Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen

Given the serious accusations of involvement in corruption, torture and extra-judicial killings by senior members of the Cambodian security in this Human Rights Watch report, is it not surprising that the Government reaction has been so muted? 

Human Rights Watch recently produced a detailed report on twelve senior generals of the Cambodian Army, Gendarmarie and Police forces.  They added the provocative title “Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen”.

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Cambodian Dictatorship?

By comparing and contrasting two video documentaries, we might be better able to understand the social and psychological forces currently shaping the evolution of Cambodian society.

In this blog, I would like to compare and contrast two foreign documentaries on the social, economic and political changes in Cambodia.

After the recent election in Cambodia, the ABC news network in Australia prepared a TV documentary on a putative “descent into dictatorship”.

This documentary focused on the family of the Prime Minister and outlined the extent of the family’s network and financial power both in Cambodia and in Australia. It reflected on the media clamp-down, through the suppression of “The Cambodia Daily” and several free radio stations. Responsibility for the assassination of the political analyst, Mr. Kem Lay in July 2016, was attributed to the family of the Prime Minister without any physical evidence being produced or any mention of the missing CCTV footage from the garage where the murder took place. Interviews were recorded with both the eldest son and distinguished nephew of the Prime Minister. These interviews did not offer any confirmation of a “descent into dictatorship”. The documentary failed to shed any light on the extraordinary high voter turnout in a supposedly sham election (82%). This figure cannot simply be dismissed as a result of intimidation and political pressure. It is far too high for that. Even if this figure is inflated by 20%, which is unlikely, it would still demand an explanation.  The documentary did not provide a context by indicating the relative wealth and power of other Khmer politicians and business tycoons.

On the 30th of April last, an award-winning documentary on the social protest movement in Cambodia, produced by Chris Kelly, was premiered in Dublin’s Irish Film Institute in the presence of the Venerable Luon Sovath, an activist Buddhist monk.This documentary was sponsored by the NGO, Frontline Defenders. For some reason this documentary has not yet been made publicly available.

By comparing and contrasting these two video documentaries, we might be better able to understand the social and psychological forces currently shaping the evolution of Cambodian society. The Australian documentary focuses on the Prime Minister while the Irish documentary focuses on three social activists. One attempts to understand the conflict of power in terms of democracy versus dictatorship while the other attempts to understand the conflict in terms of collective struggle versus self-preservation. The Australian documentary focuses on the flaws of the rulers while the Irish documentary manages to capture the flaws of the opposition. A modern Khmer tragedy is being acted out between these two conceptions of the Cambodian social reality.

A long view might help. In the famous Khmer epic poem and opera, Tum Teav, the heroine and hero both die. Traditional interpretation finds fault with Tum for eloping with Teav before asking permission of the Buddhist Abbot in his pagoda. It also finds fault with Teav for eloping with Tum before asking permission of her mother. The forest is the place for wild beasts and robbers while order on the farmed land is preserved by the King. In the final scene, the King sentences to death all those involved in the imperfect transmission of information relating to their affair. They are all buried in the earth to their necks and then decapitated by ploughs. In this way the royal prerogative is preserved and the Khmer three-fold obedience to royal, religious and parental authority is confirmed and communicated to all who study this wonderful epic.

The Prime Minister in Cambodia has been using the royal title “Samdech” for a considerable time already. He seems to be acting like a King whom the people both love and fear. For many there is almost a perverse enjoyment in the recounting of tales of his power as these tales serve to prevent anybody else from stepping out of line or getting ahead. The ABC documentary is just another such tale. It may not help to promote participative democracy. In this sense, it is self-defeating.

The social activists, in the Irish documentary “A Cambodian Spring”, eventually begin to fight among themselves and their movement implodes. The real insight in this documentary is to show the extent to which the urge for self-preservation among Cambodian families can undermine the most committed collective social effort. This is the most tragic result inherited perhaps from the Khmer Rouge regime. The documentary draws a parallel between the conflicts among these activists on the lowest rung of the social ladder, with the conflicts among the opposition leaders on a much higher rung. This documentary attempts to illustrate why the opposition failed rather than why the Government succeeded.

In the recent election, the vast majority of Cambodians voted for the CPP party (Cambodian People’s Party) because they wanted to preserve what they have. Now they enjoy the freedom to earn their own living, to travel wherever they want inside the country, to seek hospital treatment when they are sick and to emigrate to Thailand for work. They chose security and family prosperity first. Democracy and the rule of law can wait until such time as there is a credible opposition that can promise a peaceful transition of power. The fear of a return to violence is paramount. The Prime Minister understands this mentality very well.

So while most of the opposition leaders (from safe places abroad) rant and rave, crying foul in relation to the announcement of the election results, there is one who is silent. This leader is in jail, held in quasi solitary confinement in a remote area of Cambodia near the border with Vietnam. We do not hear his voice anymore. Yet he is the one who has refused to run away. He has not chosen self-preservation over and above a commitment to democracy and the law of order. He may die in prison or he may emerge so weakened physically and psychologically that he will be unable to lead again. The real drama is being acted out by the other opposition leaders who refuse to negotiate with the triumphant government on the grounds that the election was stolen. In this way, they participate indirectly in the elimination of their own leader. Their only credible line of action now is to insist that there can no negotiation until their leader is released from prison. Unfortunately, no voices are being raised in this sense.