Thursday, January 30, 2014

Is Australia's $100 million in foreign aid to Cambodia each year propping up a dictatorship? A question for Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop MP.

Why does Australia provide $100 million in foreign aid to a dictatorship, posing as a democracy, that uses Riot Police and private security thugs armed with electric cattle prods to disperse peaceful demonstrators?

The Hon Julie Bishop
Minister for Foreign Affairs
House of Representatives, Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600                                                                                       30th Jan 2014

Dear Minister

Imagine this:

Your neighbours are very poor. The mother and father cannot feed, clothe, educate or provide medical care to their many children. The roof to the family home leaks and they have no money to repair it.  Their lives have been marred by tragedy and trauma.  You feel for them. You want to help. What do you do? You are comparatively rich and in a position to pay to have the roof repaired, buy decent clothes for the children, put them in school and provide the family with healthy food and other basic necessities of life. You are a good person, so you open your wallet put your money where your heart is. Your actions are to be applauded. Everyone in the family is appreciative, thankful for the help you are providing to keep their heads above water.

Having committed yourself to helping this family you discover that the father regularly beats, intimidates and mistreats his children. You are shocked to learn that a substantial part of the money you have provided to help the family is being spent by the father to indulge in his own pleasures – drinking and gambling in particular. What do you do? 

Concerned, but not wishing to be judgmental, (this father has suffered a great deal in his life) you take him aside and tell him, politely, that you cannot provide financial assistance to the family if he continues to mistreat his children; to drink and gamble away the money you give him. You suggest also that he put some effort into finding a job so that he, too, can help support his family. Contrite, hand on heart, the father promises to mend his ways and look for a job.  You are relieved.

It soon becomes apparent that the father has no intention of keeping his promises. The gambling, drinking and abuse of his children continues and you see no evidence that he is trying to get a job. You feel a little uneasy about how your effort to help is turning out. You wonder if, in providing his family with generous financial assistance, the father now has no pressing need to earn a living. He knows that you, out of the goodness of your year, will feed, clothe and educate his children.

You speak with the father again. More forcefully this time! Again, he is contrite and makes the same promise to reform in his behaviour. Yes, this time he will be true to his word, stop gambling, drinking and mistreating his children. He makes a solemn promise. And he will put a great deal of effort into finding a job. His promises are made with such sincerity that you give him the benefit of the doubt; one more chance. After all, this father has suffered so much, has been so traumatized by past experiences beyond his control, that it is unrealistic to expect him to mend his ways immediately. It will take time. This is what you tell yourself. This is what you need to tell yourself. This what you need to believe.

This round robin of promises made and promises broken goes on for some time until, in exasperation, you say to him, “I will provide no more support for your family for as long as you spend the money on yourself – drinking and gambling - and not on your family; until you get a job and stop intimidating and mistreating your children.” The father responds, with a sorrowful expression, “But my children must eat! If you do not provide us with money, how will my children eat? I am a poor man. Our family has been through so much trauma. Please, you must continue to help us. Think of the children.”

This works. You feel both guilty and trapped. How can you possibly withdraw financial aid to your neighbours, knowing full well that if you do, it is the children who will suffer the most? Do you want to take on that responsibility? Do you want to be seen as uncaring? No. So you keep on giving. You come to accept as a fact of that the father skims a good deal off the top of what you provide for the family - to spend on his own drinking, gambling and other selfish pastimes.  You accept that he is not going to even try to get a job so that he can support his family himself. This is the price, you tell yourself, that you must pay for helping his children. Surely it is better, you ask yourself, that some money trickles through the father’s fingers to help the children than none at all? You answer in the affirmative because the alternative is too distressing to contemplate – namely that you have become an accessory in the father’s mistreatment of his children by relieving him of his responsibility to support them in an atmosphere free of intimidation and fear.

You are now, despite your good intentions, complicit in his mistreatment of his children. Your support for the family, well-meaning though it was at the outset, is actually damaging the family further since the father controls the purse strings and his purse is mostly filled with your money! That you are an accessory to a the crime of the father’s human rights  abuses within his own family is something you must do all you can to hide from yourself. You are a good person, after all!

One day you discover that the father has so badly beaten one of his children that she has been hospitalized and may die. What do you do? Withdraw your aid to the entire family? Punish the children for the father’s bad behavior?

This simple cautionary tale ignores the fact that others in the neighbourhood are also providing the father with financial assistance on the presumption that it is being used to help the entire family. If you withdraw your aid the others will step in to fill the gap. You have, in reality, no leverage. The father is playing you for a sucker. The only way that your threat to withdraw your aid to the family can or will carry any weight if it is made in conjunction with all the others in the neighbourhood that are providing financial assistance to it.

What would happen if you, and all your all your neighbours, speaking with one voice, were to say to the father, “We will provide no more aid until you stop mistreating your family and spending our aid money on yourself?”  With nowhere to turn for financial aid it may well be that the father is not in a position to play the neighbours off against each other and has no choice but to not only agree to change his ways, but to actually change them.

Analogies of the kind I am making here are, of course, simplistic. However, they do point to a truth so glaring that it cannot be ignored: The international donor community has, though its billions of dollars of aid this past 20 years ($18 billion) absolved the Hun Sen government (the ‘father’) of the responsibility to feed, clothe, house and otherwise take care of the Cambodian people. The international donor community has stepped in to do what the Cambodian government should be doing in terms of providing social services.  If this community, and the gaggle of NGOs it supports, were to withdraw aid, Hun Sen could accuse them of heartlessness, of abandoning the poor who are, after all, poor because they are victims (albeit 2nd and 3rd generation victims) of the Khmer Rouge! Blackmail!

