Last month, protesters gathered outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to demonstrate against the trial of Tep Vanny, one of Cambodia’s most well-known land-rights activists, who was sentenced to 30 months in prison for aggravated intentional violence in relation to a 2013 protest outside Hun Sen’s residence in Phnom Penh. She is one of many Boeung Kak activists who are still valiantly protesting evictions from the area years ago. As the trial commenced, violence broke out outside the courthouse. The Phnom Penh Post described it thusly:
As Vanny’s trial resumed after a two week recess, Prampi Makara district security guards started to kick, shove, and drag land activists who gathered outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court premises, pushing them to the other side of the street. Two Boeung Kak lake activists and one pregnant woman from the Borei Keila community suffered minor injuries and fainted during the scuffle.
A video later appeared on the Internet showing district security guards chasing a protester, named by the media as Mao Socheat, believed to be a CNRP activist, into a nearby shopping mall before beating him in a restaurant. He was saved (from what, one can only speculate) by the actions of the men and women who shielded him from the police. A deputy police chief later told the media that no such attack had taken place and, as was to be expected, no investigation would take place.
Cambodian politics, however much the protagonists and antagonists might say it’s not, often has the feeling of warfare – long periods of tedium and anxiety punctuated by short interludes of terror and panic. It is easy enough to say that we are presently in one of those interludes.
As dawn rose on 2017 it seemed as though the country’s main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), would at least compete in June’s commune election and next year’s general election, even if the party’s internal hierarchy was disordered; its then-president exiled in France; its manifesto still unpublished. Today, who knows (except a few people, whose decision it will be) whether the party will even exist when Cambodians cast their vote in three months.
The National Assembly recently accepted amendments to the country’s Law on Political Parties, which will allow the government to dissolve political parties for vague and arbitrary reasons. One amendment already led to the resignation of Sam Rainsy as CNRP president on February 11. The CNRP is currently in retreat and is waiting for the next onslaught before deciding how, and if, it can regain its strength.
When Sam Rainsy decided not to return to Cambodia in late 2015 (instead heading once again for self-imposed exile in France) there were some quarters of society that wanted to consider him a “coward,” a slander the ruling CPP made much use of. At the time I defended Sam Rainsy against this term (and still do) for I believe it cheapens the word. Nevertheless, it is true that his decision lacked all courage.
Mr. Antolini, in Catcher In The Rye, makes the contention that the immature man wants to die nobly for a cause whereas the mature man wants to live humbly for one. But we ought not to be so binary. Somewhere between these contradistinctions one might find real courage: the person who has exhibits a connection between what they believe and what they say; what they advocate for others and how they behave themselves.
Of Sam Rainsy’s decision to not to return home the commentator Cham Bunthet was rather apt when he said:
Remember that if you lead people with [your] head, people will use their heads to follow you. If you lead people with your heart, people will use their hearts to follow you. If you lead people with your life, people will use their lives to follow you. If you keep running when you face injustices, people will also run when they face injustices.
When Kung Raiya spoke to the media on February 23, shortly after being released from jail, where he had spent the last 18 months for simply posting a message on Facebook calling for a peaceful “color revolution,” it was clear that the Cambodian government had failed, and it was clear that Cambodians can be proud of their defiant youths.
“First, I would like to thank the government who put me in jail,” he said, “because this experience in prison has made me strong.”
Musing on his imprisonment, the 26-year-old political science student said the government did it “in order to break the spirit of youths who dare to protest or express their opinion… But you failed, because Khmer youth are very brave.”
Kung Raiya also spoke about Kem Ley, a political commentator who was shot dead in a Phnom Penh gas station in July, a murder that many believe was a political assassination. Kung Raiya said the commentator was his hero, and he had hoped to study under him after being released from jail. “If [the government] want[s] to arrest me, that’s fine. If they want to kill me, that’s fine. I will talk — I will show up — for my country,” Kung Raiya was quoted as saying.
However, those with the task of talking for their country are often the ones closest to the terror and panic. In recent months, the government has set its sights on a number of political commentators. Sophal Ear was admonished by Prime Minister Hun Sen in December; Ou Virak has a defamation charge hanging over him; and Meas Ny was warned in a speech by the prime minister this month “not to go too far”.
