Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Hun Sen Bodyguards Had Hand in Beating of Opposition Lawmakers: Witnesses

The mob that beat up two Cambodian opposition lawmakers outside the National Assembly building in Phnom Penh early this week included about 200 young men from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s corps of bodyguards who were driven in trucks to the protest and later boasted about beating the politicians, a driver who transported the attackers said .

The attack on Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmakers Nhay Chamreoun and Kong Sophea on Monday occurred as more than 1,000 pro-ruling party demonstrators surrounded the parliament building in Phnom Penh, calling for Kem Sokha, vice president of the CNRP, to step down from his position as first vice president of the National Assembly.

On Friday 68 lawmakers from the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) voted to remove Kem Sokha from National Assembly first vice president.

In Monday's incident, the two opposition lawmakers were dragged from their vehicles and punched and kicked in view of some parliamentary security officials . The attacks left Chamroeun with a triple arm fracture, broken nose and chipped front teeth, while both men sustained significant facial injuries including their eyes. They were flown to Thailand for medical treatment on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Hun Sen, writing on his official Facebook page, urged authorities to arrest the perpetrators of the attack.

“We cannot tolerate those who committed the act, no matter who they are—be they CPP supporters, government supporters or opposition supporters! Anyone who commits such a cheap act must be arrested and sentenced at any cost,” he wrote. He noted that National Assembly president Heng Samrin had donated U.S. $10,000 to each of the two injured lawmakers to assist with their medical care.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, however, a hired driver from a town outside of Phnom Penh told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday that he drove one of 10 open-backed transport trucks used to take nearly 200 young men from a fortress called Commissionaire of Bodyguards of Hun Sen, and known as Banteay Pong Loeung in Khmer. The fortress lies just down a river from the capital at Prek Samrong village in a town called Takhmao, near Hun Sen’s official residence.

The driver said that on October 25, a day before the protest and attack, a man called him saying that he wanted to hire a driver and vehicle to attend a meeting at the price of U.S. $40 per truck.

When he went to pick up the passengers at the fortress, he saw 10 vehicles ready to transport the bodyguards, each carrying 18 people. Among the passengers in his vehicle, some carried sticks, some carried rocks and some others carried banners, he said.

The men had apparently shed their uniforms and dressed as civilians to blend in as ordinary citizens and were wearing scarves around their waists, he added.

The men with scarves were later seen prominently in photos and video of the protests posted by Cambodians on social media.

“The bodyguards in Pong Loeung fortress, all are armed forces. There are no civil servants living there,” he told RFA

He described them as all “male, young and maybe under 30 years of age.”

“Those who were riding in the trucks were just communicating among themselves and they didn’t talk to us drivers.”

Bragging about punching lawmakers

The driver was then told to take the men to the protest site in front of the National Assembly, and then to take his truck to a parking spot at nearby Koh Pich.

“Before they got ready to go to Phnom Penh, they were each given a box of rice, a white box, like the kind that the military used to use, and they were allowed to eat before we took off,” he said.

“When they came back [after the protest], then they were given more rice,” the driver added.

When the demonstration was over, the driver took the bodyguards them back to their base. During the trip, the driver said the passengers were talking and boasting about the protest, with several claiming they had landed two or three punches on the lawmakers.

“When they came to the National Assembly, they were carrying sticks. When they returned, they had no sticks,” the driver said.

“I didn’t know where they put them. Maybe they threw them away,” he said of the sticks.

The driver’s account was confirmed by a second driver, who also drove a fan full of body guards to the protest, but told RFA he was afraid to be quoted.

In a separate interview with RFA, a man who identified himself as a member of CPP youth group in Kandal said he was tricked into taking part in Monday's protest.

Called to what he told was a meeting at CPP headquarters in Tuol Kror Saing, the man said when he and others arrived and entered the building, organizers started to dole out packets of rice to everyone. Instead of conducting the meeting at party headquarters, however, they were transported to the protest in front of the National Assembly.

“We are just like tools, for them to use," he said, adding that he believed he and others were used to make the protest crowd look bigger.

“They didn’t tell us that we were going to a protest to demand that [Kem Sokha] resign," he said. "They just told us to come by saying that we came for a meeting.”

