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Cambodia: Some thoughts for 2014

AHRC-ETC-002-2014
January 15, 2014

An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

Confucius (551-479BC): "Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous."

Albert Einstein (1879-1955): "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Leaders of both the Cambodian People's Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party each assert a longing for peaceful negotiations to end the political impasse that has endured since the July 28, 2013 national elections that gave victory to Premier Hun Sen, a victory the CNRP has rejected on grounds of election irregularities and fraud. Resolute and unyielding, CPP and CNRP leaders are unlikely to come to terms.

Both parties are powerful. The CPP has a stranglehold over the armed forces, and controls state institutions. The CNRP has shown it has "people power" on its side.

On Jan 2 and Jan 3, Hun Sen unleashed the infamous Special Command Unit 911 (an Indonesian-trained parachute Brigade) to crush protests at the Korean-owned Yakjin garment factory, and at Canadia Industrial Park. Troops shot and killed 5 striking garment workers, wounded 35 others, detained a few dozen in unknown locations without access to families and lawyers. NGOs fear detainees may be subject to torture and starvation.

On Jan 4, Hun Sen sent police and civilian "thugs" to clear the CNRP rally site and dismantle CNRP structures at Freedom Park – a 1.2-hectare area near Wat Phnom, inaugurated in November 2010 as an area for public gatherings to "ensure freedom of expression of Khmer citizens through peaceful assembly." A new ban on public meetings of 10 people or more was proclaimed.

In keeping with the 2009 Law on Peaceful Demonstrations directing the capital and each province to allot an area for a democracy square for free expression and peaceful assembly, CNRP leaders emerged on Jan 10 in a rally with some 1,000 supporters in Siemreap, and moved on to Battambang and Banteay Meanchey to drum up support for future demonstrations in the capital by the end of January. Sam Rainsy warned of a "final campaign" against Hun Sen if the latter refuses to implement a new election. On Jan 14, CNRP Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha will appear in court, reportedly to be attended also by UN Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi as an observer, to answer authorities' questions on the recent protests.

In a democracy, the judiciary and military are kept independent and impartial. In Cambodia, the judiciary serves the regime. And only hours after Brigade 911 bloodied protesters at Veng Sreng Boulevard, Hun Sen's defense minister, Tea Banh, issued a rare declaration committing the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces to protect "election results and support the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen in the fifth term government."

From Western Cambodia, CNRP leaders called the CPP government "illegitimate," demanded an investigation into allegations of election fraud, and a new election, demands long rejected by the CPP.

Writing on the wall

The July 28 national election results that gave the CPP 68 National Assembly seats, a loss of 24 seats from 92, and the CNRP 55 seats, an increase from 29, sent a clear message to Premier Hun Sen and the CPP: The people are dissatisfied with the regime. Published reports by various NGOs suggest election irregularities by CPP, confirming the CNRP's charges of election fraud. Without a thorough probe, the degree of election fraud is unknown. Nevertheless, the election results that the National Election Commission affirmed accept that at least half of the country voted for the CNRP. For its part, the CNRP believes it was "shorted" about 2.3 million votes.

The refusal of Premier Hun Sen and the CPP to allow an independent impartial investigation is understandable. They don't want to be found cheating.

On Dec 4, Beijing's state press agency, Xinhua, a ministry-level department under China's State Council, ran an article, "Cambodian ruling party faces test over next 5 years after slim victory in July election," noting the regime's "cronyism, rampant corruption, forced evictions, illegal immigration and lack of an independent judicial system" contributed to Hun Sen and the CPP's "falling popularity." Cambodia may have seen "sustainable annual economic growth of around 7 percent, (but) many poor people have not been benefited by this growth . . . Millions of people are still living under poverty line..."

Reflect on rallies at Freedom Park since Dec 15. As daily demonstrations and street marches occurred without threats of assault by government agents wielding metal pipes, knives, AK-47s, slingshots, electric batons, Cambodians emerged in large numbers to air their different grievances, shore up the opposition. and call for Ph'do! or Change!

On last weekend of 2013, Sunday Dec 29, there was an unprecedented public display of Cambodians' political activism: More than 100,000 people from different groups – CNRP supporters, garment industry workers, anti-land-grabbing activists, civil servants, teachers, monks – from a culture traditionally known for passivity, subservience, and respect for authority – converged in Phnom Penh's streets and at Freedom Park to protest and call for Premier Hun Sen's resignation and a new election. They marched in the streets for five hours, their procession stretching six miles. On the Russian Boulevard lined with government buildings, they moved in front of Premier Hun Sen's office shouting Hun Sen must step down.

Hun Sen likely would be committing political suicide if he acceded to the demands of CNRP supporters and calls from NGOs to permit new elections. Even China's Xinhua ran a news analysis on Dec 29 publicizing political analysts' calls on Cambodia to "hold a referendum to decide whether the country calls a reelection (sic) or not." A day later, Xinhua quoted Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) President Kek Galabru: "In a democratic society, people are the owners of power. The two leaders (Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy) should ask the people through a referendum whether they want a reelection (sic) or not. If a majority of them want a reelection (sic), they must follow the will of the people."

It was no coincidence that The Voice of America in Khmer broadcast that weekend a global survey released by Gallup revealing 34 percent of Cambodians surveyed consider themselves "suffering" – lacking the basics of food/shelter; experiencing physical pain, a lot of stress, worry, sadness, anger; that 65 percent of Cambodians are in debt. According to the survey, respondents cite as causes of their malaise poor governance and poor social and health services together with high food prices and little opportunity for earning income.

The Gallup polls stand opposed to the survey released in January 2011 by the US International Republican Institute that 76 percent of Cambodians were satisfied with Cambodia's direction. Gallup ranked Cambodia near the bottom in life satisfaction.

