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.


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.


Boiling a frog

June 1, 2016

Sometimes, life in Cambodia is a lot like that metaphor about boiling a frog: you think life is fine, and then all of a sudden you’re surrounded by police with AK-47s, and you realise it very much isn’t.

The police appeared around me as I was stuck in a traffic jam the other day, caused by opposition party protestors trying to present a petition to the king. I wasn’t particularly worried per se, but it is an ugly reminder of who has the power here.

The petition is the latest attempt to fight back against a rising tide of political oppression. It all stems from a stupidly obscure ongoing political story about the deputy leader of the opposition allegedly having an affair with a young woman. The judiciary apparently thinks he is guilty of being involved in prostitution and wants to arrest him, despite there being no evidence, and him having parliamentary immunity from arrest.

The petition calls for the king to step in and stop what’s widely seen as the ruling CPP using the alleged affair as a pretext for flimsy legal cases to neutralise its opponents via its control of the judiciary. Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy is already in self-imposed exile in Paris for the third time in his career.

NGOs say 29 people have been imprisoned so far, and call them ‘political prisoners.’ Even the normally supine European Union Delegation to Cambodia has expressed “deep regret” over the “dangerous political escalation” in recent days and called for “a halt to the judicial harassment of the acting leader of the opposition and representatives of civil society organizations.”

Meanwhile, there has been widespread hilarity after the government’s so-called ‘Cambodian Human Rights Committee’ tried to pass off snapshots of the Singapore skyline as those of pre-civil war Libya, in a propaganda video.

The video, with the wonderfully North Korean-style title Using Rights in an Anarchic Way stitches together a series of before-and-after photos of Syria and Libya, and warns that “the excessive use if [sic] rights will bring about destruction.”


The two war-torn states are a favourite of government officials who urge Cambodians not to ‘misuse’ their rights. Another great example of nuanced political thinking…

And finally, work on a private prison for rich criminals is to begin next month. The country’s interior minister said prisoners with money could pay to stay at the complex, which he described as being “like a hotel.” At the time, another official said the complex might suit the child of a tycoon who was accustomed to luxury. You just couldn’t make it up…

Dammed if you don’t

February 15, 2015

Monks areng

As someone who has been threatened with deportation from Cambodia for speaking out about the preservation of the country’s resources, I feel very strongly about a story that has popped up in recent days.

Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng has ordered the authorities not to renew the visa of a 34-year-old Spanish environmental activist called Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, which expires next week.

Gonzalez-Davidson works for an NGO called Mother Nature. I’ve never met him, but he seems a thoroughly balanced, sane and committed man. He has been in the country since 2002, and speaks fluent Khmer.

His NGO is trying to stop the Cambodian authorities building a hydroelectric dam in the Areng Valley in the Cardamom Mountains in the southwest of the country.

The Areng Valley, in Koh Kong province, is in the country’s last pristine natural forest. The valley is home to some 1,300 members of the ethnic Chong community, who have lived in the area for centuries. Besides their livelihoods, the Chong would lose their ancestral spirit forests and burial grounds if the area is flooded

The Areng Valley also contains the habitats of at least 30 rare and endangered animal and fish species, including the Siamese crocodile, of which there are thought to be fewer than 300 in Cambodia.

On the other hand, the hydropower project would supply some 108 MW of power. It is to be built and operated by a notably wonderful Chinese firm called Sinhydro.

“The population would be forcibly displaced to a place which, judging by the standard relocation sites we have seen in this country so far, would be equal to abject poverty and total squalor. No water, no fertile land, no access to markets, without access to traditional sources of medicine, food, construction materials,” Gonzalez-Davidson said recently.

He also dismissed Hun Sen’s promise of jobs for the families if the project went ahead. “One only has to take a visit to any of the under-construction dams in Cambodia to see that most of the jobs actually go to outsiders such as migrants from other parts of the country and hundreds of Chinese nationals … not to the population living nearby.”

But it looks as if Gonzalez-Davidson is going to be removed from the fight. Sok Phal, the director-general of immigration, said that the decision not to renew the Spaniard’s visa was made after local authorities in Koh Kong lodged a complaint about his activities.

When asked if it was because of his environmental activism, Sok replied, “Don’t ask me that. I can’t comment on it; I only do technical work.”

Koh Kong provincial governor Bun Leut said: “Alex made trouble with local authorities in Thma Bang district. He took the car of his NGO to block my deputy governor’s group who went to visit the villagers in the Areng area.” Which sounds pretty bad to me.

Ruling Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker Chheang Vun has been gunning for Gonzalez-Davidson for several months. “I am taking up measures with competent authorities to check whether that foreigner is permitted to operate in Cambodia, confront the authorities, and animate people to jostle with authorities.”

