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Strategic arrests in Cambodia

By Verghese Mathews - posted Tuesday, 14 February 2006

The Cambodian Government which had acquitted itself fairly well in 2005 has come under severe criticism in the new year for the arrests on defamation charges of several activists. The Government has been condemned for undermining free expression, for returning to enhanced authoritarianism, for the blatant misuse of the courts to stifle criticism and for going down the “Myanmar way”.

The arrests, widely critcised as unwarranted, presented an unexpected “silver platter” opportunity for opposition groups to fan unhappiness against the Government and against Prime Minister Hun Sen, who again hit the headlines last week for calling "some" of his critics "animals" for their misplaced defence of wrong-doers instead of the victims.

The irony is that there is certainly much more free expression in Cambodia than in many other countries. In fact, it has become part of the evolving Cambodian political culture to roundly, and often unfairly, criticise both the Government and the opposition in the partisan media. The question that arises is why the Government which had hitherto tolerated criticisms should now, as several critics point out, over-react?


There are probably several reasons, but two are critical contributory factors: reaction to the signing of a Supplementary Border Agreement with Vietnam last October; and the perceived direct involvement of foreign influenced non government organisations (NGOs) in Cambodia's domestic politics. Some background is useful.

The earlier border agreements concluded between the two countries during the decade when Vietnam was occupying Cambodia, remain highly controversial and emotive as a significant number of Cambodians believe the agreement weighed overly in favour of the occupying force. Former King Norodom Sihanouk, for example, never recognised these treaties and had even openly accused Vietnam of encroaching into Cambodian territory.

Worse, some detractors see the latest signing as a highly creative back-door attempt by the two governments to legitimise the earlier unacceptable “occupation” agreements.

Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) was aware of the major risk it was taking with the signing of the agreement as anti-Vietnamese feelings are easily aroused in Phnom Penh. Moreover, the Government recognised that opposition groups had the capacity to rally crowds in the streets. Hun Sen obviously opted for a decisive tough stance to ensure there wasn't a groundswell against either him or the Government - especially on the basis of the highly inflammatory allegation that the CPP had sold Cambodian territory to the Vietnamese. Hun Sen forewarned, in his inimitable no-nonsense style, that he would immediately sue for defamation if anyone so much as dared make such an allegation.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith explained that the CPP "would be committing political suicide" if it allowed such incendiary charges to circulate. An Amnesty International commentator aptly added that there was "perhaps no more sensitive charge for a Cambodian leader than to be 'soft on Vietnam'. This has the potential to unite not only the opposition, but to create dissent in his own ranks. That's why he (Hun Sen) is overreacting now."

This brings us to the second reason for the over-reaction. In the last few years the Government had been monitoring with increasing concern the activities of certain civil society groups, in particular the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI) and the strident calls of some of its supporters for “regime change” in Cambodia.


Sources in Phnom Penh have confided that the IRI which initially focused on strengthening democratic institutions had increasingly taken on the role of establishing organisations or enhancing existing structures which were critical of the Government. Such direct involvement, including generous funding and technical advice, with groups critical of the Government was understandably not looked upon with official favour.

An example is “The Voice of Radio 93.5FM” which began in 2003 as a provincial station with nothing more to boast about than cannibalised parts of karaoke equipment. It has now expanded beyond its owner's wildest dreams, thanks to more than US$100,000 in US aid and IRI grants. According to IRI resident program director Alex Sutton, the station "now has the infrastructure to become a leader in the country's independent media". More importantly, it has begun to carry the "Voice of Democracy", the human rights program produced by another IRI sponsored organisation, The Cambodian Center for Human Rights. The touchy point here is that the Center had been denied its own frequency to air this program by the Ministry of Information. The IRI outwitted the government here.

Given the potent combination of the perceived external support and the domestic unhappiness over the signing of the treaty and the earlier calls for regime change, the security agencies quickly recognised the capacity for detractors to rabble rouse significant numbers in the country. The Government quickly went for pre-emptive strikes and detained the four influential activists.

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About the Author

Verghese Mathews, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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