A Cambodian Spring Tsunami
Most of the major media recently missed a chance to give democracy a boost, choosing instead to ignore events in Cambodia of major significance. Millions of Cambodians overcame the horrors of the Khmer Rouge genocide and their fear of the repressive Hun Sen regime, Khmer Rouge holdovers, and turned out in en masse to vote for a coalition of democratic opposition parties known as the CNRP (Cambodian National Rescue Party) in last July’s elections.
Unfortunately, the government-appointed National Election Commission gave Hun Sen’s ruling party, the CPP (the communist Cambodian Peoples Party) 68 parliamentary seats (still a loss of 22) and the CNRP only 55. The CNRP claims that a free and fair election would have given it 63 parliamentary seats, leaving just 60 for the CPP. Even so, the CNRP did quite well in spite of being denied access to TV, radio and most print media.
Adhering to Mao Zedong’s principle that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” Hun Sen and his Nouveau Khmer Rouge cohorts have “won” a series of elections by controlling the ballot boxes and the National Election Committee. The late Congressman Steven Solarz, an observer of the July 1998 elections, told the author his satirical remark that those elections were a ‘Miracle on the Mekong’ was taken out of context by the media, which then blessed the elections as being legitimate – far from it! The international community rolled over and legitimized Hun Sen’s regime and the US followed suite. All parties conveniently forgot or forgave Hun Sen’s1997 coup d'état in which his forces brutally tortured and murdered more than 100 high-ranking members of the democratically elected Royalist FUNCINPEC party in a fashion reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. "Plus ça change, plus c' est la même chose." (The more things change, the more they remain the same.)
The CNRP called for an investigation into alleged fraud in last July’s elections, demanded a new election, and began a series of demonstrations against Hun Sen and the CPP. The democratic coalition also vowed to boycott the parliament pending a resolution of the fraud investigation, thus setting up a tense political standoff. Nearly eight months later, neither the CPP nor the CNRP has mustered sufficient leverage to end the stalemate.
Besides election fraud, the Cambodian people also began protesting the kleptocratic Hun Sen regime for its corruption, land grabs, repression, human rights abuses, muzzling of the media, and near slave-labor in the garment industry. The protesters demanded greater government transparency, improvements in the rule of law, more accountability, a halt to government-sponsored killings, and the prosecution of those responsible. According to a recently released International Labor Organization (ILO) report, 10 percent of Cambodia’s annual GDP [gross domestic product] is lost to corruption
The rising swell of pro-democracy protests started in July. In mid-December, the CNRP launched its third and most impressive protest to date by staging a permanent occupation of Freedom Park in Phnom Penh. After a week of street rallies, CMRP called for a large protest march in which an estimated million people, young and old, converged on Phnom Penh and took over the streets in the largest such demonstration in the country's history.
Just before Christmas, approximately 350,000 out of an estimated 600,000 impoverished garment factory workers who toil at near slave-labor wages in unsanitary and unhealthy working conditions went on strike for higher wages and better working conditions. They produce garments at some 500 factories for US companies like Nike, Levi Strauss, Puma, H&M, Gap, Gap, Old Navy, American Eagle and Walmart, generating more than US$5 billion a year in exports, primarily to the US -- about 35 percent of Cambodia’s GDP. The workers are demanding that the $80-per-month minimum wage be doubled to $160 (garment workers in Thailand receive an average of $243 a month). The present wage is barely enough to survive on, let alone support a family. However, the Hun Sen regime offered a raise of only $20 and refuses to compromise further. This propelled the garment workers into the waiting arms of the CNRP, further heating up the ongoing political mêlée.
Hun Sen first banned all demonstrations and even small gatherings, then he “let the dogs out” and used his 80 new tanks and APCs – a gift from China – to block the streets in Phnom Penh and roads in and out of the city. Next, he mobilized the notoriously brutal Brigade 911, an elite National Counterterrorism Committee’s (NCTC) Special Forces unit commanded by Hun Sen’s son, Lieutenant General Hun Manet, a West Point graduate (Latian America Déjà vu). On December 27, Brigade 911 and other units of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces were set loose against the protestors, dismantling Freedom Park, destroying a Buddhist shrine, and brutalizing demonstrators, reporters and innocent bystanders. These attacks were supported by official threats to and restrictions on the independent media.
