Reality off the rails in Phnom Penh
By Sam Campbell
PHNOM PENH - Science fiction author Philip K Dick once explained reality as
"that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away". As sensible as
this may sound, it is a definition unlikely to take hold in Cambodia, where
recent events have shown the government's tendency to obstinately dismiss
anything but the most convenient information.
The denials have come from the highest ranks of government to the lowest rungs
of social entertainment and conscripted the judicial system to fend off
criticism. Experts and economists say the government backlash risks driving
away the vital foreign investment and international aid the country now
desperately needs to keep the economy afloat.
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have both predicted a 0.5%
contraction in Cambodia's 2009 gross domestic
product (GDP), while the independent Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)
estimated an even sharper 3% drop. The government sees things differently and
announced last month a beaming 6% GDP growth projection, down only slightly
from its 7% projection in April.
That optimistic spin, economists and experts say, is totally out of whack with
Cambodia's on-the-ground economic realities, as well as regional and global
trends. The crucial garment industry, usually the country's main export engine,
saw exports plummet 25% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2009. The foreign
revenue-generating tourism sector is equally troubled, with air arrivals in the
first four months of 2009 down 16% over the same period last year.
The kingdom's rapid economic growth - GDP increases were measured in double
digits for several years - seems to have made officials reluctant to concede
that the downturn is having serious effects in Cambodia.
Indeed, Prime Minister Hun Sen's economic lieutenants have been slow to
acknowledge the impact of the global crisis on Cambodia's until recently rising
fortunes, opting instead to discredit or clamp down on critical news and
Minister of Economy and Finance Keat Chhon said in early June that a US$6.6
million training program and a $1 million micro-loans program would be adequate
to mitigate the 60,000 garment factory workers who recently lost their jobs - a
claim greeted with skepticism from economic analysts. Keat Chhon did not
respond to an Asia Times Online request for an interview about the programs.
Hun Sen has responded to downcast projections with a characteristic sharp
tongue. When the EIU this year rated Cambodia among global countries at high
risk of political instability due to the economic crisis, the strongman leader
questioned the report's "political orientation" and said the experts that
compiled it wore "glasses with prescriptions too strong for their eyes".
In an April 6 speech, the premier went further, claiming that the report was "a
political attempt to stop the flow of investments". Meanwhile, Cambodia's
ambassador to the United Kingdom, Hor Nambora, dismissed the report as based on
"sketchy and unconvincing" evidence. In a letter to the EIU, he called the
report "perverse" and "insulting".
"Your scare-mongering allegations are highly dangerous, as they could be
construed as actively inciting unrest," wrote Hor Nambora, son of Cambodia's
veteran Foreign Minister Hor Namhong. "They also happen to be a gross
distortion and misrepresentation of Cambodia's true position, and there can be
no justification for these claims."
He also upbraided the EIU for having "arrogantly dismissed" Hun Sen's vow that
Cambodia would maintain its economic growth this year: "You seem to have
ignored this reassurance from the highest possible level, preferring to rely on
your own evidence."
The government's protestations peaked in early June following a May 30 concert
organized by rights organizations to bring attention to the thorny issue of
At the so-called "Clean Hands Concert", newly appointed United States
ambassador Carol Rodley called corruption one of the main obstacles to
socio-economic development in the country, claiming the scourge "costs Cambodia
up to $500 million per year in terms of forgone state revenue that could
otherwise be spent on public services in education and health care and jobs for
She claimed that the sum was "equivalent to the cost of constructing 20,000
six-room school buildings or the ability to pay every civil servant in Cambodia
an additional US$260 per month". Her arithmetic, however, was not well received
by the government.
"The Royal Government of Cambodia absolutely refutes the politically motivated
and unsubstantiated allegation made by the United States diplomat in
contradiction of the good relations between Cambodia and the United States
Government," read a stern letter the Cambodian Foreign Ministry sent to the US
Cambodia's UK ambassador Hor Nambora again entered the fray, saying Rodley
seemed to have allied herself "with the discredited views of the international
pressure group Global Witness which continually engages in virulent and
malicious campaigns against the Royal Government of Cambodia". Global Witness
has long been an irritating antagonist to Hun Sen's administration, once
labeling its leaders as a "kleptocratic elite".
Pointing to a conspiracy to undermine the government is becoming a common theme
when responding to critics of the government. The eventual aims of this unnamed
group of conspirators - which encompasses such diverse organizations as
environmental watchdogs like Global Witness, economic think-tanks such as the
EIU and human-rights groups - is unclear.
One conspiracy theory was put forth publicly by Chy Koy, a performer with the
popular Koy comedy troupe. Although Koy had performed at the Clean Hands
anti-graft concert, he appeared on June 6 on a Cambodian People's Party-owned
television station to ridicule anti-corruption NGOs (non-governmental
organizations) as money hungry fabricators of non-existent corruption.
"Some NGOs accuse the government of being corrupt without thinking about its
achievements," he explained to the local press after the parody. "You can say
that the government is corrupt if nothing had developed in our country, but the
government is working and everything is developing." Although Cambodia is
officially one of the world's least-developed countries, the comedian claimed:
"Now we have everything. Some families have two SUVs, some have three."
The Koy performance was followed - again on CPP-controlled TV - on June 13 by
the Krem comedy troupe, which portrayed NGOs and journalists as conspiring to
stage fake forced evictions - another bete noir of the Cambodian
government. The well-documented and sometimes violent evictions of impoverished
communities, according to Krem's sketch, are merely an invented tool to enable
greedy foreigners to indulge their appetites for luxury hotels and local women.