Another analyst harangued by the government is Kim Sok, who was sued for defamation by Hun Sen after the commentator allegedly said the ruling CPP was responsible for Kem Ley’s death. The prime minister demanded $500,000 compensation, the damage in monetary terms he believes he has suffered because of the accusation (strange considering he told reporters in 2011 that he survives solely on his salary of $1,150 per month).
When Kim Sok arrived at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court last month for his trial, a crowd of more than 300 supporters accompanied him. “I’m not afraid so you all should not be afraid!” he told them. He had said in an earlier interview that, while knowing he would not face a fair hearing, he turned up to court, instead of fleeing the country, because he wanted to show “the people courage and resistance in society.” He was jailed, with a sentencing trial expected to take place soon. It is certain to be lengthy, since Kim Sok’s swift punishment is intended pour encourager les autres.
Kim Sok, however, split opinion. The fact that he previously worked as an adviser to the Information Ministry for five years (though, he said, he never formally joined the CPP) led to the rumor that he was a government spy. This appears illogical. But there is a certain underlying doubt over his actions. Consider a recent article published in the Cambodia Daily (February 20):
Why did the analyst, who once chided others for insulting the prime minister, suddenly go on the offensive over the past several months? Why did he abruptly quit the foundation for analysts he helped start, soon after the murder of social scientist Kem Ley? And why did he seem to be having such a good time, grinning through interviews last week in the face of a $500,000 lawsuit filed by the prime minister for blaming the ruling party for murdering Kem Ley?
Other commentators were quoted in the same piece as saying that Kim Sok was “reckless” and “very extreme.” “What Kim Sok did, for me, I think it was a little too aggressive, too rude toward the government,” Cham Bunthet told local media. “It’s good to show courage, but courage needs to be balanced with wisdom.”
Fair enough: Cham Bunthet’s approach is different to Kim Sok’s. But his corollary comment warrants admonishment. “The government, as the parents of the children, should educate children,” Cham Bunthet said. “They should give them ways to elaborate, to change their words, their behavior.” It seems the government is succeeding when analysts parrot such infantilism.
Perhaps, instead, Kim Sok is one of the few commentators who decided not to self-censor. As he said himself: “This is my strategy: to say everything.” Indeed, I have spoken to a number of political commentators in recent months who say they are fearful of defamation charges for mere utterances and, as a result, have felt the need to self-censor (I am not excluding myself in this statement). One described the death of Kem Ley as having a “chilling” effect on the country’s chattering class. Others have said they now prefer to speak via email in case they become a little too verbose over the phone.
I recently asked Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, Los Angeles, whether he thought “there is enough solidarity among political commentators and members of civil-society, considering a number of people have come out to criticize Kim Sok, or are people looking out for themselves first?”
He replied that a lack of solidarity was “completely understandable… Self-preservation is normal. Under the Khmer Rouge, brother turned brother in; sister turned sister in.” Comparisons to the Khmer Rouge days, while convenient, are rarely helpful in this day and age. Nevertheless, fear is permeating throughout Cambodian society (and one can reasonably presume that so too the is self-preservation motive).
With analysts and commentators often an exception, there has always been an uneasy crossover between rights activists, trade unionists, and NGO workers with the CNRP. The Sam Rainsy Party (which formed the CNRP with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party in 2012) played a vital role in the growth of Cambodia’s labor movement in the 1990s, for example.
Today, with the CNRP on the back foot, fearful of its own future, its ability to defend civil-society members has been greatly diminished. Take, as an example, the so-called “Kem Sokha Five,” four human rights workers from ADHOC, and the National Election Committee’s deputy secretary-general, Ny Chakrya, who have been in prison for months, accused of paying the woman involved in Kem Sokha’s “prostitution” case (again widely believed to be politically motivated).
Hun Sen’s decision to grant Kem Sokha a royal pardon in December but not the five imprisoned civil society members no doubt sowed some doubt into the minds of those who might have felt some security before because of the CNRP’s backing.
As Cambodia experiences what analysts have called the greatest threat to democracy in a generation, and as the government ratchets up its intimidation of free-thinkers and activists, critics are being forced to ask themselves whether it’s worth the risk (financially or potentially worse) of saying exactly what they think. And as we head closer to next year’s general election, that decision is not going to become any easier and the violence is certain become much worse.