“If we were told that we would be going to protest, then there would probably be no one who would come,” said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Prach Chev of RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Paul Eckert. Retrieved from http://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/cambodia-beating-10302015160823.html

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Saturday, October 24, 2015

Cambodia - Fractured politics and a culture of monologue

Over a year after Cambodia's two main parties agreed on a "culture of dialogue," the deal looks to have unraveled, with the PM warning only his re-election would keep the nation from civil war. Robert Carmichael reports.

The July 2014 agreement between Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy was born of a close-run general election the previous year and a subsequently deadlocked, and at times bloody, political process that saw the opposition refuse to take the 55 seats they had won until allegations about electoral fraud were addressed.

But eventually, after months of opposition-led protests and increasingly violent suppression by the authorities, the two sides came to an arrangement. Under its terms, Hun Sen and Rainsy agreed to discuss key issues, while party worthies would resolve lesser disputes.

The idea behind the détente, which saw a marked improvement in relations between members of the two parties, was to ratchet down tensions. For a few months, at least, it worked. The bonhomie reached its high-water mark in mid-July this year when the two men and their families dined together at a luxury hotel.

Situation has 'turned around'

Now, laments opposition chief whip Son Chhay, it appears to be at an end. "To have [the two leaders] able to sit down, to talk, at least to get to know each other, was a very good thing," he told DW. "That the situation has now turned around is very disappointing."

When it comes to the culture of dialogue, Chhay says, both Hun Sen and Rainsy were focused less on the national good and more on what they could get from it for themselves. He says the two leaders share the blame for its failure.

"When you're only thinking, 'what can I gain, what can I manipulate from this kind of dialogue to benefit my personal interest,' it's not going to work," he says.

But the truth is that things were going awry before July's landmark evening meal. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), for instance, repeatedly angered Hun Sen by engaging in months of rhetoric over allegations that Vietnam was annexing Cambodian land - a deeply sensitive issue - and that included tense visits to the border by opposition supporters and legislators.

For his part, Hun Sen had called months earlier for - among other things - the country's pliant courts to consider charging CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha with trying to overthrow the government.

The wheels finally came off just days after the hotel dinner when a court jailed 11 opposition officials and supporters for up to 20 years each for insurrection, a charge that was widely seen as politically motivated. The case against them followed a violent clash in Phnom Penh a year earlier in which some opposition supporters had turned on often-violent government thugs.

A subsequent prosecution for forgery and treason of opposition senator Hong Sok Hour, who posted a faked border treaty document on his Facebook page, was described by one prominent commentator as "the nail in the coffin" of the culture of dialogue.

Little wonder that, more than a year after the smiles and handshakes that launched the deal, the culture of dialogue has been dismissed variously as "a charade," "a culture of monologue" and "a farce."

No Surprise

Given the deep divisions and mistrust that characterize Cambodia's politics, this apparent demise comes as little surprise, says Sebastian Strangio, author of the book Hun Sen's Cambodia. Its very existence is simply part of Hun Sen's standard carrot and stick approach.

"This pattern - making nice with his enemies and rivals when it suits him to do so, and then turning on them when the political tides shift - is one that's been going on for the whole of Hun Sen's career," says Strangio.

Ultimately, the culture of dialogue is a means for Hun Sen to try and win the 2018 election by creating tensions within the opposition and then trying to divide it.
"So when they announced the culture of dialogue in mid-2014, there was every reason to be skeptical and there was every reason to believe that at some stage this would break down," he says. "It's always been a strategic pact."

For his part, Rainsy presented the culture of dialogue as "a fundamental rethinking of the destructive patterns in Cambodian politics," although Strangio sees little evidence that either the prime minister or the leader of the opposition has done much to implement any such changes.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan, however, insists the culture of dialogue remains in play, citing as proof an August meeting between Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng and the opposition deputy leader Kem Sokha.

However, he adds, opposition statements about possible prosecutions of the wealthy if and when it comes to power (among other "provocative" comments) need to be more measured. The culture of dialogue requires staying within the law.

"I think the opposition party will adjust [its behavior]," he says of the future direction of the culture of dialogue. "And we will [be patient] as much as we can."

Poisoned Atmosphere

The genesis of the culture of dialogue was the close-run 2013 general election when Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) came within a few hundred thousand votes (in an electorate of nearly 10 million) of losing the popular ballot to Rainsy's CNRP.

