Longtime observer pessimistic about Cambodia reform

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To paraphrase the old Esquire magazine, why is Hun Sen laughing?  (Source: Phnom Penh Post)

“This is no country for decent and outspoken men.”

So begins Sebastian Strangio’s crystalline analysis of Cambodia’s political environment in the highly respected Mekong Review.  The one-and-a-half-year-old quarterly journal has given me permission to excerpt a substantial portion of the author’s astute perspective on the chasm between what might be desirable in the Kingdom of Wonder and what might be achievable.

Strangio — whose recent book on Cambodia under the 31-year rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen has received terrific reviews — draws a line between what ought to be the situation in the country versus what actually is the possibility of change.

You can read the full essay in the publication, and I suspect the excerpts below will peak your interest.
Continue reading

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Visit to Khmer Rouge Tribunal sparks old memories

Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, testifies at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia yesterday. ECCC

Convicted of crimes against humanity, Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, testifies at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in June. Source: ECCC/Phnom Penh Post.

The idea was not so much to report on testimony given at what is officially named the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia, or ECCC, a U.N. funded organization that otherwise is known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.  It was a sense of obligation.

The courts’ multi-million-dollar mission since its creation in 2006 has been to prosecute ultimately just a few of the individuals involved in the genocide of more than 1.7 million Cambodians in the 1970s.  That the government is filled with former adherents of the Khmer Rouge has resulted in years of negotiations, stalling and the resulting freedom from trial of thousands and thousands of killers.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held onto his position for 31 years, acknowledges that he once was a relatively senior member of the Khmer Rouge before he changed sides.

Having already borne witness to the atrocities committed by Cambodians against Cambodians at a high school that became the notorious S-21 prison — referred to as Toul Sleng — and the killing fields, I decided it was high time that I observe the trial taking place 16 kilometers (10 miles) from downtown Phnom Penh.  My goal was less to recount testimony but more to share with readers how it felt to get and be there.

It was an unexpectedly chilling experience because Continue reading

With politics and human rights, expats have a problem

eople protest the detention of four human rights workers and an election official on Monday morning near Phnom Penh's Prey Sar prison. Source: Phnom Penh Post

A few activists protest the detention of four human rights workers and an election official on Monday morning near Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison. Source: Phnom Penh Post

It is a debate that has persisted since long before I started making Cambodia my home: What should expats do or say when they object to the actions of a foreign government that permits them to live in its country?

The question surfaced again here in Cambodia when a Facebook “friend” posted a story that has dominated the three English-language dailies for days.

A subsequent report in the Phnom Penh Post on Wednesday centered on a speech in which the prime minister said he might seek to have five jailed Cambodians forgiven for their entanglement in what has been dubbed a sex scandal concerning the acting president of a political party opposed to his ruling one.  Hun Sen’s remarks followed Monday’s arrest of civil rights activists essentially for wearing black shirts as they headed to a demonstration in Phnom Penh to call attention to their plight.

If civil society groups hold back during legal proceedings, suggested the price minister, the arrested individuals could be released from custody on one condition.  He said:  Continue reading

Nervous drivers promote much waving of hands

driver 1

Just how helpful is this parking attendant may well be debatable, yet nervous drivers often are too skittish to park by themselves.  (By the way, isn’t “Colorblind” is an odd name for a clothing store?)

Many drivers in Cambodia are just plain bad.

With automobiles only slowly coming into vogue following the defeat of the Khmer Rouge early in 1979 together with widespread poverty, Cambodians came to cars gradually.  It shows.

I once stood for a full five minutes watching in disbelief as Continue reading

Evil former Khmer Rouge official, 82, gets royal sendoff

The cremation of Cheat Sim occurred at the top of this structure.

The cremation of Cheat Sim occurred at the top of this structure, completed over two weeks.

Chea Sim was only president of the ruling party in Cambodia, yet he was remembered last week in a ceremony befitting a head of state following his death at 82.  The day of the funeral, June 19, was declared a national holiday; however, it was not strictly observed.

There were pomp, circumstance and elaborate decoration at his cremation in a park in the center of Phnom Penh.

Unfortunately, Continue reading

For construction workers, home is where the building is

Construction house 2

Families with children live communally in the shelter at the rear as the foundation is prepared, then they move up into the building when construction progresses.

Most construction workers make their way to Phnom Penh from the provinces, where work for them either doesn’t exist or centers on shrinking farmland and inadequate compensation.

They are distinguished by at least two characteristics: skin browned by the sun from all their outdoor work, branding them as lower class, and by painfully thin, if muscled, bodies.

Their makeshift homes here in the capital are where the work is.  They inhabit crude, rude, jerry-rigged shelters that are moved and modified as work proceeds on each space they occupy until foundations are completed over weeks and months.

Then, Continue reading

Whither Cambodia after political deadlock is fractured?

Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) and CNRP leader Sam Rainsy perform for the cameras.  (Source: Khmer Times)

Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) and CNRP leader Sam Rainsy perform for the cameras, but their agreement is wanting. (Source: Khmer Times)

It is hard to consider as anything but a sellout the opposition party’s agreement last week to take its seats in the National Assembly after a year-long deadlock.

The Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) had boycotted the parliament following the July 2013 election, which the opposition had justifiably branded as rigged.

The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s continuing strong-arm tactics over the past year (and many years before) persuaded CNRP President Sam Rainsy to declare victory and cave in, perhaps pointlessly.

Implicitly acknowledging that he had capitulated to a far greater power than the opposition ever could muster by taking to the streets, Rainsy publicly conceded that the deal he made with the devil was his only choice for ending the impasse.  At the same time, however, the globally gallivanting Rainsy turned his back on the large minority faction in his party.

Kem Sokha (left) and Sam Rainsy at Sunday's event.

Kem Sokha (left) and Sam Rainsy at Sunday’s event in a Phnom Penh park.  (Source: Cambodge Info)

That the leader of the CNRP faction, Kem Sokha, had been long silent about the pact is proof of the party’s vulnerability and thus its weakening as a collective force against the Cambodian People’s Party of Hun Sen, who has had an iron grip on the nation for nearly three decades.

Behind the scenes, Sokha did consent to be appointed a top parliamentary official, First Vice President of the National Assembly, so there obviously has been an effort to keep the CNRP from splintering.  Whether that initiative will work in the end is an open question: The evidence is mounting that Sokha’s supporters have been quietly demanding appeasement even as attempts to do so could result in the collapse of the agreement between the CPP and CNRP.

It was, after all, Sokha’s objection to an earlier informal agreement that Continue reading