Cambodia redux

September 7, 2016

As some of you may know, I’m not currently in the Kingdom of Wonder, and am working on finding somewhere else equally exotic to live. But, of course, I try and keep up with what’s going on back on the ‘Bodge. Somehow, from many thousands of miles away, some of what we take for granted in Cambodia seems even stupider and more unlikely. So here is an ongoing collection of things that have made me question how close Cambodia is to being a halfway functioning society, and not just a dim-witted semi-civilised satrapy dedicated to fleecing the west and eating its own entrails properly grown up.

Spanish activist and researcher Marga Bujosa Segado was recently deported from Cambodia for attending a protest, but before her deportation she was allegedly beaten by the police.

Police Major General Uk Heisela told a local newspaper that police officers were concerned when she started taking photos of them. “We were worried she might be a sorcerer and then take photos to do black magic on our stomachs,” he said. “Everyone knows the Spanish practice magic,” he said. “They can fly on brooms.”

I’ll say it again: “Police Major General.”

Meanwhile the Ministry of Defence has released a statement attacking the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party for accusing the military of intimidation by running helicopter, boat and troop training exercises just outside the CNRP’s headquarters, where opposition leader Kem Sokha has been holed up for months trying to avoid charges of the awful crime of having an affair.

As a local newspaper put it, “several helicopters swooped repeatedly over the CNRP offices. At the same time, boats carrying soldiers moored close to the property, while convoys of masked soldiers armed with assault weapons drove past.”

It continues: “When the Post arrived in the early evening, 10 boats were still visible, including two moored close to the CNRP property. They drove away when approached by reporters.”

The military statement read, in part: “The spokesman would like to reject the accusation from those politicians and strongly condemn any people with the intention to ruin the honour of RCAF, which upholds a neutral stance in protecting sovereignty, territorial integrity and the legitimate government.” The ministry questioned how CNRP politicians could present themselves as protectors of the nation while criticising exercises to strengthen the military.

Meanwhile warehouse owners in Phnom Penh have called on the Ministry of Interior to investigate the capital’s economic police, claiming they have been hitting them up for bribes.

An officer with the Phnom Penh economic police denied the accusations, before then offering a Post reporter money to not publish the story. “We just go through their homes and warehouses and we have not done anything like what they accused . . . so please don’t publish it,” he said. “We could give you a small amount of cash monthly or we could give you office materials like books and pens. Those people are just not happy when we do our jobs . . . we don’t ask for their money, they just give it to us from the heart.”

Oh, Cambodia…


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.


July 26, 2013

“D’oh ri min d’oh?” – “Change or no change” – that’s what thousands of teenagers are shouting across Phnom Penh during the last full day of campaigning for the fourth round of national elections, to be held on Sunday. The streets are impressively full of young people, riding in their thousands along the city’s boulevards, chanting and banging drums as they make a final push for votes for the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). They’ve been invigorated by the arrival in the country of party head Sam Rainsy, who has spent the last few years in self-imposed exile to escape spurious legal charges. However last week Prime Minister Hun Sen arranged a royal pardon for him, conferring a fig leaf of respectability on an electoral process that few believe will be free and fair.

Sam’s reappearance has reinvigorated the opposition; more than 100,000 people turned up at the airport to celebrate his arrival. Everyone I’ve talked to is happy to see him; my tuk-tuk drivers all flash CNRP badges at me when asked about their voting intentions. And yet Sam was widely seen as a nutjob by reporters on the paper, and he’s far too quick to play the vile anti-Vietnamese card to be taken entirely seriously.

Which is lucky for Cambodian-Vietnamese relations, but bad news for a country that desperately needs a decent opposition. In the end, Sam has precisely no chance of taking power from Hun Sen (he can’t even stand, having been stripped of his seat). Hun Sen is so relaxed he even gave up personally campaigning last week. However he has warned that civil war will erupt unless his party is re-elected and launched personal attacks on deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, accusing him of adultery and paedophilia, among other crimes, without actually presenting any evidence.

Two of Hun Sen’s sons, who are standing, have remained at the stump. His party, the CPP, has massive standing in rural areas, and will deliver the votes he needs with a comfortable majority. But in the cities, especially in Phnom Penh, things will be much tighter.

So far, the elections have been rather good fun; cheerful, good-natured, surprisingly free of violence. I was outside just now watching an encampment of several hundred CPP cadres dancing to Achey-Breaky Heart in the noonday heat.

The US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies predicts in an briefing paper that while Hun Sen will win overwhelmingly, his sons “would be wise to pay attention to the trajectory of South-East Asian politics. Strong arming, corruption, intimidation and a refusal to play by the rules will not secure votes forever, likely not even for long,” the paper said.

Welcome to the gutter

June 19, 2013

So, election season is upon us once more in Cambodia. But this year seems of a rather different tenor to previous, post-UNTAC elections. For a start, there have been no vicious political killings (although that could obviously change).

For instance, in June 1998, in the run-up to that year’s elections, the body of a political activist called Thong Sophal was found in a ditch: his fingers and one ear were missing and the flesh on his legs had been removed with a knife, before he was killed by a heavy blow to the skull. Nonetheless, the police decided his death was suicide. It was the fourth death of an opposition political activist that month.

This year’s elections have only been marked by unverified rumours against members of the opposition. But they seem to be having an effect.

The acting president of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, Kem Sokha, was accused the other day of referring to the infamous S-21 torture centre as a Vietnamese fabrication. He says the quote was taken totally out of context, and was made more than a year ago. But, lo and behold, thousands rallied in the streets against Kem Sokha. Although it turns out Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP paid for transport and produced the banners the protestors were waving.

Following this, the CPP’s permanent committee in the country’s National Assembly stripped all 28 opposition members of their parliamentary status, for merging their parties. Because the expulsion took place within six months of the elections, the seats left empty were effectively terminated until after the election.

Then the remaining 86 members of the assembly were called into an extraordinary session to pass new legislation, outlawing the denial of crimes committed under the KR regime, which was drafted and adopted within a mere two weeks of a direct call by Hun Sen for the new law. Oddly, the assembly doesn’t usually work that fast. (A not terrifically effective anti-corruption law was in the works for 16 years.)

So the new law curtails freedom of speech, and was never debated. Good stuff.

But Kem Sokha’s woes weren’t over yet. A few days later, a woman turned up at a political rally claiming to be Sokha’s estranged mistress, demanding money for child support for the couple’s two children. She also claimed that Sokha’s bodyguards had beaten up her mother. Sokha, on the other hand, claims he had never seen the woman before in his life.

And finally (and there’s still more than a month until the elections) Hun Sen told a crowd of thousands that in 2011 police informed him of a sexual encounter Sokha had recently had with a 15-year-old girl.

Hun Sen told the crowd: “That day, I got an urgent phone call to immediately arrest a lawmaker and president of an opposition party. He was taking a 15-year-old girl and had already paid $500 and was taking her to the Micasa Hotel near the riverside. I did not authorize his arrest. If I had, he might accuse us of intervening in his personal life,” the prime minister said, without explaining quite why he had allowed the alleged crime to continue without intervening.

“There is a political ploy of asking a politician to respond to a baseless rumour – and of course responding to a baseless rumour gives credence to the possibility of the rumour,” Justin di Lollo, an Australian political consultant, told the Phnom Penh Post. “In Cambodian politics, if this has never happened before, it could be a sign of desperation, or the stakes are higher. In that sense, it could be seen as a maturing of Cambodian politics. And in that case, welcome to the gutter.”