With a youthful population tired of the cronyism, poor services and lack of opportunities available to them under a CPP government - and unreceptive to the ruling party's mantra that it brought peace to Cambodia by defeating the Khmer Rouge - the trend was towards change.

The opposition is banking on that continuing and, with two-thirds of the population under 35, is confident of its chances in 2018. The CPP is understandably fearful, and has begun improving education (whose budget in 2016 will, at nearly $500 million, be double its 2013 level) while at the same time, perhaps ominously, shoring up the amount allocated to defense and the police (up nearly two-thirds over the same period to a combined $650 million).

In April, Hun Sen announced his candidacy for 2018 and said that a civil war could be averted only if he was re-elected prime minister.

All eyes are now on the next general election. Meanwhile, new political parties are springing up claiming disillusionment with the CNRP, leading to suspicions that the ruling party is funding them in order to split the opposition vote.

Quite what that means for the culture of dialogue remains to be seen. Hun Sen is headed to France for an official visit from October 25-27. Given that Sam Rainsy is in France too, a meeting is not out of the question, says the CNRP's Son Chhay. But nothing has been arranged.

Strangio predicts the culture of dialogue, such as it is, will "limp on in a sort of rump form" as both parties seek to gain the advantage ahead of 2018 - with Hun Sen seeking to sow discord in the ranks of the opposition, and Rainsy "trying to keep the peace" until as close to voting day as possible.

Beyond that Cambodia's political culture, centered as it is on dominant personalities rather than strong institutions, hampers meaningful forecasting.

"When individuals are in charge, there's nothing that any seasoned observer would put beyond the scope of possibility," Strangio says.

Carmichael, R. (2015). Cambodia - Fractured politics and a culture of monologue. Deutsche Welle. Retrieved from http://www.dw.com/en/cambodia-fractured-politics-and-a-culture-of-monologue/a-18799477

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Cambodia PM starts to 'like' Facebook as opponents woo voters online

PHNOM PENH Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen is taking a belated leap into the digital age in a bid to court young, urban voters as he tries to fend off unprecedented competition from the opposition after three decades in power.

The former Khmer Rouge soldier has started to enthusiastically embrace Facebook for the first time, coming round to the platform after almost losing a 2013 election when the opposition won a surge of support online.

The self-styled "strongman" has until recently denied using Facebook, but when an account bearing his name received its millionth "like" last month, he finally admitted it was his, coinciding with the government's moves to ramp-up its cyber presence.

"He uses his own messages to reach out to people and to answer questions people want to ask him," said government spokesmen Phay Siphan, when asked why Hun Sen started using Facebook.
Seventy percent of Cambodia's 15 million population are under 30 years of age, while nine million of its citizens use the Internet.

Hun Sen's Facebook, which how has 1.2 million "likes", carries images and videos of new infrastructure and credits him with Cambodia's speedy economic development.

Some of the 63-year-old's most recent activities were sharing links to what he says are his favourite TV shows, "Cambodian Idol" and "The Voice" - local spin-offs of hit U.S. talent contests.

In June, Sen's government held two mandatory classes for 400 heads of Phnom Penh schools, which included showing them how to get Facebook accounts and write supportive messages for the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), according to people who attended the sessions.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the classes were part of a broader exercise to train civil servants across the country to use social media to improve lines of communication

Lesson materials obtained by Reuters included instructions on accessing and linking to social media accounts and websites of the CPP and its youth wing, while teachers were urged to try and defend the government from negative messages online.

"We must promote what's really happening, about what government has really done," said Huot Yary, head of the capital's education department, recalling instructions during the classes.

Political analysts say the CPP is trying to counter a swell of online criticism since the last election, when the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) carved off a chunk of CPP's house majority, winning 55 seats to CPP's 68, down from 90 before.

Part of the opposition's gains were due to rapid online courting of young, urban Cambodians angered by issues like forced evictions, low factory wages and state graft.

There are concerns, however, that the government's new social media focus is not just about using it, but controlling it. The creation of Internet laws and a cyber crime task force are being considered and some critics fear the real aim is to intimidate opponents and block-out dissent.

Independent political experts forecast the 2018 election to be the closest ever in Cambodia and say the CPP has realised the battleground will now be on social media.