With official denials and social satire fending off criticism on one front,
another battle was playing out in a very different sphere: home decoration.
In what many viewed as one of the most peculiar assaults on free speech so far
this year, Soung Sophorn, a 22-year-old law student, was fined $1,250 after
being convicted of defamation. Oddly, the medium for the defamation was
graffiti, and the slogans "Against dictatorial policy", "People suffer because
the government bows down to the company", and "Stop Evictions" in English, had
been sprayed on June 1 on the side of Soung Sophorn's own home.
Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth told local media that Soung
Sophorn, a member of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and a vocal critic
of evictions, was convicted because, "He can insult any individual or company
but not the government." Prior to the three-day arrest and conviction process,
Soung Sophorn had been summoned to the headquarters of local developer Shukaku
Inc, the company responsible for the looming eviction of Soung Sophorn's
community, for his opinionated house painting.
Private developer Shukaku's 99-year, $79 million lease to develop 133 hectares
of state land where 4,000 mainly poor families live, including the area
adjacent to the Boeung Kak backpacker ghetto, has provoked a steady stream of
censure from foreign diplomats and rights organizations. According to local
reports, the company and its owner, CPP Senator Lao Meng Kim, have steadfastly
refused to engage with civil society or the media.
Meanwhile, an ongoing dispute between opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP)
parliamentarian Mu Sochua and Hun Sen typifies a flurry of tit-for-tat lawsuits
that also represents a clear threat to democratic debate. For years, the CPP
has used out-dated defamation laws to muzzle critics, among then union leaders,
journalists and opposition leaders.
According a lawsuit filed by Mu Sochua on April 27, the premier allegedly made
defamatory comments in an April 4 speech; the only compensation sought was an
apology. The lawsuit claims that Hun Sen defamed Mu Sochua by referring to a
female parliamentarian from Kampot province who embraced a general and then
later complained that the buttons of her shirt had come undone. Mu Sochua, the
only female MP from Kampot province, had complained of voter irregularities and
physical intimidation from CPP officials during the run-up to the 2008 national
assembly elections .
Mu Sochua's case was dismissed on June 10, but the premier struck back with a
counter defamation case against Mu Sochua that is ongoing. Kong Sam Onn, the
lawyer representing Mu Sochua, is also being sued for having held a press
conference where he had allegedly defamed the prime minister by claiming that
the prime minister had defamed his client. The Cambodian Bar Association has
begun an investigation into this alleged ethical misconduct of speaking
publicly about a case.
The National Assembly voted on June 22 to lift Mu Sochua's parliamentary
immunity, leaving her open to criminal prosecution. Hun Sen noted on June 17
that the two-thirds parliamentary majority required to strip immunity would
also be needed to reinstate it. He also used the opportunity to threaten
further lawsuits against interfering NGOs.
Even nationalists cannot safely criticize, as Moeung Sonn, a local tour
operator and president of the Khmer Civilization Foundation, found out. Moeung
Sonn was slapped with a $2,400 lawsuit by the government after he claimed at a
press conference that the installation of new lights at Angkor Wat might have
damaged the legendary temple. Moeung Sonn, a vocal supporter of the government
on cultural and territorial issues, and a significant donor to Cambodian
soldiers stationed around disputed zones near Preah Vihear, has fled to France
to avoid arrest.
While later information suggests that the light installation has done no damage
to the ancient structure, draconian reactions to well-meaning comments suggest
that dissenting voices will no longer be allowed.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, SRP parliamentarian Ho Vann (also stripped of his
parliamentary immunity) and Hang Chakra, editor-in-chief of Khmer Machas Srok
newspaper, are also facing defamation suits.
Cambodia doth protest too much
The increasing trend toward intolerance has not gone unnoticed. A June 15
statement from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in
Cambodia cautioned, "Pursuing the current complaints may reverse the course of
the still fragile democratic development process in Cambodia."
"This recent surge in the use of criminal defamation and disinformation
lawsuits filed mostly against politicians, journalists and other persons
expressing their views in a peaceful manner on matters of public interest
threatens to inhibit what should be a free debate and exchange of ideas and
views on these matters," the UNOHCHR wrote.
The group also warned that stifling freedom of expression through such means
"is a serious threat to democratic development which may undermine the efforts
of the past 16 years to rebuild a tolerant and pluralistic environment in
Cambodia". The same day, US rights advocacy Human Rights Watch appealed for the
CPP to halt "threats, harassment and spurious legal action against members of
parliament and lawyers defending free expression".
The crackdown on political opposition is all the more perplexing, given that
the CPP, with 90 of 123 seats, is in firm control of the National Assembly. A
showing of 58% in the generally free and fair 2008 parliamentary elections, the
biggest margin ever for a National Assembly election, shows widespread support
for the CPP.
Some analysts believe that by persecuting a mostly fractured and generally
powerless opposition, the government risks making martyrs of otherwise
unremarkable politicians. Perhaps more significantly, Hun Sen risks further
alienating the Western donor nations and the foreign business community that in
recent years have contributed largely to Cambodia’s economic progress.
The US, a major donor and significant provider of aid and technical assistance,
not to mention one of the kingdom's biggest export markets, has been critical
of the recent turn of events.
"It appears that the courts are being used to silence critics of the
government," US Embassy spokesman John Johnson told Asia Times Online. "Free
speech and freedom of the press are fundamental rights in democracies
throughout the world, and public figures and politicians should be prepared to
receive both praise and criticism from the people they govern as part of the
It's a democratic reality Hun Sen's government seems reluctant to face.
Sam Campbell is a reporter and editor based in Cambodia.