In his infamous “cockroach” speech in 2011, given in response to the suggestion by a Cambodian critic that he should worry about the overthrow of a dictator in Tunisia, Hun Sen had stated, “I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead... and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage” (Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch, NYT commentary 05/31/2012).
According to reports, an “elite paratrooper unit showed up armed with batons and steel pipes and with brutal force beat a dozen monks and scores of demonstrators in front of a factory run by Yakjin, a joint Korean and American corporation” in the Canadia Industrial Zone. The troops then opened fire on the protestors with automatic weapons, killing five and wounding scores of others, detaining at least 23. More than 100 people are still missing. One is a 16-year-old boy who eyewitnesses say was shot and seriously wounded, then carried away by military police in their vehicle. He father fears that “he may have been thrown to the crocodiles.”
South Korea is Cambodia’s largest investor in the clothing industry and owns the majority of the 500 garment factories. There are six Korean companies in the Canadia Industrial Park, including the US/Korean-owned Yakjin factory.
Days before the attacks, the Carlyle Group had announced in a press release that it had acquired a 100% stake in Yakjin Trading Corp. and set up Yakjin Holdings Inc. Tim Shorrok of The Nation wrote that Carlyle has an array of dignitaries on their board and on their payroll, including ex-Presidents and former high-ranking officials such as George H.W. Bush, James Baker III and Frank Carlucci. Carlyle is strategically located on Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington.
After the attacks, rumors spread around Phnom Penh that they had been encouraged by the South Korean government. A video showed that an individual accompanying the troops wore a South Korean flag emblem on his army fatigues, and the image was posted on Facebook. It is well known that (supposedly retired) Korean military officers act as advisors to units of Hun Sen’s elite troops. Geoffrey Cain wrote in the Global Post on January 9 that the South Korean embassy had issued a statement taking credit for convincing the Cambodian government to “understand the seriousness of this situation and act swiftly.” It cited “high-level lobbying over the past two weeks as contributing to the ‘success’ of protecting business interests.”
The Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) dismissed the five deaths as “collateral damage” – merely the cost of doing business in Cambodia. The Cambodian Daily reported, “The group complained that weeks of labor unrest will cost the industry $200 million.” Cambodia’s equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce, composed largely of representatives of foreign businesses exploiting Cambodian workers, claimed that “the garment workers have no legal right to strike.”
As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Murdering journalists and shooting garment workers seems to be par-for-the-course for the Hun Sen regime, for example:
- In Bavet, Svay Rieng province, the Mayor shot and killed three garment factory workers who were protesting against squalid working conditions and for higher wages. The mayor was charged with a misdemeanor and released.
- Several union leaders have been murdered, but no one has been brought to justice and the cases remain unsolved.
- The November 12 shooting death of 49-year-old street vendor Ms. Eng Sokhum by police during an SL Garment factory protest has not been investigated.
- In September 2012, Cambodian journalist Hang Serei Odom, who was investigating illegal logging, was hacked to death and stuffed in the trunk by a military officer and his wife.
- On January 31, news reporter Suon Chan was brutally killed by a group of men on January 31, in Cholkiri, Kampong Chhnang province, reportedly in retaliation for his work for the Maekea Kampuchea newspaper on illegal fishing in the province,
- On Easter Sunday in 1997, four grenades were thrown into the midst of a rally led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy in front of the National Assembly building, killing 17 people and wounding more than 100, including one American. It has been reported that the FBI tentatively pinned responsibility on Hun Sen’s personal bodyguards; however, no one has ever been indicted for the murders.
The list goes on….
The suffering inflicted on the Cambodian people by Hun Sen’s regime doesn’t stop there. Cambodia is a country for sale, which enables the regime to get away with pillage, plunder and murder! Like no other country in the world, Cambodia “permits investors to form 100% foreign-owned companies in Cambodia that can buy land and real estate outright - or at least on 99-year-plus leases.” According to the Cambodian human rights NGO LICADHO, more than 400,000 Cambodians have been affected by “land grabs” and evictions since 2003. An additional 150,000 people are currently threatened with eviction. Forty-five per cent of the entire country has been sold off – from the land ringing Angkor Wat, to the colonial buildings of Phnom Penh, to the southwestern islands. Rhodri Williams of the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions pointed out that as Hun Sen began to privatize the land, “he simultaneously cut off the rights of 360,000 exiled Cambodians, awarding prime slices to political allies and friends.” The Cambodian exiles that had fled the Khmer Rouge into Thailand after 1975 had titles to the land, but when they were able to return, their titles meant nothing.