"It is scrambling to enter the digital age and counter the active opposition presence online," said Sebastian Strangio, a journalist and author of the book, "Hun Sen's Cambodia".

Many in Cambodia's younger generation doubt though that the government's bulked up online presence will have much sway on their opinions.

"There are all sides of information available now already, and youths know a lot - we have education," said 21-year-old university student Kim Hong.

(Editing by Martin Petty and Rachel Armstrong)
This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.

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Friday, October 16, 2015

How Cambodian nationalism is driving border disputes with Vietnam

Author: Vannarith Chheang, Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS)

To strengthen national unity and identity, Cambodian leaders have for generations tried to construct, or reconstruct, nationalist ideology around Cambodia’s enduring border disputes. The border disputes have become the main topic in Cambodian domestic politics and foreign policy since Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953. The disputes are the result of the unclear frontier demarcation by the colonial administration, and have led to armed conflicts between Cambodia and its neighbors.

But some political leaders have gone too far and become ultra-nationalist. In Cambodia’s electoral democracy, some political parties have promoted a type of nationalism that positions itself explicitly against the country’s bigger neighbors to gain popular political support. A lack of political transparency, understanding and participation has made the general public more vulnerable to populist and nationalist policy agendas.

Anti-Vietnam nationalism and a perceived Vietnamese threat gained momentum since 2009, when the current opposition leader Sam Rainsy allegedly encouraged villagers to uproot border markers on the Cambodia–Vietnam border in Svay Rieng province. The border disputes intensified after lawmakers from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) led a few hundred activists to the to-be-demarcated border region in north eastern provinces, leading to clashes and violence in June.

The border tension is compounded by an anti-Vietnamese political rhetoric that has gained steam since the general election in July 2013. The opposition parties have accused the government under the leadership of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of being under strong influence from Hanoi, of ceding territory to Vietnam and of allowing Vietnamese immigrants to illegally enter and work in Cambodia. Since April 2014 more than 2000 illegal Vietnamese immigrants have been deported. The opposition parties will continue to use the ‘Vietnam threat’ factor as a key part of its strategy to gain popular votes in the upcoming commune election in 2017 and the national election in 2018.

The stance of Cambodian opposition parties, including the CNRP, further complicates border negotiations with Vietnam. In 1985, Cambodia and Vietnam signed a treaty on border delimitation. And in 2005, both sides reached another complementary treaty on border issues. But these agreements were deemed illegitimate and rejected by Cambodia’s opposition parties.

On 9 June 2015, amid the renewed border tension between two countries, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen asked Vietnam to maintain peace and stability along the border during his meeting with Le Hong Anh, a member of the politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party, in Phnom Penh. A few days later, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation sent two diplomatic notes, dated 12 June and 14 June, to protest Vietnam’s violation of Cambodian territory. But Vietnam did not respond and accused ‘extremist groups’ in Cambodia of provoking the border tensions and clashes.

A key issue fueling domestic opposition in Cambodia is allegations that the maps being used by the Cambodian government in its border negotiations with Vietnam are fake or inaccurate. In July 2015, to ‘verify the authenticity of maps’ being used by the Cambodian government, Hun Sen requested that the United Nations, France, the United Kingdom and the United States loan Cambodia the original maps that were prepared by France during the colonial period. After verifying the maps received from the UN and France, the Cambodian government confirmed the authenticity of the maps that were used to conduct border negotiations with Vietnam.

The Cambodian government has now called for an end to the politicisation of the maps and border disputes with Vietnam. Foreign Minister Hor Namhong stated, ‘The maps issue must be finished at this time. … We don’t want political parties using the border issue to incite people to go against the government.’

Instead, the Cambodian government tasked a group of technical experts to compare the borders detailed on these maps with the existing border markers. The Royal Academy of Cambodia was tasked with conducting objective research on border demarcation and providing policy recommendations. The Academy is expected to finish their research within the next two years.

But border-related political tensions between the government and opposition party have not receded. A number of people have been arrested for trying to stir anti-Vietnam nationalism by accusing the government of using fake border maps. In August CNRP Senator Hong Sok Hou was arrested for posting a fake version of the bilateral treaty between Cambodia and Vietnam in 1979 on his personal Facebook page. The fake treaty in the Facebook post purported that Heng Samrin, Cambodia’s then head of state, had proposed to dissolve the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. Hong Sok Hou is now being tried in court.

