Deadlock continues

September 24, 2013

I wish I had something new to tell you about the situation here; really, nothing much has changed. The new parliament was sworn in yesterday, and, as promised, Sam Rainsy and the rest of the CNRP failed to show up. No one knows what is going to happen next, but the mood in Phnom Penh is uneasy. The razor wire barricades are back, making life extremely difficult for anyone who wants to get to work on the other side of the fences.

The CNRP are still claiming that the ruling CPP rigged the July 28 elections, and want an independent investigation under the auspices of the United Nations. However, China has affirmed its support for the CPP, making any UN intervention highly unlikely.

Whatever the strength of the CNRP’s claims, Hun Sen and the CPP remain in control of the army and the police, the judiciary and much of the civil service, and this is unlikely to change in the short term.

There have been calls for King Sihamoni to play a more active role, but the idea that Sihamoni would ever do more than play a strictly constitutional role is a reflection of the CNRP’s hope winning out over reality. The days of Cambodian kings getting involved in politics have long gone and I’ve seen no indication that the newly politically conscious Cambodian electors want that.

The usual crew of ambassadors turned up to watch the swearing in, but US Ambassador William Todd, who seemed to go out of his way to avoid Prime Minister Hun Sen’s receiving line at the event – seemingly the only diplomat to do so – told reporters that his attendance was “basically for patronage for the King, but this in no way is an endorsement of the election result.”

“America still believes that the election results still have errors and irregularities that need to be looked into,” he added.

The EU also pointed to the necessity of both parties’ participation, and noted “with concern the ongoing dispute over alleged irregularities in the electoral process.”

Meanwhile today is a public holiday (Constitution Day, said with a straight face), so the streets are a little quieter than usual, but the barricades are apparently to stay until Thursday, so perhaps the CPP’s show of force will cow the general public into a tired submission.

And in an ominous development, a group of journalists and protestors were attacked by masked men on Sunday night near Wat Phnom. At least six people were injured, while an additional five were treated for slight wounds. An unknown number of people – journalists and rights workers among them – sustained injuries from electric prods and marbles fired from slingshots by men in facemasks “who appeared to be under police protection.” Attacking western journalists is rarely a good idea. Desperation, perhaps?

As Australian historian Milton Osborne puts it, much of what has happened since the election “appears to reflect Sam Rainsy’s readiness to push matters to the outer limits of possibility, a tactic that has previously twice led to his having to exile himself from Cambodia.” So we’re all waiting to see how this all plays out. Fingers crossed.

 

A change of mood

September 16, 2013

Saturday was a good day. Blossom and I went out in the evening; restaurants were full, the nightclubs were packed, we saw a band of young Cambodians playing classic Khmer rock ‘n’ roll. We wandered home cheerfully in the early hours, and went to bed.

The next morning, things were different. Menacing razor-wire barriers, manned by bored-looking police had appeared on almost all of the streets near where we live, cutting off a large swathe of the city. Which put a bit of a crimp in our brunch plans. So, prudently, we retreated back home and embarked on a Sopranos marathon instead. In the distance we could vaguely hear the chants of protestors. The barriers remained in place long after I thought they’d be taken down. They’re still there now. People can’t get to work, businesses are closed and there is an air of uneasy tension. But much of the city is carrying on as usual: people have to eat.

Royal Palace protected, mainly

Royal Palace protected, mainly

 

Violence in central Phnom Penh

Violence in central Phnom Penh

But inside the wires, things were going quite badly wrong. At least one man was shot dead and four seriously injured when clashes broke out between protesters and police. The police used water cannons and tear gas on the protestors, as well firing live rounds.

The dead man, 29-year-old Mao Sok Chan, was shot through the forehead during the clash at the Kbal Thnal overpass. “He was just working at his job as a newspaper binder and then was going home. And then I heard he was dead,” said his brother, Mao Sok Meth.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy are supposed to be meeting this morning to discuss the stalemate. They met on Saturday, but only managed to talk for 25 minutes, because they loathe each other so much, so I don’t imaging they’ll sort anything much out.

The discovery of a couple of homemade bombs near the demonstration site on Friday has also jangled a few nerves; many people speculate they were planted by the CPP to intimidate protestors.

And people watching local television would have had no idea the CNRP was staging a mass protest. Instead, anyone tuned into state-owned TVK or the pro-government broadcasters CTN, CNC, TV3, Bayon TV, Hang Meas and Apsara TV had the usual daytime-TV diet of Khmer soap operas, karaoke videos and kick-boxing matches to keep them entertained.

But all is OK here so far; Blossom and I are fine, and in no danger. We’re keeping well away from the trouble spots and being sensible, so no one need worry.