A talk that never was

At a Dec 28 press conference, CNRP Sam Rainsy called for "a large scale talk ... possibly on January 1, 2 or 3," to be attended by representatives of other political parties, civil society, and business community representatives, to find a solution to Cambodia's political deadlock. On the same day, his vice president, Kem Sokha, reminded the daily protests would continue as usual, including a large-scale protest on Sunday, Dec 29.

Yet, on Dec 29, Sam Rainsy was reported to have said the CNRP would take a break from its rolling demonstrations to allow space for CNRP-CPP negotiations. On Dec 30, CPP Information Minister Khieu Kanharith affirmed Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy would meet on Jan 2 at the National Assembly. But, on Dec 31 CNRP Kem Sokha and CPP Sar Kheng refuted Kanharith's statement: Now, each party agreed to send three delegates each to form a working group to establish an agenda for talks between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy. On Jan. 2, CPP and CNRP negotiators confirmed three persons from each party would meet on Jan 3 ahead of potential talks between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy.

However. The news of the violent crackdown on garment workers led the CNRP leadership to cancel the planned meetings. The CPP expressed regret, saying it had "opened the door" to CNRP.

Garment workers' strike

Cambodia's garment industry employs about 650,000 workers in about 900 shoe and garment factories. The industry brings $5 billion yearly to Cambodia's economy. It supplies brands like Adidas, Gap, Walmart, Old Navy, Puma, Nike and H&M.

A garment workers' strike began on Dec 24 when the Ministry of Labor set the minimum monthly wage in the garment section at $95 (an increase from $80). Unions wanted $160, a figure the CNRP said it would provide upon winning the election. Garment workers who affirmed they could not live on $80 per month for 10 hours of work six days a week, joined the CNRP to demand that Hun Sen step down and permit a new election.

LICADHO called the Jan 2-3 use of the Special Command Unit 911 to suppress protests as "unprecedented and signals a disturbing tactic by authorities to quash what have been largely peaceful protests." LICADHO and the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) issued a joint statement condemning the attacks and the arrests. The UN human rights office expressed "serious concern." It said it is "deeply alarmed" over the "disproportionate use of force" against demonstrators; and "acts of sporadic violence during public gatherings must not be used as an excuse to deprive others of their right to freedom of assembly." It called for a "thorough" investigation of the crackdown.

NGOs worldwide joined in condemning the crackdown. Meanwhile, the CNRP hired the former head of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal's defense support section, lawyer Richard Rogers, to examine filing a complaint with the International Criminal Court on the basis of any evidence of alleged crimes actively promoted by CPP authorities against Cambodian civilians.

Teachers' strike

Cambodia's teachers, too, say they cannot live on their current salaries, and demanded a $250 minimum wage for teachers. Despite authorities clamping down on striking teachers, since January 6, some 700 teachers in 20 schools across Cambodia have gone on piecemeal strikes for higher wages. Hun Sen quickly ordered a study of possible salary increases for teachers and other civil servants. Rong Chhun, President of Cambodian Independent Teachers' Association (CITA), who supports teachers' strike for higher wages, noted his CITA has 10,700 members.

Perhaps in 2018

Hun Sen and the CPP are not so obtuse as not to see the writing on the wall. Their future is not certain. The people are not happy. A government cannot stand without the people's support. Half of the country voted for Sam Rainsy and the CNRP. With election irregularities and fraud, not all in the other half voted for Hun Sen and the CPP either.

I have posted several PowerPoints on Cambodia on YouTube. Along with this current article, I am posting a slideshow of carefully selected photos available in the public domain on the situation in Cambodia, including the recent military crackdown and the clearing of Freedom Park that have highlighted the destruction of what little of democracy there ever was. The video is accompanied by a Khmer song, Land and Life, sung by garment workers of the Messenger Band. The photos in the video suggest the future is not for Hun Sen and his party. Unless, as Hun Sen once said, his opponents' weaknesses make him strong.

Among e-mails from my readers, one sent me a good article in Khmer outlining the regime's harmful acts and policies, as the reader's own response to Hun Sen's Dec 20 rhetorical question, "What have I done wrong?" The reader asked me not to reveal his name. Another, Pho Boromey, asked me to share with readers what he posted on Facebook. Boromey urged garment workers not to exchange their lives for $160 a month as slaves to foreign investors, to return to farming and strategize on how best to keep Khmer free.

I believe the future belongs to Cambodian democrats, but they need to win over the half of the country that didn't vote for the CNRP; to stop thinking of all CPP members, personnel of the armed forces, civil servants in CPP bureaucracies as enemies; to initiate better relations with them to win them over. Democrats don't kill and destroy; they seek to co-opt and build on what exists. It's smart thinking and smart acting.

I don't see Hun Sen going anywhere. Not yet. Or he wouldn't have engaged in bloodshed. But even some high CPP figures are resigned to the CNRP seizing political power in 2018.

A reader asked, since Hun Sen refuses to leave power today, why should he leave in 2018? If Hun Sen can help it, he will not leave in 2018 either. But democrats have five years until the people will vote again to ensure that he will leave. Hun Sen also has five years to ensure democrats fail. Though I wish success for an idea currently being floated – known as the "Package" – to have an election in 9 months starting with the "dissolution" of the current government and the establishment of a "New Transitional Government," among others, I believe the "Package" is dead before arrival. Cambodian democrats can capture the next election and politically terminate Hun Sen in 2018. The world community, which in general is moved by the outcomes of elections, will have no choice but to endorse the people's decision.

May the New Year 2014 bring success to those who fight for freedom and justice.

The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.

About the Author:

Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States.

ENDS

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