The border disputes will continue as long as domestic political dynamics in Cambodia continue to evolve around assertive nationalism. More transparency and public participation are urgently needed in the border negotiations and demarcation process between Cambodia and its neighbours. In the absence of these checks, the general public will remain vulnerable to political manipulation.

Vannarith Chheang is a Chairman of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS).

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Wednesday, October 07, 2015

On trial for treason for an online posting

By Dennis P. Halpin

The trial of an opposition senator accused of “treason” by Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen opened October 2 with a denial of a request for bail based on medical considerations.  Senator Hong Sok Hour became embroiled this summer in Phnom Penh’s boisterous map war over the exact lines of the Cambodia-Vietnam border.  His continued incarceration has been condemned by Human Rights Watch, which stated on October 1 that “Cambodian authorities should end the prosecution of an opposition senator who has been wrongfully charged with forgery and incitement for posting online an inaccurate version of a 1979 Cambodian-Vietnam treaty.”

The border imbroglio accelerated after the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) voiced concerns that Hun Sen’s government, given its past close ties to Vietnam, was making territorial concessions detrimental to Cambodia.  In August the CNRP turned over digital copies of a Cambodia-Vietnam border map purchased in France to Cambodia’s Royal Academy.  The map had previously been posted by CNRP party leader Sam Rainsy on Facebook.  The Phnom Penh Post reported on August 11 that Sok Touch, the director of the Royal Academy’s border research team, noted that his team was composed of neutral researchers “who want to put an end to this dispute about maps that politicians have used in verbal attacks.”

This very public dispute over borders has sent another Cambodian lawmaker to Washington to comb the files of the Library of Congress in search of the holy grail of Cambodian border maps, raised traditional fears of Vietnamese expansionism, and led to a breakdown of the political accommodation reached by the governing and opposition parties in the Cambodian parliament last year.  Prime Minister Hun Sen even publicly appealed this summer for U.S. president Obama to provide the Cambodian government with a map agreed upon by both countries in 1985 and reaffirmed in 2005.  “I’m not asking for the maps that the U.S. drew to enter Khmer land to bomb at the time – I ask for my maps only,” Hun Sen reportedly said sarcastically.

CNRP senator Hong Sok Hour, a reported border expert, was quoted on August 11 as predicting that maritime borders with Vietnam could be a “hot issue” in the future as well.  The senator did not have to wait very long to prove the point that this is a sizzling political issue.  Assuming that he had legislative immunity, Hong Sok Hour reportedly posted a section of a 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam border treaty on the internet.  Cambodia’s authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen then termed this posting of a “fake” document “treasonous” in a public speech.  The hapless senator discovered the worthlessness of his presumed immunity as he was arrested by armed police and taken away on August 15.  The Cambodia Daily reported subsequently on September 18 that the Court of Appeal rejected Hong Sok Hour’s request for release based upon his immunity as a senator and ordered that he continue to be held, pending trial, on forgery and incitement charges.

The senator’s high-profile trial is but the most visible example of a human rights situation that is once again deteriorating in Cambodia.  On August 20, a group of 12 international and human rights organizations sent a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council urging it to support a resolution addressing  “the deteriorating human rights situation in Cambodia,” noting further that “[i]n the run-up to local and national elections scheduled for 2017 and 2018, the Cambodian Government ... has taken steps to further restrict Cambodian citizens’ rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association and to limit the political opposition’s ability to meaningfully engage in policymaking.”

The U.S. congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission issued a statement on August 18 further specifying the deteriorating human rights situation.  The commission’s co-chairs noted, “[T]he Cambodian legislature recently adopted a Law on Associations and NGOs which falls significantly short of international human rights standards governing the right to freedom of association. The law, passed in spite of protests by hundreds of people and still subject to Constitutional Council review, would allow the Government to deny registration on ill-defined bases, including if the purpose and goal of the association is perceived to ‘endanger the security, stability and public order or jeopardize national security, national unity, culture, traditions, and customs of Cambodian national society.’”  In seeking to curtail the rights of civil society, Hun Sen appears to be mimicking recent legislative measures taken by his Chinese patron, Xi Jinping.

