Monday, January 13, 2014

Cambodian Politics for Dummies: The Dictator and the Democrat


Cambodia Politics for Dummies!

The cast:

Central characters:

Prime Minister Hun Sen - the Darth Vader

of Cambodian politics.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy - Luke Skywalker, battling the forces of the ‘dark side’.

The international donor community – whose $18 billion in foreign aid this past 20 years have done nothing to alleviate poverty, bring about good governance or prevent human rights abuses.

The Cambodian people – long suffering and longing for true democracy.

Hun Sen, 62, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, is an old-fashioned Dictator out of central casting. He uses fear, intimidation and the courts to cow the Cambodian people into acceptance of the crimes that he, his family and political cronies – the increasingly wealthy Cambodian kleptocracy - perpetrate against them and the state with impunity.
Hun Sen, also known as ‘The Hunster’ or The Sun Hen’ – hated and feared in equal parts by the Cambodian people - has been in power since 1979 and heads up the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Sam Rainsy, 64, former banker in France and Minister of Finance in the Cambodian National Assembly in the early 90s, is a Democrat. He has a passion for justice, transparency and accountability and is a man with a mission. Rainsy is an incorrigible and perpetually smiling optimist - a pacifist, dedicated to non- violent protest to bring about the democratic change the Cambodian people have been clamouring for with increasing stridency this past six months. He wants to “bring the Cambodian people out of the darkness and into the light.”

Sam Rainsy is President of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Is an ‘Asian Spring’ style transformation of Cambodian politics going to happen this year? Or will the forces of darkness and repression prevail and the Cambodian people forced to endure another five years living with and under a dictatorship?

Politics in Cambodia is a rough and tumble affair – as the three politically motivated attempts on Rainsy’s life this past 15 years bear witness. One, a grenade attack on a peaceful demonstration in 1997, just a couple of hundred meters from Hun Sen’s home, killed 16 people. Rainsy survived, bloodied but unhurt – his life saved by a body guard. The circumstantial evidence pointed to the attack having been carried out by Hun Sen’s body guards but no charges were ever laid. (Today, Cambodia’s ‘democratically’ elected Prime Minister need 10,000 personal bodyguards to protect him from...from? The Cambodian people?

Over the years dozens of Rainsy’s political colleagues and supporters have been tortured, assassinated and jailed on trumped up charges.

Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy both claim to have won the July 2013 elections and have been at loggerheads ever since – engaged in a complex and complicated power struggle. Whilst Rainsy has the support of the Cambodian people, The Hunster has the guns. And he’s not afraid to use them – as was demonstrated 10 days ago when the Royal Cambodian Army opened fire on garment factory workers in order to protect the assets of Korean factory owners.

Rainsy’s CNRP refuses to take its 56 seats in the 123 seat National Assembly until there is an independent investigation into the election’s many many ‘irregularities’ – some so blatant as to beggar belief. Hun Sen refuses to allow an independent investigation to take place and has threated to give the CNRP’s seats in the Assembly away if Rainsy’s MPs do not take their seats. Stalemate! Re- distributing the CNRP’s seats would be unconstitutional, against the law, but Hun Sen does not bother with such democratic niceties when he is determined to get his own way. As he always is. As he always does.

Close to six months after the elections the CPP rules alone and Hun Sen is now the world’s longest serving dictator – beating Robert Mugabe by one year!

What about the international donor community, of which Australia is a significant player – a major player in this third world political soap opera. Australia’s $97 million in foreign aid this year will go towards the close-to $1 billion the international community will shovel into Cambodian coffers. Will this $1 billion help the Cambodian people (40% of whom are malnourished and the majority living on less than $2 a day and 10,000 of which – mostly children – die of diarrhea each year) or is this injection of funds propping up a corrupt government; a kleptocracy that exploits the country’s natural resources, steals the land and homes of the Cambodian people and practices a laundry list of human rights abuses with impunity? A big question, to which I will return.

