Sam the man?

November 20, 2015

Phnom Penh has been in a febrile condition for a couple of weeks now, as Prime Minister Hun Sen starts to move into election mode, a full three years before the elections are slated to take place. A few weeks ago, Hun Sen was on a state visit to France, when he was heckled and abused by a crowd. Incensed, he threatened retaliation, and the next day two opposition lawmakers here in Phnom Penh were dragged from their cars and savagely beaten by ruling party sympathisers. Later that week, opposition politician Kem Sokha, the First Vice President of the National Assembly, was ousted from his post by the ruling party.

This rather upset the opposition, and their leader, Sam Rainsy, speaking in Japan, called Hun Sen a fascist. This did not go down well, and a couple of days later a warrant was issued for his arrest for a conviction of defamation in 2011, despite him being pardoned by the king in 2013.

Sam Rainsy was still out of the country, but vowed to come back on Monday night and face the music. However, at the last minute, he changed his mind, and is currently holed up in South Korea. In the battle of wills between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy, it seems that Sam blinked first.

Of course, there were good reasons for him doing so. Thousands of demonstrators were wandering the capital, and most of them had planned to go to the airport to make sure Sam wasn’t arrested. Knowing the Cambodian security forces as we do, this probably wouldn’t have been the finest idea ever conceived by man. Large numbers of armed police are still patrolling the capital; both Britain and the USA have issued warnings and travel advisories. The US said “the pattern of actions against the opposition suggests a return to the harsh political practices and tactics … that the Cambodian people have made clear they no longer want.” Seeing as this includes shooting protestors dead, it was understandable that lots of people here have been very nervous recently.

Though some analysts considered Sam’s decision ‘responsible’ in avoiding potential violence, others have suggested the move leaves him appearing weak. Sam recently drew parallels between the success of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy over Myanmar’s military junta in the recent elections in Burma, and the CNRP’s own hopes for 2018.

Political analyst Sebastian Strangio told a local newspaper that the events of the past few months had led to this test of wills in which Hun Sen now seemed to have a clear advantage. “This was the moment for Sam Rainsy to have his ‘Aung San Suu Kyi moment’, to stand up bravely and call Hun Sen’s bluff. Whatever the reason for [his] delayed return, it’s hard not to see it as yet another in a long line of capitulations to the prime minister’s bullying.”

The National Assembly’s permanent committee has stripped Sam of his lawmaker status, leaving him without parliamentary immunity, and formed a special commission to make sure he is arrested. The session where these decisions were made was boycotted by the CNRP.

Analyst Ou Virak said the special arrest commission and stripping of Sam’s MP status were “warning shots” to try keep him abroad. He also echoed Strangio’s comparisons to Suu Kyi. “That’s where they draw the line between a great leader and the rest, when you’re willing to take very, very tough decisions. I understand as a human being we all want to be safe, but that’s why we’re not all given the Nobel Peace Prize.”

The latest reports say that Sam is now in the Philippines, and is then going to Europe for a month.


Kampot yet again

November 16, 2015

A couple of months ago, a friend and I, over the course of a beer or two, decided that we should start a literary festival in Cambodia. If second-tier places like Galle, Ubud and Bath could have literary festivals, then why not Cambodia? And why not a nice little town like Kampot? We decided we must do something about it.

So, I’ve just come back from the inaugural Kampot Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, which, happily for all concerned, was not organised by me in the slightest.

The four-day festival was among the best times I’ve ever had in Cambodia. Kampot is the perfect place for it: sleepy and laid-back, but full of artists and musicians wafting around town as the Kampot River drifts lazily by, while crumbling old French-colonial buildings doze in the heat and time passes almost imperceptibly.

The festival was occasionally quite hard work, as I had to sit on various panels and pretend to talk knowledgeably for hours on end about things I know very little about, like journalism and publishing. But in between me doing my dog and pony show, there was lots of proper fun to be had: cooking demonstrations, poetry readings, photography exhibitions, graphic arts workshops, film previews, puppet shows and lots and lots of bands. Then there was the food: lots of foreigners have set up restaurants in Kampot, some of which are completely brilliant, including an Italian restaurant under a tarpaulin against a wall at the side of a road, run by a mad Italian, which had the best pasta I’ve eaten in years.

Best Italian restaurant in South East Asia.

Best Italian restaurant in South East Asia.

One of the highlights for me was watching a group called The Messenger Band, who are made up of former garment industry workers. They would earnestly describe what each number was about: forced labour, domestic sexual violence, being orphaned because of AIDS, land grabbing and so forth, then, when the audience was thoroughly depressed, launch into these astonishingly beautiful songs, the voices rising ethereally up into the night skies. It was sublime beyond belief.

The weekend also saw the launch of my genius friend Minh’s new magazine, The Mekong Review, which he put together in just three weeks, but which is quite brilliant, and well worth buying if you see a copy.

It rained quite a lot, but it didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. If there was a criticism to be made, it was that the festival was organised by white men, and many of the participants were white men. But what can you do? You’ve got to start somewhere, and strenuous efforts were made to get as many locals as possible involved. Seeing as the festival was put together in just seven weeks, the organisers did a fantastic job, and next year will be even better. I can’t wait. I’d book a plane ticket now, if I were you.