpeted government operation to halt the trade.

The complaint by Chea Hean, the director of the Nature Resource and Wildlife Preservation, came as yet more timber-laden trucks were stopped on Tuesday and yesterday in Mondulkiri, where authorities have this year recorded between 60 and 70 cases of illegal logging.

Hean, who last week alleged a military police officer and solider were involved with two timber smuggling rings in Kampong Speu province, said he had sent several complaints to relevant ministries but no action was taken.

He said his investigations had uncovered evidence of syndicates logging luxury wood in and around Oral wildlife sanctuary, which covers parts of Kampong Speu, Pursat and Koh Kong provinces.

The complaint said authorities were made aware in March that a makeshift truck carrying timber was sighted exiting an Environment Ministry branch in Trapaing Chor commune, in Kampong Speu’s Oral district.

NGO also tipped off state officials about a stockpile of 10 cubic metres of timber in the same area in April and May.

Involvement by members of the military police, Environment Ministry, Forestry Administration, military, police and customs office meant trucks could travel unhindered to Vietnam, he alleged.

“Although the Minister of Environment [Say Sam Al] says smuggling to Vietnam had been stopped, we still see trucks going,” Hean said.

Hean also called for Hun Sen to take action to find the driver of an overloaded truck carrying timber which destroyed a bridge last Friday in Kampot province.

Meanwhile, the director of Mondulkiri’s provincial Environment Ministry office, Chhith Sophal, said authorities yesterday seized two timber-laden trucks, though were yet to tally the haul.

The bust was in Keo Seima district where military police on Tuesday seized a truck transporting 12 pieces of luxury wood felled within the district’s wildlife sanctuary, according to Keo Seima Forestry Administration Choy Sokheang.

“We are still looking for the owner to bear responsibility . . . We will send the case to court,” Sokheang said.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Hean’s complaint would be forwarded to the relevant ministries and the taskforce established in January to fight illegal logging, headed by military police chief Sao Sokha.

If the activities were illegal, the court would “uphold the law no matter who it is”, he said.

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