The most important player in this drama, and the one that will ultimately determine the outcome of the current political impasse, is the Cambodian people – the farmers, the teachers, the students, the tuk tuk driver and all others (the majority of the population) who find it difficult or impossible to survive. They clearly want change – especially the young Facebook generation with no recollection of, or much interest in, the Khmer Rouge atrocities that impacted so profoundly on their parents’ and grand-parents’ lives. Armed with their mobile phones and iPads, switched on to social media, these young men and women record what Rainsy and others have to say at rallies and demonstrations – sharing this new form of information online and with family members who have only ever known what Hun Sen’s state-run media has allowed them to know, wanted to them to know, has told them was so.

For decades Hun Sen has been quite happy for journalists to refer to him as Strongman Hun Sen. As Cambodians have demonstrated past six months - more hope than fear in their hearts - ‘former Strong man Hun Sen’ is beginning to seem a more appropriate appellation.

The only real challenger to Hun Sen’s dictatorship, until very recently, has been Sam Rainsy - who is regularly charged and found guilty of trumped up charges and forced into exile to avoid long jail sentences. This is a favourite Hun Sen tactic when dealing with critics – be they opposition politicians, journalists who write about corruption or trade union leaders asking for an increase in the wages of the employees they represent. When it suits Hun Sen’s political purposes, (currying favour with international donors prior to the next tranche of foreign aid, for example) Rainsy receives a Royal Pardon and returns to Cambodia.

It was such a pardon that enabled Rainsy to return to Cambodia in July 2013 to participate, as President of CNRP, in the national elections. He was not allowed to vote, however, or to stand for a seat in the National Assembly. This is the way democracy works in Cambodia. The international donor community bleats about Hun Sen’s dictatorial ways from time to time but keeps shoveling money into the Cambodian government coffers - $18 billion over the past 20 years. Why this should be so is a matter I will turn to later.

In the meantime, Rainsy is facing yet another stint in exile or jail. This morning he has been summonsed to appear in court to answer charges that he incited garment factory workers to go on strike - demanding be paid $160 a month. The $40 a week the garment factory workers are seeking is still a subsistence wage but it is a vast improvement on the $20 a week most earn at present so that we, in Australia and elsewhere in the developed world, can buy cheap clothes and shoes. Royal Cambodian Army personnel armed with AK47s were called in to protect the factory owners assets and induce the strikers to go back to work. They shot and killed five factory workers and injured scores more. Neither the soldiers who killed the protesters nor the commanders who issued the order to open fire have been summonsed to appear in court. This is the way democracy works in Hun Sen’s democratic Cambodia.

The courts are controlled by Hun Sen so the outcome of today’s hearing has already been determined. Perhaps Rainsy will be arrested and put in jail. This would lead to mass protests and predictable bleating from the international donor community. He could be warned, along with his co-accused, that he must cease encouraging garment factory workers to strike if he wants to avoid arrest in the future. Or, the object of the court exercise may be to issue the kind of threat that will induce Rainsy to seek exile again. One thing is certain – evidence will play no role at all in the outcome of this hearing. There is no effective rule of law in Cambodia. Hun Sen wants and needs to get rid of Rainsy one way or another. He is a nuisance – interfering with the smooth running of The Hunster’s dictatorship with his demands that the government obey Cambodian laws, stamp out rampant corruption, adhere to the Constitution and bring to an end the patronage system that sees a kleptocracy made up of Hun Sen’s family and friends steal Cambodia’s natural resources.

Since Rainsy’s return to Cambodia, close to six months ago, the groundswell of support for him and his party has grown to the point where demonstrations can now number between 50,000 and 100,000. Hun Sen must nip this protest movement in the bud if he is not to risk the kind of turmoil seen on the streets of Bangkok yesterday. Whether Hun Sen’s 20th C dictator’s tactics will be any match for Rainsy’s non-violent approach to democratic reform remains to be seen. Having tasted a little freedom, having glimpsed the possibility of true democracy, will Cambodia’s youth accept a return to the status quo if Rainsy is forced into exile again and his CNRP neutralized? Whilst no one predicted an Arab Spring a couple of years, there would be few today who would dismiss the possibility of an Asian Spring that could bring sweeping changes to Cambodia very quickly. be continued... 

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