Democracy dies in Cambodia

November 20, 2017

Even though I don’t live in Cambodia any more, I still take a keen interest in what goes on there. I loved the precious little country, and am still amused, from a distance, by its cheerful venality and corruption.

Recent stories in what’s left of the English-language press in Cambodia have included these gems: ‘A Siem Reap deputy provincial prosecutor was released without charges last week after killing another motorist while allegedly driving under the influence and then trying to flee the scene. Deputy Prosecutor Samrith Sokhon drove his Lexus into a motorbike shortly after midnight … [dragging] the motorbike and driver almost 1,000 metres while trying to flee … Sokhon had been drinking. Despite all this, Sokhon was released, for reasons … influenced by his position. “After he crashed into the motorbike we arrested him and released him, because there was an understanding. Because we know him clearly; he works in the prosecutor’s institution.”’

And: ‘Police in Battambang province arrested an opposition CNRP official and sent him to the provincial court on accusations of illegal weapons possession, despite one officer admitting that they have not actually found the weapon he is accused of owning.’

But last week’s news that the Supreme Court of Cambodia has ordered the dissolution of the country’s main opposition party is, for me, practically the final nail in Cambodia’s coffin.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, often described as “pugnacious and dictatorial” is, in fact, one of the most evil men on the planet. In charge of the country since 1985, he is the world’s longest-serving prime minister, and one of the most corrupt, conscience-free, vicious, amoral, money-grubbing, self-serving tyrants ever to walk the earth.

The ruling effectively disenfranchises more than three million Cambodians who voted for the CNRP at local elections earlier this year, and clears the way for the ruling CPP to run unopposed at next year’s general election. In a televised address shortly after the ruling, Hun Sen said the court’s decision was based solely on the law, and promised that Cambodia would continue to “strongly adhere to democracy at the national level.” Cue the sound of hollow laughter.

This year Hun Sen has already arrested the head of the opposition, shut down one of the leading newspapers, kicked out American democracy-promotion groups, caused more than half the opposition politicians to flee the country and ranted, harassed and defamed the opposition. It would be inaccurate to call his party ‘the government’; it is, by any standard, a patronage network, and one from which he has cheerfully milked billions of dollars for himself and his family over the years.

Amnesty International called last week’s decision “a blatant act of political repression.” The International Commission of Jurists also attacked the ruling, noting that the president of the Supreme Court occupies a seat on Hun Sen’s party’s highest decision-making body, and is a close personal friend of the prime minister.

The international community has, since the early 1990s, spent tens of billions of dollars trying to make Cambodia a democracy. They might as well have gone out and just bought themselves a new hat, for all the good it’s done. Now, in response, the US says it will withdraw its funding from the Cambodian National Election Committee. Which will clearly have Phnom Penh quaking in its boots. Otherwise, nothing from the international community. Rather confusingly everybody’s favourite American, Donald Trump, has been cosying up to Hun Sen, who has clearly drawn inspiration from Trump’s playbook when it comes to his attitudes to the press, and to the truth.

Trump:Hun

China, on the other hand, has been supportive of the court’s decision. Over the past 15 years, Chinese cash has bankrolled bridges, highways, hydropower dams and property developments (although rarely schools or hospitals), entirely decoupled from demands for human rights or good governance. In exchange, Cambodia has been happy to be China’s poodle, and support China’s positions on a range of issues, from Taiwan and Xinjiang separatism to the South China Sea.

It’s like Eisenhower’s Domino Theory has come true: there now isn’t a genuine democracy anywhere in mainland Southeast Asia: Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos; now Hun Sen has extinguished the final beacon of democratic light in the region. It’s 2017, but things are getting increasingly dark in my favourite part of the world.

It hurts my very heart.

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