If the International donor community speaking with one voice, were to cut all aid to Cambodia until Prime Minister Hun Sen acts in accordance with the Cambodian constitution, until his government obeys the Land Laws that make it illegal to steal the land and homes of Cambodians, and until he stops sending armed soldiers and black-helmeted thugs armed with electric cattle prods to beat up and sometimes kill peaceful protestors, his government would be broke within weeks. His Ministers, members of his family and the corrupt businessman who make up the kleptocracy that controls Cambodia – its people and resources – would be unable to survive in the absence of the bribes that are the lifeblood of their dealings with the international community. Something would have to change.

What would happen if the flow of money that keeps Hun Sen and his regime in power were to come to a sudden end? There are many possibilities. Backed into a corner, Hun Sen may respond violently and  much blood may be spilt by innocent Cambodians who want nothing other than a genuine democracy and not to be ruled, for yet another five years, by a dictator.

On the other hand, Hun Sen’s own party may realize that his autocratic ways have rendered him a liability and get rid of him. Or, Hun Sen may realize that the tide of history is against him and that it is time for him to retire and live in comfort on the many millions of dollars he has acquired in his Prime Ministers’ salary! In the south of France, perhaps! No-one can be sure what the outcome would be but it is hard to imagine that it could be worse than the situation that prevails.

Do you, as Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, do the Foreign Minister’s of other countries propping up the Hun Sen government want to be a party to the political turmoil that is racking the country now, in five years?  When Hun Sen arranges, through his manipulation of the National Election Committee and the Constitutional Council to win yet another election in 2018, how will you and the international community respond? Express your concern? Yet again? Expressions of concern are meaningless unles backed up with action.

No doubt, later this year, when Australia promises another $100 million in aid to Cambodia, Hun Sen will make the same kinds of solemn promises of reform as he has been making this past 20 years. Will you buy it, Minister? Is there any point at which you and your fellow Foreign Ministers will say, “Enough”? When the international donor community will stop expressing its ‘concern’ and actually act in a way that has the best interests of the Cambodian people at heart?

Australia could play a leading role here in coordinating an international coalition of donor countries to put pressure on Hun Sen to (a) allow for an independent investigation to take place into the ‘flawed’ July 2013 elections, (b) to implement an independent investigation into the murder of striking garment factory workers earlier this month such that the killers, along with those who gave the orders to shoot to kill, are identified and punished in accordance with Cambodian law.

You do not need, Minister, to await the arrival of more reports into what is taking place in Cambodia. Just go online and see for yourself. You could start with this one – footage of the Deputy Governor of Phnom Penh beating up a moto dop driver:

If the Deputy Governor of Phnom Penh can perpetrate violence of this kind with impunity it should come as no surprise that members of the armed forces can and will follow suit. Is this the form of government that Australia wants to support with an annual injection of $100 million in foreign aid?

best wishes

James Ricketson

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Standoff between peaceful protestors and armed police, soldiers and security guards in Cambodia. A letter for Australia's Foreign Minister, the Hon Julie Bishop,

Cambodian police armed with electric cattle prods attack peaceful protestors in Phnom Penh one day and allow them to protest the following day as tensions rise between two opposing forces - neither acknowledging the right of the other to behave as they do.  The authorities wants to quash all opposition whilst a rapidly growing number of Cambodians want real democracy for their country and an end to the Hun Sen dictatorship.

The Hon Julie Bishop
Minister for Foreign Affairs
House of Representatives, Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600  

29th Jan 2014

Dear Minister

Today, in my role as filmmaker, I followed a small group of Cambodian human rights activists as they moved from embassy to embassy around Phnom Penh. They were delivering petitions requesting the international community to put pressure on the Cambodian government to release from prison of 23 striking garment factory workers arrested earlier this month. Four or five of their co-workers were killed when Cambodian soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators.

The authorities tried to prevent the petitioners from walking from embassy to embassy and it seemed for a while that they would again, as they did on Tuesday 27th, use brute force to prevent the rally from continuing. Violence was averted when the human rights activists told the authorities they would not walk but would deliver their petitions by tuk tuk. And so they did for the next couple of embassies but before long they were walking en masse – in defiance of the authorities. The police and the black-helmeted security guards maintained their distance, keeping a watchful eye, but had clearly been instructed not to use violence today.

Decisions to either use violence or not are made by Prime Minister Hun Sen, as I am sure you will be aware. One day he is Bad Cop, the next Good Cop. One day his police, army and baton-wielding Darth Vader look alikes are beating people up, the next standing by, zapping their electrified cattle prods to intimidate Cambodians demonstrating peacefully on behalf the jailed factory workers.

The clearest indication of how this stand-off will play itself out is to be found in a statement made recently by Hun Sen’s son, Hun Many:

“I might not be able to contain the CPP youth and supporters any longer…Their hearts are burning with hatred toward the leaders of the CNRP from listening to the barking, cursing and insults to the CPP leaders and especially to the Prime Minister.”

And in a message to  ambassadors yesterday, CPP National Assembly President Heng Samrin had the following to say:

“All ambassadors should know what happens and react promptly to any activities deemed scornful or aggressive in manner to the nation.”

What is the attacking and beating of Cambodian’s peacefully protesting if not “aggressive in manner?” As for responding with violence to “activities deemed scornful”, no comment needs to be made. Please, Minister, search out and view the many images and video clips available online that reveal how the authorities deals with ‘scornful’ Cambodians; with ‘barking, cursing’ protestors who insult Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Given the amount of foreign aid provided by Australia to Cambodia each year I believe it would be appropriate for the Australian government to publically condemn the violence being perpetrated by Cambodian authorities against Cambodian protestors who are exercising their constitutional right to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.

best wishes

James Ricketson