In addition, the Lantos Commission noted that “eleven Cambodian opposition activists, known as the Freedom Park 11, were convicted and sentenced to between seven and twenty years’ imprisonment for participating or leading an ‘insurrection’, following a protest that turned violent on 15 July 2014. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which monitored the trial, there were irregularities such as the use of statements by witnesses not available for cross examination, and the absence of evidence that the defendants directly committed any acts of violence. An independent investigation by Human Rights Watch found no basis to the accusations. As the UNHCHR noted, the perception of governmental interference in this case undermines public trust in the Cambodian justice system.”

Not a pretty picture.  But over two decades after the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) sought to make Cambodia the poster child for emerging democracies in the post-Cold War era, many of the fundamentals of Cambodian politics have not transitioned.  As journalist Sebastian Strangio observed in his comprehensive work Hun Sen’s Cambodia, “[b]eneath these various guises Hun Sen ruled in the traditional Cambodian way, through a system of personal patronage in which money was passed upward in exchange for protection.  This he married to a fierce ambition, a serrated political instinct, and a genuine ability to channel the hopes and fears of rural Cambodians.  Hun Sen could be violent and unpredictable.  He had little tolerance for dissent.”*

Hun Sen’s renewed policies of repression at home did not in any way stymie him in his efforts to project himself on the world stage as Southeast Asia’s longest-serving elected official.  Speaking at the Sustainable Development Summit at U.N. Headquarters on September 26, Hun Sen unabashedly called on developed nations to fulfill their aid pledges to commit at least 0.07 percent of their annual income to foreign aid.  He made this call even as hundreds of Cambodian-Americans protested outside against the “kleptocratic dictator’s” continued incarceration of political opposition leaders and environmental activists .

The Brookings Institution noted in 2008 that “during the last decade, total development assistance to Cambodia amounted to about US$5.5 billion.”  Yet Hun Sen, as he recently proclaimed in New York, is not shy in asking for even more for a “kleptocratic” government that both lacks transparency in the distribution of international economic assistance and continues the imprisonment of political opponents as “traitors.”  The 1992 UNTAC mandate, which included  “aspects relating to human rights and the organization and conduct of free and fair general elections,” looks to be as elusive a goal as ever.

Dennis P.  Halpin, a former Cambodia analysist for the Department of State, is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute (SAIS) and an adviser to the Poblete Analysis Group.

*Hun Sen’s Cambodia, Sebastian Strangio,  p. xiii

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Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Social Media Allows Expression, But Users Weigh the Risks of Rumor

Sou Pisen, VOA Khmer
04 September 2015


PHNOM PENH— For many young Cambodians, social media has become more than simply a way to communicate with friends, and is a major source of news about their country and the world. But while observers say such websites have increased awareness about political issues in recent years, users are having to learn to negotiate the pitfalls of false information and rumor.

Facebook is the most popular social network in the country, and Cambodians use the site to share news stories, or firsthand accounts of events. With the country’s traditional media often seen as lacking in impartiality and serious analysis, social media provides a welcome source for an increasingly information-hungry population.

“Since 2012, especially during the fifth election [in 2013], Facebook has been used in a dramatically different way, to share and discuss about social and political issues, and so on,” said Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Center of Human Rights. “It’s unlike before, when they just used it for entertainment.”

Social media provides a platform for free expression, Chak Sopheap told VOA Khmer, adding a warning that since information on social media was largely people’s opinions, it may not always be true.

“It is not like information from professional media institutions, which require journalists to act ethically and professionally,” he said. “But Facebook users are just people that use it to express their ideas. Sometimes it might be right; sometimes it might be wrong.”

Ouk Kimseng, a spokesman for the Ministry of Information, told VOA Khmer that politicians and government officials, including those at ministerial level, were using social media to get messages out to the public and to the media.

“When journalists see their stance, they can then send [politicians] a message to their inbox to ask them questions,” he said.

However, Ouk Kimseng agreed that information on Facebook still needed to be verified.

“If we want to know whether the news someone posted is true or not, we should do some research on it,” he said. “Some believe [what they read on Facebook], but some do not. It is up to them.”

Facebook users told VOA Khmer that they do treat information on Facebook with some suspicion, and seek to verify news on professional media.

Kak Yutthavonn, a 22-year-old recent law graduate from the Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE), said that he primarily uses Facebook to communicate with friends and relative, but also gets some of his news from the site.