David Puttnam, member of Britain’s House of Lords and recently appointed as the British Prime Minister’s trade envoy for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, “stunned journalists, diplomats and others by praising the current Khmer government and its leader Hun Sen, for its commitment to ending corruption.” Puttnam, the once-brilliant film-maker, is best known for producing the amazing movie of Khmer Rouge terror, “The Killing Fields.”
Adding insult to injury, both the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have spent millions of dollars on programs that do little more than disfranchise even more Cambodians. According to Human Rights Watch, “the World Bank’s Land Titling provided little more than a modicum of political cover for Hun Sen’s continued land grabs. In practice it was subject to domination by wealthy and powerful interests who diverted it to increase their land-holdings and leverage over the rural poor.” The project has no legal protections or recourse for those who lost out in the process, ensuring that thousands more will be dispossessed from their land.
The ADB’s resettlement program for the rehabilitation of Cambodia’s railway network affected an estimated 4,000 Cambodian families, mostly very poor, who were forcibly relocated without just compensation to make way for the railway upgrade.
In addition, both the World Bank and the ADB were found to be incompetent, failing in their planning, implementation, oversight, and accounting of their programs.
Meanwhile, Hun Sen and the CPP continue to govern with half of the National Assembly empty, while the same foreign governments that urge Cambodia to investigate election irregularities continue to do business as usual with the repressive kleptocracy.
Hun Sen’s regime is rife with brutal Khmer Rouge holdovers, such as Chea Sim, Heng Samrin, Keat Chhon and Hor Namhong, top-ranking CPP and government officials who Hun Sen ordered to ignore summons to appear before international judges at the UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). The court was founded in 2006 to investigate crimes against humanity and hold those responsible to account; to date it has delivered just one conviction at a cost of some $200 million. Many Cambodians view the court as a sick joke. It is rumored that these Khmer Rouge commanders threatened to expose Hun Sen’s role in the genocide if they were indicted.
Hun Sen was reportedly educated by Buddhist monks in Vietnam, joined the communist party there at an early age, and then became a Khmer Rouge battalion commander under Heng Samrin in the Eastern Zone of Cambodia, which was controlled by Vietnam. In 1977 they fled back to Vietnam when Pol Pot (ANGKAR) put out a kill order on the leaders of the Vietnamese controlled Khmer Rouge. Hun Sen stands accused of genocide in attacks on Kompong Cham province, where hundreds of men, women, children, and Buddhist monks were slaughtered (Washington Post 10/30/89). In 1975, his battalion also oversaw a brutal crackdown against the Muslim Cham minority group, ruthlessly killing an untold number of people. During Vietnam’s invasion, occupation and attempt to colonize Cambodia from 1979-1989, the Vietnamese put Hun Sen in charge of the K-5 Plan (also referred to as the Bamboo Wall or the Petite Genocide) in which he sent tens of thousands of Cambodians to their deaths in an attempt to build an impenetrable barrier of mines and other obstacles along the Thai border to stop an invasion from there.
Two groups of International lawyers representing victims of the recent crackdown, human rights abuses and the Khmer Rouge genocide are collecting evidence to file cases against Prime Minister Hun Sen at the International Criminal Court.
Until recently, China has been a most important ally of Hun Sen; however, it is now hedging its bets and easing support in case the opposition succeeds. In turn, the dictator has reached out to Hanoi for political and economic support, even though there is a growing resentment among Cambodians of the Vietnamese, their historic enemy. Hun Sen has always enjoyed a warm relationship with his longtime patrons in Hanoi. Intelligence reports indicate that Hanoi maintains a contingent of 3,000 troops, a mixture of special-forces and intelligence agents, with tanks and helicopters, in a huge compound 2½ kilometers outside Phnom Penh right next to Hun Sen’s Tuol Krassaing fortress near Takhmau. They are there to ensure that Hanoi’s puppet, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, doesn’t stray far from Hanoi’s policy of neo-colonization of Cambodia. The Vietnamese compound bristles with electronic surveillance equipment that would make any group’s electronic eaves-dropping outstation proud. When Vietnamese troops were forced to withdraw in 1989 from Cambodia, as a compromise, Vietnam installed its Hanoi-trained Khmer Rouge marionette Hun Sen as Prime Minister. Vietnamese “advisors” are entrenched throughout Hun Sen’s regime, including the Cambodian army.