More news a bit after it happens.

 

Mellow demo

September 9, 2013

So, the demonstration on Saturday went off smoothly, with no signs of problems or violence. So that was nice. It was actually one of the nicer demos I’ve ever been on; although it was brutally hot, everyone was smiley and cheery and friendly. Of course, being a foreigner with a camera and a press pass automatically makes you a bit more popular with opposition forces, who want as much international recognition as they can get. The police tried to keep foreigners away, and we’d been warned by the Foreign Ministry to stay at home, but it wasn’t particularly hard to evade them.

Following the demo, the Election Commission announced what it called the official results of the elections, which predictably gave the ruling CPP 68 seats and the opposition CNRP 55. The CNRP, also predictably, immediately announced a new series of demos for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday next week.

Many in Phnom Penh are wondering when the CNRP are going to cave in, and take their 55 seats. From my vantage point, it’s obvious that much investment and new business is sitting on its hands, waiting for resolution, and business people are getting increasingly frustrated with the stalemate.

The King, widely seen as a peacemaker, is flying back from a month in Beijing in a couple of days, which may or may not help. And there are mutters of US involvement with the process, although they’re almost impossible to substantiate.

Meanwhile China has now emerged as a focus for the opposition, with prominent politicians warning that the Cambodian government has given too much ground to Beijing, which they fear is threatening to overrun the country.

Opposition heavyweight Son Chay led the attack in an interview with a local magazine: “We appreciate America a lot,” Son Chay said. “The country that has assisted Cambodia in moving forward with democracy is the US … In contrast, the Chinese are quite different. We have never had a good, beneficial relationship with China.” It’s a welcome change for the opposition to attack someone other than Vietnam, attacks that seemed tasteless to many western observers.

Son Chay said the Chinese were exploiting the country’s resources. “Look at our forests, they have cut down all of our trees—and they have cheated us on all of these loans.”

China has become Cambodia’s biggest lender over the last 20 years, ploughing more than $11 billion into the country largely through soft loans, which it says come with no strings attached.

However, Chinese companies have won vast economic land concession from the Cambodian government, which has also defied its neighbours and backed Beijing over the South China Sea issue.

It’s an attack the government was quick to defend. Cambodian Red Cross President Bun Rany, the wife of Prime Minister Hun Sen, said Cambodia and China were “brothers” and were always ready to help each other.

The problem for Hun Sen and the ruling CPP, however, remains the Khmer Rouge. Cosying up to the Chinese isn’t always good politics in this country.

Older Cambodians have long memories, and China was the only country to actively support Pol Pot during the Khmer Rouge era. Whether support for China will continue through the Khmer Riche era is a different question.

In other news, the Khmer Rouge Trial has just announced the resignation of British co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley. The court, and the prosecutors, have been having a troubling time recently. Cayley’s resignation statement said in part: “I certainly hope that some of the immediate financial issues the court faces can be resolved to allow the caseload to be completed in an orderly and timely fashion.  It has been a great honour to be part of this historic process of bringing a measure of justice to the Cambodian people.”

A measure of justice. Quite.

Street-fighting men?

September 2, 2013

So, still not much to report from Cambodia at the moment, but tensions are ratcheting up a little. The opposition CNRP has announced a mass demo in Phnom Penh for this coming Saturday, which is expected to attract huge crowds, although no one is coming up with any figures so far.

In response to the demo being called, some 2,000 municipal police officers spent yesterday ostentatiously practicing crowd control techniques in central Phnom Penh. Wearing full body armour, and carrying tear gas, batons, gas masks and shields, they deployed barricades and barbed wire and used water cannons.

Most people are hoping any protests won’t turn violent, and that the show of force is merely that; a show. In response, the CNRP has been training its supporters in the art of non-violent protests, also in the centre of town. About 500 opposition supporters took turns pretending to be protestors and the police, linking arms and being pelted with empty water bottles. The Cambodia Daily described their training as “decidedly less orderly” than that of the police, saying that “few could refrain from giggling and smiling through what looked more like a play fight than genuine training.”

Foreigners have been warned by the government to stay well away from the protest; journalists are frantically trying to hunt down gas masks. I expect there to be further outflows of capital from the country, and the supermarket shelves to be stripped bare again this week, but I don’t foresee any major problems.  I could be wrong though. The Daily quoted a CNRP supporter as saying “The police will not be as gentle as us. It will be hard when it becomes real. Anger will be met with anger and the people and police might clash. People might get hit on the head and there could be blood.”

So watch this space. Oh, and don’t worry about me and Blossom; we’re far too canny to get caught up in anything.