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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