In an attempt to improve his image for the international community, Hun Sen has adopted Vietnam’s “talk-fight strategy” (AT 09/22/13). On Feb. 18th he allowed senior officials in the ruling party (CPP) to meet with the opposition CNRP. They agreed in principle to the creation of a joint-party commission to “prepare a framework” to implement electoral reform, although Hun Sen reiterated that he would not agree to a re-vote. Coming out their first meeting, senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said that the government is considering modifying Cambodia’s nationality law to ban those with dual citizenship from running for the office of prime minister. Of course, the CPP is targeting opposition leader Sam Rainsy, among other leaders, “and will be in the nationality law.”
As another propaganda move, Hun Sen stated he once again opened Freedom Park and lifted the ban on on public assembly, but warned that any CNRP demonstrations will be met with counter-demonstrations by the CPP.
A day after the ban was lifted, CNRP’s leader Sam Rainsy said that if Hun Sen tries to use government forces to quash future opposition-led protests, he will call upon the police and the military to disobey the prime minister’s orders and join the opposition, as occurred during the recent political upheaval in Ukraine. He believes that more than two million people will join the opposition protests, as they did there.
Soon after, the Cambodian Daily reported that Interior Minister Sar Kheng banned a scheduled rally in Freedom Park and distributed $54, 477 (not a paltry sum in Cambodia) among his police officers as incentive pay “for their work in suppressing protesters.”
Hun Sen has also created a government Committee to Solve Strikes and Demonstrations of All Targets that is tasked with dealing with protests, and appointed to it the commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), his deputy, who commands Hun Sen’s Prime Minister Bodyguard Unit, his son, who heads the Ministry of National Defense’s counter-terrorism department, the secretary of state at the Defense Ministry, the National Military Police commander, and the National Police chief.
A Cambodian folk tale seems to be an appropriate metaphor for the present state of affairs. One day a beautiful young Cambodian maiden walking in the forest found a sick snake that begged her for help. She picked up the snake, took it home and nursed it back to health; after which the snake bit her. As she lay dying she asked, “Why?” The snake answered, “You knew I was a snake when you picked me up. Besides, it’s my nature!”
To summarize: the CNRP wants a new election; the CPP says, no way. The CPP insists that the CNRP must occupy its Assembly seats for talks to begin; the CNRP says it will not join with an illegitimate government. The tense political stalemate has continued for eight months, with no resolution in sight. Hun Sen insists that the government will continue working as normal while the opposition’s boycott of parliament continues.
Recently, a US spending bill was signed into law that included the symbolic gesture of suspending some funding to Cambodia until the government carries out an independent investigation of last July’s disputed national election and reforms its electoral system, or until the opposition ends its boycott of parliament. The only reason this happened is that it was attached to a huge spending bill that Obama and the democrats were anxious to pass. The only other response from the Administration has been tepid; a “dishonorable mention” of a few of the Hun Sen regime’s abuses in the State Department’s “Annual Country Reports on Human Rights” – comparable to twenty lashes with a wet noodle.
The plight of and the human rights violations against the workers in the garment industry in Cambodia must be addressed by the Obama Administration before seeking congressional support for fast-track approval of its Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); a trade agreement that includes many developing countries with low wages and poor working conditions. Some democratic critics see this and other trade agreements as a race to the bottom for wages and working conditions for American workers. But the Cambodian deal could be used to help raise labor standards abroad rather than lowering them at home. However, that would require the administration to have the fortitude and resolve to bring pressure to bear in the right places, seemingly as scarce as hen’s teeth in today’s U.S. foreign policy.
Given the major media’s attention-span deficit disorder, perhaps the outrages in Cambodia have been overshadowed by other political news in the Ukraine and Egypt, or political sideshows as Dennis Rodman’s debacle in North Korea. Had the media chosen to cover these events it would have strengthened the Cambodians’ resolve to force a democratic change and sparked worldwide condemnation of Hun Sen’s repressive and kleptocratic regime. It’s about time for the “free press” to stand up for what is right and provide Cambodia’s democracy movement with the international coverage it deserves.
And the band plays on ….
Michael Benge spent eleven years in Vietnam as a Foreign Service Officer; five as a POW . He is a student of Southeast Asian politics. He is very active in advocating for human rights, religious freedom and democracy for the countries of former Indochina and has written extensively on these subjects.