Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Cambodia Under Fire

Cambodia, which held the rotating chair of Asean in 2012, hosted international fora in November which President Obama attended, but even though he and Hun Sen held a one-on-one meeting and stood next to each other for group photos, no picture of the PM was posted on the White House web site and there were no smiles between the two, Obama maintaining a cool distance. This was meant to show America’s displeasure at many of the things happening in Cambodia. The Asean meetings also came after both the European Parliament and Australian Senate called Cambodia to account for the direction it’s been taking regarding human rights and fair elections.
The PM’s response was that they were misinformed and the media was exaggerating. That, of course, is what a lot of politicians would say under fire, and while there has clearly been some serious backsliding on Cambodia’s part, I agree that some of the complaints do seem to be out of proportion to reality. Nonetheless, since Cambodia gets a substantial part – 10%/$300 million - of its annual budget from the international community, it would behoove the PM to take the complaints more seriously.
The complainants are asking that the country hold free and fair elections, that an independent election commission be appointed, that political prisoners be released, that Sam Rainsy, now in self-imposed exile to avoid a long prison term, be allowed to take part in the upcoming national election and that the country put an end to land grabbing and displacement.
Independent election commissions are an obvious starting-point for honest elections. It’s too bad that’s not the way things are done in the US. In 2000, Republican Katherine Harris of Florida was both Secretary of State, the office that runs elections, and GW Bush’s campaign manager. She did everything in her power to skew the vote in Bush’s favor. An clean election would have easily made Gore the winner. Similarly, four years later Ohio Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell simultaneously ran the Ohio election and Bush’s campaign there. He used every dirty trick in the book to throw the election to Bush. So yes it’d be great if Cambodia had an independent electoral commission, but the US is hardly one to complain until it gets its own house in order.
Independence of the electoral commission is far preferred but what’s important is the outcome; that is, a free and fair election. I’ve now lived in Cambodia for 11 years and been around for four, maybe five national elections. I don’t remember one declared not free and fair by international observers, so I’m not sure where that complaint is coming from. There have been minor problems but nothing that would’ve countered the wide lead the PM’s Cambodian People’s Party had in every election, at least in the last 11 years. The CPP has consistently received a minimum 55% of the vote.
Elections in Cambodia are held on two levels. The national parliament and the communes, of which there are about 1700 that cover the entire country, both urban and rural. Phnom Penh, for instance, has about 90 communes. Almost all of the communes are run by the CPP as a result of efficient gerrymandering. In case you’re not aware of the genesis of that term, the word is a combination of Gerry, the name of a governor of Massachusetts in the early 19th century and a salamander, since the electoral districts Gerry designed to favor his own party looked like salamanders.
The CPP also has overwhelming control of the parliament for that reason and a divided opposition – for a long time there were two opposition parties - which makes it easier for the ruling party to keep control. A similar situation exists in the UK: The party with the most seats in parliament almost never has a majority of the vote… Margaret Thatcher never got past about 40% of the vote. Still, even with some level of intimidation, a partisan electoral commission and control of most of the media by the ruling party, the opposition received about 45% of the vote in the last election and, at least as far as I remember, it was deemed free and fair by international observers.
The government’s case against Sam Rainsy revolves around two factors. As part of a campaign ploy he pulled up temporary border posts which the government and Vietnam were using to try to demarcate the border between the two; thus destroying public property. As part of that action he accused the PM of selling out Cambodia, essentially treason. For that he received an 11 year sentence. That was way out of line in a Western perspective, but accusing the PM of treason was beyond the pale in a Cambodian context. In fact, the PM and his party are regularly criticized by the opposition.
Sam Rainsy has never come close to challenging the PM in the polls and personally I’m happy about that. In general he’s a bit more conservative on social issues and rails against corruption. On the latter, he might be better than the CPP on tackling that issue, but that’s hard to say since Cambodia is hopelessly corrupt, scoring 157 out of 174 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perception index, and so probably everybody is in the game. On the former, I’m personally not fond of conservatism in any form. The real problem I have with him is that his strongest campaign rhetoric involves stoking antagonism against the one million or so ethnic Vietnamese living here, regularly using a derogatory term for them. Pulling up the border posts was part of that push against the Viets.
After all the terrible changes that Cambodia has gone through the last thing it needs is ethnic strife. In general terms, the Khmer are largely distrustful and disdainful of the Vietnamese in spite of them driving Pol Pot out of power and saving possibly hundreds of thousands of lives in the process. At the same time, on a personal level they have no problem getting along with the Vietnamese, making friends and just being the pleasant, easy going people that they are.
While ethnic tension and violence and even insurrection can be found in many of the surrounding countries, there is absolutely none of that in Cambodia. The country has about 500,000 Muslims, but there isn’t the barest hint that they are the least bit dissatisfied with their lives here.
Cambodia is the easily the most welcoming of foreigners in the region and maybe the world. Anybody from anywhere in the world who can make their way to Cambodia can stay as long as they like and if they wish, open a business with no interference from the government (baksheesh excluded) or need of a local partner. Moreover, in a poll last year, 78% said they thought their country was going in the right direction: By any standard that is an amazing number.
The 400,000 people who’ve been displaced over the past 10 years by urban development, dam building and rural land concessions probably aren’t so happy about the country’s direction, but overall Cambodia is growing economically at a good clip, with new construction everywhere including impressive infrastructure improvements and a lot of people’s lives are being enhanced.