He went on: “Cambodia is too lax, it’s too easy for a foreigner to make an entire region socially unstable, and he excuses his actions by saying he is protecting the people like this or like that,” the National Assembly member said.

Gonzelez-Davidson said that there was “no doubt” that the decision to deny him visa renewal was related to his anti-dam activism. “They will have to deport me. I will throw as many eggs as I can at their face,” he said, vowing not to leave the country before his visa expires.

As award-winning Cambodian filmmaker Kalyanee Mam has said: “this is not an ‘anti’ Areng dam movement, but more a movement to protect Cambodia’s natural and spiritual heritage.”


Striking out

January 3, 2014

Interesting times in Cambodia this New Year. And by interesting, I mean, not good.

Since Christmas Eve, a majority of the country’s garment workers have been on strike. Yesterday, an elite paratrooper regiment attacked strikers with metal pipes, knives, AK-47s, slingshots and batons outside a Korean-owned garment factory on the outskirts of the capital.

And today, the police shot and killed at least three strikers at another factory. There is a jittery mood in Phnom Penh, not helped by the country’s supine media not reporting much about the current events.

Garments are a huge source of income to Cambodia; some 600,000 people are thought to work for some 800 factories; most of them are young women from the countryside. The trade is worth some $5 billion to the country, or about 12 percent of GDP.

The issue, of course, is money. The striking workers currently get the minimum wage, of $80 dollars a month, and the opposition CNRP has vowed, if they win a rerun of last July’s disputed election, to raise this to $160. Of course, Hun Sen says there will be no new elections, but he is under a tremendous amount of pressure right now.

Whether increasing their pay is actually realistic, is unclear. With Bangladesh’s new minimum wage set at just $68, and Burma looming on the horizon, many doubt there’s room for such a drastic hike in wages. “I don’t think it’s deliverable, I think it’s a popular move that the opposition’s riding on,” says political analyst Ou Virak.

Garment factory owners are unlikely to want to double their wage bills, and would probably up sticks and decamp. That could lead to massive social and economic problems; most workers wouldn’t go back to the countryside. “If they stay in the city, there is the risk they may end up working in the indirect sex industry at restaurants or karaoke bars,” says Ou Virak.

Analysts say the situation is “precarious” and the government’s strategy was not to cave in, but to cling on and hope the protesting workers run out of money.

Of course, the CNRP is riding the wave of discontent, and has called off talks with the ruling CPP in protest at the violence. There are really no winners here, but, as ever, it is the very poorest who are getting shafted the hardest.


Cold weather and tsunamis

December 23, 2013

It’s freezing in Cambodia. Well, not actually freezing, but considerably colder than usual. Yesterday, the temperature at noon was 21°C (70°F), which is pretty cold for Phnom Penh. The Ministry of Meteorology says that this is the coldest weather Cambodia has seen for 30 years, and is blaming it on strong winds from the northeast carrying abnormally cold air southward into Cambodia from Siberia. This is probably true; northern Vietnam has seen snow this week.

Now, most people would say that 21°C is pretty warm. But not Cambodians, and, after perhaps too long here, not me and Blossom either. We shut the terrace doors last night, didn’t turn on the fans, and I almost slept in a T-shirt. That’s nothing compared to the locals: this morning our tuk-tuk drivers were wearing parkas zipped up to their chins and bobble hats. They appeared to be suffering.

The cold weather has had one beneficial effect; we’ve discovered we’ve got hot water. Despite occupying our flat for nearly two years, we only just discovered that if you flip a switch on the fuse box, the showers get extremely hot. Most of the time, some 51 weeks a year, we don’t need hot water: it gets pretty hot on its own sitting in a tank on the roof in the scorching sunshine. But it’s been nice this week.

In other news, the opposition CNRP’s recent decision to hold daily protest rallies, which provoked a huge collective groan of boredom when it was announced, received an unexpected boost yesterday when more than 100,000 turned out to call for new elections and for Hun Sen to stand down. The CNRP, perhaps optimistically, reckoned that there were half-a-million protestors, which seems a little high; they called it a “political tsunami.” But a minimum of 100,000 good-natured electors were out yesterday, the biggest anti-CPP demos since the disputed elections of 1998.

The demonstrators cited a list of reasons for Hun Sen to step down, including the wholesale selling of Cambodian land to foreign agricultural firms, deforestation, the minimum wage, the shooting of garment workers and spiralling unemployment. Hun Sen said in reply that he had “done nothing wrong” so didn’t need to quit.

