Democracy fail in Cambodia – Part 1, Crushing dissent

 While the world looks elsewhere, an increasingly authoritarian government discreetly crushes dissent and tightens its hold. Hun Sen oye? (This essay was first posted on my personal blog last week.)

It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it what it feels like to see freedom of expression slowly degrade in front of you. Taken individually, each slight against the political opposition, each rebuff of the concerns of activists, each veiled threat made to a journalist is just that. You brush it off and keep doing your work. Then one day, you’re having lunch at a popular Phnom Penh restaurant, commenting on the news of the day and the latest offense of the Cambodian government against the rights of its people, and you get shushed. “You can’t say that in public,” my friend said. That’s when you know something’s gone awfully wrong.

Mind you, Cambodia’s not the kind of country where secret police watches over you as you eat your fried rice. But with systematic defamation suits, forceful intimidation of anyone trying to assert their rights against the powerful and an ingenious political strategy of constantly ridiculing the opposition, the Cambodian government is letting it be known, subtly but efficiently, that dissent will not be tolerated.

The number one tool of crushing opposition without a bloody massacre in a stadium that would attract unwanted attention is the defamation lawsuit. Anyone saying anything that might be construed as remotely negative about the government and its associates runs the risk of a lawsuit. And because courts are notoriously bought out to the powerful (they are the least trusted institution in a country ripe with corrupt institutions), being sued means being found guilty.

My former editor-in-chief and a former colleague were fined $1,000 each last month for defamation. Their crime? Quoting an opposition politician in a story as doubting the academic value of a Vietnamese university degree bequeathed en masse to 22 high-ranking officers of the Cambodian army. The opposition politician only escaped his own lawsuit after putting the blame on the journalists and accusing them of misquoting him. (Maybe I’m biased because I know the guys, but I don’t buy that one second. Note: my colleagues have since decided to appeal the decision.) This is what now constitutes defamation in Cambodia: expressing doubt about something the government is saying. Before that, it was opposition politician Mu Sochua, who sued Prime Minister Hun Sen for a circumstance that met all the legal standards of defamation and was sued back in turn by the PM for daring to sue him. Guess who won that one…

Earlier this month, the National Assembly passed new statutes that both criminalize defamation, insult, exaggeration of information, discrimination and invasion of privacy, and fail to clearly define any of those terms.

The new code defines public defamation as, “all exaggerated declarations, or those that intentionally put the blame for any actions, which affect the dignity or reputation of a person or an institution.”

The code also includes the criminal offense of public insult, which covers, “Any insulting expression, any scorning term or any other verbal abuses.” (from The Cambodia Daily as quoted in Details are Sketchy.)

No definition of what insult or defamation might be. No actual malice test. No higher standard for public officials. Worse yet — no truth as a defense.

The rest of the new penal code currently in discussion is in the same vein. (Articles related to freedom of expression are available here, as is a commentary by FOI advocate Article 19 right here. In all fairness, DAS notes that journalists are shielded from the law, but Article 19 says potential punishments include being banned from practicing journalism. Will settle that score when I’m more awake.)

Since the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has a more-than-two-thirds majority, discussion of this and other texts in Parliament is a mere formality. The assembly now only serves to rubberstamp the prime minister’s decisions. The opposition is fairly weak and the CPP likes it that way. Of course, it’s expected they’d disagree on many matters. But more than that, the government is content with having no opposition at all. There is no value given to the balancing role of opponents, to a political debate where two sides are weighed and considered. Opponents only exist to be systematically ridiculed in the prime minister’s speech, and their suggestions are shot down on principle.

Of course, this prime treatment is not just for journalists and opposition politicians. People who take a leading role in defending their communities, from land grabs for instance (the hot issue of the day), face harassment and arrests. And more than one NGO worker has declined my interview requests in the past because they felt they could only do their work if they did it quietly.

It’s getting to the point that people outside the country are actually starting to notice.

“The rule of law is weak in the country. The judiciary is not as independent as it should be. Some of the core political rights such as the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly have been undermined…”

… said Surya Subedi, t
he UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, in his first report to the Human Rights Council earlier this month. Run that through the filter of UN talk and that’s pretty much what I’ve been saying.

As his predecessor Yash Ghai put it,

“One does not need expertise in human rights to recognize that many policies of the government have subverted the essential principles of democracy and due process…”

(That phrase was included in a US House resolution condemning the corruption of the Cambodian government.)

Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, Brad Adams:

"The Cambodian government is imposing its most serious crackdown on freedom of expression in recent years. Once again, Hun Sen is showing his true stripes by harassing and threatening to imprison peaceful critics of his increasingly authoritarian government."

Or as the Council of Ministers spokesman and state secretary Phay Siphan often put it to me, (loose recollection of his exact words),

“Yes, you may criticize the government, but you may not insult it.”

Problem is, saying the government isn’t doing its job is considered an insult. Saying they’re corrupt is an insult. The truth is an insult.


Part 2 – With one hand they keep down the opposition, with the other, they lure the masses: how political discourse and media structure work to maintain the status quo. (Coming soon, when I’ve got another night to spend writing…)


Note from the author: From May 2008 until last month, I lived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and worked as a journalist there. Amid the joys of discovering jasmine-scented temples and fermented fish sauce that smelled of something else, I also became familiar, by the very nature of my job, with Cambodian politics.

Others know more about Cambodia than I. Cambodian (and longer-term expat) journalists and activists likely have a deeper analysis. Unfortunately, they’re there and few dare express such analysis out loud. (For great, out-loud stuff, you need to read the Details Are Sketchy blog, which of course is anonymous.) Eighteen months don’t make me an expert, but they do give me more insight than most everyone outside the country, who never see Cambodia on their news.

If things are so dire, you might say, why didn’t I write this sooner? Rightfully or not, I’ll never know, I thought that writing this might have compromised my position as a reporter and later a documentary producer in Cambodia. Pressures on those exercising their right to free speech are not uncommon, and my own production was threatened in unequivocal terms. I considered the work I was doing there more important — and ultimately more resounding — than the release I might get from writing down my deep thoughts on this blog. But now I’ve left those jobs, I’ve left the country and I’m free to write.