“There is small part of news that I get from Facebook, but I get a lot of news [media] institutions,” he said. “I receive news about traffic accidents by checking on Facebook, but many news articles about social issues are always exaggerated on social media.”

The rising use of Facebook to share information has seen a number of scandals arise among Cambodians, after unfounded rumors or theories quickly become accepted fact.

For example, in recent months some have alleged that a scourge of Chinese-made “plastic rice” had been dumped on the Cambodian market, leading many to believe the rice sold in markets was dangerous to health. Rumors have circulated that eggs, noodles and soy milk made with plastic or rubber have also been on sale.

Industry bodies and the government have sought to play down the rumors, but many have been convinced.

Dim Theng, deputy director of Cambodia Import Export Inspection and Fraud Repression Directorate, said that such rumors shared on Facebook “cannot be trusted.”

“No plastic rice has been traded in the Cambodian market,” he insisted, explaining that no plastic rice had been identified by his department’s laboratory. He added that Facebook users should be cautious when spreading unverified news online, since doing so may have legal ramifications.

Student Ngel Sovanarith, 22, also studying at RULE, said he is cautious about believing what he reads on Facebook.

“I have to check where the news comes from,” he said. “If it is just from users, I don’t trust it, because it will carry the biases of those users.”

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Cambodia’s Hun Sen Taps Himself for Glory

By Luke Hunt
February 20, 2015

The prime minister is planning a major memorial in the capital.

Russia’s Joseph Stalin, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, and a host of South American dictators all excelled at building monuments to themselves. But with 20-20 hindsight they did look somewhat silly when times changed and statues came tumbling down.

Still, the egotistical notion that political leaders – popular or not, elected or not – should simply build an altar for their own glory and the adulation they feel they are owed once they have left the political arena never seems to go out of fashion.

North Korea’s dear leaders have excelled at this type of cultish behavior and now Cambodia’s legacy conscience prime minister, Hun Sen, appears headed down the same track.

Despite his dwindling popularity, the farm boy from Kampong Cham has formed a 20-man committee and enlisted the help of perhaps his favorite senator, Ly Yong Phat, who has donated a prime chunk of real estate, for construction of a memorial – 16 floors high.

The memorial will be built on 15 hectares on the peninsula that divides the Mekong River and Tonle Sap and stand as high as the nearby Sokha Hotel and dwarf the recently built statue of this country’s founding father and former monarch Norodom Sihanouk, whose immense popularity – even in death – remains a chief source of irritation for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

“We will build the win-win policy memorial monument in the center, and the ground floor will be an ordinary building to support the main monument that will be 50 meters to 60 meters high,” Chuch Phoeurn, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture, told The Cambodian Daily.

Those dimensions will ensure Hun Sen’s memorial can be viewed from the all-important vantage points along the riverfront. The irony is the CPP has polled poorly in the capital during elections and those with the best view of the site probably did not vote for Hun Sen.

The deployment of Ly Yong Phat will also raise eyebrows. His net worth has been put at far more than $1 billion. That includes the value of a massive property portfolio, rubber and sugar plantations.

Civil society groups and investigative journalists have linked his interests to land-grabbing and child labor exploitation on his estates.

Fears evoked by the “King of Koh Kong” as Ly Yong Phat is known, prompted the resignation of Hun Sen’s sister Hun Sinath at the Ministry of National Assembly-Senate Relations and Inspection in December.

She said the ministry “does not dare” to investigate allegations that Ly Yong Phat had abused rights of villagers on his estates.

“I cannot continue to work in a ministry that cannot find justice for people through the complaints system. I will step down from my position and from now on become a normal citizen,” Sinath wrote on her Facebook page.

ANZ Royal, a joint venture between ANZ Bank in Australia and colorful local business identity Kith Meng, publicly severed ties with Ly Yong Phat in January last year.

Since being returned to power with a substantially reduced margin in mid 2013 elections, the CPP has tripped and stumbled over its inability to shore up its support, particularly here in the capital and in the major provincial centers where the opposition has traditionally done well.

“These people are tone deaf. Instead of focusing on legacy and listening to all the wrong people Hun Sen should just focus on governing for all the people before the next election,” a local analyst, who declined to be named, said. “Otherwise they might lose.”

The next election is due in 2018.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt

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