I, of course, managed to miss the whole thing, being laid up in bed with a savagely bad back, a sign of my increasing decrepitude and age. But if the demos carry on, there could be much more to watch.

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.

Stalemate continues

August 27, 2013

So yesterday was a big-ish day for Cambodia, with the holding of a mass rally in Phnom Penh by the opposition CNRP. The mood in the city was a bit febrile and slightly jittery, but there was, in the end, no violence. Which is something of a relief.

Opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha told the crowd of 10,000, which was described as “raucous”, that unless the ruling CPP cooperated in forming an impartial committee to investigate election irregularities within two weeks, the CNRP will hold more nationwide mass demonstrations. Which sounds ominous.


“We are pushing to create a fair and independent committee to investigate election irregularities. If they don’t create an independent committee, we will hold a demonstration,” Rainsy said.

The Constitutional Council will confirm final election results by September 8, allowing a new government to form by the end of next month.

The CNRP has alleged widespread manipulation of voter lists and identity fraud engineered by the CPP in cooperation with the NEC.

After two rounds of negotiations over the past three weeks, the CPP and CNRP have made no progress in deciding what group would head a committee to investigate the scale and impact of election irregularities.

In a recent briefing, human rights organization LICADHO said “problems were documented in an alarming percentage of the stations visited; ranging from voter roll irregularities, to indications of intentional fraud or vote rigging, to intimidation.”

In his last public remarks, nearly a month ago, Hun Sen said that should the CNRP boycott the National Assembly, their seats would legally be given to the CPP.

Since election day, the CNRP has said it would accept nothing less than victory and the removal of the CPP from power following the election, which Rainsy has claimed the opposition won with 63 seats to the CPP’s 60.

“Our Cambodia National Rescue Party is the party that got the real win. We thank all the people who rightly decided to vote for the CNRP. It means that you voted for the fall of the present leaders that are communist, corrupt, partisan, nepotistic and who caused damage to our country’s property,” Sokha said, sticking it to the man, as it were.

A young woman at the rally was quoted as saying she was willing to stand up to the government, regardless of how heavy-handed it was in trying to suppress mass demonstrations.

“Present day Cambodia is without fear. We are not scared of tanks. Even if they had nuclear weapons, I would not be scared to demonstrate,” she said.

In more typical Cambodian news, I spotted this man doing something up a pole the other day.


Now, I don’t care much for Health & Safety rules, but this just seems insane. This is just a single, scaffolding-thickness pole. And he’s not tied on to anything.

High up

He’s the tiny figure in the centre of the picture. Everyday life above the streets of Cambodia, eh? I couldn’t watch…


Same same, but different

August 12, 2013

Apologies to anyone who’s bored by the recent election here in Cambodia, but it’s a pretty big ongoing story, and difficult to ignore.

To recap, there are basically two parties, both of whom are claiming victory: the ruling CPP, which says it won 68 seats, down from 90, and the opposition CNRP, which is claiming 63. Both cannot be right, so there’s a lot of faffing about going on with the National Election Committee and various independent observers looking at ‘irregularities’ in the voting process.

The opposition CNRP, led by the charismatic Sam Rainsy, is desperate to get the United Nations involved in any investigation; the CPP don’t want this. Meanwhile, tensions in the country are mounting. Someone planted a bomb outside the back door of the Municipal Court a couple of nights ago, which blew up a bit of pavement at 0100hrs. No one has claimed responsibility. Was it the CNRP? Unlikely – there’s not much to be gained by that for them. Was it the CPP, trying to make it look like the CNRP? No one knows.

In a slightly more ominous move, soldiers in armoured personnel carriers were spotted in the capital a couple of days ago, the first time heavy armour has been deployed anywhere in the country, apart from on the Thai border, in the past decade. A brigadier told a local paper that “we’re just bringing them back to the warehouse for repairs,” although from the look of them, they’re in pretty good shape. And when he says “warehouse” it looks rather like he meant “by the side of the main highways in and out of the capital.”

The deployment comes after the country’s interior minister warned of “trouble” if the election situation isn’t sorted out, presumably in the CPP’s favour, fairly quickly.

The consensus amongst people I’ve been talking to is that Sam Rainsy should take his guaranteed 55 seats and just get on with it, lining himself up for much bigger gains in five years time. Prime Minister Hun Sen is on the back foot right now, and is going to have to concede some power. But he is a wily and often brutal political streetfighter, and has a lot to lose, so anything could happen.

So things are a little tense here in Phnom Penh. But only a little. And Sam Rainsy, for some reason, has popped off to the States for his daughter’s wedding, which is adding to the feeling of instability. But generally life continues pretty much as usual.