A lot of urban development in Phnom Penh has been happening on filled-in lakes and wetlands and on formerly public park spaces, all of which I consider a terrible mistake, almost a crime against the people. Nevertheless, I don’t doubt that the government honestly sees that development as a plus for the city. There’s unfortunately very little transparency in how those projects are planned or who the land is sold off to, and precious little citizen input. For a country that’s relatively new to democracy, that’s discouraging but not surprising.
There are a lot of dams being built to supply electricity that is currently sorely inadequate, with blackouts now happening on a daily basis in the capital. A large majority of power now consumed in Cambodia comes from neighbors Vietnam and Thailand. Hydropower has a great many advantages over burning fossil fuels, which the country is also pursuing in the form of new coal plants in Sihanoukville. Hydropower does have a great drawback here in that little can be produced in dry season when it’s hottest and thus when it’s needed most. It also is displacing large numbers of people and in some cases is or will be causing serious damage to the country’s fisheries – Cambodians get 80% of their protein from fish.
Most of those drawbacks could be ameliorated by building dams mostly in the mountains and possibly making them smaller. Most river fish are found in slow moving flatland rivers, very few in fast moving mountain streams, so, for instance, the Kamchey dam in the mountains near Kampot will have little impact on local fisheries. There also are few people who need to be relocated from mountainous areas. Nonetheless, a lot of countries have in the past and/or are still in the present making the same (what I consider to be) mistakes, so, once again, it’s difficult to fault the government in that regard.
Some 10% of Cambodia’s total land mass has been leased to local and foreign companies for industrial agro-plantations and giant tourist projects. Concessions have been granted in national parks and wildlife preserves as well as degraded forest land. In many if not most cases that has involved displacement of local villagers. While most people being displaced receive some type of compensation, much of it is inadequate. Considering how endemic corruption is here, it seems likely many public officials involved in the granting of concessions are filling their pockets, still, as in the above, I don’t doubt they also believe it’s good for the country. In a few years time Cambodia will be producing a lot of rubber, sugar cane, acacia and palm oil from the many plantations now under development. I would have done it differently, distributing land to thousands of villagers instead of a few large corporations, as better for the country in the long run. And for sure, I would never trash national parks and wildlife refuges with plantations.
In almost all of the above cases, people affected have demonstrated and protested to varying degrees of success. The government is not keen on the above stemming in part from a protest that went violent back in 2002 with disastrous consequences for the country. In that event a rumor, that was later learned to be unfounded, circulated that a popular young Thai soap actress had claimed Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand and made other disparaging remarks about Khmer people. What started as a protest mostly involving college students resulted in the torching of several Thai owned businesses as well as the Thai embassy. In the latter case the Thai ambassador had to flee over a wall to save himself. The government was forced to pay damages of about $30 million and offer profuse apologies. While many Thai companies have important stakes in the economy, and Thailand was funding Cambodian roads near the border at the time of the riots, it’s true that many Thais look down on the Khmer.
After that embarrassing event the government has tried to put a lid on protests and demonstrations with varying degrees of success. In spite of their efforts at suppression, protests are a regular occurrence as are work actions by unionized garment workers. It is not that different in America where people wishing to demonstrate at political party conventions or international meetings are shunted off to ‘free speech zones’ which often wind up to be paved areas surrounded by chain-link fences under freeways and far from the venues, thus far from where anybody can see them or hear of their grievances. In other cases, peaceful protesters have been pepper sprayed just for the fun of it.
 Finally, one of the international community’s demands is the freeing of political prisoners. Last October Mam Sonando, 72-year-old owner of one of the few independent radio stations and frequent government critic was given a 20 year sentence on fabricated charges: supposedly he tried to organize 400 village families, who were protesting the loss of their land to a concession, to secede from Cambodia and form their own nation. Fortunately the local foreign language press – we have two English language dailies here - and international broadcasters like the BBC, which has an FM outlet in Phnom Penh, have been left to do their work unhindered. Also last fall about 20 people protesting the loss of their land in an urban development were given 2 year sentences, but then were released a month or so later. Locking up dissident voices is a very worrying trend; maybe they are trying to emulate China, their great friend and benefactor where lots of people are routinely put away for simple political advocacy. Still, the most political prisoners anybody can come up with in Cambodia is 13. Even one is too much, but compare that with Burma where even after all the thousands of prisoners who’ve been released, there are still, by various estimates between 125 and 1000 political prisoners who remain behind bars.
The Western media usually categorize the PM as a strongman, sometimes a dictator. A dictator he is not as they maintain control through violence, incarceration and murder of opponents. The strongman appellation is fair. Some years ago he decided that betting on sports was bad for the country and literally within two days, hundreds of legal betting parlors were shut down and thousands lost their jobs. Also a while ago, a property owner wanted to develop a large lot in a valuable and central location that was occupied by an NGO serving homeless kids. Though not part of any legal requirement, he offered to build a new facility for the NGO outside the city’s central core, but the facility, which has a lot of powerful friends, objected saying they needed to be where the kids were. The PM intervened on the NGOs side and the property owner had to eat his development plans.
Cambodia is hardly a model democracy, but in spite of some serious backsliding and worrying developments, it’s still in pretty good shape. The country’s development plans, which are causing much displacement and misery, and which I personally find very troubling, are well within conventional development models; in other words, heartily approved by the business/financial community. While the international political community needs to keep up the human rights pressure, Cambodia’s situation needs to be kept in perspective.