The Tyranny of Compelled Speech in Cambodia

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The Tyranny of Compelled Speech in Cambodia

Censorship and self-censorship are less repressive than being forced to express and affirm a regime’s lies.

The Tyranny of Compelled Speech in Cambodia
Credit: Flickr/Ryan Milani

On the street on which I lived in Phnom Penh was a small grocery store that would diligently hang the banners and posters of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The owner of the store was not a supporter of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party; he would vote for any opposition group that could reasonably stake a claim for turning out the CPP, he confided in me. Nonetheless, he would put up banners and collect his few dollars to parade around the capital come the ruling party’s pre-election motorcycle parades. “It’s the easiest thing to do,” the owner told me. Not doing so, he feared, could elicit a visit by the local CPP officials or more inspections from the authorities.

That conversation returned to my mind as I was recently re-reading Vaclav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless,” the Czechoslovak dissident’s thesis, written under a communist regime. It echoes Havel’s story of the greengrocer who hangs in his store the sign “Workers of the world, unite!” The greengrocer doesn’t believe in the communist slogans, but failure to display the sign could be seen as disloyalty. By displaying it, he might not show his enthusiasm for the regime, yet it becomes a marker of his humiliation by the authorities, his acceptance of having to live under the lie, Havel reasons. Those living under authoritarian regimes “must live within a lie,” Havel wrote. “They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”

The actual tyranny of the authoritarian state, as Havel and others, most importantly George Orwell, realized, was not self-censorship or overt censorship. Instead, it is the voluntary act of engagement with the regime’s lies, the compulsion, under mostly an implied threat, to conform to the system — indeed, to repeat a lie one knows isn’t true. Of course, compared with the 20th-century authoritarian regimes, the compulsion of assent is not as strong in most 21st-century regimes. Few people in communist Vietnam today are made to endlessly express loyalty to Nguyen Phu Trong in the same manner that Soviet subjects were made to do so for Joseph Stalin. Indeed, one important difference between the 20th- and 21st-century autocrats is that today’s rulers want to discourage ordinary people from thinking endlessly about politics; their “social contract” is that if ordinary people leave politics to the autocrats, the autocrats will leave them alone.

But the compulsion of assent remains. And it may be a minor example, but for months Hun Sen has been signaling he’s ready to close down the Candlelight Party (CP), now the country’s largest opposition party, which won around 22 percent of the popular vote at local elections earlier this year. The CPP and the National Election Committee have already sued the party’s vice president, Son Chhay, for defamation, for which he is now expected to pay nearly $750,000 in damages. The threat of dissolution is one felt by any opposition party, and as a precedent, they look to the forced dissolution five years ago of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), by far the largest opposition movement the country has ever known.

But Hun Sen now demands that the Candlelight Party expresses the unverifiable and accepts his system. Hun Sen says that the party, which before its reformation last year was known as the Sam Rainsy Party, named after the now-exiled opposition leader, who Hun Sen now claims to be a “traitor,” will be banned if association with Rainsy is proven.

“If we get any evidence that shows the CP has ties with Sam Rainsy, this party will be dissolved by the court. So, I want to tell the members and supporters of the CP to leave it and join other parties,” he reportedly said on October 26. What’s more, Hun Sen is not only demanding the Candlelight Party members deny any association with Sam Rainsy, he is imploring them to castigate the exiled figure in the most public and demeaning of ways. This escalated over the weekend after Rainsy made some comments that were seen as disparaging the King.

Hun Sen-ism is the ventriloquism of elitism for populism and gives ear to how Hun Sen makes himself the spokesperson for the nation. He stated this week: “Is Sam Rainsy right or wrong? I want the Candlelight Party to clarify its stand on Sam Rainsy’s statement claiming the King has no conscience. The party’s leaders need to clarify before our compatriots.” Unless I am mistaken, there has been no groundswell of public outrage over Rainsy’s remarks, nor demands from ordinary Cambodians that the Candlelight Party must state its position. Instead, Hun Sen claims to speak on behalf of his “compatriots” to demand an answer that he alone will deem satisfactory or not. (The CPP thought it proper to inform the public that Hun Sen “has spoken highly” of the party’s response.)

Hun Sen specifically called on the party’s vice presidents, Thach Setha and Son Chhay, to issue a statement. “We do not support illegal activities and we do not support insulting the king, because the monarchy is the one which has ruled the country since the beginning of Khmer territory and is the protector of the country from foreign aggression,” Thach Setha replied. The party itself issued a statement, which “reaffirmed its respect to the supreme role of His Majesty the King as stipulated in the constitution and its stance against anyone who intentionally insults or abuses the king and the constitutional monarchy, which is protected by the constitution.”

On the one hand, Hun Sen is demanding that the Candlelight Party formally distances itself from Sam Rainsy – a subjective demand, since irrefutable past connections would likely be used by a CPP-dominated court to claim present-day association. It is also unverifiable since Hun Sen could claim that an association exists, and the party would have no way of proving a negative.

Hun Sen’s demand is also contradictory. If the Candlelight Party says it has no connection to Sam Rainsy, why must it offer an opinion on his utterances? (He doesn’t speak on behalf of the party unless there is an association!) But why must it state its opinions on the monarchy at all? And, indeed, why must it direct this statement to, and have it be judged by, Hun Sen, who lest we forget was the prime minister under the People’s Republic of Kampuchea and the State of Cambodia, as the country was known between 1979 and 1993, the longest period in Cambodian history when a monarch was not head of state? And whose own politics was a reason why Norodom Sihanouk, the previous king, abdicated the throne, and who was frequently outspoken about Sihanouk while he reigned (remember the Ruom Ritt saga, anyone?).

This may be a rather minor example, but it is indicative. The Candlelight Party need not believe the claim that Rainsy is a “traitor” just because Hun Sen instructs them to think this, or that Hun Sen is the sole defender of monarchy and nationhood – or, indeed, that it should be Hun Sen’s right to proclaim which political party is legal or illegal. Perhaps the party should have refused to make a statement, proclaiming that it doesn’t have to clarify its position on any matter just because Hun Sen says it should. Or, indeed, it could have said that it has no association with Rainsy without launching into the sort of tirade that Kong Korm, a party senior adviser, directed at the exiled figure. Or, moreover, it could have pointed out that Hun Sen doesn’t speak on behalf of all Cambodians and, indeed, that he has yet again shown how corrupt the political system is when he confirms that the courts follow his lead. Recall Hun Sen’s comment: “If we get any evidence that shows the CP has ties with Sam Rainsy, this party will be dissolved by the court.” (So much for the judicial independence his party proclaims.)

Yet, Hun Sen already has the Candlelight Party acting as though it will be dissolved tomorrow, rather than acting “as if,” to employ a Havelian phrase, Cambodia was a multi-party, democratic state – and we have nine months left until the next general election!